There’s truth that lives
And truth that dies
I don’t know which
The story’s told
With facts and lies
You own the world
From “Nevermind” (2014) by Leonard Cohen
She had just come into her own. She stood for the future. She was the Protector of the Universe. And when she fell–hope fell with her.
From Secret Empire #0
So here we are, Secret Empire, and I imagine if you managed to stay off Twitter the journey wasn’t nearly as traumatic. I hope everyone had a good weekend, you got out and saw Guardians of the Galaxy, enjoyed Free Comic Book Day, and maybe attended a neighborhood book burning.
A slight aside/ recommendation before I get to the main review: Secret Empire #0 opens with a flashback prologue illustrated by Rod Reis. He’s been a long time colorist and cover artist, and I want to recommend an Image Comics title he illustrated with his writer co-pilot, Kyle Higgins, called C.O.W.L. I really enjoyed it! The whole thing is in trades, so if you haven’t read it yet, I totally recommend it. The basic pitch is it’s the Justice League as a city government contracted labor union. It’s right up my alley and it deserves a shout out. He is also doing, as a current series, also from Image, also with Mr. Kyle Higgins, a title called Hadrian’s Wall and you should check that out as well.
The prologue takes place in Japan in 1945, the Kraken is escorting Steve Rogers into a chamber that he refers to as the origin point and source of Hydra’s power. Within the chamber an armor-clad, evil Isaac Newton awaits them while an emaciated, Alan Moore haired Nostradamus (Is he wearing pants?), swirls some golden water. This scene’s primary goal is to explain how Steve wound up in the ice in this altered reality. As he lowers into the water he experiences a vision of him leading the first incarnation of the Avengers and he’s told that it’s all a trick of the mind. But like all the preceding flashbacks, it also drives home the point that Steve really is in a world all his own. Kobik didn’t change all of reality. She changed Steve’s.
Over the course of Captain America: Steve Rogers, it’s implied (and I think outright revealed) that that’s the reality of what’s happening. The way this scene has been broadly interpreted by some reviewers I find myself wondering if they are just reading in whatever way will make them the most cranky. Some are interpreting this scene as a complete retcon of Marvel’s history. That this scene is now the “true” history of the Marvel Universe. A history that says Steve Rogers as a boy was really indoctrinated into Hydra; enrolling in a Hydra-ran boarding school to be molded by Elisa, Daniel Whitehall and Doctor Sebastian Fenhoff into Hydra’s greatest champion and that Hydra had actually won World War II, but that the allies used a Cosmic Cube to rewrite history making it so the allies won the War and that Steve Rogers was always the Sentinel of Liberty. How the Allies in this situation even knew that Steve Rogers was a double agent for Hydra is not explained by these reads.
I’m not really convinced that interpretation holds up. I seriously doubt this is supposed to read as “Finally the secret history of the Marvel Universe is revealed!!” I’m confident that it’s a continuation of the flashbacks that we were seeing throughout Captain America: Steve Rogers. This is the reality Kobik gave him, but that reality isn’t shared with Zemo, Rick Jones, Sharon, Taskmaster, Bucky, or anyone else in the Marvel Universe. Why some people are determined to misread it? That I don’t know.
After the credits page we’re back in the present with Steve and Sharon as they content with three major conflicts that have occurred simultaneously, in addition to smaller flare ups happening around the United States. In the previous issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers, a Hydra-allied suicide bomber supposedly sabotages the Shield (a planetary defense system) just when an incoming Chitauriinvasion armada lured to Earth by the presence of Chitaurian eggs. These Chitaurian incursions have happened regularly. Being a hive-mind race, their sole aim was to recover their queen. Currently, with the Shield down most of Marvel’s heavy-hitters are in space holding off the onslaught; including: Captain Marvel, Ms. America Chavez, Quasar, the Blue Marvel, Monica Rambeau, Hyperion and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Simultaneously to that a group of former Pleasant Hill inmates, the Army of Evil (just so there’s no ambiguity about where they stand on the issues) led by Helmut Zemo are attacking a New York defended by the…uh…The Defenders (appropriately) and, on top of all that, Hydra forces, having seized control over Sokovia’s government–including their supply of Soviet era nuclear weapons–are threatening to strike various European sites unless they are recognized as a legitimate power. S.H.I.E.L.D. engages with Hydra in Sokovia while dealing with a helicarrier gone silent.
