Secret Avengers is not one of those renovation efforts, exactly. To be sure, the series is as pointless as anything else Marvel is putting out. In its first twelve issues it wasn't really an Avengers comic, so much as a secondary Captain America comic with a bunch of random superheroes as guest stars. It only exists because Ed Brubaker -the writer of Captain America for the past six years- missed writing Steve Rogers, the original Captain America. Brubaker was so successful in bringing 1940s sidekick Bucky Barnes back from the dead, that he became the star of the story and Steve Rogers seemed to have no place in the comic anymore. Enter Secret Avengers, which ostensibly is about a superhero team that works for the government covertly but actually is just about Steve Rogers fighting bad guys. Now that Marvel's giving Brubaker a second Captain America comic to launch alongside the movie, he's leaving Secret Avengers because it no longer interests him. So what we're left with is a comic of a bunch of characters not popular enough to be on the two "actual" Avengers teams: Beast, War Machine, Valkyrie, Prince Of Orphans, Black Widow, and Eric O'Grady the Irredeemable Ant-Man.
So yes, the comic is utterly pointless. But it's not Nick Spencer's job to fix it. That project has been handed to Warren Ellis, a more established writer. Ellis wil undoubtedly only write two stories, because that's his style, but Marvel expects him to do what he did with Thunderbolts in 2006, where he replaced a generic superhero team with something relevant and fun that the writers who followed him could mimic. Spencer is only expected to keep the comic going profitably while Marvel waits for a nice gap in their marketing schedule (and possibly Ellis's schedule as well) to successfully launch the new creative team.
The fill-in writer's job is not glamorous, but an ambitious writer can do great things with it. When J. Michael Straczynski left Fantastic Four prematurely to write Thor, and the equally-popular Mark Millar wasn't ready to start yet, the late Dwayne McDuffie turned in a small run superior to either of those writers' in its entertainment value. In his very first issue, he explained away all of Stracyznski's mischaracterizations by bringing in Isaac Asimov's concept of psychohistory, and this idea became a huge part of Jonathan Hickman's current (and historic!) run. When Straczynski then left Thor prematurely to write Superman (which he has since left prematurely), and left all his plot threads dangling in bizarre places, newcomer Kieron Gillen was called in to pick up the pieces before Matt Fraction could take over. Gillen's issues were so well-written that he's been given his own Thor comic to run alongside Fraction's.
As those examples proved, there's a lot you can do within the confines of not actually being allowed to do anything. So the potential was there for Nick Spencer to knock this out of the park. And his first issue of Secret Avengers, #12.1, was phenomenal. It was tense and surprising and clever and reflective of modern politics, and I particularly liked his writing of Eric O'Grady. (Then again, I've always liked Eric O'Grady, whoever the writer.) It's hard to believe that issue 13 came from the same person.
I will now spoil the entirety of the plot.
War Machine, Ant-Man and Beast show up in Washington D.C. to fight Nazis in mech suits, a battle which started in Fear Itself #2. No one else shows up to join them, and evidently Nazis in mech suits are A Big Threat instead of the kind of silly gimmick you see in superhero stories every day, so it's a hopeless fight.
While War Machine and Ant-Man actually fight, Beast saves one helpless female soldier from getting killed and tries to get her name and possibly her phone number. (This bothered me not just because it wasn't the time or place for chit-chat, but also because Beast and Agent Brand of S.W.O.R.D. are the most adorable couple in comics, and I want to see them stay together.)
The soldier tells him someone has asked to talk to him. So he leaves the battle and finds a congressman friend of his named Lenny Gary who's refusing to leave Congress even though the building's likely to be demolished in the fight. As the chaos continues and intensifies outside, they have a pleasant chat about life.
Then Lincoln Memorial gets out of his chair and starts punching Nazis, and dinosaurs and biplanes and George Washington join in the fight. The congressman is a secret mutant, and is responsible for this silliness. (I don't generally mind silliness, but in the context of this quiet discussion it felt out of place.)
He has called Beast away from the battle to set up the video cameras in Congress to broadcast to the whole country. The congressman recites the Gettysburg address, and as soon as he finishes, the building is blown up. Over a screen saying "SIGNAL LOST", Beast says unsarcastically: "Good work, Lenny. Good work."
After reading this, I checked instinctively to see if there were any extra pages that might make sense of this mess, but no. That's it. That's the comic.
Secret Avengers #13 has received almost nothing but praise on the internet. People legitimately seem to have been inspired by it, which is a disturbing thought. I saw one forum post suggesting that it's an essential part of the Fear Itself crossover event, because it's the first time in the story we see ordinary people standing up for themselves instead of hiding in fear. Lenny Gary has sent a message to the American people that any one of them can find the strength of America's past generations in themselves and fight back against insurmountable odds. I found that post via a web search, and there was little disagreement in its thread that the issue is brilliant. I engaged a thoughtful-sounding reviewer on another site who liked the issue, and he said I was taking the story too literally.
