So I think it’s come time for me and ol’ Hydra Cap to part ways. Why? Well, the answer to that question involves some pretty massive SPOILERS. But if you don’t mind those, read on…
Secret Empire 6&7
by Nick Spencer, Leinil Francis Yu, Andrea Sorrentino, and
Whoever Else They Could Conscript Into Drawing a Few Pages Here and There
Producing these Giant Cross-Over Mega Event Comics™ must be nightmarishly difficult. They’re plotted by committee. They feature dozens of characters, all of whom need to have something meaningful to do. They have to serve not just one storyline, but multiple storylines across various different on-going series, AND launch the next wave of storylines leading to the next Giant Cross-Over Mega Event Comic™. And while they’re doing all that, they also have to withstand the onslaught of criticism from a contrary, ill-tempered, and increasingly-jaded fan base that demands Stories That Mean Something ™, but recoils in horror from anything that brings about actual change to their Favorite Corporate-Owned Trademarks ™.
No wonder so many of them suck.
I can count on one hand the number of these things I think are good super hero funnybooks. Crisis on Infinite Earths (diluted by too many copycat stories, but thrilling in its day for the spandex taboos it broke). Civil War (equally thrilling in its day for breaking the spandex taboos Crisis left untouched, but also diluted by cross-overs and copycat stories that lack its sense of fun). Final Crisis (a love letter to Jack Kirby, with its own narrative dissolution built into the plot itself, as opposed to the way these things usually just shake themselves apart by accident). Secret War (a love letter to the Fantastic Four, disguised as an Avengers story, disguised as a Giant Cross-Over Mega Event Comic™).
I had kind of hoped to add Secret Empire to that list, but seven issues in, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I love this book in concept. I love the irreverence of it, the sheer punk rock attitude it takes to (even temporarily) turn Captain America into a fascist. I love the early issues’ exploration of that idea, their look at the fascist ideal vs the fascist reality, and their questioning of how Cap could possibly remain a hero in service to the fascist cause. I had hoped to see the series continue to circle that idea, to see some characters buy into the ideal while others rose to oppose the reality, with Cap as the sounding board for them all.
And we’ve gotten a little of that. Thor works for Cap because Cap can lift Mjolnir at a time when Thor himself cannot, and his faith in the weapon leads him to follow the one who can wield it. Or at least, I think that’s why. Though I don’t remember now if that’s in the comic, or if it’s something I assumed based on my knowledge of the character and his current circumstances. Which, now that I think of it, doesn’t speak well to the reading experience.
One bit the comic definitely gets credit for, though, is a great sequence in issue six in which Cap talks the Hulk into seeking vengeance on the Resistance fighters who wronged him. Because Hawkeye killed Bruce Banner with an arrow, apparently (though I don’t know why or when). Strangely, Bruce himself ain’t buying what Cap’s selling. But unfortunately…
…the Hulk inside him is all for it.
(How is Bruce Banner alive to be betrayed by his own inner monster? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it’s because Cap has enough Cosmic Cube fragments to temporarily resurrect him. Which, yes, I know. There’s a whole Cosmic Cube plotline running through this book, too, and it has somehow become the least interesting thing in it. I mean, Cap BROUGHT THE HULK BACK TO LIFE. And it was done OFF-CAMERA, as if it’s just some unimportant bit of everyday business you can take for granted instead of AN INCREDIBLE MIRACLE that should have had A MIND-BENDING SPLASH PAGE devoted to it. But more about how underwhelming everything is later.)
Even better than the Hulk thing is issue seven’s explanation of why the Punisher has gone Hydra: he’s always been a fascist at heart. Plus, you know, Cap told him this:
That’s a nice insight into Frank Castle, a man who more than anything else wants his family not to be dead. It’s nice insight into all three of those characters, actually, and it’s the sort of thing I’d really like to see a lot more of in this book. But the other “Hydra Avengers” are working under various forms of coercion and mind control, or are just super villain variations on the heroes. And that’s not as interesting. We’ve seen it before, in the “Dark Avengers” era that followed… whichever cross-over it was that preceded it (they all run together for me at this point).
And the Resistance doesn’t even get that much insight. We’ve got Captain Marvel and Hawkeye feeling guilty for their mistakes, which is fine. But that theme of the heroes having lost sight of fighting the good fight in favor of endless in-fighting is beyond well-established at this point, and now Spencer’s just repeating himself. It’s past time to move on.
