Secret Empire #8
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Daniel Acuna, Rod Reis, Sean Izaakse and Java Tartaglia
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
Well, this was certainly unexpected. Nick Spencer and his art team take the pedal off the side plots just a little bit to let Secret Empire’s main narrative breathe and the book is better for it. The plotting itself might leave a little bit to be desired, but for readers who are fully onboard, there’s a lot to like here. The art team is much better off, swapping out Andrea Sorrentino’s muddy visuals for Daniel Acuna and Joshua Cassara for Sean Izaakse. They get the job done and deliver a clearer picture of the Marvel Universe. Also, if nothing else, it’s easy to commend everyone from editorial on down for pumping these issues out with minimal delays despite some moving parts surrounding the publishing schedule. But Spencer is dialing up the stakes here. “Hope” is firmly at the center of the narrative, but it feels like it’s on shaky ground sometimes.
Before we go any further,this week's Captain America #25 is basically required reading before this issue, and I’ll be discussing a main plot point from that book. Spoilers on - you’ve been warned.
So Sam Wilson is taking back the mantle of Captain America, and the Underground feels like they finally have a way to gain at least a little bit of the upper hand when it comes to defeating Hydra. But getting there is a little weird. Spencer attempts to dig into Sam Wilson the same way he did with Pym/Ultron back in Secret Empire #4, but it rings a bit hollow because his run with Sam as Cap has overall been a mixed bag. Essentially, Sam monologues a lot about how things got the way they are, and he’s got a point. Steve Rogers was an icon, and they got lazy and let him carry them through everything. In doing so, they left that power unchecked, and look where it got them. It’s a very logical (if somewhat dull and obvious) conclusion to come to.
But the big gambit to break the planetary defense shield and free New York from the Darkforce Dimension hinges on the idea that all these characters were too dumb or too distracted to figure out what to do sooner. Yes, these characters have experienced a lot of trauma. Yes, they have a lot on their plates right now. But #4 showed that when they get together, they can really make something happen.
One of the problems with Secret Empire’s narrative being drawn out over several months is that the sense of how much time has passed is really lost on the reader, and that does affect how the readers understands the characters’ actions. Are they moving quickly? Or have they been biding their time? It doesn’t help that the narrative is spread out over numerous f titles. It’s very easy to feel like you’re missing a major plot point only to realize that you needed to read a tie-in to get the full story. Editors’ Notes used to be a thing. They’ve disappeared. I’d like them back. It would go a long way to helping readers appreciate the full breadth of the story!
The big reveal in Captain America #25 is that the unimaginatively-named Barf (who we saw back in Secret Empire #1 - thanks, Anton Chekhov!) can simply barf up a piece of the Cosmic Cube at will. And you know what? I’m all for silly plot points! That’s the mighty Marvel way! (I mean, come on! Thor was a six-foot tall frog for a little while!) I just don’t feel totally sold on this one, yet. All it does is cause us to ask more questions. If he can barf up a piece of the Cosmic Cube, why not grab a photo of an Infinity Stone and have him barf up that? Why not make more than one piece of the Cosmic Cube? Why not barf up the real Captain America? (Kidding on that last one, of course.) It’s not necessarily a bad deus ex machina, but it is a lazy one because his powers are so ill-defined.
Spencer’s been riffing on the idea of “hope” across his plot threads, and they’re starting to come together. But when the heart of your story is a glorified wish machine, it starts to take the teeth out of what you’re saying. I just don’t think Spencer is particularly good at writing these big heroic speeches. Coming from the guy who wrote Superior Foes of Spider-Man, it rings a bit hollow. I’m not saying that a writer can’t or shouldn’t have range. But this feels a bit like a cover of a really good song we’ve heard before and can’t quite remember the name of because something’s just slightly off.
We get a good showing from Rod Reis in this issue, though it’s not like he’s tasked with particularly challenging pages. Still, I really like his posing, composition and especially his coloring with regards to the water effects he needs to communicate. It’s a strong look to open and close the book with. Meanwhile, Sean Izaakse has been sorely underutilized throughout this event. His character renderings are really strong. His expression work is on point and his vision of the Marvel Universe is a lot closer to neutral ideal. His work isn’t flashy by any means but he’s definitely one of the strongest artists employed by this story. His pages might be relegated to a glorified recap but I was disappointed not to see a few more of them. Daniel Acuna really tries to put this book on his shoulders. Acuna’s work thrives on heavy contrast and he does a good job providing it, not only with heavy inking but also with explosive coloring. There are a few moments where we get a weird face or two but on the whole the work is strong. (Though someone needs to show Acuna a better picture of Baby Groot.) Acuna’s work goes a long way to sell the parts of Spencer’s script that feel a little overwritten. And for the first time in a few issues, this event has the look of a Marvel event.
This issue has the size and scope of everything we’ve come to know and love about Marvel events (the ones that we do actually know and love, anyway). But the poorly defined deus ex machina undercuts the action. It’s another instance where you have to wonder if the characters are just too distracted or too dumb to really think through their plans. Spencer wants so badly to give us a triumphant, hopeful ending but he’s almost giving us too long to think about whether or not that’s earned. That’s a weird spot to be with an event like this. With a shorter page count (and maybe some actual guidance regarding the tie-ins), Secret Empire had a shot to be more than just a decent Marvel event. With only two issues left, we can only hope that it reaches that bar.