Pipeline, Issue #460


SECRET WAR failed for me for reasons that are no fault of its creators.

Let's see if I can explain this by starting with a movie analogy. Whenever I go to the movies, I check the run time for the film ahead of time. Generally speaking, the animated films top out at an hour and a half. Dramas run to two hours, maybe two and a quarter. The big epics will push three hours, but there won't be a reviewer in the world who won't mention that fact in the first three paragraphs of their reviews.

Knowing how long a movie runs isn't just so that I can plan out my night better or know whether I'll be staying up past my bedtime. No, there's an issue of timing and plotting. While I don't watch the clock during a movie, I'll generally have a good feeling as to how far along the movie is throughout the thing. I'll know that if there's ten minutes left, we're at the end of the third act and things will start to go all "explodey" in a second. If there's a half hour to go and it seems like the end, then it's likely a false ending.

I'm not saying this is a healthy way to watch movies or that it doesn't ruin a surprise or two for me. It's just the way I'm wired. I do the same thing with television dramas and sports events. Let's face it -- there is no suspense in the last five minutes of a World Poker Tour episode. There won't be until the producers realize this and end the final table five minutes early and do interviews in the extra time.

So let's bring this back to comics: When I sat down with the SECRET WAR hardcover this week, I could feel the heft of the book in my hands and knew it lasted five extra-sized issues. I also knew there was a time-killer "From the Files Of" special issue that was thrown into the back of the book. My problem is that I didn't realize how many pages that filler material was. When I got to the end of the story, I flipped the page to see what the ramifications for the big ending would be, and got nothing. I had just read past the big "explodey" ending and not realized it. That stinks.

Of course, this isn't anything new with big events. Most of them are created to generate new beginnings. HOUSE OF M is another series laid out just like this. Big things happen, but the consequences aren't touched upon in the event book. No, you need to read the following three spin-off mini-series to get a grasp on how big an event it was.

OK, so this one is the fault of the creator. I hadn't thought of it that way when I sat down to write this column, but that's how things happen sometimes. They just come to you.

Another thing that's not entirely their fault is the timing. Let's face it - the big ramifications and twist ending for this book were also used in IDENTITY CRISIS. I don't for a second think that Bendis copied off of Meltzer or vice versa. It's just unfortunate timing, is all. But that twist from Bendis was undercut for me by Meltzer a couple of years ago.

Maybe it's just me, but the whole point of the Secret War seemed obvious and telegraphed to me in fairly short order. Events which I'm thinking were meant to shock the reader did nothing for me. I found them obvious, and I was happy to move on with the plot once they were "unveiled" for the unsuspecting reader. I just wasn't one of them.

This iteration of SECRET WAR was not a bad idea. Even putting aside the scheduling nightmare that the original mini-series was, there's a lot going for the book. I like these characters. I like the moral dilemmas. I like Nick Fury's attitude and determination. I like the heroes and their motivations. Unfortunately, my own peculiar reading habits combined with the timing of other big events, served to undercut the series.

It's not all bad, though. Not by a long shot. I like the way the characters are handled, and Bendis' dialogue is as true as ever. Spider-Man still gets the greatest lines, though Captain America has a moment or two of his own. Nick Fury steals about every scene he's in.

Gabriele Dell'Otto's painted art is beautiful. I don't care how long it took him to paint the book, but it was worth it. The "waiting for the trade" mentality eliminates the worries of late-shipping monthly or quarterly titles, although it does lead one to question if some of the re-used panels in the last issue from previous issues were done as time-savings options.

I also have to question the timing of the dialogue writing with the painting of the book. References are made to Jessica Jones' pregnancy in the book when she looks FAR from pregnant. (Is she really wearing a mid-riff baring shirt throughout the series?) I get the feeling that the pregnancy came up long after the book was originally rewritten, but just before it hit the stands. Luckily for all involved, it added a layer of drama and urgency to the story, though the reader will have to forgive the artistic dissonance.

SECRET WAR could have been and should have been stronger. It's weaker than the sum of its parts, sadly, through production difficulties and my own personal hang-ups when it comes to reading habits. The hardcover edition of it is available today at finer comics shops for $29.99.


NEW AVENGERS: ILLUMINATI is the one-shot special outlining to Marvel readers the formation of a secret cabal of Marvel heroes. They congregate to share notes and devise strategies against the biggest threats the world offers. I enjoyed it for the high concept and the art style that's unusual for a big name superhero comic.

The central concept is one that the reader will need to buy to enjoy the book. If you don't buy the concept, you're going to hate this book and everything that it represents. You'll complain that it's another ret-con and you'll begin questioning every moment of the last thirty years of Marvel continuity.

If you do buy into it, you'll think it's an interesting and necessary high concept that could only take place in the Marvel Universe. You'll enjoy the interactions of powerful characters who often find themselves at opposite ends of major issues. You'll like thinking up what strange scenarios might have played out amongst the group in the past three decades, but odds are better that you're not the kind who likes to rewrite history that much and will just let it slide.

I fall firmly into the latter camp. I think Brian Bendis' idea fits in well with the way the Marvel Universe is set up today. I think he handles the characters strongly, each possessing their own point of view and not being afraid to express it.

