The Secret Empire of Captain America- Hydra’s Greatest Sleeper Agent

The following article contains minor spoilers from Captain America: Steve Rogers (2016-2017) and Secret Empire (2017) by Nick Spencer

 Hail Hydra!

Those two words were the start of a phenomenon that confused and shocked many comic book readers around the world. As Captain America declared his allegiance to one of Marvel’s most notorious organizations (Hydra), some fans shook their heads in disgust at the “all new, all different” characterization of Steve Rogers. And to tell you the truth, I was a part of that crowd. Without having read the story at the time of its debut and only hearing the buzz surrounding the first issue, I was angry. I thought that Marvel succumbed to the cheap strategy of “shock-value” storytelling as a publicity stunt. Furthermore, I was irritated because I thought that what felt like a character assassination of one of my favorite heroes was the start of Marvel’s disappointing attempt at creating a big “event-story” that would have little to no consequence in its comic universe. But, admittedly, I was wrong.

After the initial frustration period, I decided to give Nick Spencer’s Captain America run a chance mostly because I was curious… and maybe this was Marvel’s plan all along – to gain buyers/readers out of curiosity; and I certainly fell right into their trap. But something happened to me after I read issue #1, the full series and then Secret Empire: I enjoyed them. No, I loved them. And by the series’ end, and more than ever before, my love for Captain America was enhanced. Crazy, right? How could a book that turned our American flag-decorated, shield-bearing hero into a Hydra-hailing, monstrous villain reaffirm my love for a character that had been lost to experimentation? My answer to this is simple: it’s because Hydra’s Steve Rogers represents ideals that his counterpart does not. The book revealed the extremes that he was willing to go to at such inconceivably vicious levels that it made me miss and appreciate the original character that much more. My favorite part of it all, though, is that this story actually contained the essence of Steve Rogers. That’s right! Even though the true Steve is absent throughout the book(s), his spirit lives on because the supporting characters defend and uphold his values as they never give up their fight against Hydra’s secret empire. And by the time our Captain America finally makes his triumphant return, it is majestic, epic, and beautiful…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. While I am expecting to change few opinions on Captain America: Steve Rogers (2016-2017) and Secret Empire (2017), I can only hope that by detailing my experiences with these stories– ones that I hated before even reading– I can convince you to give them a chance. So, on Secret Empire #1’s one-year anniversary, I’ll reflect on why it’s such a great display of artistic storytelling, how it cemented my love for Captain America, and why we, as comic readers, should be more open to unorthodox change.

Secret-Empire

Since he made his first appearance in March of 1941 (by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby), Captain America has become a symbol of American patriotism in comic book media. His beliefs and ideals concerning humanity and its values have been respected and adapted into modern storytelling– providing a legacy that people all over the world have come to understand and love. Throughout comic book history, writers and artists have shown Steve Rogers to be an inspiration who brings out the best in people through the power of hope; and it is this hope for a better tomorrow that pushes Captain America to be victorious over his enemies. Steve’s longstanding and recurring battles against his greatest foe organization, Hydra, have required the most courage out of him. And this fundamental part of Captain America lore has been an exemplary illustration of empowerment through hope. So, it should come as no surprise that this new characterization of Steve Rogers rubbed people the wrong way.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 (2017) takes place after the events of Pleasant Hill, in which the sole purpose of this mission was to reshape the reality of Marvel’s most infamous supervillains towards a reformed existence. To carry out this mission, S.H.I.E.L.D. proposed using fragments of cosmic cubes. Unfortunately, the fragments merged together to form a single, unpredictably sentient and omnipotent being known as Kobik, who would ultimately be responsible for the upcoming havoc in the Marvel universe… and it all began with turning Steve Rogers into Hydra’s greatest sleeper agent.

Red Skull

I was hesitant on giving this book any of my attention as I felt that it represented an incomprehensible disservice to Captain America’s history. But for those concerned about this, I am here to tell you not to be. You’ll have to take my word for it, but not everything is as it seems. I recommend reading Captain America: Steve Rogers because it is a great example of creativity and bold storytelling. In the series, Nick Spencer does an extraordinary job of detailing the events leading up to Secret Empire which includes rewriting the history we all know and love. We’ve read Steve’s backstory several times before, but the thorough elucidation of his Hydra upbringing was creative storytelling in its best form. It is told in a series of flashbacks, parallels the lead-up to Secret Empire, and perfectly expresses the overlaying themes of unimpeded power, chaos due to the loss of hope, and the consequences of irresponsibility. Spencer also takes us behind the scenes of major Marvel events and ties it back to Steve’s involvement in them, which was just another thought-provoking aspect of this story within the greater Marvel universe.

