Today, Spencer and Patrick are discussing Secret Empire 0, originally released April 19th, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
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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Secret empire # 0 was grate, it had lot of good moments one of them is after the shield goes up Steve calling Captain Marvel to her that she’s he’s trapped her and the other heavy hitter up there in space and that there would be more chitauri coming because of the queen hidden on earth. When Steve coldly said “Goodbye Carol this the last time we’ll ever speak” I might be the only one who thinks so but I find that line pretty chilling.
It’s some cold shit for sure. I think the moment that struck me as the coldest was Steve using Quasar’s death to whip Iron Heart and Iron Man into a panic. He’s so calculated that he can sacrifice the hero he’s been advocating for just to befuddle Tony and Riri.
To be fair, his advocating of Quasar was lies, just an excuse to undermine Carol. Don’t think the death of Quasar was a sacrifice. She’d already served her purpose, and was now meaningless.
And I agree with CJ, that the coldest moment of Steve’s wonderfully chilling moments was his talk to Carol. Though to me, it was the line just before that was truly chilling. ‘You built the Shield to wall off the world from its greatest threats — and now that you’re on the other side of it, you have’. Really shows exactly how Steve now sees what were once his friends.
Despite my problems with this issue, Steve Rogers has been the best villain Marvel has had since he said those two words back in Steve Rogers 1
I think a lot of that coldness comes from the way Steve starts that conversation, basically quoting the HAL 9000 with in refusing to open the shield: “I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to do that, Carol.”
I’m really worried that Secret Empire is going to be a mess. There is a lot of good, but all sorts of stuff that gives me pause.
For example, that 1945 prelude is spectacularly poorly chosen. I’ve generally defended Spencer on the story, but he really makes things a mess here. Why the hell would you start this story with a prelude which, if this was your first issue read, suggests that Steve Rogers actually always was HYDRA? I understand that this scene is supposed to explain why Steve believes that he was always HYDRA, why he believes Kobik’s actions didn’t subvert him but instead restored him. But that scene really should have been shown in the Steve Rogers book. Instead, it just confuses.
For a new reader, there is no clear clue that this is a story about Steve Rogers being subverted, instead of a story that reveals that Steve truly is HYDRA. A spectacular piece of poor optics. Just causes unnecessary controversy while failing to properly introduce new readers to the premise. Secret Empire should be doing everything it can to make sure the new reader is as close to the reader of all the build up as possible, and this introduction completely fails to adequately introduce all the information to a new reader. This scene should have been a recap of Kobik restoring Steve Rogers. Telling every reader, no matter how new, what they need to know (and maybe finally explaining why Steve’s version of HYDRA is so different to the version of HYDRA that we understand Kobik supporting).
And it doesn’t help that the scene is confused. Why does Steve need to go into the pool? How does it protect him, when, according to his memories, the Cosmic Cube specifically rewrote his memories to make him a hero and it took Kobik to restore him.
It gets better after this. Steve Rogers on the bridge is a fantastic example of villainy. The narration is fantastic, as it breaks down how ‘our’ failures gave Steve the space to be the villain (if you want my take on who the narrator is, I think it is a generic Avenger. No one specific, but the generalised opinion of the superheroic community).
The in medias res start is fantastic, really utilising the start to make it feel like DEFCON 1. Seeing SHIELD actually juggling three threats really does sell a threat large enough for Steve’s plans to make sense. But it does suffer from the fact that no threat feels as meaningful as the Chitauri. The rest feel generic. Army of supervillains attack New York is boring, especially without a sense of meaningful point of difference. They just smash things (as a counter example, I still remember the Secret Society in Infinite Crisis, lining up like a proper army. The anticipation of this organised army waiting for their commander to give the order felt unique in a way that a giant Atlas punching a building doesn’t). And the Sokovia stuff just struggles for space. It doesn’t even feel like a plotline, and it kind of isn’t, simply being an excuse for HYDRA to seize control of the helicarrier at the end
There are a couple of other weaknesses in this section. Someone of the dialogue falls into random quipping, the meaningless ‘jokes’ that don’t really serve character or tone. Luke’s little whisper as he runs into battle is Bendis at his worst – a great reminder of why Bendis is generally weaker at team books and especially events, which is why it is a shame Spencer copies this. It isn’t particularly funny, it undercuts the sense of scale the scene is trying to sell and doesn’t feel distinctly Luke Cage. Gamora’s line about a Chitauri pet is even worse – which version of Gamora would make that joke? Neither the cold assassin, the blood knight or the Moral Heart versions of Gamora would make a joke like that. Makes me appreciate just how great the jokes were in Secret Wars 1.
And while I agree that it is awesome to see Riri centre stage (and I think Spencer’s plan is to have the younger generation front and centre), Tony Stark’s presence annoys me. Bendis made a point to take Tony out of play, so to just have the Tony AI control a suit and make it seem like he never left annoys me. The whole point of the current Iron Man books is that Tony Stark is gone, so maybe Secret Empire could acknowledge that, instead of cheating like this. If Tony was supposed to be puppeteering a single suit in such a way that he might as well be alive, Bendis would write the Iron Man books this way (it doesn’t help that Spencer has put Tony in my least favourite superhero outfit ever, the billion dollar metal ekoskeleton that looks like skintight spandex. How the hell are the elbows supposed to work? Does Tony have superstrength? Because unlike every other modern Iron man costume, that one has no hinge)
Again, the Steve Rogers stuff is great. Sensational. A truly great villainous plans, creating crises to both create the conditions necessary to isolate his enemies and to get military power transferred to him is a masterpiece. My favourite part is how he played Tony and Riri. Such a simple sleight of hand, but works perfectly. The art and especially the colours of the helicarrier scenes just breathe intensity. The constant shadows across Steve are obvious, but everything from the use of camera angles to the dominant colour palate are all designed to racket up tension. Feels like the greatest thriller ever. The scenes in orbit and New York are full of great spectacle moments, and 90% of the content in those scenes are great.
