Shocking but Satisfying Empire

Television shows, novels, movies, the news – stories are an inescapable part of life. I admittedly don’t watch much TV or read novels, but I’ve watched numerous movies, read many short stories, and I currently read plenty of comics. I believe that I can recognize a good story when I see it, but I’m not going to discuss what makes one good or bad; those are subjective terms. However, I wanted to understand why one current comic book story is appealing to me when it is unfortunately receiving a lot of negativity from others.

Must fight…the urge…to make political commentary… (Art by Steve McNiven)
Must fight…the urge…to make political commentary… (Art by Steve McNiven)

The current major crossover event within Marvel Comics is “Secret Empire.” The Red Skull used the cosmic cube to rewrite Steve Rogers’ memories, so the hero believes that he’s worked with Hydra from a young age. Over decades, Rogers gained the trust of heroes and recently took control of S.H.I.E.L.D. With villainous allies at his side, Rogers trapped many of the most powerful heroes in outer space, many others in Manhattan, and installed his fascist regime as leaders of the United States. Now, Inhumans must register, mutants are segregated, and anyone who opposes Hydra is imprisoned or executed. To further his goal of world domination, Rogers even threatened the U.N. and bombed Atlantis (which is almost literally shooting fish in a barrel). While “Secret Empire” may sound absolutely ridiculous, this story has been incredibly entertaining.

Unfortunately, Marvel, their editors, and writer Nick Spencer, have endured an angry backlash from fans. Most unhappy readers cite parallels between Hydra and Nazis, and point out that Captain America’s current fascist ideology is the very thing he’s fought against for decades. Others are mad because they believe that “Secret Empire” is simply a cash-grab by Marvel in order to boost sales by shocking readers (Marvel: the Marilyn Manson of comics). Regardless of the particular reason, people have lambasted Marvel’s staff members on social media and actually burned comics in protest. While I understand their anger, after some thought, I understand the appeal of “Secret Empire.”

Surrendering really boomeranged on Boomerang, eh? (Art by Ryan Stegman)
Surrendering really boomeranged on Boomerang, eh? (Art by Ryan Stegman)

For approximately 75 years, readers have believed that Steve Rogers would fight for democracy at any cost, but this story has completely upended that idea. Not only has Cap’s recent behavior been the antithesis of what he has always stood for, but Nick Spencer has written “Secret Empire” so meticulously, that Steve’s villainous behavior is easy to believe even though it shouldn’t be. Spencer retold Rogers’ childhood and military service to illustrate the profound changes within the hero’s memories. The elaborate setup and execution of this story has been masterful, but the real appeal is this incredibly uncharacteristic picture of Captain America that “Secret Empire” has painted. Cap is not punching another villain or defending citizens from a global threat, he is the global threat (and 97% of scientists agree). This story has been wonderful in both its outrageousness and enormous scope; “Secret Empire’s” effects are currently encompassing almost the entirety of the Marvel Universe. However, this crossover is definitely not the first one to place well-known characters in such shockingly abnormal situations. 

While I’m not the only one who’s noticed, readers’ reactions to “Secret Empire” are similar to the response that Amazing Spider-Man #700 received. Spidey writer, Dan Slott, gave Otto Octavius an advantage when the villain switched bodies with Peter Parker. The aging Octavius’ body died while Parker’s consciousness was within it, so Parker’s body, with Otto’s consciousness, became the Superior Spider-Man. People not only burned copies of Amazing Spider-Man, but Slott received death threats. While Marvel initially experienced a terrible backlash, many fans have since praised Superior Spider-Man (comic book fans have worse mood swings than teenagers and cats). The premise was so outlandish and drastically different, but that simply made the story more appealing and interesting, and there are many more examples of extraordinary premises just like this.

That’s cute – they’re wearing matching colors! (Art by Steve McNiven)
That’s cute – they’re wearing matching colors! (Art by Steve McNiven)

“Old Man Logan” was a story by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven that took place in a dystopian future where villains defeated all of Earth’s heroes. To defeat the X-Men, Mysterio cast powerful illusions that convinced Wolverine he was fighting and killing criminals, but when the ruse was lifted, Logan realized he had just murdered every mutant in Xavier’s school. As a result, Logan vowed to never pop his claws again, so he settled down with a family under the rule of some evil, redneck Hulks.

