SECRET WARRIORS PART 3: CONSCIOUSNESS RISES
Last week I mostly avoided talking about “Secret Warriors,” and, instead, explored the early days of “The Comics Journal,” providing some context for how the comics industry used to be, compared to how it is now.
Anyone who read the piece knows that it was really just a chance for me to talk about some ideas that popped into my head while reading comic book creators from 1980 bash each other in public. I’m not sure I’m done with that discussion, but I will mostly move on. For now.
This week, I’ll stick mostly to my thoughts on Jonathan Hickman’s “Secret Warriors,” which I’ve been teasing for a couple of weeks, not out of any sense of being dramatic about the whole thing, but mostly because I have been working up what I might want to say about the soon-to-be-concluded series. And, after weeks of reflection, I’m sorry to say that my thoughts don’t run particularly deep on “Secret Warriors,” but I think there’s a reason for that.
“Secret Warriors” doesn’t feel like it has much depth to it.
A month or two ago, in an episode of “The Splash Page Podcast,” I mentioned that I had recently reread the entirety of “Secret Warriors” (and “S.H.I.E.L.D.” which is an essential piece), and I said something off-the-cuff that CBR’s Ryan K. Lindsay pulled out and posted on “Weekly Crisis.” I said, in a larger context of talking about the overall effect of “Secret Warriors” that, “it’s a complex series, but it’s complex in the way an Asperger’s kid would write a story.”
I don’t remember how much context I provided in the podcast for that statement, but let me provide some now. I wasn’t trying to insult Jonathan Hickman or insult anyone with Asperger’s syndrome. For those of you who don’t know, Asperger’s syndrome is characterized by a lack of emotional empathy and an obsessive attention to detail or repetition. When I compared “Secret Warriors” to a story written by “an Asperger’s kid,” I wasn’t making a general analogy. I was talking specifically about a student I work with who has Asperger’s and how much I felt, as I reread “Secret Warriors,” that this is the same kind of story this particular student would tell.
This student, let’s call him Tom for the sake of convenience, draws comics constantly. He’s the only student in the entire school, that I know of, who even reads comics, and he draws full stories, panels, word balloons, hand-colored pages — the whole deal. His stories tend to be based on other comics and movies he’s seen, but he doesn’t transcribe his influences directly, so you’ll get a 50-page Justice League comic book Tom has written and drawn, and it has plot points from various DC animated films, but the overall story is a series of basically unconnected events with a major climactic showdown at the end. It’s all tied together with a “this happens” then “that happens” kind of narrative through line.
These days, Tom has just finished cycling through a ThunderCats obsession, and his ThunderCats comic is probably his best work yet. It is the most tightly plotted, even though it still reads like he was creating it page-by-page, making it up as he went along (which he probably was), and it follows the satisfying rhythms of a traditional story: set-up, conflict escalation, climax, resolution. Within that structure, characters make speeches and take violent action and even have moments of romantic embrace, but it all feels hollow, as if Tom knows that characters are supposed to have these moments — he’s read enough comics and seen every superhero movie and cartoon ever made — but there’s no sense of any underlying emotion in any of the scenes. His comics are paper doll dioramas, unfolding through time, page-by-page. They aren’t ever about anything.
Read enough pages by a writer, and you’ll see what that writer’s major perspectives on life tend to be. We all know that the narrator is not the writer, the characters are not merely different facets of the writer’s personality, and to dilute criticism into something so simplistic is to weaken and diminish everything that makes art so powerful. But, writers reveal themselves through their writing constantly, and it’s what makes Herman Melville’s work read differently from Henry James or Maxine Hong Kingston. Authorial voice shines through, even when the narrative voice changes from novel to novel.
In Tom’s case, his comics, his authorial voice, demonstrates this single view of life: he likes superheroes and cartoon characters, and he wants to draw them doing stuff.
That’s not where Jonathan Hickman (and his artistic collaborators) seem to be coming from with “Secret Warriors,” but that description I used above, of “paper doll dioramas, unfolding through time, page-by-page,” fits this comic book series. There’s little sense, even after rereading the entire series, that these characters have any substance. There are too many of them, for one thing, dozens of S.H.I.EL.D. operatives, past and present, plus the Howling Commandos, plus the agents of Hydra and Leviathan, plus supporting characters. And they are pawns in a much larger game — pawns manipulated by Nick Fury within the context of the story, though they are also narrative pawns manipulated by Jonathan Hickman.