One of my favorite parts of Nick Spencer’s storytelling is that he gives sufficient attention to the details of Steve’s nuanced ideals of Hydra versus those of the Red Skull. And this gives me the perfect opportunity to address the Nazi concerns. It is no secret that Hydra was at one point a subdivision of Nazi Germany. In fact, it has been shown that the Red Skull, himself, manipulated the Nazis into providing support towards the creation of Hydra– an act that contributed to Red Skull’s rise to power. However, it is explicitly revealed throughout Captain America: Steve Rogers that Hydra Cap never believed in the Hydra-Nazi union. And without giving too much away, he makes it his mission to bring a new glory to Hydra that focuses on improving humanity through equality for American citizens. This is not to say that Hydra Cap is on the right side of history because he’s not; and indeed, that burning stigma of Nazi-ties is strong. However, this Steve does make it his mission to absolve the old regime. So trust me when I say, I understand the anger because I felt it too. But this is what made the story so great for me: in trying to re-image Hydra, the measures Steve takes to achieve it are severe, and that is what makes him such an enticing villain. Eventually, Rogers’ and Red Skull’s differences in opinion on Hydra’s foundations lead to a fascinating shift of power and a showdown that is exciting from beginning to end. The best part of it all is how, surprisingly, I cheered for Hydra Steve in this confrontation. It was unsettling, but it resulted in a pretty cool reading experienceall because of Spencer’s different yet exhilarating storytelling.

Another one of my favorite aspects of Spencer’s Captain America run is the depiction of the titular character. During my reading, I knew I was supposed to hate this version of Captain America because after all, Steve was Hydra’s sleeper agent. However, as I reminded myself to give up everything I knew about Steve Rogers and to get to know this version, I found that ‘Hydra Cap’ was intelligent, determined and willing to fight for what he believed in– all characteristics that our beloved hero possesses. Additionally, Spencer spends the perfect amount of time exploring and showcasing Steve as a great problem-solver and a profound strategist, which (for me) are important attributes that have been lacking in past Captain America stories. All together, these features made the reading experience even more intriguing as I found myself in a state of inner turmoil: on one hand, I wanted to cheer for ‘the bad guy’ because he possessed likeable qualities. On the other hand, I knew that Steve was certainly the villain of the story, as manifested by his questionable decisions and his refusal to show mercy to his adversaries, so I hated him at the same time. What conflicting emotions! And it’s all because Spencer does such a brilliant job of implementing classical Captain America attributes with this Steve Rogers that it almost feels like he simply lost his way. That thin line of moral ambiguity on which Hydra Steve wavers leaves me completely speechless every time I read this story because in everything he does and everything he says, Hydra Steve truly believes that his actions are for the betterment of society. Thus, he is ready and willing to do anything to see his goals come to fruition – the true makings of an incredible villain.

SE Spread

By this time, I was hooked. It wasn’t the Captain America I knew, but it was a version of the character that I began to love because it was new, exciting, and a result of intelligent storytelling. At the turning point of the series, it started to settle in that Hydra’s mastermind would stop at nothing to see his mission(s) accomplished. And with his newfound, consolidated power (obtained in 3 stages in Secret Empire #0), Hydra’s Steve Rogers would soon find himself in control of everything and capable of fulfilling his promises. At this particular moment in my reading, I knew I was in for a treat. I expected a full, Hydra-takeover and an alternate world that would shake the Marvel universe to its core; but what I got was something far greater.

In Secret Empire #1, the world was under Hydra’s conquest, and the citizens of the United States were becoming acquainted with the new regime. Under Hydra’s governance, the economy blossoms, crime is down 75%, new jobs become available, and even foreign relations are at ease; and this was all made possible by Hydra’s very own Captain America. Though his quest for peace and unification (post-Hydra takeover) was initially met with hesitation and resistance, Steve’s plan worked. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Well, it turns out that Cap’s inner circle, the Hydra High Council, preferred more extreme methods, which ultimately pressured Steve into “improving” the regime. It was at this point in the story that I knew that the price of prosperity and well-being in this alternate reality was freedom. In this world, in which things appeared to be perfect, there was great disorder and devastation; and Steve recognized this as there was corruption embedded even within Hydra’s core. Finally, it was at this moment that I came to the gut-wrenching realization that tragedy would prevail, so I mentally prepared myself for Steve’s tumultuous reign – and when I say tumultuous, I mean devious, tenacious, brutal, and horrifying. And it was only just the beginning…

NewReality2.png

What made my experience reading Secret Empire so special was its ability to bring out a flux of emotions in me. Seeing glimpses of humanity in Hydra Steve only for it to be relinquished in one moment was the icing on the cake. Steve’s ever-growing, paradoxical ideas about maintaining peace under his fascist command turned that dream into one that could no longer be accomplished. And so, the tides had to turn. He would soon implement strict laws for a country whose citizens were required to “trust authority, punish weakness, and report threats.” Shortly after, this lobotomized world would face the peak of Captain America’s villainy – a series of events that ignited in me a great deal of unease. So when I say these books gave me anxiety, I am not being hyperbolic, and it is a true compliment of the highest order. There are devastating consequences within the story that are not just cheap occurrences; they are cultivations of a world without hope and the results of disruption of tradition, power, and accountability. Quite frankly, this story is a reflection of our current society in America that reveals what happens when our leaders and our heroes – the ones we look up to – become corrupted.

