Marvel’s “Secret Wars” — the ambitious miniseries that ended the Marvel Universe as we know it — shouldn’t be any good. In fact, the odds against it being any good are somewhere in the upper limits of “impossible.”
Well, “Secret Wars” is what’s known as an “event comic.” They’re kind of like the summer blockbusters of superhero comic books. They can also be kind of a nightmare. To understand why, you need to know a little bit more about how they work.
“Event comics” are a frustrating quirk of the superhero comic book scene, a regularly scheduled disruption of your comic-reading life in which a heavily publicized miniseries that promises to “change everything” suddenly invades nearly every title you read from a given publisher whether you like it or not.
The ingredients are simple:
- A miniseries. This is the big hook, the blockbuster story. They have names fraught with portent like “Civil War,” “Final Crisis,” and “Secret Invasion.”
- The tie-ins. These are where you might get frustrated if said miniseries isn’t a story that excites you. The publisher (usually Marvel or DC) will then promote the tie-in by roping in a number of its popular series somehow, having the heroes of each book either dealing with the fallout of the miniseries or embarking on a tangential adventure that somehow relates to events going on in the miniseries. A lot of times, you have to buy the miniseries in order to understand why. That’s kind of the point.
- The spinoffs. As that last bit indicated, almost the entire point of event comics is trying to convince readers to buy even more comics, and there’s no better way to do that then launching new series. A lot of these are also miniseries created to further flesh out the main miniseries, trying to hook readers with the obsessive-compulsive itch to know “the whole story.”
- New books. A lot of these events introduce some sort of status quo change to the Marvel Universe: A hero dies, a regime changes, a conspiracy is revealed — stuff like that. These events are often used as a springboard for more comics, this time in the form of a brand-new series that will carry on (hopefully) long after the event concludes.
So, actually, they’re not simple at all.
They’re also not usually great — hamstrung out the gate with the ridiculous amount of objectives they need to accomplish, these stories end up obscuring their own narratives with muddy plotting and endless plate spinning, making it impossible to tell a satisfying, self-contained story. They are their own worst enemies, and some very good creators have done some of their worst work thanks to the demands of event comics.
But that doesn’t mean great things can’t happen during them. A lot of times, publishers will use these big events to take chances on new creators, assigning them a tie-in book. Sometimes, all those spinoffs and shake-ups result in genuinely exciting creative teams doing something different and innovative with an old character. Sometimes, event comics allow for more interesting stories — even if the actual event miniseries ends up being terrible. Not all the time. But sometimes.
Mostly this is just a matter of logistics. Once you understand the utter scope of an event comic, you wonder how anyone can tell a good story under such constraints and editorial juggling, and why they keep happening. As Andrew Wheeler of Comics Alliance wrote:
Crossovers are tricky business. If they weren’t stories about superheroes, controlled by corporate masters and motivated by sales, they’d be hailed as avant-garde experimental works. Multiple interconnected narratives explored in separate streams and presented in different visual styles, overlapping, diverging, shifting as the angles change, with parts of the whole revealed in glimpses, in incidents, creating a work that should be comprehensible whether consumed in its entirety or only in part? That’s some advanced level Italo Calvino trickery right there. And it’s got Thor in it!
Taking all this into consideration, the deck is pretty stacked against “Secret Wars.” But that’s something true of most event comics, as we’ve just illustrated.
Now we’re one month into the story, with three issues in the main miniseries and at least a dozen tie-ins and spinoffs out in the wild — and this is crazy, but “Secret Wars” is really good.
You might not know this from the first issue, which is a comic that echoes big cataclysmic disaster movies, but with a dour twist. The world ends, and the superheroes fail to stop it. The hows and whys are a bit murky and confusing, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter, because what happens after the end is what we’re here for, and it’s fascinating.
The second issue is where this becomes apparent. It’s an introduction to Battleworld, the patchwork planet that is what remains of the Marvel Universe. It’s a massive jigsaw puzzle of a world, comprised of self-contained domains themed after classic Marvel stories. Overseeing it all is an army of Thors who act as the police of Battleworld, serving the god-emperor that rules this strange world: The Fantastic Four’s most notorious villain, Doctor Doom.
It’s been said that “Secret Wars” is Marvel’s nod to “Game of Thrones,” which is kind of accurate but also not weird enough. This comic is weird, but in the best possible way. And we’re only three issues into the series.
Oh, and all that other ancillary tie-in stuff that usually comes with these event comics? The “Secret Wars” tie-ins are mostly pretty fun, too! There are reasons for this, like artists having the freedom to just cut loose and go to town. Consider Andrea Sorrentino’s work in “Old Man Logan,” a fantastic synthesis of colour, mood, and panel arrangement.
Or “Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows,” by Dan Slott and Adam Kubert which undoes one of Marvel’s least popular story decisions: Erasing the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson. “Vows” features Peter and MJ happily married, with a baby girl. It’s not the first time Peter has been depicted as a parent, but it is a reminder of just how having him as a father lends itself to some great story possibilities.
Or Dennis Hopeless and Javer Garron’s “Inferno,”which riffs on a landmark X-Men storyline of the same name for a comic that has a simple-yet-great premise: Every year, the X-Man Colossus leads a volunteer team of X-Men on a mission to a Manhattan overrun by demons in the hopes of saving his sister from their clutches. It’s a thrilling action story where literally anyone can die, but also profoundly sad at its core.
This is pretty remarkable and highly unusual, but one month in and it remains pretty true: “Secret Wars” has resulted in some great comics.
Of course, this could all fall apart at any time — we do have all summer ahead of us — but so far, the comics have delivered. And even though the Marvel Hype Train for what its comics will look like after “Secret Wars” is already underway (and kind of intriguing), it’s nice to not worry about what will happen and just enjoy what is happening.
At the end of the day, it’s probably fair to say that we’ll never see anything quite so strange, ambitious, and fun in a very long time.
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