Is SECRET WARS Worth Reading?
A few months ago I wrote an angry article about Marvel's Secret Wars series (no, not the one from the 80s, the one that is three issues deep now). At the time it was announced that this series would end the Marvel Universe, which would collide with the Ultimate Universe, and that nothing would ever again be the same. It read, at the time, like standard reboot language, like Marvel was going down a path DC Comics had well trod over the years, one where in-story machinations led to the erasure and rebuilding of all the company's previous stories. DC has done this a couple of times - both large scale (Crisis on Infinite Earths) and small scale (Zero Hour) - with the most recent being the Flashpoint series that birthed their current "New 52" continuity.
Recent developments indicate I was wrong about a clean slate reboot, although it seems as though Marvel is using the Secret Wars event as a way to slightly tweak some continuity, and they'll definitely be using it as a way to bring alt-universe characters like Miles Morales, the Spider-Man of the Ultimate Universe, and Spider-Gwen - a Gwen Stacy of an alternate universe who got Spider-Man's powers - into the mainstream Marvel U*. Secret Wars seems to be closer to infinite Crisis, a DC crossover event that altered aspects of the publisher's recent history without enacting a wholesale change.
With all of that in mind - knowing that Secret Wars is a rearranging as opposed to a reboot, is it worth reading? Three issues (and a whole bunch of spin-offs) in, I say very much yes.
While the story is the pay-off to about five years of Jonathan Hickman stories in Avengers and New Avengers, literally none of that matters. I'm actually baffled by the intense lead-up to this series, as its basic conceit is one that Marvel has handled before with much less fuss - see the Age of Apocalypse crossover event, or the excellent two-parter in X-Men 190/191, albeit on a smaller scale - and I think that well-publicized long story only serves to turn people off. Also baffling: starting Secret Wars #1 in such a way that it's the final issue of that long story, when the series should actually have begun with the events of Secret Wars #2. Let me break it down for you:
For quite some time the Marvel superheroes have been aware that a series of cosmic calamties have been befalling the alternate worlds that make up the multiverse. Alternate earths have been colliding, and the only option is to either destroy one, saving the other, or let both die. As these incursions continue - and threaten our own world - the heroes became more and more desperate and more and more divided on how to save everyone. In the end only two worlds remained - our world, known as Earth 616, and the Ultimate Universe. In the pages of Secret Wars #1 they collided and both were destroyed.
But it turns out that it didn't all end there. Doctor Doom, Doctor Strange and the Molecule Man worked together to create a new world in the darkness, a world made up of patches of other alternate earths. They have all been melded together in what is known as Battleworld (after the patchwork world that The Beyonder made for the heroes to fight the villains in the toy-motivated original Secret Wars), and no one living on it remembers a time before. Doom rules as the supreme god of this world, and his only rule is that no one can pass unpermitted between the domains that make up Battleworld. Each domain has its own Baron who runs things as they see fit. Some of the domains are very familiar - Inferno is a domain where the X-Men lost during the hell invasion in the 90s Inferno crossover, 2099 is the near-future Marvel world as seen in the canceled 2099 line of comics - while some are very new, like Greenland, a continent where everybody (and everything) is a Hulk. Because these domains are taken from alternate worlds it's possible that there are multiple versions of your favorite characters running around on Battleworld - I've counted quite a few Wolverines and Punishers and Daredevils already.
Here's the thing: you didn't need to read any of the previous comics to understand this, because this is all new. The domains are based on alternate earths we have seen in old Marvel comics, but they're largely reimagined versions of those anyway. There's a domain where Spider-Man never had Mephisto annul his marriage to Mary Jane, and a domain that seems to be made up of 1930s/40s pulp concepts. Everybody is discovering what Battleworld is together, and the only thing you should have walking in is a very basic understanding of the main Marvel characters.
The events in the main Secret Wars series have been sort of slow-moving, as you expect in the modern age of decompressed storytelling. The first issue is honestly skippable if you're not a completist/interested in the culmination of Hickman's long tale. When 2 opens up the old universe is over and Battleworld is, and has been for some time. We meet the Thor Corps, Doom's personal justice keepers, and we see how Doom keeps the peace. We meet Stephen Strange, who serves as Doom's counselor and the lawkeeper. And we discover that a couple of characters from the previous universes have made it through to this new world, their memories intact, including our Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Reed Richards, and a few more. Also making the trip: Thanos and a group of villains. At the end of issue three it's clear that these three factions - Doom and Strange, the heroes and the villains - will be coming to blows at some point, probably all across the domains of Battleworld.
