Secret Empire #1 Review

comic books:
Thomas Bacon

Reviewed by:
On May 3, 2017
Last modified:May 3, 2017


Take note, everyone, as Marvel's Secret Empire #1 is exactly how you start a comic book event.

Secret Empire #1 Review

It’s been a year in the making, and the controversy has been intense, but finally, Secret Empire #1 is here to take the world by storm. Over on Twitter, Nick Spencer’s summed up his story pretty well:

He’s right. To extend that analogy, Captain America and Hydra have become the Empire – and they truly have taken over the Marvel Universe. The heroes we know and love? They’re relegated to a resistance movement – rebels by any other name.

In an age where there are far too many comic book events, Secret Empire #1 stands as the masterclass in how to do it right. This first issue sets the scene, giving us a sense of how high the stakes have become. It’s incredibly self-aware, too – take this bit from one of the thought-bubbles:

“It’s funny living in a world where the impossible happens. Where every time you look up, there’s some war or invasion or attack. And people say this will “change everything,” that “nothing will ever be the same again.” You hear it so much, you stop believing it. You’re even surprised — when it actually happens.”

Nick Spencer has created a dark vision of the Marvel Universe, a world where Hydra has ascended to power and Hydra’s High Council rule. In a smart move, he gives us a glimpse of space and a recorded message from Captain Marvel broadcasting out to the rest of the universe – warning that Earth has been taken. It’s an approach that will be eerily familiar to X-Men fans, as it’s evocative of the ‘traitor’ message Bishop glimpsed way back in the ’90s, and reminds us that Marvel has done this kind of plot before. After all, the X-Men’s ‘traitor’ was eventually revealed to be Charles Xavier himself!

The world of Secret Empire is fascinatingly bleak and disturbing, with children indoctrinated to ‘hail Hydra.’ The three guidelines that govern life are those you’d expect of any fascist society:

  • Trust authority
  • Punish weakness
  • Report threats

But read just this issue and so much remains mysterious. How did Captain America assemble his Avengers? Why are Thor Odinson, Scarlet Witch and the Vision working for him? Surely even Deadpool can’t be foolish enough to buy into Hydra? The book is short on answers, just as you’d expect a first issue to be.

Meanwhile, Secret Empire #1 may introduce us to these ‘Hydra Avengers,’ but it also introduces us to the resistance. There, it’s much easier to see how character arcs have led the heroes to this place. You actually feel for the Artificial Intelligence that is Tony Stark, as he recounts the attempts the heroes have made to turn the tables and save Steve Rogers. 89 casualties in an attack that confirmed Rogers isn’t a clone. 116 casualties as a result of an attempt to prove he was mind-controlled. It’s bleak, but pitch-perfect for the Marvel Universe, and you get the sickening sense that these heroes are finally beginning to accept that the world they knew is broken and that the man they trusted has betrayed them utterly.

Of course, here’s the catch with this kind of plot; there’s a sentient Cosmic Cube out there, and Kobik is clearly the McGuffin that will put matters right. Steve Rogers wants her in order to rewrite reality completely, erasing any hope that remains. The resistance don’t yet even understand Kobik’s role, although there’s a message from Rick Jones that’s clearly going to reveal it in the next issue. I know this plot has been controversial, but I’m never a believer in simply pressing a reset button at the end. That said, Nick Spencer’s script emphasizes that this really should be a story to change everything, so hopefully that won’t be how this tale ends.

Steve McNiven’s art is perfect for this book, and he’s performing at his level best. He’s perfectly complemented by Jay Leisten (inker) and Matthew Wilson (colorist), with the whole team gelling together perfectly, producing a visually strong book. I may not be an American citizen, but even I feel a surge of emotion in so many panels – such as seeing the Hydra ships over Washington DC. It’s all done so very, very well.

It’s a shame that the build-up to Secret Empire has been so controversial, as this really is an excellent issue, proving that some of Marvel’s writers can put together a tremendous event. To return to that Star Wars analogy, is this how the world would have reacted had the prequels come first, and had we actually cared about Anakin Skywalker’s fall? Would the world have burned with rage and fury against George Lucas just as it has done against Nick Spencer? Unless a Cosmic Cube rewrites film history, we’ll never know. For now, though, I think it’s time to take a step back from all the fury and give this event a chance. After all, as the shocking ending proves, it’s not as though Marvel is making out Captain America to be one of the good guys anymore…

Secret Empire #1 Review
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Take note, everyone, as Marvel's Secret Empire #1 is exactly how you start a comic book event.