This week debuted "Aniana", the writer's fourth consecutive issue, done using Michael ("Gotham Central", "Daredevil") Lark's layouts, finished by Stefano Gaudiano and Brian Thies, previously responsible for Secret Avengers #5, a done in one story by the series original writer Ed Brubaker. Lark is a strong stylist whose work has somewhat fell under the radar due to his commitment on Marvel's "Dark Tower" adaptations, making his return to the superhero mainstream a welcome one. The penciller'r neo noir stylings have benefited both Batman and Daredevil families of books, lending a sense of reality to the crime/superhero genre hybrids, in turn making him a very solid choice for the spy fiction inspired "Secret Avengers".
The troubled title has come a long way from being a colorful companion to Brubaker's "Captain America" work, with the company's decision to keep on extending their support based primarily on the fan's continued support to the tertiary "Avengers" series. After Nick Spencer's short run, and Warren Ellis' decision not to stick with the series following the six oneshots, it's up to Rick ("Fear Agent", "Uncanny X-Force") Remender to try and retool Secret Avengers in a hopefully more cohesive and appealing title, but before he attempts what may well be the last shake up before Marvel dismisses with the title, Ellis has a few more chances to exploit Brubaker's line up to the full effect.
For the use in their East European mission, the writer uses Steve Rogers, Black Widow, Sharon Carter and Moon Knight, once again dismissing with Valkyre and War Machine, the extravagant heavy ordnance superheroes that have proven such ill fits to the book. When the full line up including the Beast and Ant-Man was announced, it was expected that Brubaker would somehow bring the disparate characters together, but in reality he felt more interested in teasing new members such as Nova and Shang Chi, then actually integrating the main cast into a believable fighting unit.
And while a lack of subplots might have been abridged by more strongly defined personalities, what appeared on a page was a strange hybrid of Avengers and GI Joe, where the Captain America served as a commander of anti terrorist unit, tasked with fighting Shadow Council, a secret society flirting with the occult. Ultimately, the writer left the book after the initial two story arcs, leaving the follow up to newcomer Nick ("Morning Glories", "Jimmy Olsen") Spencer, who ended up sticking around only for the "Fear Itself" crossover tie in. Once Ellis debuted with the first of his six short stories, it was clear that any kind of series continuity was largely abandoned to make for at least serviceable storytelling, while the company makes sense of where next to take the franchise.
In "Aniana", Ellis returns to wringing out spy action out of Eastern European conflicts, but decides to substitute #17's Serbia for fictional Symkaria (located on Marvel's map so as to take up a portion of northern Serbia territory). And while still tangently related to the battle against Shadow Council, the story is a classic example of stand alone fiction. Designed to have a band of Marvel's grittier characters team up to take down a narcotics cartel in a former political hotspot, it purposefully ignores any references to current continuity, offering accessible spy action, done without the company's typical reliance on overwriting and garish superhero costumes.
Recalling the first issue of his run, and moreover the "Global Frequency" creator owned maxi-series that serves as the blueprint for Ellis' take on "Secret Avengers", most of the action is centered around a single locale, that the cast has to pass through, recalling a typical video game level. The resemblance is further reinforced by the uniform design of the antagonists, that starting with the enforcer Captain America fights in a couple of pages utilizing the nine panel grid, before opening up to the double pager revealing the larger then life element justifying the fantastical backdrop of Marvel universe.
Namely, each of the bodyguards recalls the stereotypical biker thug, coupled with sideburns, long hair and leather clothes, much like the Shadow Council ninjas in Ellis' first issue all designed the same way, almost recalling "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" foes Foot-Soldiers. The hostility of the cold, unforgiving Symkarian climate is illustrated by Jose Villarubia's, who chooses the different hues of yellow, gray, brown and green, so that the occasional splash of red has the desired effect of standing out from such a drab lifeless backdrop.
Fittingly, Ellis calls for a costume redesign that dismisses with most of the costumes, boiling them down to realistic gear that maintains by preserving the color scheme. Thereby, Captain America's costume ends up represented on a T-shirt with his symbol on it, while Moon Knight spends most of the story in a white suit. By time Marc Spector puts the mask on, the story beat seems right out of a crime film, not a typical super hero slugfest.
Posing as millionaire Steven Grant, Moon Knight gains admittance to the brothel level of the boss' den, completing Ellis' positioning each of the primary players. Starting out in different parts of the building, they coordinate their attack by steadily climbing higher through the legion of thugs, until they get to Shadow Council's contact, and Symkarian arms dealer. The video-game level set-up serves the story well, enforcing clear goals that Lark and Gaudiano proceed to illustrate with clarity and the requisite dynamic. Moreover, Lark's layouts and figurework is impeccable, enabling the fights to exibit the requisite body weight of combatants needed to get over their running through the corridors and bumping into each other. Lark's work is precise and typically a bit stiff, but the layering Gaudiano and Thies add helps solidify the figures in finely composed panels, leading to a very satisfying reading experience.
On the other hand, Ellis purposefully introduces the supernatural element to liven up the dynamic of the fight with the bikers, foregoing the banality of the staircase as the backdrop, and adding a touch of mystique to the proceedings. The build up benefits the showdown with the head criminal, making the power hungry thug somewhat more interesting due to his dabbling with mysticism, while also making him a credible threat to the four veteran superheroes.
In order to make the story more believable, Ellis frequently casts one off antagonists in such a role that they seem somewhat forgettable following the fight's conclusion, and Symkarian crime lord certainly fits into that category. The self perpetuating cycle of episodic storytelling frequently leads to tales designed merely to carry over the property until a more memorable commercial period, and "Aniana" certainly fits the bill. Of course, Ellis is completely aware of conditions involved with working in pulp entertainment, with good reviews following his "Secret Avengers" stories precisely due to his commitment in making each story a complete unit that maximizes the entertainment.
Working in superhero industry, Ellis has to stay within certain bounds, hence the addition of flachette guns replacing the live ammunition as a way of dispensing with the countless generic goons. This is what separates Moon Knight's James Bond approach from either the movies or the Ian Fleming original, as the Secret Avengers' tactics hew more closely to the non lethal strategy of GI Joe then that of an actual black ops squad. Ellis was contracted to simply breathe some life into an already unworkable premise, which is exactly what he set out to do with the help of a cadre of strong genre artists. Issue 19 is a fine example of creators working their professional best, in the process creating a piece of solid entertainment that has already proven popular with the jaded readers of "Secret Avengers".