Secret Wars and the Death of Superhero Comics

I blame everyone who ever bought a New 52 comic.

Back in January Marvel announced it would be launching a new Secret Wars event, 30 years after the original, except this one would be far more than a diversion for some superheroes to jump to a faraway planet, come back, and see all the battles that happened in the interim play out over the next year. This one would be the closest thing to a Crisis-style reboot Marvel has ever had – and Crisis on Infinite Earths is, from a story perspective, a rather apt comparison.

Come May, some sort of “incursion” that has been wiping out universes will strike the main Marvel universe, which will be reduced to a Manhattan that is merged with its Ultimate universe equivalent and plopped down on “Battleworld”, this version of which is made up of shards from many different universes, many of them inspired by various tales from various continuities from Marvel’s past.

What happens after all the dust settles, what the new status quo is going forward, isn’t entirely clear; Marvel’s powers-that-be are being understandably tight-lipped to avoid spoilers, and considering that Secret Wars #0 is coming out this Saturday for Free Comic Book Day, I’m pretty sure they’ve given out as much as they’re going to give out. But given what they have said – that “Battleworld is┬áthe new Marvel Universe“, that “the Marvel Universe is Secret Wars” and “the new Marvel Universe really does start in May” by the time Secret Wars #2 comes out, that “we don’t believe our history is broken”, that we should look for clues in the slogan “when everything ends, there is only Secret Wars”, that Secret Wars, as Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso puts it, “is not an intermission from our regularly scheduled program; it is our regularly scheduled program”, that “all of the series that we’re doing — all of them — are slices of the pie or toppings on the pie“, that┬áthe titles that will supposedly be setting up the future of the Marvel Universe (called “Warzones!”) will amount to “events within the event” taking place in individual zones on Battleworld, everything Marvel has done to attempt to reassure fans that no, really, this really isn’t a reboot – I’m left to reach the conclusion that what happens at the end of Secret Wars to produce a new Marvel Universe is… nothing, that the only difference between the Marvel Universe during Secret Wars and after is that Secret Wars is simply the conflict that is going to naturally flare up from kitbashing so many disparate universes together onto one world (although there is some suggestion of the existence of “universes” plural, and Secret Wars has also been compared to the X-Men’s Age of Apocalypse event that was mostly undone by the same thing that caused it at the end), and the Marvel Universe going forward is simply going to be whatever is left of Battleworld after the dust settles, a patchwork of numerous disparate, seemingly incongruous times and genres all smushed together, possibly still divided into discrete zones City of Heroes-style.

If I’m right, well, in one sense Marvel is correct to indicate that this isn’t a full-fledged reboot in the same vein as what DC has carried out over the years; whereas DC has long loved to say “everything you know is wrong”, here Marvel seems to be saying “everything you know is right“, even if much of it might seem incompatible. But in so doing, Marvel is abandoning any claim to have any relationship to reality, something that gives superhero comics so much of their power. Earth is not going to exist in the new Marvel Universe, only an artificial world resulting from a smashing-together of places designed to accommodate writers’ desire to tell whatever kind of story they want, no matter how unlikely it may be for them to coexist.

Ironically, when Marvel started one of the many things that made it stand out from DC and its other superhero imitators, and probably the one way that best encapsulated the others, was how realistic it was – the Marvel universe was so carefully crafted that multiple people who grew up on Marvel comics have attested that they could believe the sorts of things they read were accounts of things that really were happening in New York, in the real world you and I live in, all simply being reported and dramatized by the Marvel staff. Setting the books in a real city like New York was just one way this was accomplished; Stan Lee cultivated a more direct relationship between a comic company and its readership than had ever been attempted, the characters went through trials and tribulations the books’ readership could relate to, many of the books touched on themes that were in the news at the time (the space race, discrimination, nuclear testing and the dangers of radiation, the Cold War), and by and large the characters tended to be less god-like powerful than their DC counterparts. Say what you will about the New 52 (and I’ve said plenty), but at least the books DC is putting out are still set on an Earth that’s at least vaguely like our own. DC will soon be beating Marvel at its own game.

How did this happen? How did Marvel fall so far from the ideals that made it so relevant to begin with?

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