I have no idea what Secret Wars is going to be.
Retcon Punch, Traditional
Drew: Seriously, though: what is Secret Wars? Is it an excuse to revisit popular stories from Marvel’s history? Is it a means to merge the 616 Universe with the most popular elements of the Ultimate Universe? Is it an open field for creators to try out goofy ideas? Is it a stupid summer crossover event designed to sell comics? Offering the first real taste of what the tie-in issues, this week’s offerings suggest that the answer to all of our questions is “yes.”
Ultimate End 1
Drew: Ultimate End offers the most self-contained storyline (though by no means the most self-contained story), exploring how the heroes of the two remaining Marvel Universes are getting along. It turns out: not too well. Peter Parker seems the most personally troubled, since everyone from the Ultimate Universe knows his secret identity, but the bigger conflict seems to be over whether the UU Tony caused their worlds to collide. This is a story writer Brian Michael Bendis has been seeding for a while now, which has reverberated through all of his series, from All-New X-Men to Age of Ultron, but it defies everything we actually understand about the situation as laid out in the main Secret Wars title. That may mostly speak to how little we actually know about what’s going on, but it certainly seems strange for 616 Tony to blame 1610 Tony for the destruction of the universe, since 616 Tony has been fighting incursions for the last two years.
By the issue’s end, their in-fighting seems like small potatoes compared to the threat of the Thor Army (and the attention of Doom they represent), but because the issue opens with the Avengers of both worlds battling one another, there’s really no doubt as to where this is all going. That kind of flash-forward tease works when we have no idea how the situation will get to that point, but because they’re barely getting along from the start, I feel like any story between where this issue ends and when it begins is effectively treading water. Let’s get to heroes fighting each other for no reason — that’s what Secret Wars is all abut, right?
Patrick: You know what? It hadn’t even registered for me that that superhero-packed splash page at the beginning of the issue was actually part of the story. It’s a cool image, but it feels like so much promotional art. Y’know, like it’s the cover of A vs. X or the decal on the side of a Marvel vs. Capcom 3 arcade machine.
There might be something we can glean from this thing though. For starters, there are an awful lot of X-Men on the 616 side of this equation — more than I would expect, especially given the fact that there’s clearly an imbalance between the 1610ers and 616ers. That may be the key to understanding how this thing “fits in” with rest of Secret Wars. Right now, I’m looking at Battleworld: Ultimate End as Bendis’ take on what happens when these universes go to war with each other. That means using conflicts and characters he established in his own series and letting the other hows and whys slip away. I’m not convinced, for example, that this version of Tony Stark from 616 is the same Tony Stark we’ve been reading in Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers series.
Really, I feel more than a little silly committing so much thought power to the question “but how is this happening?” I can accept time-displaced mutants and parallel universes, but for some reason multiple concurrent end-of-the-multiverse scenarios has me stymied. It should be much easier to like this issue. Bendis has an amazing handle on so many character’s voices, and Tony vs. Tony is absolutely charming. If there’s a misstep in the character writing, it’s Spider-Man’s inability to move past the fact that everyone knows his name. Dude: the world ended. You got bigger problems.
Patrick: This series seems to be the dumping ground for the wackiest “What If?” stories the goons at Marvel could fathom. It’s the essentially exploring the concept that any pieces of the Marvel Universe can be switched around and then dropped into a world to make those new concepts interact with the pre-existing characters and worlds (or some version thereof). This issue gives us two stories: “Soldier Supreme,” written by Joshua Williamson and drawn by Hike Henderson, and “M.O.D.O.K. Madness,” written by Ed Brisson and drawn by Scott Hepburn. “Soldier Supreme” is the more inventive of the pairing, positing a version of Punisher who inhabited by Doctor Strange’s soul. The story is simple: Doom sends the Horsemen of the Apocalypse versions of Spider-Man, Hulk, Wolverine and Ghost Rider to find and kill this “man without a kingdom.” I really like the idea that Doom doesn’t totally know how to sort this character, and therefore has sort of the same problem with him that I do. I don’t understand Doctor Punisher, what he represents or where he comes from. If God Doom is all about keeping order in Battleworld, I can see where this dude is a bit of a problem.