Maybe I am misunderstanding this comic. (The fact that the only interpretation I can find for Beast's dialogue to the soldier makes no sense at all supports this hypothesis.) But the way this reads to me is as an endorsement of martyrdom. Everyone told Lenny Gary to evacuate the United States Capitol because he would get killed. He chose to stay regardless, a decision that the comic seems to treat as a symbol of bravery. But what it is is suicide. Beast knows it's suicide, and not only does he go along with it but he even helps promote this suicide via video broadcast! This is immoral on so many levels, I don't know where to begin. First, there's a battle going on that they should both -as people with power- be focusing all their attention on fighting, and instead they're paying more attention to a camera. The battle is lost (with Ant-Man shown unconscious and War Machine having left to deal with something even more urgent in his own series), and maybe these two men couldn't have changed the outcome but they didn't exactly try very hard. Second, having the congressman's death be broadcast live is more likely to promote fear and depression than hope.
And even if somehow the broadcast did inspire people to do more than despair, that's just going to cause even more deaths! Imagine an average and impressionable American, hiding in his house watching TV, feeling totally lost amidst worldwide super-terror and chaos. He sees Lenny Gary standing up and saying inspiring words as he's blown up, and says "He's right! The only way to deal with this is to stand up to it and say we're going to overcome fear!". So he walks outside, where there's an army of evil gods rampaging through the suburban streets, he stands in front of them and he shouts out for everyone to hear in his most patriotic-sounding voice: "I'm an American, and I'm not going to be afraid! You can't-". That's as far as he gets, because like his newfound hero Lenny Gary, he is dead.
Maybe this comic isn't trying to be so serious. After all, it is a story where (as every single review on the internet points out, for lack of other plot points) a giant statue of Abraham Lincoln punches Nazis. But that's just a few pages in the middle, and the rest has characters sitting around talking about politics and civil rights and how Mr. Gary wanted to be a history teacher. Thematically, the interplay between archetypal superhero tropes and the real world of 2011 is Fear Itself's raison d'Ítre so far. Fear Itself #1 has a scene where a Norse god is reborn at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and a scene where a random guy moves out of Broxton because he's lost his house to the bank. I don't know where this crossover is headed, exactly, but there is a clearly deliberate effort so far to emphasize the gap between superhero universes and modern America by taking both sides of the story to extremes. So when we see a congressman sending out a dangerous video, it is fair to interpret that literally, as a congressman sending out a dangerous video. And Nick Spencer's script, by having a respected hero go along with this plan, is endorsing its immorality.
It's a shame the message is so troubling, because I really like what this comic adds to the crossover. The battle is witnessed only on the side, giving an illusion of scale that should carry over in my mind as I read the other tie-ins. Non-powered people are irrelevant in this conflict. The world's armies are cannon fodder in need of rescuing. And what's more, the superheroes are spread too thin to fight all the threats. In the end it seems like this battle in Washington D.C. is being fought between an army of superpowered Nazis... and Ant-Man, standing on his own. There's a line of dialogue at the beginning about how the heroes need reinforcements, but they don't come. (This point is made clear on a larger scale in Sean McKeever's tie-in Youth In Revolt, where dozens of young superhero has-beens are called up by Steve Rogers because his massive Avengers community of experienced crime-fighters can't deal with everything.) And amidst all this chaos, here's a quiet issue where a guy's trying to make sense of what's going on.
I think this issue may suffer for being Secret Avengers, rather than its own one-shot. Beast doesn't belong in this story. Superpowers don't belong in this story. If it had just been about a congressman whose life is falling apart, and who desparately tries to find meaning only to get himself killed in the process, that would have been powerful. This issue does not benefit from having a character whose morals are unquestioned by the reader. It ought to be a messy and tragic story, and making it a story with spectacle and a compassionate blue mutant undermines that potential by making it easy to digest as a superhero entertainment. This story could have worked if Eric O'Grady -a cowardly jerk who's recently been trying to redeem himself- were the protagonist instead of Hank McCoy (Beast). It also might have done that character some good to be in a serious story for once. With him, we would be right there with the ordinary people who feel lost when bad things are happening around them.
But I'm spending too much time thinking about what could have been, instead of what is. What is is a mess. And as much as I like what this could add to the story, it just doesn't work in itself. I see what Nick Spencer was going for with the "living history", but it doesn't work because it's played triumphantly instead of hopelessly. There's not enough of a sense that when the Lincoln Memorial sits down again, it's a sign of failure. This issue could have ended with a silent page of the wreckage that's left... but I'm getting carried away again.
This issue is not essential. It hopes to be essential by creating a heroic everyman (as opposed to the misguided and hopeless crowds in other comics), but fails by inadvertently making its hero as misguided as anyone else. And because Spencer failed to acknowledge this quality of the story, it almost but doesn't quite work as an image of despair. That piece of the Fear Itself landscape is best covered so far by Fear Itself: Spider-Man #1, which depicts the terror of several ordinary people in real-world situations, as Spider-Man struggles to save as many people as he can. That issue seems to be the cornerstone of this entire crossover, though I wonder whether bringing the character Vermin into the next issues (who Spider-Man's faced several times before) might lower the stakes somewhat.
I'm guessing that by the end of Fear Itself there will be a theme of superheroes and humans working together. I suppose the opposite could happen, with the two "classes" at each other's throats, but Marvel just did the "all superheroes are feared" thing a few years ago and made a big deal out of resolving that status quo in the "Heroic Age" branding last year. We'll see how it goes.