With all these battles happening concurrently and violence erupting across the United States as Hydra cells rise up, a state of emergency is declared and, through the authorization of the recently passed S.H.I.E.L.D. Act, all control of the United States military and federal law enforcement agencies are given to S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Steve Rogers. And, I mean, can you blame them? He’s Captain America! (Pssst…he’s secretly the Supreme Leader of Hydra!)
As Batman is the World’s Greatest Detective, Steve Rogers is the World’s Greatest Strategist. In the Marvel Universe his military mind should be second to none. Throughout his run, especially in this issue, Nick Spencer shines a light on–exemplifying–that aspect of the comic’s premier super-soldier. During the unfolding story in Captain America: Steve Rogers, it’s revealed that the simultaneous occurrence of these conflicts were orchestrated by Steve; carefully pulling on various strings, encouraging governmental insecurity, sowing distrust and self-doubt among his costumed colleagues–placing the pieces on the board exactly where he needed them, so that when the world was at its most vulnerable Hydra is freed to strike with devastating effect.
Okay, I need to have nigh-vent about the real tragedy–a true miscarriage of justice–that happens in this issue. I’ve been Team Nick Spencer ever since the Jimmy Olsen backups Action Comics. I’ve been there since the long ago times when Bleeding Cool and Comics Alliance said you were writing one of the best comics of the year! I got those nice Morning Glories hardcovers and you, sir–you do this! Sure Nitro explodes in the middle of New York and levels quite a bit of property, but who cares! He’s done it before and they can rebuild–call Damage Control. No, the real travesty of this issue happens in the midst of the Chitaurian swarm when things take a terrible turn and Quasar–Quasar!!–becomes snack food for a giant cinematic-universe looking Chitauri thing. Agent Avril Kincaid!! I had to put the book down for a moment, take a breather, hang out with some friends (aka: play some Persona 5), collect myself and come back. She’s been a great addition to the Marvel Universe and I can only hope that this is some kind of fake out. I’m not about to mean-tweet about this, but my forehead is very creased, sir! We’re talkin’ Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman furrowed brow action!
For a brief moment it looks like the heroes stem the tide (after suffering the only loss that really mattered in the issue). While the Defenders battle the Army of Evil, the Avengers Unity Squad arrives to offer an assist. Soon it appears the AoE decide discretion is the better part of valor and teleport themselves away. The Shield goes live and the Chitauri drones mindlessly crash into and burn up. But this is all a ruse.
A gone-quiet helicarrier, the Crescent, crashes deliberately into the main S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier and Hydra agents storm in and highjack the sound system projecting the voice of Doctor Faustus through the ship, compelling the agents aboard to become controlled and complacent.
When this moment happens and Steve makes his true purpose known Daniel Acuña changes the color palette, draining it of the bright colors seen in pages prior and leaves only a deep red and stark shadows. Steve especially is saturated in darkness. As a distraught and disbelieving Sharon is dragged from the room, his eyes remain hidden, obscured or completely unseen.
Those moments of Sharon discovering the “truth” about Steve are just gut-wrenching. Their relationship has been one of my favorites in comics and it’s not going to be fun seeing what becomes of them. But if I know Nick Spencer, he’s gonna make it hurt.
As issue zero comes to a close Steve informs Captain Marvel that the Shield will not be lowered and her and the other high-powered heroes will be stranded off planet as more and more hoards of Chitauri invasion waves continue to come more and more rapidly–ceaselessly–until they find their Queen. Blackout using his Darkforce to shroud Manhattan in a pitch-void dome. Among the trapped is Doctor Strange. The issue concludes with Tony Stark finally putting the pieces together and calling anyone who is left to assemble and make their way to Washington D.C. where a battalion of Hydra helicarriers descend over the White House.
