Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week it’s Secret Wars #2. Written by Jonathan Hickman (New Avengers, East Of West) with art by Esad Ribic (Thor: God Of Thunder, Uncanny X-Force) and colorist Ive Svorcina (Thor: God Of Thunder, Starlight), this issue introduces a new Marvel universe that incorporates elements from all of Marvel Comics history and brings them together for a Game Of Thrones-inspired story on Battleworld. (This review reveals major plot points.)
The old Marvel Universe is dead.
Will it still be dead at the end of Secret Wars? Maybe. But for now, the Marvel Universe comic readers have known for decades is dust, destroyed by writer Jonathan Hickman at the end of his two-and-a-half-year run on Avengers and New Avengers. Last week’s Secret Wars #1 was essentially an epilogue to those two series, making it an inaccessible start to an event that is supposed to be the beginning of a new era of Marvel Comics. But readers who were turned off by that first issue shouldn’t give up on Secret Wars just yet. The second issue is a far more welcoming introduction to the series, easing the reader into the story with a tour of a Battleworld, the planet created by Dr. Doom in the dying moments of the old multiverse. That may sound like a lot to swallow because of the superhero-comics jargon, but it boils down to a basic idea: The old Marvel Universe is dead, and a new one has taken its place with Doom as its god emperor.
Secret Wars #1 features a page of headshots detailing the extensive cast of characters, and it’s easy to see how new and casual Marvel readers could feel overwhelmed by the huge amount of information being thrown their way from the very start. The first issue is a bunch of heroes and villains acting out the very last moments of a narrative that has been developing for years. Hickman’s efforts to fill newcomers in on what has been happening don’t diminish the feeling that Secret Wars opens with the final chapter of another story. Marvel should have released the story of Secret Wars #1 as an Avengers/New Avengers epilogue one-shot, then formally started Secret Wars with this second issue’s introduction to Battleworld, which has a much more inviting pace and a greater sense of wonder and discovery.
While not explicitly stated by the story, each kingdom of Battleworld is based on a different aspect of the Marvel Universe, pulling from a variety of established alternate timelines and realities while also creating new timelines and realities based on past crossovers like Civil War and Planet Hulk. The new Battleworld is like a greatest hits of the Marvel Universe, and the tie-in miniseries is providing a deeper look into the individual kingdoms. Marvel has suggested that these miniseries are the building blocks of the new Marvel Universe, and it will be interesting to see if Marvel can incorporate all these different elements into a new status quo in a way that doesn’t just make everything more confusing.
There’s a lot of information to take in with Secret Wars #2, but it’s easier to absorb exposition through casual setup rather than frantic recap. This is a dense issue, but not impenetrable like the first chapter. It gives extra attention to atmosphere, character, and creating tension, and establishes a status quo for the event that makes the tie-in titles more desirable. It’s a fantastic start to Secret Wars, but unfortunately it’s the second issue. The first issue spent all its time on the exhausted incursion plotline, but it was a necessary step to get to this captivating new beginning, which takes inspiration from the rich history of Marvel Comics and an unlikely second source: HBO’s Game Of Thrones.
There’s a lot of Dune in Secret Wars, aligning it with Hickman’s apocalyptic sci-fi western series East Of West (which has a spectacularly creepy issue this week), but Game Of Thrones is a hot property right now, so Hickman draws very heavily from it. The influence is more Game Of Thrones than the Song Of Ice And Fire source novels because Secret Wars has that added visual element, and Esad Ribic’s art evokes the look of the HBO series with its combination of fantasy spectacle and grounded character work. Lush, expansive establishing shots bring an immense scale to the environment, and his control of facial expressions and body language heightens the emotional elements of the narrative.
The similarities between Secret Wars and Game Of Thrones go beyond the tone and into the plot. The Thors are reminiscent of the Night’s Watch, although they have jurisdiction over the entire globe rather than just one huge wall. They do watch over a huge wall in Secret Wars, though; it’s called The Shield, is 250 feet tall and 16,000 miles long, and keeps out zombies, the Annihilation Wave, and Ultron’s self-replicating, self-evolving automatons. Instead of sitting on the Iron Throne, God Emperor Doom sits at the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse mythology, and instead of dragons, the world-eating sentinel Galactus and the mysterious Franklin Richards keep Doom’s enemies in line.
But unlike the monarchs of Game Of Thrones, Doom is unchallenged in his authority. He’s not just a king. He’s not even just a god. He’s the God, the great creator of all things, and no one can stand in the way of his power. Doom doesn’t speak until the halfway point of the issue, and the first words he says are the perfect indicator of his new position at the top of the food chain: “All of you… on your knees.” Ribic’s interpretation of Doom is especially statuesque, and he barely moves when he speaks. That stillness combined with the imagery of Yggdrasil’s branches gives the impression that Doom is growing from within the World Tree, a subtle way of reinforcing that Doom is the foundation of this entire universe.
