Adventures in Bendisshitting #1: Secret War
Welcome to Adventures in Bendshitting, my unending series of articles about the pernicious and malign influence the comical works of Brian Michael Bendis has had over superhero comics this century. Over the past 20 years Bendis has written approximately 4000 comics, and liberally 75 of those are readable. The rest are like Secret War, the first series I’d like to highlight for this group of articles. Although not an event in the sense of multiple tie-ins and a robust publishing scheduled centered on it, Secret War is an event in that it shakes up the Marvel Universe, moves some pieces around and has repercussions that are felt for years to come. This signifies Bendis’ first dip in the event pool, and it’s pretty amazing because one can make the argument that he never substantially improved from Secret War, which is pretty bad. The best thing you can say about the series is that it’s short, only five issues. By contrast, Secret Invasion is 8, Civil War 2 is 34 and I don’t think Event Leviathan or whatever the hell it’s called ever actually ended. It’s like the Korean War, a continuous ceasefire. But I digress. In Secret War, Nick Fury bands together some of Marvel’s most popular heroes to conduct a secret regime change of Latveria. Canny commentary on the War on Terror or ham-fisted political allegory without any coherent commentary or ideology? I think you know which it is.
Love to be a youth being given orders by a man who wants me to “proactively involve [myself] in the community”.
Luke Cage and his girlfriend Jessica Jones are walking, discussing Iron Fist’s need for a new costume, when they come across some youths and Brian Bendis makes the unfortunate choice to write dialogue for African-Americans. I’ve excerpted some of it in the picture above for your, er, edification. They enter their apartment upon which they see a shrouded female figure. Cue explosion. This is the inciting incident that drives the rest of the series. It really relies on your vested interest in Luke Cage’s health. Nick Fury is apparently interested, because mention of this during a routine meeting causes him to leave the Helicarrier and go to a New York hospital. It has something to do with events in the past, and most of Secret War is flashback to a year ago. At that time SHIELD had identified a Latveria to supervillains pipeline facilitated by the Terrible Tinkerer and it’s all a metaphor for our Middle East excursions. I’ll get to it in more depth later, but this doesn’t really work, because there’s no comparable real world example. Iraq wasn’t shipping weapons to the Crips and the Bloods. The comic reads like a right-wing paranoic’s wet dream. Why not have Latveria smuggling the weapons across the Mexican border for good measure?
I mean, let’s get into it. Might as well. Latveria for the purposes of Secret War becomes a Middle Eastern nation, despite decades of stories placing it somewhere in Eastern Europe. Now, I’m not saying the portrayals of Latveria hew to a sensitive or nuanced iteration of Eastern Europe, but Eastern Europe it is. Here you’ve got Black Widow complaining about the lack of women’s rights and having to wear a burqa. Excuse me? There are more magicians in Latveria than Muslims last I checked. It’d be one thing if this was fleshing out the fictional country, but clearly it’s manufacturing consent to put you on Nick Fury’s side. “Of course we gotta overthrow ‘em, they’re like the people who did 9/11!” Years of comic book message boards and ancedotal interactions at stores indicate I’m not underestimating the average reader’s intelligence. “It’s all happening again”, Fury fumes after the President rebuffs him. This is a clear allusion to intelligence failures that allowed 9/11 to occur.
Much like Dennis Miller, Nick Fury’s brain was broken by 9/11.
Not allowed to go after Latveria through official channels, Fury instead enlists a team of covert operatives and also whomever Bendis likes as characters. That’s the only explanation for the likes of Daredevil, Spider-Man and Luke Cage. Black Widow and Wolverine make sense. Captain America is a puzzling choice; you’d think he would have a problem with unilaterally overthrowing a government, though to Bendis’ credit he is the “I don’t think so, Homie” Marge Simpson voice of reason that is mostly ignored throughout the series. Rounding out the gang is a Bendis creation named Daisy Johnson, the daughter of Mr. Hyde who looks exactly like Angelina Jolie and has earthquake powers. My favorite part of this assortment of heroes is that though Fury specified no costumes, he still gives everyone stealth costumes. I don’t care, a Spider-Man in black and blue coloring is still Spider-Man. Just admit they exist for variant covers and get out of my face, man. Fury also dismisses secretly assassinating the Latverian prime minister, since it wouldn’t send the right message. Using Daredevil and Wolverine as an adjunct of US foreign policy would be the right message. But it also has to be secret. But the war blatantly uses known superheroes. So it’s secret but also public. Whatever. None of it makes sense, so why try to make it make sense?
