It all began in May 2016, when comics book fans were rocked by a shocking revelation: Steve Rogers, the Sentinel of Liberty himself, had become an agent of Hydra. Writer Nick Spencer has been telling an intriguing tale, one that explores concepts of national identity at a time of unprecedented political turmoil in the United States. As a result, the story became incredibly controversial, and Spencer even received death threats over it.
Now, with the release of today's Secret Empire #10, the story has finally come to a close. It's time to look back at the last year's worth of #Marvel Comics, and ask some critical questions. What was this story all about? How will it affect the future of Marvel Comics? And, fundamentally, was "Secret Empire" a success?
A Tale Of Two Americas
2016 saw possibly the most fractious and divisive Presidential election in American history. That was the backdrop against which Nick Spencer decided to tell a tale that explored questions of American self-identity in comic book form. In perhaps the most explicitly political arc Marvel has ever published, Spencer told a tale of two Americas; one symbolized by Sam Wilson, the other by HydraCap.
Under Spencer's pen, Sam Wilson's #CaptainAmerica became a champion of liberal, left-wing democracy, struggling to maintain his integrity in a world where he was forced to compromise. Meanwhile, Steve Rogers's corrupted Captain America was essentially a symbol of fascism, one step removed from Nazism. Marvel had planned this arc well before they understood just how culturally relevant the story would become, as Executive Editor Tom Brevoort explained:
"Having this go on in the middle of this odd and offbeat and contentious presidential primary process — and all of the stuff going on in the world right now — we guessed right. This in a sense feels more relevant right now than it would have a year ago."
The story continued, with Steve Rogers ascending to a position of terrifying power in a scene that was disturbingly similar to a Presidential inauguration. Again, the timing was remarkable, as the comic was released just a week after Trump's inauguration. Matters came to a head in the latest Marvel Summer Event, "Secret Empire," which saw Hydra successfully conquer the United States. The main narrative blurred the lines a little between political allegory and a classic superhero story in which the heroes decide to become heroes once again.
Secret Empire #10 Brings The Story To A Close
And that brings us to this week's Secret Empire #10, which saw reality rewritten once again. Spencer shifted his metaphor slightly, with Kobik — the living Cosmic Cube — restoring the Steve Rogers we know and love. We wound up with two Captain Americas going head-to-head; HydraCap and the classic Captain America. One stood for authoritarian strength — but it was the other who proved himself to be worthy, even striking his opponent down with Mjolnir!
It was political allegory writ as superhero action, and — according to Nick Spencer and Marvel's Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso — it's all played out as Marvel originally intended. As Alonso noted, Marvel had no idea the event would end "at a time when our country would be engaged in — let’s call it heated debate — about fascism."
Should Comics Do Politics?
Comics have always been a political medium. In fact, you can find the roots of the art form back in the days of the Reformation, when Martin Luther used sequential images carved in wood to present complex political and religious statements. Take this image, which shows two images contrasted with one another; Jesus casting the money-lenders out of the temple, and the Pope writing indulgences as the poor lay money at his feet.
Whether you're referring to Captain America socking Hitler on the jaw, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Maus, or Steve Englehart's original 'Secret Empire' arc, modern comics have always honored this tradition. It's usually after-the-fact, though, and rarely has a comic book story proved to be quite so relevant. Some scenes in Secret Empire #10 are eerily on-point, reminiscent of 'punch-a-Nazi' memes that spread through the Internet back in January. It's pretty remarkable, given the arc was plotted out over a year ago, and it's made the comic very controversial indeed.
That being said, this approach has certainly prevented fans from heading to Marvel for pure escapism! Marvel has embraced the philosophy of fantasy writer Lloyd Alexander, who famously noted: "Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It is a way to understand it."
The final issue achieves this fairly well. The overarching narrative of the last year — two Americas in conflict, a battle for American self-identity — is a strong one, and Spencer brings it to a suitable climax as he restores the classic Steve Rogers just in the nick of time. It may have gone a little too far, though; Marvel's sales have been dropping of late, and the House of Ideas appears to be dialing back on the politics in their upcoming #MarvelLegacy relaunch.
A Narrative Problem: Cosmic Cubes
That's not to say that the event hasn't had its flaws. Principal among them is Kobik, the living Cosmic Cube, who is perhaps the most unapologetic MacGuffin in comic book history. The main "Secret Empire" arc has essentially been the classic MacGuffin plot; "Quick! We must find the Cosmic Cube fragments before they do!"
The problem with a Cosmic Cube is that it robs the narrative of in-universe significance. Any death can be rewritten; any villain's rise can be upended; any hero can be reborn. When your MacGuffin can literally adjust reality at whim, your story loses all emotional stakes. The last few issues of "Secret Empire" saw the Cosmic Cube fragments become the narrative center of the story, with a random mission to free Inhuman prisoners leading the heroes to acquire a fragment. This fragment was literally used to overcome every obstacle; New York's heroes were freed from the Darkforce Dimension, and a planetary wall keeping the cosmic heroes out was finally destroyed.
This worked in philosophical terms; the heroes began to win when they finally remembered to be heroes. They stopped thinking in terms of military objectives or resistance movements, and just went to prison to break out some innocent Inhumans. In narrative terms, though, it felt unsatisfying — not least because the heroes had briefly acquired other Cosmic Cube fragments earlier in the story, but coincidentally hadn't yet realized that a fragment held power too.
All in all, though, "Secret Empire" has come to a satisfying close. Nick Spencer has told a powerful, politically-aware narrative that — for all the controversy right now — will, I suspect, come to be viewed as a classic. It's one of Marvel's boldest stories to date, although that's partly by accident — nobody could have predicted the way American politics have changed over the course of the last year.
This year's Summer Event is over. Next? It's time for "Marvel Legacy."
Have you enjoyed reading 'Secret Empire'?
[Source: New York Times]