As for the Free Comic Book Day Special, it’s more or less the concluding battle in D.C. It could have very easily been included in the zero issue, but I get the logic of wanting something involved in your major summer event to be included on FCBD. It’s definitely worth flipping through (if you can still find a copy). Andrea Sorrentino is quickly becoming someone whose craft I really admire. I don’t normally follow an artist from book to book. I tend to follow writers. Unless you’re Marcus To or Tom Grummett, then I will follow you anywhere. Sorrentino, though, is quickly becoming another of those artists for me. Most recently he’s been on Old Man Logan with Jeff Lemire, who he also worked with on DC Comic’s Green Arrow. This story is only ten pages and both Sorrentino and Spencer engage in what I would call symbolic storytelling. Spencer narration is rather poetic and Sorrentino’s art is propagandic and appropriately mythologic, especially in the final four pages.
Obviously we all know how the issue ends, with Captain America lifting up Mjölnir. Like nearly everything else related to this storyline has done, this tweaked some people’s nerves. I don’t have a problem with the moral implications of Steve Rogers in his current state picking up the hammer. Much like when Doctor Doom was found worthy of being able to enter the Vibranium Vault of Wakanda, I also think Doom should, in theory, be able to lift the hammer. That’s probably a controversial opinion. In Doom’s mind, in spite of all his Machiavellian bravado, he believes all that he does is for the betterment of mankind. In all the potential futures he imagines, the only scenario which he can envision humanity surviving is under the rule of Doom. In his own way, his intentions are pure, without corruption. I think Steve is in much the same mindset here as he lifts Mjölnir above his head surrounded by his fallen former allies. Nothing he has done has been for himself. He’s not grandstanding. Because of his childhood indoctrination into Hydra, he believes that peace can only come through the strength and order of Hydra. This isn’t about him, this is about making the world a better place. On that level, the hammer lift makes sense.
My one grip with the scene is a slight continuity faux pas. In Thor #1 (2014), Freyja changes the inscription on Mjölnir to “Whosoever holds this hammer, if she be worthy, shall possess the power of… Thor.” It’s not an issue-breaker for me, I’m just surprised no one on editorial caught it. Perhaps we can make a fun no-prize game out of it that hopefully won’t result in a problematic discussion of Steve’s unresolved gender identity issues.
Marvel event books really work best when the main conflict isn’t some cosmic level threat, but when it’s personal. Even Johnathan Hickman and Esad Ribić’s Secret Wars was ultimately about Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom and ended in a fist fight. As existential as the threat of a thriving Hydra Empire is–especially one potentially cosmic in scope under the thrall of the chthonic Madame Hydra–this event is going to get very personal (and not just on Twitter). These two issues accomplished exactly what they needed to. Steve Rogers has finally revealed himself as Supreme Leader and Hydra clearly wins the first round allowing them to wield the hammer of a god and seize control of a nation. While the heroes that aren’t exiled or cut off are broken. Now what? What brave new world awaits us? How is Tony gonna rebound? What the heck is Sam Wilson gonna think? Is Miles Morales destined to fulfill Ulysses’ vision. And most importantly, Quasar’s not really dead is she?
Until next time: Good night, good luck and Hail Hydra.
“Secret Empire” #0 is written by Nick Spencer, illustrated by Daniel Acuña and Rod Reis and lettered by VC’s Travis Lanham with cover art by Mark Brooks. Published by Marvel Comics and is on sale and available now at your friendly neighborhood comic store.
“Secret Empire” FCBD Special is written by Nick Spencer, illustrated by Andrea Sorrentino, and lettered by VC’s Travis Lanham with cover art by Mark Brooks. Published by Marvel Comics and hopefully you can find a copy unless they’ve all been burned up by people trapped in a paradox.