The duo of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning will forever be associated with the version of the Guardians of the Galaxy they introduced in 2008’s Annihilation: Conquest storyline, which has since been etched into the popular consciousness by James Gunn’s films. However, over the years before their partnership finally ended, they worked on a wide variety of characters for the Big Two and elsewhere. Their revamp of Heroes for Hire came in 2010, shortly after the end of their run on Guardians, and offered an opportunity to dig into the ranks of Marvel’s street-level heroes and villains. This omnibus edition reveals the writing team that breathed new life into Marvel’s cosmic universe taking on more down-to-earth concepts. It’s a run packed with action set pieces and intricate games of manipulation and treachery, but it falters at getting much deeper than that.
The two characters most closely associated with the Heroes for Hire brand, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, have a very limited presence in this version. Instead, Misty Knight, who previously led an incarnation of the team that spun off from Civil War, takes the lead. The series picks up following the events of the street-level crossover Shadowland and the trauma of a phantom pregnancy resulting from her relationship with Iron Fist. Now single and out of the field for the duration of her recovery, Knight takes on the position of “Control,” commanding an ever-shifting cast of superheroes, who more often work in exchange for information than monetary payment.
An assortment of Marvel luminaries and lesser-known characters alike make their way through these pages as Misty’s recruits, including Spider-Man, Black Widow, Punisher, Falcon, Black Panther, Ghost Rider, Elektra, Silver Sable, and Moon Knight. Throughout, the series, though, the focus remains on Misty and her right-hand man, the mercenary Paladin. Abnett and Lanning present the pair as bound together by their insecurities as much as their desire to do good. The scripts constantly underline Misty’s need to be “in control” following her traumatic experiences and Paladin’s desperate need for validation as he works alongside superheroes he cannot help but feel are better than him.
Several different artists contributed to the stories in this volume, with DnA’s Guardians collaborator Brad Walker penciling six of the twelve monthly issues of Heroes for Hire, most featuring inker Andrew Henessy. Walker does a nice job establishing a visual identity for the book in the first few issues, creating an action movie atmosphere in which characters are constantly diving at the camera with faces contorted and weapons firing. The mid-storyline shifts to pencils by Robert Atkins and Tim Seeley can be a bit jarring, as Walker’s exaggerated, heavily lined and shaded aesthetic gives way to a cleaner, more traditional superhero comic look.
Kyle Hotz does the honors for the tie-ins that appear here, with three issues taking place during Fear Itself and a Spider Island-related one-shot. His early-Image infused, somewhat cartoony style works well for portraying the monstrous threats in these stories. Meanwhile, Abnett and Lanning do their best to keep these issues focused on the themes and character development running through the rest of the comics. Nonetheless, these sections do often end up feeling like interruptions since the other issues are so tightly focused on Misty’s individual plotline and lower-level threats.
Renato Arlem takes over art duties for the five-issue run of Villains for Hire, which sees the series rebooting for a new storyline, as is par for the course at Marvel in the 21st century. Like the title implies, these chapters change out the emphasis on heroes for bad guys like Shocker, the latest version of Stilt-Man (who is in this case a woman), Tiger Shark, Avalanche, and a new Scourge. Arlen’s detailed art in these chapters bears a certain resemblance to Bryan Hitch’s “widescreen” superhero work. There are a number of fine moments, though occasionally some figures look a bit stiff and oddly proportioned. Under his pencil, Misty’s costume design also develops a cleavage window that seems rather silly when she’s just hanging out by her bank of computer monitors.
Overall, this is a solidly entertaining collection of comics that’s worth the price tag for Abnett and Lanning fans or those who have become interested in the Misty Knight character since the premiere of the Luke Cage Netflix show. However, the series overall lacks the wild imagination of something like Guardians of the Galaxy, and -though there are a couple surprising twists along the way – the character development and relationships unfold in a largely perfunctory manner.