Best Shots Review: SECRET WARS #9

"Secret Wars #9" cover by Alex Ross
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Spoilers ahead.

Secret Wars #9
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

After dozens of tie-ins and months of delays, Secret Wars finally reaches its conclusion this week, and it’s a surprisingly intimate affair. While this miniseries culminated writer Jonathan Hickman’s run with two flagship Avengers books, this finale really only focuses on a handful of characters. Die=hard Hickman fans will likely find a lot to like in this book, but people who were looking for Marvel’s best and brightest in one room will be left disappointed.

While Hickman rode the post-Joss Whedon wave with his main Avengers book, it was obvious that his real darling was New Avengers, which focused on the greatest thinkers the Marvel Universe had to offer, as they fought their own secret war against the threat of the Incursions. It was cerebral, heady and ambitious — and it played to Hickman’s strengths far more than the straightforward superheroics the main Avengers title demanded. So with that in mind, it’s fitting that Secret Wars #9 feels like a conclusion to the Illuminati’s struggle more than anything else, as Mr. Fantastic and Black Panther lead a two-pronged assault against the precariously positioned Victor Von Doom, whose control of Battleworld is slipping quickly through his fingers. Hickman has developed a huge sense of scale here, with T’Challa wielding an Infinity Gauntlet and Reed taking on Victor in the very heart of his otherworldly power. Given that 2015 was not the kindest year to the Fantastic Four, you can’t help but feel a swell of excitement when you read someone say, “My name is Reed Richards… and I’m the one who fixes things.”

Ultimately, the main drama to this issue comes down to Reed and Victor, the original Marvel hero and arch-villain, and in that vein, you see Hickman’s runs on Fantastic Four and New Avengers reach their logical conclusions. With the multiverse at stake, it’s perhaps not surprising that Hickman has boiled it down to one long-lasting rivalry, and to his credit, Hickman gives both Victor and Reed some logic behind their actions. Victor may be a flawed man — after all, his first act as a god was to usurp Reed’s place at the head of the Fantastic Four — but he rationalizes that his ascension to godhood was to save what bits of the Marvel multiverse that he could. But Reed meanwhile actually grows as a character here, fixing the flaw in himself while fixing the flaw in all things. Being god isn’t easy, and the fact that Hickman has thought this deeply about how these two men would go about it is a testament to his long game as a writer.

But credit where credit is due — while it took some extra time for Esad Ribic to catch up with Hickman’s script, the artwork here does look beautiful. There’s a bit of a Frank Frazetta vibe going on in this final issue, such as when we watch the Black Panther holding up an Infinity Gauntlet as a challenge to Doom. Admittedly, Ribic’s facial expressions do sometimes need work — Reed and the Molecule Man often have the same expressions from panel to panel, while the Invisible Woman makes some strange faces throughout the book — but thankfully, he makes up for it with plenty of masked characters and a ton of potent action. The final climax is a perfect example of making some great work while on a huge deadline — Ribic eschews his backgrounds for the final battle between Reed and Doom, instead focusing on the brutal fight choreography. Yet sometimes Ribic stumbles, particularly with the loose imagery of Doom and Black Panther fighting across reality “as gods.” Colorist Ive Svorcina proves to be Secret Wars’ secret weapon this issue, as he really provides the majority of the end-of-the-world atmosphere with this book, particularly with his use of oranges and magentas to show the otherworldly energies at play.

But if there’s anything that does hold Secret Wars back — indeed, has held his entire run on the Avengers franchise back — is that there is so, so much fat that could be cut. While the Black Panther and Namor’s assault on Doctor Doom is a fun moment just in terms of fan service, Hickman leaves that thread largely underdeveloped, and one particularly intriguing gambit on T’Challa’s part at the end of the book is lacking some needed clarity in the storytelling. Clarity in general winds up harming this story a lot, with bits like Victor’s defeat coming off as abrupt and even unfinished, leading to the actual resetting of the Marvel Universe occurring off-panel. It’s a shame, and that’s not even getting to the point where at the end of the day, most of the Marvel Universe was barely even needed — sure, over the course of nine issues, we had cameos by Cyclops, Star-Lord and Miles Morales, but given how limited their time was in the story, did many of these characters serve as anything other than plot devices?

Sometimes even the greatest writers can be too ambitious for their own good — and given its lengthy delays and divisive reactions, it’s clear that Secret Wars never reached its lofty potential as the end-all, be-all story for the Marvel Universe. But as far as the end of a long and fruitful career at Marvel, this might be a fitting — if audaciously small-scale — finale for Jonathan Hickman, and his run with Reed Richards and the rest of his Illuminati crew. It’s ironic and yet trademark Hickman to break down the battle for all worlds in the way that he did, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But at the end of the day, Secret Wars aimed for dazzling heights few other crossovers strive for, and that ambition, if not the final execution, is something the House of Ideas should continue to emulate.

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