Secret Empire #3
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Andrea Sorrentino and Rod Reis
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
“And if we knew what hope was again, we also now knew what its absence felt like. We felt the fear that comes with losing something cherished.”
Secret Empire is, warts and all, one of the best Marvel events in recent memory. Despite the controversy on social media, the stakes are building, and this series actually feels like an honest-to-goodness event, as Steve Rogers lords over his new dystopia, while characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye make small but crucial steps towards building an uprising. While other such series have had scale, they lacked a feeling that the event was truly stirring the pot that is the Marvel Universe. Secret Empire has been crushing for the characters involved, and as readers it’s hard not to feel that, too. In a vacuum, Marvel’s biggest misstep is tasking Andrea Sorrentino with drawing this story. While he excels at portraying mood, I think his work is so stylized that it undercuts the story a bit.
When Spencer is on top of his game, his dialogue flows well, his jokes land and the words on the page really work in tandem with the art to convey a great sense of pacing. That’s basically what we get with Secret Empire #3, even though sometimes decompression gets the best of the book. We pick up fresh off the shocking reveal of a second Steve Rogers, and he’s talking about feeling a pull to a place that needs him. It’s vague, but it creates a nice dichotomy with the very end of the book. (Bear with me because I’m not going to talk about the book in chronological order.)
Spencer’s setup in the opening pages are supposed to give us some hope. Rod Reis’ painterly art and the soft blues and greys on those pages are calming and reassuring. The pages move slowly in these quiet moments. That’s heavily contrasted with the end of the book. The blues give way to purple, and then to bright reds as tranquility gives way to violence. Suddenly the reader is thrown for another loop, struggling to grasp exactly what’s going on in the moment before the incredible sinking feeling of this issue’s last page reveal. It’s an expert bit of storytelling, and the creative team is playing readers like a fiddle.
The scenes in the middle vary between meaningful character work, moving chess pieces on the board and a little bit of filler. Star-Lord meets with the Galactic Council about helping the heroes who are trapped outside of Earth. (Spencer throws in an especially good Rocket Racoon joke about the other characters’ nicknames for HydraCap that I won’t spoil here.) Meanwhile, Black Widow is gathering intel from Boomerang and Maria Hill before heading back to train the Champions. And the last two main scenes deal directly with the Macguffin, those pesky Cosmic Cube fragments, and feature the underground and Hydra trying to get different ones in different ways.
This issue is packed, and that’s what I meant about Spencer and his art team’s sense of pacing. There’s a lot of information. There’s a lot going on. But the narrative really guides you through it and helps you make sense of it. And Spencer is good about holding those big, surprising moments until he needs them. There’s a little bit of a sense that you can’t believe what you just read because the implications are huge but that’s what a good event does.
But the art really betrays Spencer this time around. It’s not Rod Reis’ art that’s to blame at all. In fact, his work is really strong and fits perfectly thematically for the two scenes he’s given. Andrea Sorrentino, on the other hand, is wildly, wildly inconsistent. I’ve mentioned before that Sorrentino excels at creating mood. That’s still true, but sometimes the artist deviates tremendously from established character models (like the strictly blue-collar Boomerang suddenly trying to pull off a shaved head and stubble, or his weirdly lumpy take on Sam Wilson), which can’t help but pull readers out the story.
For the narrative to really resonate with readers, they need to have a sense that the world they’re looking at is the one they’re familiar with. Otherwise, the whole thing kind of plays like an Elseworlds story - it just doesn’t hold the same weight. With so many characters out of costume, it’s a little hard to keep track of them already, and while toying with readers’ perception of the Marvel Universe is a part of this event, I think you can only go so far with that. I like Sorrentino’s layouts here for the most part - he’s always had a penchant for thinking outside the box - but I think if the art was closer to a platonic ideal for the Marvel Universe (think something like Jim Cheung or Steve McNiven) it might go further to underline just how bad everything has gotten, because there would be a little bit of dissonance in seeing very recognizable characters taking drastic measures.
Secret Empire has been steadily improving, but it feels that for every step forward, they’re taking at least one back as well. The narrative stakes feels real, and I love the way that Spencer is hitting his marks with the pacing. The color work is really clever in the transitions between artists and how it plays against the writing as well. But Sorrentino needs to step up his game and render the Marvel Universe more accurately, or the story just doesn’t have the same impact.