Saturday, January 13, 2018

On Secret Empire, Marvel's not-so-problematic problematic event series

I can't recall another instance in my comics-reading life where online reaction to a particular storyline was so virulently negative but, upon my consulting the text, I failed to see it where exactly the anger was coming from. In the case of writer Nick Spencer's year-long "Secret Empire" story, which began with the "Avengers: Standoff" crossover event and built through the 25-issue Captain America: Steve Rogers series before reaching its climax in the Secret Empire miniseries, a great deal of the fan, reader and just casual observer upset seemed to stem more from the marketing of the book--up to including comments from Spencer and others at Marvel--than the text of any of those books.

Well, that and, of course, the political climate in the real United States around the time the long-simmering storyline started ramping up. Just as fascists were overthrowing the United States of the Marvel Universe, the real United States of our universe had just elected a president who attracted fans of fascism,  as well as actual, self-proclaimed Nazis and white supremacists; a president who, at one point, even proclaimed moral equivalency between a crowd of demonstrating Nazis and white supremacists and the people who were protesting them in Charlottesville, after one of their members literally murdered a counter-demonstrator.

So yeah, bad timing.

The plot of Secret Empire is, on its face, as comic book-simple as possible: A hero goes bad and, because this hero is Captain America, he betrays the United States and its globalist super-police army SHIELD for its rival, Hydra, which has long been aligned with his World War II-borne enemy, The Red Skull. Hydra is, in the Marvel Universe, essentially crypto-Nazis, adopting some of their affectations and aesthetics. Spencer went to rather great pains to decouple Hydra from actual Nazis in the pages of Captain America: Steve Rogers, but Twitter-ers either weren't reading or didn't care.

Among the louder concerns I still remember hearing about? It was offensive that Captain America would join Hydra, since Hydra is kinda sorta Nazi-ish (Although Hydra was created by Jewish creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the mid-1960s as an opposite army for SHIELD and company to fight; after the one-time Nazi Red Skull joined, it was later retconned to be a centuries-old organization that allied itself with the Axis Powers during World War II. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe--i.e. the popular Marvel Universe--they seem to have originated with the Nazis rather than with ancient aliens, but then, I don't watch Agents of SHIELD so I don't know for sure).

It was offensive that the character would join Hydra, since he was created by two Jewish comic book creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.

It was offensive that a variant cover depicted Magneto as a member of Hydra, since Magneto is Jewish (For what it's worth, that was just a variant cover*, showing a popular-ish Marvel character in a redesigned costume, little different than a Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane or Venom version of Magneto; this version of Hydra is completely generic, even anodyne in their fascist philosophy of the strong should rule the weak, something perfectly in line with life-long mutant supremacist Magneto's own philosophy; and you can't judge a comic book by its cover, let alone its variant cover, as Magneto's not a part of Hydra and in the 400+ Secret Empire collection, his only appearance are two panels of him chucking chunks of metal at a Hydra helicarrier near the climax).

Reading the actual Secret Empire collection, however--which, in Marvel's curation, includes Secret Empire #0-#10, Free Comic Book Day 2017 (Secret Empire), Captain America #25 and Secret Empire Omega--it is, for the most part, as politics-free as can be. Spencer's massive story reduces Hydra's philosophy into that simple strength > weakness formulation that is, perhaps, uncomfortably close to the whole idea of superheroes. There's no real racial component or nationalist component, except to the degree that Inhumans--whom Marvel has spent several years transforming into the new mutants--are a persecuted minority, and thus have to stand in for all minorities, I guess (Mutants, if you're wondering, have established their own breakaway nation-state in northern California somewhere off-panel). But then, that's the bad guys, the villains persecuting them; the book doesn't suggest that Inhumans/mutants/minorities should be persecuted any more than any of the scores of X-Men stories featuring anti-mutant bigots can be read as a writer or publisher's endorsement of bigotry.

At its heart, the storyline remains almost as simple as it seemed from the start. Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, was zapped by Kobik, a sentient cosmic cube with the brain of a little girl, near the climax of "Standoff." Cosmic cubes being reality-warping paperweights that grant wishes, they make for nice, easy tools for super-comics writers, an in-story free pass to do pretty much anything the writer wants. As I've said before, Cap being made into a Hydra sleeper agent by virtue of a cosmic cube is little different than had he been zapped with a beam from a gun marked "Acme villainizer." It's a pretty simple heel turn, albeit it one that hundreds and hundreds of pages were devoted to chronicling.

