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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The Mighty Thor: Thunder in Her Veins

You couldn’t have produced a book like Jason Aaron’s The Mighty Thor twenty years ago. Maybe if you had, it wouldn’t be as entertaining as it is now; more likely we’d have something resembling Red Sonja with lightning hammers. The current run has been something of a pleasant novelty amongst the myriad generic capebooks currently on shelves; a clear story-and-character-driven piece which cares little for much of the superpowered crossover shenanigans going on around it. It’s written as both an empowering feminist paean, a thoughtful meditation on terminal illness, and a straightforward drama with superpowers. It’s what you’d get if you fused Supergirl, The Big C, and the political machinations of Game of Thrones. It is, pure and simple, a really great book.

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Thunder in Her Veins is the latest volume of Aaron’s epic Thor yarn, which began all the way back in 2013’s The God Butcher. In the years since, the previously-masculine Thor is now the tough-ass Dr. Jane Foster, the Odinson’s on-again-off-again romantic interest. Man-Thor has been told he’s no longer worthy to swing Mjolnir into the faces of unsuspecting supervillains, so the mantle’s been passed to Jane. As the new Thor, Jane flies around saving the Avengers, the Earth and the rest of the Nine Realms whilst slowly dying of breast cancer; wielding the hammer gives her strength, though it purges her system of chemotherapy drugs. While Jane considers the catch-22 of either a slow death from chemo or a quicker one from fighting bad guys, political movements within the Nine Realms threaten to destabilise Asgardia and unleash the evil power of Malekith, Lord of the Dark Elves and insatiable scenery-vore.

lady thor 1I’ve talked briefly about Aaron’s new take on Thor before, and I stand by what I said then as now. Jane Foster is a refreshingly different Thor to the original Odinson, at once embodying the old Thor’s braggadocio but tempering it with a more level-headed, sensible approach to superheroism. Where Man-Thor would’ve knocked Loki’s head off at the first sign of deception, Jane’s Thor instead takes the time to listen to Loki’s explanation of his behaviour, then knock his head off when his words show he really deserves it. She kicks ass, but isn’t the raging bull her masculine counterpart could be.

Her civilian identity’s impending death also lends a tragic element to the affair. Thunder in Her Veins goes to great lengths to stress that there is no way the magicks of Asgardia or the high-tech gadgets of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes will be able to prevent the cancer from killing Jane Foster. The book has a grounded, human narrative enveloped within Thor‘s usually medieval superhero trappings; would you rather try and live longer at the expense of being alive, or cut short the journey in order to go beat up Frost Giants? Unsurprisingly, the book opts largely for the latter, though it adds nuance to the moments when Jane firmly decides she’s going to fly off with her hammer, cancer be damned.

The book also thumbs its nose at errant critics through a meta-undertaking similar to the Captain America: Sam Wilson series. Asgardia’s walls are plastered with lady thor 5WANTED posters declaring Jane’s Thor is an impostor; although the story’s conceit is that Jane’s powers were illegitimately given to her, the subtext, representing some of the wretched real world criticisms the book’s received about a woman wearing Thor’s mantle, is a fairly unsubtle one. Suffice it to say, neither Jason Aaron nor Jane herself seem to give a frosted lump of duck snot about whether their respective critics think she’s “worthy” enough to be Thor.

lady thor 7Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, Thunder‘s biggest problem is its villains. Much like 2013’s big-screen epic Thor: The Dark World, Dark Elf Lord Malekith is once again the least interesting element of the proceedings, an unholy fusion of Dick Dastardly moustache-twirling and gothic hair-metal attire. He wants to discredit Thor and take over the Nine Realms because…he’s got nothing better to do? Besides garden-variety megalomania, Thunder – along with the preceding volumes of Aaron’s run – offers little to make Malekith an engaging antagonist. The scenery-chewing and overly-flamboyant villainy is somewhat fun on a base, Saturday-morning-cartoon level, but seems at odds with the much more thoughtful story going on with Jane. Malekith’s human co-conspirator – a character so completely engrossing and memorable that I forgot his name was Dario Agger until I Googled it just now – is a similarly weak presence.

