Marvel’s latest mega event has been years in the making. Writer Jonathan Hickman has been building up to this moment for the last few years in the pages of his two Avengers titles, “Avengers” and “New Avengers.” The premise of “New Avengers” in particular has been that every Earth in the cosmic multiverse is colliding. When they enter the same dimensional space the world has eight hours to destroy the other Earth to save the whole universe from collapsing in on itself. The heroes had to struggle with how to handle this situation–and if it was right to destroy other Earths to save all reality.
It all became a moot point when Secret Wars started in April and the two major Marvel universes–the Classic Marvel U (the Earth-616 in fan circles) and the Ultimate Universe–collided. Marvel’s been hyping this for at least the last year, promising that at the end the Marvel U will be a changed place and that the Ultimate Universe, which started in 2001, will come to an end. As the two planets collided, Doctors Doom and Strange pulled some kind of action to save as much reality as they could, and what remains is BATTLEWORLD, a patchwork planet of disparate timelines, stories, and events.
Overseeing the whole thing is the now God Emperor Doom, who created all things and oversees Battleworld from Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life from which all creation springs. He has managed to collect the disparate elements of reality into pockets of territory and enforces law with an army of THORS. Which we get to see a lot of in Secret Wars 2. It’s crazy. Issue two is a guided tour of Battleworld from the perspective of a brand new Thor. There’s a wasteland of Marvel Zombies and Ultrons just beyond the borders protected by a giant wall called the Shield that dissidents are thrown to for execution and a section cordoned off to protect others from rampaging Hulks who break free from time to time. Basically, it’s the most over the top super hero comic that superhero comics have ever created. There’s a series of tie-ins that covers each of these concepts, but I haven’t had a chance to read any of them yet, despite each sounding pretty rad.
There’s a lot of buildup in the Avengers titles leading up to Secret Wars, which made the first issue a little tough to penetrate. But if you just allow yourself to go with it and absorb the spectacle, it’s easy to enjoy. This is particularly easy with the aid of Esad Ribic’s breathtaking art. His unique ability to craft a world was the perfect choice to portray the destruction of the Marvel Universe and the newly created Battleworld. From his armies of Thors flying over the land with the landscape below clearly in view to his talent to portray the heartbreaking emotion of the honest-to-goodness end of the world lends an authenticity to the story despite its high concept and epic scope. Ribic’s ability to choreograph an action scene is almost balletic even within the confines of the comic book panels, while his sense of scale and the ability to capture the pure size and scope of the destruction and new creation evokes a mood of terror and awe at appropriate times.
There are moments in each issue that will make any comic fan gasp or cheer out of pure joy or shock. It’s super heroes taken to its most high concept extreme. Battleworld is itself is the kind of bizarre fantasy creation mix of science and medieval Renaissance Faire fantasy that only the mind of someone like Doctor Doom could dream up–with himself as GOD and EMPEROR. It’s not a technically inaccurate descriptor considering he created everything. With only two issues actually having taken place on Battleworld (and eight years having passed since the Marvel Universe ended) I am hoping for lots more nuttiness and drama from Doctor Doom, who so far has stood out as the main character. It’s refreshing to see one of Marvel’s greatest creations front and center in its biggest event in a decade, despite movie rights and rumors of the Fantastic Four and X-Men being sidelined by the comics publisher because of movie politics. What at first seems to be Doom’s paradise and ultimate dream realized slowly reveals itself to be a burden.
Writer Jonathan Hickman has shown his love for super heroes and his ability to deal with over the top dimensional antics in his recent run on Fantastic Four, which may have been one of the best single runs on a super hero comic since Bendis’ original Ultimate Spider-Man. Despite some shortcomings in the main Avengers title, “New Avengers” and “Fantastic Four” reveal a writer who has the ability to balance gripping character drama against the backdrop of high adventure and science fiction battles that make super heroes so fun. Assuming he keeps the focus tight on the characters in the new world, especially now that the last survivors of the Marvel Universe have made their way to Battleworld, the potential is rife for tension and drama. These Marvel characters are really at the heart of what has made the comics so long lasting, and Hickman gets who they are and what makes them interesting and lovable.
It’s rare for a super hero event book to really feel like it has any stakes just because of the stagnancy necessary to the various franchises, but Secret Wars has the unique air of finality that perhaps no event since DC’s original “Crisis on Infinite Earth”has had. And while the novelty of a major team up of various super heroes has worn off since Marvel’s original “Secret Wars” cash-in and eighties classic, the current “Secret Wars” feels like a very different beast. For one thing comparing the two displays the way in which comics have evolved and matured over the years. While the original works as a display of the way comics were in the eighties, the current title similarly captures what comics have evolved in to over the years. A mashup of genres, full of high drama and ever worsening “Wars” and “Crises,” that overtake all of their continuity and often rewrite history in one way or another. The destruction and creation of the first two issues is a microcosm of the comics publishing industry as a whole–death and rebirth–creation and recreation.
So why does “Secret Wars” feel so special, since that last paragraph got so away from me? Because in the first issue the world really did end. We witnessed the entire Marvel Universe die except for a select few characters. We know that the Ultimate Comics line won’t be continuing, save for a few characters like Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man making the transition into the mainstream comics. The status quo of the entire Marvel Universe has shifted to be Battleworld and pretty much only Battleworld. It’s a line wide commitment that shows that maybe things might actually be different in the end.
Much of the charm and tension of issues two and three of “Secret Wars” involved the introduction of Battleworld and a more distant view of its inhabitants and characters. But as issue three comes to a close it is clear that characters are going to be at the heart of this story going forward. Our glimpses at the pathos of Doctor Doom and the promise of our heroes having to come to grips with this new reality offer plenty of possible stories. Most importantly, even with the New Avengers and Avengers titles, we still don’t really know what the heck is going on, why all the infinite universes of the multiverse were destroyed, or how the Marvel U will come back. Or whether there’s a dark secret at the heart of Battleworld beyond it being a megalomaniacal outlet for Doom’s God Complex.
If you’re a Marvel newbie, “Secret Wars” may seem intimidating, but I think it’s a great way to jump into the nonsensical, thrilling world of super heroes. You’ll get a little bit of everything that makes comics great. Fantasy, science fiction, world ending threats and a group of desperate heroes doing everything they can to save it. If my little synopsis here doesn’t intrigue you, then super hero comics may just not be for you. There’s a possibility the series will end up being a huge stinker, but with all the work, money, and advertisement that has gone into this event, it’s safe to say that Marvel believes in the story, and it is certainly in safe hands with Hickman and Ribic. It’s ridiculous in the best way, with just enough verisimilitude that only super hero comics can pull of. Check it out. God Emperor Doom commands it.