Do the books themselves even matter anymore — or is the announcement of their forthcoming arrival enough?
I ask that question in all seriousness because it gets to the heart of one the major problems (among many worthy contenders) in Nick Spencer, Daniel Acuna, and Rod Reis’ Secret Empire #0, the first chapter (or maybe that should be pre– first chapter) of Marvel Comics‘ latest sure-to-disappoint-most “crossover event” series. Within these pages you’ll find, for instance, a team calling itself “The Defenders” that hasn’t made its “official” debut yet, and you’ll see Tony Stark back as Iron Man even though, according to “present” continuity, he’s still in a coma. But Marvel knows that you’re already aware of these “future” events because, hey, they’ve all been announced.
Likewise, they know damn well that pretty much everyone reading this book — even those who haven’t been keeping up with Spencer’s various and sundry Captain America titles — are fully aware of the core conceit at the heart of this series, namely Steve Rogers being an undercover Hydra operative — because, hey, that’s all been litigated in the “fan press” over the past X-number of months, as well.
So, again, I ask — do the books themselves even matter anymore? Does this one?
I guess that remains to be seen. From a pure storytelling perspective, everything in this first — sorry, sub-first — issue should feel totally confusing and alienating to a “newbie” reader, but less than five minutes’ worth of Google searching will bring anyone up to speed on the particulars they need to know going in. Cap’s Hydra, sure, but he’s also been named director of S.H.I.E.L.D. following the richly-deserved ouster of Maria Hill, who had put all her eggs in one basket with her support of a planetary defense screen — a screen that’s probably gonna come in real handy now that there’s a Chitauri invasion fleet bearing down on Earth.
What follows on from this is a fairly bog-standard and predictable series of maneuvers and machinations on Cap’s part to consolidate power on a global scale in his hands and his hands alone, and of course he pulls every aspect of his dastardly plan off, otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a story coming up. That “coming up” part may be debatable, though, I suppose, given that this comic actually plays out much more like a “first issue proper” than it does a typical “zero issue” extended prologue. We’re deposited right into the middle of the foray here and Marvel editorial figures, probably correctly, that we all know enough about what’s come before to swim rather than sink — even if, again, we haven’t been following Spencer’s “long game” Cap-centric strategizing over the last 18 months or so.
If you’re picking up on the fact that any “praise” I’m prepared to offer this title is of a heavily-qualified nature, you’re absolutely right. I’ve blown off pretty much all of Marvel’s “event” books for a long time now, and most of what I don’t like about them is on full display here. I’ll give ’em credit for at least plotting this one out very far in advance rather than dropping it right into our laps more or less out of nowhere, but who are we kidding? If you’ve seen one mega-fight-scene with 20-plus heroes going after at least that many villains, you’ve seen ’em all. And while Secret Empire seems to be promising “game-changing” events that will have “lasting repercussions,” let’s be honest — we’ve heard that line a thousand times (or more) previously, as well, and within a handful of months, it more or less feels like any and all previous “crossover events” never even happened. Spencer’s writing is competent enough, if uninspired, but even the best writers around — and he’s hardly that — can’t make these goddamn things feel “important” anymore. There’s simply too much baggage attached to them.
I don’t have as many major problems with Acuna’s art (and I love Reis’ Sienkiewicz-esque stylings in the book’s pre-credits opening sequence), but there are enough minor gripes to keep that from getting my full-throated endorsement, as well. Many of his facial expressions, for instance, seem borderline-grotesquely exaggerated, and sometimes he seems to have forgotten that this iteration of Steve Rogers is at least physically young again. There’s also a bland “sameness” to some of his female characters that gives things a more rushed feel than we’re used to from him, and his action scenes are starting to belie a little bit too much of a Mike Del Mundo influence. I give him “props” for doing his own colors (as does Reis), but several pages seem overly-saturated in murky, inky blackness. He’s still capable of good work, to be sure — a healthy number of panels in this issue do, in fact, look really nice — but he hits more often than he misses this time out, so let’s hope that whatever issue he’s doing next (yes, this is another “event” series with a rotating team of artists, with Steve McNiven due up in two weeks’ time) is closer to his usual, frankly quite high, standard than is this one.
The only area where I can’t really find too much fault with this comic is in terms of pure economics. Yeah, it’s $4.99 (which I paid out of my own pocket, so hey, this matters to me), but not only is the page count quite a bit lengthier than Marvel’s standard, with 35 pages of story and art rather than 20, but it’s a densely-worded affair that takes a decent amount of time to plow through, so you’re definitely not being cheated on that front. I wish all the dialogue was in service of a better story, absolutely, but at least Spencer worked for his paycheck here.
I’m not sure I’m ready to dump any more of my own hard-earned cash into this series, though. Especially given that any minor and entirely cosmetic “changes” that come out of it will be making their presence felt in other titles before this thing is even over with, as was the case with Civil War II, Secret Wars, etc. When it comes to these “summer blockbuster”-type comics, you see, the books themselves really don’t matter — and Secret Empire #0 is no exception.
Story: Nick Spencer Art: Daniel Acuna and Rod Reis
Story: 4.5 Art: 5.5 Overall: 5 Recommendation: Pass