Friday, 15 January 2016

Secret Wars Review (Jonathan Hickman, Esad Ribic)


The Multiverse is doomed. 

All worlds have collided and been obliterated except for Earth-616 (the “main” Marvel universe) and Earth-1610 (the Ultimates universe) – until now. In the wake of the end of the world, a new planet appears: Battleworld. It’s ruler? Doom. Welcome to Secret Wars. 

Aaaand PAUSE! 

I mention quite a few spoilers in this review because they’re a large part of why this event didn’t work for me, so if you want to save yourself for Secret Wars and go into this one completely green, stop reading here. And I’ll see you later! 

Alright - UN-PAUSE! 

So what a load of bollocks that was! Marvel’s massive 2015 event bled over into 2016 because writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Esad Ribic don’t quite get deadlines! The event saw its Warzones/Battleworld tie-ins, as well as the relaunch of the new Marvel universe, complete months before it ended – and the story itself was terrible anyway! 

But Secret Wars is (supposedly) more than just another Marvel event – it’s the culmination of a years-long storyline that Jonathan Hickman has apparently been planning since his days on Fantastic Four through his various Marvel titles but particularly with his Avengers and New Avengers books. Does that mean you have to have read all of them before diving into Secret Wars? Not really. 

Valeria Richards (Reed and Sue’s daughter) summarises the main plot points of Hickman’s run succinctly in the #0 issue. The #1 issue though feels like it should’ve been the last chapter in the Time Runs Out storyline rather than the opener of this book. But once you’re past those issues and land on Battleworld from issue #2, it’s a level playing ground for everyone (and I wouldn’t recommend reading Hickman’s extremely tedious Avengers books anyway). 

Secret Wars’ two biggest flaws are 1) the lack of a story and 2) the mishandled telling of what material there actually is. 

The “important” moment of the series happens in the first issue, which is the premise: the Marvel universe is blowed up for the first time in its history (DC are the guys who routinely do that to their universes, not Marvel). The rest of the book is spent pretending that Battleworld is a worthwhile thing when we know its existence is temporary - take a look at the current Marvel line-up. No sign of Battleworld’s impact there! 

Once we’re on Battleworld, Hickman explores the patchwork planet Doom’s put together, which turns out to be part-banal wish fulfilment and, bizarrely, part-Marvelized Game of Thrones ripoff! The realms of Battleworld are fiefdoms whose lords bow to Doom, there’s a wall to keep out the zombies/monsters guarded by the Thors (yes, plural – they’re Battleworld’s police force!) in the role of the Night’s Watch, and Sheriff Strange is a dead ringer for Petyr Baelish! It’s fun for a bit to see familiar Marvel characters in odd new roles, kinda like Marvel 1602. Then you wonder when the story will start. And it never comes. 

A couple of liferafts carrying survivors from the now-exploded worlds makes it to Battleworld where they inevitably wind up fighting the various denizens. Like Itchy and Scratchy, the characters fight, and bite, and fight and bite and fight, bite bite bite, fight fight fight until the rushed end. It’s so boring! 

I actually enjoyed the series up to the end of the fourth issue - unfortunately, that’s when Hickman loses control and things fall apart fast. Up to then there’d been a steady build and things made a skewed sort of sense; but then something happens, two main characters are killed, and suddenly it’s like a record skipping. 

The survivors are scattered across Battleworld. Then it’s three weeks later. New characters have been introduced, others have been captured without us seeing how or why. The two Reeds - the good one from 616 and the evil one from 1610 (who douchily calls himself the “Maker”) - are suddenly working together to accomplish… something that we’re never told, nor do we see why they’re a team now. The Spider-Men (Peter Parker and Miles Morales) find the source of Doom’s power - and do nothing! Armies from across Battleworld suddenly assemble after deciding to fight against Doom for no reason. When the hell did Ben Grimm become 80 feet tall!?! What did Groot do after his BIG appearance and what was the significance? Go-nowhere plotlines and completely random, unexplained choices litter the book. 

Then, quicker than you can say Deus Ex Machina, it’s all put back the way it was before – the Universe never exploded, it’s fine! What a cop out. The major exception is that the Ultimates Universe is no more (the line hasn’t been selling for some time now) with Miles Morales/Ultimate Spider-Man as the only survivor (but I’m sure his family, friends, etc. are all magically ok). 

That and a couple of other minor things is it for the aftermath of Secret Wars. Doom’s deformed face is miraculously fixed and the Fantastic Four are disbanded with Reed and Sue Richards retired, though the Thing and Human Torch are still hanging around. But we knew the FF were being phased out before this event anyway as their title wasn’t selling and Disney don’t own those characters’ film rights. Basically nothing that happened on Battleworld mattered! 

Hickman has all these great ideas but handles them so incompetently. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he’s a fine ideas man who can write a helluva outline but he’s a horrible storyteller! At crucial points he resorts to Valeria Richards or Owen Reece to artlessly spout exposition which makes for an especially clunky read. The third act is all over the place and Hickman ends up falling back on the standard superhero trope of a big, consequence-free action set piece - yawn. 

It wasn’t all bad. The Alex Ross covers are amazing (if completely misleading) and Esad Ribic’s art is good at times. I enjoyed the first four issues just fine and the first issue was exciting if chaotic. Ribic drew the epic scale of what was happening well and I loved what he did with Reed and Doom in that last issue. But as the series progressed the panels got sketchier and the lines more faint. If you got any of the issues on Comixology, zoom in on the single panels and look at how rushed the art looks, both pencils/inks and colours. And still the series was months late completing! 

The, ahem, “story” doesn’t have a main character but both Miles Morales and Black Panther come close to being that and were brilliant though woefully underused. I liked what Hickman did with Doom too by adding in shades of grey to his character. Doom saved millions of lives in the fallout, far more than the heroes managed (double digits only), and, when it came to the crunch, Doom was the only one willing to step up to the plate and make the tough choice - the heroes wimped out. True, he became a dictator and killed more than a few characters, but I hated how Hickman gives up on this nuanced portrayal of Doom by the end, resorting to the archetypical hero v. villain fight to close out the nonsense. Victor was given short shrift when he really deserved better for what he did in the face of oblivion. 

Hickman fanboys will likely gush about how amazing all of this was and enjoy deliriously pointing out all the Easter eggs sprinkled throughout (Architects of Forever cameo! etc.) but Secret Wars was an underwhelming and poorly put-together finale both to Hickman’s time at Marvel and the end of the 616 and 1610 universes (even if the 616 is basically reinstated at the end). Maybe you need to read several key tie-ins to fill in the blanks in the main story but for fuck’s sake ten issues - a couple of which were double-sized - should’ve been long enough to tell one story and Hickman couldn’t even do that well! 

Secret Wars: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!

Secret Wars

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