Hickman turns to a well-worn story convention to introduce Battleworld to readers, breaking down the essentials by showing an employee’s first day on the job. In this case, the employee is a magic-hammer-wielding officer of the Thor police force and his job is protecting the entire planet. All of Battleworld is his workplace, and he gets a tour from his older, wiser, grizzled supervisor over the course of this issue. Their first assignment takes them to Bar Sinister, a kingdom of glowing red crystals ruled by Baron Sinister, and along the way the new recruit’s mentor gives him (and readers) a breakdown of the basic rules of this landscape.
These expository chunks are paired with beautifully detailed visuals, and much of the thrill of this issue is seeing Ribic reinterpret different aspects of Marvel history. The upper and lower kingdoms of Egyptia are briefly mentioned in the script, but attaching this mention to a shot of a female Moon Knight sparks interest in the territory through a captivating character design. And so much of Secret Wars #2 is just plain cool. An all-star creative team given free rein to play with the entirety of Marvel history, these creators start having fun in this issue. A floating base of police officer Thors called Doomgard? A burning Galactus standing guard over Castle Doom, built right in the middle of the World Tree? Jamie Braddock slicing through zombies after being thrown over the edge of The Shield? So cool! And there are times when the characters are completely aware of how revolutionary this all is. When Bentley-23, Alex Powers, and Dragon Man venture into the reversed gravity of Battleworld’s underside, Bentley-23 has only one word to describe the experience: “Cool.”
The end-of-the-world situation of the first issue gave Ribic the opportunity to show what he can do with a sprawling cast in huge, explosive action sequences, but he gets much more room to breathe in #2. There are a lot of characters and ideas introduced in the second chapter, but they’re not all coming at the reader at once, giving Ribic space to more fully establish environments and flesh out personalities. The scene in Bar Sinister is a perfect example of this, opening with an establishing shot that accentuates the size of the kingdom by showing how small the Thors are in relation to it. The crystalline design and Ive Svorcina’s bright red colors give the environment its own distinct aesthetic, and Ribic’s wide range of character expressions gives Sinister a distinct attitude. Slumped over in his throne with one foot propped up on the seat, Ribic’s Sinister is totally nonchalant regarding the presence of the police, and little moments like the shot of Sinister fussing while his servant attaches his ribbon-cape bring the character to life.
Ribic and Svorcina did breathtaking work together on Thor: God Of Thunder, with Svorcina bringing depth to Ribic’s artwork while heightening the shifting moods of Jason Aaron’s narrative. Ribic is a world-class painter, and Svorcina mimics the look of Ribic’s painted art with his rich, textured coloring, paying particular attention to lighting to make the linework pop on the page. Doom isn’t wearing his signature green costume in this issue, but Svorcina uses the color to immediately indicate Doom’s influence over this world. The opening sequence is dominated by green, and it fittingly ends with the Thors all kneeling before a giant Doom mask lit by an ominous green glow.
There’s a lot of narrative overlap between Marvel’s Secret Wars and DC’s current Convergence event, which explores DC’s history by pitting multiple realities against each other in one-on-one battles. On the surface, the two ideas have a lot in common, but the major differences are in the planning and the intent of each event. Secret Wars has been in the works for years, and different storylines across multiple Marvel titles have been building to it in different ways. Its main purpose is to dramatically change the Marvel Universe, and there’s a strong sense of finality in that first issue of Secret Wars when the Marvel’s two primary realities—616 and Ultimate—destroy each other. Finality at the beginning is a strange choice, but it lends more weight to the new developments that come after.
DC’s Convergence promises a few changes for the greater DC Universe, but it’s a project that merely exists to fill space while the DC Comics office moves from New York City to Burbank. With major changes happening to the editorial staff, DC put its regular titles on hiatus for two months and replaced them with a slew of two-issue miniseries spotlighting characters from different eras of DC history. As part of the setup for this event, DC rushed out two weekly series to do the work that Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers did, but with much sloppier execution. There have been a few solid Convergence tie-ins, but the main miniseries is a dated bore delivering the same old superhero nonsense. Readers who prefer more traditional superhero storytelling will likely find something to enjoy in Convergence, but those that want something fresher need to look elsewhere for satisfaction. Secret Wars #2 is that book, and if it really is the beginning of a brand-new Marvel Universe, it provides an outstanding foundation to build something exciting and different.