These are undeniably powerful words. We’ve seen Captain America lose the world he came from (the 1940s), and at this point in the story, he’s spent over a decade stranded in Dimension Z. Being suddenly thrust back into the modern world, he has lost his adopted son and fiancee (this is temporary, but he doesn’t know this). Burdened with loss and sorry, Cap must find an answer to an existential question: why should I continue? Or, to put it a different way: how do I find purpose and carry it day by day, when the world simply does not care?
Cap is asking a question that drives at what it means to be alive, and it’s one that resonates with me. Jonathan Hickman and Rick Remender tackle these questions in very different ways in their works, so let’s see how their characters face existential dread and try to rise above it.
Jonathan Hickman tackles these questions in a very moving way. He reframes the question of finding purpose as one of conflict, between accepting the world the way it is and fighting to change it. This is a natural transition, as people tend to find purpose in fighting for a cause they believe in, or in bringing their vision to life. We believe that the world SHOULD be a certain way that it is not today, which puts us in conflict with the world. Our life is the story of how we choose to address this disparity.
Hickman’s Secret Wars details how its main characters deal with this struggle. He sets up the scene by telling us how our unlikely heroes, Doctor Doom and Stephen Strange, have saved the multiverse from total destruction. But they could only preserve one planet in the end, and struggle with its imperfections. Should they accept this world the way it is, or fight for something better? Cyclops, the current host of the Phoenix, makes it clear that one has to create a better world:
Cyclops/Phoenix wastes no time in facing down Doctor Doom, but is simply no match for him. In a particularly powerful scene, Doom snaps his neck and casually discards Cyclops’ body on the ground.
But this sacrifice inspires Stephen Strange to use his magic to teleport away the other heroes and villains away from Doom, saving their lives and planting the seeds for Doom’s downfall. Strange has chosen a side. He needs a better world, and pays the ultimate price for it.
Doom wants a better world too, but he has given up on this dream. He’s using all his power to literally hold the world together, so he cannot create a new world. And he detests the internal politics of the world he has created (deferring its management to Stephen Strange), so he cannot improve the world he lives in. After Stephen dies, we see Battleworld start to fall apart as open rebellion forms. And while Secret Wars has yet to conclude, we know from the already re-launched Marvel Universe that Battleworld will not last.
This struggle is a central theme in Hickman’s Pax Romana. In it, we discover that the Vatican has been secretly funding scientific research, culminating in the creation of a time machine. After much debate, the Pope sends an expeditionary force to make the world a better place for the Catholic Church. But the two men in charge of this operation argue on how far they should go in changing the world.
The first man we’re introduced to, Cardinal Beppi Pelle, wants to affect change slowly, carefully, and on a smaller scale. Since they are rewriting the last two thousand years of human history, he wants to play the long game and slowly build up a stable system. He proposes integrating with existing political systems, no matter how long this will take, and acting in an advisory role. The second man we’re introduced to, General Nicholas Chase, has a very different viewpoint. He eloquently summarizes it for us:
There are those who believe enlightenment means accepting the world as it is and not the way we want it to be. Some people understand nothing.
The team has been sent back in time with superior technology, military force, and knowledge of the old timeline, so Chase believes that they have a responsibility to use this power to create the greatest world possible. He quickly kills Pelle, assumes command of the team, and we watch him conquer the world. Of course, there are hiccups along the way, but it is the struggle to create a better world that defines Pax Romana’s major and minor characters.
As a quick interlude, I’ve been reading John C. Maxwell’s Intentional Living and it echoes this sentiment in its own way:
An unintentional life embraces only the things that will add to the mission of significance.
We’ll come back to this idea in a different form as we explore Rick Remender’s body of work. Many of the series he’s written explores this journey to find purpose and meaning. The obvious example is the one we started with, but let’s first dive deeper into his creator-owned work, where is comes out in full force.
Grant McKay, our protagonist in Black Science, would seem to have found his purpose in life. He leads his team, the Anarchist League of Scientists, to create the Pillar, a teleportation device, with the goal of using it to find things on other worlds that can make Earth a better place. He has given the team his motto: “There is no authority but yourself.”
He questions everything in the hope that this will lead to the truth. But in devoting himself to the League and the Pillar, he has abandoned his wife and kids. As the story opens, we learn that Grant is in a self-destructive cycle, where he can only find happiness in his work and his lover, fellow League member Rebecca. He is torn between this world and his family, but as the Pillar throws the League though space to new worlds, Grant rediscovers purpose with his family. He is forced to be in constant peril with his kids, and through this danger he finds his way. He accepts the fact that he has done tremendous damage to those around him, but strives to be a better person.
The very first issue of Black Science shows us how someone can be burdened by their past, and how we need to let go in order to grow and move past the pain. Remender drops a profound quote from the always amazing Carl Sagan that captures this mood:
Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies you will not find another.
This is the same situation we find Cap in. Talking to his rescued companion, Jet Black, who he has saved from Dimension Z, he gives her the exact advice he should be taking himself: “My mother once told me, ‘In order to grow, you must let go of the past.’ That’s just what you’ll have to do.”
She rightly points out his hypocrisy, as he is endlessly fixated on his past, and together, they burn his old World War 2 memorabilia. He begins to move forward, but has to come to grips with what he has lost.
The pain of losing those around us and how it affects our sense of purpose is a huge theme in Remender’s Low series. It follows Stel Caine and her family, but as early as the first issue we feel her lose her identity as her husband is killed and her daughters are abducted by pirates. She has to reconcile her optimistic, “the world is what you make of it” attitude, with the bleak reality in front of her. She finds her way as long as some part of her family is around, and must find a way to truly live for herself when they are not there.
Throughout Low we see Stel as the voice of optimism in a hopeless world, but she truly shines in issue #10. She realizes that she needs to live for herself, not for others, and that this is the way she can truly be happy:
When we stop taking pleasure in the basic experience of being alive, beat-by-beat, we lose everything that makes life worthwhile. We must relish in every sight, every touch, every memory…
The entire series is an excellent read just to see how our heroes find purpose when the rest of the world has surrendered hope, and doubly so for issue #10. The issue closes out with a line that ties together the Carl Sagan quote from Black Science and our discussion on Captain America:
There is one thing we can control. Our outlook. It’s not about ignoring the pain, or mindlessly believing things will simply be better, it’s about finding the joy in participating. And when the weight of the past pulls us low we must find the strength to release it, and finally give ourselves permission to start over.
This is the lesson that our heroes need to learn, and it certainly applies to us as well. Finding purpose and meaning for ourselves is enough to affect the world. Let’s close this out with a fitting quote once more from John C. Maxwell:
To be significant, all you have to do is make a difference with others wherever you are, with whatever you have, day by day.