SECRET WARS | ‘New to Comics’ Review

New to Comics is a segment where I look at various comic books, explaining their background, reviewing them, and breaking them down for readers unfamiliar to the medium. The title is a reference to a former university project that I carried on as its own site for several years before laying it to rest.

It’s finally here. While America was lucky enough to get the Home Entertainment release of Avengers: Endgame some time ago, today the superhero blockbuster hits small screens in the UK. To coincide with the release, we’ve reached the final chapter in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers saga. Yesterday, we looked at the joint ends of both Avengers and New Avengers in Time Runs Out, and today we’re rounding things out by looking at what comes next… Secret Wars!

Published by: Marvel Comics
Written by: Jonathan Hickman
Art by: Esad Ribić
Year: 2016
Pages: 312

SPOTLIGHT CHARACTER:

THE FANTASTIC FOUR

Founding Members: Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, The Thing
Base of Operations: New York City
First Appearance: The Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961)

Determined to explore the unknown, scientist Reed Richards took his girlfriend Susan Storm, his best friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s kid brother Johnny Storm on a trip in his experimental shuttle to explore the stars! However, on their maiden voyage, the group was struck with cosmic rays and plummeted to Earth forever changed. Reed’s body gained incredible elasticity, Susan could cast force-fields and turn invisible, Johnny could throw fire and set himself aflame, while Ben was transformed into a rock-hided, monstrous ‘Thing’. Though Ben’s new form initially created some animosity amongst the old friends, the four decided to band together as the Fantastic Four; the ‘first family’ of superheroes. While the team would devote themselves to saving lives from the likes of Reed’s rival Doctor Doom and alien threats such as the Skrulls, they also strive to explore the wonders of the universe, paving the way for a better tomorrow through their scientific discoveries. In time, Reed and Susan would marry and have children, making the Fantastic Four the beginning of the most fantastical family around!

WHAT’s THE STORY?

In a similar way to how Avengers: Endgame was ‘the end’ of the ‘Infinity Saga’Secret Wars is ‘the end’ of Marvel Comics as we knew them. In that, it is the end, and you could cut it off there, but due to the nature of comic book storytelling, it’s obviously not actually the end. 

However, it gives the impression of uncertainty about what’s going to happen. It’s the final chapter in a story before the inevitable sequel.

Actually, you know what it’s like? It’s like Return of the Jedi. But with Marvel. The story is done until it’s not. 

What it is the definitive end of, however, is writer Jonathan Hickman’s time on the Avengers franchise (and, it seemed, his work at Marvel until recently). Although he had worked with Marvel prior to 2009, that was the year things really took off for him. He took over the Fantastic Four franchise and was simultaneously penning Secret Warriors, a series that followed Nick Fury and a team of younger superheroes/spies in training. It was here that Hickman started to weave an epic yarn that would run through all of his works, coming to a close with Secret Wars. He tackled themes like the nature of the universe and secret societies that ran the Earth. As his time on those titles drew to a close, he picked up a new book, The Ultimates, which was originally a more realistic alternate reality retelling of the Avengers, until he started throwing his crazy science-fiction into it. This too would later tie into Secret Wars

Finally, he dropped The Ultimates to take on the Avengers proper, as well as it’s sister title, New Avengers after the former writer Brian Bendis was moved over to X-Men. Under Bendis, Avengers was about the titular team saving the world, while New Avengers was about more street-level heroes (Spider-Man, Luke Cage, Wolverine, etc.) taking on the grittier tasks. Under Hickman, however, things were ramped up. Avengers was about the team frequently tackling universal threats, while the cast of New Avengers was replaced with the Illuminati, who were now trying to stop the destruction of reality. 

As for Secret Wars, the title and some of the concept are a callback to an older 80s story, where a seemingly omnipotent being known as the Beyonder plucks a group of heroes and villains from Earth, and dumps them on a patchwork planet of his own design, to see which is stronger – good or evil. It would later see Doctor Doom usurping his power, and the heroes uniting to bring him down. 

