"Secret Empire #9" variant
Credit: Andrea Sorrentino (Marvel Comics)

Hey there ‘Rama readers! Pierce Lydon here, filling in for our fearless leader, David Pepose as he’s currently 39,000 feet above sea level. We’ve got two reviews of two very different fascist heroes today. We’ll kick things off with Joltin’ Justin Patridge’s look at Nightwing: The New Order #1.

Credit: Trevor McCarthy/Dean White/Clayton Cowles (DC Comics)

Nightwing: The New Order #1
Written Kyle Higgins
Art by Trevor McCarthy and Dean White
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Kyle Higgins returns to a Gotham not unlike his own in Nightwing: The New Order. Presenting a Twilight Zone like take on his own Nightwing works, Higgins takes the idea of a fallen Gotham and raises it up on the shoulders of a compromised follower of the Batman. Positing a world in which Dick Grayson turned on the metahumans of the DCU and “saved the world” from their powers, Higgins again displays his uncanny ability for pathos filled worldbuilding and instantly arresting characters; much like he’s been doing over at Dynamite Entertainment with his stellar Magnus reboot.

Higgins finds an unexpected pathos following the aging Grayson and with his young son, who acts as narrator throughout this debut, and hopefully the rest of the series. Higgins keeps some of the title’s biggest mysteries frustratingly close to the chest, making this debut feel a bit slight in overall establishing information for the rest of the story. But, that said, The New Order is a shockingly emotional tale of heroism eroded by time and a far cry from the jackbooted take on Nightwing we all feared it would be.

It also probably doesn’t hurt that noted Nightwing and Gates of Gotham artist Trevor McCarthy’s name is on the bill alongside Higgins and colorist Dean White, who has been holding down a beautiful residence in Gotham City as of late. McCarthy and White bring Higgins’ police state Gotham to life with a pulsing vibrancy, all impossible buildings and rich colors beaming from the streets, rooftops, and hauntingly lit interiors. McCarthy also understands the way Dick moves and fights, displaying that here with ballet dancer precision, albeit with a bit more grey hair along the temples and less disco collars. Dick Grayson is the last person any of us would want leading an Orwellian police state, but at the very least Nightwing: The New Order #1 is a mature, nuanced take on the idea and best of all, one that doesn’t betray the spirit of Batman’s 'first son.'

“You probably know what kind of story this is going to be,” intones Dick’s young son Jake from the near constant narration provided by Higgins and lettering heavyweight Clayton Cowles. If you really think about it, yeah, you do, at least in the broad strokes, but Kyle Higgins leans into the turn you can see coming at the end of this first issue, making damn sure that Dick and his new world is at least foundationally established on an emotional level.

All throughout, either through the narration, stray dialogue, or even the issue’s bloody and epic opening which depicts Dick standing tall over a fallen Superman with various Leaguers and villains littering the Metropolis streets, Higgins is revealing snippets of this world’s history. It is something Higgins has proven quite adept at and while he gets dangerously close to Lost/Fringe level teasing with the really big stuff like the identity of Jake’s mother (though I have some theories) and exactly how Nightwing was able to fell the Man of Steel and the world’s metas, The New Order #1 is enough to keep me on the hook at least for a few more issues.

But again, even with the teasing Higgins is engaging in the script, Trevor McCarthy and Dean White make the art as substantial as possible by diving into the slick, David Fincher-esque Gotham of this alternate Earth. Using a compelling mixture of Christopher Nolan’s moody preciseness and the expressiveness of Terry Dodson, McCarthy’s Grayson is a living, breathing character, inhabiting a city just as alive thanks to energetic page construction and inky, hypnotic colors.

It may have been a while since this Dick Grayson leaped around in the field, but McCarthy clearly hasn’t lost a step with the hero, quickly reestablishing his rapport with the character in a showstopping set piece of him chasing down a fleeing Doctor Light. Legacy is obviously something very important to the Bat Family and having legacy artists like McCarthy and White on the title gives New Order just a bit more fandom clout as a suspicious audience looks over the shelves this week.