It’s just a bummer then that the issue doesn’t really get a chance to tell a story with the Soldier Supreme. We effectively see is origin and his last stand over a scant eight pages. It is quite the last stand, and I’m a sucker for the way Henderson draws this particular mash-up.
Strange’s wayward soul migrates to Death Wolverine by the story’s end, so I guess we’re not completely done with this concept.
Drew: But you’re right: we are going to miss this particular combination of personalities. Strange’s presence gives Frank the ability to use magic, but he doesn’t seem to have any real control over Frank’s actions. That comes out beautifully as Frank opts for murder/suicide with a magic grenade rather than whatever spell Strange had in his back pocket. Strange is all about living to fight another day (as we see at the end of the issue), while Frank is all about going out in a blaze of glory. The only real let down for me is that Wolverine survives, anyway, rendering Frank’s sacrifice as exclusively suicidal. Still, there’s enough goofy fun here to excuse any missteps — it’s Punisher with magic guns! What more could you want?
Well, if you’re M.O.D.O.K., you might want to rule Battleworld. Only, you know you can’t do it yourself, but only trust yourself to do it. Thus, M.O.D.O.K. turns to his counterpoints from around the universe. It’s exactly what the Sivanas were doing in The Multiversity, and it goes just as well. It’s a silly little bon mot — the M.O.D.O.K.s never come close to settling on a plan — but it also makes me wonder where all of these alternate versions of our heroes and villains are coming from. I thought there was only Secret Wars, but this issue presents many more M.O.D.O.K.s and Wolverines and Doctors Strange than existed on 616 and 1610. I guess folks got pulled in from other alternate Universes, but when and how that happened hasn’t really been made explicit. It’s by no means necessary information to enjoy this issue, but it’s also a question mark that’s hanging over the proceedings somewhat needlessly. But again: whatever. This thing had an army of M.O.D.O.K.s fighting!
Planet Hulk 1
Drew: Planet Hulk suffers from some of that same confusion — aside from Doom and Strange, it seems like none of the characters in this issue come from 616 or 1610 (and I’m really missing the uppercase/lowercase clarity of Ultimate End here) — but with more of a plot driving the action, it’s less of a pressing issue. A Steve Rogers and the Devil Dinosaur are unbeatable gladiators somewhere on Battleworld, but are really just looking for Bucky Barnes. Their quest leads them into the ire of Doom, but rather than the shield, he sends them to Greenland (the groan-inducing name of “Planet Hulk”) to unseat King Red Hulk, and maybe recover Bucky, who was first sent on the mission.
It’s a solid premise that sets up all of the emotional stakes while still offering some solid dinosaur action. It’s maybe even more mindless than Battleworld, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t get me invested in Steve’s mission. I mean, how intelligent can we really expect a series about a country full of hulks to be?
Patrick: In fairness to the Hulks, we see precious little of them on the page. The cold open shows us a Thor Corps raid on a Hulk village, so the Hulks are restricted to two or three word sentences — none of which contain the big green guy’s trademark choppy grammar. The only other Hulk we meet in the issue — on the final page –is articulate as fuck. So I guess the answer to your question is: pretty damn intelligent.
Ultimately, this doesn’t really feel like a Hulk story at all, but a Captain America story. Indeed, seeing Cap trapped in a strange other world, while still having memories of fighting alongside Bucky in World War II, feels an awful lot like Rick Remender and John Romita Jr.’s Dimension Z story arc from a few years back. Only, y’know, with more dinosaurs.
The backup, written by original Planet Hulk scribe Greg Pak, may be the most revealing look we get at the true nature of Battle World. In it, Amadeus Cho and Bruce Banner fail to stop a gamma bomb from detonating on some future version of Phoenix, Arizona. Surprise, everyone turns into Hulks. It looks like we’re taking the name “Planet Hulk” and applying it to this silver of Battle World because it resembles a great story from Marvel’s past. If that’s the idea behind Secret Wars — that Doom or a Beyonder or whatever — is trying to recreate all of Marvel’s greatest hits, then I guess it makes a little more sense. A little.