The modern Secret Wars shares some of those details (the patchwork planet, heroes and villains dumped on it), but with a new take. This time around, Secret Wars is tied to The Beyonders, plural, who are introduced in Time Runs Out, and expressed to be infinitely more dangerous than their younger counterpart from the 80s.  

WHAT’s THE PLOT?

For months, the Illuminati (Black Panther, Mister Fantastic, Iron Man, Namor, Doctor Strange, Beast and Black Bolt) have been trying to combat the threat of the incursions; a multiversal phenomena wherein universes have begun colliding, and the only way to stop the destruction of both is to destroy one of the colliding Earths. Their quest has taken them down dark paths and brought the ire of Steve Rogers and the Avengers. This volatile mix of problems has led to one outcome… Failure. 

A group of heroes tries to escape the end, as the final two universes, the mainstream Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe, collide, and everything dies.

But out in the vast nothingness, there is a spark of life. A patchwork planet called Battleworld, ruled by God Emperor Doom and his right-hand man, Sheriff Stephen Strange. 

This is what happens next. 

IS IT ACCESSIBLE?

Although Marvel claims that the series was written to be accessible to new readers, in truth, this book is far from. 

For starters, the first issue picks up where Time Runs Out left off, throwing you headfirst into the incursion between the Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe. So for starters, if you haven’t been reading Avengers/New Avengers, you’re going to be pretty lost. And even if you have been trying to break into comics via these series, then there are such a plethora of characters in the first issue who haven’t shown up in the series prior – She-Hulk, Jane Foster-Thor, Colossus, Phoenix (sort of), etc. The first issue unites the majority of Marvel’s contemporary heroes, and the result is a rather chaotic time for new readers. 

After that, spoiler alert, pretty much everyone dies (don’t worry, I’ll avoid spoilers past here, but frankly issue one should have been issue #45 of Avengers

So things pick up on Battleworld, a patchwork planet constructed from the remains of dead universes, where not only do you have to be pretty knowledgable about Marvel characters to know what’s going on, a knowledge of the various alternate realities, like the Age of Apocalypse and Future Imperfect would also help.

As for central characters from pre-incursion, they are mostly picked as characters general audiences will recognise (Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Captain Marvel), but the ones who get the most page-time, like Black Panther, will have their actions and dialogue so tightly tied to the events of the previous series that jumping straight into Secret Wars will leave you a bit baffled. 

WHAT’s THE VERDICT?

Secret Wars is a strange one. You might argue that it’s meant to be the pinnacle of Jonathan Hickman’s Marvel work, what with the fact that all of his series’, Fantastic FourSecret WarriorsS.H.I.E.L.D.The Ultimates, Avengers and New Avengers all seem to tie into it in some way. However, I’d argue that Time Runs Out is the superior story. 

Secret Wars, however, is still a very good read. If weirdly structured. 

The first issue plays out like it should be the last issue of Time Runs Out. It follows the final incursion and a big battle between the heroes of Earth-616 (the Marvel Universe) and Earth-1610 (the Ultimate Universe). Like all the issues in this series, it’s gloriously illustrated by Esad Ribic, whose art is so full and detailed that the series had to be delayed multiple times so he could finish it. While some of his depictions of characters look a little weird, his art style is so bold and distinctive that it can’t help but hold your attention. Everything looks like a painting, albeit one that seems overly obsessed with gargantuan muscles and people shooting laser beams. 

The story he’s depicting, however, if you’ve not been keeping up, feels a tad out of place. While there are some powerful moments seen in the first issue, as ‘everything dies’, the contrast between the first and second issues feels like something that should have been seen in the Avengers series. For instance, Avengers #45: the world ends. Secret Wars #1: what happens next. 

