Shawn Hill: The epic scale is back, if in some rather familiar formats. It’s God War, Lord Doom vs. the Black Panther with an Infinity Gauntlet (and Namor’s approval, which may count for almost as much) that quickly turns into a format we’ve seen before. It’s The Fury vs. Mad Jim Jaspers, reality-warping villains of Captain Britain, one of the first places Marvel comics begin exploring multiversal versions of their characters and worlds. Ribic and Hickman give their version as Doom and T’Challa destroy worlds (or the patchwork Battleworld that Doom has created at least) with each transformative blow. And the scale and the sound and the fury are truly impressive.
But it’s not where the real battle is, as we realize eventually. The real battle is down the rabbit hole with the Molecule Man, so hungry, so powerful, so trapped despite being an eternal power battery for all reality. What’s he trapped by? Why does it matter to him that the two Reed Richards and eventually the one Doom come down to do final battle on his turf? Because though he has power, he has no plan. And Doom (and Sheriff Strange, and the Thors, and the other world leaders in Doom’s feudal game of thrones) had one. But Reed has a question, as he always does. With all that power to command, why did he make this? Why recreate versions of everything that was being lost in the last apocalypse, limited by Doom’s most petty personal desires and beliefs.
What if there was a better idea that could do more than just save the few, under Doom’s authority?
Jamil Scalese: To me, it’s inarguable that Marvel’s Secret Wars wholly succeeded thematically. The central leitmotif of the fictional universe is the relationship between power and responsibility and the way it was examined in this series through the mythos of the Fantastic Four (accented with some Avengers lore) succeeded by breaking the classic characters down to their rawest elements.
Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom have faced off many times but never quite like this. Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic literally and metaphorically twist and entwine the rival geniuses, showing us their similar ability and the chasmic rifts in philosophy that make their coexistence untenable. I got a lot of emotional closure out of Secret Wars #9, it did well in regard to following writer’s strengths of employing big concepts, abandoning generics and a story that rushes headlong into the throng of Marvel calamity. Yes, this event style crossover is a winner in terms of poetic craftsmanship, particularly in regard to its main character, Victor von Doom.
But outside of that? Ehhh. The art was pretty great throughout, this issue rocked my eyeballs, however I’d say the plot’s biggest accolade was that it was coherent. It’s not so much the story was decompressed, the typical ailment of the modern large-scale crossover, but I think the focus wandered, and some of the stuff toward the end felt pointless and roundabout.
Shawn: A coherent Hickman story is an achievement indeed, to my mind. But I agree the concept, complicated as it was, succeeded and was coherent from start to finish. We both remember the contradictory nadir of Age of Ultron, the drama for its own sake of Siege, the ornate Asgardian politics of whatever that thing was with all the hammers … but we quite liked Original Sin, right? At least most of it, for its very weirdness and world-changing ambitions? And its willingness to revive some long lost bits of Marvel lore along the way? And of course AvX had its high and low moments, too.
What worked best about Secret Wars was how rich and overloaded Battleworld was with players and action. The other mini-series seemed to always have jobs to do and specific goals to accomplish (when it wasn’t too much about reset buttons), but this one was ambitious: EVERYthing was over, and ANYthing could happen. That’s what keeps the final issue so raw and primal to me: Doom did everything he could, in his own twisted version of setting things right. And when Reed and Owen finally get to see it clearly, they instantly have a better idea. Sucks to be Victor I guess.
Jamil: The point about the openness and the underlying possibility of this story is extremely accurate. Every Marvel character and concept was on the table, and with that in mind Hickman did a nice job really concentrating on a few mainline ideas while accenting it all with familiar icons like Groot, Hulk, Dr. Strange and the like.
As far how this sizes up to other crossovers? It’s the shining star. Marvel’s choice to make this this their only story of real consequence for about six whole months is a atypical move in the modern market, and it paid off. The story of a slipshod kingdom and its quixotic though tragically scarred ruler was unexpected on many levels and never really slid into any heavy cliche.
Going off that, I enjoyed many parts of the climax and epilogue. As you pointed to: it all turned on a conversation. No big gimmick by Reed and co., just a question to the true power wielder, Owen Reece, about selecting the best option. You also have to kind of love the pseudo-send off for the Fantastic Four franchise. After a summer that saw their brand shunned by fans, critics and rights holders alike they are funneled to their purest form, adventurers of science, on the mission to do “the most important thing ever”. I’ve come to love the First Family over the recent years, credit Hickman for that, and I adored their role in this comic. We might look back on this as one of the better Fantastic Four stories of all time. Who would have thought that when we started?
