The Illuminati are no longer concerned about whether they can stop the Incursions without destroying inhabited worlds (spoiler alert: they can’t), nor are they any longer concerned about their mission turning them into monsters (they seem to have realized that it’s all but inevitable, and the title of this issue is even “We Are All Monsters Now,” as if to dissuade the reader of any hope otherwise); instead, the million dollar question now seems to be whether it’s better to die with one’s morality intact or to save the universe, but at the cost of one’s own soul.
An Incursion has brought together the Illuminati and the Great Society, and the two teams meet, discern that they are all there with good intentions, and try to rationally find a way to end things without the loss of any lives or worlds. Things don’t stay civil for long, though, as The Rider (letting his Batman-esque role as the team’s cynic fly) pushes the Illuminati for answers about their world-destroying bombs. The argument gets heated, and Namor the Submariner, realizing that there’s no happy ending to this tale, tables the negotiations in the most Namor-y way possible:
While the issue treats this outcome as a grim inevitability, it’s Namor’s decision here that finally puts an end to any possibility of the Illuminati saving their souls. As awful as it may be, there’s also the tiniest bit of relief here as, up to this point, many of the Illuminati had been torturing themselves, eaten up inside by what they may have to do in the future.
It’s scenes like this that keep the Illuminati at least somewhat sympathetic even as they become, to quote Sun God, “the most moral mass-murderers in the long history of mass-murderers.” Considering that there are basically no other options on the table, Namor’s embracing his monstrous side is finally a decisive move after nineteen long issues of the Illuminati sliding slowly into the darkness; it’s almost admirable, in a dark, kind of twisted way.
Yeah, watching the Illuminati grapple with their own morality and the increasingly slim range of options at their disposal makes their transformation into monsters easier to swallow, if not easier to condone. If they’re choosing the option to save the world at the cost of their own souls, then the Great Society has decided to die with their morality intact; or, at least, that may be what they’re trying to do, but after spending several issues building the Society up as paragons of virtue, Hickman now begins to deconstruct them, if only to show us that this decision isn’t as simple as it may appear to be.
Earlier issues portrayed the Great Society as these wise, all-powerful, unerring dynamos of super-heroes, but it might have been hasty of us to make that assumption. While the Illuminati came to this meeting with back-up plans, the Great Society is basically running on hope and dumb luck, and even the methods they used to stop prior Incursions that were once portrayed as absolutely stunning are revealed to be either solutions that the Illuminati already tried versions of themselves, or options that the Society are ashamed to even bring up. The Society’s decision to fight the Illuminati will probably cost them their world. It could be viewed as the more moral decision, but it also could ultimately end up meaning the end of both Earths — and while the Society wouldn’t be as directly guilty as the Illuminati would be if they outright blew up an inhabited planet, they would still be indirectly responsible for the death of two universes. Maybe this isn’t as easy, as black-and-white of a choice as it may have once seemed.
Indeed, in Hickman’s hands this issue is a tragedy; neither team ever had a chance to come out on top when facing this kind of Sophie’s Choice. It’s even crueler considering the potential these two teams had to be great together. Most of the time in comics when two teams first meet they have to fight before they can work together, but the Illuminati and the Great Society are both too smart to fall into that trope, instead instantly determining that the other team are heroes and trying to talk through their problems. That kind of intelligence is exceptional in the world of superhero comics, and under any other circumstance the Illuminati and the Great Society could have achieved great things together; the fact that their little powwow eventually devolved into a fight anyway just goes to show how cruel, unfair, and unwinnable the Incursion threat really is.
Patrick, I found this issue to be fascinating and shocking, even though the conclusion, in retrospect, was inevitable from the start. Did you have a similar experience? Do you think there’s any truly moral option available here, or is this just an unwinnable situation? What do you make of Maximus, who up to this point has been surprisingly helpful, but now threatens to revive threats of “Infinite” danger?
The cold, hard reality is that this isn’t a binary question of morality vs. survival. If the Illuminati don’t destroy the Society’s Earth, then both Earths — and their respective universes die. It’s such a big decision — literally an infinite number of people die no matter what — that it’s impossible to wrap your head around. And that’s one of the biggest weaknesses of this series: the scope of the persistent threat is simply too large. The fate of all realities hangs in the balance, and entire universes full of life can be wiped out in an instant. So while we can’t possibly know the enormity of those decisions, Hickman keeps the focus squarely on the superheroes of these worlds, instead of on the actual human cost of fighting incursions. Like, it’s not as though The Illuminati try to evacuate people from this Earth to 616 before anti-matter-blasting it and saving the universe. That’s because the series isn’t really about the lives of human beings, it’s about superheroes laden with impossible choices.
Impossible choices means a lot of hemming and hawing from even the most decisive characters. There’s something totally unnerving about Reed Richards nervously asking “are you sure you don’t have anything else?” That’s part of what makes Maximus’ actions elsewhere in the this issue so appealing: he’s taking action (even if Black Swan notes that he’s also talking a lot of shit in the process). On the flipside, I can’t help but also find Maximus frustrating here. From a reader’s perspective, we just fucking got over Infinity, why would we need to literally drill into that well again so soon?
Unless this issue is all about impossible editorial decisions. At the end of the day, incursions threaten to replace one version of the fiction we’re reading with another version of fiction. These kinds of changes happen all the time in comics, and it’s not a world council of superintelligent superheroes making those decisions, but a flawed team of writers, artists, editors and executives. It’s Axel Alonzo, it’s Tom Brevoort, it’s John Hickman, it’s Valerio Schiti. They’re our real monsters, playing god with the fictional lives of an absurd number of characters we care about. Monsters or no, we love them all the same.
Oh, speaking of Schiti, the art in this issue captures of a lot of that Deodato cleanness without having to embrace some of his more ultra grim tendencies. Even with a handful of cutaways and flashbacks, Schiti is mostly tasked with talking heads. 75% of this issue is one superhero group chatting with the other and it’s remarkable how clear that sense of space is, even as it takes place in the most nondescript desert locale imaginable. Schiti accomplishes this by tracking each character in relation to all the others. It’s an intriguing study of blocking in a comic book. My favorite moment has to be right before Namor lets his trident-thing fly.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?