“Worth” is a word with some complicated weight in superhero comics. Typically it’s used to describe the narrative heft of a story; it’s staying power -- a value of perceived and long lasting forward momentum. In a world commonly critiqued for being simultaneously endless and completely unchanging, this specific definition of “worth” becomes a pretty powerful motivating factor. Creators want to tell stories that aren’t immediately written off as flashes in the proverbial pan. There is an undeniable pressure to make a comic that is “worth it.”
Marvel’s controversial Secret Empire event, which saw the rise to power of a Captain America that was secretly an agent of Hydra, has drawn to a close. The story deftly dodged the fan dismissals that, historically and traditionally, a story about a Cosmic Cube would be undone by a Cosmic Cube. Secret Empire is a story that wants readers to believe that it has real, genuine weight for the Marvel Universe to come -- and, in that way, was a story worth telling, despite the criticisms, despite the controversies.
Unfortunately, this old, widely understood definition of “worth” really fails to acknowledge... well, just about anything else. And now, more than ever, we need to examine just what it’s missing.
Secret Empire, written by Nick Spencer and illustrated by multiple artists including Andrea Sorrentino and Rod Reis, may have only lasted the summer as far as the event series is concerned, but its building blocks were stacked across the Marvel Universe for more than a year ahead of the first issue. Plot elements like Kobik the sentient Cosmic Cube, Steve Rogers’ re-written Hydra loyalist history, Bucky Barnes and his team of Thunderbolts, and Sam Wilson and his struggle with the identity of Captain America all served to construct the spine of the event well in advance.
Now, on paper, this is a perfect idea. It establishes things like cost and stakes, sets up eventual payoffs, and teaches readers the “rules” of new characters with time to spare. However, in practice -- and specifically in the instance of this book -- it also creates a sense of expectation.
By spending so much time articulating its own logic and story formula, Secret Empire was writing checks that it would forgo cashing -- all in the name of chasing down its own worthiness.
Storytelling sacrifices started from the word “go.” Series ignition-slash-focal point Kobik was “killed” before issue #0, leaving the year-plus worth of buildup for her emotional arc benched before it could ever take center stage. This, in turn, left the predominant focus of the event to become a “fetch quest,” where a group of heroes hopscotched around the globe to find the fragments she’d left behind in an attempt to reconstruct her. Of this group, none of the Thunderbolts team that had spent the last year actually fostering a relationship with Kobik were represented -- they were all either left off screen or “dead” by the start of the event. The work that had gone into making readers empathize with Kobik’s unsolvable situation was shoved aside.
The more-than-a-year spent painstakingly detailing the revision to Steve Rogers’ history in Captain America: Steve Rogers -- issue #1 of which was the ground zero for the now infamous “Hail Hydra” panel reveal -- amounted to an only occasionally touched upon lifelong friendship between Baron Zemo and Steve. The mysterious new Madame Hydra named Elisa Sinclair had a role in the event that was ambiguous at best. The effect, apparently, of these flashbacks was to really sell readers on the fact that the Hydra loyalist was unquestionably the “real” Captain America -- and had always been the real Captain America.
Of course, by the end of the event, we would learn that that wasn’t actually the case...or was it?