In other Resistance developments, the Tony Stark AI conjured up a pretty massive white lie to give the Resistance fighters hope. (Yes, Tony’s an AI now. No, I don’t know why.) And it was interesting to see him move from drunken disinterest to trying to inspire a hope he himself did not feel. That’s Tony: faking it for the betterment of those around him.
What’s that? How does a computer intelligence get drunk, you ask? Algorithms. No, really. He programmed his own alcoholism into his AI, right down to a way for that AI to get drunk. And I like that bit of amazing character insight even better than the lie. So score another one for Spencer.
There’s also been a “traitor in our midst” sub-plot, but it was barely established before it was resolved. Seriously. I think we got one narrative caption telling us there was a traitor, and then an argument about who it was.
So, yeah. It was Ant Man. Blackmail. Hydra’s got his daughter.
If I sound less than enthusiastic about that revelation, it’s because I am. The plotline got zero development, and wrapped up in such a way that nobody actually turned on the good guys (because who can really blame Ant Man in this situation?). Having a character turn for ideological reasons, or (even better) because of a failure of courage, would have given the story more oomph, and done more to bring home the desperation of the Resistance’s situation.
And that is needed. Because while we’ve been told (repeatedly) how bad it is, I don’t really feel it. Spencer skipped the worst parts of the Hydra oppression. We didn’t see Our Heroes being hunted like animals in the streets. We didn’t see the slow gathering of the formal Resistance at the Mount. We didn’t see the struggle to get that hideaway’s support systems up and running, or even just the struggle to get food. We haven’t seen them work their way up to the breaking point, in other words. We were just shown them after they’d already reached it, and were told that it was bad. I understand their situation, but I don’t have the emotional connection to it I need to really care.
So when we see Our Heroes crawling out of the rubble of the Mount in issue seven, their hiding place destroyed and all hope crushed along with it (though now that I think about it, I’m not sure anyone actually died), I’m not with them in that despair. And that being the case, when the turning point for the Resistance finally occurs, and Sam Wilson inspires real hope by taking back the mantle Steve Rogers gave him…
…it kinda falls flat.
And that’s the problem with everything here: it’s all flat. The only things that have made much of an impression on me, dramatically, are the tiny moments of insight and inspiration. Drunken AI Tony. The Punisher wanting his family back. Hulk’s desires over-riding Banner’s. The rest of it’s just… bland. Underdeveloped. Even the stuff Spencer’s spent too much time hitting us over the head with, like the folly of super hero in-fighting, just sits there without much actual exploration. I don’t care about any of it, so when issue seven’s other big shock moment happens…
…I just shrug my shoulders. That, in case you can’t tell, is the Black Widow getting her neck accidentally broken while intervening in a fight between Cap and Miles Morales. This thread is one of the few in which Spencer’s done the work necessary to earn my engagement, and it honestly plays out rather well. There was a prophesy that Miles would kill Cap, but the Widow traps him away from the action when the time comes. Whether because she wants to spare him the guilt of it, or because she doesn’t think he can go through with it, and wants him out of the way so she can take care of business herself, has been left an open question.
We’ve spent multiple issues getting to this moment, with genuine dramatic tension building as we asked ourselves if the Black Widow was really training her young proteges to kill, or if she was doing just enough to make them think she was. We find out, and then, in a bit of bravura storytelling from artist Andrea Sorrentino…
She’s dead. I should be shocked. Groaning in disbelief. Weeping in the aisles. But instead, like I said, I can’t do much more than shrug. Because I’ve gotten so used to not caring about everything else that I can’t even care about the one storyline that’s been given proper development.
And that, right there, is why I’m parting ways with Secret Empire. Sure, I know there’s only three more issues to go. But as everything comes to a head, I’m increasingly of the opinion that I don’t care. I’m sure that, in the end, it’s all going to come down to the Cosmic Cube, and that weird, other-dimensional (but wholly unsullied by fascism) Steve Rogers. Hope will be reborn, heroes will go back to being heroic, and the fascist nightmare will have been undone. But none of that really matters to me. It looks like all the stuff I was interested in has already been dealt with as much as it’s gonna be, and it wasn’t very satisfying. What happens next is not something I’m all that eager to learn. The whole thing’s just become a damp squib.
But I can’t get too mad at Nick Spencer for that. Like I said at the outset, these massive cross-over things are incredibly difficult to write, and almost all of them fall apart in the end. It’s hard to tell a real story when you’re serving so many other masters. The Giant Cross-Over Mega Event Comic™ just isn’t designed to satisfy.
Which makes you wonder why so many people buy the damn things, don’t it?