I suppose it's possible Spencer did part of his storyline too well, in that he didn't make things quite a simple as he could have. Kobik was brainwashed by The Red Skull to believe that Hydra was the cat's pajamas, and so when circumstances arose in which she had to fix Steve Rogers, she also fixed the fact that he wasn't Hydra by making him Hydra. But in the pages of Steve Rogers especially, Spencer gave Rogers' new memories and magically-altered history a lot of attention. Kobik appeared to have re-written the world so that, in Steve and the rest of Hydra's understanding, in reality, they were going to win World War II, break with the Axis and usher in an age of benevolent dictatorship for the entire world, but for the fact that the U.S. created a cosmic cube and re-wrote reality to suit their vision, and so Cap was simply remembering what he believed to be the "real" version of events, and fighting to restore that version.

Here, then, is where Spencer gets political, but it's a lot more subtle than having the United States conquered by Nazis. The war of Secret Empire, and the year or so worth of comics leading up to it, was essentially a conflict of narratives, between characters who believed in different sets of facts, different histories, different realities, albeit with a superhero twist. In Captain America's narrative, Hydra was not only right, they were the rightful rulers of the world, having already won it once, but they were robbed by the U.S.' usage of the most fantastic weapon imaginable. In the narrative believed by Cap's adversaries, the rest of the heroes of the Marvel Universe--which, remember, is supposed to be just the real world + superheroes, he believes in an insane lie planted in his head by Kobik.

Less subtle, but more subtle than Twitter would have one believe, is the fact that Spencer has the United States crumple almost immediately to the idea of benevolent dictatorship, and are, in fact, even willing to put up with an awful lot of sueprvillainy in their day-to-day lives, like black, spikey super-robots and a surveillance state, if it means they don't have to worry about terrorists. Okay, maybe this isn't all that subtle; passages of Secret Empire #1 read like less timely takes on the 9/11-era security vs. freedom debate than what we saw in Mark Millar's Civil War (we don't have to call it Civil War I now, do we...?), and I suppose there is a belated, if clumsy, indictment of America's quick embrace of neoconservatives in times of danger, but...I don't know, it's pretty garbled. Steve Rogers' Hydra is much more Bush administration than Trump administration, and it's much more The Empire/First Order from the Star Wars movies than either. (For what it's worth, the original "Secret Empire" was a Watergate-era Captain America storyline by Steve Englehart and Saul Buscema that was an indictment of the Nixon administration, ending with a pretty strong implication that Nixon himself was the head of the evil organization that had infiltrated the U.S.).

The story is, quite naturally, a complete mess. At around 400-pages, it had an appreciably epic scale, and it is a rather rare Big Two "graphic novel" that reads like a novel. It took me two sittings, including the better part of a sick day, to read. Spencer writes the entire thing, but because this isn't just a storyline but an "event," it sprawled throughout Marvel's entire publishing line--Wikipedia says there were some 23 different comic book titles that tied-in, ranging from one-shots to whole story arcs from different books--and so one imagines a great deal of what happens in the book and seems to come out of left field was done so on purpose, leaving it up to, say, the X-Men writers to detail the founding of the new mutant nation or Kitty Pryde's team's adventures in the Darkforce dimension and so on.

But because of the publishing strategy, like Civil War II, this collection includes some stops and starts, and doesn't flow all that fluidly; there's an awkward, scattershot approach to it as a whole (it's worth noting, however, that this reads a lot better than Civil War II, and makes a heck of a lot more sense...that said, a lot of scenes and status quos in the Secret Empire are premised on the events of Civil War II, which, I suppose, makes it necessary reading).

Visually, it's even worse. There are about six primary artists, meaning pencil artists or artists who handle everything, and too many inkers, colorists and "with" credits on the table of contents. Worse, little to no effort was put to finding and hiring artists whose styles mesh in any appreciable way. The two artists responsible for the most pages are probably Steve McNiven and Andrea Sorrentino; the latter has a style I personally abhor and find incredibly challenging to read. It's extremely photo-referency, to the point tat it looks like photographs run through filters.

It's quite off-putting, especially when sandwiched between pages of more traditional-looking pencil-and-ink super-comics work. For example, Sorrentino's Iron Fist wears a mask that doesn't have the opaque white eyes of, um, every drawing of Iron Fist ever, but it has big eye holes cut into them. Some of Sorrentino's art just seems...inaccurate, too. For example, Civil War II ended with Iron Man Tony Stark kinda sorta dying, his body going into a vague coma-like state, while an AI based on his own personality began appearing to Riri Williams, his kinda sorta legacy replacement, Ironheart.