Doesn’t that sound completely ridiculous and uncharacteristic of Wolverine? (He’s the best there is at what he does, and what he does is give his wife foot rubs) Absolutely! Because it was so tragic and radically different from any other Wolverine story, there was a palpable level of excitement from many fans, and it was the comic that I looked forward to more than any other as it was released. “Old Man Logan” is now considered a classic Wolverine story, and there was recently a successful movie loosely based on it (congratulations FOX for finally doing one thing right).

During the “Dark Reign” crossover, Norman “Green Goblin” Osborne was in charge of national security. The (not really) reformed criminal dressed villains as heroes to create his own twisted team of Avengers. Years ago, David Haller traveled through time and accidentally killed his father, Charles Xavier, which prompted the crossover, “Age of Apocalypse,” where the titular villain ruled the world. While both of these situations sound quite outlandish, “Dark Reign” and “Age of Apocalypse” were marvelous stories, both borne from outrageous premises.

I’m not claiming that anyone who dislikes “Secret Empire” is wrong, but why not simply view this story as a temporary and interesting journey? Not all of Marvel’s large-scale crossovers are enjoyable, and rarely are the effects of such events felt for long after the story ends. While I don’t know if there will be any repercussions from “Secret Empire” throughout the Marvel Universe for an extended period of time, I’m enjoying this story for the fun ride that it is. If the initial negative reaction and eventual praise of Superior Spider-Man has taught us anything, it’s to give stories like “Secret Empire” a chance to truly take shape before completely condemning them (and to be nice to Dan Slott – he gave me a fist bump once so he must be a good guy).

And FOX film studios! (Art by Leinil Francis Yu)
And FOX film studios! (Art by Leinil Francis Yu)

I’ll admit, however, that even though I am a fan of Captain America, Steve Rogers has never been my favorite hero, but I do know how it feels when such an enormous change occurs to beloved characters. The absence of any solicitations for X-Men titles before “Marvel Now! 2.0” and the terrigen mist’s deadly effects on mutants caused me to fear that Marvel was finally cancelling all X-Men comics. It’s possible that Cap fans fear that 616-Universe Steve Rogers will die, or that this crossover will smear his good name forever (at least we still have Chris Evans for a little longer – he’s dreamy). Whatever the reason, status-quo changes are rarely permanent in comics. I was wrong about my concerns for the X-Men (so far), and it’s possible that Steve Rogers will be just fine after “Secret Empire” is finished.

It’s certainly alright to dislike a story – there are plenty that have made me question what a writer or artist was thinking, but comics are supposed to be fun, so I don’t think that angry, knee-jerk reactions to changes are productive. Sometimes, such enormous changes make a story truly captivating. While I have been fearful for certain characters in the past, I try to have faith that Marvel will continue to deliver good stories. Ultimately, that’s what I want, and that’s why I read comics from Marvel – I think that they produce some of the best stories.

By the time this article is published, “Secret Empire” will likely be close to its conclusion, and as of now, just over halfway through its run, I’ve noticed much of the hate for it has lessened. I hope that fellow fans enjoy “Secret Empire” regardless of how it ends or what changes it establishes, because I believe that, although shocking, this story has been very impressive and satisfying so far. 

Jonathan Fugger

Jonathan loves comic books and he loves coffee. Jonathan’s mother gave him his first taste of coffee at the tender age of 3 and it was love at first sip. He now needs to wheel around an IV drip of caffeine at all times or else he turns into a dark, monstrous creature that feeds on despair and makes babies cry. The local village-folk have kept him locked away ever since the “decaf catastrophe of ‘06.” When allowed out of his dungeon, he writes various articles for Geekade, including the monthly column, “Welcome to the D-List,” and records the "Mutant Musings" podcast with his geek-tastic girlfriend, Patti.

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