Secret Empire

Please note there are a few spoilers in this review, but given that it’s for a story that ended months ago, I don’t feel bad about including them.


I’ve actually been in the process of kickstarting (not Kickstarting) a new occasional feature I want to write here. It’s called “The Rundown”, looking at notable superhero comic book runs by specific creative teams, analysing the good, the bad and the ugly of the Big Two. The first cab off the rank, until this week, was going to be Nick Spencer’s conflicted, controversial take on Captain America, which I actually ended up kind of enjoying.

I already did a preliminary look at his Captain America: Steve Rogers run by pulling apart the first issue, concluding that for all the kerfuffle surrounding Cap’s turn from hero to Hydra agent, the book wasn’t all that bad. Having read Spencer’s three volumes of Steve and five concurrent books on Captain America: Sam Wilson, I found that the former had lots of problems while the latter had lots of impact. Both stories did make me a little more confident going into Secret Empire, billed as the culmination of Spencer’s Cap run(s) and the Marvel mega-event for 2017. That confidence was needed, because every comics journo and their mums were tearing this thing to shreds.

Rightfully so.

Captain America is now a Hydra agent, and has been all along. Turns out that the history we’ve known for close to a century got it all wrong; every Cap story since 1940 was just the Allies manipulating the canon to make it seem that Steve Rogers, our eternal paragon of virtue, was always on the side of the angels. Wanting to set things right, Hydra have used their MacGuffin du jour, the Cosmic Cube, to rewrite history correctly, showing that Steve was a Hydra sympathiser from a young age. Now, at the height of his powers in modern-day America, Steve has assumed control of the entire United States with the intention of spreading the authoritarian control of Hydra to every corner of the map. The Avengers are split in half; the street-level heroes reside in a darkened New York under the fascist oppression of Hydra, whilst the cosmic-powered heroes are barred from Earth by a globe-spanning forcefield. Both sides need to work together to overcome Cap’s control and set things right.

There’s no nice way to put it – Secret Empire is a complete mess. It’s at once better and worse than my expectations, the manifestation of every best and worst impulse Spencer has had as a Cap writer, whilst also being a textbook example of the prosaic, predictable and (almost) utterly disposable work Marvel now calls an Event. That parenthetical “almost” is important, though, since Secret Empire – much like its predecessors Avengers vs. X-Men, Original Sin and Civil War II – would be entirely forgettable if not for the utter damage that Spencer’s work has already inflicted upon fans.

Despite what vocal minorities on the internet might spew, Captain America – like all good art – is inherently political. This feels like trying to explain to a child that water is wet and Tide Pods are not for eating, but it’s true. Of all the superhero books in circulation, Cap is easily the most recognisable as an inherently political character. So when he’s the central figure of a crossover where the good ol’ golden boy of the USA turns out to be corrupted and evil, things can’t not be politically charged.

Unfortunately, those politics are delivered and unpacked here with all the subtlety and nuance of a Godzilla rampage. Steve Rogers as a Hydra ruler is, arguably, meant to represent the Trump presidency and the rise of the alt-right. Sure, I get that. But whereas the ascendancy of Trump and his ilk comes with a lot of social, cultural and political baggage that enabled it, Cap’s control of the world basically boils down to, “Hydra was here all along and we’re evil so we’re going to take over now thank you bye”. There are no layers to any of the storytelling decisions made here, and the narrative makes no attempt to show Steve as the least bit understandable in his vile rhetoric. At least with Trump you can trace lines between him and his supporters to see the reasons why they like him and how they can validate him, even if those reasons are detestable. Steve Rogers is just evil because the plot says he has to be; while some interesting decisions were made about that in Spencer’s Steve Rogers series, nothing about that characterisation here comes across as anything other than a gimmick.

