Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic-book issues of significance. This week, they are Batman #21, written by Tom King (The Vision, Sheriff Of Babylon) with art by Jason Fabok (Justice League, Detective Comics) and colorist Brad Anderson (Justice League, Detective Comics), and Secret Empire #0, written by Nick Spencer (The Fix, Captain America: Steve Rogers/Sam Wilson) with art by Rod Reis (C.O.W.L., Hadrian’s Wall) and Daniel Acuña (Captain America: Sam Wilson, Uncanny Avengers). These two books kick off major events at DC and Marvel, but also draw attention to how the publishers have mistreated past creators. (This review reveals major plot points.)
Despite the ongoing expansion of the comic-book landscape, superhero comics are still a major stepping stone for creators looking to build a fan base. Getting a gig on a big-name superhero character like Batman or Spider-Man can dramatically change a creator’s career, but there’s also a risk in saddling up with DC and Marvel. Both companies have a history of shady dealings with creators responsible for some of their most popular properties, and while these business practices are legal according to modern copyright laws, they function as a red flag for people who want to work for these companies.
Asher Elbein wrote a piece for The Atlantic last year delving into past battles for credit and compensation from superhero comic creators, focusing primarily on the late Jack Kirby, who was responsible for co-creating many of Marvel’s most prominent heroes. Kirby had a fraught relationship with Marvel during his life, and he was never treated with the respect he deserved as a creator that gave Marvel the IP that would turn it into a multi-billion dollar pop culture juggernaut. Twenty-three years after Kirby’s death, Marvel continues to disrespect Kirby’s legacy with the current storyline unfolding in Captain America: Steve Rogers and the Secret Empire event miniseries, which rewrites the history of Kirby and Joe Simon’s iconic patriot to make him the leader of a fascist villainous organization.
There’s an interesting idea at the core of Steve Rogers being brought to the dark side that speaks to how fascist principles are taking hold of present-day American politics, but writer Nick Spencer’s execution of the story has been very disappointing. At a time when readers could use a book rooted in the fundamental Captain America ideals of standing up for democracy and always pushing forward no matter the obstacle, Spencer takes a sledgehammer to those ideals and turns Steve Rogers into the ultimate supervillain. Sam Wilson, the new Captain America, is set up as the foil that stays true to the Captain America ideology, but Sam’s role is immediately diminished by having Steve back. The true Captain America right now is Sam, a black man, but he’s also positioned as the lesser Captain America because the original is such a dominant force in the Marvel Universe right now.
Spencer’s run on Captain America had a promising start in the first arc of Captain America: Sam Wilson, a politically charged superhero title with a sense of humor and a proactive lead character. But it quickly began to tailspin with the Avengers: Standoff! event, which was built around one of the laziest plot devices in the Marvel Universe: the Cosmic Cube. Spencer became increasingly reliant on the Cosmic Cube to drive his storytelling, first by having S.H.I.E.L.D. use it to turn supervillains into compliant civilians, and then making it sentient and giving it the form of a girl named Kobik. Under the influence of Steve Rogers’ archenemy, The Red Skull, Kobik de-aged Rogers so he could share the Captain America mantle with Sam Wilson, but Kobik made another big change to Rogers’ history by turning him into an agent of Hydra.
Steve Rogers isn’t brainwashed. This is not mind control. This is the Cosmic Cube completely altering the history of the Marvel Universe so that Captain America was always an undercover Hydra agent, and in Captain America: Steve Rogers, Spencer has been revealing the events of this new timeline as Steve Rogers seizes more control in the present. Secret Empire #0 is where everything comes to a head, making it less than ideal as the starting point for a line-wide event, but that’s a common issue with these kinds of crossovers. These books are supposed to bring in as many readers as possible, but they typically cater to people that are already reading Marvel titles. There’s a lot of assumed knowledge about who these characters are and what their relationship is to Steve, and the betrayal at the end of this issue feels hollow because those character dynamics aren’t firmly established.
There’s a lot happening in this issue and it happens fast, and if you haven’t been keeping up with Spencer’s books, you’ll probably be wondering where all these separate crises came from. The disorientation might be intentional given the story is about Marvel’s heroes being blindsided by one of their best, but the script is very rushed and doesn’t earn the high stakes it’s reaching for. (We’re also talking about the Cosmic Cube here, so everything can be easily changed/written away by the end.) The redeeming element of #0 is the artwork from Rod Reis and Daniel Acuña, and while they both do beautiful work—Reis with creating a creepy atmosphere and Acuña with dynamic, finely detailed superhero spectacle—the visuals are still tethered to a lackluster story.
