Secret Empire 6: Discussion

by Ryan Mogge and Michael DeLaney

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

Ryan: Wednesday is the worst day of the week for soap operas. The storylines all build to a Friday afternoon cliffhanger, so by mid week you are still wrapping up the fallout of last week and are too early for this week’s storylines to be very juicy. Nick Spencer and Leinil Francis Yu are mid-run in Secret Empire 6, and rather than an issue with a self-contained arc that can be completed, we get bits and pieces of several arcs, with only limited links holding them together.

Before the credits page, there are four different storylines introduced. The three within the Darkforce Dome at least have some location relevance to each other, but the brief moments with Cloak & Dagger or Dr. Strange don’t really offer much to the reader here. Even the Daredevil scene is a bit of a retread of a Fisk scene from a couple of issues ago. Each of these scenes, plus the out-of-context Steve and Red Skull interaction feels more like set up for something down the road than satisfying in the moment.

The ongoing story of a version of Steve Rogers without memory or identity wandering some woods and meeting up with familiar faces has had success when it stayed vague on specifics and offered insight into character. Here, we know that Red Skull has clear memories of being Steve’s enemy and the he believes them both to be in Hell. These may be clues as to what is really happening in this storyline, but by connecting it so directly to the real world of the main story, Spencer has turned the story from fairy tale to functional.

It’s natural that as we pass the midway point of the series, things will need to turn toward their ultimate destination. We can’t just wander the woods forever, running into doppelgängers of our best friends and living in possibility. There are only four issues left to bring all of this to a conclusion and create a new status quo.

The Red Room subplot is perhaps the most effective storytelling in the issue. The scenes bookend the main part of the issue, with Black Widow seeming to admit some hope and then dealing with the last of it being destroyed. By giving us both of these scenes, the time in Maryland is more than just a check-in, it’s a real exploration of her emotional state. She left the Underground claiming that all hope was lost, but, as Miles sensed, there was something left to destroy.

Artist Joshua Cassara shows us both sides of Black Widow’s current state. There is the part of her that is broken by the news that her team, including her lover, have been defeated. She sits, head bowed, tears flowing. However, to the Red Room teens, she appears in the doorway like a emotionless pillar of resolve. She seems to glow with commitment to vengeance. She gives no hint that the recent loss has affected her beyond cementing their timetable.

The rest of the issue feels like there is too much to cover in too short a time. We have a confrontation among the Underground, as they try and root out the traitor. Steve tries to convince a risen from the dead Bruce Banner to take his chance to destroy the erstwhile Avengers. Also, there’s a huge battle between Hydra and the Underground, complete with an extra set of Avengers in AI form. Plus, Tony opens up and gets emotionally honest with Steve about his own insecurities and admiration for Cap. There is also a possibility that Elisa banishes Steve to another dimension? My point is that it’s a lot. Each of these beats could have easily been supported by an entire issue. There is so much here just beneath the surface that feel missing and unexplored.

The reader is rushed past the fallout of the secrets among the members of the Underground, through Bruce’s complex feelings about his old team, and right into a battle that cross cuts between different characters at such a pace and rhythm it can be hard to follow.

The three panels are an example of the effect of too much going on. Beyond the fact that we have a second set of Avengers in AI form, it’s not clear how the locations relate. This kind of confusion functions as an intentional commentary on how messy this fight has become. That the true cost of authoritarianism is not the clean picture presented by Hydra’s strict rule, but the sloppiness of former allies firing on each other.

Michael, what did you think? Did you find the issue over-stuffed or were you satisfied by the myriad story beats? How did you find Spencer’s exploration of the theme of hope as demonstrated by each of these characters? I didn’t get too deep into the art. Were there any visuals here that struck you?

Michael: First off, I must give kudos to Ryan for the soap opera shout-out — I spent many of my formative years in front of the TV while my sisters and mother watched Days of Our Lives, Sunset Beach, Passions and their ilk. Besides having a lifelong love for Batman, it’s easy to see why I became such a fan of monthly/weekly comics: they follow a lot of the same structure as soap operas. In both comics and soap operas you have the tried and true tropes of death/resurrection, twins/clones, cliffhanger endings, and evil/demonic possession. Steve Rogers turning evil via Cosmic Cube isn’t that different from Marlena Evans being possessed by the devil, after all.

