It is a shame that Warren Ellis’ tenure on “Secret Avengers” is so short. His approach of self-contained issues with a different artist each issue that recalls “Global Frequency” is so entertaining and appropriate for the idea of ‘secret agent superheroes,’ and so well done, that six issues don't seem like enough. Each issue has been an artistic tour de force with Ellis both going out of his way to enable his artistic collaborators and to make an effort to get out of the way of the art, a trick that’s hard to do and even harder to make look as seamless as these issues have been. In the fourth issue of this run, the art team of Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, Brian Thies, and Jose Villarrubia take the simplicity of a dirty, skeevy mission in Eastern Europe and work the nine-panel grid foundation that every page has for all it’s worth while delivering frenetic, driving visuals.
In one of those ‘only in the Marvel Universe’ Eastern European countries that border Latveria, Steve Rogers and three of his Secret Avengers take down a local mobster with what appears to be a super-soldier serum for sale. They need to do it before the Shadow Council buys it and, to make things easier for them, all of the mobster’s men have used the serum. The premise is very simple and Ellis twists it as much as he can, right down to how the criminals get their superpowers and emphasizing that these are not the regular ‘superhero comic villains.’ If you’ve wanted to see Moon Knight purchase the services of a prostitute to maintain his cover, well, Ellis is more than happy to oblige you.
The use of the nine-panel grid as the foundation of the comic, every page adhering to its borders in its construction, provides both a linear drive to the art and allows for the rhythm of the comic to ebb and flow through purposeful manipulation of the layout. Steve Rogers’ fight with one of the criminals is presented over two pages that utilize all nine panels on each, creating a very specific rhythm of quick beats, flashes of action that build to a two-page splash of Rogers ending the fight with a punch.
Normal comic book reader logic suggests that nine panels on a page is more ‘dense’ to read than a two-page splash, but, here, the effect of the nine panels is to speed up the reading process with those quick flashes of action, climaxing in that two page punch that stops you dead by overwhelming you visually. The issue plays with how panel sizes can alter the pace expertly.
The art itself has a minimalist element, not overusing lines, preferring heavy blacks and specific use of detailed line work. Moon Knight’s ‘suave spy’ look of his rounded mask and a white suit stands out as possibly the best version of the character that’s been drawn. Jose Villarrubia’s coloring is dark and subdued, drawing the eye to specific points with brief flashes of brightness at specific moments.
“Secret Avengers” #19 is 20 pages of a superhero comic you’ve probably read before. The story isn’t original or that different from many that have come before. What makes it so compelling and entertaining is the execution. This is a lesson in how style and skill can turn even the most basic of stories into something refreshing and new.