Spencer: It can be incredibly dangerous to put too much faith in one person, especially if it means neglecting other connections and relationships. While this can be true on a personal level, it’s far more important to remember on a political level, where not even the most well-meaning politician can be trusted with too much power — not even Captain America himself.
Of course, Secret Empire notably isn’t a story of absolute power corrupting absolutely — Steve Rogers’ new history means he’s been corrupt for nearly eighty years now — but of a crooked politician using trust and influence to gain dangerous amounts of power. Early in Secret Empire 0 writer Nick Spencer reminds us that Steve is master strategist, and that claim is certainly proven throughout the issue — by triggering three different major crises at once (each of these bringing to head long-gestating subplots) Steve is quite literally handed full control of America’s military and law-enforcement agencies, giving Hydra the perfect opportunity to infiltrate and overtake the government.
The key to Steve’s plan, though, is the absolute, unequivocal trust he’s garnered in his time as Captain America. Abuse of trust is a particularly cruel brand of evil, yet, while Spencer certainly never frames Steve as a “good guy” here, the blame for falling for Steve’s deception is placed squarely on the heroes of the Marvel universe.
As a political allegory, this is perfect. Steve’s ascent to power actually reminds me of the fallout from 9/11 — whether you believe the conspiracy theories blaming Bush for the attacks or not, it’s undeniable that his administration used the attacks and the fear they caused in order to strip Americans of freedoms and greatly expand their power. When it comes to politics, it’s dangerous to allow fear to blind us or cause us to lean on politicians who never have our best interests at heart. As recent events have shown, there’s nobody we can depend on to advocate for our rights and freedom but ourselves, and giving into fear allows evil men and women to seize power.
Of course, Marvel has been asserting in interviews that Secret Empire has little to do with politics, which is a baffling statement and one that isn’t supported at all by the book itself, nor either of Spencer’s Captain America series leading up to it. Still, that has me wondering how one could even interpret the above scene outside the lens of politics. Considering the outrage Steve’s turn has generated among readers, I almost wonder if it’s implying that the readers themselves shouldn’t be so quick to place Steve Rogers — or any other superhero — on a pedestal. I can understand the sentiment, but don’t fully agree; superheroes exist to inspire, so implying that it’s foolish to believe in them is a bit insulting to people who have dedicated so much time and thought to their stories. I admit I may be reading too much into this, though.
Since this is the first issue of a major event, though, unpacking the more explicitly political or philosophical undertones of this story are largely relegated to this week’s Captain America: Steve Rogers 16 tie-in in exchange for simply furthering the events of the story itself. One revelation it does provide, though, is the full story behind Steve’s memories.
It turns out that Steve remembers both his Hydra history and his life a legitimate Captain America, but he believes the latter are false memories implanted by the Allies via a Cosmic Cube. This raises some interesting questions about being fed false narratives and the lies we’re willing to believe if they support our own opinions, which, again, are more explicitly explored over in SteveCap (especially with the Zemo plot), but what I’m most interested in here is how closely this mirrors what Kobik actually did to Steve. The line “a prison they built for us,” likewise, references what Kobik did to the prisoners back in Pleasant Hill. It’s interesting to see her fingerprints starting to show up all over Steve’s constructed past, and I’m wondering if there’s any real significance to this. Was it simply easier to sell a lie that’s so close to the truth? Or is this a sign of a lack of creativity on Kobik’s behalf? I feel like Steve should be smart enough to catch onto this, but I also doubt he would care even if he did.
I’m also interested in the characters Spencer chooses to highlight throughout the issue. The Ultimates’ role makes sense, but I’m a bit confused by the Defenders being first heroes deployed in NYC, and the ones Steve chooses to imprison within the city. I can understand why Marvel would want to push those characters, but they’re far smaller threats to Steve than the Avengers he leaves free. On the flip side, I love the prominent role Spencer gives Riri Williams, and the focus on Riri, combined with Ulysses’ vision of Miles Morales killing Steve, gives me a lot of hope about the kind of characters Spencer eventually wants to portray as the heroes of this story.
There’s still one significant question this story leaves hanging: who is the narrator? Their monologue is broad enough to apply to almost any character, but if I had to guess, I’d go with Sharon Carter.