Shawn: Agreed, Hickman did well to contrast the mad 1610 Reed with our 616 father figure; a strong reinvestment in the basic First Family unit, though it was a shame that Sue had so little role to play. Doom so mystified her that only her daughter gained any clear perspective on what was happening, or was prepared for what was to come after Doom. Ribic also failed really to differentiate the two distaff blondes in the family, and I have to think in a game of such consequence, with world-changing showcases of strength for Ben and Johnny and Franklin, that leaving Sue effectively powerless was a missed opportunity. She actually had far more to do in Age of Ultron, ironically.
Jamil: That’s a salient point, Invisible Woman did just kind of stand around looking aghast for much of this story. Hickman’s written some of the better Sue I’ve ever read, a bold, loving and level-headed character that contrasted with Reed very well in terms of balancing his negatives and serving as a bedrock of common sense. However, we should note that aside from the last few pages the Sue shown here was not the 616 version (we should also note the designation of “616” is now obsolete, it’s called the Prime universe now). The book makes a point to show us this version of Sue has never met Reed, and if we go off the Silver Age version of the character she was pretty wide-eyed and naive until Byrne got a hold of her much later. That’s not to say that the modern day Susan Richards is only possible through her husband influence because if you look at the Maker, a version of Reed without Sue, you get a much more distorted copy of the classic version.
Alright, Mr. Hill, we both view Secret Wars as a victory in terms as an individual series, but how did it shake down as an event? The behemoth of a crossover dominated the line for more than half a year producing about fifty or so #1s! Through our combined efforts we read a big chunk of those. What are your thoughts on the tie-ins? Any specific shout-outs?
Shawn: With Carol going hard-core military and other strong-willed Marvel women relegated to being Thors, it was nice (if a little obvious) to have A-Force give us an island of strong-hitting and diverse females. Women played interesting roles in several of the tie-ins, especially Siege with the ever-resourceful Agent Brand, Ultimate End with some articulate Avengers and Spider-women, of course in Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps they were mostly in a world of their own, obsessed with flying jets as usual lately from that book. The women of Squadron Sinister were as lethal as the men, but that series harkened back to the original concept of the evil-JLA/Avengers analogs quite chillingly, meaning there wasn’t really a redeemable character of any sort. The new Squadron Supreme is skating close to the same nihilism. And while the MODOK Assassin series gave us the unlikely team-up of MODOK and Angela, we read about her through the Giant Head’s lovestruck eyes for the most part, though they do make a deadly duo.
But you know, I think my favorite Battleworld series may well have been Korvac Saga. That strange glimpse into a shard of Jim Shooter’s best Avengers epic is the best original Guardians of the Galaxy showcase I’ve read lately, and the chance to see Michael and Carina (another two beings who might have challenged Doom had he not got there first) try once again to create a more perfect reality was both heart-rending and entertaining (since realizing what was really happening led to insanity and Jekyll/Hyde transformations, which was the kind of thing that might have happened in the 1970s anyway). It was another way of saying that Doom created hell when he could have had heaven.
Jamil: Using the Jekyll/Hyde analogy as a jumping off point I’ll give a nod to Planet Hulk which combined the conceits of Captain America and the Hulk in astoundingly clever ways and provided smart commentary on the deeper truths of both personas. It’s possible Sam Humphries and Marc Laming best utilized the “open” world of Secret Wars by going very abstract instead of centering their story on a specific landmark (like a character or crossover or time period) in the publisher’s history.
Some series did well by that method, though. Civil War, which will be a pop culture buzzword here again very soon, speculated a dark but entertaining alternative ending, a long form “What If?”, to the classic, and divisive, series. I’ve always been a Marvel Zombies fan so this new installment by two of my preferred creators Si Spurrier and Kev Walker satisfied me in every regard. X-Men ‘92 needs a mention just for its ingenuity and meta comedy. One of my favorite single issues out of the whole event was 1872 #2 and overall Gerry Duggan and Nik Virella’s authentic and brutal Western was a pure delight. Those last two series I mentioned are unlikely survivors of Secret Wars, with ‘92 getting an ongoing and Red Wolf landing his own series.
What’s crazy to me is nearly all these titles could be read in a vacuum. That’s a huge departure from the normal event where ongoing series are temporarily commandeered and any spin-off miniseries are handcuffed to the core book. That was the antithesis with Secret Wars, and I almost didn’t like it. I would have appreciated some series linking together or providing context to the main comic. I mean Thors, another good series, did that to a degree, but not nearly as much as you’d expect.
