Secret Wars ended very recently with the kind of bang I was hoping for. No Hulks and Deadpools bashing and smashing and shooting. Sure, there was a great punch up, but Secret Wars #9 ended, much as New Avengers had begun under Jonathon Hickman’s hand, with the collision of ideals and philosophies and, purest of all, the crux of the main characters coming to the fore. Not only did it seed the All-New All-Different Marvel Universe in a beautifully poignant way, but it proved that Event Comics can be meaningful both within their own story and to the other stories being told after it.
***This review will contain some spoilers for Secret Wars issues 1-8, the previous volumes of Avengers and New Avengers, and other events from Marvel and DC over the years. If you don’t want to know what happens in Crisis on Infinite Earths, well, it’s been 30 years, you’ve had your chance!***
Even if we hadn’t known Marvel and Hickman were headed towards a huge event when they started Avengers and New Avengers, it should have been obvious. With the greatest minds in the Marvel Universe working somewhat in unison to discover why universes were dying, it screams of a larger plot, a darker foe than had ever been encountered, and that was true. For we found out the true villains were not only the Beyonders – beings of immeasurable power who live “beyond” the scope of our multiverse – but also the unbridled force of Marvel’s greatest super villain Doctor Victor von Doom.
As we start Secret Wars #9, the final issue of the massive event, great armies march across Battleworld, the last remnants of the multiverse which Doom has brought together under his rule. They clash at the base of Castle Doom and Black Panther, king of the advanced African nation of Wakanda, wields an Infinity Gauntlet with which he may bend reality to his whim, calling out Doom to a final showdown. Not everything is as it seems, however, and the long dormant plans of Reed Richard – Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four – kick into gear. It’s the culmination of the event, and the culmination of several years of storytelling dating back to Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four.
As usual, Jonathon Hickman’s characters all sound pitch perfect. Despite his penchant for gigantic ideas and strange concepts, at the heart of it all is a strong grip on who these characters are, and even while universes were colliding the action of the books has been the actions the characters have taken, and Secret Wars is no exception. Our heroes and villains move forward, they debate, they choose sides, and most of all they sound like people. Reed’s humanity. Namor’s arrogance. T’challa’s pride. Doom’s ego. These are all characters who have been challenged at the deepest levels, with Black Panther especially having to come to grips with his own failures as a King, as a man, and as a hero. But despite that he retains the things that make him T’challa, ruler of the necropolis and pre-eminent African superhero of the Marvel Universe.
And this truth is as applicable to the story itself as it is to the characters. Reed said the two simple words at the beginning of New Avengers that would come to define the entire series. “Everything dies.” And no matter where the story has taken us, or which characters have come and gone, this has defined it. An almost morbid resignation and a feeling of pessimism, as our “heroes” simply attempt to push back that which will eventually overcome them; keeping the inevitable at bay for just a little longer. A matter of multiversal collapse came down to a series of decisions, each only good for getting us to the next one. And now, amidst a sea of zombies and hulks, Ultron robots and the vast annihilation wave, this failure is made manifest in a God clothed in white.
Hickman has only a couple of cards left to play in the final issue and he lays them down dramatically as the double sized issue brings our final protagonists do the same. Esad Ribic has never been more on point, and his beautiful, delicate line work stays the course, with several amazing panels as his characters realize the truths at play (and much as I will find it hard, now, to read Doctor Doom or Reed Richards written by anyone other than Hickman, so too will I always want them drawn by Esad Ribic). His detail work is immaculate, and the faces of his characters emote strongly, conveying the story amidst the sometimes sparse dialogue provided by Hickman. The minimal inks and dreamlike colors provided by Ive Svorcina (a name I’m glad to type out rather than attempt to pronounce) make the book feel like a painting, appropriately epic for such a grand canvas. And despite delays in the books themselves, I find myself glad Marvel stood behind their team, rather than getting fill-in artists to push the book out in time. While late books are a sad, sometime unavoidable part of the industry, sacrificing quality for promptness could have easily lead to a book of this magnitude failing to be as powerful as it is.
