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Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 - “Hail Hydra”
The end of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1
Jesus Saiz/Marvel Comics

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Secret Empire, explained

The history of Marvel’s most controversial and unintentionally topical plotline in years

Marvel Comics is kicking off Secret Empire this week, the company's big summer event of 2017, in which a Hydra-aligned Captain America leads a takeover of the United States of America. It’s the culmination of an entire year of slow buildup from Marvel, specifically from the creative team behind the current Captain America comic. And even if you don’t read comics, you’ve probably heard about it and have questions.

Questions like: Is Captain America a Nazi now? Is Magneto a Nazi now? Why is Marvel even running a story that seems to have generated such strong disapproval from pretty much every demographic? The full picture is a broad one, but we’ve put together the big moments and controversies that paved the road to the contentious place in which Secret Empire resides today. Let’s get started.

We’ll take it from the beginning

Captain America: Sam Wilson #1 cover
The cover of Captain America: Sam Wilson #1.
Daniel Acuña/Marvel Comics

While most of the criticism of Marvel lately has focused on the ill-conceived idea of a Hydra takeover led by Captain America, it’s easy to forget that the first big wave of controversy came from Fox News — more than a year ago. In October 2015, Marvel published Captain America: Sam Wilson #1. It was the first issue of Captain America to be written by Nick Spencer, and the writer wound up rocking several boats by pitting Cap against the Sons of the Serpent, a outwardly racist organization that had found a new calling in vigilante action as a border-patrolling militia.

Let’s establish a little bit of context. In 2015, the role of Captain America in the Marvel Comics universe was held by Sam Wilson, formerly known as the Falcon: the first African-American superhero in mainstream American comics, and Steve Rogers’ longtime friend. Steve was no longer acting as Captain America because he had been drained of his Super Soldier Serum in a previous storyline, becoming the nonagenarian man he would have been had he not been frozen in a block of ice for decades or exposed to the Serum.

Fox & Friends got ahold of Captain America: Sam Wilson #1 and interpreted it as a “Captain America vs. conservatives” story. Host Tucker Carlson sympathized with the Supreme Serpent, whom he described as an “American who has misgivings about unlimited immigration and the costs associated with it.” This led to a lot of backlash — as the media-storm flames continued to be fanned by the likes of Breitbart — aimed directly at Spencer, who received death threats.

Captain America: Sam Wilson #1 - Supreme Serpent manifesto
The Supreme Serpent’s anti-immigrant manifesto, as seen in Captain America: Sam Wilson #1.
Daniel Acuña/Marvel Comics

But despite threats, Spencer’s Captain America: Sam Wilson quickly became one of Marvel’s most socially conscious comics and reflected Nick Spencer’s own professed liberal politics. It featured a Captain America who let the country know what his political beliefs were; it tackled immigration on a personal level with the introduction of Mexican immigrant Joaquín Torres as the new Falcon; and it rehabilitated D-Man from a tired joke about homeless people to a once-again capable superhero who is also an ex-pro wrestler and out gay man.

Fictional events took a turn with the crossover Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill, in which the heroes of the Marvel Universe discovered that SHIELD had weaponized a Cosmic Cube — a legendary Marvel Comics artifact that has made it into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the “Tesseract” — and it had gained a physical form as a young girl named Kobik. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the crossover, Kobik used her reality-warping powers to restore old man Steve Rogers to his vital and healthy super-soldier self, and in the wake of the event, both Sam and Steve were Captain America, side by side.

Steve Rogers: Agent of Hydra

Captain America: Sam Wilson #1 - “hail Hydra”
The final page of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1.
Jesus Saiz/Marvel Comics

But the biggest controversy in the lead-up to Secret Empire kicked off in May 2016 with Nick Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, drawn by Jesus Saiz. The issue ended on the shocking cliffhanger that Steve Rogers was a member of Hydra. There was little context given in the comic at that point, but both Spencer and executive editor Tom Brevoort flat-out denied the charge that it was a gimmick and insisted that this was the real Steve Rogers, agent of Hydra.

The response from this revelation was predominantly negative. Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 was released at the height of the popularity of the Captain America: Civil War-related #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend hashtag, and many fans were upset that while Marvel would never entertain the idea of a bisexual or gay Captain America, it would happily make him part of a bigoted, villainous organization.

There was also outcry from many Jewish comic fans, who took umbrage at the idea of turning the brainchild of two Jewish men, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, into an agent of Hydra. The group has been seen as analogous to the Nazi party for many years, and has been led by overt Nazi characters like the Red Skull. Hydra was originally created as a rival spy organization to Nick Fury’s SHIELD, and it was established shortly after the organization’s first appearance that it was headed by Fury’s wartime foe, Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker, a Nazi.

