INTERVIEW: Nick Spencer Maps Out Captain America's Secret Empire


Hydra's chilling rallying cry of, “Hail Hydra! Immortal Hydra!” has traditionally rung out in secluded fortress, or when its agents are launching a strike. Soon, though, it will be heard across the Marvel Universe.

A cosmic entity has altered history in such a way that Marvel's most trusted and beloved hero, Steve Rogers, has been a life-long deep cover Hydra agent. As such, Captain America been using his status to secretly gather power for the terrorist organization. Writer Nick Spencer has been chronicling Rogers' power grab in both “Captain America: Steve Rogers” and “Captain America: Sam Wilson,” and this spring, Hydra Cap will be ready to step out of the shadows, take control of America, and transform Hydra into a global super power.

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Rogers' assault on freedom begins this April, when Spencer kicks off what is both the culminating chapter of his Captain America saga and Marvel's big summer event, the nine-issue “Secret Empire,” which will feature art by Daniel Acuña, Steve McNiven, Andrea Sorrentino and Leinil Yu. CBR spoke with Spencer about how dangerous an individual Steve Rogers truly is, the scope and scale of his story, its major players, and the critical importance of certain tie-in issues.

CBR: Nick, I wanted to start by rewinding back a little bit to “Civil War II: The Oath” for some clarification, because there's a scene towards the end of that book that suggests to me that Steve Rogers is even more dangerous than we'd realized. At the end of “The Oath,” is Steve revealing to an essentially comatose Tony Stark that he has the memories of the Steve that existed before the entity Kobik altered his history? Does he know how to appear to be the exact kind of hero he needs people to think he is?

Nick Spencer: That's right. “The Oath” certainly provided a little hint that helps to explain why Steve still believes what he believes despite the world around him being very different than the one we obviously see in the flashbacks. “The Oath” was the first place we started tipping our hand on that, and you'll see a further explanation of that over the course of the next few issues of “Steve Rogers: Captain America.” In “Secret Empire” #0, you'll get sort of a final answer on that front. By the time you get to that phase of the story, you'll really understand everything there is to know about Hydra Steve's background and why he believes what he believes in the face of all evidence.

And, yes, it certainly does appear that Steve is operating with all the memories and experiences of the Steve that we all know and love.

Talking about how dangerous Hydra Steve is has me thinking about this larger story as whole. Essentially, this is long form tale that that's coming to a culmination with “Secret Empire” a way of exploring Steve Rogers by showing how dangerous he could be and how compassionate he was.

That was always a facet of the story. In many ways, Steve Rogers is the most effective leader, strategist and planner in the Marvel Universe. He's an incredibly effective guy. As a hero, he's rarely come up short. He's successfully led the Avengers against impossible odds countless times.

EXCLUSIVE: Mark Brooks' cover for "Secret Empire" #4

The fact that he did all that as a force for good means, if you're trying to do an accurate mirror inversion of the character, he needs to be equally effective. And yes, because he's freed from constraints, compassion, mercy and goodness that opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of what he can do in order to achieve his goals.

This Steve is only driven by what is necessary and what makes Hydra strongest. Those are things that guide his moral compass. So that makes him an incredibly dangerous figure.

I did “Avengers: Standoff,” last year's spring Avengers line event, but the genesis of that was a little different. That was a story that we already had planned as an arc of “Captain America: Sam Wilson” to coincide with the 75th Anniversary of Cap, and Tom Brevoort came to me and said, “We're looking to do an Avengers family event in the spring and you've been building this story at the exact same time. Would you be interested in involving a range of other titles and making this event a little bigger?”

It was a natural fit, and worked better as a story that way. It helped us launch the “Captain America: Steve Rogers” book in a more high profile way, so I was certainly eager to do that, but this is obviously a very different thing. This is a line-wide summer event. This is the big marquee event that we do each year. So to get to head one of those is a huge thrill and a huge honor for me because it's a lot of trust and faith to put in me as a writer.

I have a soft spot for these kinds of stories. I like events. I like big stories. I like stories about the interconnected universe and that draw from as many different facets from the Marvel Universe as possible. I have faith that when these things are done right audiences really respond.

I was certainly eager to do this. When I pitched the entire Hydra Cap story, I immediately told Tom Brevoort that this should be an event, that I didn't think there was any other way to do this story justice. The genesis of all of it came from me.

I think that's where a lot of the best events start; they stem from a writer's belief that you need a bigger canvas to tell a story, rather than trying to retrofit or come up with an event in the room. This is very much just a natural extension of what we've been building from “Captain America: Sam Wilson,” to “Avengers: Standoff,” to “Captain America: Steve Rogers,” to this. This is really the logical conclusion.

"Secret Empire" is a big superhero action thriller, but what I've read and seen in the “Captain America” books suggests that it will have some science fiction and space opera elements to it as well in the form of an alien invasion by the Chitauri. Is that correct?

It's a Marvel event and you want to involve as much of the Marvel Universe as you can. It's fun to bring in unlikely elements and throw some things into the mix that you maybe wouldn't in an issue of “Captain America.” So letting it outgrow the initial motifs and letting it become something broader was one of the things that I enjoy about this kind of story.

Steve talked a little bit about what he's doing with the Chitauri wave in “Captain America: Steve Rogers” -- that it's a plan to wreak havoc and chaos and use that to his advantage. It will also allow him to put more pressure on people to give him more authority and power. The Chitauri are a very effective boogeymen in that regard. The question is, what happens when they arrive?