I read Nick Spencer saying that Secret Empire 6 was his favorite issue of his series thus far. And while I’m not sure which issue is my favorite — though I did love the Ultron “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” chapter — I can easily say that Secret Empire 6 is probably my least favorite entry. Depending on whatever his endgame may be, Spencer seems more preoccupied with putting all the pieces in place than with telling a singular story in Secret Empire 6.

I think all of us at Retcon Punch have been reluctant to comment on the heaven/hell scenes involving bearded Steve Rogers because we’re still uncertain as to what the actually are. In previous issues, Rod Reis has drawn characters reminiscent of recently deceased heroes like James Rhodes and Bucky Barnes. In Secret Empire 6 however, I can’t tell if the man shown hanging from the tree with beard Steve is meant to be someone we know or not.

I will agree with Ryan that the Kingpin/Daredevil scene is kind of a retread of what we have seen before, but I still kinda dig it. One thing I like about Secret Empire is that it’s a Marvel event that hasn’t required all of its books to halt their stories in place of Hydra-inspired tie-ins. That being said, I could easily see a story about Kingpin’s protection of Hell’s Kitchen within the Darkforce Dome being a hell of a mini-series. Charles Soule has his own plans for Daredevil, but I’d be interested to see if he sees Wilson Fisk cash in on his favors later on.

The most resonant — and coherent — plotline of Secret Empire 6 come from Black Widow and her “Young Avengers.” One of my favorite things to do in Secret Empire write-ups is to point out Nick Spencer’s allegories to the 2016 election. Previously, we’ve posited that Black Widow and Hawkeye are members of the old liberal guard, passing on the future to the likes of Miles Morales and Vision’s daughter Viv. Here Spencer makes it more explicit with Natasha’s lamenting on what her generation wrought.

Supreme Leader Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential Election can be attributed to a lot of things, but here Spencer is calling out the lack of unity and direction from Democrats. And if you don’t want to get that political (I suggest reading another book) you can also read this as a critique on the constant in-fighting that exists among superheroes. For example, we’ve seen two Civil Wars from Marvel within the past decade.

On that note, I’ve been intrigued on how Spencer incorporates/perfects elements of Civil War II in Secret Empire. The one point we seem to be building towards is Miles Morales killing Captain America on the steps of the Capitol Building; but another Civil War II highlight Secret Empire 6 picks up on is the death of Bruce Banner.

As Leinil Francis Yu draws the assault of Hyrda’s Avengers on the Resistance’s base on The Mount, we see Steve’s conversation with who is revealed to be a resurrected (?) Bruce Banner. Cap is appealing to Bruce/Hulk’s outsider status much in the way that Emperor Trump did for those voters who felt disenfranchised by the likes of Hilary Clinton. Since The Hulk is a perennial scapegoat, I can’t exactly argue with Cap’s logic but at the same time I love Bruce’s response.

Here, Bruce Banner is like a lapsed comic book fan who has tuned back in to find the world that he knew turned completely upside down. While he agrees with Cap’s assessment of Bruce/Hulk being mistreated by the heroes of the Marvel U, he acknowledges he’s not dumb enough to side with Hydra. Then again, it appears that Cap was talking to Bruce Banner’s angrier, greener half.

Though I’m not a Hulk diehard, the split between the Banner/Hulk personalities has always intrigued me (see The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon). Steve takes advantage of Hulk’s anger of being killed by Hawkeye and sics him on the Resistance. Yu replays the key moments of Hulk’s death from Civil War II in addition to Hawkeye seemingly surrendering to his fate before The Thing steps in to save him.

As Iron Man and Cap recreate their original Civil War battle, we see Hulk wither and collapse under the wreckage of their destruction. I’m curious if there was some kind of Hydra magic at play here, since Cap himself mentioned that “time is not our friend.” However Hulk was brought back it was only temporary.

As much juicy subtext there is to read into in Secret Empire 6, it’s not a stellar comic book issue. A lot of time is wasted with the Resistance infighting about who the Hydra mole is, to no avail. Thor/Odinson’s motivations in all of this are still a mystery to me; but he did manage to help our heroes escape for whatever reason. On top of all that, it appears that Elisa sacrificed herself to save her “son” Steve, but it’s not exactly clear what the threat was or how she knew about it. There are too many questions raised in Secret Empire 6 and not enough answers.

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?

