Best Shots Reviews: SECRET EMPIRE #1, BATMAN #22

Batman #22
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Secret Empire #1
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Nick Spencer, Steve McNiven, Jay Leisten and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Reaction to Captain America’s fascist turn has been swift and unforgiving. Nick Spencer inherited the Captain America titles from Rick Remender and used to some of those plot points to inform Secret Empire, an event that looks to turn the Marvel Universe on its head but one that also compromises a pillar of the Marvel Universe. But in jumping through hoops to figure out how to make this story happen, the writer and editorial team never stopped to ask if this is a story that they should tell.

On its face, there’s a good story somewhere in there. Heroes take heel turns all the time. And while Marvel could in no way predict the massive upheaval in American politics that we’ve experienced since November when the story was pitched back in January of 2015, their response to the fan reaction has left something to be desired. Captain America is an agent of Hydra. Hydra have generally been Nazis. Marvel has said they aren’t Nazis. Marvel has ties to the current administration. The current administration has ties to what some would say are Nazis. You can see how this starts to get a little dicey. Maybe we’re getting a little too big picture for the summer event comic book where we already know the eventual outcome but actions speak louder than words. And there’s been a smugness that Marvel and Spencer’s reaction to fan response that runs counter to what they’re saying the story is about and what they’ve put on the page. Spencer and artist Steve McNiven have definitely given us a snapshot of a Marvel Universe defined by fear and paranoia, but if what they’re saying about their story is true, is there anything to be gained from this plot?

Let’s get this out of the way early. I don’t think Nick Spencer is a Nazi. I don’t think anyone should wish bodily harm or death threats on creators of comic books. But I’m also not buying what Spencer is selling here. He and Marvel have positioned Secret Empire so that this status quo is something that happens to Steve Rogers, that he isn’t complicit in the inner workings of Hydra’s actions and the things that they have done to get to this point. The lead-up to Secret Empire tries to make this painfully clear by jumping through every imaginable narrative hoop to disassociate Hydra from Nazis, but it just doesn’t work. But we’ll believe a man can fly, so let’s suspend disbelief for a minute.

There are some things that Spencer and McNiven execute well. In fact, my issue isn’t with most of the technical execution. The America on display at the beginning of this issue is jarring, and it’s supposed to be. This was a hostile takeover by America’s champion. The reader isn’t supposed to be comfortable with any of this and I think it’s been awhile since an event book started with such a visceral feeling of dread. I think Spencer’s Champions are generally pretty fun, and the Fantasticar is a nice touch. The heroes are down and out. These are most definitely the worst of times.

But you can’t have it both ways. Captain Marvel is still effectively locked out of Earth, and her opening salvo flows right out of Spencer’s bit of meta narration about event comic books. And there’s some irony in her talking about not being complacent in the wake of a massive change that she doesn’t like when Marvel’s most recent statement has been “be patient and let us finish the story.” Sounds like we’re being told to be complacent. Meanwhile, Cap’s cabinet is filled with known Nazi collaborators and some of the worst villains in the Marvel Universe, perpetrators of atrocities that Cap would never stand for, and yet, he tells Sharon Carter to think of all the good they could do together. And therein lies the problem with this characterization of Cap. If he’s not a Nazi, then he let these things happen. If he is a Nazi, well...‘nuff said. I understand that we aren’t supposed to root for Cap or Hydra in this scenario, but it’s not particularly easy to root for the other guys either. Scarlet Witch, Deadpool, Thor and Vision are Cap’s Avengers, so on some level they’re complicit. Hawkeye is kind of leading the resistance at this point, but he did just kill Bruce Banner in Civil War II so he’s not the most likable character here. And the thing that undermines the entirety of the story is a cosmic rock that has limitless power.

The problem with hinging the story on a deus ex machina is that it removes any stakes from anything that happens. Someone dies? Cosmic Cube them back to life. Nazis win World War II? Cosmic Cube to fix it. Cap is evil? Cosmic Cube. And so on and so forth. Not to mention that Marvel’s already shown their hand a bit in regards to the end of the story in an announcement days before this issue. Spencer is retreading plot points from Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man but failing to do what that book did so well: make Doc Ock a somewhat sympathetic character by presenting him opportunities to change. If stories are about change, they need to have the space to explore those changes. Characters need to be tested and given real opportunities to succumb to those challenges or rise above them. Cap’s lack of agency in this story fails to put him in a position to do either of those things unless we either Cosmic Cube him back to regular Steve Rogers or establish that Steve Rogers is a paragon of good more powerful than reality itself.

To make matters worse, the characters themselves acknowledge that their actions are meaningless. Despite a big death in the book and just how dire everything seems, Elisa makes it clear to Steve that everything is a machination of the Cosmic Cube. Elisa wants Steve to use the Cube to create a new world order in Hydra’s image but how is that supposed to have narrative significance if the Cube can seemingly wipe it all away just as quickly? If the characters in the book can’t even be bothered to care about what’s happening, how are readers supposed to?

