Back in May 2016, writer Nick Spencer launched Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 — and shocked the internet with the revelation that Captain America had become an agent of Hydra! Steve Rogers's reality had been rewritten by the power of a living Cosmic Cube, and then took to biding his time as he awaited the ultimate #Hydra power-grab!
It's all coming to a head #Marvel's ongoing Summer 2017 event — 'Secret Empire.' Nick Spencer has taken point on the main book, telling an ominous tale in which Steve Rogers ascends to a position of phenomenal power in the Marvel Universe. The #0 issue actually began with Steve Rogers winning, and the miniseries since then has explored the heroes' attempts to defeat the new Hydra Empire. Marvel has recently announced that the event will end with Secret Empire: Omega, a one-shot that promises redemption for Captain America.
A Bold, Politically Aware Narrative
By all accounts, 'Secret Empire' will essentially be a 'last hurrah' for the politically-aware plots that have been a mainstay of Marvel Comics for the last few years. Spencer — a former Democrat politician — has deliberately drawn parallels between the fascist Steve Rogers and President Donald Trump. That was most noticeable in the one-shot Civil War II: The Oath, which was a crucial part of the build-up to 'Secret Empire.' Released just a week after Donald Trump's inauguration, it featured chilling political imagery and even a ceremonial 'inauguration' for Steve Rogers as new head of S.H.I.E.L.D..
Deliberately contrasting Steve Rogers with the 'Legacy Hero' of Sam Wilson's Captain America, Spencer is using these two characters to explore the question of American self-identity.
The Nazi Controversy
Given the current political environment in the USA, it's no surprise Nick Spencer's strategy has proved divisive. The core problem is that most fans associate Hydra with Nazis, and thus this whole plot seems to transform the greatest superhero symbol of American self-identity into a Nazi.
Nick Spencer's protested otherwise, and in Secret Empire #0 he went to great lengths to show Hydra as having a far richer history than the Nazi movement. To be sure, he views Hydra as fascists; but not as Nazis.
@franklykurtz I think you're pretending to speak for a lot more people than you are here. And for the millionth time, Steve is not a Nazi.— Nick Spencer (@nickspencer) October 28, 2016
However hard Spencer tries, he's unlikely to win this one — not least after Spencer himself wrote Captain America: Steve Roger #18, which featured Hydra's Captain America dictating terms to the world's leaders. The issue evoked strong memories of the ill-fated policy of Appeasement, which allowed Adolf Hitler to rise to power.
Outside of the comics, the truth is that the movies have ensured most readers will equate Hydra with Nazis. Even Marvel's own #AgentsOfSHIELD has chipped in, with the character of Simmons declaring:
"Hydra are Nazis. Every last one of them."
A Call For Patience
The day before the release of Secret Empire #1, Marvel issued a call for patience. They assured readers that they'd gone into this controversial arc knowing how it would play out all along — and that they believed it would be worth waiting to see how the core Secret Empire miniseries ends.
"What you will see at the end of this journey is that [Captain America's] heart and soul -- his core values, not his muscle or his shield -- are what save the day against Hydra and will further prove that our heroes will always stand against oppression and show that good will always triumph over evil."
It's a remarkable indication of just how nervous the House of Ideas truly is about 'Secret Empire' — that kind of statement is unprecedented in comic book history. Still, the placatory tone seems to have done the trick, and a lot of the heat and fury has died down. Much to Nick Spencer's delight, the core book's sales are performing well, consistently in the top 10 of each month's comics.
In the aftermath of 'Secret Empire,' Marvel is moving on. With the event halfway through, the comic book publisher is laying the groundwork for its next era; #MarvelLegacy. The last year has been a troubling one for Marvel, not least because of the political fallout from 'Secret Empire,' and their dear hope is that 'Marvel Legacy' will succeed. Only time will tell.