As much as I enjoyed Mark Waid’s post-Secret Empire run on Captain America, the entire arc felt like it was doing its best to avoid dealing with the fallout from Nick Spencer’s subversive epic. Initially, Waid’s book, launched under the Legacy trade dress, took the form of a Steve Rogers road trip, an effort to reconnect with a country that had been torn apart after Red Skull successfully re-wired Captain America’s reality to create a bastion of fascism and a conquering leader of Hydra. Then, before that reflective journey could really get going, Cap was frozen (again) and awakened in a future U.S. similarly gripped by an oppressive authoritarian regime. It’s almost as if the editors asked Waid to reinvent Empire, but with Steve now as the savior, rather than the enslaver. And when that little escapade had concluded, we got a few more fill-in issues featuring yet another far-flung future America, this time under the control of the Kree, and with Rogers’s descendants cast as the heroic protagonists.
We expected Marvel to put some distance between “Captain Hydra” and the relaunch, but avoiding a storyline that was so clearly part of Marvel continuity began to feel somewhat cowardly.
Everything about Secret Empire, from its fomenting lead-in story in the pages of Steve Rogers: Captain America, released during the summer of 2016, and the eventual event series, which premiered in 2017, feels like a dark fairy tale of the Trump Era. And, as such, maybe it would have been better received, and, indeed, more impactful, had it been a self-contained “Elseworlds” type story.
Don’t get me wrong — I applaud Spencer and Marvel for boldly following through with such a politically charged story. The problem arises when the comics introduce themes of external forces manipulating our democracy, denials of freedoms, and paralyzing social divisions directly into the mainstream Marvel universe, but then seemingly ignore the repercussions.
Enter Ta-Nehisi Coates and Leinil Francis Yu. Uniting the acclaimed political writer and author of the inspired new Black Panther series with the artist responsible for Secret Invasion seems to be, on the surface, a pretty clear indication that the series was finally ready to address the ominous overtures of last summer’s crossover event. And their first storyline, “Winter in America” does not disappoint.
The arc opens in dramatic fashion, with Captain America protecting civilians during a terrorist attack in Washington, D.C. The faces of the assailants are all adorned with the American flag, a la Frank “Nuke” Simpson. Perhaps more sinister than the undercover Hydra cells that seized control of the U.S. in Empire, these pawns of the still shadowy Power Elite wear the flag not as a symbol of mockery or derision, but in earnest, albeit deranged, patriotism. Waid’s Legacy tour on the series constantly asked of the readers and the creators, “What does Captain America mean to me?” And the answers, while interesting, varied little. What Coates and Yu ask us to examine immediately is, “What does the American dream mean to me?” And more importantly, why has the pursuit of the dream become so painfully divisive?
What we know of the Power Elite thus far promises all the makings of a new classic antagonist. The fears preying on our real-world social consciousness are transformed into base villainy. You have the suddenly paroled former general Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, now in a position of questionable authority thanks to “a program… for resisters with shady pasts” appointed by “our new guy in Washington.” There’s Baron von Strucker, who couldn’t possibly be more Hydra-y, a new recipient of White House praise. There’s psychic vampire Selene, she of Hellfire Club fame. And most notable is a new figure named Alexa who seems to be helping to pull the strings… from Mother Russia.
As the machinations of this new villainous organization become clearer, Coates deploys the narrative conventions of a classic spy thriller: we have the under-the-radar international assistance (which, unsurprisingly, comes from Wakanda), dramatic military raids, and the slow unraveling of a conspiracy. Refreshingly, the Power Elite’s aims aren’t your typical Bond-villain-style raze-the-world fare. Chillingly, they touch on something dangerously more close to home. In issue #4 of this run, Alexa, her identity now revealed, begins to explain her motives: “This whole United States is Russian… I knew that this noble heartland would never oppose our efforts. We would be embraced in America… and greeted as liberators.” As the Red Skull personified our country’s perception of the hideous evil that swelled out of Nazi Germany in the 1940’s, Alexa’s disarming beauty represents the way foreign subversives in the modern era have influenced the lives and minds of so many Americans.
Leinil Yu’s kinetic intensity is well suited to this relaunch. He clearly has a knack for insidious near-future sci-fi storylines. His best work may have been on display in Bendis’s Secret Invasion, in which long-silent Skrull sleeper agents are revealed as having impersonated superheroes, and the aforementioned Secret Empire. Maybe it’s his penchant for loading facial expressions with shadowed pupils and hidden agendas. So when those eyes are staring right at you, it’s more unsettling than ever.