This review has some mild spoilers from early plotlines in the series. So beware!
Marvel’s recent incarnation of Secret Wars is familiar, in that it falls in line with the company’s strategy of having a yearly “event” series. And that is where the similarities end. In an era when broad sweeping affairs fall short of expectations, Secret Wars is one of the best, big-deal, stories I’ve read in a long time.
I don’t go to the comic shops weekly and get the latest issues. I follow the major story-lines as best I can as they happen. But I do purchase many graphic novels (old and new), especially when events like these occur. And without a doubt this is the best story I’ve read since the first Civil War. And that was a long time ago.
This isn’t to say worthwhile and entertaining event comics, from Marvel, haven’t come out between now and then. Siege, AvX, Messiah Complex, and Secret Invasion were all special tales. But Civil War and its shift changing plot occurred in 2007. It was a landmark tale of heroes versus heroes. What makes the new Secret Wars great is the same thing that made Civil War unique—legendary characters in nontraditional situations. That is why the two tales are comparable and on a similar level.
Secret Wars is a culmination of what was happening in the short-lived New Avengers series. In that series, a group of heroes consisting of Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Reed Richards, Namor, Iron Man, Black Bolt, Beast and Captain America (though he is removed from the group early on), become aware of a deadly new anomaly—incursions. Incursions are when parallel universes/realities clash like a Highlander film, meaning—there can only be one.
Because the incursions are far beyond anything these men can manage, they end up making some very difficult decisions along the way. This included sanctioning the wholesale destruction of these other realities—and the innocence in them—to save their own.
But this isn’t a review with designs to give you a bunch of back story. Though, you should find these stories for yourself. And I’m not looking to spoil big moments from the series either. However, I will drop dime on a couple of early story elements. My master plan is to let you know how great this series/book is, and why you should read it. Even if you read comics casually, all the time, or haven’t picked one up in years, this story has the same characters you know, but put into an uncanny (pun intended) story.
I digress, while the aforementioned Civil War occurred within the confines of the Marvel 1610 universe (the universe most of us are familiar with), this story throws together some of the best elements of many of the alternate universes we have heard of.
Secret Wars begins with the final two universes left, Marvel 1610 and Marvel 616 (also known as, the very popular, ultimate universe) and the clash between the defending forces of both. So from jump street, Secret Wars starts off in a very big way.
Along with this opening salvo of force meeting force, you follow two factions of characters hoping to survive the end of all things in specially made arks. One faction is made up of Richards, Black Panther, Spider-Man from both universes, Captain Marvel, Starlord, the Jane Foster/Thor and one other character—Cyclops. Though this isn’t your normal Scott Summers. If you have followed his exploits in the last few years, you know he has become a bit of a schemer. And boy does he have a fun little plan at the intro of this one. But I will let you find that out for yourself.
The other outfit, a.k.a. The Cabal, looking to see the other side of this war includes Thanos, Black Swann, Terrax, Corvus, Proxima, Maximus (Black Bolt’s insane-genius brother), Namor and The Maker. If some of these names aren’t familiar it’s okay. Just know they are all bad. Especially The Maker, who is the ultimate universe version of Reed Richards. He is Reed Richards with far more bad days. This has turned him into a man with nefarious ideas of what makes the world a better place. So suffice to say, they are a real motley crew of crazies.
Like all existence ending moments, everything goes white (or black) and we enter into something different. These shipwrecked survivors end up in a realm where Dr. Doom is—wait for it—god. If that is not enough reason to get you intrigued, then I don’t know what will.
The basic outline of Secret Wars was clearly influenced by the HBO series Game of Thrones (GOT). In this new world, dubbed Battleworld, Doom has set up several kingdoms with figureheads who control them (similar to GOT and its realms). People can often be removed from those roles for all sorts of reasons, everyone answers back to the capital city of Doomstadt (sort of like Kings Landing in GOT), and there’s even a wall dividing the kingdom from a lower-class of beings. They call their wall the shield. Instead of wildlings, they have Annihilus and Ultron leading their followers. And they don’t have white zombies, but we do have anybody Doom didn’t care to work with being a regular ole’ zombie.
What’s also fun about this stories set-up, since it doesn’t fall under current continuity, is that you can make use of more obscure characters from all over the map of Marvel history. Characters like Apocalypse, Madeline Pryor, Beta Ray Bill, Molecule Man, Mr. Sinister and Galactus all make appearances. Some much more worthwhile than others. And some very different forms than what you’ve seen before.
A good example of this is a character like The Maestro. For the uninitiated, The Maestro is similar to The Maker, in that he is what would happen if a character we love went bad. In this case an alternate future version of the Hulk. Because, in something so massive with so many major fights you need a little Hulk action in your life. The Maestro isn’t influential in the tale, but he has some fun moments.
While we may get to see rare faces, we of course get the usual big names of the Marvel U. Just in a totally different light. And that’s part of the brilliance of the story-telling. Doom is a god but still has his mangled face and his inherent desire to be Reed Richards. Mr. Sinister is as unpredictable as ever, but in a much more flamboyant and “naughty” way. And might I add, Thor Corps! Yes, you read that right.
The book takes the usual archetypes of these legends and presents them in a refreshing way. It blends original story-telling while showing love to the mythology of this universe. Yggdrasil is still the world tree, but also god-Doom’s throne. Also, since we are mentioning trees, “I am Groot” gets said once, and you may never forget it.
While it showcases a varied range of characters from the major to the obscure, it is the rare event series that doesn’t have Captain America, Iron Man or Wolverine at the forefront. And I don’t mean in the same way that Spider-Man is there, but just in a minimized role. No, these three staples of significant Marvel happenings aren’t even in this story. They are fodder for companion books to the greater tale. A departure from the last decade or so.
Each chapter builds upon itself quite well, and it leads to a nicely executed linking of all the side stories. Which then pays of in one of the most legendary final battles I have ever read. It is the kind of battle that can only be done in the pages of a comic, and would be a financial non-starter at every movie studio. We get unexpected face-offs and well set-up showdowns between Doom and his challengers Thanos, Black Panther and Richards.
Secret Wars lives up to the hope and hype, a rarity in the world of hyperbole laden advertising. The story is a completely new spin on what you have seen before in Marvel, while sticking to the familiar nature of its icons. The execution is spot on and it is a joy to read.
If you are a serious comic reader, casual, semi-casual, or just don’t even read them anymore. If there is any part of you that loves huge and fantastical story-telling that includes familiar faces, then this series/graphic novel is worth your purchase. Secret may be in the title, but the greatness of this story should not be a secret to any fan of amazing tales.