Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Catalyst of a Genesis: Secret Wars #9

The following is my review of Secret Wars #9, which was posted on PopMatters.com.


In physics, every major reaction requires a catalyst. Some require a light tap. Some require a metric ton of TNT. When it comes to re-shaping their entire comic universe, Marvel likes to ramp it up to a cosmic scale and then ramp it up a little more for good measure. Secret Wars certainly succeeded in establishing itself on this scale. But that was the easy part. Like making a cake with a nuclear bomb, the narrative got messy at times and subsequent delays didn't help.

However, the various elements that emerged on this massive scale are finally set to converge in Secret Wars #9 and the final product promises to be as succulent as all the cakes ever baked by Willy Wonka. Every issue and the tie-ins that spun out of these issues have been converging, setting the stage for a final battle that even Peter Jackson would find impressive. The main challenge is conveying the impact of such a battle without making it feel like Mythbusters rerun.

Secret Wars has had its flaws, but nobody can accuse Jonathan Hickman of not being thorough in establishing Battleworld and the god-like power of Dr. Doom. Between his attention to detail and the sheer breadth of the conflict, Hickman has channeled his inner Stanley Kubrick in crafting the perfect narrative.

So much of the narrative has been built around the scope of this world that Doom created and just as much effort was put into upsetting that order. It's been brewing in various forms through various plot-threads. Now, it all comes together in Secret Wars #9 to end Battleworld and foster the creation of a new Marvel universe. And the impact of this creation is akin to the aroma of freshly baked cookies on Christmas Eve.

Hickman dots the last of his I's and crosses the last of his T's. The big epic battles that unfolded in the previous issues set the stage for the final showdown between Dr. Doom, Reed Richards, and the few remaining characters who have survived to this point. Nothing is rushed. Nothing feels contrived. It's like pure spring water that hasn't been processed and package by a soft drink company. It's as refreshing as it sounds.

The fighting itself is visceral, but not just because of Esad Ribic's fine artwork. The drama, which has been marinating this story like a premium-quality flank steak, makes every word, every punch, and every off-hand comment by Spider-Man feel meaningful. Despite the delays, the teasers, and the trolling at various points, the impact is there and undeniably potent. It's not on the same level as the impact of seeing The Force Awakened after camping outside a theater for two weeks, but it's in the same time zone.

The primary source of that impact begins and ends with the classic clash between Dr. Doom and Reed Richards. It's one of the most famous conflicts in the history of Marvel and Secret Wars #9 adds another layer to that vast mythos. It effectively accomplishes what Tim Story and Josh Trank failed to do, despite having access to Rupert Murdock's pocketbook.

This clash, however, isn't just between two brilliant minds or two opposing philosophies. This is a conflict built around the core personalities of each character. Both are entirely convinced they're right. One of them just happens to have god-like power. That means this can't be a civil debate. It can't be something that's moderated by Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper. It has to come down to the core of both character.

It starts off lopsided. Reed comes armed only with the truth and his intellect. Dr. Doom has god-like power. That's like one side having a paper clip and the other having a nuclear bomb. But that god-like power ends up becoming a non-factor and not just because Reed subverts it. He doesn't even try to confront that power. He only tries to confront the man.


This is where the dramatic weight, along with Ribic's distinct art style, becomes the fudge icing on top of a plate of brownies. Take away the Doombots, the Fantasticars, the goofy costumes, and masks and you just have two personalities with the same goal. Both Reed Richards and Dr. Doom wanted to save a world that they knew was going to die. In their struggles, they reveal what drove them to do what they did. Neither comes off as inherently wrong, but Doom still comes off as exceedingly petty.

What makes the outcome satisfying is that neither side is humiliated or defeated. There's no scene where Dr. Doom vows horrible revenge on Reed, his family, and the next 10 generations of his descendants. Both actually manage to come out of the conflict better.

In the same mold, a renewed Marvel universe comes out of this conflict. It's not yet clear that it's completely free of incursions, retcons, and clones. But it's a world born from the clash between these two characters. It doesn't just feel like everything just snapped back to the way it was like the end of every sitcom made before 1987. This new Marvel universe feels like a beat up old Cadillac that got a much-needed makeover.

The rebirth of a new Marvel universe makes for a very satisfying conclusion, which has been the exception rather than the norm for man Marvel events. A story on the scope and scale of Secret Wars, complete with agonizing delays and multiple tie-ins, felt like one of those stories that could only ever have a forced, convoluted ending on par with the Seinfeld finale. But Hickman found a way to make it work and Ribic found a way to make it visually stunning.

In terms of accomplishments, this ranks right up there with revitalizing Robert Downy Jr.'s career as one Marvel's greatest. A year from now, nobody is going to remember the delays. Our collective attention spans barely last beyond a season of American Idol. The whole narrative of Secret Wars is now complete, polished, and worthy of its own trophy case.

Not every tie-in was satisfying. Not every character got a chance to shine. But the core narrative that culminated in Secret Wars #9 made it feel as though every character and sub-plot got a chance to contribute. Every moment carried some level of the dramatic weight. In the end, it made Secret Wars feel less like another event comic and more like a catalyst for the next stage of the Marvel mythos. The fact that it made readers feel better about forking over more of their hard-earned money to the Marvel enterprise is just a nice bonus for us and Disney's accountants.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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