WARNING: LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD!

We, as a nation, find ourselves at a crossroads when it comes to our identity. Questions of what constitutes an American identity and who our heroes should be filled every frame of our screens. Our childhood heroes, such as Bill Cosby, are revealed decades later to be predators. Donald Trump, formerly synonymous with reality television, is our President, one of the most significant international symbols.

Nowadays, we find it difficult to embrace a hero, and when we do, we’re becoming increasingly afraid that we will discover something terrible that flips our worldview upside down. In this sense, one could understand the backlash against SECRET EMPIRE. Many took up the torch (literally) against Marvel and Nick Spencer. Critical fans cited a plethora of reasons from event fatigue to promoting fascism. The baseline argument, however, was that “this isn’t the right time.” We need our heroes; we need the face of good in America.

I’m here to tell you SECRET EMPIRE is important, timely, and painful. I’m telling you that SECRET EMPIRE doesn’t destroy our heroes, but instead seeks to give them redemption. Those who live discrimination every day already knew the lesson SECRET EMPIRE teaches, but too many of us don’t: you achieve heroism and worthiness, they aren’t given. Even more importantly, SECRET EMPIRE shows us that resistance isn’t for the faint-hearted. Heroism takes work, sacrifice, and ultimately, the ability to fight against complacency.

LISTEN: Check out our Podcast Episode 94 which discusses Captain America and SECRET EMPIRE!

Now, this article isn’t addressing those who don’t like SECRET EMPIRE for personal or sentimental reasons. I entirely respect personal taste, and I can understand how difficult it is to see your favorite character undergo a major change. You are entitled to those feelings. However, if you’re on the fence about SECRET EMPIRE from a philosophical standpoint, I’d like for you to consider my argument below.

Secret Empire Sam Wilson
Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

What is the Importance of a Symbol?

One of the oldest concepts in comics is the emphasis on the idea of the hero as a symbol versus the figure behind the mask. Hell, they made three whole Batman movies dedicated to this struggle. Symbols are tricky, and it’s difficult to understand where a person begins and what they symbolize ends. Often, the meaning of a symbol can change or be appropriated. Either way, symbols are precious to us. Yet, we can also grasp too tightly to them. Things become dangerous when we can’t distinguish the person who has become the symbol from what the symbol represents. If we say that Steve Rogers intertwines with Captain America completely, there is no room for the development of Rogers, and there’s no room for Sam Wilson.

Ironically, it’s this age old concept of the superhero as a symbol that allows for more diversity in comics. To make Thor a mantle rather than a specific person means a woman can be Thor. To make Iron Man a title means a young black woman can take the title for herself. Comic “purists” denounced these changes, but most creators and readers embraced the change. However, despite the acclaim for Marvel expanding and diversifying its roster, fans don’t always show up for these characters. With a few exceptions such as Miles Morales, the diverse counterpart is treated as secondary. Yes, Sam Wilson puts on the Captain America costume, but at the end of the day, most fans still treat Steve as if he’s the only man who carries the mantle.

READ: Reflecting on Captain America as an Agent of Hydra: A Roundtable Discussion (Part One)

Symbolism and SECRET EMPIRE

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about whether Steve Rogers as HYDRA created a symbol for white supremacists in the United States.  I hate to break it to you, but white supremacists and Nazis have been co-opting symbols for a long time. Some groups have used Mjolnir and Norse symbolism in their ranks. Many have already seen themselves as Captain America, and have worn the mask and shield. Before SECRET EMPIRE, most understood this as a perversion. Nick Spencer did not arm these groups with such symbolism. They already used it with a complete disregard to the source material.

Secret Empire Sam Wilson
Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

What Makes a Hero?

SECRET EMPIRE plays with the idea of heroism and heroes very heavily. Heroes are not heroes because of their name. Heroic action dictates a hero. In SECRET EMPIRE, Spencer does an incredible thing by teasing out a concept of worthiness in heroism. The Marvel heroes fought at the beginning because they wanted to win, because it was what they believed heroes needed to do. They needed to demolish and destroy the enemy, and they assumed they would win because they were the “heroes.” Nick Spencer indicated himself on Twitter that, when they won in the end, what was different was that they focused on helping people rather than fighting for the win.

Do heroes always need to win?

