Stillanerd Reviews: Secret Empire #0


Marvel’s controversial crossover centered around a fascist-indoctrinated Steve Rogers begins with a dispiriting tale about lies, betrayal, and fallen idols.

Considering this is a Spider-Man website, you might be wondering why I’m writing a review for a comic book series centered around Captain America. That’s because Secret Empire, like Marvel’s other major crossover events, is a story permeating throughout their entire line-up of superhero comics, including Spider-Man. We already know that Doctor Octopus has already allied himself with Hydra, and the next story in Amazing Spider-Man, “The Osborn Identity,” will be a Secret Empire tie-in. On top of this, upcoming solicitations suggest Miles Morales also plays a significant role during this event. Stands to reason then we should see what the fuss is all about.

For those who haven’t followed the events of Nick Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers and Captain America: Sam Wilson, the Red Skull abducted a living Cosmic Cube named Kobik, which S.H.I.E.L.D. had used to tamper with the memories of super villains. Steve Rogers, now an old man after losing the effects of the super soldier serum, nearly died in trying to rescue Kobik. Kobik, however, saved Rogers life by restoring both his powers and youth. But she also rewrote Steve Rogers’ memories into making him believe he’d been a double agent for Hydra all along, recruited and trained since boyhood to one day become it’s Supreme Leader. That this generated enormous controversy and outcry among comic book fans is putting it mildly. After all, we’re talking about a character created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, a superhero whom Marvel branded as “the Living Legend of World War II,” the supposed embodiment of freedom, liberty, justice, equality, and other American ideals, rewritten as a fascist, if not also a Nazi collaborator and sympathizer.

Credit: Rob Reis (Marvel Comics); from Secret Empire #0

As an allegory for how tyrants seize control, [Secret Empire #0 is] rather simplistic, yet still highly effective and unnerving all the same.

Secret Empire #0 takes this a step further by suggesting (SPOILERS) Kobik may not have brainwashed Steve at all, but instead “restored” his memories of the Marvel Universe’s “real timeline.” Because the opening prologue reveals it was the Nazis who won World War II, and that the Allies used the original Cosmic Cube to rewrite reality in a last-ditch attempt at achieving victory. Which not only suggests Cap was always a Hydra agent, but that everything about the Marvel Universe is a lie. A lie created to save the world from evil and oppression, but a lie all the same. Which also suggests that the heroes, over the course of Secret Empire, will unknowingly be fighting to support and protect this lie.

Now I’m aware that as a concept, “What If the Nazis Won World War II?” is commonplace throughout science fiction, including such novels like Philip K. Dick’s The Man In the High Castle, Robert Harris’ Fatherland, and Eric Norden’s The Ultimate Solution. But those works made it clear that this alternate history was an aberration, not how things are meant to be. Nor did they shy away from the word “Nazi,” unlike this comic which inexplicably downplays Hydra’s involvement with them. Obviously Spencer recognizes Fascism and Nazism as the evil political ideologies they are; but as comic book retcons go, this one is as cynical as it is pointless and destructive. There’s always the possibility that these are still Cap’s false memories, of course. But even if they are, why go through all this trouble showing this altered past if it’s not real? If it’s showing just how committed Cap is towards his corrupted beliefs, his sworn allegiance to Hydra already tells us this. Which means this only succeeds in muddling and damaging Steve Rogers as a character even more than it already has.

Credit: Daniel Acuña (Marvel Comics); from Secret Empire #0

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But after this misguided prologue, and once the story cuts to the present day, that’s when Secret Empire #0 finally starts to shine. Steve, now Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., mobilizes his forces and other superheroes against simultaneous threats in New York, around the world, and outer space, all of which Steve has secretly orchestrated or provoked. This crisis also forces the United States government, out of desperation, to grant Steve full executive authority over all military and law enforcement personnel. Thus granted with near absolute power, and with the hero community scattered and divided, the comic ends with Steve and Hydra taking over the world. As an allegory for how tyrants seize control, it’s rather simplistic, yet still highly effective and unnerving all the same. Because as the heroes in this story learn far too late, and as history sadly proves, we welcome our dictators with open arms.

This isn’t the first time a Marvel Comics event has tackled these themes, of course. Secret Empire #0 reads, at times, like a condensed amalgamation of Secret Invasion and Dark Reign without the Skrulls and Norman Osborn. But neither of those events instilled in you a sense of mounting dread like Spencer does, of knowing something terrible is about to happen, and that no one sees coming until it’s too late. Neither event conveyed the feelings of utter betrayal like this comic does, of showing what it’s like when someone you call a friend, who you looked up to and admired your whole life, stabs you in the back without a moment’s hesitation. And that what makes it worse is they still believe, with total conviction, that they’re still doing what is right.

Credit: Daniel Acuña (Marvel Comics); from Secret Empire #0

Secret Empire #0 is moving, offensive, tragic, and frustrating…the culmination of a well-crafted, year-long plan which vilified, perverted, and ruined one of Marvel’s most beloved superheroes beyond repair.

