How to evaluate a controversial event series like Secret Empire?

The basic premise was enough to engender bloody wrath in a large swath of the comics-reading community. Because of the Cosmic Cube and Red Skull, the history of Captain America, the most upstanding of heroes, had been rewritten to make him a secret agent of Hydra, Marvel’s long-running Nazi stand-ins. As if the general premise wasn’t upsetting enough, the idea of taking a hero created by a legendary writer/artist team who both were Jewish and linking him, even if only obliquely, to Nazism, generated rightful controversy.

Can those issues be put aside in trying to evaluate the actual Secret Empire series? Because even more so than a typical event, the collected edition smooths out some issues while exacerbating others. Writer Nick Spencer has done some fantastic work in recent years, but the impression one comes away with is that this saga got away from him.

The premise of “Hydra Cap takes over the world” winds up feeling like a mix-n-match of several past Marvel events (Civil War, Secret Invasion, Infinity) with multiple plots vying for attention. Pacing issues that hobbled the story when it came out every couple or so weeks aren’t as noticeable, per se. But what does stand out is how much difficulty Spencer has juggling his various threads and appropriately serving each. With a massive cast and a lot of beats to hit, Spencer just doesn’t have the time to properly deal with everything he throws at the reader. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some strong moments. A twisted dinner party hosted by the Ultron/Hank Pym hybrid and some nifty action sequences are well done and the former scene especially is almost worth the price of admission. Spencer handles many of the other characters (Hawkeye, the Tony Stark A.I., Ant-Man) quite deftly. His trademark wit gets to come out and play here and there, though fans of books like The Superior Foes of Spider-Man and The Fix can’t help but wish that facet of Spencer’s toolkit got more of a spotlight. The climax was appropriately rousing, even if felt perhaps too on the nose.

But still. It’s not hard to see why the very concept turned off some readers and why some will never give it a chance. Spencer should be commended for taking a big risk with a longstanding character, even if it didn’t quite pay off in the long run. The contrast of Real Cap against Hydra Cap doesn’t quite seem worth the effort it took to get there. Any attempt at commentary on contemporary real world politics falls far short. Frankly, Spencer’s a much better writer than what one might deduce from reading this saga. Check out Superior Foes or The Fix to experience him at the top of his game.

One facet of Secret Empire that’s more egregious in collected format is the crazy quilt of art teams involved. Multi-artist jams are more and more becoming the norm for these aggressively scheduled books, for better and worse. The vast tonal differences between the likes of Steve McNiven, Daniel Acuña, Andrea Sorrentino, Rod Reis, Jesus Saiz and Leinil Francis Yu are pronounced on a normal day. When mashed together in one volume like this, often from one page to another within an installment, the lack of visual continuity screams out, making the experience far rougher than it should be. Under other circumstances, a series like this might use a single colorist to help lend some common binding element to the disparate work, but that’s not the case here, either. None of the art is bad, some of it is quite mesmerizing, but it doesn’t hang together as a whole and that’s something the book never overcomes.

How to sum up Secret Empire? In the end, it seems like a fascinating misfire, with flashes of excellence. But overall, it’s too muddled and too weighted down by the collateral issues its very premise creates to truly fly. Die-hard Marvel fans will want to read it, as might the morbidly curious. But do try to hunt it down at a discount, as it’s nothing anyone need shell out sixty dollars to get.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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