Secret Empire #0
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Rod Reis and Daniel Acuña
Lettered by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
It’s finally here.
While the citizens and heroes of the Marvel Universe may not have seen this coming, we, as an audience, have been aware of Secret Empire for some time due to the build-up across the Captain America books among others. The idea of a HYDRA infiltration was first floated by Rick Remender almost two years ago and fast became a more centralized narrative in the second and more controversial half of Nick Spencer’s Captain America run thus far. Now, these threads converge on one catastrophic day for the Marvel Universe, and while Secret Empire #0 may be more concerned with execution instead of debating the core concept, it’s still by no means something which can be easily swallowed.
For those who’ve somehow been unaware of the build-up: Kobik, the physical manifestation of the Cosmic Cube has manipulated the reality of Steve Rogers in order to make him a sleeper agent of HYDRA. Now secretly amassing his own faction separate from the Red Skull’s, Steve now holds the position of Director of S.H.I.E.L.D… and has decided it’s the time to strike.
Like many of Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers issues, this opening salvo flashes back to the time of World War II. In an oversized issue, it feels brisk, especially considering the main focus of the issue is the present day. While the heroes of New York contend with villains who were previously brainwashed inmates of Pleasant Hill, there’s also a ground invasion of Sokovia to deal with, not to mention a Chitauri invasion fleet heading for Earth. From that description alone, it may sound like a lot has gone to hell and it has, even before the fact that Captain America is in equal parts overseeing the defense effort as well as orchestrating the attack. In a way, this is like Darkseid’s invasion in Final Crisis with regards to the speed with which these events escalate and how bleak it all seems. There’s a couple jokes, but with the accompanying narration in the issue, they feel morose amidst the ominous recollection of the day’s events.
Much like Secret Empire will be on a macro-level, this issue is also the work of multiple artists, in this case: Rod Reis and Daniel Acuña. While they don’t share styles which are completely similar, they both work with more muted colors, which are certainly more appropriate for the occasion than vivid pop art style primary colours. Reis handles the opening prologue, while Acuña takes the present day and this at least demonstrates that this isn’t a matter of being unable to meet deadlines, the two sections are distinct and defined by their artist instead of seeing the pair trading off every other page. At times, pages are a little overstuffed, and Travis Lanham does his best to prevent the dialogue from overriding the art, but it’s a strange problem for an oversized issue to have and Acuña’s faces seem to either function as steel-jawed or incredibly loose.
While the issue may lean away from more overt political commentary (you won’t find any cutaway panels to allegorical pundits within this issue), the premise of Secret Empire functions like a reverse Man in the High Castle, and means that the issue is implicitly political, and not just because all art is. While the comic books have done more to make HYDRA an organization which has roots that extend beyond the Third Reich, like in Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Warriors, you’ll be forgiven if the two are inextricably linked as collaborators in your mind. That’s even taking into account the fact that there have been many steps taken to detach Steve’s faction from the Red Skull’s and the underlying notion of white supremacy. This issue reads as more of a straight betrayal that Captain America commits, and one interaction in particular, is devastating, but it also means that some of the conjecture and positing that has surrounded the build-up to this summer event feels like it could have been avoided if this didn’t have to be linked to HYDRA, and could instead be about the actual Secret Empire, for example.
I implore you to look beyond the score I’ve given, because while the issue worked for me, it’s completely understandable if it wouldn’t or doesn’t for you. For context, I’m saying this from the position of someone who, while currently scared about the state of the world, is low on the list of people who fear the very real threat of their rights being taken away. So, Secret Empire #0 is devastating, but if the idea of this whole storyline involving Steve Rogers is devastating to you, and that feeling is only amplified when this story tries to say something about the world, while simultaneously shying away from those implicit real-world implications, then this tale about one of the darkest days in the Marvel Universe likely won’t land as intended. Regardless, we have to hope that it’s always darkest before the dawn, right?