But Marvel’s Secret Empire isn’t all about evil American idols and a world overtaken by dark ideologies. This is something that – just like the supporting characters within the story, coincidentally – I forgot as well. Due to the hold that the overwhelming and devastating events had on me, I forgot that this story contained elements of hope and the liberty to choose our own destinies. In Secret Empire #7, my favorite issue of the series, Spencer reminds us that success is always within reach and that hope can never be taken, only lost. As a group of underground heroes set out to end Hydra’s reign, the issue conveys the necessary message about the importance of being firm in the kind of person you want to be. But most importantly, it reminds us how we are responsible for the choices that we make and the paths that we walk in life. Though tragedy prevails and Hydra wins another battle, it affects every character involved in different, interesting ways. A sense of urgency is awakened in Hydra’s Captain America, while a benevolent force of perseverance inspires Earth’s mightiest heroes. And ultimately, resilience becomes the key to victory. Furthermore, the issue sets the stage for the final stretch of issues that would restore a sense of hope from an unlikely source – a key factor in why I love this story so much.

Earth's Mightiest Heroes

If I’m being honest, it would be negligent of me to not mention some things that I did not like about this entire phenomenon. At times, the story can get confusing; and this is mostly due to the multiple tie-ins and side stories that were going on in Marvel comics at the time. They may appear to be plot holes, but some answers are reserved until the very end and even in parts of Marvel Legacy. In retrospect, it is certainly frustrating as a reader. However, I understand this aspect from a seller’s point of view as well. Something that I constantly vacillate on, though, is the ending. Having read Captain America: Steve Rogers and Secret Empire three times each, the conclusion feels a little abrupt, but the good news is that the open-ended nature of some of the characters’ fates gives Marvel an exciting opportunity to continue their creative storytelling going forward.

When it’s all said and done, and I reflect on what stood out to me most during the Secret Empire event, it wasn’t just that the story was different and fun. It was that despite revealing attributes of a heroic Captain America in his Hydra counterpart (such as those likable qualities that I’ve mentioned previously), Nick Spencer didn’t shy away from pushing the boundaries of Steve Rogers’ villainy. It was a gradual progression, but by the story’s end, it becomes apparent that Hydra’s Captain America represents the ramifications of governmental and political chaos. It’s a story about how we put so much faith in the first person that is willing to speak to our ‘dark side’ that it stimulates, amplifies and hardens the fears that fester inside us. These can be fears of having to be politically correct all of the time, fears of having certain freedoms taken away, or even fears of never being considered or treated as an equal. But it is fear from which evil is birthed; and Nick Spencer just happened to show us this through a deconstruction of Captain America’s image. It is fear that leads to immorality and to succumbing to the pressures of evil – things our Captain America would normally never do. These truths reveal why Captain America is such an important character to me and simply enhanced my love of him.

In short, whether you hate him or love him, Hydra’s Captain America will surely get a rise out of you. It may not be the stories you wanted, but Captain America: Steve Rogers and Secret Empire both contain elements of great storytelling that should be adapted into all art forms. And I’m not talking about turning all of our favorite heroes into villains just to prove a point about corruption and power. I’m simply stating that comic book stories should be thrilling, fascinating to read, honest, and at times gut-wrenching; and these books certainly are. From the action-packed pages in each issue, accompanied by beautiful art and spreads, to the emotional depth of its story and characters, Spencer has created a phenomenon that will stick with me for years to come. My only hope for comic book readers (or fans of any art medium, for that matter) is that by recalling and detailing my own feelings and experiences with this controversial event in Marvel comics (an event that I originally dismissed without even reading), we can all learn as an audience to judge stories for their content alone. Let’s not restrict writers and artists to the storytelling of the past even if that means that our favorite characters will undergo unusual change. After all, isn’t art about freedom of expression and thought, passion, and pursuing new and exciting avenues of telling a story? How can it ever evolve if we continuously beg for what we’ve already seen? The answer is it can’t; and we shouldn’t force it to. That’s not to say we should like everything given to us either because that’s unrealistic; but the next time we engage in any art form, we should try judging it from its merit alone and not by how closely it relates to other source material. Because in the end, you may be surprised by what we get.

Recommended Comic Reading List Order:

Assault on Pleasant Hill (Avengers Standoff)*
Civil War II*
Secret Empire Prelude
Captain America: SR Free Comic Book Day Issue*
Captain America: Steve Rogers #1-14
Uncanny Avengers #22*
Captain America: Steve Rogers #15
Thunderbolts # 12*
Captain America: Steve Rogers #16
Secret Empire #0
Secret Empire Free Comic Book Day Issue
Secret Empire #1-2
Captain America: Steve Rogers #17
Secret Empire #3
Secret Empire: Uprising
Captain America: Steve Rogers #18
Secret Empire #4-7
Captain America: Steve Rogers #19
Captain America: Steve Rogers #25
Secret Empire #8-10
Secret Empire: Omega

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