Throughout Secret Empire, Stark plays an understandably large role, and the AI seems to now be Stark in hologram form; it even wears a suit of armor independently, and rarely if ever appears with Ironheart. Spencer has Stark saying and doing all kinds of very un-AI-like things, but Sorrentino goes even further, to the point where he just seems to be drawing Tony Stark, not a hologram of Tony Stark or a suit of Iron Man armor with a hologram of Tony Stark's head projecting out of it. Were it not for the colorist almost always remembering to color Stark's head blue when, say, he goes into a bar in Montana disguised in a hooded sweatshirt, there would be no suggestion of what Stark actually is at the moment.

And man, then there's the action scene near the beginning, where Captain America and Hydra route Iron Man and a mess of superheroes who meet him in battle in Washington D.C. A bunch of...stuff happens, including Thor getting sent to a different dimension, Cap wielding her hammer, Scarlet Witch being possessed by a demon, but none of that is actually apparent, or even really makes sense as it's happening, and it's not until later dialogue that we begin to figure out what the hell happened in the battle, as it is mostly just vague poses, with some yelling and sound-effects.

It's actually kind of the opposite of how comics are supposed to work.

In the first passage of the story, that told in the #0 issue and the Free Comic Book Day issue, Captain America actualizes the plans he has been laying throughout Steve Rogers. Via mind-control, he captures and turns most of SHIELD to Hydra, taking his long-time girlfriend (and former SHIELD Commander) Sharon Carter hostage, rather than taking over her mind, too.

Captain Marvel, The Guardians of The Galaxy, Alpha Flight and a bunch of heavy-ish hitters are off-planet preparing to fight an alien invasion that Cap secretly planned, and then he turns on a super-force field, locking them out in space to face an infinite wave of alien invaders until they die.

A sizable swathe of heroes like Doctor Strange and the current Defenders are battling a small army of sueprvillains in the streets of New York City when all of Manhattan gets shunted off into the Darkforce dimension, further dwindling the heroes available to fight Captain America and Hydra.

Finally, realizing that the heroes and the U.S. are under attack, Tony Stark (or his AI...whatever) sends everyone to Washington D.C., where they are surprised to find themselves facing Captain America and Hydra. Sorrentino draws the 10-page battle sequence and, as stated above, it's illustrated gibberish and nonsense, just artfully designed images that fail to tell a story.

That may be, in part, because it is hard--no, impossible--to imagine how on earth the likes of Baron Zemo, The Taskmaster, Arnim Zola and a couple of other Hydra knuckleheads could possibly slow down, let alone take down the combined might of The Avengers, The U.S. Avengers, The Champions and others...Spencer and Sorrentino just end the scene with a dramatic image of Captain America holding Mjolnir above his head, but, um, I don't really see how that translates into him beating up, say, Hercules and two different Hulks, you know? So perhaps Spencer's script urged Sorrentino's vague art on.

The next passage, some 40 or so pages in, is where we see the state of the Hydra-controlled United States and...it's kind of hard to suspend one's disbelief enough to buy, honestly, which is really saying something, because mere pages before I was okay with, say, a big red Hulk with a mustache and aviator glasses fighting alongside a character named Squirrel Girl, you know?

America is now a dystopia, so radically changed in everything from basic geography to school text books that it seems like years, rather than maybe weeks, have passed. The world Spencer and artist Steve McNiven and Jay Leisten here present us with seems like the sort of alternate future that "Days of Future Past" or Age of Ultron were set in.

Congress has semi-surrendered the United States to Hydra high command, with Captain America Steve Rogers acting as their leader. Cap also leads The Avengers, which now consists of former Thor Odinson, Deadpool, a reprogrammed Vision, a possessed Scarlet Witch and a handful of villains, like Doctor Octopus (I think that's who that's supposed to be) and Taskmaster and The Black Ant, who continue to serve as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Spencer's Secret Empire narrative.

As previously mentioned, Inhumans are rounded up and put in prison camps, while mutants have formed their own independent nation state on the West Coast (um, again). The streets are patrolled by Hydra storm-troopers in head-to-toe black-and-red costumes with skull-shaped masks and spiked billy clubs, and Hydra robots built with adaptoid technology hunt superheroes.

Most of the remaining heroes now dwell outside of Las Vegas in The Mount, where a distracted Tony Stark AI tinkers with shit and Hawkeye Clint Barton and Black Widow try to keep everything together.