Yes, this is a talking heads book. Bendis finds ways to insert little action sequences throughout the book, but the star of the book is the dialogue and the rising dreadful feeling that grows in the reader's stomach as everything gets more complicated and tensions rise. The finale of this issue will lead directly into Civil War, which now has a tangible starting point.

In some ways, this book reminds me of Isaac Asimov's BLACK WIDOWERS series of short mystery stories. That series centered on a monthly dinner meeting of friends who'd come together, bring up a mystery, and then solve the puzzle before the end of desert. (The butler helped once or twice, too, as I recall.) I like that series a whole lot, and while doing something like that for comics might be visually tedious and humdrum for the artist to suffer through, I think Bendis pulls it off well. The only way to keep the reader interested in this type of story is to keep the dialogue crisp and the plot line moving. It's too easy to lock people in a room and have them prattle on for pages on end. It's more difficult and more rewarding when the conversations go places. That's what happens here, for good and bad.

Alex Maleev is the artist tasked with drawing exciting table conversation for 32 pages. Having worked with Bendis for years on DAREDEVIL, though, he's obviously comfortable with it. His art style has morphed for this book. It's not nearly as, er, photoreferenced as DAREDEVIL was. Since so many scenes take place in empty rooms, that's not necessary. His art is more spare, with lots of chalky ink lines and scratchy shadows. I like the overall look a lot, which gets a big boost from the colors of Dave Stewart, whose understated tones keep the book grounded.

I remember reading an interview with Bendis somewhere where he said that Maleev's art is influence here more by the European school of comics art than American superhero style. I think that's an apt description of the style here.

PLANET: HULK and CIVIL WAR both spin out of this book. I'm sure both projects will recap the events here, but this comic is entertaining enough to warrant picking up on its own merits. If nothing else, it's the kind of thing that will lead to great changes in the Marvel universe. If you want to know what everyone is talking about, this is the first place you have to go.


The new PREVIEWS catalog is out, looking at what's shipping in June 2006. As always, I heartily recommend picking up a copy for yourself and pre-ordering all the stuff that looks good to you.

This week, I want to start with the listings of Marvel collections.

THE ETERNALS BY JACK KIRBY HC gives Kirby fans the ultimate treat -- ETERNALS #1-19 along with the first annual from the series. It retails for $75.00, but that won't scare off the classic Kirby collectors, I'm sure.

GHOST RIDER: ROAD TO DAMNATION is the premiere edition hardcover collection of last year's mini-series from Garth Ennis and Clayton Crain. The book lasted six issues and while it may not have revived the Rider back to his early 1990s form, it still had its fans. I was waiting for the collection on this one, but I'm not sure I'd ever have the time to read it. Marvel is putting out so many interesting collections this month that they're crowding each other out of my reading list. Take, for instance, the next book on the list:

X-MEN: DEADLY GENESIS is likewise a Premiere Edition HC. This one collects Ed Brubaker's six part series (plus backup stories) with art by Trevor Hairsine. It unravels an ages-old X-Men secret in the wake of House of M. It's nothing if not remarkable for Ed Brubaker writing an X-Men book. Who'da thunk it? It's $25 for 200 pages. The fifth issue of the series just appeared in comics shop in the last couple of weeks, so it's a pretty safe bet that the sixth will be out in time for this collection.

BEST OF SPIDER-MAN 2005 collects the next two trade paperbacks from THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. When this series originally began, Marvel wanted to put out a hardcover collection of various Spider-Man stories from all of their Spider-Man titles. I think it might have been around the time of the first movie. As time has gone by, though, that mandate has changed. Now, it's the reprint organ for AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. This volume gives you issues #515-523 for $30.

DAREDEVIL is up to its fifth hardcover collection of all the Brian Bendis/Alex Maleev goodness you could ask for. This is the "Golden Age" and "Decalogue" stories combined, and well worth the read. If you're a Marvel fan and haven't been reading Bendis' DD work, you're missing out on a modern masterpiece. The book was that good, and the first two issues by Brubaker and Michael Lark have held up the quality on the series. That brings up the next thorny question: There's only one story arc left in the Bendis/Maleev run, and it's not enough to fill up a hardcover on its own. Will the sixth volume include the first story arc from the new team? I wouldn't be averse to that. The new team maintains much of the feel of the title from the old one.

The late-80s/early-90s Marvel Fanboy in me needs MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS: WOLVERINE Volume 3. This one collects the Wolverine lead stories from issues #51-61 of the once bi-weekly and commercial-free anthology title. Another $12.99 will get you stories and art from Rob Liefeld, Fabian Nicieza, and more. The cover image they show in the solicitations comes from Dale Koewn.

Speaking of Marvel Fanboy: I think Marvel is missing the boat with a new printing of the INFINITY GAUNTLET trade paperback. I think this is a mini-series that deserves a hardcover. It has the same page count as the DAREDEVIL hardcover I mentioned just a couple of paragraphs ago. And at $25 for the trade, I'd happily spend another $5 or $10 for an oversized hardcover. There were a couple of follow-up mini-series after this, too. Why not set things up for INFINITY WAR and INFINITY CRUSADE hardcovers?

Dare to dream. . .


More PREVIEWS next week, and likely another Marvel collection review. Maybe two.

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