Shawn: Well, maybe that’s a part of the new Prime Universe thinking. DC has found various ways to keep some of its alternate realities going (do they still have 52 worlds? I may have lost track of all that converged and diverged recently), and the meta-text of this event is that maybe we could ALL be Lord Victor, in a way. The creators are free to write the continuities they prefer, and we as readers can pick and choose from an array of options, at least until something sticks. I don’t mind if it means more artistic license.
Similar to your appreciation for a fresh examination on Civil War, I really thought E is for Extinction did more with the game-changing Grant Morrison New X-Men run than any of the actual books did back in the day. Off-concept art and a focus on Magneto’s weirdest brotherhood (the Special Class) led to fun storytelling and a look at the mutants in a way that was neither sexy nor malignant, but more of an evolutionary mind-trip.
Jamil: I am looking forward to accumulating these tie-ins via bargain bin and cheap trades over the next few years. Marvel put on their Image cowl and fostered, or feigned, a culture of openness and parity. The writers got to fiddle around in the immense toy chest, and art teams bent iconic characters into all types of fascinating shapes, old and new. While I found their autonomy to be detrimental in terms of serving the center storyline these tie-ins should hold up over time.
There is so much stuff I wanted to read but I simply had to draw a line. You can’t throw too much of your money at the corporate overlords, right? In recent months, and days, there’s been an interesting conversation about the noticeable trend of Marvel’s release strategy of paper and ink inundation. They basically stopped all their titles cold then they flooded us with material, then did it again five months later. I’ll admit, there’s a part of me that loves the strategy, with the fictional universe, and the editorial direction, engaging in a uniform realignment, but it’s tough to refute that it’s just plain impossible to keep up with all these new comic. I have neither a child nor a severe drug habit however I still need to make difficult choices on the Marvel end of my subs list. The All-New All-Different line has fifty series all trying to grab the same dollar, and it’s not going to work in the long term. I truly like the idea of a full numerical reset every half decade or so, but the company needs to find a better way.
Shawn: I, on the other hand, like letting the old numbers continue forever. I love reading #722 of something, knowing there’s all that legacy if I want to go back and delve into it, but enjoying the current writer/artist team and direction nonetheless. Fake Image may be exactly what they’re feigning now, great call, and they should keep learning from that once upstart company that shook everything up. Focus on the creators, and the audience will come (to Kirkman, to Vaughan, to Cassaday, to Lee, etc.). Let the stories unfold, and tie in continuity as needed. That’s what Retcons and No Prizes are for!
However, while I like a lot of distinct books, I don’t like genre glut. Do we need 5 Avengers books, 6 X-books, all with tradeable variations of the same team? That is overload, and think of the audience one such title might have if it was the only option. As it is I’m picking one (like I did with Uncanny Avengers over the past few years) and ignoring the rest. The high concepts have to be distinct, and I currently can’t sort them out.
Because not only are these titles competing with their brothers and sisters, they’re also competing with a major licensed property. I’ll be honest, I’m buying EVERY Star Wars book right now, and they’ve got top talent and a master plan and are MUCH easier to follow than whether something is All-New or Uncanny or X-traordinary, etc. Marvel’s biggest Secret War is with itself!
Jamil: In the ye olde days of the New 52 I read an extremely astute comment somewhere on the webscape that suggested that had DC initially launched sixteen, maybe even eight books, and then slowly grew its line it could have retained much of that new readership because the world would have felt more tangible and cohesive. I mean we can’t deny the absolute truth that more product makes good business sense but you can only diversify superheroes so much, Hellcat(!) and Daredevil and Hyperion might be different books for different folks but they’re essentially about the same thing, people with talents in tights.
Secret Wars, the comic and the concept, worked. The massive scale of it was exciting adequately relayed scope but it should be a weapon the company rarely pulls from its holster. The principle comic is absolutely the best of its ilk, more robust, unpredictable and thought-out and thorough than anything either of the major publishers has produced. Jonathan Hickman’s multi-year story came to a satisfactory conclusion, uniting and distilling his entire Marvel stint into an oneiric work centered on a great character. Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina matched that effort in every issue and the mystical, otherworldly yet hauntingly familiar world infused a unique look into the fibers of an important project.
All the months, pages and dollars were a good time spent but I’m glad to be taking a break from the crossover game for a few…weeks. I guess I’m getting suckered into Standoff!… We’ll meet again to talk about the next war, Shawn. I’m guessing it will be, ahem, civil.