This concept teases out the problem of the hackneyed narrative. We expect our heroes to win. Sure, they can struggle a little, but by the end they have to win, and they can never lose hope. In this, we lose the humanity of these heroes. It’s far more heroic to suffer a great loss, more than once, and get up again. We become heroes when we have no hope but try to fight against overwhelming odds anyway because we don’t want to succumb to silence and despair. Isn’t that the story of activism? To make Steve Rogers and HYDRA difficult to defeat does not make the story one which celebrates fascism. It creates the atmosphere that we must never give up, even when that seems like the only option. The Marvel heroes earn their heroism back through their resistance.

If we make our heroes static figures, we remove the artist’s ability to instill hope and heroism in the audience. What’s the point of a hero to look up to if we can never emulate them? If we cannot empathize with facing absolute defeat in our own lives and government but choosing to get up anyway? SECRET EMPIRE provides not only our Marvel heroes the ability to reclaim their heroism, it gives us, the audience, a realistic view of the hardships of resistance. SECRET EMPIRE teaches us to get back up again.

WATCH: Nick Spencer Interview at Five Points Festival 2017

Secret Empire Sam Wilson

Secret Empire Sam Wilson
Images courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Sam Wilson: The Captain America We Didn’t Deserve

Sam Wilson never got the respect he deserved when he moved from Falcon to Captain America. Many fans argued that Sam Wilson is just a marketing ploy by Marvel, and others still argued that it was part of a conspiracy to replace all the white heroes. Ultimately, fans didn’t embrace Sam. Despite his character arc, despite his journey as a hero within the continuity, Sam was discounted by fans and characters alike based on his skin color.

This is why SECRET EMPIRE’s most recent issue was iconic, breathtakingly hopeful, and blasphemous to racist comic fans. When our heroes needed hope, they needed their symbol. They needed Captain America. They didn’t need Steve Rogers. Sam Wilson fulfilled the role, and then some. Our Marvel heroes got their first big win with the motivation they got from Sam Wilson as Captain America. Ignoring this only adds to the erasure of Sam Wilson’s validity as a hero and a symbol. To say that Steve Rogers being HYDRA means more than Sam redeeming the mantle reveals that you don’t think Sam Wilson means as much as Rogers does. By focusing on Rogers’s betrayal to the mantle, you ignore Wilson’s redemption of it.

READ: MOONSHOT: THE INDIGENOUS COMICS COLLECTION Roundtable Discussion

If Captain America stands for America, nothing makes more sense than having Steve Rogers be suddenly revealed to hold fascistic tendencies. Sam Wilson, in this scenario, perfectly represents the changing demographics in America. If Captain America stands for justice in general, then what represents a more progressive viewpoint than placing the symbol of justice in the hands of a demographic so frequently denied it?

Secret Empire Sam Wilson
Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment (author’s note: Yes, I know this image is from CAPTAIN AMERICA #25)

SECRET EMPIRE and Our Future

SECRET EMPIRE dares us to have a difficult conversation about our identity and our future. The story also cautions us about what happens when you place too much power in the hands of someone because of what he symbolizes. Steve Rogers represents the old American identity, literally. Those of you who claim that SECRET EMPIRE emboldens fascists have to ignore the story that condemns Rogers and Hydra at every turn. Also, such attitudes invalidate Sam Wilson altogether.

America symbolized freedom and harmony for many people. As we grew older, as the internet allowed oppressed narratives to enter the main consciousness, disillusionment grew with the simplistic ideas of America. There are those who fight against progress and equality, as they always have done and always will do. Many of us found ourselves caught off guard by this. By clutching our symbolic America too close to our chests, we became blind to what was stirring underneath. We trusted in our old concepts of symbolism and heroism. SECRET EMPIRE shows us the folly of this line of thinking, the consequences of such arrogance. SECRET EMPIRE also shows us we can always fight back. And we will win.

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2 Comments

  1. Joe Cool.

    August 19, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    Sorry, but Secret Empire is just terrible as an event comic, especially since they killed several characters, making readers apathetic.

    Reply

  2. Gliese 593

    August 18, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    If only Secret Empire’s plot wasn’t a Deus Ex Machina-fest where the heroes win because apparently the setting runs on the Just World Fallacy, I could support this. But because it is, the fact is that the story still presents fascism in a positive light as being something that the heroes “deserved” to happen to them because of their infighting, it presents a fascist as “worthy” as judged by the closest thing we have to an objective measurer of moral worth in the Marvel Universe, and it fails to inspire people because of the knowledge that at the end of the day Sam Wilson is giving up being Cap again because people yelled at him so that the role can go back to the status quo.

    Reply

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