This twist in the story of Steve Rogers has gotten a lot of attention, most of it from readers disgusted that a character created by two Jewish men to be the embodiment of American perseverance had become an undercover Nazi. Marvel and Spencer have tried very hard to distance Steve’s faction of Hydra from Red Skull’s faction that worked with the Nazis, but there are problems with that conceit. To start, the general public associates Hydra with Nazis because Hydra was a branch of the Nazi party in Captain America: The First Avenger, a movie seen by far more people than any of Hydra’s comic-book appearances. Hydra’s existence predates the Nazis in both Marvel comics and movies/TV shows, but for most people, Hydra and Nazis are synonymous.
Secret Empire #0 doesn’t do much to change that. The opening flashback situates World War II as a war between the Allies and Hydra, and lumping all the Axis powers under the Hydra banner keeps that Hydra/Nazi connection intact. That prologue reveals that the Allies originally used the Cosmic Cube to rewrite history and that this Hydra version of the timeline is the real one, so fascist Captain America has been that way all along. This could be a commentary on how the United States’ role in World War II paved the way for the current state of the country, but according to Spencer and Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, Secret Empire has “little to do” with current political events. It’s likely that Marvel is trying to sell this story as apolitical because its CEO is a close advisor to President Trump, but it’s impossible to not read the subtext of a story that has a symbol of America becoming corrupted by a fascist organization.
Without that subtext, the story feels even more like overt disrespect of the character’s creators, an opportunity to change everything Captain America stands for because it would be cool to see him fight everyone in the Marvel Universe. Steve Rogers is Marvel’s character and it can do whatever it wants with him, but the optics of this storyline aren’t very good, especially to readers from marginalized groups that are genuinely scared of the rise of fascism in this country. Marvel argued that readers aren’t responding to its efforts to include more diversity in its line, but it’s easy to see why people from the groups those books are trying to reach don’t want to throw their support behind a publisher that is about to have a fascist Captain America take over most of its titles for a few months.
DC also has one of its biggest releases of the year hitting stands this week, and Batman #21 carries its fair share of ethical baggage as it continues the slow crossover of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen into the DC Universe. I wrote about how the inclusion of Watchmen elements in DC Rebirth was an insult to Alan Moore in my Big Issues on DC Rebirth, and Batman and The Flash are picking up on those plot threads a year later with “The Button,” a four-issue crossover. Writer Tom King’s run on Batman can get very self-serious at times, but in general it’s been a compelling series that finds moments of fun and humor to balance the bleakness and consistently delivers intense action. Watchmen is a major influence on King’s work, so it makes sense that he would be the person to pick up where Geoff Johns left off, but this new chapter of the mystery doesn’t make it feel any less unnecessary.
At this early point, much of this story is entirely reliant on Watchmen visual elements: specifically the nine-panel-grid layout and the iconography of the bloody smiley face button. Whereas Watchmen mostly uses the nine-panel grid to condense loads of information on each page, Batman uses the grid for extreme decompression, breaking down a few minutes over the course of 20 pages. The summary of this issue is very short: Saturn Girl freaks out in the prologue, the bloody smiley face button has a reaction with the Psycho Pirate’s mask, and then Reverse-Flash shows up for a brutal, bloody minute of fisticuffs before he’s incinerated. Most of the issue is one big fight that happens at superspeed. King, artist Jason Fabok, and colorist Brad Anderson do some interesting things with time in that fight, but this issue is taking the format that Watchmen used so well to expose and subvert superhero conventions and applying it to the most basic superhero story: a good guy and bad guy hitting each other a lot.
There’s no indication that this ongoing narrative is going to explore the deeper thematic issues of Watchmen and how they relate to the main heroes of the DC Universe. The general conceit behind Watchmen in the DCU—Dr. Manhattan changed continuity after Flashpoint by taking away a decade—feels a lot like the typical superhero bullshit that we’re also getting in Captain America and Secret Empire with the Cosmic Cube, and teases in assorted books give the impression DC is building to a big showdown between Dr. Manhattan and a team of heroes led by Batman. What is the lesson DC learned from Watchmen’s success? The book was popular because it tried something more ambitious and complicated than the usual superhero fare, and it’s disappointing to see those characters fueling the narrative nonsense that publishers use to wipe away past mistakes.
Publishers aren’t obligated to respect the original intentions and ideology of the creators of their corporate-owned IP, but they also have to face the consequences of alienating readers that have formed a personal connection to those characters and their core values. They also have to face the consequences of alienating present-day and future creators that see how superhero publishers have treated their talent in the past and what they do with characters and concepts after the creators are out of the picture. Superhero comics are repetitive because there’s not much incentive to create something new when you don’t own it, and successful superhero creators have started jumping to publishers like Image and Boom! for projects that could have fit at DC and Marvel with a little modification. Corporate comics are more concerned with the bottom line than the legacy of creators, and as long as that remains true, publishers will continue to lose top talent once they reach a point where they don’t need superhero exposure anymore.