You're also laying the groundwork to bring Maria Hill and Captain Marvel into that story with the talk of the planetary shield in “Captain America: Steve Rogers.”

EXCLUSIVE: Mark Brooks' cover for "Secret Empire" #5

Yeah, the shield is something we've been setting up all through “Captain America: Steve Rogers” and “The Oath.” Maria Hill had given this technology to Carol Danvers that she believes can stem the invasion. It's an impenetrable shield around the planet.

That's something that Steve is very much determined to prevent. It's something he's racing the clock to beat, so it's a nice face off between him and Carol Danvers in that regard. He's trying to prevent this thing from going up while also trying not to blow his cover, and Carol is threatening to pull the rug out from everything that he's planned.

It's interesting to see some characters emerge as potential thorns in his side. You had Taskmaster and Black Ant in “Steve Rogers: Captain America,” then over in “Deadpool,” Phil Coulson unexpectedly stumbled onto the fact that there might be something untoward and sinister about Steve Rogers.

[Laughs] Gerry Duggan is doing some phenomenal work helping to set up the road to “Secret Empire” in both “Deadpool” and “Uncanny Avengers.” There's definitely some real fun Deadpool stuff coming. If you're trying to get the full experience on the road to “Secret Empire,” I highly recommend grabbing both “Deadpool” and “Uncanny Avengers.”

Events allow you to play with a lot of the Marvel Universe's biggest toys, but they also often feature more than one central characters. Will “Secret Empire” have a core cast of characters?

For now, we're trying to keep our main cast under wraps. A large part of that is because characters are placed in positions that they really haven't ever been before. We'd be tipping our hand a little too much to talk about them now.

I can say, though, at its heart this is still a Captain America story -- but this is also an Avengers, X-Men, Inhumans, Champions, Defenders and Guardians story. If you're a fan of the core casts of those titles, your favorites are going to be well represented here, but we're also going to reach out into cosmic Marvel, street-level Marvel, the X-Universe and into the Inhumans. We really brought everyone into the fray one way or another.

We've seen Steve's ally Baron Zemo recruiting some supervillains, but I have to wonder how villains like Wilson Fisk might handle the emergence of Hydra's “Secret Empire.” Will some of Marvel's major villains play roles in this story as well?

Wilson actually has one of my favorite roles in this. It's not just because of the story we're telling here in “Secret Empire,” but because of his sort of broader arc in the Marvel Universe. He's definitely a character to keep your eye on.

I wanted to talk with you about the “Secret Empire” one-shots that have been announced, because I understand they're sort of key components of your story.

They are. Each one of the one-shots has some really important connective tissue that will fill in some blanks and show you some key scenes that reconnect to the main book. They're definitely worth picking up to get the full picture. It's the same thing with the issues of both the “Sam Wilson” and “Steve Rogers” books. Those are really critical to the entire reading experience.

You can read the event on its own, and if that's all you read, you'll be able to follow along. My advice, though, is to dig a little deeper and pick up these one-shots and the “Captain America” books because they really will give the story a lot more texture.

When you're writing an event comic you're constantly in a race against your page count, and you're hitting a lot of big moments. To me, the best tie-ins are the ones that take those moments and show you what they mean to individual characters. You'll see a lot of that in the “Captain America” books, but as we moved forward towards the end, it really became an issue that there were a lot of beats that we needed to hit. Even with nine issues ,there was still ground that we wanted to cover.

The last couple of issues of the Cap books during the event have really crucial things that give you a much fuller picture. They're not just background pieces, and they're not just taking a moment and going longer with it. They're moments unto themselves that will help make the story a lot richer for you.

You're working with four great artists on the “Secret Empire” series. Daniel Acuna does the #0 issue, and then Steve McNiven, Andrea Sorrentino, and Leinil Yu will do issues #1-9. What's it like working with these guys? And how will their diverse styles work with the larger narrative?

I got everybody that I wanted. This is a dream list for me, and I'm seeing pages coming in from all of them now. I'm so honored to be working with artists of this caliber. They're creating an absolutely beautiful and stunning book here.

In terms of the cohesion, we went into this with having a rotating team of artists as the plan. So we've been able to make the transitions pretty seamless and use them as a strength. So it's not a jarring or disruptive experience. I think having the team of artists makes it a lot stronger.

It allows us to tell the story in a very compressed time frame; to actually let our summer event occur over the summer. I was more than happy to do it that way.

How does it feel to be just a little over a month out from the launch of “Secret Empire?” Any final thoughts you want to share with readers who think they know where the story is going or are not sure if this an event they want to be part of?

You don't know where it's going. [Laughs] It's really been fun looking at the responses during the buildup.

I'm not oblivious to the fact that folks can feel like they suffer from event fatigue or what have you. All I can say to that is, I personally believe that events are like any other kind of story. The delivery method doesn't matter. Whether it's its own title, a weekly book, an anthology, or a team-up, I don't believe there is a type of book that doesn't work. All that matters at the end of the day is whether or not your story is good. I'm firmly of the belief that we have a very good story here that people will be very excited about and will respond to. At the end of the day, all you can do is try to provide that.

I'm excited to have the story get out there. I obviously have eyes on the first few issues and I'm very proud of how they turned out. I have a feeling that once they're out there the audience is really going to respond and get excited. I can't wait!

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