Strange Tales #135 cover
Strange Tales #135, the first appearance of Hydra.
Jack Kirby/Marvel Comics

There have since been many retcons that stretched Hydra’s history back thousands of years before World War II — all the way to snakelike aliens arriving on Earth in ancient Egypt. But the intention was clear in their earliest appearances: Hydra was the remnant of Hitler’s dream, dedicated to establishing a fourth Reich and providing a new home to those whom it sees as inherently superior to others. Simon and Kirby both served during World War II, and the idea of their most famous artistic contribution to the world — Captain America — being twisted into a cog in an engine of hatred did not sit well with many readers.

The vocal responses to the Hydra revelation ran the gamut from concerned criticism to rabid hate speech. Spencer once again received death threats from readers — this time, from the other side of the ideological spectrum from Fox News viewers — and, unfortunately, along with other Marvel creators such as Dan Slott, he began labeling anyone criticizing the cliffhanger as being complicit in the sending of such threats.

As the storyline continued, the creators and Marvel as a company wrote off fans of Captain America who were genuinely hurt by the move. Subsequent comics revealed that when Kobik returned Steve Rogers to his youthful self, she changed his entire history at the bidding of the Red Skull. Her reality-warping powers established a new history, where Hydra took in Rogers and his mother when he was still young, and the mysterious Elisa Sinclair helped set him on the path to becoming a double agent. Many people already upset by the move saw this as a refutation of Spencer and Brevoort’s assertion that the change wasn’t a gimmick, as Rogers; history had been simply been magically altered by a personified Cosmic Cube.

Captain America takes on his critics, literally

Captain America: Sam Wilson #17 panel
A panel from Captain America: Sam Wilson #17.
Paul Renaud/Marvel Comics

Then, in January 2017’s Captain America: Sam Wilson #17, Nick Spencer seemed to react to the fallout from the Hydra Cap twist by introducing a group of villains called the Bombshells, who attacked an Ann Coulter stand-in during her speaking engagement at a university. The Bombshells — who share a name with DC Comics’ alternate-universe team of queer, all-female, Nazi-bashing WWII superheroes — peppered their attacks with cliched “social justice warrior” language, such as “this campus is a safe space for anyone but you!” and “consider this your trigger warning!”

Many viewed the issue as a somewhat pathetic rebuttal to the readers supposedly upset by the events of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, and for many, it also reinforced the belief that Nick Spencer and Marvel have little regard for the fans who legitimately felt hurt by their actions and storylines.

Spencer’s defense for this issue was that the Bombshells are bad guys and shouldn’t be taken seriously because they’re the ones throwing the grenades. However, that argument rests on ignoring the fact that these characters have no actual agency: Everything they are was created by Spencer. The Bombshells are essentially caricatures of his critics, and the fact that they solve their problems through violence only serves to reinforce a false equivalence: that the modern language of social justice and the people who use it are linked inextricably with threats and violent action.

So, Steve Rogers is a Nazi now ... or is he?

From Civil War II: The Oath
Marvel Comics

Since the release of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, Nick Spencer and Marvel as a publisher have been adamant that Hydra and Nazis are not the same. More recent issues have worked even harder to distance Hydra from the racist, genocidal and fascistic elements — that is, the Nazi-like elements — it has historically been associated with.

Early on, Spencer showed that while the Red Skull — himself a Nazi agent of Hydra — believed Steve Rogers to be loyal to his leadership and ideals, Rogers was actively working to undermine him. Later issues flashed back to Steve’s Hydra mentor, Elisa Sinclair, being a vocal opponent of Hydra’s decision to ally with the Nazis during World War II. But regardless of Spencer’s attempts to establish a second, non-Nazi splinter group for Secret Empire to focus on, his comics do feature flashbacks of Steve Rogers working for the Axis against the Allies, and, at the most liberal interpretation, that makes Captain America complicit in their crimes.

Spencer also recently revealed, in Civil War II: The Oath (drawn by Rod Reis), that Rogers caught a glimpse of the Hydra-controlled future of the Marvel Universe during last summer's Civil War II event. The most shocking image used to illustrate his vision was that of a young black teenage boy chased by a group of blonde-haired white children wearing Hydra T-shirts, as they threw stones at him. Marvel can say that Hydra isn’t a Nazi organization, but it’s now canon that Steve Rogers’ vision of a perfect, Hydra-dominated America includes that image.

Marvel would prefer that you not use the word “Nazi”

Captain America: Steve Rogers #3 - hail Hydra
A panel from Captain America: Steve Rogers #3.
Jesus Saiz/Marvel Comics

So, at the moment, Nick Spencer’s Captain America titles have two competing factions of Hydra. One is explicitly linked to the Red Skull and Nazi ideals, while the other, led by Elisa Sinclair, is purportedly the “true” Hydra. Sinclair has been building an inner circle, including villains like Doctor Faustus, Arnim Zola and the Taskmaster. This faction is featured on a series of variants for Secret Empire dubbed the “Villain Variants,” which also includes a few characters currently unaligned with Hydra, such as Baron Mordo, the Kingpin and, most troublingly, the X-Men villain Magneto.

