This is a piece I felt I had to write. I’ve been open about my disdain for Marvel’s seemingly endless stream of major event crossovers. I love their comics, their characters, and their creative talent…but I avoid these cash-grab events like a plague, often dropping heavy tie-in titles from my pull list. Yet a few weeks back I wrote of my struggle with “Secret Empire.” While I don’t like these events, I have great respect for/trust in Nick Spencer as an author so I wanted to give this one a shot. Today, four issues in (counting the Free Comic Book Day offering), I have to say the series is worth every penny! While Secret Empire is obviously Marvel’s big summer event it’s also a story with a point, purpose, and message and that makes all the difference in the world.
I know there are people who are still struggling with the idea of Steve Rogers serving Hydra and, as such, are upset with the idea of this series. I myself wasn’t exactly thrilled with how Marvel handled the Hydra Cap reveal. I sort of wish, instead of doubling down that day on how Cap has always been Hydra, they’d’ve just asked fans to be patient and trust Nick Spencer. But all that’s water under the bridge. What’s grown from that setup is a story unlike anything Marvel’s offered before. Secret Empire is, at its heart, a story of the struggle to find light in the darkness, to hope when it’s hopeless. But – and here’s where it becomes unique – none of that seems possible. When the Marvel Universe had to rally to battle Thanos who’d usurped the transcendent power of God in 1991’s “Infinity Gauntlet,” my young mind couldn’t fathom how they’d win but I knew they would. When Professor X’s mind merged with the worst of Magneto’s rage to produce Onslaught in 1996, I didn’t know how the heroes could beat such a monster but I knew they would. Again and again, the stakes are raised but success is always obvious because they are super heroes. Not only am I certain of their victory, as a reader, the superheroes in those stories never seemed too worried they’d lose either. Even on the eve of that final battle with Onslaught (before everyone “died” and “Heroes Reborn” began), I never felt worried. It was just another setup for another story until everything went back to normal.
But Secret Empire is darkly visceral. Nick Spencer’s story is the first time I’ve ever felt the real, crushing pain of hopelessness in a comic narrative. Marvel’s heroes are broken and beaten on every front. They aren’t just beaten physically but, more unnervingly, emotionally and spiritually too. The desperation radiates from the page. The hopelessness, the defeat feels so real. This doesn’t begin as a story of resistance, rebellion, and plotting the path to victory. This begins as a story of survival under the new world order. Now, I’m betting by the end of the summer Steve Rogers will be back to his old self and the heroes will have found a way to save the day. But that isn’t the point. Rather, with unwavering courage, Nick Spencer is giving us a tale where the people we always count on to save the day are losing, badly, and they see no real way out. In fact, the man we always count on to be the unwavering light of hope is the one who’s brought the darkness crashing down. The question that drives the narrative then becomes how can we find hope let alone salvation in a world like this? What do we do? This is a brave story. This is an important story – because this is a story of hope.
Vanderbilt’s Professor Emeritus of Theology, Edward Farley’s text Deep Symbols: Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation, explores how our culture’s “deep symbols and words of power” have been diminished in a postmodern society where the objective meaning of everything from language to metanarratives is deconstructed and stripped away. He writes of the need to reclaim the meaning behind these words, as they are essential to our spiritual survival as human beings. The most important symbol he discusses in the text is hope. Why? Farley explains, “it is only in hope that we await the reenchantment of the other words of power” (95). Hope doesn’t just bring the other deep symbols back to life. Hope brings life to life. “For hope is a sign of life, something vibrant, interested, concerned, and engaged. Hope is waiting with an agenda for change” (100). He continues, “For only acting changes the future, and to act, one must hope” (97). Think about this for a moment. If you have no hope in the possibility that anything can ever change or anything can ever get better…why would you do anything at all? It is only in and through hope that we make the world a better place because we hope we can. It’s also only in and through hope that we live our daily lives, go to work, fall in love, create, live, breathe, and grow. If transformation wasn’t possible, what would be the goal of any of that? And without hope, how can we believe in transformation?
Speaking of the postmodern society in 1996 Farley writes, “For our situation is not merely that of a society called to hope in the face of impending disaster but rather a situation in which a society that has lost its capacity to hope is called to hope. And this is a new paradoxical situation of hope” (112). I’d argue this is even more true today than it was in 1996. And this is exactly what Nick Spencer is exploring in Secret Empire! Where do we find hope when all seems hopeless? Often in our world around us, as much in the presently Hydra-fied Marvel Universe, hope can feel like it’s very, very far away. And that’s on a good day! On a bad day? Hope can seem nonexistent.
Yet Farley reminds us, “When the forces that ranged against us are implacable, when God is silent, when corruption has gotten to the best and the brightest, when all possibilities are shut down, we hope….Because we hope in the midst of hopelessness, the situation of hope is never trivial. Hope’s situation is not the wishes and needs of minor comforts…In its individual form, its situation is the dark night of the soul. The phrase comes from St. John of the Cross but the metaphor of night is used by Elie Wiesel to describe the holocaust. The dark night can mean an individual struggle for meaning, mental health, freedom from addiction, from grief, or it can mean the individual’s struggles amid the community’s bleak prospects. Hope then is paradoxical because it is a confidence, even courage, in the midst of a situation that should evoke merely resignation and despair” (99). Um, how did Farley review Secret Empire all the way back in 1996? In all seriousness, he’s describing the way the story feels just as perfectly as he’s describing where it’s heading because he’s speaking of the reality of hope. Secret Empire isn’t a story of hopelessness. It’s a story of trying to find hope when we need it.
