If, when looking back at the overarching event that was Marvel’s Secret Empire, we seek the best of what can be described as a controversial comics happening, United We Stand is a solid example. While the biggest and baddest heroes were involved in the world-changing events caused by Steve Rogers, those heroes who find themselves often on the outside looking in had a chance to shine. This collection of bite-sized adventures helps round out the rest of the story surrounding Secret Empire and give a much more down-to-earth look at the struggles faced while The Avengers battle on a playing field far beyond the comprehension of the average person.
Scattered across several titles, United We Stand touches on very different events over the Earth and even the galaxy beyond. In Derek Landry and Joshua Cassara’s Uprising, Black Widow leads a cadre of young heroes in infiltrating the Hydra Youth Choir. As a formal choral director, I was totally into the seeming ridiculousness of this, mixed in with the horrifically cynical manipulation of teenagers into an arm of Hydra’s propaganda machine. Black Widow’s truncated Red Room training sessions are not only a way to get young heroes like Amadeus Cho prepared for what they might need to do, they impress the importance of what is happening in the world. The kids are cocky and flippant about the idea of auditioning for the Hydra chorus as if every opportunity to penetrate and reconnoiter Hydra were not paramount. A key moment is Miles Morales being confronted by the Hydra Youth, expecting them to be grateful for rescue when, in reality, they are there by choice. They have chosen Hydra of their own free will. In this issue and in the others, choice and the surprising strength of the mob mentality surprise and dishearten heroes trying to do good. Cho makes several tough decisions in the face of this that solidify his place as a hero for the future.
In Underground, Mockingbird leads a team into the Savage Lands in search of a shard of the Cosmic Cube. As expected from Mockingbird, Ant-Man, Quicksilver, and Not-Falcon, Not-Captain America Sam Wilson, the quips are fast and furious, just like the dinosaurs. While using Sauron to get to the shard, dragging his misogynistic, antiquated pterodactyl ass through the jungle gets a bit tired, the payoff is worth the wait. Heroes and pseudo-villains fight and then come together to really stomp Sauron in the beak. There are a lot of nice moments in this issue by Jeremy Whitley and Eric Koda, including Lupa and Hercules getting into a battle that by all rights should end with them hooking up. Instead, he gets laid up with a case of having been inside a dinosaur, like most relationships.
United is a story of borders and manipulation focused on the interactions between the mutant state of New Tian and Steve Rogers’ fascist Hydra state. Sounds thrilling, I know, but the story of manipulation and palace intrigue resonates. Writer Jim Zub and artist Ario Anindito show what a false flag operation truly looks like in Rogers’ America. The final moments of the issue nail home the idea of Rogers making Hydra great again through any means necessary.
Jim Zub also pens Uncanny Avengers #24-25 The Night Shift where Manhattan has been domed and given to creatures from the Dark Dimension. With much of the city in ruins, Rogue and her team try to save who they can, discovering what being a leader means in a world where leaders have betrayed all they once stood for. A quick team-up with a few familiar members of the Sinister Six just to keep breathing for another day shows how paradigms have shifted under the Secret Empire. Artist Kim Jacinto, along with Jahnoy Lindsay and Juanan Ramierez do an excellent job selling the horror and destruction contained under the dome.
The final issue in United We Stand is the All-New Guardians of the Galaxy Annual #1, written by Chad Bowers and Chris Sims and drawn by Danilo S. Beyruth. Star-Lord and his party of miscreants search the galaxy for aid in Earth’s struggle against Hydra and its seemingly impenetrable dome around the planet. Out of all the issues in the collection, this is the one that seemed out of place. It tells a good story about the Guardians, sure, but one that has been told several times already: how they gel as a unit to fight the good fight as a family. The art, in an odd way, is too Saturday morning cartoony for my taste, especially when juxtaposed against the other work in the collection.
In the end, Secret Empire: United We Stand is a poignant reminder that in the dark days that threatened the Marvel Universe, people banded together, fighting for what was right. Everyone had a stake in the outcome and everyone with a stake, villain or hero, stood up. Hail Hydra? Not a chance.