The following was originally published as part of The Variant Edition Regularity – our weekly comics and pop culture newsletter. If you would like to receive articles like this, as well as other mindful takes on pop culture news, you can subscribe at the bottom of this page.
Fun fact: we’re not fond of Nazis at Variant Edition. That… kind of goes without saying at this point, but it’s information that’s weirdly relevant to one of the big comic events coming out really soon.
A few months ago, you might have heard about a storyline in one of Marvel’s Captain America books that saw Steve Rogers revealed as a secret Hydra agent. This immediately set the internet aflame as one of the most fervent enemies of the Nazi scourge – as created by Jewish creators – was now effectively part of a group with ties to the powerful hate group. Seems strange, right?
Well, here’s a bit of context: Steve Rogers was involved in a big event that heavily featured a young girl who could alter reality at the centre of it. As this Hydra twist was revealed, so was the fact that this young girl had been brainwashed by Hydra to affect Steve’s reality, causing him to believe he was a sleeper Hydra agent all along. It’s a move that only works in comics, and even then, just barely.
Now, we’re quite a few months into this sleeper agent story, and all the while, Steve has been moving chess pieces around to get into a position of great power. In the upcoming Secret Empire storyline, he finally makes his move, and the Marvel Universe finds itself betrayed by one of it’s greatest heroes and under the heel of a fascist organization.
This past week, Danica and I had a chance to read Secret Empire #0, the book that kicks things off, and it’s… it’s really good. The story kicks off in a high gear and slowly ratchets the tension to a breaking point… after which, everything breaks. Unquestionably, it is a strong story.
We try to be mindful here at Variant Edition, and there are several things about Secret Empire that rub us the wrong way. Almost none of them have to do with the story itself, but with the context that Marvel and series writer Nick Spencer have taken with presenting the story.
In the build up to this big event, both Spencer and Marvel have been very flippant with folks who have come to them, hurt by the idea that Steve Rogers would be revealed as a Hydra agent, given the history of the character. This would almost be fine if that response had taken the form of a few tweets, but the cuts started to go deeper. In an issue of one of the Captain America series, Spencer took to mocking those with concerns about the direction of his books. A scene was written with a set of characters who attacked a protest while spouting deliberately poorly written rhetoric meant to mock those who had a problem with his storyline.
Think about that for a second. After receiving criticism for a story he wrote, Spencer spent several pages of a comic taking a swing at the folks who were concerned about this direction, and Marvel went ahead and approved that. While both Spencer and Marvel have spoken about how this was done more in response to those who were making death threats to the writer, the scene itself wasn’t about the dangers of death threats. It made of fun of people using key buzzwords as bludgeons. Words like “triggered”, twisted from it’s intention to warn others of potential harm, into something intended to hurt.
Then came the marketing plan. To go along with this, Marvel is encouraging stores to take part in the takeover, placing Hydra regalia in their shops, changing store logos, all to go along with this event.
In a world where (in our opinion) a harmful human being has become one of the most powerful men in the world, and has been using that seat of power to be regressive as hell, Marvel is encouraging shops to participate in a comic event by dressing the part of collaborators. Intentions aside, that is a hard pill to swallow. Why would a comic book company willingly encourage folks to cosplay as an organization that has noted ties with Nazis, especially in the current environment?
While some would argue that this is making a big deal about a fictional story, we still wanted to bring these things to your attention. We also wanted to note that we have read the first issue of this series, and found the story to be well written. It’s a high quality book. But folks should go into reading it mindful of the connotations that it has, and how the ideas behind it can, and have been, harmful. At the very least, people should be made aware so they can engage with the story in such a way that suits them, whether it be reading it within a certain context, or skipping on the event entirely.
On our end, we will, of course, be stocking Secret Empire. As we said before, we believe the story that’s been presented is good. But we will not be promoting it, because the ideas that fuel it are harmful, and we want to be mindful of our customers and their various comfort levels.
This is, at the heart of it, a fictional story. It’s ramifications are paltry in comparison to things that happen in the real world, but there are still ramifications that can be felt – and the fact that they don’t scale to a certain level of harm doesn’t mean it can not be harmful.
So, we encourage everyone to approach Secret Empire in the way they are most comfortable. You won’t get any judgement either way from us. But you also won’t see us hand selling the title to customers unprompted. If someone asks us for our opinion of the book’s quality, we will absolutely tell them it was well written. But if they don’t, the book will have to sell itself. And it just might. But we are far more comfortable selling it without the Hydra regalia that Marvel has offered to send our way.