Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Even in defeat, the Secret Empire remains an enigma

Last month I blogged about the introduction of Marvel’s Secret Empire and pondered why Stan Lee introduced them when AIM was already around. Other than wearing red instead of AIM’s yellow, there’s nothing distinctive about them.Less than six months later the Secret Empire is gone, Marvel has revealed their origin and — well, read on.

First, let’s talk about “Them.” This mysterious group began battling shield early in 1966, with schemes spilling over into Captain America’s Tales of Suspense strip. Shortly afterwards an organization called Advanced Idea Mechanics contacts SHIELD, which already knows about them: a group of scientists above politics, above Cold War, dedicated to advancing science for the good of humanity. Don’t they sound trustworthy? Nothing suspicious in a group like that!

AIM’s representative, Count Bornag Royale, tells SHIELD’s upper leadership that AIM really, really wants to work with them but .. Fury. You can’t expect a man with an aristocratic title to deal with a scruffy, unshaved thug as an equal — my god, the head of SHIELD doesn’t even wear a suit and tie half the time! If only SHIELD’s governing board would replace Fury with someone more civilized, AIM would be happy to share the fruits of their genius.

Spoiler: AIM are working for Them! I know your jaws are dropping now.

In Strange Tales #148, Royale sees an opportunity to sink Fury at his review board hearing. Competent, ambitious rookie agent Jasper Sitwell has been locking horns with Fury in typical Stan Lee style, the Hawkeye to Fury’s Cap.— so Royale figures putting Sitwell on the stand to vent will sink Fury as head of SHIELD.Oops. To be fair to the Count, I bought into the ruse too — the arguments were so typical of Marvel, the company where heroes squabble all the time, the possibility it was a set-up never occurred to me.

Meanwhile, following the Hulk’s defeat of Boomerang in Tales to Astonish #82, the Secret Empire suffers its own setbacks.Due to this internal strife, by the time we meet Number One in TTA #83, his crime cartel has gone belly up. He’s all about getting revenge but on the Hulk, not Number Nine. This hardly makes sense — Hulk thwarting Boomerang didn’t affect Number Nine’s takeover bid — but does give One an excuse to enslave the Sub-Mariner as his weapon of choice.Namor ends up the amnesiac puppet of Number One, which feels lazy given that the Puppet Master just enslaved him in TTA #78. While Namor hunts down the Hulk (which does not work out as Number One anticipates), Nick Fury leads SHIELD in bringing about “The End of AIM” in Strange Tales #149. A handful of AIM agents escape SHIELD and run into Number Nine — what a break! Because, you see, the Secret Empire works for Them just like AIM! Brother, can you give us a ride?

As Steve Englehart later joked in Captain America that we never do see “Gabe Jones’ brilliant defeat of the Secret Empire” in TTA #83. Regardless, at the end of the AIM arc, Nick & Co. put it all together: AIM and the Secret Empire were two heads of a multi-headed … Hydra! OMG, Hydra lives — it’s the Organization Formerly Known As Them!

This brings me back to the question I asked in my previous Secret Empire post: what was the point in having them (not Them) around when AIM provides identical SPECTRE/THRUSH threats? If AIM and the Secret Empire are both Hydra proxies it makes even less sense. Why would ordinary AIM agents know about the Secret Empire? The subterfuge of having two organizations won’t work if everyone knows they’re all really Agents of Them.

What’s more, the little we’ve seen of the Secret Empire feels completely wrong for this; at no point does Number One show any signs he answers to a higher authority. Even when Number One talks to himself in #85, he portrays himself as the sole leader of the organization. After his death, however, a hand marks off both the Secret Empire and AIM on a blackboard, announcing it’s now time for Hydra to return.

It would have made more sense to have the Secret Empire turn out to be Them, as they appear more global in scope than AIM. Perhaps at some point that was the plan: the hand on the chalkboard could just as easily have been a SHIELD agent recording their success. My guess is that Stan had a last minute change of ideas; perhaps he thought Hydra resurgent would be more impressive than the Secret Empire. Perhaps it relates to shifting writing teams: Strange Tales #148 has Jack Kirby scripting, #149 is Denny O’Neil.

Either way, the Secret Empire’s departure is as baffling as the fact it existed at all.

#SFWApro. Art top to bottom by Kirby, Don Heck (x2), Bill Everett, Kirby and Heck again.


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I think you are giving everyone too much credit for having any long term plans. Pretty much, they were making it up as they went along. With everything Stan was juggling, he likely wasn’t thinking beyond the issue he needed to plot. Kirby worked more like a jazz artist, having an idea where he wanted to go, but improvising everything along the way. He certainly wasn’t concerned about continuity with other books, just telling his story. Jack was pretty much doing his own thing, on SHIELD, while Stan is doing his stuff on the other titles. SHIELD needed a HYDRA; but Jack hated repeating himself and came up with new threats after initially dispensing with HYDRA. UNCLE needs its THRUSH and Bond needed SPECTRE and SHIELD needed HYDRA. Steranko realized this when he brought them back. Meanwhile, Stan wanted his own little groups running around and was always quick to recycle. However, he lost the plot more than once, just out of sheer workload (and bad memory). If you want to make sense out of any of this stuff, you will have to wait for Roy to play continuity cop.

  2. Le Messor

    We discussed this fairly recently, but I do often get (I don’t know what word to use? Somewhere between bemused and annoyed) at all the basically identical organisations / characters running around in Marvel and DC.

    Also, it’s been pointed out by people who’ve read more of it than me that when the Nu52 debuted, pretty much each of those 52 titles had a different secret underhanded government organisation behind it all.

    Department of Redundancy Department.

    “Who is Number One?”
    “You are Number Six.”

    1. I may have mentioned this (sorry if I did) but there’s a Fu Manchu fanfic from the 1960s that makes the same point — there can’t possibly be enough henchmen to staff THRUSH, SPECTRE and similar groups so obviously it’s a bunch of freelancers working for whoever has a gig available that week.

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