Yeah! Fuck you, Muslims! Godless savages. They’re worse than drug dealers selling at public schools.
The war isn’t secret to Latveria, you see, it’s secret to the heroes themselves. Nick gives them something that’s “a little bit worse than the drug the dentist uses to put you under” that wipes out the whole thing for them, I suppose to make the likes of Captain America and Spider-Man forget they had reservations and regret about collapsing a castle full of people to fulfill a spy agency’s geopolitical strategy. One wonders what they thought of the “stealthily dressed man in flag costume and someone who is definitely not Spider-Man knock down Latverian castle” story on the news. Secret War is presented as a mystery–what happened a year ago?–but the mystery isn’t especially compelling and is obvious when you stop to think about it. They thought they killed Lucia von Bardas, the prime minister (at this time in Marvel continuity Dr. Doom was in Hell), but she survived as a cyborg creature and now she’s attacking all the heroes with public identities on the anniversary of the Secret War. You have to sift through a lot of dumb, useless, go nowhere scenes to get to this succinct plot summary, but that’s Bendis comics for ya.
for fuck’s sake stop coloring Asian characters yellow
Von Bardas’ plan is to, I guess, blow up New York. It doesn’t really matter, because she and her technologically enhanced cohorts (many of whom’s presence doesn’t make sense, like which Hobgoblin is this supposed to be) are there so the artist can poorly draw some fight sequences that are less clear and distinct and more a smorgasbord of dogshit. I’ve spent minutes poring over things and I still don’t understand how the “anti-matter bomb going off in the heart of NYC” is resolved. The Thing tries to push the explosion off the pier and then Quake earthquakes it to death? Again, whatever: it doesn’t matter. There were never going to be any repercussions from this shit so why sweat it? Speaking of Quake, #5 opens with a SHIELD interrogation explaining the Angelina Jolie lookalike is an 18 year old daughter of Mr. Hyde. She’s Fury’s handpicked secret agent, which comes in handy when Wolverine (inevitably) tries to murder Nick Fury for messing with his memory. She retaliates by exploding his heart. Remember when Logan’s healing factor had some sense to it and he couldn’t walk off shit like “his heart exploding”? Yeah, me neither. Much of the final issue concerns itself with recapping the events of the first four in a chronological order to the point I’m wondering why the fuck #5 wasn’t the whole shebang. The first 80% is shrouded in mystery that doesn’t enhance or illuminate the experience, so why bother? “Why bother” can sum up a lot of Secret War.
“I’m sorry, it’s my favorite Destiny’s Child song.”
So Wolverine guts Fury, and it turns out Fury is a life model decoy. “Guy famed for using LMDs uses LMD” is not the twist Bendis thinks it is. It would be a twist if Wolverine had actually succeeded in ripping out the guy’s guts. Instead Nick claims he’s going to go underground for a while, because preemptively invading and overthrowing a government without sanction from anybody is apparently a “war crime”. He doesn’t regret what he did, even though what he did created a self-fulfilling prophecy and his presence in Luke Cage’s hospital room (remember Luke Cage? Secret War doesn’t either) suggested remorse. But really, who gives a shit? None of this means anything. Maria Hill takes charge of SHIELD, dresses down Quake and Quake gets a phone call from her boss in exile. That’s it, that’s the comic. There were easier ways to go about taking Nick Fury off the board, like he had a real bad case of diarrhea. What you’re left with is a story not worth telling that took an inordinately long amount of time to tell. (More on that later.)