I’m also mighty (ha!) confused by what’s going on with Odin. Tholady thor 4ugh previous Thor stories have done well in depicting the Allfather as a staunch guardian figure whose antagonism towards Thor stems from a protective outlook, Thunder can’t seem to decide whether he legitimately has problems with Jane or if he’s being influenced by someone else (more specifically, a character whose last comic book appearance was in a story I had multiple issues with). As it stands, Odin’s logic for opposing the new Thor is nonexistent, leaving a feeling that Thunder is making Odin a quasi-villain for some other, as-yet-undetermined purpose.

lady thor 2Dialogue is Aaron’s usual standard of excellence, though Loki’s words make him appear even more slippery and untrustworthy than he already is with that beard made of toothbrush bristles. Having Jane as the new Thor also lends her dialogue a bit of 21st-century-snark to complement the appropriately operatic introspection her Norse alter ego has.

Artwork is…well, it’s hard for me to put into words how much I adore Russell Dauterman’s art. While it’s admittedly a lady thor 6little overloaded with colour and frenetic action in the battle scenes, especially in comparison to how those aspects were handled in past volumes, Dauterman still makes The Mighty Thor one of the most visually delicious books on the shelf (Loki’s toothbrush beard notwithstanding).

Though it ends on a slightly underwhelming cliffhanger, Thunder In Her Veins is still a top-notch volume in a fantastic arc. It’s a decent jumping-on point for new readers as well as an excellent new chapter in Jason Aaron’s ongoing Thor epic, it’s got some quality writing, and it’s very, very pretty; a solid book about a dying woman kicking ass with a big hammer.

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PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS

STORY: 4/5

ARTWORK: 5/5

DIALOGUE: 4/5

OVERALL: 13/15

BEST QUOTE: “[after having his head knocked off his shoulder] *Sigh*.” – Loki

Amazing Spider-Man: Worldwide, Vol. 1

I love Star Trek. My two favourite series are easily The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. They’re quite literally apples and oranges; TNG focuses on slightly cliche monster-of-the-week episodes, while DS9 gets progressively more dramatic and serialised as the seasons go on. I like both styles of storytelling, though I do lean more to the latter for longer-form narratives. In either case, both series relied on strong, nuanced characters which were well-suited to their respective styles; Jean-Luc Picard may not have had Benjamin Sisko’s wartime character journey for seasons at a time, but the standalone nature of TNG was threaded with subtle character development which made Picard a consistently evolving figure for each new episode’s dilemma.

I say this upfront to let you know that I’m not opposed to more standalone, episodic storytelling in our modern age of binge-watch Netflix and the ongoing serialised sagas of Batman and Thor. This is to then contextualise my belief that the poorly-sketched characters and cliche episodic storytelling of Amazing Spider-Man: Worldwide just do not work.

 

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Peter Parker has somehow won the lottery – I presume, since there’s not much explanation for how he suddenly became a billionaire – and founded the tech company and worldwide (ha!) philanthropy effort, Parker Industries (acronymed to P.I., because math joke). The newly-minted CEO finds his time split between running a global company, being Spider-Man, directing some other guy to be Spider-Man when the first thing conflicts with the second, and having an increasingly tense relationship with SHIELD. Into the mix comes a new incarnation of the Zodiac, a criminal supergroup whose sole purpose is to spout inane dialogue while hitting every star-sign cliche in the book. Though he risks burning his candle at multiple ends, resulting in a big ball of lumpy wax, Peter must save SHIELD, his company, his aunt and, at one ludicrous point, the British Museum from the Zodiac’s machinations.

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To be fair, Worldwide isn’t technically its own thing. It comes as the latest installment of Dan Slott’s behemoth Spider-Man saga, where Spidey dies, is possessed by Doctor Octopus, reclaims his body, meets a bunch of multidimensional versions of himself, then founds a billion-dollar philanthropic company (somewhere in there he also, presumably, visits the bathroom). I’ve never been a big fan of Slott’s work, though I did end up appreciating the superlative “villain protagonist” tale of the Doc Ock-possessed Superior Spider-Man.

spider-man worldwide 1Slott doesn’t draw me to his magnum opus the way Grant Morrison did with 7 years of Batman, even though he’s clearly trying to move in the same operatic direction the crazy Scotsman did with the Dark Knight. A big part of the problem is that Slott cannot write characters or dialogue to save his life, relying on trite cliches and inane banter at almost every turn. Sure, as per usual Spider-Man riffs on his team-mates with popular culture references and unbridled (mediocre) snark at every opportunity, but even the sterling characters Slott had a hand in creating – notably Anna Maria Marconi, ensemble darkhorse of Superior Spider-Man who’s relegated to little more than a cameo role here – seem to have lost a dimension or two in the interim. Superior benefited from the richness and depth of its ancillary players, making the story feel more like an ensemble piece than the eponymously-named protagonist’s journey it was marketed as. All such depth, as a continuation of Slott’s work, seems to have been filled in with gravel.

