With this week's release of Secret Empire: Omega, the Secret Empire saga has now come to an end. In the issue by writer Nick Spencer and artists Andrea Sorrentino and Joe Bennett, the newly-returned heroic Steve Rogers confronts his Hydra-aligned evil doppelganger, clearly laying out the differences in their conflicting ideologies and closing the chapter on one of the darkest moments of Marvel history.
Stretching back nearly 18 months to the spring of 2016, Secret Empire started with the revelation that Steve Rogers - Captain America - had secretly betrayed everything he stands for (or so it seemed at the time - it's more complex than that). Over the course of that year and a half, Rogers' betrayal shaped the events of the Marvel Universe, culminating in the return of the 'good' Steve, and presaging "Legacy" - Marvel's publishing initiative that will bring back classic story elements, characters, and even original numbering for long-running characters.
In the wake of Secret Empire: Omega, Newsarama spoke to Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort about the controversial event, digging into the complex fan reaction to Cap's betrayal and return, just how much the roadmap for the event changed over the course of the series, and what it means that 'evil' Steve - or as Brevoort calls him, "Stevil" - is still alive and kicking.
Newsarama: Tom, Secret Empire wasn’t just your big summer event, it was also the culmination of the story line that began in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 last year. Now that Secret Empire: Omega is on stands, how would you rate your own execution and how do you think the storyline has been received?
Tom Brevoort: It’s not really for me to rate the execution. That’s a task that falls to the readers. The one thing I can tell you, the one metric I can point to, is that it sold very, very well. Issues #8, #9, and #10 - the three climactic issues - were all in the top ten for the industry that last month. So it held its numbers and held its interest all the way to the end.
It was certainly a controversial story, which is no surprise. There were people who were very much up in arms about it, but as tends to be the case, the most controversial stories we tell are the ones that sell the best. So on that level, I think it went just fine.
But again, in terms of the execution, that’s not for me to decide. That’s for the fans to tell me. Everybody involved stepped up to the plate and told the best story they could tell. I feel like we did pretty well, but I could have all the good intentions in the world – if we laid a goose egg, we laid a goose egg. The audience decides that.
Nrama: Last year you guys memorably got out in front of this storyline, revealing Hydra-Cap to USA Today & Entertainment Weekly the morning of publication. By yours, Axel Alonso’s, and Nick Spencer’s comments, you tried to thread the needle with the story a little bit, preemptively promising this was the real Cap and not just continuity shenanigans. Now that we know the resolution do you think Secret Empire fulfilled the criteria that you mentioned, not only for who Hydra Steve was all along, but for the resolution as well?
Brevoort: Again, I can’t speak to any given reader’s personal experience. I feel it fulfilled those expectations. I feel like it’s exactly what we said it was from the start. And I can reiterate - although there are those that won’t believe me when I say this - we didn’t really change anything along the way. This is always the story that we were going to do from the jump. Not even from when Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 came out but from before that, when we were planning “Avengers Standoff” and setting up that story.
Nrama: Some of the early beats in the overall Secret Empire arc, like the radicalized civilian Hydra agents in Steve Rogers #1, seem almost prescient today. Did anyone at Marvel foresee this story being told in the environment in which Secret Empire eventually came out?
Brevoort: Honestly no, and that presented its own challenges. There are aspects of the timing that made it seem like it was about things it wasn’t quite meant to be about. We talked about that internally a lot, exactly how to communicate the message of what we were doing all throughout.
I mean, there was a retreat we were at where we were talking about this - this would have been the spring or the summer before the election - we were talking about this, what the story was going to be, how it was going to evolve, and a good portion of the room were asking, “Won’t this all be old news by the time we get to it? Won’t people have moved on from thinking about this, and worrying about this?”
So no, we didn’t see it, not more than anybody else. Much of the nation has been pretty stunned by the political shift the country has taken in the last 11 months, so we didn’t foresee that Secret Empire would wind up being quite so relevant or have such a strong parallel when we were coming up with it. We were addressing these issues, but we were talking about them in generalities rather than specificities, and that the whole thing a little more delicate to navigate.
Nrama: Following up on that, the conversation the two Steves have in Secret Empire: Omega makes the differences in their ideologies pretty plain – and spells out Hydra Steve’s beliefs. Knowing what was coming, were you surprised that some people seemed to interpret that Hydra Steve was intended to be the hero of the story?
Brevoort: In a sense it’s not surprising because our audience invests in our characters so heavily, and we very much all the way through had another project we could look back on as a parallel – Superior Spider-Man – which was not quite as politically charged. But Peter Parker seemingly died and was subverted by Doctor Octopus, and then Doctor Octopus was Spider-Man, and he was doing things in a very different way. And there were a lot of impassioned and outraged Spider-Man readers all through that journey.