Things get more hard to swallow before they get less hard to swallow, including Captain America ordering the televised execution of Rick Jones--by firing squad!--and the aerial bombardment of Las Vegas, essentially wiping the city off the map.

From there, our heroes splinter for a while. Hawkeye endorses Stark's plan to take a team--Hercules, Mockingbird, Quicksilver, Sam Wilson and Ant-Man Scott Lang--to seek out shards of the cosmic cube in order to "fix" Captain America. Black Widow, meanwhile, has her own plan: To assassinate Captain America. Spider-Man Miles Morales, still believing there must be something to Ulysses' vision of him killing Cap on the stairs of the Capitol building from Civil War II, volunteers to join her, and The Champions, Wasp Nadia Pym and Ironheart all go with, to support their Spidey.

Meanwhile, Captain America struggles to rule America and keep his cabal from turning on him, all the while seeking out the cube fragments for himself, which actually serves to keep him from going completely into, like, Doctor Doom territory, as the existence of the cube means he really can undo every sin he commits, up to and including bringing Rick Jones back to life.

While the main plot is going on--and, it will surprise no one to hear that its resolution involves the various groups of heroes extricating themselves from their various predicaments and then all returning to D.C. for a dramatic Round Two--there's a pretty goofy parallel track in which a bearded, amnesiac blond hunk named Steve Rogers finds himself lost in the woods, where he encounters versions of Bucky Barnes, Sam Wilson, The Red Skull and a few mysterious ladies. During these sequences, Spencer narrates rather purpley about hope, and how exactly these relate to the rest of the action involving the other Steve Rogers is, well, it's ultimately kind of dumb.

Bearded Steve Rogers is essentially the parts of Steve Rogers that Kobik had to excise from Steve to make him Hydra, although it's awfully vague; perhaps this Steve is the original, "real" Steve, and she replaced him with the other, Hydra-affiliated Steve on Earth, trapping the other Steve in the cube with her? At any rate, by the climax, there are two Steve Rogers' fighting one another, one of them borne of each of the two narratives.

Remember what I said about a relative lack of subtlety? Well, here we're borrowing liberally from the Superman-fighting-himself-in-a-junkyard section of Superman III. You know how it ends--Secret Empire received such a negative reaction that Marvel made the insane move of issuing a press release to assure readers that as bad as things might seem for Captain America at the beginning of the story he will, in fact, make it out okay in the end (Oddly, even one of the characters we are told dies during the events of the series--Black Widow--is teased as very much alive at the end of the story).

Even the Bad Cap sticks around. Much of Secret Empire Omega, which serves as an epilogue, features the two Steves having a conversation, with Good Cap set to go out and try to atone for what his evil doppelganger did while he was stuck in a cosmic cube or whatever, and Bad Cap doing pull-ups in a prison cell, where he can remain a viable Marvel villain.

What's next? Well, Marvel relaunched Captain America as part of their "Legacy" initiative, meaning it launched with a new, random-feeling high number. The new creative team of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee are incredibly talented, and seemingly especially chosen for their ability to tell more classic-feeling Captain America narratives.

I'm sure they will be good comics. I don't see anyone talking about them, though; is that a good thing or a bad thing...?



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So the whole time I was writing this post, the hardcover collection of Secret Empire was sitting within arm's reach of me, which means I've spent an awfully long time with that cover in my peripheral vision. It is one of the covers for Secret Empire #1, repurposed as the cover for the entire collection, and it just just a spectacularly poor choice for the cover, based on the characters chosen to place on it. Few are in the story in any sizable way.

Captain America obviously plays an enormous role throughout the series, and Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange play sizable roles as well. Most of the other characters, though? Rocket Raccoon appears in several scenes alongside Star-Lord, and Ironheart and Ms. Marvel play small roles.

Thor and Spider-Man, though, appear at the beginning and the end, maybe a sentence or two of dialogue apiece. I have no memory of Medusa, "Old Man" Logan, Storm or any Human Torches in the book at all...I think Logan might have been in there somewhere.

Meanwhile, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Spider-Man Miles Morales, Sam Wilson, The Punisher and Maria Hill don't even get as much cover-space as the SHIELD helicarriers or the Chitauri warship.





*Marvel was obviously listening, though, and reacted to concerns. That "controversial" Hydra-ized Magneto cover is not one of the 34 variant covers that appear in the back of this collection, which does include many Hydra-ized covers in two different formats, the vast majority of them featuring characters who are not Hydra agents in the story itself.

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