The delays, and Marvel’s post Secret Wars relaunch, have amplified the outcries of fans denouncing “event comics” as a plague upon the industry. With so many critics and readers alike denouncing them as either convoluted or too simple, meaningless or changing things too much, what do events have to do to please the readership? Hickman’s previous event Infinity was, sadly, undercooked. While the main storyline was impressive in its scope the actual production left the event hard to follow, not remaining contained to the core book. It would seem that both Jonathon Hickman and the editors at Marvel learned from the experience, however, as Secret Wars was entirely self contained, with the outlying “tie in books” each focusing elsewhere in Battleworld, with various alternate universe takes on the Marvel characters. Some were good, others not so much, but each of them could be read in isolation from the main story, and vice versa.
Marvel’s most recent events have elicited varying degrees of the same sentiments, from Axis and Original Sin, back through Avengers vs. X-Men, Fear Itself and Civil War before it, and I have to admit to sharing some of the same concerns. When Axis spilled over into All-New X-Factor in 2014, Peter David managed to keep his own story going through the interruption, but the sudden shift (and shift back) caused by large sections of the hero community having their personalities flipped (on their “axis”, get it?) was a strange turn for a book so removed from the X-Men line at large. And obviously, the connection was mandated to try to help flagging sales in the book, rather than a creative decision (the book was cancelled only a few issues later). But knowing that almost makes it worse. Real world business matters intruding on the “pure, artistic process” of superhero comics? It’s not something we like to think about, even if it is the reality of the industry. Still, it sours the event to some of the audience, especially those not participating in the larger story at play.
Personally, I felt the same about Secret Invasion (several years ago now) when it intruded on X-Factor (sense a theme?). The books had art by a fill-in artist and seemed to jump into a story I knew nothing about, with little to no connection to the book I was reading. So I can understand the negativity readers feel, but neither experience makes me want to right off events as a whole. If silly spandex costumes and ridiculous code names can be considered passable within superhero fiction then an allowance for industry machinations and pushes for extra sales can be too. Axis only happened in All-New X-Factor because the book itself wasn’t performing. If an event crossover helped a few more people check it out, maybe pick it up regularly, then I can’t hate on it too much. In the end it didn’t save the book, it was cancelled only a few issues later, but I’ve made my feelings about what doomed All-New X-Factor clear in previous reviews, and Axis in general was a somewhat lackluster event, so there were other factors involved.
And the outcry from fans regarding events, to me, feels like a cynical dismissal in an era where cynical dismissals are the most common form of discourse. When a comic book company takes their shared universe of superhero comics and brings together their biggest players in a gigantic, world altering event, it’s the absolute fulfillment of exactly what makes the concept itself shine. We read these books and love these books partly for the larger than life fiction, but they’ve stayed so powerful precisely because of the larger world they inhabit. Geeks, nerds and regular readers find themselves discussing the tiniest minutia of these ever expanding worlds, even bringing together a bunch of solo characters in monthly books like Avengers or Justice League. The events are simply the epitome of that, bringing everything together. They are the climax, the payoff for the whole concept of shared universe superheroes. And sure, they aren’t all great, but outright dismissal of the biggest selling things these publishers do, as well as the ultimate manifestation of the whole conceit is myopic, and misanthropic to boot. Football fans don’t complain about the Super Bowl or the World Cup.
Secret Wars #9 is a fitting conclusion to one of the best Big Two comic book events in recent memory; up there with House of M, Multiversity and Final Crisis, for me. The book was beautiful throughout and well written and ushers in an All-New, All-Different era at Marvel comics, from which some excellent books are being launched. Not all of that is Hickman’s doing, of course, but I think Secret Wars will be remembered fondly once the delay disappointment has faded and the book can be read as a whole. It was a great ride, and this final issue was, I think, the best part of it.
I can't say it's perfect, but it's damn close. Real damn close.