Really, stay calm.
Even though I should know better, it never fails to amaze me how foolish so many comic-book fans can be.
In this case, I’m talking about Secret Empire, Marvel’s event that seems to be pissing everyone off no matter which corner they stand on.
A year ago, I wrote an impassioned defense of writer Nick Spencer and Marvel’s reveal that Captain America was actually a fascist Hydra agent. (Click here — if you dare.) My take then — since borne out — is that there was absolutely no way that this was going to stick. This was very obviously a story the writer and publisher wanted to tell but eventually circumstances would return to normal.
It was an interesting idea to boot: What would happen if a hero we hold dear betrayed us in the worst possible way?
The comics racks are filled with stories just like this — and people love them. But they’re usually alternate universes, like DC’s video-game based Injustice series, or analogues like Mark Waid and Peter Krause’s Irredeemable. (Just two small examples.)
However, if the creative team and Marvel have the guts to tell this story in the company’s main canonical universe — with its most stalwart defender of liberty — then apparently it’s time to sharpen the pitchforks, especially in these politically hateful times.
Yet the biggest problem with Secret Empire isn’t that Captain America has been cast as a monster.
It’s that it’s boring.
See, here’s the thing about Big Two superhero comics: They’re variations on a theme. Characters and concepts shift and evolve but, in the end, Superman will still save Lois and Jimmy and Spider-Man will still do the responsible thing.
So, when it comes down to it, it’s all about the journey: Is this a story well told? Is there tension and excitement? Does it look good? Are you engaged? Take away those things and it all falls apart.
Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 was a masterpiece in set-up but after a few issues I started to lose interest. I found that even if the premise were intriguing, I didn’t want to actually read that much of Cap as a bad guy. I didn’t begrudge Marvel or Spencer or anything, I just went on my way.
When Secret Empire was announced, I made a half-hearted decision to pick it up, to see how this was going to play out with my own eyes. Secret Empire #0 was sharp — there was nothing zero-issuey about it.
Secret Empire #1, on the other hand, was inert. Or like the sound of a needle suddenly scratching on a record.
And yet I’m not sure if my dissatisfaction has anything to do with the story itself. I think it has everything to do with the fact that whenever Cap-as-Hydra or Secret Empire comes up, people lose their minds. And my response is, “Jeez, don’t these clowns know this is temporary? That this is all going to go back to the way it was?”
Repeat that back to yourself enough times and after awhile, you can start questioning why you’re even bothering investing the time. You find you can’t suspend the disbelief that’s essential to superhero comics in general and a story like this specifically.
Or at least, I found that out. Maybe if it were a story I really cared about, I’d feel differently.
Unfortunately, Marvel took the extraordinary step of putting out a statement last week — on the eve of Issue #1’s release — that basically begged fans to wait for Secret Empire to unfold before judging it — and then confirmed the ending. Here it is, in part:
“Captain America will always be a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe who will stand up for what is right, and Secret Empire will be the biggest challenge Steve has ever faced.
“What you will see at the end of this journey is that his heart and soul — his core values, not his muscle or his shield — are what save the day against Hydra and will further prove that our heroes will always stand against oppression and show that good will always triumph over evil.” (You can read the rest here.)
What a weird thing to do.
Despite the intention, Marvel has effectively pleaded with fans to wait out this gigantic summer crossover until the company can relaunch in the fall with Legacy, an initiative that seems to echo DC’s successful, back-to-basics Rebirth.
At this point, that sounds like a plan.