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6 comments on “Secret Empire 6: Discussion

  1. Something that really caught my eye: Banner’s dialogue is lettered with lower case letters — the only character in this issue (and as far as I remember, this whole series) to be treated in that way. That could certainly be done to reflect whatever Steve did to resurrect him, but my mind immediately jumps to the Ultimate Universe, where lower case was common to the point of often being used as a shorthand to distinguish Ultimate U characters from 616 characters. I don’t know enough about the Ultimate Universe to know what the deal with its Hulk might be, but is there a possibility that we’re not dealing with OUR Bruce Banner here?

    • It certainly isn’t Ultimate Hulk (Ultimate Hulk was distinctly different to Hulk), but there is certainly something up with this Banner. And I doubt that it has to do with resurrection as we already understand the what that lettering means. It has a specified meaning to do with alternate universes. So I guess that’s a mystery, at the moment, as part of the Hulk resurrection story

    • This probably doesn’t have any actual affect on this issue, but I just again feel the need to mention that, at the time of his death, Bruce Banner NO LONGER HAD THE ABILITY TO TURN INTO THE HULK, and it would only make sense that this would carry over to his “resurrection.” Amadeus Cho took Banner’s ability to become the Hulk and gave it to himself. Cho isn’t ANOTHER Hulk, he’s the SAME Hulk as Banner, only with his personality altered by the way Cho’s psychological profile differs from Banner.

      So under any other circumstances I’d say that it was absolutely some other version of Hulk in this issue, but the problem (again) is that Bendis totally forgot/skipped over this plot point in Civil War II. So is Spencer trying to drop another hint that this isn’t our Hulk, or is he just unaware of the plot points going on over in Totally Awesome Hulk? I’d honestly point towards the latter just because of all the Civil War II plot points he’s referencing here, which is…frustrating. Bruce’s whole death has been remarkably frustrating to me because it’s all predicated around the idea that Bruce could lose control and become the Hulk and he…LITERALLY couldn’t do that at the time of his death. And really shouldn’t have the ability to do so now either if this indeed our Bruce.

      • Are you sure Banner couldn’t turn into the Hulk? How? Did some cosmic level entity use their cosmic abilities to say that there is literally no doubt that Banner could turn into the Hulk? Was there any chance that the characters who said Banner was cured… were wrong? That somehow, after Amadeus’ actions, both were the Hulk? That Banner’s Hulk was only dormant, waiting for the right time.

        There is a reason that the cure of Banner story was a Civil War II tie in. Marvel specifically chose to tell THAT story as the Civil War II tie in specifically because they wanted the information there to inform our understanding of his death. Because the whole point of that scene in Civil War II was the fact that all the rest of the evidence suggested Banner was fine. The only source that suggested Banner was a threat was Ulysses

        Remember, Ulysses couldn’t see the future. He had a cosmic level ability to instinctively analyse the world and make highly informed predictions. He even had the ability to pick up on things that the Avengers didn’t know existed. This means two things. Firstly, Ulysses had access to data that the Avengers didn’t and a cosmic level ability to interpret it – even Banner, the expert at Gamma Radiation, wouldn’t be able to make an as informed prediction, because Ulysses has a cosmic power level.
        Secondly, Ulysses, despite his cosmic level powers, was occasionally wrong. It was very, very rare, but Bendis made a point in showing that in one instance, Ulysses was wrong. Ulysses’ powers, despite their sheer power level, were predictions and therefore he could be incorrect in his predictions.

        Both of these reasons justify Ulysses’ prediction that Banner would Hulk out, for different reasons. The first reason justifies the scene by saying that Ulysses knew more than Amadeus, Tony and everyone else to checked the data. The second reason justifies the prediction by saying that Ulysses was completely wrong. And the fact that we don’t know which reason applies here is the entire point of the scene. Did Clint have enough evidence to make that shot? When everyone else said otherwise, how much trust can we put in Ulysses’ predictions? He only makes a single confirmed mistake in the entire crossover, but does that justify his use or does that make his powers untrustworthy?

        The fact that Ulysses disagrees with everyone else isn’t a mistake. It is the whole point of the scene. I’m not saying you have to think Civil War II is great, but I think Ulysses’ prediction of Banner is well justified by the narrative. The whole point of the scene is that Ulysses disagrees with everyone else, and there are two compelling explanations why.

  2. Crossover: The key idea that makes this structure I’ve used to discuss Secret Empire work is that previously, each issue has been clearly defined into segments. There was a clean, scene by scene divide allowing me to use each scene as the seed for a greater conversation. But I would argue that the beginning of this issue breaks this rule by intertwining scenes together. The dream stuff and the DarkForce are the same scene. They are supposed to belong together.