Patrick: Who’s ready for another fresh look at what it means when world’s collide? Spider-Verse 1 follows Gwen Stacy’s Spider-Woman as she suddenly discovers that she is living / has always lived in a world that’s different than the one she remembers. Her voiceover narration does its best to explain her perspective, but it’s kind of a bitch to internalize:
Gwen Stacy’s guide to being an unperson. I’ve lived in a halfway house for a few months now. No real “neighbors.” Just transients. Nobody knows anyone’s name. I kinda remember having friends. I don’t really remember where they are now.
Writer Mike Costa seems to be the only person exploring the existential dilemma of discovering that you’ve been rebooted. That is some weird-ass psychological spelunking, because, y’know, that’s not an experience a human being can have, but at least he’s engaging in this weirdness on an emotional level. The other Spiders he brings into the fold in this issue seem to have more practical matters on the brain. Spider-Man of India (Pavitir Prabhakar), Spider-Girl (Anya Corazon) and Captain Britain Spider-Man all team up to try to crack this “web” they’re all caught in. It’s weird that they don’t recognize each other — or even recognize the concept of multiple Spiders — from their incredibly recent adventures during Spider-Verse. I’m sorta relieved that there’s finally a set of characters interested in discovering what the fuck happened to them.
Drew: It’s true — while almost all of these issues find characters defying the laws of the land, this is really the only issue that finds anyone questioning the reality of it. Of course, when that reality includes a cartoon pig, it’s hard not to question it. I’m confused enough about how Gwen (or the rest of these spiders) got to Battleworld that I’m not even sure I understand what her questions are, which makes me grateful for that Spider-Ham backup, both as an outlet for cartoony nonsense, and as a meaningful piece in the puzzle of just what the heck Battleworld is. Seriously: Spider-Ham’s discrimination in the hobo camps are hilariously well-observed, but the fact that he just “woke up” in Battleworld gives us a huge hint as to what being here means to the rest of the characters we see. It’s more storytelling in five pages than Ultimate End gets to in an entire issue, all with a killer sense of humor.
Deadpool’s Secret Secret Wars 1
Drew: Though the award for the funniest issue decidedly belongs to Deadpool’s Secret Secret Wars, which claims to be a tie-in to the original secret wars. It’s a clever anachronism — following the lead of the “inventory issues” Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn have produced throughout their run on Deadpool — which allows writer Cullen Bunn an opportunity to riff on the very idea of Secret Wars. The feature story simply drops Wade into the original event (to which artist Matteo Lulli offers homage after homage), while the backup cynically finds the parallels to the Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions, which is really just Marvel vs. Capcom without the Capcom characters. In both stories, Deadpool is cast as a second-stringer, relegated to the background of these events, finding as much humor at the expense of the titular hero as it does in sending up the notion of big events.
Perhaps the most biting joke here, though, is the absurdity of the notion of “continuity.” There’s no hint that these (or the inventory issues, for that matter) aren’t Marvel canon, so we’re effectively getting a retcon 31 years after the fact — Deadpool was always a part of Secret Wars, we just didn’t see his role at the time. Fans can do with that information what they please, but they have to reconcile it with however they treat canon elsewhere.
Patrick: And maybe that’s the best lesson, even for dudes like us who don’t fret continuity but are still grumbling about where all these Battle Worlds come from. Are we having fun with these stories? Yeah. Would we be having even more fun if we could let those questions go? Absolutely.
Bunn and Lulli clearly have a great handle on the original Secret Wars, but I’m a little less enamored of their take on Deadpool himself. Wade’s fourth-wall-breaking feels obligatory, and a lot less anarchic than I’d like. When he praises the sheer amount of exposition in Wasp’s word balloons, for example, his self-awareness is cutesie without actually having a joke to back it up. After like 50 issues of Duggan and Posehn driving that character, Bunn’s Deadpool feels entirely too safe for me. Mind you, I don’t understand why Deadpool is blonde, beautiful and sporting a mustache by issue’s end, so maybe the really subversive stuff is still coming up.
Check back on Wednesday for Michael and Taylor’s full conversation!
Loki: Agent of Asgard 14
Did you read some Secret Wars tie-ins that we didn’t? Sure you did! There are holes in our pull list. Holes that you’re encouraged to fill with your comments. Let’s keep talking about Secret Wars.