Secret Empire 1 / Free Comic Book Day Special
by Nick Spencer, Steve McNiven, and Andrea Sorrentino
So I said I wasn’t going to pick up the second issue of this book (which, confusingly, is numbered as the first issue – don’t get me started on the whole “zero issue” thing). But it was a slow week for new comics, so I gave it a flip-through in the shop, and I saw this kind of hysterical conversation between Captain America and a monster…
…and a dude puking up a lunchbox…
…and it made its way into my buy pile. It was still there when I got to the check-out counter, too, surviving the usual hour of bullshitting with friends I do on my weekly excursion to the funnybook store. It kind of surprised me when I saw it being rung up.
“Oh,” I said.
“What?” replied Gary Odinson (Cashier to the Gods).
“I hadn’t actually intended on buying that. But there’s this conversation between Cap and a monster, so…”
“I guess I am.”
I didn’t regret it, either. It cost me five bucks, but it’s a pretty fat comics for that price. I think I may have actually gotten five dollars’ worth of entertainment out of it, too. It’s still not god’s gift to comics or anything. It’s still got weird quippy banter in fight scenes, and the ridiculousness of people sitting around doing perfectly normal things while wearing spandex and body armor. There are limits to how amazing it can be. But Nick Spencer’s doing some interesting work here, crafting a satisfying super hero story that also functions as commentary on the comics industry and, at the same time, a metaphor for the current American moment.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. On the nuts and bolts side of things, this issue reads a lot better than the first. The boring, generic super-fights that marred that comic are nowhere to be seen here, replaced instead with interesting plot and character drama that actually speaks to the cast and their personalities as I know them. I’m especially taken with the bitter fatalism of Tony Stark, Cap’s greatest frenemy, finally just fed up with a situation he’s seen far too many times before.
Mostly, though, this issue is all about establishing what life is like in Hydra’s America, picking up a month or two into Hydra’s rule. Most people are just trying to get by, the way people always do under totalitarian regimes. They may not like it, but they’re too scared to do anything about it. Others, meanwhile, have embraced the new fascist regime wholeheartedly. They’re mostly bullies and jerks, mind you. But bullies and jerks always flourish under fascism. It’s an ideology that plays to their worst instincts, and they (being unpleasant people already) are more than willing to indulge themselves.
(This is some of that fancy political metaphor I was talking about. Nick Spencer’s made no secret of his distaste for our current president, and it’s hard not to see the face of that president’s “alt-right” supporters here. But that’s not the main thrust of the political metaphor, I don’t think, so stay tuned.)
It’s only fair to mention that there is some connective tissue missing between this issue and the last. We don’t actually see what happened between the Helicarrier settling in over the White House, and Cap taking up residency as Supreme Leader. But you don’t really need it. Spencer handles things in such a way that it’s all easy to follow (and he does it without heaps of exposition, which I appreciate).
But if you really want to know what happened, that’s covered, a bit, in the Free Comic Book Day Special, which details the super-fight that happens when the encroaching Hydra fleet is confronted by the heroes not trapped in outer space or New York. It’s got some awfully pretty Andrea Sorrentino artwork, and another fantastically demoralizing Hydra Cap moment:
That’s right: even as a fascist, Cap is still worthy to lift Thor’s hammer. That’s been making fanboy heads explode for days now, with some folks even going so far as to burn copies of the book.
Kind of an extreme reaction (leave it to fanboys to protest fascism using fascist tactics), and one that I think misreads the story rather badly. Because that doesn’t mean Spencer’s saying “Evil is Good!” He’s not writing a paean to fascism. It’s just another sign that the bad guys haven’t managed to destroy Cap’s basic nobility. His past may have been distorted so that he now believes the strong should rule the weak, but he sees that as a responsibility rather than an excuse to abuse people.
