The Next Big Thing is a weekly column where I go back and look at what I’ve been calling “preview anthologies”; one-shots released by superhero publishers meant to establish a new status quo and highlight new titles due for release soon. This week we’re going over 2009’s Dark Reign: New Nation to get a sampling of some of the titles that debuted in the wake of Secret Invasion’s big climax and the rise of Norman Osborn to the top of the Marvel Universe food chain.
We’ve already talked a little bit about how we got here in previous installments, but to set the scene; Norman Osborn joined the Commission on Superhuman Affairs several years prior as the Field Director of the Thunderbolts program. During the superhuman civil war he was in charge of recruiting and deploying supervillains to hunt down unregistered super-heroes for violating the superhuman registration act but when he fired the shot which killed the Skrull queen and ended the Skrull invasion, he was promoted to the “top cop” role in the Marvel Universe previously held by Nick Fury, Maria Hill and his immediate predecessor, Tony Stark.
In charge of everything, Osborn immediately called a meeting of several other bigwig villains and laid out the new ground rules; everyone gets a piece of the pie so long as no-one fucks it up for anyone else. This began the “Dark Reign” era of comics where heroes were on the backfoot in ways they never had been before. Osborn formed his own team of Avengers with villains like Venom and Bullseye taking the roles of Spider-Man and Bullseye and he made himself a combination of Iron Man and Captain America as their leader, the Iron Patriot. That’s the new world order we’re entering with this one-shot, so let’s see how different characters are reacting to it and if these stories stood the test of time, over ten years later.
Nick Fury in “Declaration”
(Brian Michael Bendis, Jonathan Hickman, Stefano Caselli, Daniele Rudoni & Cory Petit)
Nick Fury showing up in Secret Invasion was a big deal at the time, because he’d been off the board since 2005 and only seen in passing communicating with Spider-Woman in New Avengers or Winter Soldier in Captain America. He came back in a big way with a new team to take on the Skrulls but it would be in the pages of the newly launched Secret Warriors that we’d learn more about the individual members of the team and Fury’s new mission to take down Hydra.
The story here is alright, if a little saccharine, as Fury is cast as the old dog of war pulled back in for one final mission, with a brief detour to pay his respects at Captain America’s grave. The vignette here makes it seem like Osborn is going to be Fury’s target and they’re definitely going to cross paths in the pages of Secret Warriors but the big hook of the series was the revelation that SHIELD was actually, and always had been, under the control of Hydra.
It doesn’t seem as big of a twist now, eleven years on and post-Captain America: The Winter Soldier adapting the twist in movie form but at the time it was a huge deal right out the gate and got people talking about a book they might otherwise have not paid too much attention to. Brian Michael Bendis is on here as a co-writer but Secret Warriors will always be remembered as the place where Jonathan Hickman really made his mark on the Marvel Universe, with some stories — like Gorgon and the twin swords — still paying off in recent stories like X of Swords.
I have a lot of fondness for Secret Warriors but I’m not sure it had as big an impact on the larger Marvel Universe as we thought it was going to by the end of the first issue. I couldn’t tell you the last time characters like Yo-Yo Rodriguez or Stonewall showed up, although Sebastian Druid was a main character in War of the Realms: Journey Into Mystery which did have a nice callback to this run when he ran into Ares, father of Sebastian’s teammate Alexander aka Phobos. It might just be my opinion but I don’t know if Daisy Johnson has had the sticking power in the Marvel Universe that they’ve wanted her to have, despite pre-dating this series and being a pet character of Bendis’.
Ultimately, I’d definitely recommend Secret Warriors to someone that hasn’t read it and it’s the most standout title of the five being previewed in this anthology, but at the same time it didn’t change everything forever in the ways that its premise first promised. That’s okay, not everything is going to reinvent the wheel; a good comic fondly remembered is more than enough.
Agents of Atlas in “The Heist”
(Jeff Parker, Carlo Pagulayan, Jason Paz, Jana Schirmer & Nate Piekos)
Coming into the “Dark Reign” era off the heels of their recent miniseries, the Agents of Altas had possible one of the best storytelling hooks to tie their own adventures into the larger Marvel Universe landscape. Everyone thinks the Atlas Foundation is an evil corporation, so led by Jimmy Woo, the Agents of Atlas allow the world to keep thinking that in order to operate within Norman Osborn’s new world order, stop him from doing any real damage and also clean house of the many dodgy Atlas subsidiaries that sprung up over the course of the last sixty years.
I have a complicated relationship with Agents of Atlas as a concept because I really like the team and the stories, I really do. However, the amount of times Marvel tried to make it a thing in the late-2000s felt like it went a bit too far. It had a critically well-received miniseries that led to this first critically well-received ongoing which was cancelled by #11. Then there was an X-Men tie-in miniseries, some back-ups in Incredible Hercules, an Avengers crossover mini, some spin-off minis for Gorilla-Man and The Uranian and finally another ongoing series which was cancelled by #5.
As I said, I really like Agents of Atlas as a concept and as a team, but it feels like the comic book buying public made its feelings clear and Marvel kept trying to make Atlas a thing, for like five years. This isn’t the last time we’re going to cover the Agents of Atlas in one of these articles, by the way, so I’m not sure what I’m going to say next time. I guess I’ll save talking about what the Agents of Atlas brand has evolved into in the 2020s for then, because it’s quite different but I also think they’ve done a good job of bridging the two. I’m getting ahead of myself, moving on.
