Spy vs. Spy, Spy vs. Nature, Spy vs. Himself: Douglas on Kindt and Bendis/Mack

SUPER SPY and NEW AVENGERS #39. Below the cut lurk spoilers (well, a plot summary, really) for the latter. Hence, the cut. For those who care about such things.

Tom Spurgon wrote the other day in his you-must-go-read-it best-of-2007 roundup that " I have a selfish reason for wanting to bring more people to the conversation on [Matt Kindt's] Super Spy: I think the book is good, but I can't figure out how good, and I'd love to see a range of writers and thinkers muse on it in public to help me along. It's the most confusing book of 2007 to me, and for that one of the most compelling."

I read it at last yesterday, after it had been on my shelf taunting me for months, and... well, I'm confused too. I think it's Very Good, but that's kind of a split decision between the elements that work beautifully and the ones that don't work at all. It's one of the most formally grand comics I've seen in a while: 37 interrelated stories about espionage in World War II, each one written and drawn with its own distinct formal guidelines (not necessarily a specific style, but particular drawing and writing techniques, POV, etc.). They form one kind of story in the order they're printed, but that's not chronological order; they can also be read in chronological order by the "dossier numbers" printed at the beginning of each one. They're mostly black-and-white with a single tone color (which changes from time to time), except when they erupt into full-spectrum color in a few passages, generally for pastiches of old comic strips. But the whole book is actually in full color: its pages' blank space is mostly the mottled color of yellowed WWII-era newsprint, with crumpled corners and other marks of age and abuse. There are stories within stories (with the inevitable reference to the 1,001 Nights); there are hidden messages everywhere--everyone seems to be a spy, sending secret information and desperate requests to other spies while trying to act natural--and anything that looks innocuous in one story is inevitably revealed in another to be the vehicle of a hidden message. (A facial mole is actually the mark of an espionage mole: it's a dot of microfilm!)

Cool, yes? Yes, and as somebody who is inordinately fond of complicated formal structures in art in general, I do like it an awful lot. But the places where it falls down are some of the more old-fashioned, prosaic virtues, like character and figure drawing. The story is populated by a whole lot of characters, all of them spies trying to advance their personal and political agendas at any cost--but I found when I'd finished it that I only remembered the name of one of them, Sharlink, "the Shark," a classic femme-fatale type. The espionage material is standard-issue coded-transmission stuff, and characters are broad central-casting types; people discover that their lovers are spies for the other side and betray each other in a strangely facile way; an exotic dancer's desperate, unusual movements are Morse code: "my cover is blown, they're waiting for me, must escape tonight." (And he telegraphs a lot of the "secrets," too: one character explains how he's going to hide a message in every fifth word of a comic strip, and not only do we see every fifth word of the strip circled, but we subsequently see someone picking out those words.) Kindt's artwork is really lovely as cartooning-based drawing (line, tone, composition, abstraction), but it's a little bit off in the context of a story: characters are awkwardly different-looking from panel to panel, facial expressions are vague approximations. I definitely want to read his future comics, but like I said, I'm confused about what I think of this too.

NEW AVENGERS #39: Now, this is a Very Good and very interesting espionage-fakeout narrative--nowhere near as formally impressive as SUPER SPY, but a terrific piece of Bendis serial writing. The plot (SPOILERS like I said) is that Echo and Wolverine have a strange and slightly flirtatious conversation, and Echo heads to Matt Murdock's law office, where she encounters Daredevil; when she asks him a question he should know the answer to and he tries to cover up for the fact that he doesn't know what she's talking about, she realizes something's wrong--and Daredevil reveals himself as a Skrull, who attacks her. But Wolverine's followed them, and fights the Skrull, who gets away. The injured Wolverine explains that "if I was a Skrull looking to sink their claws into our little team, you'd be the one I'd go after," and Echo realizes that "they were going to kill me and replace me." Back at their HQ, Maya seduces Hawkeye; when she wakes up, she looks through her fingers at him.

There are three ways to read this story. The first is to take it at face value. The second, which I suspect is the case, is that Echo has in fact been a Skrull for a good long while--that she's already been killed and replaced, long since, and that her fight with the Daredevil/Skrull this issue is a game to clear her in Wolverine's eyes, since Wolverine is convinced that she's the most likely target. (And then what's going on with her and Hawkeye? Well, he's a Skrull suspect as an unlikely returnee-from-the-dead, but it's still a little confusing.)

And the third is that not only is Echo a Skrull, but Wolverine knows it but doesn't want to let on that he knows. (That "does he know about our past?" routine at the beginning of the issue may be the same kind of leading question as Echo's "Why did you send Captain America to me?" I know Echo and Wolverine worked together in the past, but can anybody who knows her history better than I do tell me if they were ever romantically involved?) Which means--after all the times in this series when Echo has responded to what someone's saying even though her back is to them--that when Wolverine's lying behind her and says "(She can't hear me...)," he knows she can hear him, and is saying it for her to hear and be deceived...

Or, you know, maybe everything is what it seems to be. But how much fun would that be? I have no idea how this will read once we see the whole story (Mack, certainly, is drawing much more straightforwardly and less inventively and attractively than he has with his other Echo material), but for now I'm delighted.