It all kicked off in the run-up to Comic Con 2014, when Marvel began teasing mysterious event-related images – and finally, in November 2014, Marvel began to explain away the idea of what would become their biggest event ever.
“Secret Wars” was the natural outgrowth of Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers series, which he began in January 2013. Hickman’s plan was to weave a complex cosmic tale of the entire multiverse collapsing, with the Illuminati struggling to avert the relentless tide of destruction. By May 2015, he was prepared to reveal the shocking truth:
The Illuminati, self-appointed defenders of reality, could only try to flee the multiversal destruction. Doom, on the other hand, successfully uncovered the beings responsible for this – the Beyonders – and, we learned in Secret Wars #2, rescued as much as he could, with himself as god. Marvel cancelled pretty much their entire line, replacing it with the patchwork reality of Battleworld, and with countless miniseries. Back in the main title, when two bands of survivors from 616 and the Ultimate realities awoke upon Battleworld – with no less than two versions of Reed Richards – the stage was set for an epic conflict.
But how did it go?
The main Secret Wars book
The main book was plagued with difficulties – as is obvious by the fact it only finished in January 2016, when it was originally scheduled for October 2015. Marvel’s approach to the event, depending entirely on Jonathan Hickman as writer and Esad Ribic as artist, was flawed – the duo seemed unable to keep up with their workload, and the books constantly ran late. Secret Wars even needed an extra issue, in the end.
It’s usually fashionable to blame the artist for this kind of thing, and sure – there’s been evidence of that, with moments when Ribic’s art has really stumbled. On some occasions, he’s notably recycled sketches from earlier books (for example, Secret Wars #1 included a Sentinel sketch literally lifted from Ribic’s work on X-Men: Battle of the Atom #2). That said, in general, Ribic’s art has been gorgeous.
The real problem has been with Hickman. Secret Wars #5 was largely filler, and the number of issues was expanded to allow him to finish the story off. In the end, the criticism from Secret Wars Too (a one-issue spoof) seems accurate:
As is often the case with a cosmic story like this, characters drift in and out of focus, with Hickman often caught up in the cosmic drama. It’s somehow oddly appropriate that a Secret Wars edition of the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe was pretty much required reading to understand some aspects of the tale he’s been telling! Unfortunately, as was the case with Hickman’s earlier event (Infinity), certain plot developments aren’t contained within the narrative of the main book, and get confusing if you haven’t been reading, say, Thors.
To all those who believed Marvel were killing off the Fantastic Four, Secret Wars has been a wake-up call. This event was absolutely focused on Doctor Doom and Reed Richards, and with the release of Secret Wars #9, we see Hickman take Reed and Sue to the highest playing-field they’ve ever been on. Sure, they’re written out of superheroics for now, but only because the scale of their work is beyond anything that mere universes can contain. Hickman’s love for the Fantastic Four has shone through the whole event; where Captain Marvel got vague page-time (and her death wasn’t even on-panel), all of the Fantastic Four dominated the book. Secret Wars is easily just the largest-scale Fantastic Four adventure, with the biggest supporting cast ever.
Unfortunately, the much-awaited ending is a damp squib. Hickman resets the clock – literally all the way back to New Avengers #1 from 2013. Everything that he did, is undone; a handful of people (presumably the Raft survivors) have a memory of it, but that’s all. The problem here is that All-New All-Different Marvel has been running for some time now (it started in October, back when Secret Wars was supposed to finish), and has been giving us a very different picture. If everything has been put right, why is the Ultimate Universe merged with 616? Why is the Maestro based on the remains of Battleworld? Why did the Squadron Supreme kill Namor for destroying their reality? Where did ISO-8 come from? Why has New Avengers #1 referred to this multiversal death and rebirth, and why is Magneto in Uncanny X-Men #1 referencing his near-death as he struggled to avert the final Incursion?
Most likely, these issues are a result of the simple fact that Hickman didn’t have an ending; and the one he’s come up with, which is literally an ‘act of God’, isn’t particularly satisfying. Since his ending came out three-and-a-half months late, other writers just had to pick things up and run with them.
I make no bones about it, I’m not a fan of the ‘reset button’ approach – not least because it leaves things as a continuity nightmare. What actually happened between New Avengers #1 in 2013 and the All-New All-Different Marvel Universe? Did Infinity really happen in this timeline? If the Incursions were averted, why is Spider-UK even working with the Web Warriors (he stayed with them because his reality was destroyed)? How exactly did Sunspot take over A.I.M. in the first place, and why?
Continuity between the main Secret Wars title and its tie-ins has also been poor. The Age of Apocalypse tie-in showed Apocalypse’s death, but he’s there in the final battle in Secret Wars. Ribic seems to shift wildly between different variations of Madelyne Pryor in terms of art, at one point trying to use colouring to hide the fact he’s got the wrong costume. And the stars of Ultimate End and Old Man Logan play absolutely no part in the main book, even though Brian Bendis set them up to play a major role, and showed them in the final battle.
As time passes, some of these problems will lessen. Nobody cares that an issue of Civil War ran late; only geeks like me would even remember it. Years from today, fans will pick up Secret Wars in trade paperback format, and the delays won’t mean a thing; but the plotting issues will, and if they dip into the tie-ins, they’ll start to spot the continuity errors. I’m afraid this event has simply been a lot weaker than it should have been.
So is this event a failure?
The reality is, though, that in sales terms Secret Wars has been a success. Secret Wars and its tie-ins delivered Marvel months of top sales performance – Secret Wars #8 was December’s best-seller, and I have no doubt that Secret Wars #9 will claim January’s top slot. The tie-ins have been fascinating; some, such as Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows have delivered stories that are sure to be long-standing fan-favourites, while others – such as Infinity Gauntlet – have been fresh, cool takes on older Marvel concepts. In spite of the main title’s many issues, this can be chalked down as a success.
That’s so in even more ways, though; Secret Wars has allowed Marvel to consolidate their line, relaunching it in a wave running from October 2015 to February 2016. It’s a move comparable to DC’s New 52, and this All-New All-Different Marvel is both a sales and critical success, on the whole. Meanwhile, Secret Wars has allowed Marvel to pull their favourite threads from the long-failing Ultimate Universe into the main reality, with characters like Miles Morales and the Maker now a major presence; it’s given them a shot to add other fresh elements, such as Old Man Logan and Weirdworld, into the mix. The creative opportunity that Secret Wars has presented is tremendous.
Ultimately, then, my opinion on Secret Wars is simple: the concept was great, but sadly the execution was lacking. I hope that Marvel have learned their lessons, and that they go on to use the very best concepts that Secret Wars has freed up for them.