I just hope we get to see the Hobgoblin imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, that’d be rad!!!
It would be an oversight not to cover the backmatter that accompanies each issue of the miniseries. Well before Jonathan Hickman would delightfully bore us with his reams of infographics that showed motherfucker took a class in graphic design once, Brian Bendis convinced Marvel to throw in 7-10 pages of extraneous bullshit to pad out the book, because I’m certain otherwise Marvel would never think to charge $5 a pop for an event title. This bullshit comes in the form of SHIELD profiles and interrogation transcripts. This is the greatest trick Bendis ever pulled: he gives the illusion that these pages matter and yet they don’t. They’re a fugazi! The only important information given out is that the presidential administration had business ties to Latveria and planned on using those as leverage to get them to stop arming bank robbers. Take that, Halliburton! Or something. The rest is Official Handbook garbage and SHIELD agents bragging about how many Constitutional rights detainees don’t have.
“Writing a character as a loathsome drunk who terrorizes flight attendants, that’s interesting writing” – Brian Bendis
The most interesting thing about this is trying to suss out the particular politics of Mr. Bendis and what he seems to be trying to say with Secret War. By all accounts he’s left-of-center, but that sure as hell doesn’t mean he doesn’t have shitty politics, especially in America. If Latveria maps to Iraq, and several narrative choices suggest it does, what is he saying? That invading Iraq was the right choice because otherwise they’d arm terrorists to attack us? The book certainly seems sympathetic to Nick Fury’s point of view, with the president and his administration coming off as quislings. The heroes’ objections are sidelined. Yet Bendis comes off less a PNAC ideologue and more a doofus who sees political elements and then includes them without understanding what they are or their ramifications. Important to my theory of Bendis is an early SHIELD briefing scene in which offhandedly agents mention that the president of Afghanistan has declared the astral plane part of Afghan territory and that Bob Woodward has a book coming about SHIELD and Hydra involving themselves in Baghdad. (On an amusing note, Israeli hero Sabra stopped a nerve gas attack on Gaza.) Here we see Bendis jamming the real world together with the fictional and there’s no point to it, no ideology furthered. Why would Karzai, a US puppet, unilaterally make such a declaration? Why trivialize the Iraq War–the greatest foreign policy crime of my lifetime–by guys in green jumpsuits who answer to an old Nazi wearing a monocle? I don’t know, and more importantly Bendis doesn’t know. He is a child with action figures, mashing them together.
A flight attendant kicked his head in once, that’s why he has a plate in his head.
I should mention that Secret War saw incredible delays due in no small part to the Gabriele Dell’Otto painted art. Was it worth the wait? In a word: no. Say what you will about the tenets of Mark Bagley, he could shit this out in 3 months and it’d be over and done with. We could forget about it. Instead Secret War dragged on from February 2004 to December 2005. That’s 22 months, folks. Baby shoes were purchased, never worn and sold at resale shops in that span. The Marvel Universe was at a standstill wondering if Luke Cage would ever get out of his coma. More seriously, a number of Nick Fury appearances in better comics had to be explained away as “they were using a robot Nick Fury to assuage…someone…and everyone pretended it was the real Nick Fury even though they should know better”. You see, the delays are part and parcel with the Bendis mystique: so many of his comics are about the anticipation of something that happened rather than something that, you know, happened. The delays compounded the anticipation and thus made the result even more of a damp squib. From an aesthetic standpoint the art didn’t warrant the delays either, which I’ll expand upon later. I don’t claim to be an artist, but this shit couldn’t have actually taken two years. Dell’Otto is Italian so he probably spilled spaghetti sauce on the original artwork and needed extra time to redo everything.
