Like many of you, I’ve been watching the perpetual wildfire that has been the advertising of Nick Spencer’s passion project, Secret Empire, and its reception on social media.
I’ve seen copies of the comics being burned, conspiracy theories insinuating that Nick Spencer is a genuine fascist and Nazi, and a myriad of other attacks on Spencer as a person and Marvel for letting this happen. I’ve even freaking seen people digging into his past and finding a political campaign in Connecticut that he may or may not have been actually been running as a Republican.
And I actually really like Nick Spencer’s Secret Empire.
I think it’s a really good story worthy of praise and a genuine chance to stand on its own two legs. Here, I’m going to present my case on behalf of Spencer and his much maligned story.
Let’s start with the heart of the matter: The Red Skull had the sentient Cosmic Cube known as Kobik, an entity with the mind and intelligence of a child, turn Steve Rogers into a fascist, a member of Hydra, and the antithesis of everything he’s ever been before.
You know, I think it odd that this is such a controversial thing. On one hand, I can understand those, like my own father (the world’s number one Captain America fan) who were hoping for a return-to-form Captain America after the extended absence wherein his body was made old and brittle after the expiration of the Super Soldier Serum. I can understand being disappointed that the man himself has been changed by outside forces.
That being said, I don’t see it as the crime against the fandom, the comics, or the welfare of Marvel Comics that many outraged critics accuse it of being. Do you know how many times the Red Skull has placed his mind in Captain America’s body? At least two times of my own counting, one being the classic story that introduced Sam Wilson to Captain America comics and another more recent instance carried out by the legendary Captain America writer, Ed Brubaker. Then there were the instances where replacements such as John Walker took up the shield and suit to carry out their own borderline fascist agendas.
Now I get that these examples aren’t exactly the same as Steve Rogers himself becoming an honest-to-God member of Hydra, the Marvel analogue for the Nazi regime. However, it bears mentioning and repeating that it was an outside force what changed the Sentinel of Liberty into the Supreme Overlord of Hydra. Nick Spencer did not just randomly decide that Steve Rogers was Hydra all along. Even the altered backstory wherein he was raised to be a Hydra sleeper agent is a part of the changes to Captain America’s life made by the Red Skull and Kobik.
I will admit there are other concerns in this controversy that are harder to wave off. Captain America was created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, two Jewish Americans who faced discrimination and hate in their lifetime, not the least of which was at the hands of American Nazi sympathizers who did not like that they created the exploits of Captain America fighting the Nazis before the United States even entered World War II. This is a sticky point that would be unwise to dismiss as easily as the angered rantings of individuals on the internet who simply misunderstand what is going on.
I can’t say that it is not worth pointing out this matter. It is a little awkward that Steve Rogers has been made into an out-and-out fascist given his creation by the late greats, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The best I can say about this is to reiterate that Steve Rogers has been forced into these monstrosities by his greatest foe, and the story is by no means encouraging or glorifying Nazism. Depiction is not the same as endorsement. Pulp Fiction is not an endorsement of organized crime. American Psycho is not an endorsement of serial murder. Despite what many dude-bros believe, Fight Club is not an encouragement to create fight clubs.
Even with this sticking point, I can’t say that this story deserves to be discounted or doesn’t have the right to exist.
Still, after you’ve read this defense with an open mind, if you still believe that it’s disrespectful to depict Steve Rogers as this type of character given his creation by two iconic and brilliant Jewish Americans, then I can’t say your wrong. All I hope to accomplish with this article is to show why myself and others do not take umbrage with this iteration of Secret Empire.
I forget who said this on Twitter, but there was another complaint about the story that I will admit is hard to argue with. This may be paraphrasing, but it was something along the lines of “Captain America is a Nazi in a time I would like to see him punching Nazis.” Given we are currently living in the political dystopia that the Dead Kennedys warned us of, I find this opinion hard to dispute.
But I still really like Secret Empire and highly recommend it.
Moving onto issues more specific to Secret Empire itself, it depicts some heavy, depressing, and infuriating stuff. Reading it myself, I was at times sad, angry, and conflicted. I think that’s a good feeling to get from a story. Not every comic needs to be fun and happy. I was pleased with the negative feelings that the story made me feel because they were directed at the events of the tale itself and the characters within. The original Civil War made me feel the same way.
Steve Rogers does some treacherous and horrific stuff in this comic book, from abandoning the Ultimates, Alpha Flight, and the Guardians of the Galaxy to the Chitauri to the now-infamous murder of Rick Jones. It’s uncomfortable to read as someone who does love Steve Rogers. The death of Rick Jones alone was enough to make me feel cold, and I liked it. Rick Jones is a fixture of Marvel Comics who associated with the likes of Captain America himself, the Avengers, the Hulk, and Captain Mar-vell. Hell, he even saved the world from the Kree-Skrull war way back in the day. It was sad to see him go.