No other character encapsulates those feelings more than Sharon Carter. She, as Cap fans well know, is a woman who has loved, supported, and fought alongside Steve for years, who always believed in him during even the most darkest hours. Reading and watching Sharon come to the realization that the man she thought she knew was a mockery of everything he stood for, of hearing him tell her how he loves her as his minions take her away, will no doubt go down as one of the most gut-wrenching moments in comics this year. The sting of Cap’s duplicity hits others too, but without the same degree of intensity or personal despair. For Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, her forced isolation above Earth’s orbit feels like just desserts after Civil War II. Tony Stark, meanwhile, treats what happens with his trademark snark as he regrouping all the remaining Avengers into action.

Artistically, both Rob Reis in the prologue and Daniel Acuña in the main story are exceptional, though Reis perhaps more so. Scenes showing Cap trudging through the snowy mountains of 1945 Japan, followed by the interior of Hydra’s temple, and the chained figure of Nostradamus next to a glowing pool—they take on an air of dark mysticism, of older, deeper powers at work in the world. It’s a style that evokes, and perhaps deliberately so, the illustrations of Frank Frazetta. By contrast, Acuña relies on a more traditional “Marvel style,” though with softer coloring and harsher inks. And while his figures do seem stiff on occasion, their facial expressions are incredibly lifelike. They’re also individualistic, too. While other characters wear their emotions on their sleeves, Acuña always depicts Cap with a stoic, steel-eyed determination that, if he were still the hero, would be the kind to command awe and respect. Now his gaze instill fear; they are the eyes of a man so blinded by his beliefs that there’s no hope of reasoning with or redeeming him.

Credit: Daniel Acuña (Marvel Comics); from Secret Empire #0

Secret Empire #0 is moving, offensive, tragic, and frustrating. As a narrative, everything falls into place even while it crushes your soul and makes you sick to your stomach. It’s the culmination of a well-crafted, year-long plan which vilified, perverted, and ruined one of Marvel’s most beloved superheroes beyond repair. It’s themes are universal beyond the comic book genre, even while requiring one to read multiple comics beforehand to appreciate it’s effects. It’s a well-told, beautifully illustrated comic about evil’s triumph, how our heroes let us down, the danger of false gods, and how we are must also the blame for our own downfall. It’s a comic which sets out and succeeds in making you angry. Question is, who are we most angry at? Nick Spencer? The editors at Marvel? Or ourselves?

Stillanerd’s Nerdy Nitpicks (possible spoilers)

  • So here’s a silly question: why didn’t Marvel number this comic Secret Empire #1 instead of Secret Empire #0? Cause this comic might as well be issue #1, and I can only imagine the confusion folks will have if they get issue #1 without getting this comic first.
  • Yes, along with Nostradamus, that other figure in the temple who meets Steve and the Kraken is none other than Sir Issac Newton. And yes, according to Jonathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D. series, Newton belonged to a secret society that was the precursor of S.H.I.E.L.D. who’s members included Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo Galilei. Newton was also instrumental in creating another secret society called The Brotherhood of the Spear, which later became (you guessed it) Hydra. Oh, and he, along with Nostradamus, are immortal. And Newton was also the father of Nikolai Tesla.
  • “I don’t understand any of this.” You and me both, Steve.
  • “This feels like the end.” As opposed to what happened in the run-up to Secret Wars, Sharon? You know, when Earth from various dimensions literally collided into each other, thus causing the slow death of the universe? Cap’s at least right when he says, “This is not how the world ends.”
  • If you don’t know who this new Quasar was, she was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Avril Kincaid, who worked at the S.H.I.E.L.D. prison, Pleasant Hill, and given the Quantum Bands by the previous Quasar, Wendell Vaughan. As she was first introduced in Captain America: Sam Wilson #7, she hasn’t been a superhero long. Now she’s dead. Guess that shows how popular she was. And why seeing her swallowed whole by a Chitarui Leviathan gets a big ’ol shrug from me.
  • I know this is just comics, but does anyone really think that Congress or the President would sign off on a piece of legislation that grants full executive powers to the leader of paramilitary spy organization in times of dire emergency? Cause for all the stupid things the United States government has done, they definitely aren’t that stupid…maybe.
  • And if you’re wondering why Sharon doesn’t full under the influence of Dr. Faustus? Well, seeing as she fell under his post-hypnotic suggestions in the run up to Civil War, I guess she’s immune…somehow?
  • So how does Baron Zemo have the Darkhold? I thought Victoria Montesi delivered to the Children of the Midnight Sun as seen in Gerry Conway’s Carnage series. Are the Children just another branch of Hydra now?
  • All right, science majors: if Tony Stark is now an artificial consciousness downloaded into an older Iron Man armor, as shown in the current Invincible Iron Man comics, how does he have eyes?
  • Okay, if HydraCap cut off the Ultimates and the Guardians of the Galaxy from Earth, and trapped the Defenders, Doctor Strange and Uncanny Avengers in New York, that still leaves lots of Marvel’s heavy hitters like Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Scarlet Witch, Hercules, and both Spider-Men still roaming around free. Hmm…maybe HydraCap’s brilliant strategy wasn’t so brilliant after all.