Today, Patrick and Michael are discussing Secret Empire 1, originally released May 3rd, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Patrick: Skipping ahead into the radically altered future has become one of the hallmarks of modern Marvel event stories. Both Secret Wars and Age of Ultron rushed ahead to the moment after the unthinkable had already occurred, resting in a status quo that practically begged to be undone. Secret Empire, in its #1 issue, adopts this same tactic, catapulting over an untold stretch of time and insisting on a terrifying new normal. The difference between this story and events like Secret Wars and Age of Ultron, is that Secret Empire is based in the entirely credible rise of fascism in the United States. There is real world precedent for the world over which Captain Hydra rules, and even if it is exaggerated for the medium, and the long road to this moment is paved with recognizable warning signs. But writer Nick Spencer is no longer concerned with establishing the mechanical reality of Steve Roger’s brave new world, instead turning to the emotional reality of its occupants, dialing in on how it feels to be truly helpless and hopeless. And how it feels to resist.
I think one of the most impressive feats this issue accomplishes is in reconciling Steve’s kindness with his immeasurable cruelty. Like, no matter what, Steve Rogers is going to be polite, respectful, and outwardly heroic, even while pursuing a misguided ideology. The first time we see Cap, he’s confronting a shit-talkin’ demon-dinosaur-monster. Artist Steve McNiven plays up the size disparity between Steve and the beast, quietly asserting the expected dynamic between Captain America and a city-threatening monster.
In those first three panels, he’s basically David standing up to Goliath. Or at least, that’s how McNiven draws it before we get a taste of The New Steve Rogers. Check out how that fourth panel pulls in close, letting Steve’s face take up as much space as the monster’s did in the previous panel. That’s when shit gets sinister. We stay close to Steve for the next three panels as he proves his ruthless Hydra bonafides. It’s an extremely talky way of intimidating the monster, so much so that McNiven’s camera needs to drift away from Steve to make way for all that dialogue.
It is, after all, the words that have gotten scary. The issue starts off with a Jason McAllister going to school in this new Hydra-embracing world. The classroom curriculum has changed to fit the narrative that Spencer suggested back in the zero issue — history as we knew it was a light told by the Allies with access to a Cosmic Cube. They are calling it “The Great Illusion,” which is a fantastic bit of writing on Spencer’s part. We’ve moved beyond people turning a blind eye to uncomfortable truths and into a world where people actively believe a lie — a lie that is taught in school.
And that lie breeds distrust (and fear!) of people who are different. Case in point: Jason’s brother Brian has superpowers. Of course, since this is Nick Spencer we’re talking about, Brian’s powers are demonstrated by Brian barfing up a shiny new Captain America lunchbox, despite the fact that he was muttering “Captain… Fascist…” to himself earlier that morning. McNiven wants us to see how fucking gross this is.
His jaw unhinges, his knees buckle, and a lunchbox explodes out of him covered in… I don’t even know what to call that stuff. That’s what it would be to tell a Captain America story that doesn’t acknowledge the current state of the world — regurgitating sickly shiny nostalgia. It’s painful. Unnatural.
Which is what necessitates this kind of of-the-moment story. Our heroes are in a state of disorganization, but what we can tell is that they are held together by the youngest superheroes. Riri Williams, Miles Morales, Amadeus Cho, Viv Vision — they are the hope for the Resistance. Yeah, they’re shepherded by some old stalwarts of the Marvel Universe, like Hawkeye, Black Widow and the cyber ghost of Tony Stark, but the actual engine for change comes from the young. Even the kid they pick up is precisely that — a kid. Maybe it’s trite to base this event around “children are the future” but, it’s nice to see a positive message buried in here somewhere.
Actually, that’s a good question to pose to you Michael: did you find this issue to be too crushing? Cap’s dinner with Sharon Carter was about as bleak and heartbreaking a depiction of Steve Rogers as I’m comfortable reading. That’s where he shows his true colors as a legit maniac — calmly forcing a woman to dine with him, and telling her that she’s the one who has the wrong idea. He’s crafting his own warped reality where he’s still the good guy and his actions — like having Rick Jones executed — are resultant from everyone else’s mistakes.
And, quiet follow-up question — Cosmic Cube. Does it make you nervous that Spencer brought up the potential reset button in the first issue? I sorta hate the idea that there’s a quick-fix machine out there, potentially turning this whole story into a nukeable what-if world.