But once that story was over, and people had the beginning, middle, and end, and could kind of quantify it now with the security that Peter Parker is back as Spider-Man, I think that story is less controversial in the rearview mirror.
With that having been said, at least in terms of my reading and my interpretation of the issues we put out, I don’t think there’s any place in Secret Empire where we’re trying to say Hydra Steve’s point of view is the correct one – he’s the villain from virtually page one. Again though, everyone’s reading experience is different so if a reader read this the other way and felt it was saying that, that was their interpretation of the story, I can’t say there’s not some validity to that in the sense that every reader gets to take out of our stories whatever they want. They’re a participant in the process, reading and absorbing the comics.
And again, I think so much of that has to do with the zeitgeist of the world at the time these books were being released. This has been a very unsettling and contentions time for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, and the fact that this story was going on now as opposed to a time of greater stability just made it that much more prickly, and arch, and likely to garner an extreme reaction that is maybe still 80% about the story, but also 20% about what people are feeling about the world they’re living in. We didn’t predict it, and it was an interesting experience to go through, even if not a comfortable experience. But it wasn’t anything we weren’t prepared to weather.
Nrama: With the knowledge that Marvel was viewing Hydra Steve as the villain throughout the story, who would you say is the protagonist of Secret Empire?
Brevoort: Well, I think technically the protagonist, in the long run, is the Marvel Universe. I don’t know if there’s a single specific hero who embodies the sole hero archetype for the story. If I had to pick one, back up against the wall, it’s Sam Wilson. It’s the other Captain America.
But you could make an argument that it’s Tony Stark the A.I. You could make an argument that it’s Miles Morales. You could make an argument that it’s Bucky and Scott Lang, or that it’s good guy Steve Rogers. All of those are kind of true.
In a big Marvel event, there are any number of protagonists because we tend to be dealing with big swaths of superheroes. And really the point, and the crucible the heroes had to come to through Secret Empire, was not just dealing with the overt threat of “Steve Rogers is Hydra and he’s taken over everything and this is terrible,” but also coming to grips with their own failings and foibles and mistakes from the past, reaching across these broken chasms of relationships they’ve had so they can rededicate themselves to their core principles of always doing the right thing, and standing up for the little guy, and to try to make a difference.
It’s really only at the point where the heroes can do that, when Sam reemerges and they come together in issue #8, that they can get any sort of traction in dealing with the problem.
Nrama: I want to dial in on the lingering question of the now two Steve Rogers. Which one of them - if any - is the real Cap? Is the point of the story is that they both could be?
Brevoort: I think first of all, the real answer to that question is, neither one of them is real – Captain America is made up! [laughs]
Look, we’re already talking about degrees of realism or legitimacy.
That’s the argument certainly, that 'Stevil' presents. From his point of view, he’s the real guy. And the history he remembers and the history that he lives through is, to him, the history that has been subverted and changed. And as he says in Secret Empire: Omega, he’s not the only person that believes that - or will believe that - moving forward.
And that actually gives a really interesting dynamic to Hydra, moving ahead. They’re no longer an organization of people who suddenly want to rule the world and be fascistic for fascism’s sake. They’re now people who believe that the world that theirs and belonged to them was stolen from them, was changed, was stolen from them by the Allies at the end of World War II who they believe used a Cosmic Cube to change things - so they’re trying to restore what they believe was theirs and is now gone.
And that dichotomy, and the fact that it is a sort of Schrodinger’s Cat situation where you can’t really say for sure who is right and who is wrong is a much more interesting conundrum to grapple with.
Of those two guys, which one of them is the real Steve Rogers? Technically both of them kind of are. Only one of ‘em’s gonna have a comic book next month, though – so by that metric, it’s good guy Steve Rogers. [Laughs]
But Hydra Steve lived a life that was very similar in some respects, and very different in other respects, and remembers those experiences, and forged those bonds of friendship and believed in those core values with the same conviction and determination and will that our Steve does, so he really is kind of the flipside of that coin. It really shows that, but for a couple of choices and different circumstances in life, we could end up with a person that’s very different from the one we recognize.
Nrama: So to play Randolph and Mortimer Duke for a second (that’s a Trading Places reference for you youngsters), is the idea here that heroes like Steve Rogers are more a product of nurture than nature - that under the right circumstances anyone can be corrupted? Or did Kobik’s machinations go beyond corrupting a child that would have grown into a hero without Hydra’s influence?