Secret War had a tie-in arc in The Pulse, also written by Brian Bendis. It’s not much to talk about, except for the curious/insane sequence in which Jessica Jones meets a drunk Wolverine who rants about people raping him. To say it trivializes rape is an understatement, but most of all it’s absurdly funny. Other fun moments: Iron Fist thinks Jessica is lying about who the father of her baby is, and the Daily Bugle heroically deciding not to publish important whistleblowing information about the Secret War.
Painted art in superhero comics Is a tricky thing. Occasionally it works, like in Marvels. There Alex Ross’ style recreated iconic imagery of the Marvel Universe. It wasn’t kinetic and it didn’t have to be. Unfortunately, Gabrielle Dell’Otto is tasked with bringing to life a story with several action sequences. Secret War does not convey action, it does not convey motion, and in dialogue scenes you’re left wondering if he just photoreferenced everything because damn Daisy Johnson looks a lot like Angelina Jolie. The later issues that expound on the battle between the tech villains and the heroes are basically incoherent. Dell’Otto is a good example of an artist suited for covers being asked to do sequential art. It’s never a good fit because artists trained to put a lot of effort into singular images will inevitably experience problems hitting deadlines. Conversely, you wouldn’t ask for a pin-up from Mark Bagley. That’d be like if the Playboy centerfold was literally a piece of bread. In any event, the ugly and doesn’t tell the story well. I spent a lot of time in the last few issues trying to figure out what was going on, which sucked because what was going on was ultimately stupid and a waste of time.
…Wolverine also “it’s not you, it’s me”s his rapes.
Just on a practical level the comic stinks. It would be a folly to list all the terrible dialogue in the miniseries, because it’s all terrible dialogue, so I’d like to highlight a scene on the airplane to Latveria where Wolverine is uncharacteristically drunk–because his healing power usually dictates he can’t get drunk–and I’m not sure how we’re supposed to take it. Frankly, Garth Ennis’ characterization was more respectful of the character, because Wolverine telling a flight attendant he was “just dropping off the kids at the pool, toots” is the most reprehensible I’ve seen him, and that’s including when he was brainwashed by Nazis and killed hundreds of people. Reading that line was like my rosetta stone when it came to Bendis. Oh, it’s not like he started out great and then declined with time. He was always this bad! Bendis’ Fury gets irritating to read too; it took me out of the story when he calls the terrorist prime minister of a hostile nation “Tootsie”. If he’s making a broader point about the insidious undercurrent of sexism among 90 year old ageless veterans I can’t see it. With bad storytelling needlessly overusing flashback structure and woeful dialogue, there isn’t a whole lot to praise. I guess some of Spider-Man’s banter isn’t too bad. But that’s a problem: half of the cast sounds like Spider-Man. Black Widow shouldn’t be cracking wise about how she can make a burka sexy, for fuck’s sake.
“Israel reprimanded her for not letting the attack happen.”
Wikipedia cites the hardcover’s introduction for this little nugget: “It is loosely based on classified operations told to Bendis by an anonymous high-ranking officer in the United States Intelligence Community during Bendis’ childhood”. If that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does. Bendis’ “My uncle works at Nintendo” bullshit lines up perfectly with the shallow, stupid understanding of geopolitics at display here. That Bendis saw fit to divulge this information that he was lied to as a child is also pertinent in understanding him as a writer. He’s a credulous doofus! Now, he may be a nice guy. From what I have read about him he is. But he’s also a doofus, and Secret War illustrates the case for that designation. It’s “what if superheroes did Iraq and also Saddam Hussein came back as a cyborg to attack New York City” only somehow uninteresting. In the larger Bendis canon it doesn’t amount to much but clearly presents as a dry run for New Avengers. All the components for that are here: inane conversations, stupid conspiracies that create the illusion of complexity, dialogue that reads if David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin had a crack baby whose only source of information was a Yiddish dictionary. The real difference between the two is different flavors of bad art.
Well, I hope you enjoyed our first adventure. Next up is a comic with some present relevance: House of M. Scarlet Witch imagines a world in which mutants are the dominant species and humans are the underclass. It’s like the movie White Man’s Burden only not good.