Negative feelings arising from reading a story is not necessarily something one should run from. Now, I do get that comics are valued for the escapism they provide, and Secret Empire is not beneficial for that goal. I get that many are exhausted with the constant deluge of massive crossovers like Secret Empire. I’ve been a vocal critic of this myself. However, and yes this is subjective, this is a good one. Honestly, I think it’s the most ambitious crossover produced my Marvel since the original Civil War. It’s honestly a ballsy play on the part of Nick Spencer and Marvel.
All these criticisms and complaints directed at Spencer and his story also feels really premature, as the story hasn’t ended. We don’t know how the story will end or how the resolution will affect Steve Rogers. We don’t know how this is going to turn out. Waiting until then to lay all of these accusations at the feet of Spencer and Secret Empire, while they will still probably be silly, would be far more prudent. We don’t know how it will end. I do know one thing, though, it still won’t promote or endorse fascism because that’s clearly not the intent of the story.
Sorry for being a bit blunt with this, but these complaints about the book promoting fascism and Nazism clearly come from people who haven’t read the story and don’t know the narrative context to it all.
Also, burning comic books is always stupid, and I will always be against that.
Now, I have to return to the personal attacks and conspiracies being laid upon writer Nick Spencer. Stop it. I’ve seen a lot directed at this man, and it’s really not okay. He’s a writer. He should be allowed to write the stories he wants to write.
I’ve even seen some people who share my own political questioning Spencer’s political credentials, such as the aforementioned digging and linking him to a political campaign in Connecticut a decade ago. Even if it was him, people do change their opinions over time.
I’ve seen people use this and Secret Empire to weave some sort of conspiracy theory that says he is an “undercover conservative” or “low-key Nazi” or whatever the hell. These kind of make me mad, because they’re A) stupid and B) actively harmful to the reputation of the man himself.
None of that even acknowledges his work in Sam Wilson: Captain America which decidedly does not present or endorse a fascist or any sort of right-leaning ideology. It’s a beautifully-written title about the struggle of a black hero in a world that isn’t ready to trust a black man as Captain America. I highly recommend that title, and it is among my favorite comics being published right now.
I feel the political leanings of Nick Spencer and his writing are also made quite clear by the fact that Fox News famously criticized the first issue of Sam Wilson: Captain America for comparing anti-immigration vigilantes to the Klan (because they practically are the Klan).
I’ve also seen Spencer being criticized for simply not endorsing political discourse being handled at the end of a fist, specifically in regard to Richard Spencer being punched out while being interviewed. While I have nothing wrong with an actual white supremacist being punched, I can respect someone being in favor of peaceful discourse.
Returning to Nick Spencer, he is a mercurial and outspoken personality, especially on social media. I saw the man butt heads with dozens of critics of his work on Secret Empire and Steve Rogers: Captain America. I don’t think we should discourage this type of writer from working in the comics industry though. Without people willing to make a political statement and stick to their guns, you would not have such classic Marvel stories as the Kree-Skrull War, God Loves Man Kills, and the original Secret Empire, let alone the likes of Watchmen.
Unfortunately, I do fear that Nick Spencer has cashed all his chips in on this story. I expect Marvel, despite their willingness to tell politically charged tales, will be reluctant to sign on Nick Spencer in the future given the perpetual controversy that his Captain America work has been, especially given that much of the backlash has come from the clear intended audience of his stories. I also fear that this will discourage them from cooperating other writers like him, which would be a terrible shame.
To bring this to something of a conclusion, please at least try Secret Empire 2017 before you condemn it. I’m going to give an honest rating of both the #0 and the #1 at the end of this article, because I feel it’s a worthwhile story.
Secret Empire is an interesting dissection of Steve Rogers’ psyche and how frightening it is when someone that dedicated to their ideology puts that dedication to the wrong cause. Captain America has always been zealous in his pursuit of all that’s right, so seeing that same person become a genuine fascist is unnerving. It’s even worse given that he still has the same stubborn and gentle personality, hence the also-infamous sadness he displayed after ordering the death of Rick Jones. He’s still human despite becoming an actual Nazi. And no, acknowledging that even the worst monsters are still people is not an endorsement of those monsters, see also David Tennant’s depiction of Kilgrave in another of Marvel’s products, Jessica Jones.
It also makes some interesting political statements and gives the warning signs of a fascist regime, which is a pretty relevant message no matter what side of the political fence you’re on (unless you’re an actual fascist). It discusses the scapegoating of minorities and the changing and ignoring of history. These are important things to discuss, especially at this moment in history.
In summary, I highly recommend Secret Empire, don’t harass or defame Nick Spencer, and keep reading comics.
I also want to apologize for my extended absence. This was my last full semester of undergraduate school, and it was a rough finale. I will return to my posting schedule and have more content tomorrow. I will also return to my “State of Marvel Comics” editorial series, of which this article is a part.
Secret Empire #0: 7/10
Secret Empire #1: 8/10
PS: Really Marvel? Cancelling Black Panther and the Crew at #6 just because it hadn’t become a smash hit by its second issue? What the hell is wrong with you guys? That book is fantastic and deserved way more of a chance than this. Ta-Nehisi Coates is freaking brilliant.