The supporting cast can do little but mouth dialogue which sounds like it was written for a badly-acted telenovela. A series of key scenes where Spidey and Mockingbird team up to save Aunt May and some African villagers is crammed with wall-to-wall verbal detritus which merely shows the former is arrogantly cocky and the latter is stern, as if we didn’t know that already. A punch-up between Spidey and the Human Torch – in the refurbished Baxter Building, no less – reads like it’s shooting for a Joss Whedon Avengers-style lackadaisical quality to highlight the fight’s inherently contrived nature, but is instead a juvenile exercise in pitting two young men against each other with the mindsets of twelve-year-olds. A dance at a wedding between Peter and his business partner flits between romantic allusion, corporate game-planning and insinuated threats in the space of less than a page, with no smooth transition between tones. If there’s any intended irony in Slott’s kindergarten-level dialogue, it remains as elusive as a Dragonite in Pokemon GO.

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With such poor characters behind the wheel, the story is beyond the help of even the staunchest automotive technician. In contrast to Superior‘s character-based, Doc Ock-led odyssey into anti-villainy, almost everything that happens in Worldwide is plot-driven with minimal meaningful character involvement. You could very easily swap Spidey for any of his Avengers cohorts – Iron Man would probably work best, a fact the story quickly and repeatedly points out in its opening chapter – and no-one would bat an eye, so formulaic and boilerplate is the plot. Each chapter centers around a problem that needs to be solved – usually the Zodiac doing something naughty – which is swiftly addressed before some vague foreshadowing for future problems at the chapter’s conclusion. There are some intriguing notions of Peter’s philanthropic, corporate and SHIELD responsibilities muddying the waters of his regular modus operandi, and how his long-standing promise to always save Aunt May before all else could also compromise his new responsibilities to go with such great power. The notions the story hints at could’ve made for a far more engaging, subversive take on the Spider-Man status quo.

Sadly, such notions are clearly not intriguing enough for Slott to comprehensively develop them. No, Slott would much rather focus on all of Spidey’s new Batman-inspired hardware; go on and tell me the Spidermobile, pictured above, isn’t just a Tumbler repaint. Or, worse still, he’d prefer to develop a latent plot thread which is both utterly asinine and a complete undercutting of Superior Spider-Man‘s emotional ending. I won’t spoil the latter here, but it’s in the first chapter; I dare you not to imprint your palm upon your forehead when you see it.

spider-man worldwide 5As with so many other mediocre books, the one area Worldwide succeeds in is the artwork. Giuseppe Camuncoli is a welcome addition, offering a more reasoned and realistic counterpoint to Humberto Ramos’ more exaggerated, cartoonish style in Superior. The panels can be overloaded with colour at times, and several of the fight scenes – including the aforementioned ludicrous defence of the British Museum – are a bit incomprehensible, but for the most part Camuncoli does solid work. The covers for each chapter are also done by Alex Ross, superhero artist par excellence, so those are welcome additions.

Reading over this review, I realise I’m coming off as overly harsh. Worldwide isn’t a bad book the way One More Day, No More Humans or Great Pacific were bad books. It’d spider-man worldwide 6be considered merely “meh” if it weren’t for the surging river of resurgent superlatives that Marvel’s churned out over the last few months. Paired with its compatriots, Worldwide is little more than a bauble, hopefully only a postscript to Slott’s objectively stronger previous work. I understand a writer being passionate enough about a character to stick with their book for as long as you can – this is part of what started to kill the third act of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern run as it reached its overdue climax – but maybe it’s time for Slott to move to another comic. The logical step after Worldwide is to have Spidey run the Avengers, then the world itself, then the universe. After that, the crossover event Secret Wars: Beat Pete will follow Marvel’s heroes trying to unravel a multiverse firmly controlled by the Parker Empire. Best quit while you’re ahead before we reach the turgid fanfic stage, Mr Slott.

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PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS

STORY: 1.5/5

ARTWORK: 3.5/5

DIALOGUE: 1.5/5

OVERALL: 6.5/15

BEST QUOTE: “You haven’t known Mockingbird long, Prowler. She says arm up, you break out the nukes.” – Nick Fury