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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past.
Last week, Marvel announced that its summer event for 2017 will be called “Secret Empire”, releasing a logo featuring Steve Rogers’ current Captain America shield and a tagline, lifted from a famous Abraham Lincoln quotation, “A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand.” This initial teaser was followed by a series of further ones. Each teaser released tiny tidbits of more information about the event without really clarifying too much what the central conflict will entail aside from implying the Empire’s reach will intertwine throughout the Marvel Universe.
The cryptic announcements may mystify newer fans, but the term “Secret Empire” has a long history with Marvel, and the shadowy organization which bore this name played a central part in one of the greatest storylines in the company’s history. So, hang on as we take a look at the history of the Secret Empire!
Tales to Astonish (1966)
In 1957, Marvel Comics (then called Timely) suddenly found itself without a distribution company for their magazines after American News Company shuttered its Perodical division without warning. With nowhere else to turn to in order to get their comics and magazines on the stands, Timely turned to another company, Independent News, for distribution. The catch? Independent was owned by DC Comics. They took on Timely/Marvel’s business, but limited them to only eight titles per month.
This is why the early years of Marvel’s Silver Age successes are populated with anthology titles with a bunch of co-features and titles that came out bi-monthly. “Tales to Astonish” was one of those titles, and once Marvel became Marvel and found success with its line of super-hero books, it became one of the big showcases for characters that had a following but couldn’t quite warrant taking up one of the precious eight spots. By 1966, the book was split between two features, each starring Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes, The Sub-Mariner and the Hulk.
In the Hulk feature from Tales to Astonish #81, writer Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Bill Everett introduced the Secret Empire, a society of criminals led by men in hoods and cloaks, who dreamt of world domination. Drawing heavily from countless similar groups in pulp stories and adventure comic strips of the 1930s, the Secret Empire first tried to employ a colourful mercenary named Boomerang to harass the Hulk.
The Secret Empire would appear in the pages of “Tales to Astonish” until issue #85, but although the organization itself was nothing special, and their schemes were mostly typical Silver Age shenanigans, it’s what Lee and his collaborators did over the run of issues that bears mentioning.
The Secret Empire would begin by menacing the Hulk in his features, but over the run of the five issue storyline, would gradually switch to the Sub-Mariner’s plot line, and their machinations would eventually bring the two features’ stories together, with the Hulk making cameos and becoming a supporting character in Subby’s storyline, ending with the Empire’s sinister Number One meeting his end in an explosion of his own making while pursued by the Hulk.
But the Secret Empire storyline didn’t quite end there. In another bold move, the organization would figure into another anthology book’s long-running plot. Over in the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. feature in “Strange Tales”, Fury had been tracking down a mysterious organization called THEM, along the way getting into conflict with a similar (and today more famous group) called A.I.M. In Strange Tales #149, it’s revealed that both A.I.M. and the Secret Empire are in fact independent arms of this mysterious organization called THEM, which would soon be revealed to be a revitalized HYDRA.
What we get, in a modest way, is an early version of the crossover event, albeit one that didn’t necessarily require a reader to have to have read every issue to understand the story. But when you read all of the issues involved, it’s kind of remarkable how, across two separate titles with multiple creative teams including Stan Lee, Dennis O’Neil, Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, Gene Colan and others, Marvel was able to surreptitiously craft a little crossover in an age where single issue stories ruled. It’s yet another sign of how innovative and unconventional Marvel was in this period, easily creating long-simmering subplots and story arcs over multiple issues, and even across different titles.
But the Empire itself is not really remarkable in any way. As sinister organizations go, these stories don’t make them more memorable than A.I.M., let alone HYDRA, and though it would pop up over the next few years, it would take someone attempting something incredibly bold to give the Empire (and Marvel) one of its best stories.
The Rise of the Secret Empire (1974-1975)
Since its defeat in “Tales to Astonish,” the Secret Empire did pop up here and there, notably in the “Amazing Adventures” title, which for a while starred the Beast and featured the Empire as being behind sinister plots at the Brand Corporation. Those short-lived Beast stories were written in part by Steve Englehart, one of the best and most innovative writers Marvel ever had.
Englehart would soon join the Captain America title, sometimes offering story ideas for scripter Mike Friedrich, but mostly handling the solo writing duties. Paired with artist Sal Buscema, Englehart began to seed an ongoing storyline involving the Secret Empire into the book. The idea the creative team had was to reflect the political turmoil of the era in the pages of “Captain America.” It was the time of Watergate, a period when sinister conspiracies to topple the government organized by shadowy powerful men no longer seems the stuff of fiction. Faith in government institutions would shatter, and Englehart, Friedrich and Buscema took the opportunity to use Captain America’s status as an American ideal to reflect these tumultuous times.
