Secret Empire #2
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Andrea Sorrentino with Rod Reis
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
“But that’s the thing about hope. Just when you’re at your end, sometimes you find it in the strangest places.”
Nick Spencer has really been through the wringer over Secret Empire, but maybe there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. In a world where fascism has casually crept into the public consciousness, fans have reacted strongly to seeing one of their heroes turn heel. Captain America has been an incorruptible symbol so many times before, and now we need him more than ever. Keeping readers on their toes is the key to Marvel’s publishing efforts though, and while they obviously did not foresee the current political climate when this story started to take place, they have done everything to lean into it. Secret Empire #2 represents a bit of a break from beating readers over the head with fascistic imagery, though. Pivoting away from those visual cues and digging into the larger cast of characters affected by the new status quo thankfully allows the narrative to breathe and the event to actually feel like it’s delivering on some of its purported stakes. Even though Andrea Sorrentino’s art does muddy up some of the proceedings, there is at least improvement to the overall product.
Now one of the big strengths of this issue is Spencer’s ability to juggle multiple plot threads and a swath of characters in meaningful ways. Captain America himself might take a bit of a backseat in this issue, but there is still so much that Spencer and Sorrentino need to show us. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and that’s part of what the creative team is exploring here. Right from the start, we’re dropped in the Darkforce Dimension with the Defenders before jumping back to the Underground and finally getting an explanation of just what happened to Steve Rogers in a message from the now-dearly departed Rick Jones. I think this is where some of the narrative starts to fall apart though. Any freshman creative writing major can rattle off the “show, don’t tell” rule for you, but Spencer plants enough seeds of doubt in what’s being told about Hydra Cap’s origins to still make it compelling. But it’s the reactions to this information that are a little incongruent. All of these heroes, even with Marvel’s sliding scale continuity and the effects of Secret Wars, have been superheroing for so long that I find their abject ignorance of how things got this bad somewhat alarming. Black Widow is ready to go off and kill Cap but Hawkeye tries to convince her otherwise. Yet, that's only a symptom of the larger problem that no one has really been able to address.
The heroes, and by extension Spencer himself, are failing to dig into what this story feels like it could be about if it had the guts to go there. In fact, it dials back some tendencies to explore moral ambiguity that we’ve seen in Spencer’s own work elsewhere and I think that this event is worse for it. What we’ve seen play out in our reality is the truth that Secret Empire believes can only be caused by outside forces. Evil doesn’t come into power by enacting some Rube Goldberg-esque plot - it’s much more insidious than that. It’s there all along. Secret Empire asks us to imagine what would happen if evil actually was winning. But it fails to examine the idea that evil has always been winning, and we’ve been ignoring it because it was only affecting acceptable targets. (Ask any minority in America.) Some superhero comic books (and maybe events specifically) would prefer to present morality as something binary, black and white, good and evil. But I don't think that a universe that posits itself as “the world outside your window” can eschew moral ambiguity for the sake of a story. Spencer's best Cap stories broached that in a more meaningful way than he does here.
To get back to the issue specifically, while I think the dark days of the Marvel Universe deserve the sort of intense and brooding approach that Andrea Sorrentino brings to the table, I don’t think it works here. We talk a lot about detail and rendering when we review comics, but some artists don’t fit into those traditional examinations. Sorrentino is one of those. His art focuses more on creating tone and mood than anything else. Heavy inking frequently obscures character features but he’ll deliver exciting, stylistic action sequences and non-traditional panel layouts to balance it out. This book has a bunch of interesting layouts, that much is certain, such as an early sequence where it looks like we’re looking at the action through the eyes and mouth of a Darkforce demon. But this is a script that relies heavily on the emotions of the characters here, and when you can’t make out the features of a character's face, you lose the opportunity for that moment to resonate with the reader and that happens repeatedly throughout the book.
By now, you’ve likely seen the big reveal at the end of this issue: a bearded Steve Rogers in a tattered military uniform just “trying to get home.” It’s hard to know what that means right now. (Could it be the true Steve from Dimension Z? Did Zola send us a clone all those years ago?) Spencer has set these characters on some interesting but scary paths. With all the trauma that Black Widow survived in the Red Room, will the Champions ever be the same after being trained in hers? Considering Spencer’s handling of rioters in his Captain America run (and the subsequent criticism he received), visions of a dead Captain America at the hands of Miles Morales takes on completely different connotations, and the potential optics of that are truly chilling.
It’s true, sometimes you do find hope in the strangest places, and we’re still very early on in this event. That final splash is might be the best hope we can hope for, but even with this markedly improved sophomore installment, Secret Empire still has a ways to go before it will feel like it has truly turned the corner.