Many fans were immediately upset at the inclusion of Magneto among the Hydra-aligned villains, and understandably so — the origins of the character are deeply rooted in being a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. Creators, including Spencer, insisted that variant covers don’t necessarily represent the content of a comic’s story and shouldn’t be judged as if they do. However, considering that eight of the 11 characters featured on the villain variants are members of Elisa Sinclair’s rebuilt Hydra, the odds are likely that Magneto will at some point join or ally himself with Hydra during Secret Empire.

Secret Empire #5 - Magneto variant cover
Magneto, agent of Hydra, in a variant cover for Secret Empire #5.
Dan Mora/Marvel Comics

On the face of it, Magneto joining Hydra seems nonsensical, but given the lengths to which Spencer has gone within the comics to establish a clear delineation between Hydra and Nazis, it also makes a certain kind of sense. Along the same lines of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, Magneto joining Hydra wouldn’t make Magneto a Nazi; it would just underscore the distance this version of Hydra has put between itself and its Nazi past.

Or at least, that would be the goal. The problem is, just like the Bombshells, Magneto isn’t a real person and can’t make his own decisions. Creators at Marvel Comics make decisions for him, and fans know this. Associating a Holocaust survivor with a Nazi-affiliated group doesn’t make that group any less Nazi-affiliated.

Nick Spencer would like to have a story about the shocking revelation that Captain America — the Sentinel of Liberty — has actually stood with his greatest foes all along, without examining what those villains stand for and the heavy real-world consequences of allowing their ideology to flourish. Fascism and totalitarianism are rooted in bigoted ideologies. You can’t just invoke the imagery of such a group without readers interpreting it that way. Spencer’s fundamental insistence that Hydra isn’t a fascistic, totalitarian regime undermines the reveal that Steve Rogers is a member of the group, because Hydra needs to stand for the opposite of Captain America’s values in order for his allegiance to it to be in any way shocking.

Steve Rogers may not wear a swastika while touting the virtues of the Aryan race; by the strictest definition, he may not be a Nazi. But there’s little fundamental difference when the character’s current incarnation seeks to install a regime dedicated to terror, submission and oppression.

What does Secret Empire have to say?

Secret Empire #0 cover
The cover of Secret Empire #0.
Mark Brooks/Marvel Comics

Secret Empire began as a comic that wanted to say something about real-world politics. A year ago, after the initial reveal of Hydra Cap, Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort told Time, “Any parallels you have seen to situations real or imagined, living or dead, is probably intentional but metaphorically not literally.” But in recent months, Marvel’s representatives have dialed back those allusions, and focused on the superhero dust-up aspect of the event. A recent interview with Entertainment Weekly noted that “Spencer and Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso insist that this Secret Empire has little to do with contemporary political parallels.”

In the intervening time between those two quotes, Donald Trump was elected to and assumed the office of president of the United States of America, and Marvel’s reclusive CEO, Isaac Perlmutter, took on a role as an adviser to the president on veteran’s affairs. While Marvel and Spencer’s intentions may have originally been to parallel current tensions regarding a rise in nationalism and xenophobia, Spencer — an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter during the campaign — may not have expected Trump to actually win. He also may not have expected the new message that his story tells, in a world where his boss’s boss’s boss is an ally to the president.

It’s in that wider context that, in the pages of two separate Captain America books, Nick Spencer has presented a pro-fascism Captain America in Steve Rogers, and a passive, indecisive and ineffectual Captain America in Sam Wilson. And it’s no surprise that Spencer’s heroes aren’t willing to stand up to fascism before it’s too late, considering that he took a defiant stance against Nazi-punching following the attack on Richard Spencer (no relation). We’re now in a position where the writer of Captain America doesn’t believe that standing up to fascism with violence is an appropriate course of action — a far cry from Captain America’s first issue, which saw the hero punching out Hitler even before the U.S. had officially entered World War II.

The road to Secret Empire has been provocative, in the most generous sense of the word, and it’s made readers contemplate their heroes in new and uncomfortable ways. What Marvel and the creators involved should ask themselves is this: Was it worth it? However good Secret Empire may be in the end, will it be worth the pain and alienation it caused? Is it worth being remembered as the company that played with Nazi iconography and philosophy for its stories? As a story, was it worth the cost of being remembered as the people who made Captain America a fascist?

Eventually, Secret Empire will end, the status quo of the Marvel Universe will be shaken up — a little bit, but not too much — and Marvel Comics will roll on. In a few years we may look back at Secret Empire as a huge black spot in the history of superhero comics, and the creators involved will always be remembered first and foremost for this one story.

Kieran Shiach is a Salford, U.K.-based freelance writer and one half of Good Egg Podcasts. He is on Twitter, @KingImpulse. He wishes in the past he tried more things ’cause now he knows being in trouble is a fake idea.