Secret Weapons #0 variant by Veronica Fish

Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Secret Weapons #0. Written by Eric Heisserer (Arrival, Lights Out), with art by Adam Pollina (X-Force, Angel: Revelations) and colors by David Baron (Divinity, Eternity), this one-shot showcases how a rigid visual structure can offer new creative possibilities. This review reveals major plot points.

The superhero genre is built on wish fulfillment. Superman is an outsider beloved by his adopted world because he uses his alien abilities to help others. Batman is a survivor of childhood trauma with a dark, exciting outlet for his suffering. When he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker becomes morally and physically superior to the bullies who torment him at school, and the X-Men are young people who find strength in genetic mutations that separate them from the rest of society. As the genre developed, creators explored how superpowers and costumed secret identities can be a curse. Extraordinary abilities don’t magically make a person’s problems disappear, and in most cases, they end up making life way more complicated.

Secret Weapons #0 cover by Raúl Allén

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Nikki Finch learns this firsthand in Secret Weapons #0, a one-shot prequel to last year’s Secret Weapons miniseries by writer Eric Heisserer and artists Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín. Nikki is a psiot, a person with latent superpowers activated by a painful, potentially fatal procedure, but she doesn’t have a particularly effective talent. Nikki can talk to birds, and because her ability doesn’t have many applications, she’s sent to The Willows, a facility for psiots not valuable enough for the Harbinger Foundation’s main team of heroes. The Secret Weapons miniseries introduced Nikki and some of her comrades from The Willows, who are all on the run and being hunted by a mysterious monster that feeds on their powers. Heisserer jumped straight into the action with that script, and while there was plenty of character development in the story, the specifics of these characters’ pasts are still waiting to be revealed.

Enter the #0 issue. Every year, Valiant Comics releases a handful of these one-shots, offering entry points into different titles, with varying levels of accessibility. Valiant has released four such issues in the last six months, starting with Divinity #0 by Matt Kindt and Renato Guedes, a tour of the current Valiant Universe that serves as the best gateway into its larger landscape. Ninjak #0 by Kindt and various artists features a split-page structure that has the ninja hero’s current mission across the top half of the page while his origins are detailed across the bottom half, condensing a lot of information in a single issue while ensuring a steady through-line of action. Rafer Roberts, Juan Jose Ryp, and Andrew Dalhouse’s Harbinger: Renegades #0 is a thrilling, brutal story, but it’s not very welcoming to new readers; it advances the plot of that series but fails to provide necessary background information.

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Secret Weapons #0 is the most ambitious of these recent issues, offering a deeply personal story with a set panel layout that creates interesting storytelling opportunities for artist Adam Pollina and colorist David Baron, who channel the look of Allén and Martín’s artwork with strong graphic compositions, clean lines, and minimal color rendering. Each page of this issue contains four equally sized wide rectangular panels, most of which have Nikki in the center. Time passes at different rates depending on the page, with many of the panels showing a single snapshot from that day that illuminates the larger story. The issue begins on October 10 with Nikki sitting in her bedroom on the phone with a friend, talking about a message she got from a talent scout gauging her interest in a special program. The walls of her bedroom are covered in posters for musicals like Mamma Mia!, Wicked, and Les Misérables; gymnastics trophies and medals line the wall on the left; and there are plush toy birds littered across the room, foreshadowing her connection to birds, which is reinforced by the title panel showing pigeons meandering around stone letters that spell out “Nikki’s Story.”

This first page is all about establishing Nikki’s youth. She checks out her crush in the cafeteria and poses in her witch costume before her school’s Halloween dance. The routine of her high school life is captured in her body language, which barely changes over the course of these first three panels. The next three pages keep Nikki in the same position at the center of the panels as her situation and surroundings change; she’s always facing the reader so we get a clear view of her facial expressions. Pollina does exceptional work making these emotional shifts distinct, and the combination of the set layout and recurring compositions creates a calm rhythm that eases the reader into Nikki’s experience. However, once Nikki is accepted into the HGC program, the visuals begin to shift.

