In the aftermath of the Skrull Empire's secret invasion of Earth it looked like one of the Marvel Universe's most enduring conflicts, the spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. versus the terrorist group HYDRA, had come to an end. Both groups had been heavily infiltrated and subverted by the shapeshifting Skrulls leading to the dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the destruction of HYDRA by one of its long time leaders, Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker.
However, Strucker wasn't content with simply tearing HYDRA down. Instead, he joined forces with five other figures to revive the organization and pursue another sinister and mysterious agenda. Luckily for the denizens of the Marvel Universe, standing in HYDRA's way is a collection of heroes both new and familiar. In the opening arc of writer Jonathan Hickman's "Secret Warriors," Strucker's arch-enemy and former S.H.I.E.L.D. Director, Nick Fury, discovered that S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA were actually never enemies, and the agency the WWII hero headed had actually been a puppet of the evil HYDRA entity. Furthermore, there were other mysterious organizations out there, including one in particular codenamed Leviathan. Discovering this news shocked and galvanized Fury, and he began building his own private army of ex S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and superpowered young people know as Caterpillars and has used them to wage war against the forces of HYDRA and Leviathan.
"Secret Warriors" #11 is in stores now and kicks off a new six part arc titled "Wake the Beast." CBR News spoke with Hickman about the storyline, which promises to answer many of the series burning questions and change the dynamic of Nick Fury's war against HYDRA and Leviathan.
In the recent one-shot, "Dark Reign: The List - Secret Warriors," by Hickman and artist Ed McGuinness, Fury obtained what appeared to be valuable information on Leviathan. It included details on the mysterious organization's bases around the world as well as "The Great Wheel," a chart that listed Fury, Strucker, and several other notable HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. figures, each name on the chart having one of the twelve signs of the zodiac listed as their title. This information will play an important role in "Wake the Beast" and subsequent arcs of "Secret Warriors."
"There really isn't much that isn't interconnected in this book," Hickman told CBR News. "I would say the arc that we just finished, 'God of Fear, God of War' [The series' second arc], is the largest outlier when it comes to touching data points within the series. I kind of got away from the heart of the series as we intersected into the bigger moving pieces of the Marvel universe. If I had to do it over again, there are parts that would have obviously remained prominent, but I would have probably handled others in a different way. A lot of that just comes from being a new writer at Marvel and trying to negotiate the ins and outs of how the book you are working on syncs up with the larger events. I'd never done anything like that before, so I think my vision for 'Secret Warriors' was obscured a bit - I definitely would have done things differently. Like propelling us forward into the Zodiac stuff a bit better. Because it is very important to our ongoing story."
The Zodiac and Leviathan information was revealed in supplemental graphic and text pieces, similar to the ones Hickman used in the first issue of "Secret Warriors" when he first revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA were actually part of the same organization. Hickman doesn't just reveal important information in text pages, though. Readers of "Secret Warriors" will want to pay careful attention to all the details Hickman and his artistic collaborators pack into the story pages of the series.
"There isn't much coincidence in the book. Things are named appropriately and people don't say things just to say them. My normal inclination is to put two characters in a room, let them talk and see where it goes. But in 'Secret Warriors,' almost everything has more than one meaning, or it echoes forwards or backwards in the story," Hickman explained. "And in this arc, 'Wake the Beast,' those dialogue choices are front and center. We see the origins of all six heads of HYDRA in flashback, and then we flash forward to see how it all ties together. Which is fun, because up until now, we've kept a lot of the information about the HYDRA heads ambiguous."
"This is a big arc for Viper, Madame Hydra/Contessa and Kraken," Hickman continued. "And, obviously, we make a big deal of bringing Leviathan into the book and, of course, Nick Fury continuing to put his pieces into position and stealing every scene he's in."
One element that's already been revealed about the forces of HYDRA happened in "Secret Warriors" #11 when it was discovered that they share Nick Fury's animosity towards Leviathan. But readers shouldn't assume that this means the two groups will end up working together. "There is no, 'The enemy of my enemy...' in 'Secret Warriors.' We're not doing that," Hickman revealed. "Things like who is working for whom and which characters are double and triple agents have yet to be revealed, but HYDRA hates Leviathan, Leviathan hates HYDRA, and both hate Fury and everything ex-S.H.I.E.L.D."
