By Jonathan Hickman & Esad Ribic
After months of speculation, Everything Ended last week in Secret Wars #1, when the two Earths remaining in the Marvel Multiverse smashed into each other. The resulting Incursion tore apart anything in its path including the heroes’ last ditch stand to salvage something from the wreckage. It was an exciting, action-packed issue, which ended on a rather poignant note. However, as enjoyable as it was, it was not filled with that many surprises. Hickman did exactly what the publicity said he would: he annihilated the Marvel Universe. The real mystery was what would emerge from the ruins. Some hints had trickled out via advance solicits. For the most part, though, it was only today that Hickman pulled back the curtain to reveal just what this Battleworld would be. And so far, it is fascinating.
The issue opens with an initiation ceremony. A young man is being led to a familiar mythic hammer. He is found Worthy and is congratulated by King Thor. King Thor welcomes the young man into a select gathering made up entirely of Thors. They are the police force of this Kingdom, the enforcers of law and maintainers of peace. They do all this in service to a higher deity, in whose name they pledge allegiance. The rite ends with a scene of the assembled Thunder Gods, kneeling before a representation of their god: the stern, iron visage of Doctor Doom. It would seem that Victor’s showdown with The Beyonders did not go so badly for him after all.
King Thor proceeds to take the new recruit on a tour through the various kingdoms which make up Doom’s dominion. What becomes immediately clear is the amount of care Hickman has taken in designing his setting. There is a lot of world-building in this issue, which, is great news for readers like me who are an easy mark for that sort of thing. The story is full of little winks to readers (for example, Asgard has been rechristened Doomgard). At the same time, every individual piece feels connected to each other. As the tie-in advance solicits seemingly piled on top of each other an endless stream of “worlds”, there was legitimate concern about Battleworld resembling a patchwork quilt. Happily this is not the case at all. Instead of simply dropping a bunch of random “eras” alongside each other (a la Convergence). Hickman and Ribic create a seamless, unified world, which feels fully fleshed out.
In addition, Hickman’s setting is more than simply fun fan-service; it has a strong subtext as well. The kingdoms under Doom have autonomy within their borders as long as their barons do nothing to upset the peace beyond their territories. This network of uneasy truces, lends to the series a type of political intrigue which will remind fans of Hickman’s East of West. Also similar to Hickman’s creator owned work is the theme of mercy. One of the most resonant moments in the issue comes when Sue Storm, who sirs alongside Doom’s throne, simply whispers “mercy” in his ear. Without dialogue or facial expression, Ribic is able to masterfully convey how deeply Doom is touched by Sue’s plea. If Doom is a god, then what kind of deity is he? At one point, the new recruit explains how as a boy he viewed his baron as something so removed from everyday life, so elevated above the masses that the ruler was like a god. Is that how the barons in turn view Doom? Is divinity simply in the eye of the beholder?
Doom has always been a character who straddles two spheres. On one hand, he is a brilliant scientist, while on the other he is a master of dark magics. For Secret Wars, Hickman literally splits these aspects between Doom’s two top aids. The first is Doctor Strange, the Sheriff. As his title suggest he oversees the execution of justice, yet, he is also the chief religious minister. His opposite is Valerie, who, as head of the Foundation, is responsible for scientific research,. These two poles of science and religion were meant to complement each other, as they do in Doom himself, though instead are often in conflict. The result is a subtext that does not just comment on the characters in the story and their traditional roles in the Marvel Universe, but also important debates within contemporary culture.
Hickman does all this without losing track of telling an engaging story with plenty of powerful moments. For his part, Ribic turns in page after page of outstanding art. His work has an epic sweep that perfectly fits the grand scale of the narrative, while never falling short in the character moments. He takes the familiar sights of the Marvel Universe and renders them with a new energy. For example, I cannot remember the last time Venom was even half as frightening as he is here.
All in all, this was a strong second chapter to Secret Wars. If Hickman can maintain this level of quality, this has the potential to be the best Marvel Event in years, if not one of the best ever.