Fortunately, what happens next is fascinating and brilliantly imagined by both Hickman and Ribic. In issue two, they introduce us to Battleworld, a savage planet ruled by Doctor Doom, who is aided by his right-hand man Sheriff (Doctor) Strange. It features a bevvy of former alternate realities coexisting on the same planet and walks us through how one man can govern such an unsightly creation. We see the glory of the Thor Corps – Dooms police force and his majestic castle that features the Asgardian World Tree, guarded by Galactus. It’s an ode to all the weird and wacky features of Marvel Comics, and it is really fun to dive in and immerse yourself in this new world that has replaced the Marvel Universe. 

It’s also worth noting that the various tie-in comics, which are set on Battleworld and replaced all of Marvel’s regular comics, also feature some really fascinating stories about alternate versions of the superheroes you know and love living their lives out in this new reality. 

Things obviously get even more interesting when Hickman throws the survivors from the previous universes into the mix, and they’re forced to contend both with this bizarre new world, but also the fact that one of their greatest enemies is ‘God’. Once again, Ribic shows one of his many strengths, as he is able to effortlessly capture an array of emotions as he illustrates the heroes and villains.

Unfortunately, it’s after this point that the weird structure of the story becomes especially evident. It can be explained as Hickman and those behind the scenes realising that they need more issues to tell their story, but on paper, it just comes off weird. 

The story of Secret Wars spans just over three weeks. However, the way the story plays out is like this: A few days pass in the first three/four issues, there’s a three week time jump, a day or two passes in issues five/six, then there’s a three-issue long final battle. It’s all very disproportionate. And when you get to that final battle, you realise that there are a lot more things you’d like to have known. Things you’d like to have explored. Like what were Star-Lord and the Spider-Men doing in those three weeks? Why are they even in this series if they barely serve a purpose beyond plot. Sure, a lot of things are explored in the tie-in books (which again, a lot of them are great from what I remember), but it’s another example of a Marvel event comic book forcing you to dish out more money for the complete story, and Hickman utilising a lot of characters, but only really fleshing out a small few (like in Avengers). 

Which isn’t to say Secret Wars isn’t complete. It is. And it’s a very interesting read. It can be exciting, intriguing, and beautiful to behold. But it does feel rather stop and start. Like it wasn’t all properly planned out on the editorial side. 

I won’t go into this too much here, but this is especially evident when you look at what comes after (mild spoilers – although if you’ve picked up a new comic anytime since 2015 you’re probably safe). For one, the delays meant the ‘new’ Marvel Universe started releasing while Secret Wars was still ongoing. And for two (is that a thing people say?), it’s just the ‘old’ Marvel universe, with a few changes. Miles Morales is now in the main universe, as is Old Man Logan. But they’re not replacing the older characters (which I’m okay with in some ways), they’re just also there. But why not make more changes? If you want a black Nick Fury, rather than just writing up some ridiculous story wherein white Nick Fury realises he has a black son, who then loses an eye and joins S.H.I.E.L.D., why not just use Secret Wars to just transplant the Sam Jackson Nick Fury from Ultimates into 616? The lack of stuff like that – ie. any real, noticeable, lasting changes that aren’t Miles Morales related – mean this series, in the end, doesn’t hold up as much as Time Runs Out

But it does have beautiful art, a fascinating mythology and one change that does highlight a strength of this comic. Namely the way it deals with the legacy of the Fantastic Four. While the lead up to this comic is seen in Avengers, at the end of the day, Secret Wars (and one could argue, the entirety of Hickman’s New Avengers) is a Fantastic Four story. Reed Richards is one of the main characters, with Susan, Johnny, Ben and the kids also playing important roles. The main ‘villain’ is Doctor Doom, and the other characters who get a lot of play are predominantly characters who operate on the Fantastic Four’s periphery – Black Panther, Namor, Black Bolt and the Inhumans, etc. In this regard, the story is even better, but as a Marvel universe event, its structure and immediate pay-off needs a little bit more work. 

Too late now I suppose. 

RATING:

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