The result is a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be. At least in the past, Marvel crossover events were clear on their intentions: Avengers vs. X-Men was a dumb schoolyard fantasy brought horribly to life, while Infinity was both a climax to Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers runs and a sweet blockbuster throwing most of Marvel’s main cast into outer space to fight aliens. By contrast, Secret Empire can’t decide if it’s a mega-event superhero crossover of heroes vs. neo-Nazis, a thinly-written anti-fascist polemic, a comment on the Trump presidency, a marketing stunt designed to draw readers in, or just all of the above. The focus is scattered between these elements to an uneven degree, creating a book that is a mixed bag of politics and punchouts. There’s spectacle throughout, handled by an army of artists who do decent work but lack consistency, and the climax relies on a predictable deus ex machina that counters Marvel’s insistence that Hydra Cap is the real Steve Rogers. All of this is delivered alongside persistent, badly-written narration boxes that give Chris Claremont a run for his money in the field of over-explaining things.

Though their styles are at odds with one another, the artists here do as well as they can. The bulk of the main duties are helmed by Andrea Sorrentino, whose distinctive style – reminiscent of Jae Lee – brings an appropriately washed out, nasty look to the story’s early, despairing chapters. The rest is handled by Steve McNiven, himself no stranger to a Captain America story, Leinil Francis Yu, Jesus Saiz and Daniel Acuña, all of whom acquit themselves well. There are moments where the disparate styles manage to pull off great work on their own; McNiven’s vivid style, made whole by inker Jay Leisten and color artist Matthew Wilson, ably illustrates the bravura final clash between Hydra Cap and our heroes. Similarly, cover artist Mark Brooks delivers sterling work through a number of images which each deserve a framed place on your wall. Otherwise, there’s little cohesion with the artwork, giving the impression that the shifts were done out of editorial necessity rather than narrative decisions.

But at least the illustration comes out looking better than the scriptwork. In addition to those damnable narration boxes, there is little in the dialogue that doesn’t come across as immensely clunky. Given the sheer size of the book’s cast, many main characters lack their distinctive voices, used only for exposition delivery. Those who do get given focus are largely blunt and bland, lacking even the barest hint of Marvel’s now-trademark Joss Whedon snark. The most egregious case, besides our headlining villain, is Black Widow, who attempts to be a hard-nosed spymaster in teaching some of Marvel’s younger heroes how to fight a cold war – because the political allusions weren’t alreayd blatant enough – but largely comes off as an insensitive and needlessly callous bully. There’s also a lot of schmaltzy scripting about the need for hope in times of peril, which unfortunately ramps into overdrive as the story reaches its disappointment of a climax.

About the only time Spencer gets it right with the words is in the final issue, Secret Empire: Omega, an issue-long conversation between Hydra Cap and a spoilery character, intercut with scenes of the Marvel Universe rebuilding in the wake of Hydra’s demise. This, coupled with the decent work he did for his issue of the follow-up anthology series Generations, works better as a resolution to Spencer’s twin runs on Captain America than the entirety of Secret Empire. This is Spencer bidding adieu to the characters he’s spent nearly two years writing (or ruining, depending on who you ask), and it’s easily the most satisfying moment of the entire book. But as good as Omega is, it doesn’t save a story that is almost universally reviled.

I honestly can’t remember the last time a book was as hated as the works Spencer did for the Star-Spangled Man. If the internet’s reactions are anything to go by, Secret Empire seems like a culmination of that hatred, the apex of every bad narrative impulse that both Spencer and Marvel Comics have had for the past two years. Without question, the book has a lot of problems, many of them indefensible but most of them endemic to the problems of writing and marketing crossover events to begin with.

For my money, Secret Empire is both a failure of an ending to what could have been one of the most interesting Marvel experiments of their history, and yet another predictably disappointing superhero crossover comic. Even if you took the politics out of it – which would be like taking the blue out of the sky – it’s still a narrative trainwreck, not quite as offensive as I was led to believe it would be, but nowhere near the gold standard either.

PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS

STORY: 1.5/5

ARTWORK: 3/5

DIALOGUE: 1/5

OVERALL: 5.5/15

BEST QUOTE: “I know some part of you might want to give up hope. But this is our moment. Our chance to turn things around. I know we’ve been divided. Torn apart. Broken – for so damn long – but now it’s time to assemble.” – Sam Wilson

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Justice League vs. Suicide Squad

Let’s not mince words. The only reason Justice League vs. Suicide Squad (hereafter shortened to just JLVSS) exists is because there are prominent movies each bearing the title teams’ names; one of them released to financial success and critical panning, the other due in a few months and with all kinds of negative expectations. Having read the full book, I can’t consider JLVSS as anything other than a cash-grab crossover rather than a meaningful character piece. Much like the similarly ill-conceived Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, the book grabs attention from its title and offers nothing to back it up; succinctly, its ego writes cheques that its body can’t cash.

The story begins fairly rote, with morally dubious ARGUS chief Amanda Waller serving as the catalyst for a battle between the Suicide Squad and the Justice League. The former are carrying out a covert operation that the latter manage to curtail, leading to the title fight of the book. After the League are roundly defeated by the Squad – and the means of said defeat are bound to spark vigorous debate, even by comic book standards – Waller reveals that she engineered this battle to bring both teams together. It seems that the original Suicide Squad, long thought dead after a mission gone wrong, are making moves to take over the world. The only solution is for the titular teams to band together and save the day through teeth-clenched teamwork.

But once the first act concludes, JLVSS pulls something of a magic trick. What was already a bland, flavourless punch-up with the flimsiest of plots becomes something more horrific, when it transpires that the story has some franchise cross-pollination in mind. The book doesn’t just pair the League and Squad for some superheroics, but goes a step further by installing the likes of Lobo, Harley Quinn and Deadshot as Justice League members. No, not just interim partners in the battle against the original Squad, but full-fledged members of the team (installed by Batman, of all people).

There are seeds of interesting ideas within JLVSS‘s miasma of tangled nonsense. The notion of bad guys or less-than-heroes being allowed in premier teams is a concept which has, in the past, led to Venom being an Avenger and the New 52 having a JLA filled with League rejects (and Catwoman). But any invitation to explore the moral and ethical dimensions of turning villains into potential heroes is rejected, the book preferring instead to excise nuance and paint the team-up as a necessity (not to mention a publicity stunt for real world fans of both teams). Once the second act gets going, any character work is discarded while JLVSS proceeds to bludgeon the audience with faux political subtext, including uncomfortable allusions to impending war with North Korea – here rebranded as the fictional nation of “Jangsun” – and the installation of an American autocrat who deigns to protect the country through fear and authoritarian control. The latter is literally embodied in the book’s use of body-hopping supervillain Eclipso, who possesses most of the populace and turns them to rage and violence across the country. To say JLVSS prefers didacticism over subtlety is a gross understatement.

The problems are compounded by the book’s insistence on being bright and eye-catching for most of its page count. JLVSS employs an array of artists and colorists whose styles gel reasonably well with one another; for instance, I didn’t realise when we’d switched from Howard Porter’s pencils to Jason Fabok’s, then to Tony S. Daniel’s, then back again. That kind of flow is good for keeping the book visually consistent (where past examples, like the aforementioned AvX, are artistically erratic), but it dulls the respective impacts each visual team has by diluting their personal styles. The result is the art comes out looking quite generic, crippling the usually standout illustrators (like Fabok) whilst elevating those who are lacking (like Daniel). It’s also hard to take Eclipso’s possession seriously, given that his victims’ faces all resemble blue geodes.

A lone spot of interest in a book otherwise bereft of it is the one-shot story near the book’s midpoint, where Steve Trevor crosses a ravaged city to save his extended family from Eclipso’s control. The chapter reminded me of Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis tie-in issue Submit, though handled here with less finesse and far too much exposition. The best books in the DC Rebirth stable have acquitted themselves well when remembering the humanity of their characters, both super and standard; Steve’s story is the closest JLVSS comes to recognising that its characters have depth and a modicum of emotional complexity.

