Jonathan Hickman’s new creator-owned series dives into familiar territory for him. Espionage. Secret, however, forgoes Hickman’s usual science fiction and sticks to the very grounded world of corporate espionage. There’s no time-traveling Leonardo Da Vinci behind the scenes here. There are no Russian super soldiers, alien artifacts or people with super powers. There is a guy pulling out another guy’s teeth to get access to financial records.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to imply any of this is a bad thing. Many readers have seen Hickman write espionage well before, and it is no different with Secret. It is just a surprise that it is seemingly so grounded, though. And that is something I think readers should be prepared for, mostly because many readers will come to this book because of Hickman’s reputation as a writer.
Secret centers on the operators of a corporate security firm getting involved in a conspiracy of unknown purpose. Yeah, that is a pretty vague synopsis, but you know how it is with espionage stories. If I try to get into anymore detail than that, it will become me telling you the story as I try to explain the complicated situation that quickly forms here.
Anyone who has read Secret Warriors knows Hickman’s skilled when it comes to this kind of storytelling. Even without the addition of science fiction, the story is compelling. The believability factor is strong with the characters as well. They behave with a high level of confidence that manages to come off as professional rather than stupidly cocky. The extreme things they do are the things they do for a living, and the way they go about it sells that impression of them.
On the art chores, Ryan Bodenheim puts forth some really good work. He is one of those all too rare artists who can draw multiple men or women and actually have them look different from one another. It’s nice when characters actually have their own facial features and body types without resorting to cartoonish exaggerations. The book also makes very selective use of color. Scenes will usually have just one dominant color, portraying everything shades of red, blue or yellow. Now, I don’t know if there’s any purpose to it beyond the aesthetic yet, but I know it gives the story an appealing and distinctive look.
The reveal at the end of the issue is something of a mixed bag. While it’s a solid story development, it’s less of a shocking reveal and more of a confirmation of something you will probably have figured to be the case almost immediately. Again, this is an espionage story. With such stories, you naturally expect major characters to be up to something. Discovering that they are, indeed, up to something is not really a shock. The predictability of that doesn’t necessarily make for the strongest note for the issue to end on.
There is also a lack of substantial details. Most of the story is spent building the atmosphere and setting up the roles of the characters. But in the mix, certain things get neglected. Who are the players here exactly? What are any of these people after? What are the stakes of this story? So much is left intangible that it leaves a little unsure if I care about all the torture and the manipulation. The purpose behind it all is left too ambiguous for me.
Couple the somewhat predictable ending with the lack of specific details and it really doesn’t feel like the first issue of Secret makes a strong case for itself. It is a well written story with very solid characterization, but it comes off as lacking any distinctive reason for following it as a series. Part of the reason I can’t give any more than a vague synopsis is because I honestly don’t know a lot of what is supposed to be happening. People who I don’t feel properly introduced to are involved in a conspiracy for a purpose I don’t know. What am I meant to grab onto here? What is the hook? It’s the duty of a first issue to make this clear, and this one really doesn’t perform that job.
Secret tells the first part of a pretty well done corporate espionage story, but that story circles so widely around what its actual point or agenda is that becomes hard to understand why you should read it instead of other espionage stories. This is a book that is going to have to get its momentum from readers’ faith in Jonathan Hickman instead. Fortunately, I think he has earned quite a supply of faith for his storytelling payoffs in other books. I am probably included among those readers. While this isn’t the strongest first issue, I believe Hickman will build up to something that may not be apparent yet.