Monday, 27 July 2015

Secret Wars: Marvel's Ultimate Crossover Bloatfest reviewed

Reworked splash from Mike Zeck's Secret Wars art, 1984
So, I've dipped into Marvel's current Ultimate Crossover Bloatfest, which for those of you who dwell outwith the worlds of comics is a several months long publishing event, affecting upwards of 40 regular comic books, with one mega-storyline directly or indirectly affecting characters big, small, forgotten or best-forgotten. This sort of thing's been going on since the mid-80s with the original Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars and - over the vibrational garden fence - DC comics' Crisis On Infinite Earths. The latest offering from the house of ideas is, confusing to greyhairs such as myself, also called Secret Wars. Or possibly Battleworlds. Or Warzones. It is... a mixed bag.

Essentially the 'in-game' background is this: all the different dimensions/worlds/alternate Earths were disappearing (probably an anti-matter wave or something), until only a couple remained, the classic mainstream Marvel Earth (also known as Earth-616, and a no-prize for the first person to correctly tell me where that designation first appeared) and the more recent Ultimate Earth (or Earth-reboot).

What's he sitting on? A tree?
Dried porridge? The Thing?
Some cosmic jiggery-pokery ensues (I don't know exactly what coz I didn't get whichever comic it happened in, but I'm hoping for a giant Kirby tuning fork), and a single planet Earth emerges. Except that it isn't really Earth at all - it's a patchwork collection of realms known collectively as Battleworld (again, confusingly like the original Secret Wars), all ruled over by Doctor Doom, who now wears white and is God, or at least a god, to quote Phil Connors. Why he didn't rename it Doomworld escapes me, as that is exactly what he would do. I suspect the Secret Wars/Batttleworld concept was set in stone before the DoomGod thing was.

Each realm/kingdom is ruled over by a different baron; often another villain (e.g. Baron Sinister and his Bar Sinister; I assume it's a really evil mutant pub) but not always (Sgt Fury rules the craply-named Europix in some sort of never-ending World War Two).  Nothing particular new in that - we've seen the 'villains carve up the planet for themselves' before, in Old Man Logan, the Ultimate line of comics, and Age of Apocalypse. Many of the realms hark back to particular comic events in Marvel history; Days of Future Past, Planet Hulk, Infinity Gauntlet etc. Consequently there are multiple Hulks wandering around, endless Wolverines (wasn't it ever thus) and - oddly - a planet-wise police force made up only of Thors (including frog Thor in a lab-coat - yay!).

The real-world commercial reason for the event is probably a) giant big crossovers sell and b) it's high time that the printed Marvel Universe more closely resembled the hugely popular meganaut that is the cinematic version (or MCU as we bores call it). And they're probably right. Much as I love the established mainstream Marvel continuity, which has - more or less - survived unscathed through the decades since Stan and Jack dreamt up Fantastic Four #1 back in 1961, it seems odd that the comics do not reflect the burgeoning MCU, which itself owes much of its look and feel to Mark Millar's reimagined version of the Avengers, The Ultimates.

Back when comics were fun, mutter mumble
With the exception of the odd movie tie-in comic, to my knowledge only the ongoing Iron Man series in any way resembles the on-screen version (though, shorn of Robert Downey Jnr's snarky charisma, Matt Fraction's paper depiction of Tony Stark is naught but an irritating tool, and isn't helped by endless tedious storylines involving corporate shenanigans and 'reinventing the scientific paradigm'. Yawn. Gimme the classic David Michelenie/Bob Layton era any day: Iron Man vs two dozen villains on Justin Hammer's floating island! Shellhead and Doom go back to Camelot! The Titanium Man crashes a Rodney Dangerfield gig!).

So, to Battleworld. Or possibly Secret Wars. Or Warzones. I picked up a bunch of issues this weekend at the ever-pleasant Orbital Comics in London, where I had a delightful chat with the chap at the till about Fables. The comics I selected were all either issues #2 or #3, so I was coming in slightly late to the story. Still and all, comics are published in serial form, and should be expected to make some kind of sense to readers who haven't been there from the beginning.

