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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

My Problem with "Secret Identities"

I’ve been reading more and more Image Comics series the last few months. I love the freedom their model allows to creators, and it pays off in a big way; series like Saga and The Wicked + the Divine are some of the best things I’ve read, comics or otherwise. Which is why I got excited when I saw the series Secret Identities (written by Brian Joines and Jay Faerber, art by Ilias Kyriazis and Charlie Kirchoff). The story is about a superhero team (think an alternate universe Justice League) who accepts a new member who is, unbeknownst to them, a mole working to learn their dark secrets and bring the team down from the inside. And boy, do they ever have dark secrets.

That sounds like a hell of a story to me. A superhero story with the political intrigue and backstabbing of Game of Thrones or House of Cards? Sign me up! And while the comic itself is solid, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by it after I finished. If you need a simple recommendation, I’d say it’s worth checking out if you like superhero comics and aren’t expecting some intricate political gamesmanship/Avengers mash-up. As a heads up, the rest of the review will include spoilers, so if you want to preserve the twists for when you read it, this is your last warning.

Okay, so, as mentioned, the basic set-up is like many superhero worlds you might have seen. There’s The Front Line, a team of superheroes who has taken it upon themselves to save the world (without any sort of oversight, and with an occasionally tense relationship with both the United States and Canadian governments). On this team, you’ve got: Luminary, daughter of the U.S. President, public face of the team (even out of costume), and flying brick; Recluse, the dark, brooding super-detective; Rundown, the mischievous and impatient science-minded speedster; Punchline, the super strong crime-fighter by day, struggling comedienne by night; Vesuvius, Roman soldier who woke up from the rubble of the similarly named volcano with the powers of that volcano and now serves as a loveable friendly face for the team; Gaijin, alien swordswoman who was found and taken in by an ominous Japanese family; and Helot, cyborg warrior from a dystopian future remade in the image of Ancient Sparta. You can probably link each of them to a founding member of the Justice League, but despite that familiarity, Secret Identities feels unique. The characters start similar to famous equivalents to ease you in to the large cast quickly, but soon establish themselves as distinct individuals. I also have to add, the designs are pretty solid (as is most of the art).

And as I said, they mostly each have their dark secrets, of varying severity. At the “good” end, you’ve got Luminary cracking under the constant spotlight of being the spokesperson and U.S. relations of the team, or Punchline unsure of how to balance all the time she puts into hero work with her time-intensive job, or Helot, a man who was rebuilt for killing and escaped only to find himself lost in the real world. At the bad end, you’ve got Gaijin moonlighting as an enforcer for her brother’s mob, or Rundown abusing his powers to live double lives with families in both San Diego and Nova Scotia, or Recluse needing to feed his vampiric curse with his own stash of criminals he keeps locked up in his basement*. The comic does a great job of showing you all of these in a great moment of setting up the dominos what you know will be an incredible mess as it all comes crashing down.

*Note: I did not forget Vesuvius. He’s ashamed of something he did as a soldier, but the details are never really expounded upon. I’ll get back to this.

Anyway, following the crippling of founding member Diamond Jim, the team is left with an opening, which they offer to up-and-comer Crosswind. Unbeknownst to everyone who didn’t read the back cover, he’s a mole trying to bring them down. Rather than being some henchman for a supervillain, though, he’s just a juvenile delinquent with super powers and a violent streak picked up by the head of Toronto police. Fed up with Front Line’s flaunting of the government and various law enforcement officers, the Chief decides to enlist him in digging up dirt on the team.

This is another solid move; I loved the decision to not go with a traditional supervillain as I expected, and instead contrast the two groups’ mistrust and extra-legal measures to keep the world (their definition of) “safe”.  Also, the writers made a good call in their set of flaws for the cast; my biggest concerns going in were that the heroes’ secrets who be too dark, causing either darkness-induced apathy or a inability to suspend disbelief that these people could still be saving the world in their spare time. Again, good call there. These aren’t monsters; these are people with human flaws in bad circumstances. The thing that ends up feeling most unlikeable (and most human) is that all but Helot have ceased contact with Diamond Jim following his crippling in the line of duty. None of them did it to spite him, they just all sort of…don’t have time, all the time, and it adds up. I actually really wish Joines and Faerber had explored that plot thread more.

Even still, you end up caring about these characters, wanting them to feel better, or become better as the narrative demands. I found myself simultaneously hoping for the dominoes to both come crashing down on this tense world while leaving all the characters unscathed in the wreckage. This is a very good thing.

Unfortunately, the story sides a little too strongly with the latter. The resolution? A anonymous kidnapping of Gaijin’s mob-boss brother (orchestrated by Police Chief Fournier) goes awry, distracting half of Frontline while aliens prepare to finish the invasion they started before the series. It’s not as completely-out-of-nowhere as it sounds here (the battle is built up slowly throughout the book), but it does feel a little too…comic-booky, for lack of a better term.

One of the biggest criticisms of long-running comic series is that most “earth-shattering events” will be undone, whether in a matter of months or years. With a seven-issue limited series, you don’t need to worry about being slave to some status quo. But instead, Secret Identities wraps up incredibly neatly; Crosswind and Recluse end up in a fight with each during the big invasion, each with evidence of the other’s extralegal indiscretions. Any tension is undone when Crosswind dies in the invasion (ironically, while threatening to murder the rest of the team as he saves civilian lives), taking most of the police chief’s evidence against Front Line with him to the grave. Meanwhile, Recluse holds on to his dirt on Fournier, using it to cover-up the small bits and pieces Fournier managed to wriggle out from the team’s computer. The story ends in more or less the same place where it started; Front Line continues as-is, no one knows what occurred except for two characters swearing each other to silence.

For all the build-up around who these issues will come crashing down, all we’re left with is a rather unsatisfactory epilogue that shows how little has changed. It’s a rather intriguing anti-climax. Even the big alien invasion is solved when Luminary’s powers (which we find out were gifted to her by another alien race trying to halt the war-mongering invaders) kick into an overdrive she didn’t know that she had.

There’s something to be said for ending on a sort-of non-ending, but it makes all the issues with the character of Front Line feel sort of trivial after so much build-up. These were the secrets that could ruin them! For most of them, without a big conclusion, there isn’t much to take away. Even the two characters “in the know”, Recluse and Fournier, only end up knowing Gaijin and each others’ secrets; the rest walk away unscathed after a normal day of hero-ing. We never even learn what Vesuvius did as a Legionnaire that disgraced him (although the rest of the world does, we discover in the epilogue). Actually, there are a number of subplots that take away from the main storyline for periods of time without adding much of their own, or other subplots that are started and feel like they have potential without ever going anywhere (as I mentioned earlier, I’d love to see some more of Diamond Jim, and Vesuvius’s past seems frustrating given that we never know more about it outside of the epilogue’s note that people found out and didn’t accept his attempts to move past it). But if nothing else, these events give different characters chances to bounce of each other, which is welcome fun most of the time.

It’s not necessarily that this is a bad ending, but after the set-up and hype, it feels like an unsatisfactory Watchmen knock-off. I’m not necessarily saying that it needed to end with the entire team disgraced, but it gives the entire run a sort of static arc. “Here are blemished heroes who nonetheless manage to save the day; they once came close to being ruined by their flaws, but in the end, almost nothing changed, even their relationships with each other.” I think get what it’s going for, I just wish it had worked out a little differently, maybe struck out on a bolder, new path. Maybe if it had run for more than seven issues, we would have gotten some of this.

Still, it’s not a bad read, especially if you temper your expectations from “Game of Justice Thrones League” to “Watchmen’s more optimistic and traditional younger cousin”.

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