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Jul 23

X-Men Gold #7-8: “Secret Empire”

Posted on Sunday, July 23, 2017 by Paul in x-axis

I am not interested in the Secret Empire crossover.  You might well think that you are not interested in the Secret Empire crossover.  But to judge by this two-parter, our indifference is as nothing compared to Marc Guggenheim’s.  These two issues pretty much consist of him ignoring it and hoping it goes away.

Now, Secret Empire seems like a pretty a bad idea for a crossover.  Leave aside the question of whether it’s a good idea for a Captain America story; that’s a whole other argument for another day, and it certainly has nothing to do with these issues.  Marvel has a template for these line-wide events, which is to confine the core plot to a central miniseries and maybe a couple of tie-ins, and pretty much ask everyone else to do stories written in the margin for a few months.  So what you’re looking for is a set-up that everyone else can drop into.  The likes of Civil War II and Secret Invasion, for all their flaws, at least had a central premise that most books could do something with.

But what do you do with an actual fascist takeover of America coupled with Californian independence?  I mean, if you follow through the logic of this sort of story, it’s going to dominate everything for years to come.  The Americans have only just got over Nixon, for god’s sake.  It’d take them a generation to stop talking about this.  But we all know that won’t happen, because it would make the Marvel Universe unrecognisable as the real world with added fantasy elements.  So one of two things will happen.  Either it’s going to be the cosmic reset button, or it’s going to be the “No Man’s Land” solution, where you pay lip service to the fact that it happened but basically pretend it didn’t.  And they both come to the same thing: We Shall Never Speak Of This Again.  So to be honest, other than stories set in the very early part of the plot, I’m pretty sceptical that any of these will still have happened in six months time.  And that doesn’t help.

More to the point, though, “and then fascists took over America” is not the sort of plot point which most books can easily take in their stride.  It’s all the more problematic for Guggenheim’s X-Men: Gold, which is trying to set up a long term storyline about right-wing conservatives sponsoring a bill to deport mutants.  This is meant to be a slow build towards right-wing threat – one that’s actually rather more effective as an analogy for the present administration – and here’s Secret Empire to mess up the build and screw the stakes.

So Guggenheim’s solution is to ignore Secret Empire and just get on with the stories he was going to tell anyway.  In a concession to practicality, Empire does offer a couple of tie-in possibilities in the first act which don’t require you to engage too closely with the themes of the story.  Quite a few books have taken up the offer and are doing tie-ins about Manhattan being covered by the Darkforce Dimension, which has nothing much to do with Hydra, but allows you to claim you’re doing a tie-in.

But look at how it plays out here.  Part 1 opens with some baseball in Central Park and a subplot scene between Kurt and Rachel where she talks about how her powers were boosted in the previous story.  The Darkforce Dimension shows up, and we get a bit of exposition about what it is.  And then, in the A-plot, people shelter in the mansion, while in the B-plot, some of the X-Men go out into town to see if they can help.

The A-plot then proceeds to have nothing whatsoever to do with Secret Empire.  It’s a continuation of the serial killer subplot from previous issues, as it turns out the new X-Cutioner is also wandering around the school trying to pick off mutants.  He gets an origin story here (another helpful way of filling pages without having to worry about the Secret Empire timeframe), and he’s basically the Punisher but with Magneto instead of mobsters.

The B-plot, meanwhile, basically consists of spare characters wandering around chatting to each other and attacking the odd demon that crosses their path.  Frankly, it’s all a bit underwhelming; in this version of the story, it’s pretty much a normal night in Manhattan with a few extra demons wandering around.  The X-Men rescue an old woman from a demon and pretty much tell her to hurry on home to be safe.  There’s an actual mob on the street who mistake Nightcrawler for a demon and go after him – which is the only plot point in this story of any significance that really makes use of the Secret Empire crossover.  The story picks up on the Jason Aaron story about Nightcrawler returning from the afterlife and suggests that he’s now effectively immortal because they won’t let him back in – though quite why that stops him dying, rather than just leaving him stuck on Earth as a ghost, I don’t entirely follow.  You could have established this point with pretty much any threat, of course, but at least this does play off the Darkforce setting.

Back in the mansion, the X-Cutioner checks in on the subplot about the mystery member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and tries to set off a bloody great stack of bombs in the basement.  The obligatory fight ensues.  And over in Russia, there’s a subplot with the Hand and Omega Red that plays out as if nothing odd was going on.  The baddy is beaten.  And then, strangely, there’s a one-page epilogue “days later” when Manhattan has apparently just been freed from the Darkforce Dimension and the X-Men hand over the X-Cutioner to the cops, in time for Kitty to get subpoenaed to testify before Congress on the mutant deportation act.  What happened to Secret Empire?  Is it over already?