Not only is she the character most personally affected by Steve’s betrayal, but the white backgrounds of the narration boxes matches Sharon’s motif — not only is she always clad in nothing but white, but she’s often portrayed in front of white backgrounds or the white gutter, and almost always standing in the light. This is a stark contrast to Steve, who artist Daniel Acuña consistently portrays as covered in shadows, even when he and Sharon share the same panel.
Patrick, who do you think the narrator is? What are your thoughts on Steve’s role and how they reflect on the real world? Do you think there’s any good reason for this to be a zero issue instead of a #1?
Patrick: By my count, there are two good reasons to make this a zero issue. The first is that prologue, which it turns out we might be reading a little bit differently. I’m tempted to believe that the reality we are presented with in the first couple pages is a fully fleshed-out alternate world. That’s what we’ve been seeing flashbacks to in SteveCap, and it raises the question of how Kobik reconstructs reality. Is she actually rewriting swaths of history, or simply merging two different timelines? Spencer sows these seeds of doubt by making the cosmic cube the culprit in both universe-rewriting scenarios. In the Hydra Reality, Steve had already helped Hydra win the war, and it was the Allied forces threatening to scramble history with the cube. A false memory for our own Cap? Or the actual memories for a parallel universe Cap?
That otherworldiness is helped along considerably by the ethereal art of Rod Reis. I’ve been following Reis’ work for a long time, both as a colorist, and as a full blown sequential artist on series like C.O.W.L. and Hadrian’s Wall, and this may be the single finest usage of his painterly dreamlike aesthetic.
Look, even within the soft lines and alien glows, Reis finds a way to slide even further down the spectrum to depict Steve’s memories in the first panel. Memory, identity and reality all collide in a sequence trippy enough (and mind-fucky enough) to necessitate its own magical presentation. That’s Reis.
That reading actually leads me to Spencer’s question (errr… our Spencer): who is the narrator of this issue? Sharron is a great guess, and I think we’re meant to make that assumption, but the perspective of that writing suggests that a superhero is talking. “The best of us” implies “the best of us [superheroes].” I suppose it could also mean “the best of us [at S.H.I.E.L.D.]” But we also see adjacent panels with narration boxes from the issue’s narrator AND Sharron Carter, and they’re different colors.
The light blue boxes are a continuation of Sharron’s terrifying exposition dump — something which is corroborated by the same practice earlier on the page — and then there’s that white narration box. If Steve is so often drawn in the shadows, this mystery narrator, whose only visually identifying characteristic is that his narration boxes are white, must be the exact opposite. Is it possible that the consciousness of the original Steve Rogers was booted out of this body when Hydra Cap came into existence? Subquestion: is that who’s narrating this piece?
That’s obviously a very comforting thought. That would make the Marvel heroes less “Betrayed by Captain America!” and more “Betrayed by someone pretending to be Captain America,” but it also extends to the political allegory that’s blatantly at the heart of this issue. We want to believe that our government has been “taken over” by misanthropes and people that want to dismantle the administrative state because that’s easier to deal with than the probable reality that our elected officials have always struggled to put their constituents over themselves, and that the current political catastrophe is merely an extension of this. Power does corrupt — this is observable, demonstrable, irrefutable. The usurper narrative is almost more appealing because it leaves room the genuine goodness of man, and if there’s anyone that represents that quality, it’s Captain Motherfucking America.
Which, finally, leads me around to my second argument for this issue’s status as a zero issue: that allegory. Look, Cap isolating and disabling huge groups of heroes is one thing, but the issue moves into stomach-churning mode when Hydra Cap’s hand reaches through the pages, past all our favorite dudes-in-capes, and points his finger at a real world seat of power: the White House.
Cap was given unlimited power over all military and police organizations, effectively making him Commander In Chief, and now he’s set to claim everything else that goes with it. This is where the metaphorical rubber meets the metaphorical road, and where Spencer will have his work cut out for him writing a gaslighting President Hydra Cap. This is leading to as literal a representation of what he fears in a Trump presidency, and that just HAS to be how issue 1 of this thing begins.
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