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5 years ago, Marvel released Secret Wars, the greatest superhero crossover event ever
Like a lot of superhero comics fans, I went through a phase when all I wanted to do was read every major crossover event in chronological order. I made a list, sought out the collections through my local library, and devoured them all — Avengers Disassembled, DC One Million, everything from The Infinity Gauntlet to Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was a joyful, obsessive little mission of mine, and I did it because I felt in my bones that it was important to read the biggest stories and the ones that matter most to capital-C Continuity.
Of course, one of the sad side effects of having a reading marathon like that in your rearview is that you start to notice how much many of these events actually don't end up mattering in the long run, because the next event always comes along to pave over what came before. Sure, you still see references to past crossovers peppered through books, but with a few exceptions (like Crisis, the godfather of all such events), the promise that the crossover event you're reading will "change everything" is often followed by an unspoken "until another event decides to change it back."
This inevitable sense that continuity-shifting epic stories are piling atop each other like layers of sediment, each new one burying the last, is a byproduct of telling what is essentially one massive story over the course of decades through hundreds of single issues and thousands of often-conflicting creative voices. It's just part of the deal.
So, with that in mind, how do you craft a crossover event that matters in the long term?
Well, you make it really, really good, obviously, but you also tell your story with a firm grasp of the context of what an event comic is and does. In other words, you create 2015's Secret Wars, the greatest superhero crossover ever.
"Sometimes you've tinkered all you can ... and the only thing left to do is tear it all down and start over." – Molecule Man, Secret Wars #5
The first thing most of us want from a superhero crossover is scope. Whatever else we want from these stories, we want them big: big events, big casts, big fights, and most importantly, big stakes. Most crossovers are able to at least hit that mark with their initial conceptual hook, but even by those standards, Secret Wars goes above and beyond.
Using the original Secret Wars event (a miniseries concocted in the '80s to help sell toys) as a springboard, writer Jonathan Hickman (arguably the best master planner in superhero comics right now) and artist Esad Ribic kick off their epic by quite literally smashing the Marvel Universe and its counterpart, the younger Ultimate Universe, into each other. On one side, in the main Marvel Universe, you had the culmination of Hickman's epic Avengers/New Avengers storyline that had been building since 2012, and by extension, a culmination of his even grander Fantastic Four story that began all the way back in 2009. On the other side sat the Ultimate Universe, which Marvel launched as a new-reader-friendly reboot in 2000 with retellings of the Spider-Man and X-Men origin stories, and which ultimately produced fan-favorite icons like Miles Morales.
So, functionally speaking, Secret Wars serves as a way to close the Ultimate Marvel chapter of the company's history and usher in a new version of the multiverse. Narratively and emotionally, Hickman plays this dynamic out as a gargantuan clash of compromise, regret, and survival at all costs. When the dust settles and heroes and villains from both universes have either escaped the incursion in life rafts or died trying, we find a new universe built from the ground up by the confident hand of God Emperor Victor Von Doom.
This new universe, dubbed Battleworld, is the ultimate superhero sandbox, and Hickman wastes absolutely no time diving into the Game of Thrones-esque pageantry of it all.
Suddenly, we're surrounded by recognizable faces — Sheriff Stephen Strange, Galactus standing sentinel over Doom's fortress, and a police force made entirely of Thors, to name a few — but the scale and ambition of the world they've been dropped into is like an immediate shock to the system. You can't help but turn the page to figure out what's really going on, and when you realize that all of the characters (well, almost all of them, but we'll get to that) are playing along with Doom's new multiversal order, you read with even more intensity. It's an extremely effective hook, made all the more effective by the characters populating it.
"You can't kill an idea. It always comes back. Resurrected. Or reborn into a different form." – Phoenix, Secret Wars #1
The size and scope of a comic book crossover doesn't necessarily work unless we also get the real "crossover" feeling that such events always imply. We want our superhero epics to smash together characters who don't get to hang out every month, whether that means the X-Men clashing with the Inhumans or the Avengers teaming up with the Defenders. We want the familiar, recognizable characters we know and love to interact with their world and with each other in a new way.
In Secret Wars, the entire world as all of these characters know it is gone, and you'd think that would perhaps leave Hickman and Ribic at a disadvantage, particularly when you factor in the element that almost no one in Battleworld remembers how they got there or how things used to be. But here's why it works: Hickman doesn't use his radically altered canvas as a tool to alter his characters. If anything, he uses it to dial up the things we love about each of these personalities.
