This year’s Summer event, Secret Empire has always been brimming with political imagery. It all kicked off last year, with writer Nick Spencer launching a controversial arc. Captain America’s life, he revealed, had been rewritten. Steve Rogers was an agent of Hydra. The politics were obvious; in the year of a contentious Presidential election, Spencer was using comics to discuss American self-identity. To say it kicked off a furore on social media would be an understatement.
Secret Empire #6 embraces that political concept like never before. It features a number of lengthy diatribes, including one where Steve Rogers attempts to persuade the Hulk to side with Hydra. They’re standard villain monologues, but the concept is disturbingly recognizable. You’ll find more than a hint of Donald Trump’s philosophy in Spencer’s HydraCap.
This issue is presented as the turning point. We see this twisted version of Captain America launch his most devastating attack yet, and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes fall before him. In spite of that, though, the text stresses that this is the moment the heroes remember who they are. They remember who they’re fighting for, and they begin to move beyond the ghosts of the past that haunt them. This defeat is presented as the seed from which victory will grow.
It’s a smart, self-aware strategy on Nick Spencer’s part. How many comic book arcs work like this? They push the heroes to the brink of defeat, only to force them to stand in defiance once again. By reminding us of this trope so carefully, so overtly, Spencer reminds us to hope. He knows that he’s telling a bleak tale, one that’s starting to wear on its audience, and this issue reassures us that he’s going somewhere. He has a destination in mind. This is as dark as it gets.
The problem is, though, that six issues in we really are getting tired. We’ve seen too many heroes twisted by Secret Empire, and this issue just adds another: the Hulk. Spencer pulls it off well, carefully evoking memories of Planet Hulk and the Worldbreaker, reminding us that this isn’t out of character for the not-so-jolly green giant. But it just feels like another hero who’s been tarnished yet again, by being associated with Hydra.
We’re left with three plot threads dangling. Firstly, Maria Hill is out there, and she’s up to mischief. Mockingbird’s apparent treachery is finally explained, too; she was working for Hill. That’s a relief, because her portrayal in Amazing Spider-Man clashed badly with this, and I’m glad to see that plot thread resolved. Secondly, Black Widow is despairing, and preparing to launch an assassination attempt on Steve Rogers.
Finally, though, we have these strange glimpses of another Steve Rogers. Spencer begins to explain them here, hinting that Rogers is “in Hell.” I’m not convinced, though. There’s clearly another twist coming, and this Steve Rogers will somehow return. I’m not sure what that twist is going to be, but I look forward to it taking over the narrative.
Lenil Francis Yu’s art is tremendous here. Previous issues of Secret Empire had seemed oddly off-base in terms of character design. It had given the series a sort of ‘Elseworlds’ sense, meaning it was hard to take it too seriously. Yu, however, renders the heroes perfectly. The high point is a scene with Doctor Strange, one of the most beautiful panels I’ve seen in the event so far. He’s ably complemented by a strong artistic team, with Gerry Alanguilan as an inker, and Sunny Gho and Java Tartaglia working as colorists. Everything works in terms of imagery and style, making this one of the stronger issues visually.
Ultimately, Secret Empire is beginning to get wearying. This issue makes a promise, though, that this is as dark as it gets, and we’re about to see the heroes begin to get back on their feet. It’s about time, too.
In the heroes' darkest moment, this issue of Marvel's Secret Empire makes a promise that things are about to change.