People say that superhero stories are the modern mythology, that these larger-than-life colorful characters are the latter day descendants of Hercules and Odysseus and Jason. The best superhero stories, they say, resonate with us on a primal level as tales of heroes engaged in timeless conflicts that speak to us about our own hopes, dreams and ambitions.
But imagine if every third Greek myth was about Zeus going back in time to fix something, or about dozens of pan-dimensional Herculi battling and forming a new, composite Hercules. Imagine if Greek myth, rather than accruing details and changing over the course of oral retellings, addressed all of these additions and omissions in the stories themselves, endlessly and repetitively. What if Greek myths ended up just being about keeping Greek myths straight?
They’d be the modern superhero comic, a form that has been hurtling its head towards its own colon at top speed for the last thirty years. For most of that time it was DC Comics leading the charge towards endlessly self-referential stories that existed only to clean house in order to keep the most OCD longtime readers happy but now Marvel, with their Secret Wars event, has joined the race.
At least that’s what it seems like from today’s announcement, which was done as a streaming press conference. The upcoming summer event is building out of years of Marvel storytelling, as various comic characters have found themselves either screwing with the time stream or attempting to stop incursions from alternate earths. In Secret Wars all of these alternate earths will come together on a Battleworld, and they will come into conflict and from this a new order will emerge.
Insert fart noise here.
This isn't the first Secret Wars. The first Secret Wars (real name: Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars) was a toy-driven 1984 miniseries event where a mysterious being known as the Beyonder brought many heroes and villains to his Battleworld and had them duke it out. It’s lowbrow stuff with plenty of cheap excuses for fisticuffs, but I always found the series surprisingly fun. From the Hulk holding up an entire mountain to save the heroes to Spider-Man getting his new black costume to the X-Men facing prejudice from other heroes to Doctor Doom, being Doctor Doom, attempting to conquer the Beyonder and usurp his power, Secret Wars was joyful schlock.
It was followed by Secret Wars II, the stealth best crossover of all time wherein The Beyonder comes to Earth to learn how to be human, but it was more immediately followed by the event that would define all comic book events for the entire lifetimes of many of you reading this: Crisis on Infinite Earths. That was a DC crossover and it wasn’t intended to sell toys. It was intended to clean house.
The DC comic book universe had been growing willy nilly since the 1930s, with the individual books kinda sorta connected and with multiple versions of the same characters, all said to be living on alternate earths from each other, separated only by vibrational frequency. By the mid-80s there was a lot of convoluted lore involved in this, much of which was contradictory or confusing. DC decided to do something about it, and over the course of the 12 issues of Crisis The Anti-Monitor destroyed most of the alternate earths and then, at the end, merged together the remaining ones to create a new world with a familiar, but changed, history. Continuity was fixed and DC could continue on from this new point with all the favorite characters cleaned up, modernized and placed in a nice place on the shelf.
Except that isn’t what happened, and DC spent the next thirty years running in circles over that same ground, trying to clean up the mess that their original clean-up effort had made. Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, Flashpoint and now, this summer, Convergence, all tackled the continuity of the new DC Universe, with Flashpoint rebooting it yet again into the New 52 Universe and the upcoming Convergence seemingly set to do another soft reboot of it all. At this point trying to explain the history of a character like Hawkman or a group like The Legion of Superheroes, both impacted by multiversal changes and time travel hullabaloo, will give even the biggest DC nerd a headache. The cure, it turned out, was worse than the disease.
Marvel always had a leg up on DC in this area. Very early on it was decided that Marvel would always have a sliding timeline - that the beginning of the modern age of the Marvel Universe was always a few years ago (lately we’re about ten or twelve years since the appearance of Spider-Man, for instance). This has required readers to simply accept things, such as Tony Stark having once having his origin tied into Vietnam but now having it tied into Afghanistan. Flash Thompson went from a Vietnam vet to an Iraq War vet. No mystical event was required to explain this - we all just understood that there was no way Flash could still have been in Vietnam and yet be in his early 30s (at the latest) and kind of let it go.
What a great way to approach continuity! “Let it go.” What’s important is the story, not the details, and details can be updated as the story goes on. When the Romans began telling tales of the Greek demigod Heracles they didn’t need to create a Crisis On Olympus to explain why Zeus was now Jupiter and why the Roman version of Hercules had some adventures that were different from the Greek version. They just let it go. And this stuff was their actual religion, by the way, not even a hobby.
