For his final two issues on "Secret Avengers," Ed Brubaker is shedding some light on John Steele and the Shadow Council after Steve Rogers and his group captured the original Super-Soldier last issue. What we get this issue are some hints about Steele's past and a flashback via digital telepathy to a mission he went on with Rogers back in World War 2. There's a general sense of intrigue, but the issue never gets going, always on the verge of delivering something exciting and falling short.
What stands out immediately is the absence of Mike Deodato on art duties. Will Conrad, who's helped out on the past few issues, draws the entire issue and, thanks to Rain Beredo, there is some visual continuity. Sadly, it's the continuity of overbearing, shiny, sickly glowing color art that burns itself into your retinas, striving for 'realism' and finding only a world where all sources of light are neon beer signs. There's no such thing are darkness here; the best you get is perpetual twilight.
Conrad's art suffers from stiff character work and faces that change shape panel-to-panel. His characters never look like they're in motion, only frozen in time, posing on one leg, arm thrust forward, trying their best not to fall over before someone can sketch them. It's hard to tell how much of Conrad's problems with faces is caused by his line work because the coloring plays so many tricks with light and shadow to add 'texture' and 'depth' that there's no way to tell what shadowing Conrad himself added beyond solid blacks.
The opening two pages are the best of the issue, both in writing and art, as we get a glimpse of Steele through the ages, fighting in one war after another. Those pages suggest a strange, broken man who can't escape a life of violence where it's the same thing over and over again. His ties to the Shadow Council are only hinted at here, except not in a positive light. What we get here suggests that Steele used to have some problems with the Shadow Council.
One nice touch of this issue is a chance to see Steele and Rogers working together after issues of them fighting. Steele seems to genuinely like Rogers, happy that it's a mission without the Invaders. Playing up the prospect of Steele looking at Rogers as a protege or younger version of himself only adds to their current animosity.
"Secret Avengers" provides some interesting glimpses into John Steele and his history, but doesn't reveal anything Earth-shattering. As the first of two issues focused on Steele, this feels like a set up for the real revelations next issue.