Spy vs. Spy: What’s right (and wrong) with Avengers spy comics

Last year was a good one for spy fans. We got new Bond and Bourne movies, Homeland continued to be a much-discussed television series, and films like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty proved that espionage films can also be art. Even The Avengers got in on the spy action by playing up S.H.IE.L.D. and the spy backgrounds of Black Widow and Hawkeye. Spies aren’t going away either, not with the recent debut of The Americans and a bunch of spy movies in the works, including a couple of John le Carré adaptations and a big-screen take on the video game Spy Hunter.

Borrowing from its 2012 cinematic blockbuster, Marvel is letting the spies infiltrate its comics, too. That was especially noticeable last week with the simultaneous release of Secret Avengers #1 and Avengers Assemble #12, each featuring Black Widow and Hawkeye in an espionage adventure with superpowers. But as alike as they were, each came at the idea from a wildly different angle and achieved results that were just as dissimilar. One was awesome. The other, not so much.

Avengers Assemble #12 continues Kelly Sue DeConnick’s time with the series, but starts a new story and with a different tone. The previous arc was about a missing scientist and a friendly contest between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to see who could find him first. It was a lighthearted story that played up the fun in the Stark/Banner relationship from the Avengers movie. Although Issue 12 heads in a new direction with different characters, DeConnick still riffs off the movie by basing the plot on the idea that Black Widow has a lot of red in her ledger that she’d like to wipe out.

I don’t know whether DeConnick came up with it or if it’s been around longer, but I love the idea that Black Widow has handed out literal chips to people she’s hurt in the past. That’s a lot of chips, and people cashing them in for favors could drive an entire series. In this story, though, Hawkeye learns Widow is about to make good on a chip and – true to his portrayal in the film – wants to support her redemption by helping out. That doesn’t sit well with his current girlfriend, Spider-Woman, who has trust issues and also wants to come along. It’s a great reason for this impromptu team to form, made even better by the humor and emotional weight that DeConnick and artist Pete Woods are able to give it.

There’s also an excellent, superheroic twist that I should have seen coming, but didn’t, and it leads to a great cliffhanger I’m eager to see resolved. It’s a fantastic superhero comic with spy elements. I wish Secret Avengers was more like it.

I was thrilled when the Secret Avengers lineup was announced: Black Widow and Hawkeye, of course, but also Maria Hill, Nick Fury and Agent Coulson. All spy characters, plus the Hulk. What could be more awesome than that?

The first issue begins well enough, with a mystical terrorist torturing a gut-shot Hawkeye for information he doesn’t seem to have. But then Nick Spencer and Luke Ross flash back to “ten hours ago” and everything goes off the rails. Coulson is meeting with Black Widow and Hawkeye and inviting them to join a special S.H.I.E.L.D. task force that will not only require them to lie to the other Avengers and assorted loved ones, but will also necessitate accepting memory implants to wipe their minds of sensitive information and help them maintain cover. That’s a ridiculous offer for anyone, but Widow makes it especially clear that it’s unacceptable, considering her experience with that kind of thing. Seriously, the comic should have ended right there.

It doesn’t, of course, and Coulson claims to have a piece of information he thinks will make them change their minds. Widow and Hawkeye challenge him to come up with it.

And they’re in. Very next panel. That’s literally what Hawkeye says. “We’re in.”

I’m not saying there isn’t anything Coulson could have said to change their minds; I’m saying that it’s totally cheating not to let the reader in on it. Maybe Spencer has a reason for leaving it out. Maybe it’s a huge reveal down the road and he doesn’t want to spoil it. I don’t care. By setting up a scenario in which the two main characters have zero reason to join the team and every reason not to, Spencer’s given himself the challenge of coming up with a doozy of a motivation to get them there. To skip over that with a giant “insert critical plot point here” sign is preposterous.

If I could get past that – and I can’t – I’d still have problems with the rest of the issue. It’s a cynical, conspiratorial take on the spy genre with memory tampering just the first of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s offenses. It’s a problem when half the team is made up of assholes who are violently manipulating the other half. That could be good drama if the half being manipulated had a legitimate reason for letting themselves be put in that situation, but again … they don’t. The whole setup is contrived with nothing to convince that it’ll pay off in a satisfying way down the road. Black Widow and Hawkeye getting back at the people violating them would mean severe, perhaps deadly, consequences for some very popular Marvel characters. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe I’m supposed to wonder how the hell this could ever get fixed and want to continue reading to find out. But this first issue doesn’t inspire me with confidence that the answer will be rewarding.

Jack Kirby once said something to the effect that it doesn’t matter how fantastic the events of a story are, if the characters behave like real people, readers will accept it. That's what makes me favor Avengers Assemble over Secret Avengers. It's not a matter of light humor vs. dark pessimism. Avengers Assemble #12 deals with some very serious emotions. The key is that they're real and believable and the characters aren't just being pushed around to serve the plot.

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