For comic book fans of a certain age, few comic book stories are remembered as fondly as Marvel’s 1984 mega-hit Secret Wars. A yearlong series that birthed countless Marvel fans, Secret Wars was memorable, even if the story—standard rock ‘em, sock ‘em stuff—doesn’t hold up. Now, thirty years later, Secret Wars is happening again.
The news was announced Thursday night at the Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. exhibit in Times Square at New York Comic-Con. Marvel exec Dan Buckley only had the scantest of details to share: the event will be written by Jonathan Hickman as part of the multi-year saga he’s been writing in the pages of Avengers and New Avengers since he relaunched the titles in 2012. The event will be drawn by Esad Ribic, who just wrapped up an absolutely classic run on Thor: God of Thunder, and will begin in May 2015.
According to Buckley, Hickman had wanted to revisit this story from the start of his run, but to tell it “in a different way.” Other than that, Marvel is remaining very tight-lipped—any clues about the nature of the story can only be derived from the Alex Ross promotional image above, or the events that are unfolding in Hickman’s Avengers books. But let’s forego the speculation, however tempting it may be. There’s something else going on here that needs to be addressed.
Do you know how many event comics Marvel has going on? Let’s count: Original Sin just wrapped, but we’re still dealing with the fallout from it in books like Thor and Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier. The Death of Wolverine is currently ongoing, with the third of four issues just released last week, and two spinoff series are about to get started. AXIS, a huge event leading to big changes for the Avengers and the X-Men, just started last Wednesday. And then there’s Spider-Verse, a huge Spider-Man event involving “every Spider-Man ever” is finally about to get underway following several weeks of buildup.
Of course, New York Comic-Con just got started. There’s still plenty of time for Marvel to announce even more events.
Regardless of how you feel about Marvel returning to the Secret Wars well again, it’s time to admit that we have a serious event inflation problem here.
For those of you who may not know, an “event comic” is sort of like a special miniseries that stars almost every major hero in a publisher’s roster. It’s a chance for crazy, high-stakes stories that promise to change the status quo. Add to that the fact that most event stories have tie-in comics that offer glimpses of how various characters are dealing with the effects of the main miniseries, and having multiple events overlap with each other quickly becomes unwieldy and very expensive for readers. In the words of critic Andrew Wheeler:
“Crossovers are tricky business. If they weren’t stories about superheroes, controlled by corporate masters and motivated by sales, they’d be hailed as avant-garde experimental works. Multiple interconnected narratives explored in separate streams and presented in different visual styles, overlapping, diverging, shifting as the angles change, with parts of the whole revealed in glimpses, in incidents, creating a work that should be comprehensible whether consumed in its entirety or only in part? That’s some advanced level Italo Calvino trickery right there. And it’s got Thor in it!”
Lest you think that DC is exempt from this, let me remind you that a year ago they launched Trinity War, a crossover between three Justice League titles that literally ended with a note to find out what happens next in yet another event, Forever Evil.
There’s also this wrinkle: while the original Secret Wars is one of Marvel’s most widely-remembered and successful stories, it was also an entirely mercenary affair. As Jim Shooter, the writer of Secret Wars (and also Marvel’s EIC at the time), wrote on his blog, the whole thing came about so that Mattel could make some toys.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that—really, that book won so many comics fans—it’s just not the sort of place that you expect enduring work to come from. But if the original Secret Wars beat the odds, then Hickman and Ribic can do the same in their sleep. The two are top-flight creators, and if you don’t believe that Hickman really has been planning this story for years, then take a look at this chart he made for his Fantastic Four run and be convinced of your wrongheaded assumptions. The guy can plan a story.
No, the thing that will make this Secret Wars either more interesting or worse than the original is Marvel’s plans for Secret Wars outside of the comics. According to Buckley, Marvel will be actively extending the event beyond the comics with its various merchandising, digital, and other partners.
In an ideal world, Secret Wars will launch a wealth of related material across various platforms, creating a huge and immersive story like no one’s ever really seen before. In a more cynical one, the marketing machine drowns out the very thing they’re supposed to be drawing people to: the comics. Unfortunately, there’s little to go on at the moment. But we do have this:
Marvel has actually gone back to the Secret Wars well before. A sequel series, Secret Wars II, ran a year after the original—no one really talks about it. More notable is Brian Michael Bendis and Gabriele Dell’Otto’s 2004 miniseries Secret War, which was far more successful in that it began Marvel’s modern era of event comics that ran for eight years and more or less concluded with 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men and the beginning of the Marvel NOW! publishing initiative.
So, bang or whimper? When game changing events happen with such regularity, can Secret Wars really turn things up to 11?
Here’s my wish: that when May comes around, Secret Wars is as big and climactic as everyone involved hopes it will be.
And that it’s the only big event Marvel does that year.