Secret Weapons #0: Nikki’s Story does something very cute with its panelling. I’ve been saying this since the previews: it’s doing something very cute. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be something worthwhile or just a natty little gimmick.
Secret Weapons #1-4 was a 2017 miniseries from Valiant, currently available in trade, about the average teenage super-people struggling to get by, not finding their powers especially delightful but coming together as a team to make a difference. At least I thought it was, having read Secret Weapons #0. Nikki’s Story is an origin story—I sent it to Emily Lauer as soon as I read it for her own anti-origins opinion and spoiler, we both loved it—that relays the whole of a backstory that would more usually be read in monthly bites, issue by issue, in a book like New Mutants. Or something more recent.
What makes Nikki’s Story remarkable isn’t just that cute gimmick that got my eyes on it; it’s also a pretty bold move to face facts and accept that almost nobody has time or inclination to dive into a truly “new” super-teen any more. We want established people— we’ve wanted them for a long time. Basically we’ve wanted them since we read some, and realised just how good and real superhero comics could be. We tasted the right stuff and got hungry for more. So Valiant tries this: a miniseries full of implications, a story in media res, and some backups that come along later, once your book is in trade, that fast-forward you through the “history” of the kids involved. It does “origin story” in a new kind of way, by recognising that what makes a character pop isn’t how and when they got their power, but how they grew into using it, and the bumps in the road they had to navigate on the way. Not power origin, but character origin. How this heroine was made.
When Image founded all of their new “superhero universes” in 1992-6 they often did something similarly bold: they pretended there was backstory, years of it, where there wasn’t. They wrote around their characters like they were Wolverine, as if these Radical Dudes had had tough adventures and seen it all. For Wolverine in the 1990s that worked, because he had. For Killrazor it didn’t, because it was a lie. The references were flimsy and already half-humiliated, because a blagger knows he is a blagger. We do not all have the propensity to admirably fake it till we make it. Secret Weapons began with an adult superhero (appearing in other comics? You don’t need to know) discovering her mentor (from other comics? You don’t need to know) had kept a lot of superpowered youths in secret and abandoned them to die; she decides to find these kids and do right by them. In this comic. That’s a lot of implicit backstory for a readership to begin with (and Valiant needs people to begin— they’re doing old-fashioned superheroics in a field dominated by Marvel and DC’s icons and franchises). We first meet Nikki in Secret Weapons #1 as she sits on a rooftop alone with some pigeons. We next meet her a few pages later as she leaps into a rumble (with some pigeons) to rescue a fellow superteen. Who is she? We roll with it, we’re sure we’ll find out later. She’s not introduced with a neat little bio. She’s there getting things done and it seems like she’s always been getting things done. Okay. Okay.
Secret Weapons #0 returns Nikki to a pre-narrative form: we meet her there with no idea she might have a superpower, just a normal girl. We’re given an extremely potted history of a life’s blossoming from norm to very much out of the norm. Most panels are one-a-day and most have plenty of days between themselves and the former or themselves and the next. It’s a series of slides, notable excerpts from over a couple of… years? Now Nikki exists longterm. Here are the adventures that we missed. Here is how she grew and who she was and who she is now. We don’t have to read them to catch up, and nobody is pretending that they happened: we can see (bits of) them. They did. In fact we see How Nikki Got Her Gloves and How Nikki Turned Her Hair Pink, little bits of trivia that would be catalogued on a wiki in the normal way of things but which serve, as they should, as emotional anchors in the story of a life.
Secret Weapons #0 is a very X-Men story, and I say this not as a jibe or a reference to Adam Pollina’s stint on X-Force but as a compliment in earnest. To acknowledge the historic best is to allow the best of now to shine in context. Nikki’s story of everyday dissatisfaction, wanting to be “more,” wanting to go her own way to find out how she can be despite her parents’ ideas of what’s best— the discovery of her powers, the various betrayals she suffers, the “uselessness” of her ability, the ways it works for her anyway, the character portrait and emotional depth… all of these are classic super-teen elements, all seen in older books from different publishers. Maybe to you it’s a very Runaways story. Or very Teen Titans. Very Static Shock. To me, it’s very X-Men. Not just because of the institute for (insufficiently) gifted youth, not just because of the shucking away of parental security, not just because of the “powers happen when you’re a teen” element. It just felt like one. It felt right. The right amount of sad, the right amount of “that must be scary,” the right amount of tentative friendship and fighting and introspection. Nikki felt the right amount of alone. And her power felt the right amount of psychologically apt.
Reading Secret Weapons after Nikki’s #0 (Owen, another kid from the mini, is getting the #0 treatment this March) made early scenes feel a little bit over-explained. Eric Heisserer wrote both books and I wonder in what order. Do we need this much falling and hitting and running? Where is the emotional and social content? The overlap between Nikki’s #0 and the book proper’s issue #1 is just slightly too wide but the scenes that go untouched are solid and the scenes that build, as it were, directly on the events and feelings from #0 give me a bit of the glow that I’m used to. Yes. This is superhero comics. This is the good enough stuff. This is what I’m after. I want a teenaged superhero team with a mentor who will hug. Turns out she’s also a cyborg who can speak Internet. So come into my home, Valiant, why don’t you? Read my checklist? Answer all of my demands? Cheers.
The cute little gimmick in Nikki’s Story is the centring (or slight off-centring; a more comfortable aesthetic result but the meaning’s the same) of Nikki herself in every panel of her life’s recap. There she is, right in the middle (except when her feelings are in the middle, which happens occasionally— see the panel, not pictured here, where talking pigeons are on the left, Nikki on the right, and centred in her place is a big space for all the WHAT? she is thinking). It zips your vision right down the page like a (bird on a) wire; here we go, keep up, this is Nikki. This is her story, this is how things changed around her, this is how she changed and stayed the same. It’s a formal choice that makes a point, which is what we critics surely dream of! It places all the events of her psiot (“mutant”/”metahuman”/”whatever, you get it”) awakening and involvement with the mysterious Harada firmly in the box marked “context,” allowing a sense of “Nikkiness” to take hold. She’s the dark part of the Venn diagram, she’s everything that happened to her but not the parts that don’t apply. It blesses a weighty backstory with momentum and verve, putting the reader in the dynamic position of expert on Nikki Finch in a way that plenty more reading would be required for if she were an older character whose past had been written longform over months and decades. It’s really rather terrific.
Secret Weapons ends with “Secret Weapons will return” and honestly— if they do? Great, aim high. If they don’t, this was enough. It was good.