That’s never more clear than in issue 1, when we see Cap interact with his new/old Hydra allies. His cabinet’s a literal murderers’ row of assholes…
…and Cap’s clearly not seeing eye to eye with them. I do like that Baron Zemo seems the most simpatico with him; he may be the purest fascist of the bunch. He’s sort of like Hydra Cap, in a way: as the hero-worshipping son of a Nazi, rather than someone who actually worked for Hitler, he’s a pure ideologue. Raised in the faith, as it were, but outside the ugly reality of it. That’s not true for guys like Dr. Faustus and Arnim Zola, though. They’re just evil bastards, frothing at the mouth for tyranny, and Cap is clearly not comfortable with that. Ruling with an iron hand, rewarding the strong… Sure. That’s Hydra Cap through and through. But he’s still a real Fair Play sorta dude, and some of Hydra’s policies don’t jibe with his own.
Mind you, that doesn’t stop him from going through with some things that bring that iron hand down pretty hard. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say it involves a firing squad, and leave it at that. I like the dichotomy, though. Spencer’s writing Hydra Cap as a very principled fascist. Above all else, he wants to be sure that his shows of force are just. That when he lashes out to punish, it’s in response to something worth punishing. It tortures him, especially in regards to that firing squad…
…and I don’t think that’s something Hydra, or the Red Skull for that matter, was entirely counting on. In making the perfect champion to their cause, they’ve actually made someone so morally superior that he may prove to be their undoing.
Yeah. I’m thinking that Conflicted Hydra Cap plus Cosmic Cube is not going to equal anything good for the villains.
In the meantime, though, we get to watch Spencer paint a fascinating picture of heroism, implying that the good guys may have, in part, brought this one on themselves. We got a bit of that in the Zero issue, when Cap implies that Carol Danvers and Maria Hill deserve what’s happening to them because (in, I’m assuming, the EPIC CROSSOVER EVENTS that preceded this one) they abused the power of leadership. That’s a burden Hydra Cap feels particularly, and I think he actually feels righteous in taking them down. And honestly? From what little I know of those stories, it’s kind of hard to argue with him.
I’m not the only one who feels that way, either. I’m not entirely clear on who the narrator of the Free Comic Book Day Special is, but check this out:
Huh. Now, THERE’S a novel idea: the heroes have let their own personal conflicts get in the way of doing the business of heroing, and that’s a very bad thing. Seems like I’ve heard that somewhere before, but for the life of me, I can’t– Oh, yeah!
It’s pretty much a metaphor for current American politics. Entrenched partisan forces, unreasonable and unwilling to compromise, have let their personal ideology get in the way of doing the business of government. And they’ve done it for so long that they’ve eroded the American Voter’s patience and trust in that government, to the point that we’ve elected a populist strongman who promised to break the gridlock through, essentially, the sheer force of his own will. That’s not fascism, but it does have a slight whiff of it around the edges. Turn that up to 11 (as all good super hero stories do), and you might wind up with something along the lines of a Hydra take-over.
You could easily take that too far, of course. I don’t think Hydra Cap = Donald Trump (Hydra Cap’s a lot nicer, for one thing). Nor do I think that Steve Bannon = Arnim Zola (he’s really more of a Grima Wormtongue type). But that’s why it’s metaphor. It doesn’t have to be exact.
Of course, the American Voter in Spencer’s political metaphor also has a lot in common with the Comic Book Fanboy in Spencer’s comics industry metaphor. Because “the heroes have fought amongst themselves too much” is also pretty much exactly the argument that the most hardcore fanboys have been making against 21st-Century comics for at least ten years now. That continued conflict has eroded their patience and good will, too, and they’ve voted with their dollars by buying fewer EPIC CROSSOVER EVENT comics.
But as things progress in Secret Empire, their concerns seem to be surfacing as the main theme: something’s gone wrong. The heroes have let their own conflicts distract them for so long that they’ve let evil dominate. Clearly, something has to change. And even more clearly, something’s going to. If Cap does get to reshape reality with his own Cosmic Cube, after all, wouldn’t that new reality be at least a tiny bit more heroic?
So we’re in a situation where the very comic that’s telling the fanboys they were right all along… is the comic they hate the most.
Irony, thy name is Funnybook.