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.
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