Brevoort: Definitely this is more a question of nurture than nature. I think the essential nature of Steve Rogers - both of them - is the same. He’s dedicated, principled. He has beliefs that he’s willing to fight for. He’s self-sacrificing. He stands up when somebody needs to stand up. It’s just that, in each case, because of his circumstance, he’s got different beliefs. He’s got different core values that he has invested those attributes in.
And that difference, that circumstance, is what separates the guy we think of as a hero from the guy we think of as a villain. On a very real level, if Hydra Steve had been able to carry his plan to fruition, and rewrite everything with the power of the Cosmic Cube - he’s right. All those people he killed wouldn’t be dead anymore. He’d have brought them back. They’d be loyal citizens of Hydra, but in his mind, that’s a good thing. All the things he did as a means to an end would have been valid because that end would have come to fruition.
I don’t think anything is absolute. But in the context of Secret Empire, there’s definitely more weight given to the nurture side than the nature side.
Nrama: It’s one thing to raise those questions in a thoughtful way the way Nick did with Omega, but can these ideas actually be practically applied in Marvel stories going forward?
Brevoort: In the short term you’re not gonna see it immediately because we’re not going to turn around and do another 'Stevil' story immediately after having just done this one. We’ll definitely get back to him at some point - there’s a reason he’s still alive and kicking. What we’ll definitely see though, through the eyes of Steve himself - by which I mean good guy Steve - he didn’t do any of the things 'Stevil' did. They were all done in his name, they were all done with his face, with his identity, with the good will of the people Captain America had because of him. So there’s an inevitable sense of responsibility for that that we’ll see play out.
The scene in Omega where he goes to help the kid and the kid recoils from him is very telling. That’s not a situation that you typically see Captain America having to face. And it’s not like that’s gonna be the only reaction people have - Cap is still Cap and there are certainly still going to be plenty of people who respect and revere him. But there’s now another level to that - there are people who will look a little more skeptically at who Captain America is and what he does having lived through Secret Empire.
Nrama: As you said, 'Stevil' must be alive for a reason - and I have a theory on that. The red light in Hydra-Steve’s cell and Cap’s comments about the “face he’s wearing” make me think of a pretty iconic villain role that is currently unoccupied. Are you hinting at something there?
Brevoort: If we were I wouldn’t tell ya here! [laughs]
You have to wait and see how it all plays out. But the intention here is not for evil Steve to be forgotten forever or to be permanently sidelined. He’s a character who, love him or hate him (and probably a little of both from different people), he headlined a comic for a good 18 months. A lot of work went into him, and he’s gonna be a regular player on the Marvel scene. Whether it’s in a Captain America costume, or a green Hydra costume, or a costume of another color, that will play out over the course of time. He makes for a really good addition to the Captain America rogues gallery, and to the Marvel Universe rogues gallery.
Nrama: A classic definition of the story is the protagonist meets a series of challenges and is changed as result. Because some comic books are so iconic and their essence so revered by the fans, a fairly common and successful comic book storyline is changing the status quo on a dime, and then working our way back to restoring the characters to their essence. In a way, that means we kind of know the basic ending. How do you deal with that challenge as an editor to make the journey worthwhile?
Brevoort: I mean, people know that, but if they really knew that, if they knew it emotionally, we wouldn’t have had so much anger. What people were concerned about was that, having done this, it would forever taint the character and there would be no way you could read Captain America stories again. Hopefully, the story we did does not fall into that trap.
It’s the fact that we can still surprise people who supposedly even know what the ending is. We said for 10 issues, “We’re not gonna use the Cosmic Cube to just blink this all away” - and we didn’t - and at the end we still saw people whose review was just “Well they used the Cosmic Cube to blink it all away.” Well no, not really, not quite.
It’s part and parcel of doing this job, of being an editor, of being a writer and a creator for these comics. We have to be as sharp, or sharper - slyer, trickier - than the audience. And that’s not true of just comics, that’s true of writing in almost any medium you can think of. If I can guess the end of your movie before I go see the movie, there’s not much of a reason to go to the theater.
But the ending isn’t the only part of the experience - there’s the journey. In any given Star Wars movie, I can kind of put money down that the Rebellion will come out on top, because that’s the story, but it’s not just as simple as that.
There are things that people think they know, and certainly we have an audience that has read a lot of comics, seen a lot of movies, watched a lot of television, and they understand the basics of how this all works. We just have to be more clever about how our stories go. I mean, in Superior Spider-Man, everybody knew - “knew,” in air quotes - that Peter Parker would be back as Spider-Man. But of course, they didn’t always know it. They didn’t know it til it happened, and then they retroactively always knew it.