Secret Empire: Omega 1: Discussion

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:

Bobbi and the boys

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's American Dream

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.

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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2 comments on “Secret Empire: Omega 1: Discussion

  1. Despite Spencer’s epic bungling of the themes of Secret Empire last issue, he actually does a great job here.The real problems come from everything else.

    I guess, unlike Civil War II: the Oath, which was an epilogue that was supposed to lead into the next event, Secret Empire Omega struggles a bit with the epilogues. The Punisher one is just weird. Who thought we needed a Punisher epilogue? IT is not like he was so important to the event that he needed some conclusion. So many other characters had a much better claim to an ending, that seeing Frank Castle felt baffling.
    Meanwhile, the Natasha one wasn’t exactly well done. Part of me wonders if it felt restrained by the new Tales of Suspense series they were setting up, but feels a bit restrained. unwilling to properly commit to the story it is telling. It needs to explain a bit more the exact specifics, so that it functions a bit better as its own story as ti does as an ad for the new series. Considering the premise of that series is that Natasha’s enemies a turning up dead, how about this for a prologue? Bucky has grabbed Natasha’s kill list, to give Natasha a memorial in a way that only a black ops spy could by finishing her work. Except before he makes the shot, the general is suddenly assassinated, and Bucky realises that it is Natasha’s tactics. Doesn’t that feel more substantive?
    The best part of this is, surprisingly, New Tian. The nation that Spencer never could work out what the purpose was. The idea of giving space to Secret Empire’s appendix sounds as stupid as giving Punisher one, except Spencer finally works out what he can do with New Tian. Havign New Tian play the countermelody, the reminder that to mutants, this is not a heroic victory but the replacement of one oppressive regime to another, is fantastic. That at least with Secret Empire, they had a nation. In retrospect, Mutants as Kurdistan is a fantastic idea, and it is a shame it took so long for Spencer to explore that. THis epilogue is a sobering reminder, these days, of the fact that even if Trump is defeated and America is restored to what it was before, those he targets with his discriminatory policies didn’t have things perfect before. Ultimately, they will still need to continue the fight for equal rights.

    But, of course, the real meat is the conversation between the two Steves. And yeah, this is the sort of thing Sorrentino was born to do, and he does such fantastic stuff. The collage of the Shield/HYDRA stuff is amazing. Or the first silhouette section, that uses the clear distinct lines to make strict factual nature of HYDRA Steve’s lines clear. The story is full of imaginative page spreads, built on finding the most imaginative and effect ways to communicate.
    Though there is one slightly weird one, in that I’ve wrestled with the page, and I’m trying to see whether it has a purpose that I can’t see, or if I’ve misinterpreted the effect SOrrentino is going for. THe page with the giant blue star in the middle. Is it just me, or does the much stronger focus on red and blue instead of the white, and the heavy use of diagonal lines and stars in the bar remind you more of the Confederate Flag than the American Flag? This feels like a very effective page design for the section on how HYDRA won’t disappear, the beliefs will linger on America. But not for that page.

    On the actual dialogue itself, this almost feels like the missing piece of Secret Empire (well, not THE missing piece. A story that ended as horribly as Secret Empire had a lot more missing). Still, a real discussion between Captain America and HYDRA Steve is the sort of meat that we really needed to have before all of this was over. And the conversation now manages to communicate the key message of Secret Empire. The fact that the conditions that lead to such events exist in today’s world, and that the very elements that make up such horrific regimes walk the streets, waiting for such a day. That we need to be constantly vigilant, always be willing to hold ourselves to a higher standard. That’s why Steve, in the most Captain America thing ever, is kind of happy that people won’t put him on a pedestal. That people won’t blindly follow him. Here, Secret Empire’s themes are distilled into key message, the one that we must follow (and the one that is more important to listen to than ever)

    Oh, and it is worth noting how well Spencer has reshaped HYDRA in this issue. Previously, HYDRA was a problematic villain in that they were in desperate need of updating. They were fascist, but despite everything, there wasn’t much more to them than that. Spencer has changed them, into a stronger villain. Still fascist, but now have an ideology. They now have an existence outside of themselves, a place in the universe other than ‘enemy for heroes to fight’. They even have their own version of the ‘stabbed in the back’ myth that every fascist has. Hell, if we’re lucky, HYDRA Steve can become the permanent HYDRA supreme leader, instead of having it be so vague and changing. HYDRA are real villains. Fascists, but with all those elements that real world fascists have/had. I now look forward to the idea of new stories about heroes fighting HYDRA.

    THis issue cannot escape the fact that it is the epilogue to an issue that failed so completely, it lowered my opinion of all parts of Spencer’s Captain America work. It doesn’t change the fact that Secret Empire’s ending is an out and out failure. But the issue is adequate, and does a good job on building on the great parts of Spencer’s run.

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