Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Secret Empire 3, originally released May 31st, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Drew: That Secret Empire is about big ideas goes without saying. As with any tentpole summer event, it promises to change the Marvel universe as we know it (at least temporarily), but the bigger story is the way the event (and the stories leading to it) have reflected the real-world political climate, often in uncanny — and uncomfortable — ways. But issue 3 reveals that, underneath it all, writer Nick Spencer may have been building to an even bigger (albeit, perhaps less controversial) question about the very nature of the superhero genre in the present day: does it still have room for moral absolutes?
That question stepped to center stage in the previous issue, as Clint and Natasha debated exactly how far they were willing to go, but takes on a familiar character as Nat continues that debate with the Champions.
To my eye, this looks exactly like the debate around Superman killing Zod in Man of Steel. On the one hand are those who want morally gray superheroes to reflect the “real world,” willing to do what is necessary, up to and including killing people; on the other who want their superheroes to rise above the “real world,” trading in moral absolutes in hopes of inspiring a better world. I’m trying my hardest to make those sound equal, but artist Andrea Sorrentino makes it clear that Nat’s case is pretty thin, literally slicing her panels into slivers that can only capture a fraction of her face. She’s almost dogmatically narrow in what should happen, but she’s trying her hardest to make herself look wizened and pragmatic. Heck, she even dismisses the ideals of the Champions as “childish things.”
And it seems the world agrees with her. The realities of Hydra rule have forced virtually everyone into bleak moral grey areas. As usual, Maria Hill is embodying moral compromise — she unselfconsciously chides Nat for training kids even as she’s providing the intel Nat needs to send those kids on their mission. Heck, even Steve, who once balked at ordering the strike on Las Vegas, now doesn’t think twice about ordering the destruction of the “oldest temple in Atlantis.” But there’s nobody more morally gray than Frank Castle, who shows up at the end of the issue with his own “hail Hydra” moment.
But seeing Captain America aligned with the Punisher just feels wrong, right? These two characters are usually positioned at opposite ends of the morality spectrum, with Steve holding himself to a strict ideology, while Frank is happy to get into the muck with his enemies. Seeing these two fighting for the same cause only emphasizes how far Steve has fallen — it’s not just that he serves a twisted morality; he’s compromised too far to be anyone’s moral leader.
Which brings me to the other Steve Rogers running around this narrative. It’s still not clear if he’s even in this universe, but it does seem clear that this is our Steve Rogers, as flashbacks reveal key moments of his life without any sign of Hydra. I suppose that could simply be a lie of omission Spencer has set up to yank the rug out from under us yet again, but I’m inclined to see that Steve as the Steve — the steadfast idealist and de facto moral compass for the Marvel Universe.
In that way, Secret Empire becomes less about pitting fascism against democracy and more about pitting moral ambiguity against the kind of pure idealism we could only ever get from characters like Captain America. I’ve spilled plenty of digital ink over the past year or so, discussing how Steve represents the soul of America — one that continues to be threatened by a virulent brand of hate-filled nationalism — but maybe that’s underselling the value of Captain America as a symbol. He’s not necessarily descriptive or even prescriptive; he could simply represent an unattainable ideal, too pure for this world, but valuable as a goal, nonetheless.
Whew, Patrick, these are some heady conclusions to draw from the third issue of a ten-part series. I’m sure I’m wrong about a lot of this, but I can’t help but be surprised that this event is ultimately less interested in the morality of HydraCap as it is in that of his enemies. Does that steer the subject back towards meta-commentaries on comics for you, too, or do the parallels still feel strictly political?
Patrick: That’s a fascinating question Drew. It’s been a long time since I sat with the following true thought: Nick Spencer did not know that Donald Trump would be elected when he pitched, sold, and set this story in motion. The last six months have made Secret Empire hyper relevant, and while I’m never ever ever going to let go of that relevance (because, as Michael said last week, “it makes me feel sane”), this issue does a lot of work to remind us that we’re reading a story about space men, aliens, two-bit villains and Atlantis. Oh and the ultimate Marvel WTF: Hank Pym.
Way back in 2013, we were new to the Marvel Universe and writing about the Brian Michael Bendis / Bryan Hitch disaster-porn epic Age of Ultron, when the final page of issue 3 revealed The Vision, barely alive and hardwired into Ultron’s central computer. If you look back at our discussion of the issue, its funny how basically none of us know who he is or why that’s significant. Drew mentions it in the piece itself and Shelby, Spencer (at that time commenting as Pivitor) and myself all kinda shrug, adding “but I’m sure he’s a big deal.” For obvious reasons, I’m getting flashes back to that conversation with the information that Tony and Co. are heading for what appears to be some kind of Hank Pym / Ultron hybrid thing. Sorrentino draws everything around this character with the jarring juxtaposition of cold mechanical things and soft warm textures. Take the introduction to Pym’s lair, which shows a warm hearth, complete with wallpaper and framed photographs, flanked by towers of disused machines:
Both Spencer and Sorrentino are being cagey about what form Pym is in right here, hiding his face until our final panel with him (and even then masking it in shadow and metaphor). Letterer Travis Lanham gives Pym’s speech balloons that jagged lightning bolt tail — which is something we see him use for both A.I. Tony Stark and Ironheart — suggesting some kind of electrical quality to his voice. In the examples of Riri and Tony, their balloons also have special coloring associated with them: Riri’s is yellow background with red letters and red outline, Tony’s is the same but the background is white. So Pym’s dialogue has that electric tail, but keeps the analog color-scheme. One more intriguing detail in the lettering — everything Pym says is italicized. Anyone wanna guess who that’s borrowed from? Viv — a link to the Vision family.
So, yeah, I think it’s totally fair to say that Spencer is making moves back toward commenting on superheroes and the world they live in. Pym may be an enormous player in this universe, but there’s essentially no real world analogue for the kind of resource/threat that he could represent. For as powerful as it is to be addressing our common anxiety about the rise of Trump in America, we have to remember that we’re dealing with superheroes. Right?
Necessarily, I think the answer is both no and yes. At first I was going to pull this scene of Peter and Rocket (and Groot!) asking for help from the Council of Alien Bad Guys as evidence that Spencer is pivoting away from the realism of situation. But the more I look at it, the less sure I am. The Evil Aliens respond as you think they would — fuck Earth, why should they care about Earth? — but I absolutely love the way they want to Hail Hydra but can’t quite think of the name of the organization in the moment.
Someone unexpected saying “Hail Hydra” is a bombshell for us because we have all of these very specific points of reference. Hell, this whole thing started with Cap uttering the phrase to freak us all out, and this very issue ends with the Punisher reveal Drew featured above. It’s a phrase with fucking meaning but these guys have no concept of that. I mean, one of these monsters is the Brood Queen — you think she hasn’t seen worse than Rogers?
But perhaps there’s a real world parallel I’m not quite seeing here. I’m sure we could make all kind of assertions as to who this group of aliens could represent on the global political stage. If nothing else, the feeling of appealing to some kind of higher moral authority and realizing there isn’t one certainly rings true.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?