Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Secret Wars , originally released January 13th, 2016.
“Great societies are crumbling around us. And the old men who run them are out of ideas. So all eyes turn to you — our children — to build us something better […] We must do more, go farther… to somewhere no human has ever been. Your prize, Makers… are the stars themselves.”
T’Challa, Secret Wars 9
Patrick: The entirety of Jonathan Hickman’s incursion epic has hinged on this concept of master morality — that the decisions of the powerful necessarily cannot make sense to those less powerful. Individuals’ lives and rights are trampled for a concept as nebulous as “the greater” good, and it’s not really up to the subservient class to judge that trampling. With Secret Wars, the class of person making such impossible decisions is God — a literal, physically present, hands-on creator God — in the form of Doctor Doom. His decisions are immeasurably complicated, but they are also the decisions made by Hickman himself, and the conclusion to this mini-series, this event, and Hickman’s entire run at Marvel comics, links Godliness with creativity, and ultimately places the decisions and the morality behind those decisions in the hands of the storytellers.
I know, I know, I know, big surprise: Patrick’s got a meta-as-fuck read of Secret Wars 9. While the issue stops short of having actually showing the characters holding issues of Marvel Comics — this isn’t Multiversity we’re talking about here — Hickman does explore the idea of handing the reins over to a new generation of creators, and allows one of his main tenants of Avengers and New Avengers to be completely subverted. “Everything dies” very simply becomes “everything lives.”
What might be most remarkable about this issue is the cast. Not only is the cast list far slimmer than we’re used to seeing in these books, the majority of them are Fantastic Four characters. So now, the conclusion isn’t just tied up in questions of morality raised in Secret Wars, or just those raised in New Avengers, but all the way back through Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four. That’s six years worth of dense Hickmanian plotting leading to the inevitable conclusion that someone else needs to take over telling stories in this universe.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed with the power of Hickman’s prose than I was by this issue. There are metaphorical explorations of the artificiality of cross-over events (“All this structured chaos reeks of machination”), the effects of fan-ownership of characters (“This is not the life we’re supposed to have. Not Val. Not Me”), the hollowness of pandering from creators (“What’s the end game here? Nostalgia for something that was never yours anyway?”) and accepting the good with the bad (“Did you know that one actually can holistically enjoy pizza? And it comes in slices”). The issue almost ends up being Hickman’s treatise on his own career at Marvel Comics, but rooted in the relationships between Marvel’s First Family.
And ultimately, that’s what makes Secret Wars 9 a satisfying read: we don’t need to care about editorial decisions or the mechanics of putting a world back together, we only need to care about the characters. What these characters are about — it turns out — is joy, not pain. Artist Esad Ribic is such a wonderful sculptor of devastating images, as evidenced time and time again throughout this series, but in the conclusion, he gets to show off his talent for boundless joy. Look at Franklin and Val — they’re both overwhelmed with the sheer joy of making new worlds (and/or bearing witness to the creation of new worlds).
The Richards find purpose in hanging up their capes and simply facilitating a world where it’s possible for new realities, new stories, to begin. There’s a touching moment where Franklin asks if they’re not superheroes anymore, which was already a complicated question when it comes to the Fantastic Four. It’s no secret that creators have had a hard time making these characters resonant for modern audiences, but there’s no denying their importance to the medium of comics, and specifically to Marvel’s publishing history. Reed stumbles over his own words when he answers his son: “no… no more super heroes for a while” — his retirement from the genre coincides with Hickman’s similar retirement. And Reed’s approach is explicitly more hands-off than Doom’s was, as though he’s taking no active part in what happens on any of those worlds. In letting go of all control, Reed is able to do what Doom never could: set these stories free. Hickman, by stepping away now, does the same.
Drew, this issue made me feel so good about comics. The point of the whole thing might best be summarized by Miles and Peter meeting up on the newly reformed Marvel Prime Earth. Peter offers the one thing all comic fans want to be offered: “You want to beat up bad guys with Spider-Man?” Miles cheerfully accepts. WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE ABOUT THAT? Ribic and Hickman even let their own avatar find a little peace, as Doom’s face is restored.
