Editor’s note: This is the first installment of “Building a Better Marvel”, a new series that will focus entirely on Marvel Comics as it stands today while exploring what’s next for the House of Ideas.  

By Don Alsafi. Once upon a time, I used to love Marvel.

I grew up reading Marvel Comics. Their fantastic tales and incredible heroes were so compelling that I was soon steeped in their entire universe. And then, some six or seven years ago, after literally decades of reading Marvel… they lost me. Too many titles, too many crossovers, stories that didn’t resonate… and for the first time in my life, I walked away. And I wasn’t the only one.

But hope springs eternal, and I’d love to find my way back. I’d love to love Marvel again! So why not, after a few years away, pick up a new comic every week and see what they’ve got to offer? See if they can win back my heart – and anyone else’s too? Whether to a lapsed reader of old, or a brand-new movie fan who’s never read the comics but is curious to try, the result should be the same: If you make good stories, in whatever the medium, the audience will come back for more.

Sadly, this week’s Secret Empire #1 is not only uninterested in courting new readers… it also seems to represent so many of the things wrong with Marvel Comics today. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

'Secret Empire' #1 is in stores nowSecret Empire #1

Marvel Comics/$4.99

Written by Nick Spencer.

Art by Steve McNiven.

Inks by Jay Leisten.

Colors by Matthew Wilson.

Letters by Travis Lanham.

It’s confusing as heck. Marvel’s big new series was deliberately positioned to launch just days before Free Comic Book Day, when loads of new people will be setting foot in a comic shop for the first time in years (or possibly ever). So you’d be forgiven for expecting that this would be a story that would go out of its way to be explicable to everyone. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

There’s some talk about a powerful object called the Cosmic Cube that rewrote reality, and now Captain America is revealed as having always worked for the bad guys, but at its heart this is just a reworking of the old “What if the Nazis won WWII?” trope. Which, hey, fine — there are only a handful of ideas. What matters is how well they’re handled.

And yet, somehow, writer Nick Spencer forgot to tell us the story!

After a short prologue which sets the scene of this newly fascist America, there’s a two-page “What Has Gone Before” recap, which overwhelms rather than clarifies. I imagine the casual fan puzzling over names like “Hulk (Amadeus Cho)” or “Tony Stark (A.I.)” and not having any clue what that means. The recap also mentions “the impenetrable Darkforce bubble that currently envelops New York City”, which not only isn’t explained but never appears again in the issue.

I’ve read Marvel Comics most of my life. And yet this comic book is almost entirely baffling to me.

Cover to 'Secret Empire' #0

Cover to ‘Secret Empire’ #0. Art by Mark Brooks/Marvel Comics

The #1 on the cover is meaningless. You pick up a comic with a #1 on it, and you figure you can begin here, right? That’s how these things work. But part of the reason this comic is so confusing and unfriendly to new readers is that this isn’t the start of the story – it’s Act Two. Remember the scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where we discover that the Nazi-like organization Hydra had been in charge all along? Now imagine if that scene were the beginning of the movie. And not in a clever, in media res way with flashbacks, but just completely failing to tell the first part entirely. Well… that’s this comic. You’d have to read the last years’ worth of Marvel Comics to be fully in on the story.

'Secret Empire' #1 is in stores now

Interior page from ‘Secret Empire’ #1. Art by Steve McNiven, Jay Leisten, and Matthew Wilson/Marvel Comics

This isn’t the character we know and love. It seems as if Marvel never stopped to think about the fact that Captain America, fictional or not, is a real hero to many. He personifies a set of ideals that so many of us aspire to, and would like to believe we’re capable of… and he was created by two Jewish men shortly before America’s involvement in WWII. This is a character who stands for something, and who means something to people in a way that, say, Ant-Man doesn’t. The hopeful ideals and potent symbols are intrinsic to the character – so when we read a story where those very ideals are perverted in the name of a Nazi-esque evil, guess what? People are gonna be ticked.

Was the appeal of Captain America so impossible to fathom that Marvel needed to recast him as his opposite, simply to show the contrast? Did they have so little faith in the core elements that make Cap who he is that they needed to completely change him? And was it perhaps unwise to make such radical changes while that they’ve simultaneously made the Odinson unworthy to be Thor, turned perpetually hard-on-his-luck Peter Parker into a billionaire inventor, and left so many others nigh-unrecognizable? Most of these twists have been done before at one time or another over the decades, and they were fine stories then. But Marvel had never been so reckless as to do all of them at the exact same time.

Variant cover to ‘Secret Empire’ #1. Art by Todd Nauck/Marvel Comics

It’s a crossover event for a story that didn’t need one. See, a number of these inexplicable decisions – the complete failure to introduce the characters and concepts for any new readers, the fact that this is clearly Act Two and not its own story – make more sense when you realize that this was likely never intended to be an “event” book in the first place. Nick Spencer started telling his story of HydraCap in the pages of Captain America: Steve Rogers a year ago, and if it had come to a head (and eventually resolved) in that same comic, it might have been fine. When you pick up Volume Four of a long-running story, you have an expectation of what you’re in for. And the creators know that; thus they don’t feel they need to re-introduce and re-explain everything.

But over the past decade, Marvel has become increasingly obsessed with the giant sprawling crossover event model as a way to get short-term sales spikes – and the more their sales slipped, the more often Marvel deployed them. So when they needed a story to hang their next event onto, presumably they looked at Spencer’s plans, said “This’ll do.” Marvel tried to turn the culmination of Nick Spencer’s Steve Rogers story into its own standalone book (around which all the countless Secret Empire tie-ins can revolve, of course). To no great surprise, it’s off to a convoluted start.

'Secret Empire' #1 is in stores now

Variant cover to ‘Secret Empire’ #1. Art by John Tyler Christopher/Marvel Comics

And so. The Marvel characters are more popular than they’ve ever been, and the stellar film versions we’ve gotten in the past decade have made them almost universally beloved. With this kind of market penetration, Marvel’s books should be on top of the sales charts every month – and the only reason they’re not is because they’re no longer telling compelling stories which can be understood (and appreciated) by anyone. More importantly, it feels as if they’ve forgotten to even try.

I want to love Marvel – and a lot of others do too. I can’t tell you how many people tell me they’d love to read stories about Captain America, or the X-Men, or Daredevil – and immediately lament that they can’t, because Marvel just isn’t making the kinds of comics that appeal to them. Even if, once upon a time, they used to.

With any luck, Marvel can figure these things out, and course correct. It may be hard to see that potential now (and especially with this particular event), but we want them to succeed. We still have hope for the future.

Maybe it was Cap who taught us that.

3.5 out of 10

What did you think about ‘Secret Empire’ #1? Sound off in the comments section below.