Without an authentic feeling of hopelessness, Secret Empire can’t honestly illustrate how important hope is and how powerful the reclamation of hope can be. And we need hope because, with hope, we do not despair. “In hope we refuse to acknowledge any finite power, no matter how overwhelming, as having the last word. We refuse to grant invulnerability to any and every finite entity…Hence, possibilities of transformation are one aspect of the hoped-for. In hope we look at overwhelming suffering and see an unknown element, the possibility of being different. In hope we experience our situation not as closed but open, fluid” (103). In that openness, we turn to others. We meet in hope and our hope grows as, “other human beings are a resource to hope…Their existence means that the one who hopes is not alone…Action thus is always a co-action with others. Our hope takes place amid the face-to-face intimacies of others who are with us along the way” (104-5). To show us this power, to really present the need for hope, Nick Spencer took away the single greatest beacon of hope in the Marvel Universe (not to mention one of our culture’s greatest symbols of hope) – Steve Rogers, Captain America. Without Cap…how can we have hope? The best of us has fallen. But in that hopelessness we find both the fundamental need for hope as well as the sheer, impossible power that hope brings.
We, as a country, need hope now. Obviously, we are living in dark times. With Trump’s rise to power and the dramatic increase in hate crimes that have followed his campaign and election, many of us are left shaken. We’re fighting battles on every front. How is it possible to protect health care, the environment, our schools, internet freedom, common sense gun legislation, the rights of immigrants, religious freedom, and the way our democracy functions all at once?!? As soon as we’re focused on one battle another three seem to break out. It feels crushingly overwhelming. It’s all too easy to get discouraged and give up. Some days it feels like we’ve lost before we even have a chance to fight. On more than one occasion I’ve felt a little hopeless. Also, for many of us, this darkness seemed to spring up out of nowhere! No one expected a man who acted like he did, said what he said, campaigned as he campaigned to get the Republican nomination let alone win the presidency. Now we’re left, blindsided, dealing with the fallout. In this landscape, Secret Empire is unbelievably relevant. This is the story we need.
But I think to see Secret Empire as only an allegorical commentary on the Trump phenomenon is to miss much of the brilliance of Nick Spencer’s narrative. As Farley outlines in his text, we all need hope to survive. And, in our lives, any number of things can rob us of hope. To be human is to hope, yes. But to be human is to also be scared sometimes. To be angry. To be uncertain. To be hopeless. Any number of things can shake us, can strip us of our hope, can usher in the dark night of the soul. In those moments we have two choices. We can either succumb to the hopelessness and give up OR we can hope that it will get better and keep moving forward. Without hope, there can be no progress, no forward momentum of any kind in our lives or in our world. So hope is essential for our lives and to struggle with hopelessness is also a part of human existence. Secret Empire presents this very real struggle to the reader and it challenges us to look into the face of hopelessness…and then still dare to hope. This isn’t simply an important story for the Trump Era. This is a story that’s important to being human.
I’ll be the first to admit, looking into the dark reality of hopelessness is hard. I am a regular reader of Sam Wilson: Captain America. I love the comic and I think it’s consistently one of Marvel’s best. But if I’m being honest, I haven’t read Steve Rogers: Captain America regularly. Is it because I hated Steve being Hydra? No. It’s because it hurts too much to see Cap this way. In Nick Spencer’s hands you feel every ounce of the pain that flows from Captain America being so corrupted and, honestly, I wasn’t strong enough to handle that. I plan to eventually go back and read this whole run, after the dust settles. But I know I’m not brave enough to do so yet. However, now that Secret Empire has officially begun, I’ve forced myself to stare into that void and, in the pain, I’ve seen the faint light of hope Nick Spencer is beginning to spark. No matter how uncomfortable it is to see Steve Rogers serving Hydra or to see the Marvel Universe ruled by such tyrants or to see the heroes so scared, scattered, and sad, I can’t miss this. It’s too important.
One of my great regrets (obviously, my regret list isn’t too terrible since this makes the cut) is that I wasn’t reading comic books when Marvel’s original Civil War raged from 2006-2007. The idea of the superhero community being so divided was something we’d never seen before and the Superhero Registration Act that split them served as a brilliant allegory for the struggle for civil liberties under the Patriot Act era of George W. Bush’s presidency. The story functioned perfectly on two fronts. First, it was creative and original, taking the Marvel Universe someplace it had never gone before and could be read simply as an exciting superhero story. But second, if you looked below the surface level of the story, you found an exceptionally crafted commentary on the country. As such, it hit the three main requirements I have for what I want in my pull list – it was fun, relevant, and socially aware/justice oriented. Reading it after the fact has always felt like missing out on the power of experiencing it as it commented on what was happening around us. To my mind, Secret Empire is the first event story Marvel’s offered since the original Civil War that fits this bill. It’s exciting! It’s unique! It’s creative! It speaks not just to the times but to the human condition! It’s important! And, far from being and event-for-event’s-sake, it’s a thoughtful story that has been carefully crafted over the past two years finally coming to fruition. It just also happens to be Marvel’s summer event.
This post is the first I’ve written as my little blog has entered its second year and I chose this topic intentionally. I could think of no better way to kick off Year Two of My Comic Relief than with a miniseries like this. (I also intentionally left out any real plot details – you need to read this and experience the twists for yourself!) I missed Civil War ten years ago but I’m so, so happy I’ve decided to take a chance on Secret Empire. I’m hooked and I can’t wait to see what happens next! In a lesser author’s hands, Secret Empire could have easily become a contrived, convoluted mess. But with Nick Spencer at the helm we find one of Marvel’s most unique stories in years – a story that doesn’t just speak to the times but to the nature of the human condition. Secret Empire shows us the uncompromising reality of darkness and dares us to hope anyway.