One could make an argument for the futility of analysing JLVSS with any kind of critical eye. The book is clearly going to break no boundaries or move any mountains. It’s not even the worst crossover in recent memory; that distinction goes to the ill-advised Night of the Monster Men Bat-family crossover. There is little deeper meaning to the text, no substance to be negotiated and no strong threads to pull upon. It’s a product of a corporate comic book culture which favours Debordian spectacle over meaningful impact and produces a lackluster crossover which would have been inoffensive if it weren’t for some truly awful scriptwork – predominantly from current Flash scribe Joshua Williamson – and an almost complete lack of stakes, body-hopping supervillain and American autocrat apocalypse notwithstanding.

The discerning reader could probably grasp that the book is dreck from the title alone, a dead giveaway that spectacle rather than substance lies within. Though the army of artists produce reasonably structured work, and some smaller character beats land well – including a few brief scenes which flesh out Arctic-themed supervillain Killer Frost – they’re not enough to save the story. Justice League vs. Suicide Squad is a hackneyed, cheap as chips reason to get a raft of popular characters to fight each other, eminently forgettable and wholly unsatisfying. In that regard, it’s a bit like the latter team’s film debut; time will tell if the former’s follows suit.

 

PUBLISHER: DC COMICS

STORY: 1.5/5

ARTWORK: 3.5/5

DIALOGUE: 1.5/5

OVERALL: 6.5/15

BEST DIALOGUE: [to Superman] “I remembered the first time I ever saw you… before I became Killer Frost. I was in Metropolis. You weren’t fighting anyone. You just flew over me. It was a real Metropolis moment. I was there for a symposium with a research group. A professor on the trip with us had just told me he didn’t think I had what it took to gain my PhD…that I’d never make it. I was about to call it quits and go home…but then I saw you…and I thought…if a man could fly, I could stay in college.” – Killer Frost

Chris’s 2015 Catch-Up

Did you think I’d forgotten you?

Actually, no, you didn’t. You were probably too busy watching The Force Awakens. It’s ok, so was I.

I mentioned at the close of my 2014 best and worst roundup that 2015 was going to be a quiet year on the website front for me, and it was. Work, thesis writing and tumultuous adventures (and adversity) with domestic situations got in the way of all those wonderfully mediocre reviews I like to write. As such, the only Chris Kills Comics entry for me in 2015 was a part-sarcastic/part-serious guide to which post-Secret Wars Marvel titles might be worth a look. Not that I’ve yet read any of them at time of writing, but I’m never afraid to judge books by their covers and writing teams. That’s also why it’s unlikely I’d ever stoop to checking out the gonzo mess that is Miller and Azzarello’s new Dark Knight Returns sequel.

But while it was a more sedate year for me comics-wise, 2015 still had no shortage of great titles. I did spend a lot more of 2015 reading novels and non-fiction books, thanks to a new gig I’ve got as a book reviewer over at Geek of Oz, but there was still the occasional moment for graphic diversions. I’ll admit up front that I maaaaaybe read a tenth of the good comic titles 2015 produced. Ok, probably closer to a twentieth. Call it a fiftieth, at least?

sandman overture coversex criminals 2 coverhawkeye 4 coverlumberjanes cover

PICTURED: Some of 2015’s greatest hits that I haven’t read yet, but totally will. At some point. Yup.

