Then vs. Now: Valiant's Secret Weapons #1

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Jun 30, 2017, 2:16 PM EDT (Updated)

Valiant Entertainment’s comic book universe is well-known as being one of the most accessible and high-quality shared universes in comics, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have some history to it. While the current incarnation began only five years ago, the original Valiant Universe began in the early '90s and, despite a few hiccups, ran for the better part of a decade. There’s a lot of material to mine, and so Valiant Entertainment has not only launched new versions of their heroes, they’ve also presented drastically different visions for old titles.

Take, for example, this week’s big Valiant release, Secret Weapons #1, by Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer, artist Raúl Allén and colorist Patricia Martin. It’s an all-new limited series featuring brand-new characters, but did you know it isn’t the first Valiant book to have the title of Secret Weapons? There was an ongoing series that started in 1993 that featured some of Valiant’s biggest heroes, including Bloodshot, X-O Manowar, Shadowman and many others, brought together by the Geo-Mancer to combat the machinations of Master Darque and the then-new villain Doctor Eclipse.

I recently came across a secondhand copy of the first series, and the new one just released this week, so there’s no time like the present to break out the ol’ comic book measuring tools to see how the Secret Weapons #1 of 1993 stacks up against the Secret Weapons #1 of 2017. While both books have their quirks, there’s definitely a clear winner in this match-up, but you didn’t think I’d tell you that in the intro, did you? First, let’s take a look at the contenders …

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Written and drawn by Joe St. Pierre, with inks by Bob Wiacek and colors by Mike Cavallaro

To give this series a fair shake, I decided to go into this book cold, so I didn’t look up what it was about at all before reading it, figuring I’d be fine with my knowledge of the current Valiant roster. Boy, was I wrong. This throws you into the deep end of the Valiant Universe and leaves you to figure it out for yourself. That's just the start of the issue's problems, but I'm getting ahead of myself. First let me try and tell you what it's about.

The issue opens with a man crawling through Death Valley—having recently been beaten by Doctor Solar, a Gold Key character who at the time resided in the Valiant Universe—in search of the powerful sorcerer Master Darque. Over a year later, he appears at Darque’s door, looking much more hydrated than a few pages ago, and makes a deal with him so Darque will give him the power to destroy Solar, and through magic is transformed into the aptly named Doctor Eclipse! It’s a bit hokey, but the series establishes the bad guy pretty quickly, and we’re off to a decent start, which grinds to a halt in the next scene, thanks to some painfully '90s fashion and a pinch of casual racism.

Valiant's Secret Weapons
We’re taken from Darque’s stronghold to the bustling sidewalks of New York City, where we’re introduced to Amanda and Eddie, two cool young people who have just arrived. And good thing, too, because they’re just in time to witness a dorky-looking blond kid beat a pair of street magicians at their own game. I shouldn’t need to point out that they were African-American men, but when their stereotyped speech is filled with “mo’foe” and “m’man” and then the two young white superheroes' (Amanda and Eddie) utter glee at excessively using their powers to take them down, it grates more than a little, and deserves mentioning. It’s not a big point of the issue, but the casual racism did not age this comic well at all. As a reminder, before any angry tweets are sent: The Valiant of today is a completely separate company from its predecessor.

Anyway, the kid that they were chasing for ripping them off turns out to be the Geomancer (the Earth’s avatar, essentially), and he frantically informs Amanda and Eddie that he has sensed a dark creature arriving on Earth and needs their help.

We then return to Doctor Eclipse, who has arrived at Solar’s home and is about to attack his wife when Solar arrives on the scene. However, despite having been built up as the big hero over the first two-thirds of the comic, he’s devoured almost immediately by Eclipse. The rest of the issue consists of the Geomancer recruiting Bloodshot and X-O Manowar to help him, which leads to the best scene in the comic, in which X-O Manowar stands in his apartment in a tunic and warpaint and explains to a child that he is busy and has to go hunt dinosaurs instead of helping him.

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Possibly the greatest excuse to not go superheroing of all time.

