How To Do Secret Empire Without Offending Everyone
Okay, you guys, do I really need a preamble here? By now you all know about Secret Empire, and how it involves Hydra, who Marvel insist are not Nazis, despite them being led by several Nazis, working with the Nazis, running internment camps and the Far Eastern origins being retconned into their history after their start in comics as, well, comics Nazis. And how now, America's greatest hero, the Sentinel of Liberty, Captain America, is not just one of them, but always has been.
You know how it's seen the revelation that in the Marvel Universe Hydra and Hitler won World War II, until the Allies took the totalitarian of option of using a Cosmic Cube to change that fact (so they altered reality, but didn't make it so the war, or the genocide, didn't happen at all? Just that they won the war? How heroic).
And as we here at Bleeding Cool have pointed out how series writer Nick Spencer has often taken a fairly aggressive stance against the criticism, suggested that comics as escapism is cowardice and the audience doesn't know what they want, and asked us all to 'wait and see' to the end, which is really, I suppose, 'Okay, you're upset, but seriously spend a whopping amount of money anyway and then decide if you're offended'.
Also, he's now recently joked we should all blame Rick Remender, as he laid the seeds of Hydra being secretly deeply entrenched in the Marvel Universe during his run on Captain America, and Spencer just ran with the idea by making the most sensationalist twist he could think of. (Note: Remender is absolutely innocent in this and had absolutely no hand in HydraCap or Secret Empire)
However, Bleeding Cool has pointed out at several times how Secret Empire can in fact be a good and very powerful look at the insidious nature of fascism, and how a fascist regime can come from the most unexpected of places and 'sneak in through the back door' legally. And maybe right now, with the real world seeing a vast rise in far right ideology across the world, and politics as divisive as ever before, and leaders that may not really have the public's best interests at heart, such a story is both needed and powerful.
It's also, for the most part and objectively speaking, technically brilliant. The build up has been handled well, with very few hiccups in the run, and Secret Empire #0 is a massive pay off that lands perfectly.
It's contextually and in terms of content that many see it as a garbage fire.
Well, many times lately it seems the response of some writers to criticism has been a kind of an 'if you think you can tell the story, why don't you make your own books?' Well, then. I do make my own books. I'm a comic creator in my own right, as much as I talk about them and cover some news on them. So what would I have done to make a story that tells the message of Secret Empire, but perhaps without angering thousands of fans and alienating new and long-term readers.
I'll lay it out below, because obviously, I'm not going to be anything with this nor am I ever likely to be writing Captain America; but suffice it to say the biggest takeaway would be: don't make Captain America a Nazi.
If we go back to around the time of Pleasant Hill and start from there, before the big 'Hail Hydra' reveal of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. A newly rejuvenated Cap is back in the role he started, but kept Sam Wilson in the role too, though the two are finding their methods in conflict. Sam Wilson hasn't shared news that Hydra is so heavily entrenched in the Marvel Universe, and Steve is not sure why his friend seems so angry at the world around him.
Around this time, someone within SHIELD is on the rise, manipulating politics and events in a way that can be viewed as aggressive and can cause divisive opinions. Sam Wilson is dead set against said individual, whereas Steve is taking a more step-back approach, and is following orders and what America wants. This individual should maybe be seen as different from previous figures in the role, and as someone who can make changes the public want, and maybe see some of their changes viewed positively, so the public seems behind them.
If we really want this person to be a known quantity, why not Maria Hill? We've known her for a while now, and she's always had the world's best interests at heart, right? But what if she were secretly Madam Hydra, the true Madam Hydra – after all, many of her actions have also caused huge divides and rifts in the superhuman community.
Anyway, it would then follow many of the same sort of story beats as the story as it stands actually has, but the behind the scenes Hydra machinations would actually be Hill. Perhaps her arguments for why she's doing what she's doing could even be disturbingly understandable and relatable, making the audience uncomfortable about the fact that they may find themselves agreeing with this Hydra character, as she secretly wrestles control of Hydra from Red Skull for her own purposes and in an effort to tale away the association with the Nazis.
Her plans succeed, Steve having been blind to what was going on because he focused singularly on how it has helped American people (and not seeing those it has been at cost too, or perhaps seeing it but feeling it's an uncomfortable cost of the solution). Having the true nature of Hill and her Hydra takeover revealed.
Steve steps down as Captain America, disillusioned that he could have been so blind to the rise of fascism, the very thing he fought against his whole life, and the very reason for his existence as Captain America. He apologises to Sam for his blindness and shrugging off of his concerns, and it is Sam Wilson who then has to help Steve find the will to fight again, all the while fighting himself against the new Hydra regime and waking up the populace to the truth of the government they now live under.
From there…well, just go from there. The split nature of the heroes in the three distinct situations, and the further spread of Hydra around the world aren't really problematic, even if given what is happening in the world today it has led to unfortunate coincidences. Secret Empire and the previous build up wouldn't have needed much change to be honest, beyond the core change of not making it so that Steve is Hydra or that the Nazis won the war.
Basically, Steve shouldn't be the bad guy…but he shouldn't have seen the bad guy coming, and that blindness to have even helped the bad guy get in. And maybe then we could have a story about how one can feel disillusioned and defeated, but must rise back up again to fight back. Instead of a story where the greatest hero of the American ideal enacts a police state and sets up internment camps for folks.
And one more thing that would help: even this plot idea wouldn't leave everyone happy. There'd still be those upset by it. But instead of blasting back at critics and fans, perhaps take a breath, walk away from the computer, and don't say anything at all. After all, being a writer does not mean you HAVE to respond to every critic or comment on twitter. That isn't in the job description.