Over the past five issues of Marvel's Secret Avengers, writer Warren Ellis has produced some of the best single-issue stories in recent memory and this latest, "Encircle," certainly exemplies this. Black Widow, described at the start as "the world's greatest secret agent," gets the spotlight here in a masterful time-travel tale that rates as one of the best ever for the character.
In a timey-wimey structure feeling quite a bit like a Steven Moffat Doctor Who script, Ellis starts the issue off with the deaths of team members Steve Rogers, War Machine and Sharon Carter, and then sends Black Widow back in time five years to figure out a way to prevent it. Of course, Natasha Romanoff's background is in espionage, not temporal physics, but with the help of her "Escape Hatch" wrist device, some hints from teammate The Beast, and forty years of scientific research by a man named "Count" Oscar Khronus, she figures out a game plan.
This issue has several wonderful touches -- Black Widow's hatred of time travel, her hatred of the "Escape Hatch" device, Khronus' dimwitted henchman Kongo, weaponeer Harry Grindell "Death-Ray" Evans, the very Ellis line "My time gun will send your heart to be eaten by dinosaurs," a brief chat with Doctor Druid thirty-six hours before his death, among others. Over the course of "eighteen weeks, two days, nine hours and three minutes," or over four months of Black Widow's actual time, she implements a mission that spans decades in order to achieve her objective. Each temporal encounter has a specific purpose, it seems, and you, you lucky reader, get to see everything fall neatly into place over just twenty pages.
The artist paired with Ellis for this issue is Alex Maleev, who somehow escaped from his usual creative partner Brian Michael Bendis long enough to turn in some terrific work for Secret Avengers. Maleev proved long ago he could depict a formidable Black Widow during his time with Bendis on Daredevil, but here he makes us wish Marvel would put him on a monthly Black Widow series, preferably one written by Ellis. A sequence set forty-four years in the past is made particularly memorable, drawn as a serial comic strip similar to Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon.
But yes, there's only one more issue of Warren Ellis' Secret Avengers to go and no, I'm not happy about it. Six issues is far too short for something this wonderful and I'm sorry, but not even the promise of "the end of the world" next issue is going to make up for it...