I suppose the rationale was that the X-Cutioner story qualifies as a Secret Empire tie-in because everybody is in the mansion taking shelter from the demons.  That could have worked.  But it would have had to be a horror movie.  Ken Lashley’s art doesn’t sell that at all – the lights are stubbornly on – and besides, a giant bomb isn’t much of a horror angle either.  Nor does the setting really play into the X-Cutioner’s personal story, which is supposed to be that he’s bitter about the collateral damage caused by the X-Men; that has nothing to do with the Darkforce, or Secret Empire, and so it’s a bad vehicle for the character.  Without a relevant context, there’s not much to the guy.  And as already mentioned, the streets outside just feel bland.  It looks like an ordinary night time.

The overall impression is of a series doggedly sticking to the planned story while a crossover goes on outside the window.  It’s vaguely surreal and a weird misfire.

Bring on the comments

  1. Shawn says:

    I’m beginning to think that the stories that *don’t* ignore Secret Empire are going to be the real misfires.

  2. Thom H. says:

    I have nothing of substance to add, but:

    The missing syllable in “X-Cutioner” drives me crazy.

    Thank you.

  3. Jerry Ray says:

    At least in the real world, the idea is to send illegal immigrants back from whence they came. Where are they meant to be deporting mutants to, exactly?

  4. Jerry Ray says:

    Jerry: That’s easy enough – dust off Genosha or Utopia.

    Of course, why anyone would think that giving a bunch of pissed off superhumans their own nation would make everyone safer is beyond me.

  5. Matt C. says:

    I don’t blame the title for basically trying to ignore the crossover (even when they provide for some decent tie-in stories it’s usually at expense of upending the long-term plots), but I agree this was pretty awkward – apparently Secret Empire happens over the course of “days” and Congress started quickly working on a mutant deportation bill right away? Best thing I can say is it gave a good reason behind the ‘Nightcrawler is hated for looking like a demon’ bit, even if that’s just another trope retread.

    Which is really the main problem I have with this book – I feel like I’ve seen it all before. Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, X-Cutioner, crazy sentinel… all been there, done that. There’s a couple of decent character beats but between retread plots and lacking art (good point about the lack of stylish lighting), this title has been thoroughly unimpressive.

  6. Crow's Foot says:

    Thom H: I’ve (unknowingly) been waiting 25 years for another person to say that.

  7. YLu says:

    Marvel maintains that event tie-ins are voluntary and they don’t force them on ongoing titles. Given the plot here, was there any particular reason Guggenheim and co. couldn’t have simply skipped Secret Empire all together like some other books (Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, Daredevil, etc.) are doing?

  8. Suzene says:


    I can think of a couple of possibilities:

    1) Tie-ins are only voluntary if a book is below a certain threshold of importance. The flagship of the X-Men line probably doesn’t count.

    2. Tie-ins are entirely voluntary, and since they a) provide a sales bump and b) aren’t policed to see if they pay more than lip-service to the notion, why not pick up a couple hundred more orders?

  9. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    This should have been a good story. New York in the Darkforce Dimension, everybody huddles together in the Institute, but, oh no!, there’s a serial killer on the hunt and the call is coming from inside the house. This thing writes itself. Except, as demonstrated here, it doesn’t.

    It should’ve been good. It’s crap. There’s zero tension to both the A plot and the B plot. The Nightcrawler revelation has no room to breathe. The mob scene comes out of nowhere – and it, too, is rushed badly.

    But even if all that was properly executed, even if the story was as good as it could have been, I still would have been very annoyed at how the fight with the X-Cutioner plays out. Especially at the part where Rachel uses telekinesis to stop a bullet, but never, not once, does she use it directly against the X-Cutioner. She should have ended that fight in one panel.

  10. Ben says:

    I had hopes for this, but it should really be called X-Men Beige. It’s just so bland. Can we get Aaron or Remender or Gillen back now?

  11. Chris V says:

    I’m not sure that Secret Empire is going to increase buys.
    So many people are boycotting or dropping Secret Empire, that I think it may end up losing the newly launched X-Men titles some sales.

  12. Suzene says:

    With New Tian over on the SE side of things, this could actually line up with Guggenheim’s deportation storyline pretty well. But we’ll see. Either way, it doesn’t do much to salvage these two issues.

  13. Nathan P. Mahney says:

    Is this the worst the X-Men have ever been, as a franchise? I feel like it all went wrong partway through Bendis’s run, and has yet to recover. Say what you want about 90s X-Men, but it was never boring. The creators on the books are all solid, but they’re not exciting, and I don’t feel like there’s anyone at Marvel with the vision to change things. Hickman would have been perfect, but he’s gone. Who else is there?

  14. Thom H. says:

    @Nathan: In my opinion, the franchise has been tapped out for a while. My theory:

    1. Marvel wants to use the same, recognizable characters over and over again even though there are no new stories to tell with them.

    2. Focus is clearly on events and stunts instead of character and theme.

    The heyday of the X-Men was when Claremont developed relative unknowns into the nuanced characters that we’re all familiar with now. He built those characters from the ground up.

