Warren Ellis has been absolutely killing his run on "Secret Avengers," writing some of the smartest and best superhero comics of the last year with brilliant standalone stories that tell surprisingly complex tales with satisfying results. It doesn't hurt that Ellis has had a rotating cast of unbelievably talented artists to help him deliver these stories, and Alex Maleev on this issue is no exception.
This issue of "Secret Avengers" opens with Black Widow, War Machine, Sharon Carter, and Captain America on a mission. With the exception of Natasha, they are all killed within the first four pages. Natasha is able to escape thanks to an escape hatch of sorts that bounces her back in time. Natasha then spends eighteen plus weeks bouncing back and forth in time figuring out how to save her team. She does everything from befriending unusual allies to miserably visiting The Beast for one of his boring overly long discussions of time travel in order to figure out what her options are. The entire piece comes together with an impressive precision that nicely parallels the precision necessary for Natasha's mission.
Ellis has a fine handle on Natasha's voice here, finding a nice dry sense of humor that feels right for her, but also softens her a bit as a lead and helps her relatability. Natasha's musings on how much she hates time travel are particularly enjoyable and nicely illustrate her frustration with the mission, but also her single minded determination to solve the problem no matter how frustrated she may get. One of the most surprising things Ellis does in the midst of telling a complex time travel story is that he also manages to weave in a poignant relationship between two minor characters. It's shocking moving considering that we see these characters for no more than 20 panels in total.
Maleev's art is a great tonal fit for a Natasha Romanov story, dark and gritty but also beautiful and straightforward. His work here is a little more fluid and gritty than usual, which also fits nicely with what Ellis is doing and with what the story requires. Whenever you're dealing with time travel in comics clear storytelling is key as it's even easier than usual for things to become muddled; it's to Maleev's credit that he can execute all the twists and turns Ellis' story requires while still making things easy on the reader. Ellis and Maleev intercut this issue with black and white three panel traditional comic strips and it's surprisingly effective as the story bounces back and forth in time.
When Ellis' spectacular "Secret Avengers" run wraps up with issue #21 next month, it is going to make one of the best "Avengers" collections ever. These are smart and beautiful superhero stories worthy of the name.