But Marvel, with this summer’s Secret Wars, seems to have succumbed to the siren song of the housecleaning event. Crisis on Battleworld will bring together many Marvel continuities- but most especially the main one and the Ultimate Universe that has served as an inspiration for many of the movies - and eventually bring them together.
"The Ultimate Universe and the Marvel Universe are going to smash together," editor-in-chief Axel Alonso said today. "Imagine there's two pizzas. They're going to smash together. You're going to have all-new toppings. Some toppings are going to drop off. You're going to yell about some that are missing. You're going to love the new ones that are there. That's the new Marvel universe moving forward."
Let’s set aside the fact that ‘smashing pizzas together’ is pretty much the same thing as ‘make a huge fucking mess,’ Alonso is pretty clearly talking about a Crisis-style reboot. Not everything will start back at the beginning (although some things might; after Crisis, for instance, Superman started over from the start, erasing ALL of his previous continuity) but lots of stuff will disappear or be replaced. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is using the deeply boring Ultimate Hawkeye, for instance, so I imagine Clint Barton’s history as a SHIELD agent will be the new continuity, as opposed to his original, fun history as a villain.
It’s worth noting that this is almost 100% the reason why Secret Wars is happening - to bring the Marvel Comics universe more into line with the movies. If you doubt this is the case, consider that the comics bent over backwards to bring in a black Nick Fury to match the films - a change that has no meaning in-universe beyond having a character that more closely resembles Samuel L Jackson answering to the name Nick Fury*. I don’t have any real problem with the new Nick Fury but you have to wonder why this new guy had to have the old name, you know?
I say almost 100% the reason for the event because there’s another percentage of reasoning that comes down to money - these events sell. Marvel will sell a lot of books, and as the changes shake out - as we find out the new Spider-Man continuity, or learn that Fantastic Four is being rebooted from the ground up to get rid of the cosmic rays stuff - readers will come poking around out of curiosity. Probably not new ones - I have lost faith in the mythical creature known as “New Readers” - but rather old, lapsed ones. It works for DC every three to five years.
It’s frustrating to see Marvel do this because the great charm of the Marvel Universe was its continuity. No, not the actual details of it, but the sense that the Spider-Man today is the same guy having the continuing adventures of the guy from Amazing Fantasy #15. The current Marvel Universe is made up of a thousand blossoming branches that grew from the seeds planted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and Roy Thomas and Gene Colan and John Romita and John Buscema and Marie Severin and Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee and Chris Claremont and Ed Brubaker and Kelly Sue DeConnick and so many hundreds upon hundreds of others. I love picking up a Marvel comic today and knowing that there’s a thread - however long and occasionally tangled - that brings it back to Fantastic Four #1, cover date November 1961.
A funny thing happened after Flashpoint, when DC rebooted their whole universe for the second time in my life - I quit reading DC comics. Not just new ones, but old ones as well. I’d look at the trades on my shelves - including unfinished runs - and feel no need to return to them. Those stories are orphans now, stories that have been ruled to ‘not matter.’ That seems weird and picky, but they were originally stories intended to matter, as opposed to the weird, wild and continuity-screwed stories of the Gold and Silver Ages. Those stories are technically orphaned as well, but they always felt like Lost Boys - comics that just didn’t give a shit if it made sense as long as it was fun. You can revisit them because each issue is a universe unto itself. The post-Crisis comics all just feel like an abandoned project.
Marvel never had that wildness of pre-Crisis DC, which makes me think all pre-Crisis on Battleworld stories will have that same pointless feeling of post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint DC comics. Some of them will count, some of them won’t and you won’t have any idea which is which until a comic specifically reinforces or retcons the original stories. It’s a bummer in the making.
I’m fairly negative on this turn of events - I honestly never thought Marvel would reboot, especially in the middle of one of their most creatively fertile moments since the 80s. But I do reserve some small modicum of hope. When it was announced Bucky Barnes would come back to life I bitched and moaned and was met with the single greatest superhero comic storyline of the 21st century. Marvel has, more than once in the last ten years, set out on a path that seemed irredeemably stupid only to wow me with some great, fun storytelling. That could be happening here. I could walk out the other side of Secret Wars with a smile on my face, my love of Marvel Comics bolstered.
But shit, man - it’s going to have to be one hell of a killer story to get past the stink of “continuity redefining event.” And what’s more, it has to stick the landing in such a way that Marvel doesn’t fall into that same pit in which DC is stuck, where the heroes find their own histories and the various attempts to straighten them out to be their actual worst enemy.
* For those confused: the Ultimate Universe Nick Fury was based on Sam Jackson. The original Nick Fury was a white guy who fought in WWII with Captain America.