Readers got their first hints of the HYDRA-Leviathan feud when some of Leviathan's forces attacked the HYDRA leader known as the Gorgon. The soldiers that launched the assault employed bizarre technology and some of them appeared to be monstrous and almost alien. "That was a design choice. They're not aliens," Hickman remarked. "A lot of the questions about those characters are answered in 'Secret Warriors' #13. You'll find out where they came from, and by the end of this 'Wake the Beast' arc, things will really be clicking into place. In fact, at that point all of the pieces of our story will be on the table. Then it's just a big game of chess."
In "Secret Warriors" #11, readers were reintroduced to Alexander Piece and Nick Fury's son Mikel, who have been secretly working for the ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. director for some time. "They're ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. - guys who Fury trusts, and we find out that they've been involved since the beginning of the book. You just didn't see what they were doing behind the scenes," Hickman said.
In addition to Fury and the HYDRA heads, "Secret Warriors" has also been following the exploits of a team of Caterpillar agents lead by a young former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Daisy Johnson. Issue 11 revealed that Pierce and Mikel have been working for Fury by running their own teams of Caterpillars. Their teams differ from Daisy's team, however, in that they have color designations with Piece leading the "Black" Caterpillar team and Mikel leading the "Gray" team.
"If you flip back to the first issue of 'Secret Warriors' you'll see that there's a database of all the Caterpillar agents. Each of those people listed belongs to one of these three teams. (Except for Layla Miller who turned them down in 'Mighty Avengers')," Hickman stated. "There are some not so good kids there...real troublemakers. The Black team is a sketchy bunch of characters, no doubt."
Readers will finally meet members of the other Caterpillar teams later this year. "Issue #17 kicks off a three part story, which just might be my favorite 'Secret Warriors' bit yet," Hickman revealed. "I'm very proud of it. It's called, 'The Final Ride of the Howling Commandos.'"
Hickman is aware that by introducing two new teams of Caterpillars, he's also increasing the size of his book's already large cast. He plans to do something about this, and very soon. "I added it up one time, and I believe the cast is around 60-70 characters...that's a lot. We're going to have to start killing some people [Laughs]," the writer said. "I think we've climbed to the top of the mountain as far as the number of characters in this book. I think all that's left is to come tumbling down the other side."
"Wake the Beast" reunites Hickman with his regular artistic collaborator on "Secret Warriors," Stefano Caselli, who wasn't able to work on the series' previous arc. Hickman is happy to once again be working with Caselli and has been astounded by the artist's work on "Wake the Beast." "I love Stefano's work, and he gets better with every issue. You give him something and he always tries to make it a little bit better. He's a hell of a storyteller...he understands the beats on a page. You never lose one with Stefano. If anything, he gives you an extra beat to play with," the writer explained. "On top of that, he challenges himself. There's an establishing shot in issue #13 of a HYDRA base. I told him that we've seen this shot a bunch of times, so let's do the other side of the base...give me something outrageous. And then the page he turned in was just amazing. On top of that, he's a hard worker, and he's always trying to get better. Stefano's great, I'm a big fan."
Hickman has been equally impressed with the work of his other artistic collaborator on "Secret Warriors," colorist Sunny Gho. "Sunny is fantastic. Stefano loves him and I love him. He makes bold choices, even when using the fairly neutral, 'Secret Warriors' palette. It makes him an interesting colorist and a valuable member of the team," the writer stated. "We're just so stoked to have him on board. Sunny's great."
Marvel Avengers event "Siege" kicks off this month, and it's a story that promises to drastically change the status quo of the Marvel Universe. The cast of "Secret Warriors" will be involved in "Siege," but the book itself is not tying into the epic story line. "I believe Brian [Michael Bendis] has written Fury and a bunch of the kids into 'Siege,' so they'll be there," Hickman said. "I can't really talk about how the fallout from 'Siege' is going to affect 'Secret Warriors,' though it's fair to assume that the climate of the Marvel Universe will shift one way or the other. How it affects us, you'll just have to wait and see. I will say that one of the lingering questions raised by the fallout of 'Siege' is answered in 'Secret Warriors.'"
"Secret Warriors" is a finite series, and once the "Wake the Beast" arc wraps, Hickman will be almost halfway through the tale he wants to tell. "I guess you could say the midpoint is between issues #16-19, but that's a bit inaccurate because of how things really start to accelerate as we move forward. Consequences will come due for many characters and we answer all the questions like, 'What's Fury's ultimate plan?" And, 'What's the deal with the Zodiac wheel?w" Hickman explained. "So, the book is only getting stronger, and I'm certainly more excited about how things are going than I was a couple of months ago. The book now feels like it's got a lot more inertia."