I quite like the main series. There's a Game of Thrones feel to it (there's even a massive wall behind which lurk the undead), and I think Hickman has done something really interesting with Doom - he has allowed him to attain everything he ever wanted. What does a guy like Doctor Doom do when he becomes god? How does it impact him? This is good, meaty and surprisingly emotional stuff, and I find myself interested in the administration of Battleworld, and life in the capital. I found Hickman's Avengers stuff often too overstuffed with nonsense and overly complex with opaque storytelling, but so far Secret Wars has been terrifically told. Perhaps it's because Hickman's usual thing - dropping names or events or planets without explanation - works here because nobody knows what's going on. In the pages of The Avengers I would often wonder if an event being referenced was something I missed or if it was just Hickman being coy, and in Secret Wars I always know the answer.
The premise here is that the Marvel Universe is over, and so all the rest of the books are gone. In theory - some are still being published, but they're being replaced with special titles that take place on Battleworld. Quite a few have been published so far (with a ton more yet to come), and while some have been, honestly, underwhelming or bad, a number have been absolutely excellent. If you decide to give Secret Wars a shot - and I think it's good, largely self-contained reading - here are some of the spin-offs so far that seem worth following:
Master of Kung Fu: set in a K'un Lun, a mystical Asian land, this title is maybe the most immediately fun book in the spin-off line-up. Shang Chi is the drunken, dissolute son of the evil emperor. When he joins forces with some young kung-fu rebels (recognizable as classic New Mutants characters) he finds himself swept up in the revolution. Some of the Secret Wars settings will carry over to the new Marvel Universe, and I wouldn't mind seeing this heavily wuxia-inspired version of K'un Lun make the trip.
Deadpool's Secret Wars: Deadpool wasn't even created when the original Secret Wars happened, but this comic asks what if he was. It's a weird, cheeky insertion of the Merc with a Mouth into familiar scenes from the comic that started the modern Marvel age of crossovers.
Planet Hulk: Steve Rogers is a long-haired gladiator who fights alongside Devil Dinosaur as he attempts to find out what happened to Bucky Barnes. Possibly the coolest title yet released.
Inhumans: Attlian Rising: I'm not entirely sold on the first issue of this book, but its last page - Blackbolt as a bartender in a 30s style classy club - makes me want to find out where it's going.
The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows: The title where Spidey is married. Writer Dan Slott introduces Regent, a supervillain who could have risen directly from any early 90s crossover, and the world he creates is really fascinating.
Old Man Logan: A future where all the heroes and villains have killed each other, with Wolverine as an old dude trying to live his own life. It's basically Unforgiven with Wolverine, and the art is terrific.
Infinity Gauntlet: This book is sort of the opposite of Attilan Rising for me - it's set on a world where alien bugs have taken over the Earth, and the remaining family of a slain Nova Corps member struggles to survive. At the end there's an Infinity Stone and a Thanos (not the one from the main Secret Wars series), which actually seems like a less interesting direction than where the book started... but I like these characters enough that I want to find out what happens next.
Future Imperfect: A domain ruled over by the iron fist of Maestro, the future Hulk. The leader of the underground resistance: The Thing, of course.
The title that has gotten a lot of attention is A-Force, an all-female comic set in an all-female domain, written by G Willow Wilson, who writes the hyper-popular Ms. Marvel. I was really excited for this title and I have to say that the first issue is basically a total whiff, there are too many characters to service in one issue, the story is murky and, compared to the other spin-offs, these versions of the characters don't feel particularly distinct or grounded in a singular moment/concept. Wilson just took a bunch of Marvel heroines and jammed them together, or at least that's how it comes across in the rushed first issue. A-Force has already been announced as continuing post-Secret Wars, so I will stick with it, but the first issue truly underwhelmed.
There are more that I haven't read yet (and I'm done reading the Secret Wars: Battlezones and Secret Wars Journals after just one issue - the anthology format seems like a great idea, but modern writers can barely fit a story in one comic, let alone in ten pages); I'm not sure if I'll get around to writing about more of these but keep an eye on my twitter (@devincf) because I'm sure to give opinions there.
Secret Wars is a cool concept, slightly undermined by all the sturm und drang of its lengthy lead in and all of its "Worlds will live, worlds will die!" hype. It's a wild, wacky and far-reaching alternate reality story, one that has plenty of references and nods to make longtime fans feel serviced while also being a good starting point. Jump in with #2 and begin discovering Battleworld alongside everybody else.
* side note: as an old curmudgeon who likes his Spider-Man a solo character who is a serious lone wolf, I dislike the idea of expanding the 'Spider Family.' And I'm not wild about bringing an alt version of Gwen Stacy into Peter's life, as I think it tends to cheapen Gwen's death. But I will read the comics to see how it all works out.