Steve McNiven treats us to some really excellent panels when he gets more to draw than people sitting around a table talking. Obviously, that’s a function of the script. There’s a lot that these characters have to talk about before they get to more punching and McNiven does a good job of giving us a range of expressions for Cap at least that easily communicate his feelings at any given point. The art really goes a long way to help that feeling of dread set in early on. The kids all hailing Hydra in the classroom, the subtle watch of the security camera over the teacher, the splintering of the door by the Hydra Gestapo; McNiven plays well off the themes of paranoia in the script. The coloring from Matt Wilson, however, leaves a little bit to be desired. Aside from the vaguely red, white, and blue motif during Captain Marvel’s transmission, most of the colors look washed out. This leads the lettering for the sound effects to look especially garish and some of the smaller production work, like the text on a Hydra recruitment sign, to look laughably out of place. This was not a strong outing by Travis Lanham, who is usually a solid letterer.

The whole package for Secret Empire is somewhat baffling. I understand needing to rile up your base. I understand wanting to do new things with your characters. But when Tom Brevoort said that angry fans lead to better sales, my heart broke a bit. I didn’t start reading comic books because they made me angry. Marvel Comics resonated with me because they were about flawed people overcoming seemingly impossible situations. And that’s what Secret Empire wants to be at its heart! I know that’s the plan. But Spencer and the editorial team are not approaching this story with the nuance or tact that they need. Because Hydra aren’t just silly villains in green suits. They’re stand-ins for something very real and very dark and very much still present in our world. I don’t expect all entertainment to be happy-go-lucky. I want stories that challenge me. But I want stories that also acknowledge how they exist in reality. Stories can empower the best parts of people and the worst parts of people. Secret Empire #1 fails because at best, its hook is a gimmick. It’s a cheap trick. And at worst, it attempts to stand on the shoulders of the legacy of some of Marvel’s greatest creators and then do a disservice to one of their greatest heroes.

Credit: DC Comics

Batman #22
Written by Joshua Williamson and Tom King
Art by Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The third chapter of "The Button" trades forward momentum for emotional development in the pathos-filled Batman #22. Bringing readers back to the Flashpoint universe Thomas Wayne has resigned himself to a warrior’s death at the hands of Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s forces - that is, before his son Bruce blinks into his cave with the Flash and a broken Cosmic Treadmill in tow. Picking up moments before the last installment's father/son cliffhanger, Joshua Williamson and Tom King slow things way, way down. But what this installment lacks in propulsion, it more than makes up for in character work, thanks to the pair’s flowing narration and heartfelt interaction between Bruce and Thomas, portrayed with genuine emotion and style by artist Jason Fabok and colorist Brad Anderson.

All Thomas Wayne wanted to do was save his son, but it seemed the Multiverse had other plans. But as he was poised on the edge of oblivion, the Multiverse delivered another surprise; the return of Barry Allen and along with him, Bruce Wayne. Though this issue is saddled with a flimsy excuse for a fight scene in the form of a joint Atlantean and Amazonian hit squad, Williamson mines every bit they can out of the meeting of Batmen and it proves to be the issue’s biggest selling point.

Built upon some choice narration from Thomas about the post-Barry world of Flashpoint and his gritty emotional state, Batman #22 offers a rare bit of clarity for Bruce Wayne by facing him against the father he lost, another man driven to the brink due to grief. But while Bruce is resolute in his crusade, Thomas can’t watch his son throw his life away to a cowl and a cause like he did. Though the issue quickly barrels toward its finale after Thomas bears his heart to his son, it is still a heartfelt and welcome change of pace for the Batman installments of "The Button," especially after the bloody and decompressed opening issue.

Leaning into that downshift in pace are the art team of Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson. Batman #22 has a fine display of the pair’s action prowess in the form of a double page splash of the Batmen leaping into the fray as Barry hastily reassembles the Cosmic Treadmill. But while Fabok and Anderson's set pieces are always a good time, it is their emoting and reaction shots that really give this comic its visual energy. Running with the baton handed off by Howard Porter and Hi-Fi, Fabok's inks look just a bit darker as he takes readers through the tense first meeting of Bruce and Thomas only to soften both men with fatherly gazes, blocking that furthers the power of the scenes, all culminating in a heart wrenching, but heroic goodbye for the Wayne patriarch. Readers will surely complain about Batman #22's lack of action, but Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson show that when you have heart, the action can play second fiddle for an issue and the story still be engaging in the meantime.

While a considerably low-key penultimate issue, Batman #22 provides a nice emotional context to this crossover tempered with stylishly restrained superhero action. Tom King and Joshua Williamson have taken what could have been a rote crossover and taken it so many unexpected directions, I am pleasantly in the dark about exactly what the hell this thing will read like once it hits the finale. Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson also get to spread their artistic wings a bit, beyond the super fisticuffs and ready made for poster print splash pages, giving these middle issues a heart underneath the slick costumes and Alan Mooreian intrigue. We are five minutes to midnight now on the DC doomsday clock, and if Batman #22 is any indication, we should prepare for intense feelings come midnight.

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