When it comes to a book like Secret Empire, you’re reviewing the controversy. That’s the hard truth. You’re not reviewing if it’s any good. You’re not reviewing the actual creative merits. You’re reviewing the controversy and everything you have to say about the book requires you focus on the controversy above all else.
Secret Empire enraged people because it was the conclusion to the story where Captain America was revealed to be a Hydra spy. It came at a moment where we were seeing an actual authoritarian wearing a media friendly face rise to power and it was a raw wound. I myself was going through a severe nervous breakdown as it ran. So I get that people were mad and even though the main complaint people had, that Captain America was a Nazi, was incorrect due the the MCU linking Hydra with the Nazis while in the comics they were their own thing, it makes sense that people were upset.
And I can’t even easily brush off that controversy even as I write this. We’re finally questioning Mount Rushmore and the founding fathers alongside stating that no the Confederacy does not deserve monuments since they were literal traitors. This book is at its strongest a study of American mythology and how easily big lies can take.
But does it work as a book? I’m a reviewer. That’s my job. And the answer to that is trickier than even figuring out a blunt answer to whats right and wrong in the controversy.
Look, there’s no getting around it. This book is a giant mess. It really is. I compared The War of Jokes and Riddles to an event book told at an angle. This is in that vein. It’s clearer. We see big events like the planetary shield going in place and the destruction of Las Vegas. But you still feel like you need to be reading every tie in and the entirety of Nick Spencer’s Captain America and Avengers Standoff to get it. Oh and there’s four artists on it.
What is the premise? Steve Rogers from a reality created by the Cosmic Cube where Hydra won WWII but the allies fixed reality to the one where they won rises up to grand authoritarian leader of America. With the Cube shattered, he tries to recover it so he might restore reality to that one. However the resistance led by Black Widow and an AI of Iron Man isn’t so hot on the idea and wants everything right. It’s a race to get the pieces. At the same time deep in the Cube’s memories, the real Cap lurks ready to fix things.
That’s the plot but I’m not going to say that’s exactly how it reads. There is so much there that requires stopping and checking Wikipedia. Even my own synopsis required that. The book over and over requires you to read a mountain of other comics to get everything that’s going on and it doesn’t even end when you’re done. What’s going on with Black Widow at the end? You have to read another mini to know.
This is a very disjointed book as a result. Anything that requires this level of labor has to be disjointed. It’s not a new issue to Marvel events. Secret Wars and especially Civil War outright demand you read every crossover. Otherwise nothing clicks. Also Marvel’s hardly alone. Looking your way Blackest Night and Final Crisis.
And it’s impossible for me to escape the feeling Nick Spencer would’ve been best off telling this out of continuity. It’s obvious he wanted to make a book about the darkness of cultural mythmaking. That the “real” Steve Rogers is a memory preserved gives that game away. Because this book is by far at its strongest when we’re wrestling with the idea that our heroes are lies. Revealing that to be a lie is a copout. I think Spencer would’ve been best off freed to tell a story where the premise was the premise and he didn’t have to wrestle with awkward things like a dead Hulk and an AI Iron Man. Though ok, Hank Pym/Ultron merger rules and I’m glad he had fun there.
But about the idea of mythology. That’s getting to why this book does work. Even as it cheats and uses an out at the end, it still makes us think about what a lie the myth is. We live immersed in lies about our nation. The lost cause. Columbus as anything but a bastard. The idea racists haven’t always run the country. The incredibly difficult cognitive dissonance my generation feels about the Obama presidency. The cops.
Spencer has written a book that reads as a rage against it all. And he refuses to let it be easy. The book is at its best as the characters wrestle with their sense of betrayal at their hero and their friend being a liar. This is a character book through and through and I can ignore all the messy parts of it for the potent way he writes Miles Morales and Black Widow. They breathe in this book.
And then there’s the dark ending. Oh everything mostly goes back in the box but he’s honest. HydraCap is still here. Trust is gone in Steve Rogers. The shade of gray dominates. That Omega issue alone makes the book.
I’ve ignored the art so far but I’ll say this. It’s really ugly by artists who can and should do better. Yeah.
Ultimately this is a deeply flawed book but the ideas and small parts make it shine. Recognize it for that and you’ll enjoy it.