But it feels like something that could easily turn messy. It feels like it has too many flaws that have caused too many other events to go wrong. A good start, but one with a bit too many warning signs for me to feel comfortable with. Full of frustrations. It feels like a book that could easily transform into that boring, generic Event. Something that could easily lose its most interesting elements. Because for every element that is interesting, or works great, there is another element that threatens a return to something more generic
A good start, but in all honesty, it left me a lot more cautious about Secret Empire than I expected
The initial discussions of Secret Empire said it was going to be Marvel’s most political event yet, so any idea that it isn’t supposed to be political is blatant lies. But if I was going to to create a nonpolitical take on this, it would be about vigilance. Do not get complacent. So it isn’t about not putting superheroes on a pedestal, just making sure you you check routinely that they still deserve to be on the pedestal.
And I think the reason that the Defenders were first wasn’t part of Steve’s plan (his plan was to get everyone there. Which wave was which doesn’t matter). It was about proximity. The Defenders are THE New York heroes. While everyone else is busy with a much wider mandate, any threat to New York will always have the Defenders in the front line.
ANd yeah, this issue should certainly have been a 1, not a 0. Too much happened. This sets up everything about where all the heroes are, and is simply not, in any meaningful way, optional. The story truly begins with what happens next issue. But unlike most zero issues, this is too important to treat as an optional zero issue.
We’ll see if this should have been #1 after issue #1 comes out. I’m not convinced that the main series is going to let us be this close to Steve during the start of the story. Like, for me (and I think for the general comic reading audience), we want to see this as a straight up confusing, disorienting villainous turn for Steve Rogers. It’s the man we’ve always trusted (and the institution we’ve always trusted) no longer being trustworthy. I am VERY INTERESTED to see whose perspective Spencer writes from, because it’s clear that Steve cannot be our hero anymore.
I have a feeling that there is going to be a time skip between issues 0 and 1, which could be used to justify this being a 0 issue.
But I still think the imprisoning/exile of a majority of the Superhero population is too important to be in an ‘optional’ 0 issue. Regardless of how the Steve Rogers perspective is done, regardless of how much time happens between 0 and 1, this issue is such an important prologue that, regardless of the stylistic difference it has with the rest of Secret Empire, it deserves to treated as a core part of the story, and not an ‘optional’ zero issue. There were a lot of important plot mechanics happening in this issue, and we should treat the issue that way.
Also, it will be interesting to see how Steve is treated perspective wise, especially as the Captain America books are apparently really important tie ins (unlike, say, the Iron man and Captain Marvel tie ins for Civil War II). Should be interesting
Can we get into that opening sequence in a little more detail? I am alone in thinking that we’re seeing an alternate reality and that Hydra Cap is a transplant from that universe? Matt’s confusion about the pool is legit, but I guess I was reading it as a portal of sorts. Also, does that imply that our Steve is in said Hydra-verse?
Most responses I’ve seen to this online have taken it completely literally — people are actually believing Kraken’s story about the allies using the Cosmic Cube to win the war, and they think Nick Spencer is trying to say that in the original Marvel timeline Cap was always a Nazi and that Axis/Hydra won the war (obviously, there’s outrage). Which I think it ridiculous. We already know that Kobik rewrote Steve’s past, I think this is just another part of Steve’s rewritten history, another new facet Kobik added to his past to reconcile Steve’s loyalty to Hydra and his adventures with the Avengers in the present day.
I’ll admit that your idea is possible, Patrick, but I think it would be a cop out. For this story to matter at all as anything other than “what if Cap was a bad guy?!” it needs to be our Cap.
I agree with Spencer, that this is Steve’s memories and how he reconciles being HYDRA with spending ten years as an Avenger (and how he has memories of both HYDRA and normal Steve). Kobik changed reality, and this is how everything is reconciled so that Steve is HYDRA but history remains consistent.
The real problem is that if you haven’t been reading Steve Rogers, Captain America then there is no reason to assume Spencer isn’t trying to say that in the original Marvel timeline, the Nazis/HYDRA won the war. No evidence in the issue itself that this is a Kobik caused change. Which is a problem, as Secret Empire 0 should act as a starting point for new readers, and your interpretation of that scene differs wildly if you’ve read the build up. This really should have been left in the Steve Rogers book, and Secret Empire should have focused on the essentials – flashback to Pleasant Hill and inform every reader of what Kobik did. As it is, I’m not surprised at the response online, and I’m shocked that Spencer, who already knew the response this story was getting when he wrote Secret Empire 0, didn’t adjust his plan to make things incredibly clear so that such a misinterpretation didn’t happen.
I think the difference between an alternate universe doppelganger and our Steve with his reality rewritten is meaningless. Ultimately, the villain is a fake Cap. But I don’t think it is an alternate universe version, because that is generally not what Cosmic Cubes do. Cosmic Cubes are about rewriting reality, so why would Kobik transplant stuff from other universes instead of just rewriting things? Especially as Kobik has always treated these changes as fixing people/making them better. A change to the person, not to the simply replacing them