Michael: I gotta say that I really, really dug how bleak Secret Empire 1 was. I loved coming into the strange and frightening new world of Hydra’s America, with its skull & tentacles flag waving proud as the new American nightmare.
Nick Spencer is going all out with the allegory to the current political climate we are living in that is as equally bleak and frightening.
That dinner scene between Sharon and Steve was a classic villain moment: the captor and the captive. How many times have we seen this moment in storytelling? Sharon is the captive heroine, telling her evil captor that he’s crazy and she’ll never love him, while Steve acts like everything is aw shucks normal. Spencer might as well have had Steve say “Soon enough you’ll see things my way.”
As for the Cosmic Cube of it all, that is indeed problematic. Steve reunites with his evil faux-mother Elisa/Madame Hydra and she reemphasizes the importance of getting ahold of the Cosmic Cube. The squabbles of the Hydra Council mean next to nothing to her; she just wants Steve to rewrite reality. Spencer writes some very particular words for Elisa that are hard to ignore:
“Who lives, who dies – is a distraction.” That line right there could mean a handful of things. In the scheme of Patrick’s “quick machine fix” concerns it means that any death that occurs in the course of Secret Empire means next to nothing because reality might soon be rewritten. This is especially poignant because Elisa’s speech comes mere pages before Rick Jones getting gunned down by the Hydra firing squad.
The other potential reading of this line could be that we as readers shouldn’t focus too much on the people that die in Secret Empire because there is something else, far more important on the horizon. It makes me think of The Prestige — or magic tricks in general — because while we’re placing so much emphasis on something like Rick Jones’ death, Spencer is concocting something entirely different.
I also find it odd that Elisa and Cap’s plan is to take control with their Secret Empire but also to alter history with the Cosmic Cube. If it’s so important to “set history right” then why didn’t they just make a play for the Cube from the get-go? It seems like they went to a lot of trouble to establish their empire, only to rewrite reality the way they see fit. I suppose it’s an example of their lust for power: they’ve already won but they want to win it all.
I love that Nick Spencer has an unabashed liberal stance that he wears on his sleeve — he gets into political Twitter fights on the reg. Secret Empire 1 depicts the nightmare where the bad guys take over that doesn’t seem all that different from the world we live in now. To boil it down: Hydra is establishment Republicans and The Resistance are certain Democrats who refuse to roll over. Donald Trump won the election — something that many of us struggle to fathom every day — in part because of hate and fear but also because of ineffectiveness on behalf of the Democrats.
As Patrick already noted, Black Widow and Hawkeye are the resident veteran heroes while the younger set of Champions are the true hope for tomorrow. While they’re not precisely stand-ins for Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, it’s clear that Black Widow and Hawkeye’s plan of laying low until they think of something better is not gonna work. The Old Guard of both resistances are not going to be the ones that save us — we need new blood and new ideas.
Spencer widens the gap between generations here by making Hawkeye overly judgmental and suspicious of their new ally Rayshaun. Hawkeye and Black Widow are quick to label Rayshaun as a spy, whereas the Champions accept their internet friend with open arms. Widow and Hawkeye’s assumption also shows a lack of faith in their younger teammates. The Champions vetted Rayshaun and even went so far as to report him to Hydra to prove he was the real deal. One of my favorite visual distinctions of the old heroes vs. the young is Steve McNiven’s drawing of Amadeus Cho Hulk flicking off the Hydra dreadnaught squad — such youthful vigor.
Let’s face it: the Hydra Council might as well be Trump’s cabinet: a den of vipers, with one actually named Viper. They are pushing for more and more extreme measures by their empire, which Steve is against. While Steve is the most sympathetic guy in the room we can’t forget that he is also the bad guy. He’s got that same heroic attitude that Patrick mentioned but yes, he’s the goddamn villain of this book. Do you have any friends who voted for our current president and turned a blind eye to his litany of misdeeds? It’s like that.
I’m curious as to the motivations of Cap’s current Avengers. It’s likely that heroes like Scarlet Witch, Thor and even Deadpool are under the control of Dr. Faustus but we also have Taskmaster and Black Ant — willing participants in Cap’s Hydra scheme. I’d be interested to find out The Avengers’ motivations, if any.
Drew and I talked recently about “Ghost Tony Stark.” While I feel like the whole thing is a cheat (why not just have the real deal?) I realize that it’s not the most important issue on the table. I guess I just would like there to be some minor defining characteristics for this AI to distinguish itself from the real Tony Stark.
In short, real-world politics are dismal and I love that Secret Empire is here to (slightly) embellish and highlight that fact.
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