Over the last few years, we've seen Marvel Comics run through a familiar cycle; each summer, the company puts out a Summer Event that transforms the status quo, allowing the whole range to be relaunched in the aftermath. This year's Summer Event, Secret Empire, is probably the most controversial yet. Just the setup last year led to chilling death threats, and social media remains buzzing with fury against writer Nick Spencer.
What's going on? Why has Secret Empire been so controversial? And is the controversy justified? It's time to take a deep-dive...
To understand the controversy behind Secret Empire, you've really got to start by casting your eyes to last year's Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. In that issue, writer Nick Spencer launched an arc that set the internet ablaze; he revealed that Steve Rogers, the Sentinel of Liberty himself, was actually an agent of #Hydra.
The twist was made all the more shocking because Marvel deliberately chose not to market it, meaning readers expecting to pick up your standard #CaptainAmerica comic got a real shock. The news went viral, with the Internet turning its fury on Nick Spencer and Marvel's Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of Publishing, Tom Brevoort. Some reactions were pretty chilling, with a disabled former US Marine making a deeply disturbing death threat against Brevoort and Spencer.
Even as the Internet blazed with righteous indignation, though, the comic was flying off the shelves.
Sales skyrocketed, and despite a massive overprint, the issue completely sold out. Marvel rushed it back to print with three different covers, chalking this one up as a win.
The last year has seen the controversial arc continue, building relentlessly towards Secret Empire. The very first issue of the core Secret Empire miniseries sent shockwaves across the Marvel Universe; it featured Steve Rogers's plans coming to fruition, and this dark inversion of Captain America successfully taking charge of the United States.
Why Has There Been Such An Extreme Reaction?
The main problem, it seems, is that Hydra are strongly associated with Nazism; you need look no further than the #MCU to see that, with Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier driving the point home. Even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has weighed in on this one, with Simmons insisting:
"Hydra are Nazis. Every last one of them."
Nick Spencer disagrees. In the comics, the tie between Hydra and Nazism was actually a retcon, and Secret Empire #0 went to great lengths to show Hydra as something far older. Fans may associate Hydra with Nazism; Nick Spencer clearly doesn't. Thus, as a writer, he's telling a story where Captain America becomes a fascist, but not a Nazi specifically.
It's worth noting, too, that Spencer isn't glorifying fascism. Captain America has become a villain — everything Marvel's said and done has reinforced that point. In fact, Spencer has compared Hydra to the Empire in #StarWars, suggesting that the heroes who oppose Hydra are the 'rebels' in his story.
Nick Spencer is telling a powerful, politically aware story that questions the nature of American self-identity. That's why he's deliberately set up two Captain Americas, Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson, and carefully positioned them to represent powerful political messages. It's no coincidence that, just a week after Donald Trump's inauguration, Marvel published Civil War II: The Oath — featuring Steve Rogers inaugurated as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. in an overblown ceremony.
Given that American politics really is pretty divided right now, Spencer's choice to use comics to explore that division in a grand spectacle was always going to be controversial.
Controversy And Marvel's Marketing Strategy
A core part of the problem, though, has been Marvel's marketing strategy. Marvel chose not to even hint at the significance of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 back when it was first released, trusting instead that social media reactions would do the marketing work for them. They were right, and initially seem to have been pleased. As David Gabriel, Senior Vice President of Sales & Marketing, explained:
"It was difficult to keep this big of a twist a secret until the very last minute. Since it hit, it’s been exciting to watch it take the world by storm."
Marvel's initial marketing approach essentially revolved around lighting a fire in the rich, dry woodland that is social media. Needless to say, that fire's still burning, and prominent figures in Marvel have gotten burnt. Tom Brevoort's pretty much given up on his popular Tumblr, while Nick Spencer's Twitter basically goes through a rinse-and-repeat cycle of advertising an issue, and winding up arguing with fans that Hydra aren't Nazis.
