Secret Wars is a mammoth event — Marvel has populated an entire Battleworld with Wolverines, Captains America and Spider-Men. There’s a lot in here that’s worth reading, but we don’t always have the time to dig deep into all of them. The solution? A quick survey of what we’re reading. Today, we’re discussing A-Force 4, Civil War 4, Red Skull 3, Giant-Sized Little Marvel AvX 4, Mrs. Deadpool and the Howling Commandos 4, Planet Hulk 5 and Siege 3.
Drew: During high school, a friend of mine went to a play where a small segment of the audience was seated on stage, apparently standing in for the whole of humanity. We used to laugh about how blunt a synecdoche that was — a few humans representing humankind — and how overwrought that bluntness made that point. A-Force 4 finds writers Marguerite Bennet and G. Willow Wilson going even bigger — this time, the universe itself is manifested as a character — but they somehow manage to avoid letting that clunky piece of symbolism from derailing the story entirely.
Indeed, that the universe is so moved by the lessons of Marvel’s heroes is an inspiring sentiment — though it helps that the scene is carried off so beautifully.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for the lesson that we can all learn something from superheroes, but it doesn’t bother me at all that this message is coming for the living embodiment of the entire universe. What does bother me is that this message isn’t quite earned within the series. I don’t doubt that someone could learn the value of smiling from Dazzler, or the value of fighting from Captain Marvel, I just don’t feel like I saw this character actively learn those things from those characters. Maybe that kind of interaction is too much to ask of a five-issue mini (its continuation beyond Secret Wars notwithstanding), but without it, this moment doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
But maybe that’s okay. This moment is a very small part of this issue — basically, no longer than I’ve excerpted here — which is otherwise devoted to the reveal of Loki as the big bad behind it all. Her power-grab doesn’t have the same kind of mischievousness we’ve come to expect of Loki, but her Hail Mary is as exciting as cliffhangers get. You can bet I’ll be back for issue 5.
Civil War 4
Michael: Expectations. When it comes to superheroes (comics), there is no greater foe to fight than expectations – expectations of the fictional people they protect and more importantly the expectations of the fan base that they serve. A Secret Wars tie-in like Civil War definitely has a lot of different kinds of expectations for fans of the original. I don’t think I had specific expectations per se, but I was curious to see what the landscape of the Marvel U would look like if the battle never stopped after all of this time. I suppose in that respect, Charles Soule and Leinil Francis Yu have succeeded. Other than that, it feels like this mini-series has been moving at a snail’s pace for the most part.
Civil War 4 pulls back the curtain a little more after the reveal last month that Black Panther – who was killed years ago – has been alive and pulling the strings all this time. PSYCHE! T’challa is a Skrull, because, the year is 2008. In all honesty I don’t hate this reveal behind “the reveal” – it sort of makes sense with the stage that Soule has set. It also makes me think of the principle that many pieces of popular fiction bring up: the constant nature of a certain event in every universe. In Lost terms, this means that Charlie Pace will always end up dying – same with the old guy in Groundhog Day. In the Marvel Universe, Secret Invasion will ALWAYS happen eventually. Temporal factors aside, the Skrulls were always planning on invading Earth, so it’s no surprise that they are the big bad of Civil War. The Skrulls master plan itself is just a delayed derivative of the original plan – by instead relying on the majority of the heroes taking each other out and conquering the Earth when the dust settles. I suppose it’s safe to assume that the Skrulls have infiltrated Cap’s ranks as well; after all, furthering Beast’s depowering “Project Bellcurve” would be a big victory for the shapeshifters. I think that Soule has done a good job of reaping the nostalgia of the original Civil War without exploiting it. Little winks and nods to the original are always appreciated by yours truly – the highlight of this issue was Tony Stark’s weaponizing of clone Thor’s lightning. Perhaps this is Soule’s intention, but the majority of the book feels like something we’ve seen before. We have Cap and Stark –the fearless leaders in this war – both going full-on Captain Kirk by relegating their leadership roles to their second in commands and charging headfirst into an uncertain battlefield. Continuing that vibe part of me feels like there should be a nuclear countdown clock just to escalate the stakes that much more (and part of me actually really wants that.)
