Much has been said about this series. Some have angrily decried the actions of making Captain America the head of Hydra, whilst others have acknowledged this as a warning of the current state of the world. Some have tried to stir the pot, either overblowing writer Nick Spencer’s writing to the level of Alan Moore or mocking the positive reviews this series has gotten. But you know what? At the end of the day, when all is said and done, Secret Empire #1 is a damn fine issue of what’s becoming one of the best stories in recent Marvel history.
Hydra rules the United States of America and is well on their way to achieving global domination. The history books in schools have been rewritten and the media is mostly censored, with Hydra disavowing any reports against them as nothing more than fake news. While a young man tries to escape Hydra’s clutches in Las Vegas because he’s carrying important information about Captain America, Hydra’s top command question Captain America’s soft tactics at dealing with their enemies.
The heroes of New York are trapped, while Captain Marvel and her team have been abandoned in the depths of space and are facing overwhelming odds. Yet it’s the fate of Rick Jones, Captain America’s friend and former sidekick, which proves to be a decisive moment in the reign of the Secret Empire…
Is it the new Watchmen? No. It isn’t V For Vendetta either, although the themes are similar. There’s plenty of typical superhero action in all the right places, but unlike the usual clichéd routine, it’s clear that they aren’t superheroes anymore. They’re the resistance, fighting for something truly important. It’s a battle for the soul of the world.
Secret Empire #1 does more than cover the bases regarding what’s happening with the major key players of the story; it presents them in ways which are genuine. There are small moments of humour from the Thing and Amadeus Cho amongst others, proof that the ability to laugh – even in the darkest of times – makes us human. Romance blossoms for the Black Widow and Hawkeye, not to complicate matters as a plot device but because it’s natural. Plus, of course, there’s incredible tragedy.
Making Rick Jones a central figure in Secret Empire #1 is a masterstroke. Rick, whose existence has been a pivotal (but generally unappreciated) cornerstone of the Marvel U, is on death row. His faith that Captain America will come to his senses and do the right thing is powerful, and his determination to be true to himself and his beliefs strike some real emotional chords here.
On a more meta level, this series is also about the current state of comic books in general – and where they’ll go from here. For years there’s been a push to make superheroes darker and more “real”. This series pushes back by making things too real, forcing us to want things back the way we remember them. It wants you to rebel against what you’re reading, and offers a solution: our superheroes will one day return, to inspire hope and spread the joy that they used to. As Busiek and Ross’s Marvels tried to explain, they’ll save the day again, and maybe this time we’ll appreciate it.
The writing is intelligent and totally on point, while the great art conveys every moment impressively. No, this isn’t Watchmen and never will be. But it isn’t trying to be and it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be a smart, compelling comic book. And Secret Empire #1 is.