Beginning with Captain America and the Falcon #169, the Empire would begin by undermining the public’s faith in Cap. They concocted a series of events that turned Cap and the Falcon into fugitives, alienated from S.H.I.E.L.D. allies, the Avengers and the public at large. On the run and scrambling to find out who was behind the plot, Cap and the Falcon eventually find themselves teaming up with unlikely allies in the form of Cyclops, Marvel Girl and Professor X. The mutants are similarly under attack, with many of their teammates having mysteriously vanished and the Professor suspects the same people who have abducted them may also be behind Cap’s recent travails. Together, they eventually uncover the Empire’s plot to use the powers of the abducted mutants to power a powerful spaceship which lands on the White House lawn. Once there, the Empire’s Number One attempts a coup d’etat of the US Government. Though defeated by Cap and his allies, it is revealed that Number One is actually a high-ranking member of the US Government attempting to replace the democracy of the U.S. with authoritarian rule. Though Cap defeat their plan, he is devastated to discover Number One’s identity, which is revealed to cap shortly before the traitor kills himself. Though never explicitly stated, Englehart and Buscema strongly imply Number One is President Richard Nixon himself.
What became known as “The Secret Empire” storyline was a high-water mark for Marvel comics of the period. Yes, it’s undoubtedly of its time, with goofy plots and dialogue that will seem hokey to modern readers. But Englehart successfully evokes the paranoia and uncertainty of the era in a storyline that uses the seemingly unshakable patriotic idealism of Captain America to tell a story about a nation’s growing disillusionment with every aspect of its institutions. In the early issues of the arc, we see a public turn on Cap, an icon perhaps second only to Superman in trustworthiness and identification with the American ideal. Cap’s relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D. is also strained, to the point where the spy service becomes almost an antagonist, similarly reflecting the way the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies were growing more and more sinister to the public. And in the climax, when the ultimate villain is revealed to be the President himself, Englehart uses the revelation to completely shatter Captain America, the symbol of the nation itself, and send him on a journey to completely revaluate who he is and what role he should play.
From here, Captain America would be affected probably for all time. He stopped being an earnest symbol of the greatness of America, and instead became a more complicated symbol that America needed in order to remind itself to stay true to its best ideals. Captain America would frequently become the goal to strive towards, sometimes would reflect the darker side of patriotism, and often would be a symbol of how short the nation fell in its journey to a more perfect union. In the issues following the storyline’s conclusion in Captain America and the Falcon #175, Steve Rogers would abandon the Captain America identity and become Nomad, Man Without a Country (in case the point wasn’t hammered home enough).
But the legacy of this storyline, both for Captain America and for Marvel Comics’ willingness to more explicitly comment on the political realities around us, is still felt today. And the Secret Empire went from being a largely unremarkable bad guy organization in the HYDRA mold to embody shadowy conspiratorial cabals. Though this storyline is undoubtedly their high-water mark, they would return in years to come.
Random Schemes (1980s to 2016)
After a storyline where they attack the White House and the leader of the Secret Empire is revealed to be President Nixon, leading to Captain America’s resignation, it’s no surprise that subsequent appearances of the group never recaptured those heights. For the rest of the 1970s, the Empire popped up here and there, usually with unremarkable aims and plans.
In 1983, the Secret Empire was at the centre of a long-running arc in “The Defenders,” coinciding with that title’s move away from its long-running loose association of various rotating characters into a more stable unit. Beginning in Defenders #123 and continuing until New Defenders #130, writer J.M. DeMatteis worked with a rotating cast of collaborators to tell a story of the Secret Empire’s re-emergence as a serious threat. This time, its Number One was Professor Power, a super-villain with an aim at triggering a nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviets. DeMatteis was a stalwart of Marvel Comics in the 1980s, and his run on the Defenders is notable, but this storyline didn’t really do much to catapult the Secret Empire above the ranks of standard baddies.
Neither did their subsequent major appearances in the 1990s. They would be the threat behind story arcs in titles such as “Moon Knight”, “The Punisher”, “Hawkeye” and even “Amazing Spider-Man”, but never really become more than functionally effective conspiratorial forces. The organization would continue to pop up here and there into the 21st century as well, but mostly as little more than convenient baddies.
But, with recent developments, we’ve seen the Secret Empire appear more regularly and with a greater sense of foreboding attached to them. Their recent appearance in the well-received U.S. Avengers #1 coincides nicely with the high-profile publicity push for Marvel’s summer event, but what remains to be seen is whether this iteration of the Secret Empire will resonate with big themes or ideas or innovative storytelling techniques as in our first two examples? Or will they simply be another version of the shadowy bad guys we’ve seen in their lesser appearances? Time will tell when Marvel’s Secret Empire event hits in summer, 2017.
That’s it for this edition of Back Issues! We’ll have another edition up later this month, and until then, see you ’round the quarter bins!