War Machine in “Crossing The Line”
(Greg Pak, Leonardo Manco, Jay David Ramos & Joe Caramagna)
Here we get a quick story about Jim Rhodes tracking down an old enemy of his from his time in the war and choosing to let him die for his crimes rather than bring him in to face justice. I liked how Pak, writer of World War Hulk, used abandoned Sakaaran tech as part of the story here; it’s stuff like that that really make a shared universe feel more complete and I was thinking about stuff like that when I was covering World War Hulk: Aftersmash #1 last week.
I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t think I’ve read the War Machine series that this story is setting up the status quo for. I know War Machine took over the final few issues of my beloved Iron Man: Director of SHIELD series for a Secret Invasion tie-in and this is following up on the events of that but I gotta say, I know I didn’t read it at the time and I don’t think I ever went back to check it out. It seems Rhodey is still a cyborg which was revealed in Avengers: The Initiative and I quite like the art here. Hold on, let me go check out a couple of issues…
Okay, so I definitely enjoyed that. I think it was intended as an ongoing series but it works really well as a twelve-issue maxiseries that starts with Rhodey at his lowest and ends with him finding a literal new lease on life. It’s not the most consequential series in the world but I don’t want to be judging the stories featured in these anthologies solely on how much they capital-m Matter. I really like the art by Leonardo Manco and it ties into the larger Marvel Universe in some fun ways like when Ares decides that Jim Rhodes is his champion. I’d say definitely worth reading if you like Rhodey, but by no means essential.
Skrull Kill Krew in “Breakfast in America”
(Adam Felber, Paolo Siqueira, Amilton Santos, Chris Sotomayor & Joe Caramagna)
Okay, so, Skrull Kill Krew. First of all, the big “Did You Know?” fact at the heart of this concept is that the original Skrull Kill Krew was dreamed up by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, back when they were friends in 1995. The basic concept harkened back to Fantastic Four #2 when Mister Fantastic hypnotised a squadron of Skrulls into thinking they were cows and leaving them to live on a farm somewhere. Skrull Kill Krew established that those cows were slaughtered and turned into burgers; 99% of people who ate the burgers died, while 1% got super-powers, but also a degenerative brain disease which would eventually kill them.
The team re-appeared after years in obscurity in the pages of Avengers: The Initiative where they aligned themselves with Delroy Garrett aka 3-D Man, whose special glasses were the only things that could detect who was a Skrull and who wasn’t. The team’s war on the Skrulls during the invasion eventually led them to Camp Hammond, the superhero training ground of the Fifty State Initiative where a battle-hardened 3-D Man killed the heroic Skrull superhero Crusader and saw himself ostracised from the larger superhero community as a result.
I don’t think anyone at the time expected Skrull Kill Krew to be any more than it was; a dumb fun romp through the weirder sides of the Marvel Universe, so it definitely succeeds in its aims. 3-D Man however is actually going to carry on beyond this though, taking the events of Secret Invasion and “Dark Reign” with him through to “The Heroic Age” in a way that dovetails really nicely with another story from this very anthology. More on that next time.
Ronin & Mockingbird in “Suspicion”
(Jim McCann, David Lopez, Álvaro López, Daniele Rudoni & David Lanphear)
The final story focuses on two characters at a massive crossroads in their lives following Secret Invasion; the once-married couple of Clint Barton and Bobbi Morse. Clint had a rough few years after dying in “Avengers: Disassembled” being resurrected during House of M, dying again at the end of House of M only to wake up alive after Scarlet Witch put the world back as it should be. I don’t know if that’s better or worse than what Bobbi had been up to, as she was kidnapped and replaced by Skrulls, then the Skrull version of her died so everyone just thought she was dead while she was actually in a Skrull prison.
Mockingbird returned to Earth alongside other captured Avengers allies like Spider-Woman, Yellowjacket and Edwin Jarvis and as this story shows, while Clint was eager to pick up where they left of, Bobbi wasn’t ready to move on from her experience as a Skrull captive. This story kicked off a few years of Jim McCann acting as the steward of Clint and Bobbi, beginning in New Avengers: The Reunion, through Hawkeye & Mockingbird, Widowmaker, Hawkeye: Blindspot, and Avengers Solo for a decent three years with the characters, which is more than a lot of people get and at the time as the longest stretch Hawkeye had got as a solo character away from the Avengers.
However, through no fault of his own, McCann’s run was almost immediately overshadowed as soon as Matt Fraction, David Aja and Matt Hollingsworth’s Hawkeye #1 came out a year later and just completely redefined how Clint Barton exists within the Marvel Universe. Mockingbird would later have a soft reinvention of her own thanks to Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemcyz and Rachelle Rosenberg’s massively underrated and woefully short-lived ongoing.
It’s a bit of a shame though, because the era of stories kicked off by this preview is by no means bad and sets up Clint and Bobbi as the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of the Marvel Universe, which is a fun little niche to occupy. Like with Hercules from the last issue, it can be a bit of a pain to put together the full collection of stories because it’s spread out across so many different miniseries but if you like the intersection of superhero and spy storytelling, you could do a lot worse.
I think with this anthology, we’re getting closer to the kind of preview anthology Marvel wants to put out, which I think really gets solidified in the first Point One #1 which we’ll talk about in a couple of weeks. There’s definitely something for everyone in here and it gives you a broader look at the different kinds of stories being told under the Dark Reign umbrella which I think helps strengthen the concept itself. It’s certainly not the strongest offering of titles, with Skrull Kill Krew especially letting the side down but I think it serves as a well rounded introduction to some new ideas being played with at the time.