    Why not let a great creative team pick some third-tier X-characters and do the same? Mark Waid could certainly breathe some life into some of the relatively blank X-kids wandering around, for example.

    But that takes time and investment, which are in short supply when you’re relaunching the line every 18-24 months.

  15. Suzene says:


    There are new stories to tell with the X-Men (and I’d even say the Iceman solo is managing to do so in low-key ways), but I suspect there’s some reluctance to develop new material that could be easily adapted by FOX. Hence the intense nostalgia mining and backwards-facing storylines.

  16. Voord 99 says:


    I totally agree about the desirability of making more use of the X-kids.

    But overall, the thing about the X-Men is that there are a lot of “same, recognizable” characters to choose from, and it should be possible to do new things with them by careful selection of which “same, recognizable” characters you use. Mix-and-match them in combinations that we haven’t seen before, or haven’t seen much.

    In fact, two key , Wolverine and (adult) Cyclops are off the table (or should be: I’ll admit that Old Man Logan is functionally identical to Standard Issue Wolverine outside his own book). So it should be possible to create some new dynamics by asking who fills those gaps.

    Off the top of my head, I wouldn’t mind seeing a book in which Cable steps up in the absence of his dad and has to adapt to leading a proper X-Men team with an eye to its public image. Nothing black-ops or ruthless: a shiny, public-friendly, group of superheroes who are deliberately meant to reassure humans that Mutants Can Be Your Friends, like the original X-Men back in the ’60s – but with more sensitivity to the problems of that position as a metaphor for what actual minorities might do. Not the greatest idea, maybe, but I don’t think we’ve seen Cable in anything other than Maximum Grim Mode since Cable and Deadpool over 10 years go.

    More generally, I think Marvel in general, but the X-books in particular, could use a little of the Jemas era. Be relaxed about continuity and allow creators to throw crazy stuff against the wall and see if it sticks. I’m finishing the Jurgens Thor run at the moment and it’s impressive how good it gets (if terribly of its era as yet another Authority riff) by just going for it at the end.

  17. Kenny says:

    “I had hopes for this, but it should really be called X-Men Beige. It’s just so bland. Can we get Aaron or Remender or Gillen back now?”

    Yes! Thank you! I have never much thought X-Men Gold was so great. In fact, I had the same thought the last time Marc Guggenheim wrote an X-Men book. (Young X-Men, I think?)

    X-Men Blue, while not my favorite X-Men book, has more of my attention than X-Men Gold. And Astonishing X-Men has me more excited than both of them combined with only a single issue.

    I really miss the previous volume of Uncanny. Despite the annoying Terrigen Mist plot, that series had a well-defined tone with interesting characters that at least took the plot and ran with it.

  18. Thom H. says:

    @Suzene: That probably is Marvel’s skewed thinking, so I’ll give you that. And I agree that there are pockets of potential in the first- and second- generation X-characters — Iceman has at best been sporadically developed over the years — but I really don’t think there’s much narrative juice in a lot of the senior X-Men at this point. Storm, Wolverine, Cyclops, and Kitty Pryde in particular seem pretty rung out to me.

    @Voord 99: I see what you’re saying. I recall Mike Carey doing work like that with his early X-Men run — he put together a pretty crazy cast. He also seemed to have a firm grasp of where he wanted the characters to go, though, and he wasn’t afraid to make lasting changes to them. He fixed Aurora in a page, if I recall correctly, which was exciting.

    For me, what it boils down to is this: I want someone to either pull together the pieces of a veteran character’s past in a new way (Iceman would actually be perfect for this given all of the different phases he’s gone through) or stamp one of the newer characters with some personality and run with it. Preferably, both would happen simultaneously in the same book.

    I think I might just be longing for Morrison’s X-Men run again. For all of its flaws, it at least breathed some new life into some tired characters/situations, created some new ones, and wasn’t bothered by crossovers. Of course, that was before the big superhero movie boom, so maybe that is the key after all. Oh, well — I’ll keep waiting (and complaining) until that’s over, I guess. 🙂

  19. Mikey says:

    Mike Carey’s run was my favorite. I wish he would come back full time, or at least for another book like X-Men: No More Humans.

  20. Actually, a Rogue-led team (post Unity Avengers) would be a better bet for a very public team. Add Dazzler, Psylocke, Havok, bring back Longshot and you’ve got a load of leading characters from the late Claremont era who have been screwed around a lot. Maybe add Wolfsbane, Firestar and Marrow from the New Tian enforcers after this stupid crossover finishes.

  21. Niall says:

    I’m enjoying Secret Empire but it’s a bit dragged out.

    Yes, fascist Cap is a good antagonist. He’s clever, conflicted, clinical and motivated. But the New Tian aspect does not work well. I mean, how many mutants are there these days? If there are 500 of them, they’d struggle to run California.

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