Featuring a puzzling world of murder and corporate espionage, one of the most fascinating books to come out last year was Secret from Image Comics. The brain child of writer Jonathan Hickman with art by Ryan Bodenheim, this unique book follows a seemingly unconnected series of events surrounding Grant Miller, an ex-intelligence operative working for a private security firm. There’s a murder in London, a break-in at a high-profile law firm, and an accountant giving away company secrets after being tortured during a home invasion. What does it all mean? Well, I don’t know. That’s the point. Just how these events intersect is the mystery of the book, as Miller navigates a quiet and subversive world of spy-games and murder, all pointing to a widespread global conspiracy of shadow governments and secret organizations.
Sound good? It is. If you’re looking for something a little different, with a slick design and intriguing execution, I highly recommend this book. Fans of Hickman will appreciate its complexity, a fresh counterpart to the multifaceted and surreal alternative histories we’ve seen in the pages of Manhattan Projects and East of West. Fans who know Bodenheim’s work on Red Mass for Mars and Halcyon will love its sleek visual aesthetic, heightened by the captivating color choices of Michael Garland. But there’s a catch: There have only been three issues in the last year.
Beginning in April 2012, this peculiar mix of espionage fiction and corporate intrigue saw just two issues. By the end of the summer it went on a year-long hiatus due to a series of production snags. The book, which had gained quite a bit of buzz and critical interest, was considered abandoned by readers. In the meantime, Bodenheim seemed to vanish from comics, and Hickman continued with other projects, such as Manhattan Projects, East of West, God is Dead, and championing Thanos’ return to the main stage in Marvel Comics’ timeline-shattering Infinity event. In August, the long-awaited third issue of Secret finally hit the shelves, as Miller dealt with the fall-out of the London murders. While an intriguing issue that explores Miller’s complex web of professional and personal relationships, I can’t help but keep my expectations low, even as I hope for more from this strange little world Hickman has cooked up.
However, as an original and innovative work of spy fiction, Secret does a have lot going for it. It’s a plot-driven title with a wealth of subtly, as Hickman delivers another slow burn in exploring the complex networks and associations that tether the key players. His principal characters quietly develop in the first three issues, illuminating the peculiar fishbowl they operate in through tense nonlinear flashbacks, tinged with contrasting degrees of violence. The scripting is slick and cool, with compelling dialogue and a sharpness of tone that keeps things from turning glib, alluding to deeper relationships than what are being shown on the page. Hickman, true to form, doesn’t give anything anyway, and instead leaves the reader to ponder. You might not know what’s going on, but you’re always left wanting more. This isn’t James Bond or Jason Bourne, or any other familiar spy tale, and the title is far better for it.
The real draw of the book is its visual execution. Hickman, Bodenheim and Garland collaborate wonderfully together to create a unique and cohesive reading experience issue to issue, even with the interruptions. Bodenheim’s use of thick, emphatic lines bring us into settings that are at once familiar and unnatural: Offices, parks, cafes, places where characters meet in private to discuss the nature of their business. These environments are often empty but for the principal characters themselves, establishing palpable tension and loneliness that almost feels claustrophobic from panel to panel. The panel compositions and page layouts are often slightly unexpected at times, affording the reader varying perspectives and playing with the chronology of events in clever ways, linked together by evocative undercurrents brimming with well-developed tension.
This is made most effective with Gardener’s subtle, selective use of color. His muted green, brown and purple tones wash over grayscale scenes in a pulp-inspired haze, affecting a cold and distant tone that removes the reader from the act, relegated to the margins to simply guess what’s really going on. The austerity of tone is then completely abandoned as emotionally heightened moments run wild in vivid oranges and reds. Flashbacks are emphasized by the richness of blood or lipstick to highlight the visceral nature of memory, providing small slivers of insight into the minds of the internal lives of the characters. All of these elements, from scripting to artwork to color, come together in an innovative package that leaves you guessing long after you’re done.
So if you’re on the lookout for a fresh, sleek title with a rich narrative and engaging artwork, pick up Secret. This is a title that swings for the fences, even with the interruptions. I can’t guarantee this book will resume a consistent release schedule, but, when the work is this good, maybe it’s worth the wait?