There’s that joy again.
Drew: Oh man, for me, the biggest joy of that final Spider-Men scene was the explicit callback to their final adventure on Battleworld, where Miles inexplicably pulls a hamburger out of his pocket to offer to the always-hungry Molecule Man. After years of having his pleas for food fall on Doom’s deaf ears, Molecule Man won’t soon forget Miles’ kidness.
The scene that follows suggests that Molecule Man’s favor comes in the form of Miles’ mother, who is apparently alive and well on this new “Prime Earth,” but I couldn’t help but wonder if that favor was siding with the good guys in Reed’s climactic battle with both his Ultimate counterpart and Doom. That is, for all of the super-geniuses and super-powers, infinity gauntlets and infinite hulks, the universe was saved by an act of compassion from a kid who looks up to Peter Parker. In that moment, he is every Marvel fan. That may be a wilful misreading of that scene, but it’s way too powerful for me to ignore. “We can be heroes,” as one great man once noted. The power to save the world isn’t a superpower or a fictional device, it’s helping out your fellow man.
Or, getting back to Patrick’s meta-readings, Miles’ absurdly silly act of kindness (remember: he pulled a hamburger out of his spider-suit) represents superheroing generally. Cosmic Rays, Vita-Rays, Gamma Rays — these are all as nonsensical as putting a hamburger in your pocket and forgetting about it for three weeks. The thought that sharing that three-week-old pocket-hamburger might save the multiverse is as nonsensical as the dressing up and fighting bad guys in order to save the universe. It’s all absurd, but again, Miles’ act of kindness is the only part that rings true. For me, it’s those small human truths that define the Marvel Universe, so of course they’d play an integral role in creating it — and of course that relatable truth would be ensconced in an absurd situation. That’s Marvel in a nutshell.
But maybe I’ve now overstated Miles’ importance. As Patrick rightly points out, this ending is very much about the Richards, and particularly Reed. The Maker’s sudden-but-inevitable betrayal could have been the end of Reed, and the end of “nostalgia for something that was never yours anyway,” but for the fact that the person with the power to make things happen (or to allow them to) was sympathetic to that kind of nostalgia. Reed could save the Marvel Universe because of that nostalgia — mythologizing the fact that the Marvel Universe doesn’t forget its past. There may be naysayers who dislike it, but the ones with power in the Marvel Universe — be they the Molecule Man or whoever happens to be writing a line-defining event — still like that nostalgia (or at least respect it as important).
Reed’s struggles get much more personal when Doom arrives, but it might still be a dramatization of Hickman redefining the Marvel Universe. Reed isn’t Doom, and Hickman isn’t Stan Lee, but Molecule Man ignores any canonizing by framing their equality — Doom may have been god, but when it comes to bringing food, he and Reed are equals. Effectively, Hickman is staking his claim to define the Marvel Universe. He isn’t the god who came before, but they’re ultimately both just men. I’m not sure where to take that reading when Doom admits that Reed would have done a better job — perhaps Doom’s old god isn’t Lee, but Marvel editorial? At any rate, the act of creation ends up being more of an act of discovery — like Franklin, Hickman will leave the cataloguing of this new Multiverse to others. They’ve created it, but they haven’t defined it.
Of course, for all of the analogies we can pack into each of these characters, they also need to be characters, which is where that final panel of Doom gets me. In his battle with Reed, Doom laments having to make “impossible choices,” so while he fights to hold onto his power, he’s ultimately relieved when he doesn’t have it anymore. His joy at the end of the issue demonstrates a kind of inversion of Uncle Ben’s famous words; with lack of power comes lack of responsibility. Doom doesn’t have to make those impossible choices anymore, and neither does Hickman. What happens from here lies in everyone else’s hands.
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?