This, of course, begins with Doom, who saw the oncoming collapse of all existence and took the fight directly to the Beyonders who brought it about, with the help of Doctor Strange and the Molecule Man. For once, as Stephen Strange later explains to Reed Richards, Doom was able to be the ultimate hero, and make the ultimate play for survival that was also the ultimate play for supreme power. The nobility of Doom's act, and his own very open thoughts of inadequacy and compromise throughout the series, are a perfect counterpoint to the landscape he created and rules over.
Because of course Victor Von Doom would reorganize the entire universe and close his fist around it if given the opportunity. Of course Victor Von Doom would adopt the absent Reed Richards' family as his own. Of course Victor Von Doom would use Stephen Strange's grudging respect for him to his advantage. God Emperor Doom has a purity to him that comes from Hickman's years of writing the character, and plays right into what we know about the guy from decades of stories. But for all his thirst for control, for all his boundless ego, there's a vulnerability to him that makes this version of Doom one of the most complex in Marvel history.
With Doom as the keystone of this universe, Battleworld then also delivers on every other character front. Susan Storm, robbed of her memories, is still the supportive and steadfast partner even if she's with the wrong man. Peter Parker and Miles Morales are still wisecracking their way through a new universe. Stephen Strange is still working to preserve the order of things for the greater good like a true Illuminati member. Reed Richards is still determined to solve everything.
And Sinister is ... well, Sinister is the purest form of Sinister in Marvel history.
So many event books are defined by the way they make old characters behave in new ways, or the way in which they retrofit characters to be something new, or even just by the way new looks and new powers factor into the epic sense of it all. Secret Wars tosses that aside in favor of something that distills each character, from a member of the Thor Corps to the God of the multiverse himself, to their very purest form. It's glorious, and it keeps us invested when it counts.
"Everything lives." – Reed Richards, Secret Wars #9
Secret Wars delivers on the promise of epic scope, and it delivers on some of the best characterization in any Marvel event, but for many readers those things are nothing without the third vital ingredient to a great crossover: how and why it all matters in the overall continuity of the universe.
Comics fans are obsessed with continuity, so much so that I've found that people who don't care about it are often leaping forward to tell you exactly how little they care. It's a secret knowledge that we trade in, a collection of insider information that many fans cherish as the product of years of study and obsession. For many of us, it's the building block of our fandom, which is a problem, because it's also an ever-shifting sand dune that's impossible to keep stable.
Which is why it's so brilliant (and so affecting to longtime readers of event comics) when Secret Wars essentially casts its leading characters as Marvel Universe fans, each with their own ideas for the continued survival of the Marvel Universe.
In the end, as it always seems to, it all comes down to the struggle between Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom, the explorer and the ruler, at odds with each other over the future of Battleworld and everyone in it. Doom, of course, argues that it was enough that he saved everything, that survival matters above all else. Reed, ever the imaginaut, sees a better way, a way that moves things forward without sacrificing what came before. Their final showdown beneath Doom's citadel in Battleworld could easily be an argument between the comics fan who wants all the changes to be permanent and the comics fan who just wants to see the same characters and locales over and over again.
This is what we talked about when we talk about things that matter in event comics. This is the grand clash of continuity. If you were given the reins of the universe, what would you change and what would you keep?
And it is within that context — the Marvel Universe's first patriarch and its first arch-villain arguing over the future like they're superhero crossover fans themselves — that Hickman and Ribic reveal their great reversal. So many events are best remembered for what was lost: Who died? What was destroyed? What retcon took away some great piece of comics history? They're best remembered for what they removed, even if that removal was only temporary.
Secret Wars is, in that regard, the ultimate act of superhero storytelling optimism because its final line and its mission statement is: "Everything lives." It is a testament to the enduring power of these characters and these stories, a grand exclamation point that says, "We don't have to lose any of this. It can all endure if we only have the imagination and the spirit to retain it."
In that way, Secret Wars will always matter, because Secret Wars showed us that the long arc of superhero universe storytelling is not about what we lose or what we change. It's about what we save.
Secret Wars is free to read for all fans this month on Marvel Unlimited.