The comics industry is abuzz with chatter surrounding Marvel Comics' "Secret Empire" event, which sees a Hydra-aligned Captain America leading the terrorist organization in a takeover of the United States. While a lot has already been said about the contents of the storyline itself, Marvel is pushing to have the takeover expand into real-life by having comic book stores convert into Hydra outposts with store dressing and t-shirts.
I reached out to a number of retailers across North America to ask if they were taking part on the Hydra takeover, and to get an idea of how "Secret Empire" is being received. This is by no means meant to represent a consensus opinion on the story or the takeover initiative, but it is representative of how certain retailers are approaching the hot-button issue from a number of different angles.
The predominant answer received was that many stores were not taking part in the marketing takeover, and a good number of these were actively doing so in a defiant way, taking a principled stand against Marvel’s storyline and the way it has been handled by creators and editors. Danica LeBlanc of Edmonton’s Variant Edition told me, “Even at our most charitable, we find that the story construction has not been mindful of how these connections and ideas make people uncomfortable, and both Marvel and Nick Spencer have been very vocally attempting to invalidate the emotions people have been feeling as a result.” While the store will be ordering copies of the comics for subscribers, they have no intention of hand-selling the series to walk-in customers.
Several retailers were hesitant to talk about the subject of "Secret Empire" and the Hydra takeover, with one responding simply, “This topic is a little toxic.” Other retailers, such as LeBlanc, are avoiding promoting the series and the takeover initiative, saying it goes against the sense of inclusivity they’ve worked to build in their store. Greg Gage says Utah’s Black Cat Comics won’t be taking part, noting, “There's a rise of anti-Semitic behavior in this world right now. The last thing I want to do is force my queer, Jewish employee to wear a Hail Hydra shirt.”
There seems to be some misconception about what the Hydra takeover is, and how Marvel are coordinating with retailers. Everyone I spoke to said that they haven't heard from Marvel directly about the marketing initiative, but there are promotional items that have been available to them for several months. LeBlanc raised that point that Marvel may have had more success with the initiative if it focused on the superhero resistance as opposed to asking stores to appear to be collaborating with the villainous organization. "These would have addressed the adverse feelings and framed their narrative as a confrontation of harmful ideas, instead of an embrace, which would have gone a long way against appearing as though they are Nazi sympathizers."
Many of the retailers who responded to me worry that being associated with promoting "Secret Empire" could cost them customers. Jon Chandler of Alabama’s ShoNuff Comics told me that out of two hundred customers with pull lists, only one of them orders "Captain America: Steve Rogers," a title the store only orders six copies of total for each issue.
Gareth Hoskins of Virginia’s Victory Comics said his customers’ dissatisfaction with Marvel and "Secret Empire" began with the previous Marvel Comics summer event. “With 'Civil War II,' we began bleeding Marvel subscribers, because that event was a hot mess. Now we have 'Secret Empire,' and our customers are verbally angry with Marvel.” He noted that the general feeling in his store is that customers want it to hurry up and finish so they can enjoy Captain America comics again, a statement echoed by other retailers I spoke with.
Not every retailer is against "Secret Empire," however; a number are openly excited to be taking part in the takeover event, as Chris Proulx of Double Midnight Comics, New Hampshire told me. “When Marvel put this opportunity out there, we decided to play along. It was something different that they hadn't done for other events. We felt it was a way for us to participate in the overall event!” He did also note that while his customers are a bit wary of the event, his staff have worked to assuage them of their concerns, and he is confident Marvel would never do anything to tarnish Captain America’s legacy.
A number of retailers were generally apathetic, pointing out that Marvel’s attempt to include them in the takeover has been somewhat half-hearted and many of their customers just aren’t enthused about the story one way or the other. Zach Power of Iowa’s Daydreams Comics noted “We've never had much luck getting any interest from clientele in any companies various initiatives/parties/etc, so I tend to not pay them much attention.” while Kyle McCormick of Wyoming’s Gryphon Games & Comics won’t be participating because “our guys just don't seem that enthused about the story.”
While not indicative of retailers in North America as whole, the majority of the responses I received seemed to range from cautious to actively negative. Even the retailers who are positive and excited about the event recognize the need to address readers’ concerns with regard to the storyline's more controversial elements. The main takeaway seemed to be that retailers want Marvel be more receptive to building a dialogue because they feel their voices are going unheard, and it’s something that has an impact on their business, customers and livelihood. "Secret Empire" is going to chug along for the next few months, but on the ground it seems like many stores just want to move past it, onto the next thing, as soon as possible.