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Nikki is still centered after getting her acceptance email, but she no longer faces the reader. Instead, she’s in profile, alternating between left and right as she considers how she’s going to proceed. Her body language reflects her uncertainty, and throughout the rest of the issue, the creative team will amplify emotional beats by altering Nikki’s placement in the panel and on the page. For Nikki’s initial four days at HGC, the artwork jumps back to the repetition of the very first page, putting her back at the center, facing the reader, with a similar pose across the panels. But unlike that first page, it’s not the exact same pose. She’s always touching her head and her hands change position, indicating that she’s nowhere near as comfortable as she was earlier. Running her fingers through her hair is an important action, too, because pretty soon she won’t be able to do it. After having her brain activity monitored, Nikki has her head shaved in preparation for the activation procedure.

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The head-shaving day is the first one that takes up all four panels on the page, slowing down time as Nikki gets ready for the surgery that will change her life forever. The tension builds over the course of these images, and the sequence ends with Nikki finding out her father has deactivated some sort of account (bank? phone?) and basically cut her off. She’s alienated herself from her family, but she can’t turn back now, even though she’s terrified of the procedure. The current Harbinger: Renegades series has emphasized the body horror elements of psiot activation, yet Nikki obviously hasn’t been told everything about her surgery. She panics when she hears the cries of the person getting the procedure before her, but HGC doesn’t care. That coldness is captured in two panels: the first showing Nikki pleading for her doctor to contact her father, and the second showing Nikki’s eyes lighting up as a drill penetrates her brain.

This is a traumatizing moment, but the creative team doesn’t linger on that pain, instead bringing in some humor as Nikki undergoes different exercises to uncover her new powers, including getting beaten up, shot at, and thrown out of a plane without a parachute. Although these are presented at a breakneck comedic pace, the sequence returns to a more dramatic place when Nikki is told that she might have to go through the procedure again and breaks down in her bed.

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Discouraged and feeling useless after two months of fruitless experiments, Nikki is again decentered on the page, on day 72, sitting at the end of a park bench. From this point on, Nikki ventures to different sides of the panels depending on how stable she is. Day 72 decompresses time more than any previous sequence, breaking down a few minutes over four panels. The story lingers on this moment, as it’s when Nikki discovers she can understand and talk to birds. It’s also here that Heisserer establishes the animals as comic relief, the page ending with Nikki being bombarded by the birds, which are mystified by a human who knows their language. Nikki’s life gets exceedingly shitty as time passes, but she always has her flying friends to watch over her and brighten her spirits.

Secret Weapons #0 is a harrowing superhero story, and the stakes are constantly elevated as Heisserer incorporates major Valiant events into Nikki’s timeline. A leak of HGC data at the end of the first Harbinger series reveals the truth about psiots to the general public, propelling Nikki to run away rather than stick around an organization that is rapidly crumbling. Left with no other options after a month and a half on the street, she returns to The Willows just in time for a raid by shadowy armed mercenaries killing off any psiots they can find. The creative team concentrates a night full of terror into four stark panels of Nikki making her escape, concluding with her in the fetal position on the right side of the page.

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In her darkest moment, Nikki contemplates suicide while sitting on a building ledge (on the right side of the panel). She’s frozen in place all day as birds gather around her and try to get her to talk. “Don’t. You can’t fly,” a bird says in the final panel, Nikki becoming overcome with emotion. The camaraderie of the birds is what saves her life, motivating her to stop feeling sorry for herself and figure out how to survive. The triumph of the next sequence is amplified because Nikki is back in the center of the panels, the layout enhancing the emotional content of the script until the very last page.

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The timeline eventually catches up with the first issue of Secret Weapons, and there’s a big visual change that indicates a shift in the story moving forward. The third-to-last panel is the first one that doesn’t show Nikki at all, instead revealing Owen, a fellow psiot from The Willows who becomes her love interest. Readers of the miniseries already know what’s in store for the two of them, but even for newcomers, it’s evident that he plays a major role based on how he disrupts this issue’s established structure. It’s easy to assume a set layout would be limiting, but instead it inspires Heisserer, Pollina, and Baron to make bold choices and find fresh ways to energize the storytelling within a rigid visual framework. Heisserer crafts a narrative that makes Nikki an endearing, complicated character, and Pollina and Baron take individual moments and smoothly string them together, giving the reader an intimate, surprising look at how one woman’s superhero dream becomes a nightmare.