Hickman came to Marvel’s attention from his Image work, most notably “Nightly News.” And in that comic, and in his other Image books, Hickman presented himself as an essayist. His comics broke rules about exposition — they were filled with characters telling instead of showing, and they often featured graphs and “info dumps” on the sequential pages. Yes, he was a writer and an artist, but what made him such a fresh voice in comics was that he had something to say, and he said it directly and powerfully and the comics themselves seemed to be overt ways of injecting his ideas, and his distinct point of view, into the world.
What happens when you take that approach to comic book storytelling, with its heavy emphasis on information overload and essayistic techniques, but remove the “something to say”?
You get “Secret Warriors,” which is full of twists and turns and secrets and surprises but is never about anything other than what it claims to be about on the surface. It’s the story of Nick Fury against the world, and it has nothing to say about anything outside the Marvel universe.
Yet, it’s one of my favorite Marvel comics.
I know it probably seems like this week’s column, after all the build up for the past couple of weeks, looks surprisingly similar to a negative review of “Secret Warriors.” But this isn’t a review, and I’m not interested in encouraging you to buy the comic or dissuading you from reading it. I’m interested only in exploring my own reactions to the series, and trying to figure out what it is that makes “Secret Warriors” so fascinating, when it so obviously lacks the kind of emotional impact or big thematic message that other great comics tend to require.
Because there’s no way I would ever call “Secret Warriors” a bad, or even mediocre, comic. It’s so well crafted, such an impressive high-wire act of narrative reversal, that I find it one of the most compelling comics of this current era. Even if its thematic underpinnings are practically nonexistent. Even if it doesn’t rely on what most superhero comics rely on: a central metaphor for the human condition, visualized in costume.
The closest thing to a theme in the series, as it races to its conclusion, is “transformation,” but even that is used more as a pattern than a substantive theme. The closest thing to a central metaphor is that Nick Fury represents the human tendency for control over our environment, as chaotic as it may seem. A surely less potent central metaphor than the outsider struggling to do the right thing (Spider-Man, or even the X-Men, collectively) or the responsibility of fulfilling your duty to a cause (Green Lantern) or the thirst to get back at those who have wronged you (Batman, Punisher).
No, “Secret Warriors” is something more rare in the mainstream comic book landscape: a work of graphic literalism. But within that literalist construct (where everything means what it says it means), Hickman crafts a series of betrayals and reveals that add a sense of depth and mystery. It’s paradoxical, and perhaps I’m not explaining it as clearly as I need to. Let me put it this way: when J. T. James betrays the team selfishly, it represents nothing more than a selfish guy betraying a team. When we see the much-alluded-to “Zodiac Event,” it’s an event in which a bunch of guys, named after the Zodiac, sit around and talk. The story is literally about these characters and these events, and that is all it’s about.
But, in this case, that’s enough. Because Hickman does something that’s even more rare than graphic literalism. He has actually structured this multi-year series into something incredibly complex.
Yes, it’s all on the surface, but the surface is ever-shifting, and the rules are ever-changing, but not because the puppet-master doesn’t have total control over the narrative (the puppet-master being either Nick Fury or Jonathan Hickman, depending on how close you are to the material). What’s the saying? That out of any sufficiently complex system, consciousness arises? No, I’m not implying “Secret Warriors” will come to life and take over the planet. What I’m saying is “Secret Warriors” “comes to life” on the page in a most unusual way — not through depth of characterization and emotional impact and essential human metaphors, but because of its structural complexity. It’s a clockwork golem of life, but that’s a major part of its charm.
“Secret Warriors,” is, of course, unfinished, and that’s one of the difficulties in writing about it, because it’s not exactly the same as writing about a puzzle that’s missing some pieces. In a case like that, you can see what the picture will look like, basically, even if you have a few blank spots. But writing about “Secret Warriors” before it has finished its run (two issues from now) is like writing about a machine that’s still missing a couple of major parts. You might be able to recognize its structure and how you think it might work, when it’s ultimately complete, but until you have the entire thing together, and fire it up as a whole, you can’t really tell what it will do. You can’t really tell what works and what doesn’t.
When it’s complete, “Secret Warriors” might work on a whole new level. Or it might be a beautiful, but hollow, shell. But until then, I’ll just appreciate its surface complexity, and enjoy that it doesn’t read like other mainstream comics, even if it is full of paper dolls.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan