Best Shots Review: SECRET EMPIRE #4 'Most Biting Commentary Yet'

Page from 'Secret Empire #5'
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Secret Empire #4
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Sunny Gho, Rod Reis, Joshua Cassara and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Credit: Marvel Comics

[Editor's Note: For a spoiler-filled breakdown of the key moments of this issue, click here.]

We’re about halfway through Secret Empire, and Nick Spencer is continuing to build on his successes from the last issue. We’re still not getting a lot of answers, but we are gaining some context as Spencer pulls in more and more elements into his story, showing us how they fit in this fractured Marvel Universe.That’s no small task. There’s a reason that not every writer gets the chance to tackle such a huge undertaking and why stories like this are pitched far, far in advance. While the controversy surrounding HydraCap and the publisher’s backfiring attempts at damage control have overwhelmed the narrative around this story, there is something here. Spencer delivers what might be his most biting commentary yet in a really powerful way.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Trying to parse out metacommentary can be tricky sometimes, because on some level you have to assume authorial intent. A few scenes in this book only serve to move the chains of the plot, and that’s fine. Punisher receives his orders from Cap. Black Widow and the Champions are at odds over what to do with a Hydra operative they’ve captured. And the second Steve Rogers gets a little help from his friends. But the crucial pages in this book come from Cap and Iron Man’s respective teams raising towards Ultron’s stronghold in hopes of obtaining his piece of the Cosmic Cube. When the stealth mission goes wrong for both sides, Ultron steps in, but it’s not as we’ve seen him before.

Wearing the face of Hank Pym, Ultron places both teams in handcuffs and sits them at a table across from each other. Around them is the Avengers Mansion as it used to look, and here’s where Spencer really shines. Pym chides the Avengers for their constant bickering and explains why Ultron has largely sat this conflict out - he only needs to wait for them to destroy each other before he makes his move. Pym goes on to list all the ways that the Avengers have failed from Tony’s registration act to Wanda’s M-Day fiasco. Pym wants to help the Avengers but feels he never gets the respect he deserves. He just wants everything to go back to the way it was when the Avengers were friends and had pool parties and dinners together.

Credit: Marvel Comics

It’s hard not to see Pym’s statements as a stand-in for a fickle readership. Now more than ever,  fans have access to the people that make the comics they love (and hate). And historically, comics fans have never been satisfied with the ways that stories have gone. Even seemingly universally loved stories have their surprising detractors (like a young Kurt Busiek swearing off the X-Men after not liking the "Dark Phoenix Saga"). With Generations and Legacy on the horizon, it’s hard not to feel that readers (and on some level Pym) are getting what they want.

But what’s telling here is how Spencer has Tony respond. He brings up the one thing that can devastate Pym - the day he hit Janet - and how that made things too uncomfortable for the Avengers to go on as they had. Hank predictably flies off the handle, lamenting that he can save the world a hundred times and still never get past that one mistake. And it’s not just a mistake that Hank himself made. It was an actual art mistake that it was too late to fix. Hank beating Janet wasn’t something Marvel planned, but it did happen. Here Spencer does a little role reversal. Tony stands in for the angry fans, and Hank is now a creator. And I’d like to think that on some level he’s commenting on the somewhat thankless nature of writing superhero comic books. Creators (and by proxy, heroes) are only as good as their last success, but they are always as bad as their greatest failure. Reader and creator nostalgia for a certain era of character or storytelling only keeps these characters from growing. Secret Empire slyly pits Iron Man and Captain America against each other again because for many readers Civil War was the last great Marvel event and so many events since then have been chasing it. So how do we let these characters (and ourselves) move on? I think Spencer is trying to answer that with this book.

Credit: Marvel Comics

One weakness of the book is that the art is a little bit all over the place. There are essentially three different art teams: Rod Reis handling the second Steve pages himself; Joshua Cassara and Rachelle Rosenberg on the opening pages; and Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, and Sunny Gho handling everything else. The overall flow is not the best but taken as individual pieces, only Cassara’s work is subpar. His characters just don’t have the presence that the other artists on the book have been able to deliver which is somewhat important when you’re working with Cap, Punisher and Black Widow. And his page layouts are a little bit claustrophobic considering how much text there is on the page. That’s not entirely his fault, of course, but it’s still noticeable. Rod Reis is as solid as ever with second Steve. But Yu and company really stand out.

Credit: Marvel Comics

That section of the book has a few rough pages early on. I think it takes Yu a little while to really nail down the likenesses in this issue but he figures it out in time for the heavily talky middle portion of the book. I don’t want it to sound like he just draws talking heads for 15 pages. There are enough action scenes leading up to those moments. But the action scenes lack a lot of the emotion of the dinner scene. There’s a really palpable anger and frustration in the pages with Pym that actually allow Yu’s extra hatching work to have a place on the page. These heroes are worn and tired. The extra lines really help sell that idea.

Secret Empire is winning me over. I’m not ashamed to say that. It’s been, by and large, a solid event when it doesn’t have to dabble in the fascistic imagery that got it in hot water in the first place. It makes me wonder if the editorial and creative team really needed to go that route at all. There’s a story here about the changing nature of characters and our perceptions and history with them that I think is getting buried a bit. Still, it works with the story Spencer is telling. Right after the Pym scene, we see Cap in his HYDRA gear, and it's such a bummer. If Hank couldn’t come back from his one mistake, can Steve come back from his?

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