So, in an effort to offer a mea culpa and address the deficit of comics critique from the past year, presented herein are some gems from the few comics I did read in 2015. I promise, once my thesis goes in on February 15th (submission forms are in, markers are being picked…oh God this is really happening), there’ll be more on the comics front from me. In fact, there are some fairly big plans being made for The Writer’s Multiverse as a whole, including one hell of a facelift…

But those will be in due course. For now, highlights from last year:


SAGA, VOLUME 5

Like you didn’t know this’d be on here.

saga 5 1There’s not much I can add to my previous gushing over how good Saga is. Suffice it to say, Volume 4 (from the tail end of 2014) was par excellance to its peers, and Volume 5 continued Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ overall conquest of the comics industry. Keep believing the hype; Saga is consistently delivering a thoughtful, engaging, nuanced and engrossing story across its gorgeously illustrated pages. Volume 5, while at times feeling a little like a bridging narrative than a story in its own right, closes with a nice hook that has me wringing my hands with apprehension during the wait for Volume 6. I guess what I’m saying, then, is that Saga‘s good for those who like feeling anxious and nervously expectant while they wait for the next book.

Actually, maybe don’t read it if you’re susceptible to that kind of thing.

saga 5 cover

STORY: 4/5

ARTWORK: 5/5

DIALOGUE: 5/5

OVERALL: 14/15


THOR: GODDESS OF THUNDER

Jason Aaron’s Thor run has been a rollicking sine wave of quality, with some thrilling highs and lackluster bottoming-out. Despite that, I think it’s fair to say Aaron really hit his stride wthor goddess 1hen he made Thor a woman.

Now, let’s be clear: this is not a gender-swap the way Loki’s was handled during J. Michael Stracynzski’s landmark run in the late 2000s; Chris Hemsworth hasn’t been turned into a woman, but instead has lost his worthiness to the mantle of the God of Thunder. Aaron’s new Thor is an entirely different character from her male counterpart (for reasons which become clear in the second book), uncertain of her new powers and bringing a more grounded persona to Marvel’s eminent deity superhero identity. It also helps that Aaron’s got a good story to go with the new protagonist, as well as some stellar artwork by Russell Dauterman and Jorge Molina. In an age where we need more powerful, prominent and well-written superheroines (and in a year where Meredith and David Finch were accidentally allowed to ruin one of them), it’s laudable to have one who’s as approachable, relatable and entertaining as Aaron’s lady Thor. Also, note my lack of capital on the “lady”; she’s Thor, not Lady Thor, Mrs Thor or Thorette. She is, you might say, the definite article.

thor goddess cover

STORY: 4/5

ARTWORK: 4.5/5

DIALOGUE: 4/5

OVERALL: 12.5/15


MS MARVEL: GENERATION WHY

ms marvel generation why 1Continuing the theme of female empowerment, G. Willow Wilson’s landmark Ms Marvel run has also shone a light on diversity in cape comics. Muslim action girl Kamala Khan is a Ms. Marvel who couldn’t be more distinct from her contemporaries, or indeed her predecessor (who’s busy flying around space). She’s fun, kicks ass and, much like Bryan Q. Miller’s Pollyanna interpretation of Batgirl, doesn’t ever seem to really be brought down. Generation Why builds on the massive success of No Normal, introducing Wolverine and Lockjaw to Kamala’s world of burgeoning superheroics and navigation of young adulthood.

While the real world issues Wilson wraps her story around can get a little heavyhanded – including a protracted scene regarding seizing your life between Kamala and some misguided young people modeled off socially-inept World of Warcraft players – there’s still a very joyful, bouncy tone throughout. Like Aaron’s Thor, Wilson writes Kamala as an approachable, relatable hero, a character women can look up to as truly realistic; despite her superpowers, Kamala’s still burdened by the everyday problems of work, friends and family that the Muggles among us are plagued with.

Also, Generation Why slips into my highlights for this scene alone:

D'awww.
D’awww.

ms marvel generation why cover

STORY: 4/5

ARTWORK: 4/5

DIALOGUE: 3.5/5

OVERALL: 11/15


BATMAN: ENDGAME

As much as I adored Death of the Family (it made it to my Best of 2013 list for a reason), I was hesitant about a return visit with Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo to their sickly psychotic version of the Joker. What were we in for in Endgame: more face-cutting and grisly dinner platters?

