Recent Dorkiness

Spies and Secret Empires

So I bought two funnybooks last week that I hadn’t really planned on picking up. One of them is visually stunning. The other pulled me in with story. But both are about secrets and spies, so I thought it might be fun to discuss them together…

Nick Fury 1
by James Robinson and Aco 

This book may be a triumph of style over substance.

In this first issue, at least, it’s light on plot, and offers only the slimmest bit of character definition.

But, my god, it looks good doing it.

click to embiggen

Don’t get me wrong. The writing is competent and concise. James Robinson provides a solid framework for Aco to hang his eye-popping graphics on.

and again with the embiggening

The way the story’s told is as much the point here as the story itself.

and yeah, holy crap, you’re gonna wanna see this one at embiggened size

So maybe it’s not style OVER substance. Maybe it’s style AS substance. And that’s something I’m always interested in.

Secret Empire 0
by Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna 

This is apparently the most controversial mainstream comic on the market right now. Which… That cracks me up. Because I don’t see anything here worth getting your panties in a bunch over.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. If you’re not familiar, Secret Empire is the GIANT CROSS-OVER MEGA-EVENT payoff on a Captain America storyline in which (long story short) the Red Skull has gotten his hands on a new Cosmic Cube, and used it to change history, turning Cap into a Hydra sleeper agent, trained in childhood to lead global fascism to world domination. It’s a grandiose scheme that not only sees the Red Skull’s ideology reign supreme, but also gains him sweet revenge by turning his most hated enemy into the instrument of his victory.

Which I think is a GREAT idea. It’s villainy on a grand scale, but with incredibly petty motivation. And it offers up an opportunity to examine Cap’s morality, keeping his bravery and even his heroism intact, while making him a believer in an ideology that violates everything he stands for. That’s drama. That’s pathos. That’s an interesting thing to do with the super hero genre.

So of course it made the fanboys’ heads explode.

But I just don’t get it. “THEY MADE CAP INTO A NAZI!!” seems to be the most common complaint, but… That’s not technically what happened. Cap didn’t just wake up one day and decide to join the fascists. He’s the victim of an assault by his arch-enemy. And the last time I checked, “bad guys doing bad things to good guys” is one of the standard super hero plots. Hell, it’s not even the first time the Red Skull’s tried something like this.

So, yeah. I don’t get it. They haven’t violated previous stories with an inexplicable retcon, like that time Joss Whedon retroactively made Professor Xavier into some kind of heartless bastard who ignored the pain of an emerging consciousness in the name of expediency, making a lie of his entire history as the Mutant MLK. And they didn’t do an unconvincing character turn, either, like when Ron Marz had Hal Jordan go crazy with grief and become a galactic mass murderer. It’s also not like anybody’s pretending this is anything but a storyline. It’ll have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Cap will win and the status quo will be restored. That’s how super hero comics work, and the people I hear complaining about this the loudest are more than old enough to know it. So I’m sorry, Fanboy Nation, but I don’t feel your pain.

As I said above, I think it’s a great idea. And Nick Spencer seems to be having fun with it. He’s not a writer whose work I enjoy enough to read regularly, but he’s not by any stretch bad at what he does. So when I saw Secret Empire sitting on the shelf, I had to at least look at it. And I liked what I saw. It had some nice Daniel Acuna artwork, the dismay of Cap’s allies felt at his betrayal seemed compelling, and the opening sequence featured characters from both Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Warriors and his weird, never-completed SHIELD series.

So I figured, why not give it a shot? I didn’t expect it to be a great comic, but I thought it might be kinda fun. And I was right about that. I’m especially taken with that opening, a flashback to 1945 in which we discover that the Red Skull’s altered history is even more petty than it looked on the surface. Because not only has he gotten revenge on Cap by making him the thing he hates most, he’s also re-written history so that the Axis powers won World War II. But the Allies (those sneaky bastards!) developed secret Cosmic Cube technology that re-wrote history to make themselves the victors, and Cap their hero instead of Hydra’s.

That is so… diabolically hypocritical! It’s not enough for the Skull to remake the world in the Fuhrer’s image. It’s not enough to turn his arch-enemy into fascism’s greatest champion. He also had to make it so that his side really won the war, but had their victory erased by Allied trickery. He’s made his enemies into himself, in other words, and in the process given Cap reason to see fascism as a noble pursuit. An idealized – but persecuted – ideology of personal growth, in which the strong rule the weak, but only for their own good. He still cares deeply for what’s right, but believes that he knows best what “right” entails. And he’ll do whatever it takes to bring that vision to fruition, regardless of things like compassion, or the consent of the governed.

That’s some cool, kinda edgy stuff there. It warps Cap’s real belief system, of course, but also parallels it. He often DOES think he knows what’s best, after all. That’s at the heart of stories like Civil War, or those times in the Watergate and Iran/Contra eras when he stepped down as Captain America because his personal morality told him the country was going in the wrong direction. That unerring moral compass, and his reliance on it, is a big part of what makes Steve Rogers Captain America. And now, the Red Skull has turned it against him.

Assuming, of course, that it’s true. We only have Hydra’s word for it that the Allies are warping reality, after all…

…and they’re maybe not the most reliable narrators.

So, yeah. Conceptually, I’m really happy with this. The execution’s not bad, either. There’s genuine pathos in the moment when Cap turns SHIELD over to Hydra. He takes no pleasure in it. He even seems bothered by the deception. And when he betrays Captain Marvel, leaving her and an army of Avengers stranded in space…

…there’s almost a sense of righteousness to it. So the drama of the Captain America specific part of the story is very well-played. I like it, and almost wish I’d been reading Spencer’s Cap run all along.

But unfortunately, Secret Empire itself, the GIANT CROSS-OVER MEGA-EVENT in which all that great drama is happening, leaves something to be desired. It’s tired. Played out. We’ve seen it all before, over and over again, especially in the last ten or fifteen years.

New York is in danger from an army of super villains!

Yawn.

An army of super heroes is flying around in space, fighting a faceless alien horde!

DOUBLE Yawn.

It’s the same mass-destruction polyglot of interchangeable heroes and villains engaging in generic combat that we’ve seen a dozen times before. It could be Secret Invasion or Infinity or any of the other GIANT CROSS-OVER MEGA-EVENTS I haven’t read because they’re all the same. The reasons for the huge generic super-fights change, but the fights themselves, in terms of story mechanics, never do.

The repetition’s not the worst thing, though. I’ve been reading super hero comics for over 40 years now, after all, and there are only so many super hero stories to tell. There’s not a lot I haven’t seen, so there’s no point in taking the genre to task for not giving me something new. “New,” sad to say, isn’t really the point.

But these generic fight scenes were boring the first time we saw them, and they haven’t gotten any better with age. They’re unimaginative and lazy, and they always have been. There’s no clever use of individual characters’ abilities to solve unique problems. No heroic strategy or diabolical planning. No situations that make this slug-fest look or feel any different from any of the others. Very little thought is being put into the action, and that is simply not fun to read.

Secret Empire is no worse an offender on this front than any of the other event books, but it’s bad enough. It’s tedious where it should be exciting and cool, and that kills my enthusiasm. I doubt I’ll read any more of it, regardless of how interesting I find the Captain America story it’s been wrapped around. Which makes me sad. Because that story, I like quite a bit.

So! Secret Empire! Not a total failure of a comic by any stretch of the imagination. But also not one I’ll be spending any more of my hard-earned money on. Especially not at five dollars a pop.

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About Mark Brett (414 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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