By Ryan Mogge and Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Ryan: Every event in your memory left some sort of mark. When it comes to trauma, those marks are more like deep grooves. No matter how much you heal, or how much better off you are, you are changed by what has happened to you. In the wake of a rebellion against a group of fascists bent on world domination with the face of the most trusted man alive, you certainly can’t expect to move forward without being changed. In Secret Empire: Omega 1, Nick Spencer and Andrea Sorrentino offer a mixture of back-to-normal plot points and artful rumination that operate quite differently but still offer the same themes of trauma and the scars left behind.
The primary plot-line of the issue involves Steve Rogers sneaking into a black site facility to have an extended conversation with Hydra-Steve. Sorrentino uses an impressionistic style and imbues each page with layers of visual depth while Spencer’s script is dense with politics and allegory. The conversation spans the length of the issue and is punctuated with much more conventional scenes. We see Natasha’s funeral as well as Bucky investigating a sniper he believes to be the Black Widow underground. Emma Frost and Ambassador McCoy share a quiet moment as they watch New Tian become enfolded back into US control. Finally, Frank Castle is in full-Punisher mode as he channels his own regret and shame into killing as many Hydra agents as possible.
The issue begins with Steve arriving at Hydra-Steve’s secret prison. The two men are face to face for the first time since their battle, and immediately the issue of memory and the past is interwoven into the story.
Sorrentino’s art presents the two men as some sort of twisted yin yang. The color palate here extends throughout the issue. It serves both a practical and a symbolic function. The colors allow us to tell the two Steves apart. At the same time, the red light used for Hydra-Steve evokes traditional demonic imagery and, along with the blue used for Steve, provides a bit of a patriotic air. Each of the Steves stands in front of their preferred symbols made up of key images from their lifetimes. The images are mostly action shots from battle, but there are a couple of cover images for Steve. The inclusion of these classic images helps draw the contrast between reality and media portrayal. Steve mentions the millions spent by Stark to rehab his image in an offhand way, but the images here confirms that memories are formed by impressions. Steve’s memories consist of going in to battle, victorious moments, and press clippings.
As the conversation continues, Hydra-Steve and Steve reach several impasses, thanks to their divergent views on society and the appropriate way to lead. They are at odds throughout and neither is going to budge from their position.
Hydra-Steve taunts Steve with the idea that Hydra was so easily able to take control of the government because so many Americans naturally prefer fascist leadership. The more impressionistic art lends a dreamlike quality to these scenes versus what happens outside the prison. When Steve takes a moment to relay the story of the little boy whose fear of Captain America is both heartbreaking and reasonable, we start to understand why he has visited the other Steve. The people of the United States are right to be cautious.
In the sequence, the background turns red as the boy pulls away from Captain America. The scars left from Hydra-Cap are not gone, especially to the most impressionable. There is a fracture between Captain America and the citizens of the country. Spencer sets the issue up as a dual betrayal. Captain America has abused the trust of the citizenry and the citizenry has disappointed Cap by moving so easily away from freedom and justice and into the arms of a dictatorship.
The issue ends with a whispered “Hail Hydra” in the prison and it feels inevitable given the sense of unsettled business Spencer has applied to the issue at large.
Drew, what did you think? Did the competing styles work for you? What about the story possibilities prompted by the various non-prison scenes? And, not to be that girl, but don’t you think Bobbi would own and wear waterproof mascara, especially to Black Widow’s funeral?
Drew: As an artistic choice, I can understand using running mascara as a way of communicating “crying” in a legible way. But as a character choice, I definitely agree that Bobbi would have her shit more together. Though, honestly, I’m not sure I think her crying in that scene is a great character choice in the first place. Bobbi is the only one crying as that scene opens, but there’s something else that sets her apart from her scene partners. See if you can spot it:
Oh, right, she’s the only woman in the scene. I don’t bring this up to shout “sexism,” or even to spark a debate about whether reflecting gender norms about emotional expression perpetuates them, but it does feel like an odd choice. Partially because Bobbi has just as much experience to have a stiff upper lip as any of these men, but mostly because her tears undermine the dramatic effect of Clint’s breakdown. (Or is it that Clint’s breakdown undermine the dramatic effect of her tears? If her emotions don’t matter to this scene, it seems odd to hint at them at all.)
There certainly are some interesting seeds planted in those outside world scenes — I’m most intrigued at Bucky’s certainty that Nat is still alive (though I suspect it may be one of her New Red Room™ disciples) — but I can’t get over the depth and breadth of the social and political commentary Spencer and Sorrentino cover in Steve’s conversation with his doppelgänger. It starts with Hydra-Steve pointing out that he’s not guilty of any crime; all power he ultimately had was given to him freely, and those powers apparently included the ability to pardon himself for any crimes. If that last bit sounds far-fetched, it’s only because the question of whether the actual Commander-In-Chief has the power to pardon himself was an actual concern recently. Which is to say: not actually that far-fetched.
And the parallels only get stronger from there. Steve expresses faith in the notion that Hydra-Steve was only successful in rising to power because he was lying to people, telling them what they wanted to hear while secretly enacting his own sinister agenda. But Hydra-Steve counters with the suggestion that, no, people weren’t bamboozled by his lies, but excited by his truths. That is, the American people knowingly and enthusiastically followed a racist, fear-mongering fascist. And that question is the very one America has been grappling with in the wake of the election — is the American public evil, or just gullible?
Unfortunately, for anyone caught in the rubble, the distinction almost doesn’t matter. The most important detail for anyone affected by the various travel bans or transgender bans or the end of DACA is that it happened. Like the little boy, those people can’t be quick to trust (Captain) America, because they all saw how well that went this last time. And what’s worse, this last time has only empowered the people who want fascist rule.
Hydra-Steve suggests that the glimpse he offered the country of his dystopian vision has only made the idea harder to kill, and that’s obviously true of Trump’s vision for America. We’re no longer having the debate over whether transgendered individuals should be protected by the government from discrimination — we’re having the debate over whether the government has the right to discriminate against transgendered individuals. We’re no longer having the debate about whether peaceful protesters can stop traffic — we’re having the debate about whether motorists can indiscriminately plow through them with their cars. We’re no longer having the debate about whether it’s moral to ban muslims from entering the country — we’re having the debate about whether it’s legal.
People like to make a big deal out of sympathetic supervillains in comics, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that was quite so believable. This story isn’t about an alien invasion or the slow death of the multiverse, this is about America’s worst impulses undermining the ideals the country was built upon. Cosmic cube be damned, there’s nothing fantastical about that notion. Moreover, there’s nothing comforting in its conclusion. Steve’s closing words insist that we must all remain vigilant against fascism, and that he’s determined to keep up the good fight, but it’s hard not to feel dread when that guard whispers “Hail Hydra.” A war that never ends means the themes of this series will remain evergreen, but it’s also fucking exhausting.
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