Overall it’s mostly a setup issue that brings a large cast together fairly efficiently, but it really fails to give you any reason to care about any of them, and instead seems to assume that you know who most of these people are already, which is weird, given that this came out very early on in the Valiant Universe’s existence. Despite the story not aging well, I really enjoyed the artwork, and the coloring in particular. There are some pages—mostly the birth of Doctor Eclipse and his battle with Solar—that almost have a Ditko-Doctor Strange vibe to them, and the colors really reinforce the weirdness and draw your eye across the page effectively. Those elements are all exemplified in the awesome cover, but in the end it’s not enough to overcome the poor writing. Though the series did end up running for 21 issues, so clearly some '90s readers would disagree with me!

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Written by Eric Heisserer with art by Raúl Allén and Patricia Martin.

Not a strong showing from old Valiant, but did the new Valiant redeem the Secret Weapons name? In my opinion, they absolutely did.

It helps that this week’s issue has almost nothing to do with the 1993 version. Aside from them both including Livewire in the cast (though she’s never called that in the ’93 issue), both featuring a team of super-beings being gathered, and both having really good coloring, they’re completely different comics, and the new-and-improved version is all the better for it.

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This version of Secret Weapons is about a group of six superhumans—called “psiots” in the Valiant Universe—who were being kept at a secret facility run by Toyo Harada, until Harada’s recent downfall. As we find out during the course of the issue, he wasn’t keeping them to use them as weapons or because they’re special, quite the opposite. These psiots have powers that are completely useless. Nicole can talk to birds, and uses it to hang out on rooftops and laugh with them as she drops spoonfuls of yogurt on expensive cars. Owen can conjure anything at any time, except he has no control over it at all, so it mostly gets him fired. Martin can make objects glow, which isn’t terribly useful when he’s being attacked by a genetically modified monster that wants to steal all of their powers.

That creature, Rex-O, is a terrifying, hulking and mostly silent predator whose singular objective seems to be the destruction of these young superhumans, like a giant sci-fi-flavored Jason Voorhees, but with super powers. He’s an imposing, mysterious and formidable villain—especially for this cast—and readers get the sense that not everyone will be making it out of Secret Weapons in one piece.

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Most of the issue is spent introducing us to the three aforementioned psiots, the creature hunting them, and to Livewire, the former right-hand woman of Harada, who is determined to help the runaway psiots however she can. Livewire is driven, compassionate and supremely capable, and as a complex and strong black female character, strikes an encouraging contrast with the stereotyping from the first series. The new kids are charmingly and uniquely odd, but avoid being gimmicks or joke characters. The plot moves quick, but does a great job telling you what each of these people are about, and doesn’t require you to know anything that isn’t right there in the issue.

But, much like the original Secret Weapons, the art is where this book really shines. Raúl Allén has a razor-sharp eye for page layouts, packing an impressive number of panels on every page without ever feeling overwhelming. There’s a lot of well-choreographed action, but there are just as many laugh-out-loud moments, thanks to the artist’s knack for facial expressions. The colors by Patricia Martin adhere to a beautiful green and pink palette that gives the book a cohesive look that’s driven more by the emotion of the moment and design of the page rather than a literal interpretation of the scene. It works beautifully, and makes ​Secret Weapons look like no other book on the stands right now.

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I don’t think I’ll be surprising anyone who has read this far by saying that 2017’s Secret Weapons #1 far outclasses 1993’s in just about every way. There were spots where the original visually shined and made me laugh, but it was a bit incoherent and hard to get into for a new reader, especially compared to the immediately engaging issue released this week. Heisserer, Allén and Martin delivered a hard-hitting, gorgeous debut issue, and I can’t wait to read more, but I think I’ll be okay without returning to the back-issue bins for more of the original series.

So, in this Then vs. Now comic book throwdown, Now wins by a longshot, and now is when you should be heading to your local comic shop to pick up Secret Weapons #1. The modern era may have won this time, but the original clearly had some fans back in the day, so if you’re one of them, break out your secret weapon and let me know why I'm wrong in the comments!