In his fourth “Secret Empire” tie-in on U.S.Avengers, Al Ewing provides a wonderful portrait of one of his most interesting Marvel creations.
Years ago, the captive Dr. Ho Yinsen was placed in a room with a dying man. Dr. Yinsen died in that room, but in the week he was there, he and Tony Stark created Iron Man. Today, his daughter, Toni Ho, was placed inside a room with a dying man. She has fifteen minutes to live up to her father’s example and find a way to survive the process.
The set-up is as brilliant as it was inevitable. This is the situation Toni was always destined to run up against and its similarities to her father’s predicament tell us as much about her, both structurally and literally, as its differences. Ewing delivers a tense little mystery, playing fair with readers while using the comparison to Yinsen’s situation to sell the danger that Toni faces.
This is hardly the first time that Ewing has dwelt upon the symbolic power of Yinsen but this thread remains fresh and meaningful the same way that Tony Stark does, because, in large part, Ho Yinsen is Iron Man too. From this perspective, Ewing places Toni in the long line of Marvel legacies, something he’s all too happy to remind us of through Roberto’s fevered mutterings.
The other big thing about U.S.Avengers #8 is that it despises Nazis with the eagerness that only an old-fashioned lefty can muster. It’s not that this issue is a brilliant anti-fascist diatribe, but that it takes genuine joy in standing up for American values and gives HYDRA all zero percent of the respect they deserve.
Especially in a time when the “world outside your window” that Marvel prides itself on revealing splits its time between considering what fascists can bring to discussion and whether pitying Nazi ideology is the same as sympathizing with fascists, it’s a blessed relief to read a Marvel comic that makes fighting for democracy, equality, and integrity seem not only heroic but like something you could do and would want to do.
From its first words of dialogue to its last, this issue is a loving tribute to the power of radical empathy and resistance to mob-rule and demagoguery. And Ewing clearly has a ball, especially when he’s able to spin “Secret Empire” into an opportunity to expand the mandate of this series into how Europe is fairing in Leader Rogers’ new world order. Does it veer more than once into the gleefully ridiculous? Yes. But when you put down an issue honestly interested to see more of characters like Le Peregrine and Outlaw it’s not hard to forgive it that. Plus, more Faiza Hussain. That’s always a good thing.
And even as the script juggles all of that–the escape, the history, the Euro U.S.Avengers–Ewing also throws in an odd little tease of where things will go next and introduces a character that is so simple and weird that I was sure he had to be some obscure Marvel staple. All of that in a single issue. That’s definitely not what we’re used to seeing in comics these days.
Despite all of that, there are flaws. Toni’s genius is kept at a level that we normies can follow and swings from being something of an informed ability to an act so easy that we barely need to acknowledge that she’s built anything. There’s not a lot of there to the Euro U.S.Avengers scene, besides a great introduction to the cast of characters. The entire story briefly stops to advertise, and then satirize the advertisement of, Ewing’s Ultimates². And, most notably, much as I love it, Toni’s final strategy is objectively more than a little hokey. Make no mistake, thematically it’s beautiful, but it strains belief in a way that some readers just won’t like.
As usual, U.S.Avengers has a slick, modern look, courtesy of Paco Medina, Juan Vlasco, and Jesus Aburtov. Strong inks and confident lines help this title look like the big deal that Ewing writes it as.
Medina does a great job of conveying the time pressure that the story requires, keeping readers turning pages and paying off tension well. He does struggle with expressions sometimes, catching facial contortions that are accurate but don’t necessarily feel true. Luckily, Medina has another, under appreciated, artistic talent: he knows how to lean into his strengths.
There are definitely places where Medina’s artistic shortcomings peak through, but he sets up his compositions to highlight what he’s best at and isn’t afraid to use different parts of his artistic range if the one he’s been using won’t deliver as favorable results. And, for what its worth, he’s got a good range for this book. Ewing throws classic Iron Man, Squirrel Girl, Hydra soldiers inside out, freaky space aliens, childhood trauma, and more into this issue and Medina delivers strong renditions of each, no matter how different they are.
I admit that Alburtov contributes quite a lot, with his deft lighting effects and varied colors. A lot of this book’s atmosphere would be lost without him.
One unfortunate criticism that I feel I have to make is that, while it isn’t a cut-and-dry whitewash, the Ho family don’t look particularly Asian in this issue. There are little distinguishers here and there that might clue you in, but there’s no denying that they look a lot whiter than Dr. Yinsen is usually portrayed. Too little is probably better and wiser than too much, but it’s a shame that an issue focused on the accomplishments of an Asian-American woman doesn’t make that easy to see.
By and large, tie-in issues aren’t fun. They mean well, but the results frequently fail to lure fans to lesser read titles and disrupt the story that was entertaining the early adopters. And, whatever your stance on its many controversies, I don’t know that fun is really a word you’d use to describe Marvel’s latest Summer mega-event. But despite all that’s stacked against it, U.S.Avengers #8 makes “Secret Empire” fun and, more than that, tells a story that feels big in a way that plenty of event maxi-series simply do not.
Ewing once again goes about smashing the idea of a comic book ‘D-list’ by making them as interesting as any Man of Steel or Sentinel of Liberty and Paco Medina and his collaborators make sure they look stylish as he does.
From the one-and-done format to the B-stories to the out-of-place pitch for another book to the sheer sense of joy and character it carries with it, U.S.Avengers #* is a callback to the Marvel classics. I put down this issue with the same feeling as I have when reading an issue of New Mutants or What If? for the first time. If you miss a time when heroes were for helping people, editorial captions were for jokes, and nazis were for punching, U.S.Avengers might be for you.