Marvel has never shied away from political commentary in its comics, or in its other media offerings, it seems. Did everyone catch Hydra second-in-command Fitz on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. last week, telling a conference room of fascist operatives to get out there and “make our society great again”? And even if Ms. Marvel couldn’t get Clinton elected, and the company has problems keeping closed-minded agendas out of the very comics that speak to acceptance, the effort has always been there, and, in recent years, creators have been encouraged to address social concerns more than ever before. Regardless, Marvel probably didn’t anticipate the controversy or severe reader backlash after Nick Spencer dropped that bomb in the pages of Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 last year.
Out of context it does sound pretty crazy. Captain America, bastion of freedom and liberty, literally covered in the g-d American flag, reveals that he’s actually been a Hydra sleeper agent all these many years, working to subvert the U.S. from the inside. This is the same Hydra that, depending on your comic book history source, had direct affiliation with the Nazis. So yeah, that seemed bad. But obviously the guy is telling a story, and Nick Spencer, as demonstrated by his work in the Sam Wilson series, is as socially conscious and politically savvy as they come. Let the book run its course, people!
The course has included Red Skull machinations, a sentient cosmic cube named Kobik, and one terribly ominous Ulysses prophecy. It’s been a wild ride thus far. And in this week’s kickoff to Marvel’s major summer event, Secret Empire #0, by Spencer, Rod Reis, and Daniel Acuña, things get even wilder.
It began in the pages of the Pleasant Hill mini-event last spring, and simmered through more than a dozen issues of Steve Rogers. In an era in which personal privacy is constantly under siege, and definitions of civil liberties become more and more fluid, this storyline has been a super-charged examination of the cost of freedom. Maria Hill, for her part in the brainwashing of super-villains, is put on trial; Captain Marvel, fresh off her controversial attempts at predictive justice, is working to shield off the planet from the rest of the galaxy. And Captain America, well, he’s been working with “best friend” Helmut Zemo to reform the Masters of Evil and Elisa Sinclair to reassemble a Hydra high council.
What elevates this story beyond your typical villainous plot to secretly take over the world, however, is the way Spencer treats his protagonist. The reader is convinced that Captain America believes in his mission. Not because he’s an evil mastermind, or has Bond-villain mania, but because he’s Captain America. Before you pick up Secret Empire #0, make sure you read the “opening salvo” in Steve Rogers #16, also out this week. For decades, we’ve wanted our comic book badguy motives to be cut and dry. Fight for power; terrorize for the sake of evil. But in Rogers’s confrontation with Red Skull in that opening salvo, the story gets painfully ominous. There’s nothing simple about modern warfare; ideological clashes are never black & white. And when the convictions of a super-soldier are formed around one ignoble twist in his origin, the rest of the Marvel universe is in very big trouble.