The summer blockbuster season is upon us, not only in cinemas, but also in the comics world. I’ve spoken often in past Pull List columns on the joys, and perhaps more frequently, the disappointments of event comics, and May has seen both DC and Marvel launch their big summer blockbuster crossovers. DC’s effort, Convergence, is a placeholder of a comic, a big non-event designed to keep sales ticking over whilst the company relocates across the states. It’s the very definition of a comic designed by committee. Marvel on the other hand, have handed the reigns of their Secret Wars series to Jonathan Hickman, who is using the enormous tentpole comic to finish his three year Avengers run. This month, I’ll take a look at the first two issues of Secret Wars, to see how they hold up – as well as delving into something much more obscure which may have fallen by the wayside.
Have you been keeping up with Jonathan Hickman at Marvel? Read his SHIELD mini-series? His Dark Reign Fantastic Four tie in? His Fantastic Four, and Future Foundation run? How about Avengers and New Avengers for the past three years? Oh, and Infinity, his 2014 crossover? Did you catch that one?
If the answer to any of these is no, then you are likely to come out of Secret Wars’ debut issue with plenty more questions than you went in with, not least of which will be ‘what the hell is going on here?’ The first issue of the crossover event launches right in where Avengers and New Avengers ends – Dr Doom, Molecule Man and Dr Strange approach an alien race called The Beyonders, whilst on Earth, the denizens of the Ultimate Universe and the Marvel Universe battle it out in a doomed attempt to save their own worlds. The result? We fade to white and are presented with a memorial page for the Ultimate and Marvel Universes. That’s it. The End.
It’s a bold statement to make in the debut issue, and it’s fitting then that Hickman’s writing is equally as bold. There’s barely any exposition, but there’s a huge sense of dread and desperation hanging over his characters. They are making rash, and sometimes bad decisions (a sub-plot involving Reed, Sue and the rest of the Fantastic Four family building a life raft to rescue just a handful of people is brilliantly done), and by the closing pages of the first issue, it appears as though more or less everyone is dead. As readers we know this won’t be the case, but Hickman manages to stick the landing here so well that you can’t help but feel a sense of ending.
Now, as someone who has been reading Avengers and New Avengers since Hickman started writing them, I found it very easy to get into this and follow the story, but a new reader won’t find it so simple. That’s not so good for an event comic, the purpose of which is supposed to be an accessible comic for everyone to be able to pick up and follow. Secret Wars’ debut is not that. Ultimately then, it’s a rousing success for those of us who have followed Hickman up to this point, but it definitely fails as an opener for an event comic.
A much, much more successful issue for new readers is, surprisingly, Secret Wars’ second issue. From the ashes of the Marvel and Ultimate universe comes a world with more in common with Game of Thrones than it does any kind of superhero comic. After the events of Secret Wars issue one, the Marvel universe has been replaced by Battleworld, a patchwork land of baronies based on old Marvel concepts (Annihilation, Siege, Civil War, Marvel 1602, Planet Hulk), and at the centre of it all? Doctor Doom, sitting atop the World Tree, the God of this world. An army of Thors police the world, and in the midst of it all – a strange ship crash lands in a desert, containing some very interesting cargo.
As a primer for this new world, and the setting of Secret Wars, this issue works wonderfully. As an introduction to the series, it fares far better than the first issue. New readers won’t be at all lost, and there’s plenty to keep them interested, despite the fact that this is just another alternative universe, akin to Days of Future Past, Age of X, House of M, Age of Ultron, Old Man Logan, and many more. Hickman has stolen just enough ideas from George RR Martin to keep things relatable (a particular highlight is the Thor patrolled Shield, which keeps the Battleworld residents safe from a horde of Symbiotes, an Annihilation wave, and Ultron robots – which couldn’t be closer to Westeros’ Wall) and has infused them with his own sensibilities. It’s odd to find yourself recommending people skip the first issue of an eight issue series, and head straight to issue two, but if you’re brand new to all of this, then that’s exactly what you should do. Secret Wars issue two is a bona fide hit, and I for one cannot wait to see where Hickman is going to go next.
But what about the art? The pencils from Esad Ribic, and colours from Ive Svorcina are, as expected, stunning. Ribic and Svorcina previously collaborated together on Jason Aaron’s fantastic Thor: God of Thunder run, and they are, by now, a well-oiled machine. Svorcina’s washed out pallate gives the series a much more grounded feel (despite the enormity of destruction in the first issue, and outlandish setting in issue two). Ribic and Svorcina have both talked in the past about drawing inspiration from fine art and the old masters, and that influence is clear in many of the scenes in Doom’s court, which has all the pomp and ceremony of a Roman senate. Ribic’s characters are packed full of expression and feel human. Even behind the masks of a superhero costume, you can see their eyes, which doesn’t sound like much, but gives the story a heft that other comics just don’t have.
So Secret Wars then, recommended for those fans who have stuck with Hickman all this way; for those who haven’t? You may need to do some catching up, unless you want to start with issue 2.
A very different type of world on the brink of war is presented in Beast Wagon, an independent comic from Owen Michael Johnson, John Pearson and Colin Bell. Set in the wonderfully named Whipsnarl Zoo we meet the animals on the verge of rebellion, the humans are, to quote one of the goats on page two, “a bunch of fucking animals” themselves; and there is an ominous prophecy about a golden messiah who will change everything. Beast Wagon is an absolute marvel, a black comedy that feels as though it’s been ripped straight from Vertigo’s publishing line in the 90s. Johnson, who wrote the issue, has a keen ear for dialogue and his animals shine with personality, from the shamanistic Tortoise, Sherman, to the curmudgeonly goats (upon discovering a visitor taking a photo of his droppings, one remarks, “Really?! This strike you as a moment to capture, love? Fucksake. Different day, same —”). It also has a really rather good cliffhanger, making the wait for issue two that much more excruciating.
John Pearson, who handles the art, delivers in spades. This is a psychedelic book, with stunning page layouts – check out the prophecy sequence in particular, for its vivid use of colour. The animals feel like characters, not just ripped from a National Geographic for reference, but thought about, and considered in their own terms. Beast Wagon is a true classic in the making. This is about as good as comics get, and you should do everything in your power to pick this issue up and devour it.