"Secret Avengers" #7 is the second instalment of "Iliad," the book's second arc which sees S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Secret Avengers attacking the Scientist Supreme of A.I.M., with the organizations' uneasy truce at stake. Although still written by Nick Spencer, the issue has no less than three credited pencillers -- Steve Epting, Butch Guice, Brian Theis -- which gives this story a rather schizophrenic quality, at least in appearance.
It's in the book's favor that the art has been divided up along reasonably distinct lines, and that Spencer has a clear grasp of his story with a particularly firm hand on the pacing. There's a strong tension built up by the rhythm of the scenes as the issue jumps between several groups of characters, all of whom are in high pressure situations. It definitely also helps that the story is finally addressing the matter of who's in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. and what that means -- something that has been slightly too ambiguous in the Marvel Universe of late. Combine those elements into a narrative this strong and it doesn't matter who the artist is (or indeed, how many of them there are) -- that's a story worth reading.
In many ways, "Secret Avengers" is the spiritual successor to Brubaker's "Captain America". Epting and Guice's presence no doubt helps convey that impression, but it's the combination of superheroics, espionage-tinted adventure and political wrangling that really sells the idea. That said, the grounded nature of the cast does make the appearance of The Hulk feel a little out-of place, and since as he's essentially relegated to making background appearances with no dialogue, it feels like a step too far to have included him at all. This feels like a book where superpowers, such that they exist, should be fairly low-budget.
Still, that's a nitpick at most. For the most part, it's rock-solid and retains its early feeling as a book heavily influenced by the Marvel movie-verse. That's not to say it isn't afraid to deal with the comic characters, though. Particularly impressive is the way Spencer manipulates the conflict between Hill and Johnson so that it emerges naturally from their personalities. It's not a case of either one of them being overwhelmingly right or wrong, but of both choosing what they think is the right course of action in a difficult situation. It's easy to sympathise with each character, but impossible to agree with both, and that makes it compelling writing at its best.
It'd be nice if the creative team was a little more consistent, but there aren't many mainstream series around to which that criticism couldn't apply. As it is, "Secret Avengers" has a unique premise and a strong tone unlike anything else Marvel is currently publishing. Spencer's work can vary in quality across a greater range than most writers, but on "Secret Avengers" he's definitely doing some of his best work. If you enjoy a mixture of intrigue and action, you owe it to yourself not to miss it.