Marvel has an event fatigue problem
Big comic book crossover events like Marvel’s “Secret Empire” have grown more exhausting than engaging
“Event fatigue” is a term that’s been kicked around in the world of comics lately, specifically related to the constant stream of Marvel Comics events that “forever change the status quo of the Marvel Universe,” and in turn result in line-wide relaunches of titles. Often times these big events have delays, or the creators need to add an extra issue or two, and by the time the actual event concludes, titles have already relaunched within the “new status quo.” No less than five months later there’s a new event for everything to tie into, before most titles have even had an opportunity to tell their own stories.
Nick Spencer’s Secret Empire is not necessarily a bad event. It had plenty of time to marinate and develop since Steve Rogers was revealed to be a Hydra sleeper agent in the pages of Captain America: Steve Rogers back in May 2016, a premise that has faced a great deal of criticism (revealing an iconic character created by two Jewish men during World War II has secretly been part of an organization that serves as a Nazi stand-in…well, it’s not a good look). At times it was clever; particularly in the issues that tied into Marvel’s previous event, Civil War II, which showed Steve using the falling out in the superhero community to advance his own goals, but it eventually began to feel tedious as Spencer exhaustively filled in the details of Steve’s false history raised by Hydra. And that was before the first issue of Secret Empire even dropped.
The first of what was supposed to be a nine-issue event picks up in a sort of Philip Roth-like alternate present, in which the narrative of American history is taught in school in Hydra’s favor. After a major battle, superheroes are scattered in hiding or trapped off-world, Inhumans are in a prison camp, mutants are mostly living in peaceful isolation, and Steve Rogers is essentially the dictator of America. Political parallels sometimes feel a bit heavy-handed, and in that way the book doesn’t spend too much time having fun. For the most part, the characters all seem to be filling page space with regrets on where they went wrong or torturing themselves over how to make things right.
Where the story works best is the reveal that the cosmic cube has splintered into shards that are scattered all over the world, and a team of Avengers consisting of Iron Man, Ant-Man, Mockingbird, Hercules, Quicksilver, and Captain America (Sam Wilson) set off on a quest to collect all the shards before Hydra Cap’s team of Avengers gets their hands on them to reassemble the cosmic cube. The cosmic cube is the only thing that can set the world right — so long as it’s in the right hands.
Unfortunately, perhaps the biggest challenge that Secret Empire faces is that although it sets up a somewhat interesting post-apocalyptic America in the wake of Hydra Cap’s rise, it just feels way too similar to so many recent event comics. It’s barely been two years since Jonathan Hickman finished his incredible runs on Avengers and New Avengers, which culminated in Secret Wars, a nine-issue event that basically dropped the Marvel characters into a reshaped world that felt like Marvel’s own version of Game of Thrones. It was a great miniseries, ultimately merging several characters, such as Miles Morales/Spider-Man, into the proper Marvel Universe, before leading into the major relaunch of basically every Marvel title. Hickman’s Secret Wars was the event to end events — until it wasn’t. By the time it actually ended in January 2016, Marvel soon began teasing 2016’s big summer event miniseries, Civil War II. Most of these relaunched series had barely been out for three issues, and there was already going to be another event to “shake the foundation of the Marvel Universe as we know it.”
Obviously big events like Secret Empire make for a bump in sales for Marvel, but just as relaunches may serve as “jumping on points” for new readers, they can also serve as “jumping off points” for otherwise loyal readers. Big events can drive readers away. When there’s always another event just around the corner, individual titles don’t have enough time to breathe and tell their own stories. Big publishers like Marvel are basically building an argument for why readers should look to titles from publishers like Image Comics, where they can follow books that truly stand on their own.
In a lot of ways Spencer’s Secret Empire was a victim of event fatigue before it had the opportunity to take off. It faced early backlash partially due to the controversial premise, but also partially due to the fact that readers just weren’t ready or interested in being thrust into another event comic. With so many events in the last decade, it was bound to feel repetitive — Secret Invasion just wasn’t that long ago — and the fact that it was announced as a nine-issue series made it immediately feel long-winded. But worse, this supposed nine-issue miniseries wound up including an issue 0 as the first issue, then required an added tenth issue, and then included an entire issue to serve as in epilogue in the form of Secret Invasion Omega. A nine-issue miniseries had become a 12-issue commitment. And readers like to know what their commitment is with these things.
Before the first issue of Secret Empire hit comic stores, Marvel did make a point of acknowledging event fatigue and stated that there would be no big crossover events for at least 18 months. Hopefully they stick to that plan. Big events can certainly be a lot of fun, but comics are way more fun and rewarding when regular ongoing series have a chance to tell their own stories rather than feel like they simply exist as a backup story to a larger event every six months.