Disturbingly, retailers have noticed. Danica LeBlanc of Edmonton’s Variant Edition told Comic Book Resources:
"Even at our most charitable, we find that the story construction has not been mindful of how these connections and ideas make people uncomfortable, and both Marvel and Nick Spencer have been very vocally attempting to invalidate the emotions people have been feeling as a result."
Talking to retailers across the United States, CBR found that many were wary of supporting "Secret Empire." It doesn't help that Marvel's marketing strategy —featuring Hydra parties, which invite stores to become "agents of Hydra" — seems pretty tone-deaf to the controversy! Greg Gage of Utah's Black Cat Comics observed:
"There’s a rise of anti-Semitic behavior in this world right now. The last thing I want to do is force my queer, Jewish employee to wear a Hail Hydra shirt."
Meanwhile, Brian Hibbs, a respected figure among comic book fans, has questioned the logic of the whole event. In a recent editorial over at ComicsBeat, he pointed to the fact that Secret Empire #0 was accompanied by three other tie-in comics in the same week. To just follow the first week of Secret Empire would set you back $17.
Over and above all this, the fury on social media continues to rage. Marvel let some fans read the Free Comic Book Day Secret Empire one-shot at C2E2. No surprise, a controversial scene at the end of the issue leaked, and it looked as though Marvel was banking on controversy doing the marketing for them once again. In a surprising twist, though, Nick Spencer launched a furious tweet against the leaks:
From a marketing standpoint, it all looks... pretty confused.
The Dangers Of Our Reactions
And here's the real irony; this is a battle that the fans must not win. Critics of comics often argue that they're nothing but cheap entertainment, but like any comic book fan, I know better. I know that the best comics shine on a light on the reality of human emotions, exploring questions of youth, identity, sexuality, faith, grief, and the whole gamut of human experiences. I view comics as an art form, one that can indeed sometimes be simple entertainment, but that can also be culturally powerful and transcendent.
Right now, the USA is going through a time of political turmoil — and, if comics are worth anything as an art form, their characters really have to reflect that. In the wake of Watergate, Steve Englehart launched the first Secret Empire arc, as he felt a character like Captain America couldn't simply ignore current American politics. If that was true in the time of Nixon, it's also true in the time of Trump.
When Dan Slott launched Superior Spider-Man, a book that featured Doctor Octopus's mind taking control of Peter Parker's body, he wound up on the receiving end of a similar online backlash, complete with death threats. Once he'd finished his tale, though, fans began to calm down; now, the arc is viewed as a classic Spider-Man story, and has become dearly loved. In the short-to-medium term, it was controversial. In the long-term, it was a classic.
Here's the simple fact: we simply have no way of knowing what Nick Spencer has got planned. We're in that same short-to-medium-term period for Secret Empire. To make matters worse, when we insist Hydra are Nazis, we're effectively telling the author we know the story he's telling better than he does. We're refusing to read the book on its own terms, and instead insisting on importing our own interpretations into it. We need to take a step back, accept that this plot is happening, and either ride it out — or simply not buy the book. Once it's done, once we've seen the complete story, then we'll be able to give a proper response.
In the meantime, though, Marvel isn't faultless. Their marketing for Secret Empire has been tone-deaf, and they've not even tried to set people's minds at rest. Social media is like a forest of dry wood; strike a match in the hopes of generating heat, and soon your fire is blazing out of control. Sadly, that seems to have happened with "Secret Empire."
- Marvel Comics Takes On Donald Trump As Hydra Captain America Becomes A Force To Be Reckoned With
- In The Run Up To Marvel's 'Secret Empire', Hydra Captain America Just Murdered Red Skull In Cold Blood
- If You Thought Hydra Captain America Was Bad Be-Thor, Wait Until You See His Latest Power-Up
Ultimately, my recommendation to fans is this: calm down. We know that Marvel's changing direction after Secret Empire, and frankly, I suspect we won't see the publisher try major politically-aware arcs again in the near future. Sadly, by winning this fight we've given critics of comics more ammunition; if our comics don't dare to tackle issues of weight, then we're all the worse off.
Secret Empire #1 releases May 3rd. Will you be reading it? Let us know in the comments below.