Make no mistake; there has never been a Marvel event that asked more out of its readers than Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s new Secret Wars does. Just to understand the basics of the story, one has to have a working knowledge of Hickman’s runs on Fantastic Four, Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates, The Avengers, and New Avengers, and that’s just for starters. In the months leading up to Secret Wars, I’ve been critical of Marvel’s approach to this event, especially their confusing Battleworld maps that do very little to entice casual readers to check out their expanded line of books.
Secret Wars #1 does little to introduce unfamiliar readers to Hickman’s complicated, long-form storytelling outside of a few Marvel AR videos and a jam-packed cast page, featuring just about every major player in both remaining Marvel universes. Instead, the book opens on Doctor Doom, Molecule Man, and Doctor Strange introducing themselves to The Beyonders, god-like beings who play around with reality like it is their science lab. I couldn’t think of a less reader-friendly introduction to this series and after reading Secret Wars #1 I appreciate Marvel all the more for it.
I’ve always been a champion of continuity-lite storytelling that focuses on story and drama over the convoluted history of a particular line of comics. However, I have to hand it to Marvel for taking such a daring risk to entrust their entire comics line to a writer like Jonathan Hickman, whose stories vary from fun to akin to reading a Marvel guidebook. There are few creators as willing to indulge in Marvel’s long history of stories and characters as Hickman, and his lead-up to Secret Wars has been direct evidence of that.
For those of us who have been reading Hickman’s books (or those who’ve caught up online, I suggest this article), Secret Wars #1 delivers on a long-teased final moment for both the Ultimate (1610) and regular (616) Marvel universes. When so many event books waste time building towards moments as big as the beginning of this book, Secret Wars #1 rockets forward with its fists flying, lasers blasting, and Phoenix egg bursting.
What makes this book so special is how Hickman manages to balance every element of these Marvel universes so that every different faction of characters gets their own special moments to shine; rarely has the Marvel universe felt more cohesive than in this story. Want to see Cyclops ride a Pheonix egg, flanked by sentinels, into battle against a number of alternate universe helicarriers all while Colossus throws Hulk from one planet to another? Well, then this book is for you. Even the street-level villains of Marvel’s New York City get a moment to shine alongside The Punisher in a scene that could stand alongside the most memorable moments the character has seen in the pages of a comicbook.
Hickman’s prose is just as varied as the contents of his story. At times his voice is cryptic and poetic, difficult to discern the exact meaning of the descriptions. Other times Hickman proves he understands the distinct voices of characters that would never speak with such eloquence; Rocket Raccoon is just as much of know-it-all wise-ass as we’ve come to expect him to be. There isn’t a moment or character that feels out of place within Hickman’s story and I cannot stress how difficult of an achievement that is. This allows dramatic scenes to play out without any perceived awkwardness or abandonment of character in lieu of servicing the story. A final moment between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman is downright heartbreaking and firmly establishes the stakes of this series.
I can think of no better pairing for Jonathan Hickman’s writing than Esad Ribic’s pencils and inks. Ribic presents this story in a series of stunning, wide frames that allows the story to take on cinematic qualities. Ribic’s layouts are always clearly presented and easy to follow, with framing techniques and dutch angles that allow the reader’s eyes to slide from one image to the next with no confusion. Th light inking allows his pencils to give all the shading and explosions a tactility that is rare from Marvel’s roster of artists. It is a distinctly European approach but one that shades out the real-world humanity and tangibility of the characters and their world.
Ive Svorcina’s colors are also perfectly balanced and constructed, with different color palettes being utilized for each unique scenario. This allows the story to bounce back and forth from one moment to the next with little narrative confusion. Of particular note should be how Svorcina has colored the numerous explosions and lighting effects of this book, as they glow outwardly from the pages. Letterer Chris Eliopoulos confirms to letter-casing conventions for this book to establish a difference between two identical characters from mirrored universes, 616 in full caps, but lets a few spelling mistakes slip through. Eliopoulos splits duties with Ribic when it comes to the onomatopoeias within this book and in many ways this was the right decision as it allows the lettering to exist within the world that Ribic has established.
As someone who went into Secret Wars skeptical that it could interest me in the universe-destroying story that it had to tell, I have to admit that I’ve been completely won over. I can’t think of a Marvel event that has started off this strong or one that I’ve reread so many times over, if only just to experience it again and find things that I’ve missed. Secret Wars #1 reads as the beginning to the conclusion of a long-brewing storyline that makes me want to learn more about the Marvel universe that helped create it. That’s what an event book should do and I applaud Marvel for giving Hickman the reins to guide their comicbook universes towards something as initially exciting as this book. Now if only we could get more Peter Parker and Miles Morales in this book, as the consequences will assuredly have a distinctly dramatic impact on at least one of their lives.