    This unlocks the purpose of the scene quite easily. The New York scenes are all about hope. Claire has faith that using Dagger is only a temporary measure. Strange seems to be finding some measure of success, and Fisk’s entire plan is built on the faith that the superheroes will save the day. It isn’t ignorant of the greater dangers. Dagger is suffering and the hospital Fisk is supplying truly needs the help. But hope is key.

    And yet it is bookended with the Steve Rogers scene recontextualisies the whole sequence. The brief moment of hope we had in the last issue is revealed to be a lie. The Red Skull is a horrible villain, interested only in murder. The heroes fight for hope, but ultimately the situation is hopeless. This issue’s theme in a nutshell.

    What is interesting here, as the story moves past the half way point, is the change in rules on the structure. Such reliance on a scene using multiple locations like this is a unique feature so far, but likely a necessary one as plots come together. As the story threads come together, the structure has fundamentally changed. The dream and the DarkForce are intimately connected, as is the mole hunt and the Hulk scene. The worlds are colliding, as they start their approach to the ending, with everyone together

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    ‘I did it 35 minutes ago’: The key dramatic tool in Secret Empire is the rapid shifts between hope and hopelessness. It sums up the fundamental theme of Secret Empire – that even in the darkest circumstances, we should fight on with the hope that we can fix it. And the important thing here is that both the Hope spots and the quashing of that hope has to be true. Because to truly get that sense of hopelessness, there has to be a sense that constant, relentless defeat. Which gives Secret Empire a pretty easy structure. The heroes think they have a chance… until it collapses in every possible way. Repeat until ending (there is, of course, more to this. You need to have progression of other story points, both to satisfyingly set up the ending and to provide the sense of progression to keep the reader invested. But the emotional arc is characterised by the constant shifts between hope and hopelessness, and back)

    But Spencer has to also deal with the multiple storylines, as well as the needs to fit the story into a series of individual issues. Which creates some structural issues about how everything comes together. The emotional arc sometimes ends up playing second fiddle to the needs of everything else. For example, the first Red Room scene is the perfect example of a scene that, by itself, is fantastic, but struggles as part of the greater whole.

    As an individual scene, it is truly, truly fantastic. It is a perfectly executed of strong storytelling. The scene shifts perfectly shifts from hopelessness to hopeful, as Miles challenges Natasha’s philosophy and, for the first time, gets Natasha to rethink her direction.

    But as a scene in the greater whole, it suffers. Spencer knows exactly the place of this scene with respect to the future, as this scene emotionally positions the reader into a position of hopefulness, before the Underground’s collapse returns us the hopelessness. But it suffers a major issue. The previous issue.

    The scene ends up being insincere, because after last issue, everything has already gone wrong. Last issue revealed that the Underground was using second hand intelligence, and had no ability to find more cube pieces. AND they were under attack by HYDRA. In the greater context of the story, Miles’ words are ironic. And the intended emotional arc is undercut. In the greater context, the scene doesn’t go from Hopelessness to Hope. But from Hopelessness to Delusion. Negative to Negative.

    This scene really needed to take place before the events of last issue. Instead, it serves as an example of how, no matter how strong a scene is, a scene must also be placed correctly for full effect. It is the curse of the event. A story so big, strong structure becomes more important yet more difficult than ever.

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    Shatterpoints: The one important thing about critiquing a story is to remember that the act of creating a story is incredibly complicated. They are elaborate constructions, which take a lot of effort to even do badly. It is much easier to point out the small mistake that causes the issue than it is create something so perfect that it fixes the mistake. Especially in something as elaborate as an event. And yet, unfortunately, such a small mistake ultimately does matter, does.

    For example, the combined mole hunt/Hulk scene doesn’t work for two, very small errors. Firstly, Spencer hasn’t properly set up Bobbi as a suspect. Instead, he went too far, creating a panel last issue that reads like an actual reveal, not a clue. Looking back at the comments of Secret Empire 5, we all thought that Bobbi had betrayed the team
    This is a problem, because it completely throws our understanding of the scene. Spencer wants to plays this for the tension of having no idea who the bad guy is. But we already ‘know’. So that when Pietro, early on, turns things back on Bobbi, we are satisfied that justice has been met. The tension instantly dissipates, as the heroes have found the mole. Except she hasn’t been talking to HYDRA, but Maria Hill, and that means that the build up in tension needs to start again. If Bobbi had been treated as a suspect, there would be legitimate tension as Pietro and Bobbi, prime suspects, circled each other and the reader was unsure which one was the real traitor, until the twist that it is actually Scott (Called it).

