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Leaked comic reignites criticism of Marvel’s Secret Empire arc

The final page of the Free Comic Book Day issue has a patented shocking reveal

From the cover of the Free Comic Book Day issue of Secret Empire.
Mark Brooks/Marvel Comics
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Marvel Comics’ Free Comic Book Day issue, a tie-in to the company’s 2017 Secret Empire event, leaked online this week, fueling an already raging critical fire surrounding the miniseries.

Free Comic Book Day is a comics retailer event generally celebrated on the first Saturday in May, at the beginning of the summer season of comic book events and superhero blockbusters. Many comics companies create issues explicitly for the event; comics shops pay a reduced (although still significant) price for the issues and give them away free in an effort to celebrate the medium and attract new customers — often lots of kids.

It’s routine for DC and Marvel Comics to put out at least one Free Comic Book Day issue that ties into whatever summer event the company plans — but the buzz around Marvel’s Secret Empire has been anything but routine. In the slow, year-long build up to the story, Marvel Comics and the folks behind the current Captain America comic have been criticized repeatedly for playing too cavalierly with Nazi-associated Marvel characters.

In a nutshell, Secret Empire is a story that reveals that Captain America has been a sleeper agent for his greatest enemy, Hydra, for his entire history — that Hydra has used an all-powerful entity loyal to them to warp the Marvel Universe timeline into a modern reality where Steve Rogers is Supreme Leader of the organization.

Critics have pointed out that Hydra was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two Jewish American comics artists who themselves served in World War II, with deliberate intention to parallel the racist, xenophobic beliefs of Hitler’s Germany — and that making Captain America a Hydra Agent as an ongoing plot line, particularly given the recent global prominence of nationalist political currents, is a very bad look for Marvel. Especially given that Captain America was created by Kirby and Joe Simon to do what they could not: Fight Nazis before the United States had entered the war.

Nevertheless, last week, the first issue of Secret Empire detailed Steve Rogers’ takeover of the United States as the Supreme Leader of Hydra. It also revealed that Hydra had merely returned Steve to his natural state — our familiar timeline where the Allies won WWII with the help of Captain America was actually a warped reality created by the Allies — doubling down on the new origin. Around the same time, Marvel announced a retailer initiative where it invited comic shops to make “physical changes” to their stores and equip employees with Hydra t-shirts to play into the event.

Warning: The rest of this post contains spoilers for Marvel’s Free Comic Book Day Secret Empire special.

Hydra-Captain America holding the hammer of Thor.
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Just in case you missed that spoiler warning, click to reveal.
Andrea Sorrentino/Marvel Comics

And this week, Marvel’s Secret Empire tie-in to Free Comic Book Day leaked online, revealing a final page in which Steve Rogers stands triumphant over defeated Marvel heroes, holding aloft Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor. That is, the hammer one can only lift “if they be worthy,” which seems to imply that Captain America’s allegiance with Hydra, fascistic goals, government takeover and betrayal of his friends and allies do not disqualify him from being considered “worthy.”

Like most of Secret Empire, there’s plenty of real world context that makes this more than simply a wrinkle of comic book rules and twists. As comic book news site The Outhousers points out:

“The Nazis were big fans of Norse mythology, with the swastika being used by the Norse and Germanic peoples, while being one of the central symbols of Proto-Indo-European society, which the Nazis appropriated as a way to return to their roots. Hitler's right-hand man, Himmler, who wanted the S.S. to resemble a Nordic knightly order, gave the S.S. a Thor-inspired thunderbolt as a symbol. Thor's Hammer is currently used by Neo-Nazis, symbolically, so seeing a fascist Captain America literally raise Thor's Hammer high won't fall on deaf ears.”

There’s any amount of speculation one could make about what it means that a Hydra-aligned Captain America could lift Thor’s hammer — this is a comic book universe after all, strange things happen. Whether or not you buy Marvel’s argument that Hydra aren’t Nazis, it’s still a pretty big stretch to see a villainous character deemed worthy of the power of Thor.

Polygon has reached out to Marvel Comics for clarification.