Well, turns out, not so much. Part of Endgame‘s effort to distinguish itself from Snyder and Capullo’s last Joker story is in having the mad clown come back, not to maim or threaten or cajole, but batman endgame 1to kill the goddamn Batman. As part of his “closing up shop” in Gotham, Joker’s out to murder everybody; Batman, Batgirl, Red Robin, the lot of ’em. Deadsies, in the ground, end of story.

With stakes like that, it’s hard not to like Endgame. As always, Snyder’s on point with his writing, and Capullo continues to ably demonstrate why he’s the best Batman artist since Alex Ross. It may not be entirely inventive in parts of the story, and the ending (which, despite the internet spoiling it to high heaven, I won’t reveal here) might lack tension somewhat. But it’s also got a knock-down, drag-out fight between Batman and a Joker venom-addled Justice League, a compelling emotional core, and one of the best Batman-on-Joker fistfights ever put to the page.

I get the sense Snyder and Capullo might soon be saying goodbye to Batman; if this is the last we see of their Joker, the Clown Prince of Crime definitely ends on a high note.

batman endgame cover

STORY: 3.5/5

ARTWORK: 5/5

DIALOGUE: 4/5

OVERALL: 12.5/15


STAR WARS: DARTH VADER, VOL. 1 – VADER

Believe me, nobody’s more surprised than I that a Star Wars comic ended up here, much less one centered on the Dark Lord of the Sith. 2015 was, obviously, a landmark year for Star Wars that really rescued the franchise from the mire (getting rid of its immense expanded universe probably helped with that). Part of that rescue involved Marvel nicking off with the Star Wars comics license, previously stewarded by Dark Horse Comics.

Of the many series Marvel have produced since they got their toys back – including a superb self-titled ongoing, an ill-regarded Princess Leia miniseries and a nice post-Episode VI diversion in Shattered Empire – I’d offer that Darth Vader is the most compelling. You would think, as I did, that an ongoing series based on Star Wars‘ most public face of villainy wouldn’t have a lot to offer. We know what happens to him, and any stakes regarding his survival in a cliffhanger would be removed based on that.

darth vader vol 1 1Writer Kieron Gillen circumvents that problem by taking Vader in an entirely different direction than the one I’d envisioned. See, the Emperor’s a little pissed off that Vader allowed the first Death Star to blow up, and as such he’s holding deadly auditions for a new apprentice. Vader has to “compete” against an array of colourful psychotics who are vying for the Emperor’s favour. Assisting him are a young doctor, who’s fully aware Vader will kill her when he’s done with her and only asks for a quick kill from his lightsaber as payment for her services, and a black-clad, evil pair of murderous droids modeled off C-3PO and R2-D2, with a dash of Borderlands‘ Claptrap and Knights of the Old Republic‘s HK-47 thrown in. The whole affair is gorgeously rendered by artist Salvador Larroca, whose work I was already in love with from his stint on The Invincible Iron Man.

I’ll have more to say about Vader and the other new Star Wars comics in a Mind’s Eye post I’m working onbut suffice to say I really enjoyed it. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s definitely a lot of fun. Vader himself makes for a surprisingly interesting protagonist, even though we know almost everything about him from nearly four decades of films, books, comics, video games and breakfast cereal boxes, and his supporting cast are a lot of fun. The plot kinda becomes like a really dark and twisted take on Doctor Who, with the more relatable human companion being our everyman viewpoint for an inscrutable protagonist. Safe bet says Volume 2 opens with Vader and Friends finding their own ship to go around the galaxy, solving mysteries.

One minor criticism: Volume 1’s subtitle is entirely redundant. We know his name’s Vader, guys; you wouldn’t have a book called Batman, Volume 1: I’m Batman. That’s less a title and more of a crazed inner monologue.

darth vader vol 1 cover

STORY: 3.5/5

ARTWORK: 5/5

DIALOGUE: 4/5

OVERALL: 12.5/15