It’s been a long road to Marvel’s "Secret Empire" event. While writer Nick Spencer turned things up a notch last May with the highly publicized “Hail Hydra” reveal at the end of “Captain America: Steve Rogers” #1, the roots of the story go back to his issues that introduce and bookend the “Avengers Standoff!” event. The storm he’s been brewing since early 2016 finally hits in the pages of “Secret Empire” #0, as the heroes of the Marvel Universe realize the enormity of Steve Rogers’ betrayal.
“Secret Empire” #0 follows nicely from Spencer’s controversial “Captain America: Steve Rogers” run. Readers of that series will see exactly how the pieces Rogers has put into play fit together, but those who have thus far shunned the Hydra Cap story aren’t at a disadvantage. Spencer packs enough exposition into the issue’s narration to clue new readers into the Captain’s current status quo, without resorting to an info dump.
Spencer adds some additional context through dialogue, and at one point he has Steve explaining a key component of his plan in the manner of a Bond villain. The moment feels a little forced, but it is pure Rogers. The ever-honest Captain lays out exactly what he did and why. Is Steve enjoying the moment? Is he adding insult to injury as he betrays his allies and friends? Or is he simply telling it as it is? This is, after all the same man we’ve admired for years. Steve hasn’t changed, but his world has.
This is not the only instance of Rogers explaining himself. In another poignant sequence we see that the Captain pointedly proclaim his need to reveal his motivations to a loved one.
It is these personal moments that shine in “Secret Empire” #0, which is, in many ways, a standard introduction to a company-wide event. In the typical fashion of such things, the action unfolds on multiple fronts. Individual heroes and teams see themselves pushed to their limits, as they are outflanked and outnumbered in every possible way. But as the chaos unfolds, Marvel’s heroes also discover the extent of Captain America’s machinations. As they are dealt physical blows from every direction, they are also absorbing the greatest blow of all: the man who they hold in the highest esteem has turned on them.
“He had always been a master strategist," readers are told. “But freed from compassion and mercy, this was his masterpiece."
But does Rogers lack compassion and mercy? Or is Spencer presenting us with an unreliable narrator? Going by this initial issue, Steve’s internal struggle to reconcile his values and his present-day friendships with his altered past seem to be as important to “Secret Empire” as the external battles.
As he’s done in his “Captain America: Steve Rogers” run, Spencer continues to unfold the story of the Captain’s Hydra past in a series of flashbacks that reveal his hidden history. Marvel’s two-artist approach to the issue pays off in a big way here. Rod Reis handles the five-page prelude, while Daniel Acuña handles 30 pages worth of main storyline. Reis’ painterly approach perfectly matches the tone of the opening flashback, which takes takes place after the end of World War II, and which highlights the mystical aspects of Hydra. Acuña’s traditional inking is better suited to the present-day story, with its depictions of mighty military hardware, fights breaking out on multiple fronts, and dozens of combatants stepping into the fray.
A single line of dialogue, repeated in the past and the present, ties the two threads together, and reveals that Rogers was all too painfully aware of his divergent realities, even in the past.
“Secret Empire” #0 has a lot of set-up, but also a lot of story, and it never feels compressed. Spencer shifts effortlessly from large-scale battle sequences to one-on-one character interactions. In this tension between the big and the small, the personal and the collective, Spencer renders the stakes clear and present. The consequences are immediate.
There’s enough urgency in “Secret Empire” #0 to seduce event-fatigued readers into taking a chance on Marvel’s next big thing; which is ironic, given the House of Ideas’ recent announcement that it will be stepping away from large-scale crossovers for at least 18 months. Whether or not "Secret Empire" can win over fans skeptical of the entire premise of the series remains to be seen.
Still, the issue does tease the scaled-down event that will follow “Secret Empire.” Astute readers will immediately note a plotline and a visual cue that appears to hint at Marvel’s upcoming “Generations” story.
If there is any doubt about Nick Spencer’s ability to helm a major event, it's answered in the pages of “Secret Empire” #0. His pacing and plotting are impeccable, but more importantly, he understands and loves the characters he is writing. He recognizes that the very qualities that make Steve Rogers the perfect hero also make him a magnificent villain. The conflict between Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been ideological, but Spencer has made it personal by making Rogers the bad guy. This makes for excellent reading.
"Secret Empire" #0 is out on Wednesday, April 19, from Marvel.