Last summer, House of X/Powers of X, a galaxy brain sci-fi superhero series from writer Jonathan Hickman and numerous collaborators, rocked the comics world. But before Hickman did that, he told a three-year story about Marvel’s greatest heroes compromising their morality to save the universe — and failing anyway. Secret Wars was about what happened next.
Some months ago I decided to read Hickman’s older Marvel work, starting with his run on the Fantastic Four, which bleeds into his Avengers series. The project set me on a riveting path to Secret Wars, and it’s where you should go, too.
Secret Wars evokes the granddaddy of all event comics, DC Comics’ Crisis on Infinite Earths, with a promise of universal armageddon and the mashing up of different parallel earths. But here’s the thing — and know that this is coming from someone with DC Comics lore running in their veins — Secret Wars is what Crisis on Infinite Earths wishes it could be. Hell, it’s what Avengers: Endgame wished it could be.
Each Monday, while the comics industry takes a bit of a break, we’re looking back at some of the stand out moments in comic history. Think of it as part society pages of superhero lives, part reading recommendations, part “look at this cool art.” There may be some spoilers. There may not be enough context. If you missed last week, read this.
But what is Secret Wars about?
If you’re going to read Secret Wars, you need to start with 2012’s Avengers and New Avengers series, written by Jonathan Hickman and illustrated by various artists. I did it with a Marvel Unlimited subscription ($9.99/month, with a 7-day free trial), simply by looking up Hickman under “creators” and reading chronologically.
This point marks the beginning of the Incursion era, when the Marvel multiverse began to die. The way this death went was like this: The boundaries between parallel dimensions began to fail, specifically at the point in the universe where Earth existed. A parallel Earth would appear in the sky, at which point the people of both Earths would have mere hours before their planets collided, destroying the entirety of both their universes. The only way to stop it was to destroy one of the Earths caught up in the incursion.
This left a group of the smartest thinkers and biggest political movers in Marvel’s superheroic community with a terrible challenge: Was there a way to keep their world safe without killing another? And were there any among them who could murder a world to save two universes?
But Secret Wars was really about... secrets
This is a big improvement on Marvel’s original Secret Wars event, which was called “Secret Wars” because of an edict from Mattel, which had found that those words focus tested well with children who bought action figures.
The Incursion era is a story about hubris, in which heroes try very hard to do the right thing and almost never get it right. It pulls some big emotional punches out of Iron Man and Captain America’s relationship, but that’s not the sole focus.
Hickman’s last big swing before he became the architect of the Avengers was with Marvel’s first family, the Fantastic Four, and so Reed Richards is a major player. His scene in this speech is repeated, twisted, and remixed throughout the story, setting the stage for its major twists.
Hickman’s Avengers is a Black Panther story, too
T’Challa gets so much delicious character exploration in the lead up to Secret War — and it’s clear that the folks behind Marvel’s Black Panther film were mining the series for their own take. The Black Panther grapples heavily with balancing superheroic moral choices (like “Killing is wrong”) with his obligations as absolute ruler and protector of Wakanda.
Also, Hickman wrote that “Every breath you take is a mercy from me” line that shows up in the movie, which happens when T’Challa finally got sick of Namor’s bullshit.
Also, the Marvel heroes fight a DC superteam
There are plenty of times the Marvel and DC heroes have fought each other in everything but name, but Hickman makes a version of the Golden Age Justice Society to oppose Marvel’s heroes. Clockwise from the top you’ve got your “serial numbers filed off” versions of Batman, the Martian Manhunter, Doctor Fate, Superman, the Flash, and Green Lantern.
And it’s not just a one-off issue! They have a whole arc!
The future of the Marvel Universe
Other highlights? Cap and Co. do their own exponentially growing flash forwards through the future of the Marvel universe, a clear precursor idea to Hickman’s Powers of X structure.
And then there’s the actual Secret Wars
Secret Wars #1 begins with the end of everything. Thanks to incursions, the only parallel Earths left in existence are the main Marvel continuity, and Earth-1610, home dimension of Miles Morales. In a few hours, the universe will cease to exist, and everyone on both Earths knows it. When Hickman and artist Esad Ribic show you New York City’s villains celebrating the fall of their enemies, it seems like one more tragic scene — until the Punisher shows up to celebrate in his own way.
Comic book resurrections and returns to the status quo can be tiring. But there are benefits to the trope being so well understood, should writers and artists choose to capitalize on them. When everything’s going to be reset, you can have some fun with the Punisher. You can pull out all the stops.
You can embody the Phoenix Force within a radicalized Cyclops, or give Doctor Doom the power of every Beyonder. You can make a kaiju-sized Ben Grimm, and let him finally punch Galactus in the face, just like he’s always wanted.
And you can merge Groot with Yggdrasil, the World-Tree.
Endgame wishes it has what Secret Wars had
Secret Wars is the rare event that delivers on what it promises, with emotional stakes, coherent storytelling, dire consequences, epic scale — even a happy ending. And just like Avengers: Endgame, it had the job of saying goodbye to some beloved heroes.
Marvel Comics corporate bosses had dictated that the Fantastic Four be sent off into the sunset for a bit, while the film license for the characters resided with 20th Century Fox. And if you start the Secret Wars journey with Hickman’s Fantastic Four — it’s not strictly necessary, but you’d have my thumbs up — you can see just how much he loves the characters and the concept.
He and Ribic use that love to turn corporate edict into real character arcs. When everything comes down to Reed Richards wrestling with Victor Von Doom’s ego, you really do feel like their rivalry is one that could shake the foundation of existence.
So this week, start a new comics project with Hickman’s Avengers books. And eventually you’ll get to the comic book panels above, which perfectly encapsulate any time I try to explain a bad event comic to someone.