The Power of Hope in Secret Empire

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.

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Yikes…this was a rough moment.  It still stings a little bit. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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?

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Captain American and Hydra take control… / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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.

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This…this still breaks my heart.  And therein lies the power. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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.

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C’mon Cap…I have hope we’ll find a way to survive and that, ultimately, you’ll help lead us there in some way, shape, or form. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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22 thoughts on “The Power of Hope in Secret Empire

      1. I know what you mean. Actually, the comics help keep me reading when work gets crazy. It’s hard to stay with a book when I’m in the middle of heavy lesson planning, grading, etc. but a few comics don’t take too long to read at all. So they’re a way to find reading accomplishment when I don’t have the time to really dive into a novel!

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      2. Hey, as far as I’m concerned, you’d be a natural. You write (and read!) far faster than I can read (and write!) and you seem to be as active on Twitter as you are on your blog! You seem made for a job like this.

        Should I ever write an actual book I’ll totally tag you in to help promote it too!

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  1. I’m still smarting from the atrocious Civil War II, but your review makes me want to give this series a chance. However, I almost always wait until series are put out in graphic novel form before I purchase, so I will be waiting awhile before I commit.

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    1. I often wish I had the patience to wait for the trades…it’s cheaper and you get the whole story at once BUT I’m waaay too impatient :).

      I hope you do ultimately give it a chance Nancy! Granted, I didn’t read Civil War II (thanks for taking that bullet for the team) but I bet Secret Empire will restore some of your faith in what a crossover can be.

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  2. I love reading your blog, although I have only commented once since the beginning of the year. (And I’m still hoping to write some sort of Ghostbusters post for your blog, but I got distracted writing the local branch handbook for the Ghostbusters RPG game I sporadically host. So, I guess if you wanted to look at that, you would at least know I haven’t been a completely lazy person this year!) Anyway, I think we have somewhat similar ways of looking at entertainment, and the sorts of stories we enjoy. I want you to know that me and my little sisters started reading The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl because of this blog, and we love it! Sometimes I just want to chat with you and ask you about ALL the stories I like, and then have a conversation from that point. And then write a fanfic together. But, that seems extremely demanding on you…and I really do try to not be selfish all the time. 😛

    Personally, I have always been fascinated by the idea of hope in hopeless situations. Your review is making me want to try out Secret Empire, but I must admit, my Marvel comics knowledge is at a basic level, and I don’t have an infinite amount of money.

    This review of yours was also making me wonder, “Do you like The X-Files?”

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    1. Ah, a kindred spirit! You have no idea how much your comment made my day Briana. Thank you for your kind words :). I am so excited to hear how much you love the blog AND that you and your sisters are now enjoying Squirrel Girl!!! Yay!!!

      If you’re just getting into Marvel stuff, I can see you perhaps waiting a bit to read Secret Empire – maybe enjoying it as a trade at a later date. I get where you’re coming from with the comic budget. Every time I want to add something else to my file I have to see what I can cut! So, at $4.99 a title, you’d probably be able to spend that money on something more fun and enjoy Secret Empire, if you’d like, once you’re a bit more into Marvel. Or, maybe it can be an entry level hook? I don’t know. I know Marvel likes their events to be doorways in for new readers but I think you might enjoy other, more self contained titles first. Maybe just go with your gut :).

      As to the Ghostbusters thing, there’s no rush. The guest post offer will remain an open invitation. The RPG guide sounds impressive though! I can’t even begin to imagine what goes into putting something like that together.

      Lastly, I’d be up for a longer, non-comment thread based discussion about stories and fandoms and things like that if you’d want. Bonding over geeky stuff is fantastic – although, I’ve only just tried my first attempt at fan fiction and had to rely pretty heavily on Kalie for it. Perhaps that would have to come later on. You can send me an email any time (or message me on Twitter if you’re a Twitter person) and we can go from there on talking about all that geeky stuff.

      Oh and (I know I’m sacrificing some MAJOR geek cred here but) I’ve never seen an episode of ‘The X-Files.’ Eeep! I know! I have some friends who just adore it and it’s been on my to-watch list for sometime but I haven’t gotten to it yet, same with (and this costs me some more geek cred) ‘Dr. Who.’ Maybe this summer I can try jumping in.

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      1. My Youngest Sister usually acts as if comic books are beneath her, so convincing her to read Unbeatable Squirrel Girl took a while, but once she tried it she loved it. She zoomed through all the issues, and immediately asked when the next issue was coming out. Now when I bring home a new issue, if I set it down for even one minute, one of my two little sisters swoops in and begins reading it before me!

        If you have a stand alone Marvel hero you would like to recommend, I would be all ears. I’ve seen the movies. And I work at a comic book store, so I’ve read the back of many different trade paperbacks. Of course, I’ve read Squirrel Girl. And I’ve read the first two Ms. Marvel trades (with more to be borrowed from a Real Life geeky buddy,) and the first volume of Doctor Strange. Not sure what I want to try next… But I’m not sure jumping into a big crossover extravaganza is the right call. Kind of entertaining the idea of seeing if I can get some Howard the Duck from the library. For some weird reason I’ve never managed to find even a drop of interest in any of the X-Men. The Fantastic Four interest me because people talk about them having a family dynamic, and that holds some appeal for me. Oh, and It’s hard to not pick up some of your enthusiasm for Spider Man! Definitely no angry main characters who just want to go on a killing spree–so no Punisher or other similar characters please. Are there any characters who are basically the Marvel version of MacGyver?

        My 8 page guide is not all that impressive. The game comes with a fantastic How to Play guide–I wrote our Employee Handbook from a mostly In Universe perspective, and one of the pages is two thirds empty. (It’s the Rules of being a Ghostbuster page, and I figure Ghostbusters are not big into rules, and I need to leave space for future realizations of “You know, we really should have mentioned this in the list of rules.” The last page of the handbook is my favorite; it is our frequently asked questions page, and half of the questions are variations on the theme of accusing us of being frauds.

        Just followed you on Twitter. It is my only social media, so I was pleased to see you suggest it. And I just read your fanfic, and enjoyed it! I’ll comment on that post with some more specific feedback. 🙂 Were you the one who kept the story on track and prevented it from sitting unfinished forever? ‘Cause I think my writing is okay, but man, I almost never finish anything! 😐 But allow me to reiterate, I TOTALLY GET THAT YOU ARE A BUSY GUY AND I HAVE NO DESIRE TO TAKE UP TONS OF YOUR VALUABLE TIME.

        I have spent over a year watching The X-Files, and there are so many things I love about the show! It’s darker than most of what I like, and yet it is all about hope when you do not see how you can win, belief in things unseen, perseverance in the face of impossible odds, and finding The Truth. I love Ahsoka Tano, Sarah Walker, Nancy Drew, and Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, but Scully is hands down my favorite female character. The show is scary, but you’ve watched actual horror movies, so I imagine you can handle it! And this may be just me, but I love the way the show looks–the way they light the show especially, is beautiful. (My Dad sort of hates some of the lighting decisions, so I think this could be a very personal thing. He’s like “It’s too dark! I can’t see anything!” And then I say, “That’s because in real life, when it’s dark you CAN’T see anything.”) I could go on, but I don’t want to become boring.

        Doctor Who is my favorite television show, so if you want to hear me talk about it, just ask and I will happily grant your request! 😀

        P.S. Geek cred is vastly overrated.

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