    Meanwhile, the Hulk stuff has one simple flaw. As part of the mysterious nature of Banner’s resurrection, Banner has a dimensional accent. Through lettering, something is being foreshadowed. And what exactly is being foreshadowed isn’t obvious, since this Banner can’t be from the obvious candidate, the Ultimate Universe.
    The problem here is that it is distracting. I criticised the Banner reveal last issue for turning the cliffhanger from ‘How the hell are the Underground going to get out of this’ to ‘Yah, Banner is back’, and you have the same impact here. The distraction of Banner’s resurrection hurts the building tension.

    And because these two parts are intertwined, they share the same build up in tension. The scene’s tension comes from the fact that the Underground is divided while Banner is being primed. And yet, too tiny mistakes undercut the tension, creating a scene that should be tense, but is constantly undercut

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    Saving Private Citizens: Honestly, I love Yu’s art of the battle. The specifics may not be as perfectly clear, but the most important fact is the emotional arcs. And unlike, say, the Red Room scene, the rest of this issue handles the shift in emotional arcs really well. Unlike the Red Room scene, which only has a single from negative to positive, this battle intentionally is constantly shifting between them.

    After what is supposed to be a scene raising the tension as high as it could go and starting the reader at negative, a simple panel of Clint makes our starting point clear. But Yu so fantastically depicts his rescue, that we cheer (helped by Spencer’s caption, but mostly Yu). That positive emotion builds as Yu so easily depicts the hell yeah moments like the Avengers robots, so that even when the connective tissue is confusing (why does robot Cap have the wrong shield? It would be much less confusing if he wasn’t holding the shield of evil Cap), the big moments of success work. He quickly sells Odinson, in three panels having the emotional arc plummet and then restore, all thanks to great artwork. A fantastic work, showing why Secret Empire is my favourite work of Yu’s.

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    Mauve Shirt: Does anyone really care about (looks at Dramatic Persona at start, see only her supervillain name) Madame HYDRA? Anyone who hasn’t read the Steve Rogers series would barely know who she is. And those who had read the Steve Rogers series… Unfortunately, that series wasted its potential by being so focused on setting up Secret Empire that it never got an identity of its own. Which really hurts this scene. The idea is simple. Steve takes down Tony, so Tony activates a hidden nuke, having lost faith in trying to save Steve and trying to take Steve with him. So Madame HYDRA comes in to save the day, teleporting Steve away at the cost of her life. Except we don’t care that much about Madame HYDRA. She simply isn’t that big of a deal, and not enough work has been done to connect her to the reader other than a vague idea of being important to Steve. So what is supposed to feel like the small win the Underground get out of the loss falls kind of flat.

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    Putting Your Face On: A key idea about Natasha is the idea of the persona. More than anyone, Natasha is built around the personas she wears. As a spy, she is trained to be able to be whatever she needs to be, and combined with her utilitarian mindset, she by her nature never what she appears to be. Even in social contexts, you can see Natasha do so. Which is why that final scene is so powerful. We so rarely get to see Natasha’s true self, merely the one that she has decided to wear.

    Such a moment has to be rare, but Spencer pulls it off wonderfully. The best part is that Spencer doesn’t linger, and quickly has Natasha return to the game. Natasha quickly chooses a new persona, and making the choice to be active and vengeful. It is a powerful and effective moment, taking the mixed issue and giving it an emotional heart. It takes Natasha’s word of wisdom at the start and actualises it with Natasha showing those same survival instincts, and even ends on a slightly triumphant note. Despite everything, they are still fighting back.

  3. Couple of other thigns to note. The reveal of what the Red SKull cliffhanger actually means has made this dream stuff pointless again. I still feel the exact same themes the dream stuff are achieving would be best done through Sam Wilson.

    Michael, that miniseries about Kingpin protecting New York kind of already exists – that seems to be what Hopeless is writing in Doctor Strange. The ‘DarkFOrce New York’ Secret EMpire miniseries

    Also, on the Hulk, I’ve never liked the idea that Banner and Hulk are two seperate identities. I much prefer the idea that Hulk ultimately is Banner, it is just Banner’s id completely unleashed. That ultiamtely, Banner wants to go around smashing as the Hulk. Best quote I read someone say to describe this is that post-Huk Banner is a man who drank too much and knows he should feel guilty because of the stupid shit he has done, but, deep down, really enjoyed it

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