In many modern comics, and Secret Wars is no exception to this, an effort has been made to bring newcomers up to date with the story by means of a single page recap, often with teeny-tiny headshots of the the main characters. This technique recently reached its nadir with Jonathan Hickman writing the Avengers (I forget which flavour), with literally dozens of character headshots peppering the recap page, like a Legion Of Superheroes yearbook. But more of Mr Hickman's influence later.

* * *

Here's what I issues I read, why I picked them off the shelf, and what I thought of them:

Secret Wars #3 (of 8)

Never tire of Alex Ross' Spidey
Why I picked it up: It has a groovy Alex Ross cover - a split screen with half of Reed Richards and a bunch o' heroes (both Spideys, Ladythor etc) on one side, and some dude in silly hat with a bunch of villains on the other. For all Ross' genius at painting likenesses of comic characters, the headshot of Maximus (who some call mad) is unintentionally hilarious - he looks like Jim Carrey about to do a Jimmy Hill impression.

The other villains include forgettable Hickman dweebs with daft two-part names like Corvus Glaive, Midnight Swan and my least/best favourite, Proxima Midnight, or Five To Twelve as I like to call her.

What I thought of it: Eh. This series is the main spine of the entire Secret Wars event, so it necessarily must hop about from realm to realm. And it does so with the usual lack of characterisation that is a Hickman trademark - only grieving, shell-shocked Reed and a babbling Miles Morales (Ultimate Spidey) display anything like a personality; everyone else just delivers stentorian globs of dialogue with all the charm of a broomstick.

It also seemed to be a bit of a breather between issues as there was an awful lot of chat and very little action, apart from a spaceship opening up to reveal a bunch of 'pre-Crisis' survivors, which was nicely done. I also liked the hidden Isle of Agamotto.

Nice artwork from Esad Ribic, though the shot of Doom's face, whilst disturbing, doesn't seem horrific enough - it looks like he could have dispensed with the metal face mask and got away with a cyclist's scarf over his nose all these years.

The Korvac Saga  #2
Sadly no Starhawk/Aleta body-swapping

Why I picked it up: As a youngster, I loved the original Korvac Saga in the Avengers, in which the team must first discover why their team-mates keep disappearing to (spoiler: it's the Collector, 'saving' them from Korvac), and then must team-up with the original Guardians of the Galaxy (from the 30th century, you know) to battle a near omnipotent godlike being called Michael Korvac, who seems content to quietly rule the world from his nice house in Forest Hills. This issue's cover depicts a bunch of second-string Avengers (Wonder Man, Moondragon, the original Captain Mar-Vell, Jocasta) and the original Guardians mixing it up.

What I thought of it: Competently written by Dan Abnett, with decentish - almost John Romita Jnr like - artwork from Otto Schmidt. It turns out that Korvac is running a realm in Battleworld called Forest Hills (a nice callback) and is playing host to a diplomatic visit from Wonder Man and his Avenger bodyguards from the realm of Holy Wood (ahahaha).

Not really very much of interest here. Some people spontaneously monster out and there is some fighting and some talking. Korvac isn't wearing his t-shirt and shorts, nor does he ever glow yellow and purple with Cosmic Power. Also Wonder Man's personality doesn't seem to match any of his previous incarnations; not the indecisive hesitant hero wannabe of the early years or the solid hero of the 90s solo series. Nice to see the original future Guardians of the Galaxy though.

Ultimate End #3
Ultimate Cap has more stars and pouches
than Mainstream Cap, but less head-wings.

Why I picked it up:
It has a nice cover of mainstream Spidey and Ultimate Cap.

What I thought of it:
Good stuff from writer Brian Michael Bendis doing what he does best, cracking dialogue from characters he loves. Rather splendidly, it was only on the second read-through that I noticed all the Ultimate characters speak in sentence case, while ALL THE MAINSTREAM CHARACTERS SPEAK IN CAPS. Marvellous. They do they same thing in the main Secret Wars series. Once I figured that out, it made the Bruce/Doc Green and Punisher/Punisher interaction a lot more comprehensible, though I couldn't figure out why Doc Green loses his silly beard and goes pink when he Hulks out (even more). And the Punisher on Punisher scene was a bit daft.