When the cover of Nightwing: The New Order was released I, probably like a lot of you, got nervous as to the state of one of my faves in this new grimdark landscape. That booty is supposed to be used for good, not evil! But thankfully our fears are, for now, unfounded and Kyle Higgins, Trevor McCarthy, and Dean White have bigger plans for our boy than taking the easy way out and making him some kind of one-note despot. The New Order still has plenty of secrets and issues to go, but this debut does right by the Grayson name and tells a damn compelling story to boot.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Secret Empire #9
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Leinil Francis Yu, Joe Bennett, Rod Reis, Gerry Alanguilan, Joe Pimentel, Sunny Gho and Dono Sanchez Almara
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10

The end is in sight for Secret Empire but unfortunately, Spencer and company are doing everything but sticking the landing. And there really are a lot of reasons for it. The only slight saving grace of the issue might be Leinil Francis Yu’s art but even that can’t imbue the book with a sense of urgency. Here we are, at the end of what’s supposed to be a big Marvel event and it’s dull and lifeless, limping to a finish that feels pointless in the face of Marvel’s upcoming publishing plans.

Spencer’s script is the main culprit here. It’s overwrought with faux-inspirational narration and little in the way of big moments. Spencer buckles under the weight of his own narrative. We already know where a story like this is headed. It doesn’t end with the heroes losing. On some level, it can’t end with them losing. They’ll suffer losses, sure. They already have. But Marvel’s "Legacy" looms large over the narrative. So large in fact that Spencer kind of only gives us the Cliff’s Notes version of the tide turning against HYDRA. The narration essentially tells the readers exactly what is going on in each page as Yu’s art is little more than non-sequitur panels of heroes posing/battling. There are a few actual scenes - Emma Frost and Magneto helping the Underground resistance, Black Ant and Taskmaster double crossing HYDRA and freeing the Champions - but they aren’t enough. Elsewhere in the book, we’re simply told what’s going on. It doesn’t feel like a story at all. It feels like a summary. Why is everything important seemingly happening off-panel?

Spencer finally establishes that the dreamy sequences drawn by Rod Reis are in fact in Kobik’s head, a sort of living monument to her regrets about what’s gone on. This Steve Rogers may, in fact, represent the “real” Captain America, which really calls into question Marvel’s repeated insistence that HYDRACap has been the real Cap all along. I understand not wanting to give away the story. But look at DC’s hero-turned-fascist tale, Nightwing: The New Order, there’s nothing wrong with telling readers that things aren’t totally as they seem ahead of time instead of doubling down.

It’s kind of a shame that this book is so dull. Yu gets only two really big moments to draw - the lightning strike of the Odinson and a big double-page spread battle. He does some decent character work in the Emma and Black Ant scenes but there’s no real standout sequences there. With uneven work from Steve McNiven and absolutely baffling art from Andrea Sorrentino, Yu’s work has been the closest to an ideal event book artist that this book has had but he gets a raw deal from the script. There aren’t enough opportunities for him to actually be a storyteller. Instead, he’s reduced to a glorified pin-up artist and the book ends up reading like an art book with captions in the way. Rod Reis turns in a solid few pages and Joe Bennett’s work is effective if unspectacular. I’d keep beating the “too many artists make the book an uneven read” drum but at this point the script isn’t doing any of them any favors.

Secret Empire is exactly what you don’t want from an event - a hollow, uninspired slog. It presents one of the most dire situations that the Marvel Universe has ever found itself in but the main title doesn’t earn any of the moments that are supposed to be big payoffs. It’s not directionless, instead it’s suddenly laser-focused on getting readers to the end after months of ambling toward the conclusion. It just feels odd. After months and months of lead up, what will we have to show for this story? Almost certainly nothing. This event has one more issue to prove that the whole thing wasn’t just a cheap trick except it doesn’t feel like there’s anything left to learn from this story. It treads water, teases conclusions and revelations but it never satisfactorily gets to any of them. There’s nothing essential about it because it doesn’t even really condemn its villains. Maybe there’s a reason that capes comics aren’t the forerunners of groundbreaking comics storytelling. Maybe some of the folks working in them have nothing essential left to say. I, for one, really and truly hope that’s not true.

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