Red Skull 3
Patrick: I’m not sure I totally track what the point of Red Skull was. The series began as something of a Battleworld Dirty Dozen before morphing into bad-guy-beat-em-up, and with it’s final issue has settled on… clusterfuck? I don’t necessarily mean that derisively — Burn After Reading essential ends with a shrug and a “what the fuck, right?” and that’s a glorious ending. I wonder if writer Joshua Williamson intended this mini-series to mirror the tonal trajectory of Secret Wars as a whole: start high-concept, touch on a few interesting ideas, and then panic and nuke everything when the story becomes unsustainable.
Or maybe this whole thing is a mediation on villainy. There’s an awful lot of doublecrossing in this issue and nothing happens in the name of heroism. It’s not even like the Thors — and it’s hard to imagine a more heroic image than an army of Thor — get to swoop in to save the day. Magneto is put in his place by non-metallic Sentinels, which are really just more villains. And then it’s not even Red Skull who actually kills Magneto, it’s a horde of zombies. All of that, of course, is put into place through Red Skull’s scheming, but it doesn’t really matter: he gets his in the end. Again, who get him? Crossbones — another bad guy. Maybe the real point of this thing is just to illustrated how much better Doom is than the rest of Marvel’s villains. At least he’s able to command some damn loyalty.
Giant-Sized Little Marvel AvX 4
Spencer: There’s a surprisingly cynical take on superhero stories lurking beneath the adorable veneer of Skottie Young and Jean-Francois Beaulieu’s Giant-Sized Little Marvel AvX 4. The young heroes of Marville represent many critics’ worst fear about superheroes brought to life. For starters, these kids only solve their problems through violence; even when faced with the reality of how their battles are hurting Zachary and Zoe, the teams still refuse to quit fighting. Fearing for their own safety, the twins are driven right into the grips of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. The idea that heroes essentially create their own villains is another one that many use to criticize superheroes, and these kids end up living down to that reputation.
While Young ends the story on that somewhat depressing note, the Marvel in-jokes and adorable character designs still manage to keep the proceedings fun. There’s a spread late in the issue depicting a massive brawl that’s absolutely breathtaking; it’s basically a “Where’s Waldo” page of Marvel heroes, and I love it so much that I made it both my phone wallpaper and my Twitter header. Young at times also uses his art specifically to soften some of his story’s harsher moments.
This hit is actually treated fairly seriously within the story — it’s the turning point of the entire issue, the moment when things get truly ugly between the teams — but Young’s silly and exaggerated take on the injury keeps the story from getting completely bogged down in the scene’s darker undertones. It’s rare that a story this light and fun also manages to have this much depth, but Giant-Sized Little Marvel AvX pulls it off.
Mrs. Deadpool and the Howling Commandos 4
Michael: And so ends the adventures of Shiklah and her companions-turned-enemies-turned-allies. After obtaining the Scepter of the Manticore, Shiklah and Co. are in the middle of a battle with Dracula and his vampire legions. As ghost Deadpool commentates from the astral sidelines – and sometimes intervenes – we watch as the Commandos fight to their last undead breath. At the battle’s end, the only Commandos remaining are Man-Thing and Shiklah herself. That is until The Thor Corps shows up to lay down the punishment – completely obliterating them all. Ghostpool momentarily mourns, lays down some quips and finishes the book with an Invisible Man punch gag. Rocky is kind of on my brain at the moment so I’m gonna say that this final panel is a nod to the freeze frame double knock-out match between Rocky and Apollo at the end of Rocky III. It’s not though.
Mrs. Deadpool and the Howling Commandos 4 isn’t very serious in tone, but it does call to mind the grimmer outings of Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn’s Deadpool. It becomes apparent fairly quickly that this will be a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid kind of finale – albeit with 100% more innuendo that a mummy and a centaur with a symbiote had a one-night-stand. Prior to this mini-series I wasn’t super familiar with Shiklah as a character, but I always feared that Deadpool would take the spotlight from her – even from the grave. Overall Duggan used Ghostpool sparingly in these four issues, but I still found myself growing wary that the manly man Deadpool would come and save the day for his lady love. In a way, I suppose he did – by possessing one of Dracula’s goons and tossing the scepter to Shiklah. I’ll let that little ghost ex machina pass because it’s a callback to waaaaay back at the start of Duggan and Posehn’s Deadpool. But more importantly, Deadpool’s “male hero to the rescue” attempt at the start of the issue actually ends up killing Shiklah. Sure, you could argue that the Thors would have inevitably come a’ knocking once Baron Dracula died – as they said. But it’s an incredibly significant symbol to have the male hero Deadpool try to come to the aid of his “damsel” (who is actually the fully-capable heroine of the book), only to doom her completely (Doom pun semi-intended.) Conversely, Ghostpool intervenes on Shiklah’s behalf one last time, begging her not to rise up against the surface dwellers and incur Doom’s wrath.
To go further with the “Girl Power” motif, you could read this warning as the patriarchy (Deadpool) telling women (Shiklah and Monster Metropolis) to be satisfied with their roles and not try to fight the power. It’s not a glass ceiling, but Shiklah and her people are trying to literally ascend to a new place. And though we have seen female Thors in other Secret Wars tie-ins, note how Salva Espin draws all of the Thors who incinerate the Monster Metropolitans as male. I don’t think that any of this is coincidence on Duggan’s part. Likewise he ends the min-series cynically – sweeping the events of this issue under the rug as Deadpool shrugs in concession. Well, I suppose it is an even tie-in after all.
Planet Hulk 5
Patrick: Hulk comics always play with this idea that Gamma radiation makes a person dangerous. Usually, that danger is represented by physical strength, a wild temper, and short aphorisms with the word “SMASH” in them. Sam Humphries and Marc Laming’s Planet Hulk extends that idea to making people morally dangerous. Our noble Steve Rogers, successful in his Doom-sanctioned mission to kill the Red King, but unsuccessful in his personal mission to rescue Bucky — discovers that the Hulk that has been helping (and taunting) him all along was another version of Steve Rogers. It was the Gamma that turned Rodgers into Doc Green. We’ve been reading a bunch of Gamma rhetoric over the last five issues, but his philosophy essentially boils down to opportunism over everything else. Naturally, Doc Green attempts to seize control of Greenland in the immediate power-vacuum left after the Red King’s death. But Cap — and it’s hard to say what exactly motivates him here — buries an ax in Doc Green’s chest and tells the Hulks to rule themselves.
Now, is Rogers acting out of grief? Or does he actually care about what happens to the Hulks? When he kills Doc Green, is that a moral victory, or an admission of defeat? Weirdly, I think the answer to all possible questions here is “yes.” Both Steve Rogerses tell stories (shown in marvelously paralleled silent pages by Laming) about their relationship with Bucky. Our Rogers joins up and fights alongside his buddy, they do great deeds together. Meanwhile, the other Rogers loses his friend before subjecting himself to Gamma radiation and becoming Doc Green. In a way, both of these characters hold off on making desperate, cruel, opportunistic moves until after they lose the person that means the most to them. It’s about loss, rage and PTSD. Only, y’know, with Hulks and Dinosaurs and stuff.
Spencer: Siege is a tragedy, but that’s not immediately obvious when looking at issue 3. Kieron Gillen and Filipe Andrade — along with the myriad of talented artists who join them on the two-page spreads — play this issue as a triumphant final battle. We’ve got brave heroes standing against an innumerable force of evil, a few heroic sacrifices, the joyful return of some long-lost friends, and the redemption of a villain/hopeless loser in the case of Kang, who probably gets the strongest character arc of all; I couldn’t help but to get all choked up when he and Brand embraced, finally on the same wavelength for the first time in this entire series. In any other series this would be the end, and it would be a most satisfying ending, but like I said, Siege is a tragedy, and perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that, even when Brand’s team wins, another threat will always be right on the horizon.
I suppose this moment was inevitable, but it’s made all the more horrific coming on the heels of such a purely joyous victory. I suppose that’s the typical Gillen formula — dangle a little hope before dashing it all to pieces — but I’m amazed at how effective it is even in a title that guaranteed us tragedy from the very first page. I’m scared to death to see how this plays out, because I know it’s going to break my heart.
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.