The mainstream Wrecking Crew wondering where all the 'kiddie superheroes' had come from (the Ultimate comics line having somewhat younger characters) was a nice touch.

Continuity-wise, I think the Ultimate End storyline is supposed to take place before all the other Secret Wars comics. I think. Can't figure out where it fits in - with both the Spideys and Doc Green also appearing in other SW comics in vastly different circumstances, and beards.

Planet Hulk #3
Ohhhh - I've just noticed the big jaws! Doh.

Why I picked it up:
The cover is a great birds-eye shot of a barbaric Captain America accompanied by his 'warbound' partner Devil Dinosaur. Devil Dinosaur! Yay! Sadly he does not display the Gary Busey-like choppers of his original Kirby incarnation, but still: Cap and a red tyrannosaur together, trekking across some sort of Hulk-themed Cursed Earth. I'm so there.

What I thought of it:
S'alright. Turns out they're also accompanied by Doc Green, the slightly silly Bruce-with-goggles version of the Hulk. They're on a quest/mission across 'Greenland' to either rescue Bucky or kill the 'red king', who I assume is Red Hulk. There's plenty of action, a lot of walking/talking and oodles of greenies from a sort of down and out Maestro-Hulk to a bunch of Mad Max tribal Hulks.

Not much to it, but like another SW series Weirdworld (Conan expy Arkon treks across a... well, weird world), it does what it says on the tin. There's also a slightly homoerotic flashback between Cap and Bucky, though that could be just me unconsciously indulging in a bit of 'shipping.

Squadron Sinister 2
If only the Four could save the world

Why I picked it up:
I have always loved the Squadron in both its Sinister and Supreme models (even though the Supreme Power series went on for too long). So a series focussing on the evil Marvel version of the Justice League is most attractive, especially as they appear here in their classic 60s/70s guises. But the real selling point for me was the Frightful Four front and centre on the cover!

Though they are traditionally seen as something of a joke threat for the Fantastic Four, I have come to love the Wizard, Sandman, Trapster and Medusa ever since they played a crucial role in a long running Marvel Superheroes campaign I ran called Seconds.

What I thought of it:
Pretty good, though as with any series where the villains are the protagonists, the writer needs to work hard to make them interesting, if not sympathetic. A challenge that I think Marc Guggenheim falls short of here: Hyperion and Warrior Woman (not Power Princess?) are casual brutes, Whizzer a bit of a nobody, Dr Spectrum has no character at all, and Nighthawk is a downright sadist. John Ostrander's Suicide Squad managed the trick by making at least a couple of the central villains enjoyable, whether it was snarky Captain Boomerang, self-destructive Deadshot or the troubled Enchantress. Here, they are all just nasty tools.

But! It does contain the Frightful Four, though sadly not for long. I would have preferred to see them get a few more licks in, especially with the ultra-smart Wizard leading them. Secondly, of all the SW comics I picked up, this does the best to convey the idea that this truly is a battle world, with neighbouring realms going to war and invading all over the place.

And what a hoot some of those realms are! We have Sgt Fury's World War Two zone (massively outclassed by the invading Frightful Four and Squadron Sinister), featuring long-forgotten characters like Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders, and the even more obscure Combat Kelly and his Deadly Dozen! Then there's a page featuring heroes from the original New Universe, before it got a cynical Warren Ellis makeover; Starbrand, Spitfire, Merc, even Kickers Inc - they're all here. Splendid.

* * *

All in all, a mixed bag. There's a whole bunch of other Secret Wars titles out that I haven't yet glanced at - Where Monsters Dwell, Future Imperfect, 1872, X-Men '92, Captain Britain and the Mighty Defenders...

The optimist in me would like to think there's enough of a spread, both in characters and genres something there for most comic readers, and maybe even draw in new readers.

What do you think of Secret Wars so far? Lemme know.

No comments: