Marvel’s Secret Wars are (almost) finally upon us! It’s been a long and winding road to Battleworld, through Multiversal Incursion after Multiversal Incursion, two different Avengers series, an event or two, and the destruction of the entire Marvel Universe, but we made it. Now, if you have no Earthly idea what any of that means, you are not alone. Jonathan Hickman’s epic sci-fi tale of betrayal, war, destruction, and morality that culminates in Marvel’s 2015 mega-event started way back in 2012 with Avengers #1, quickly became part of Hickman’s other ongoing, New Avengers, swerved right into the Infinity event, and has encompassed nearly 100 single comic book issues.
That’s a whole lot of story to catch up on if you’ve missed out, but this primer series should be all you need to understand exactly what’s lead to Secret Wars, what the event is all about, and even includes a brief tour of Battleworld itself. Even if you have kept up with everything up to this point there still may be some things you can take away from this summary, and I’d love any fact-checking you can provide.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
(SPOILER WARNING: This is a summary of events occurring in Marvel Comics Avengers, New Avengers, Infinity, and other series/books that could potentially damage your reading experience. Consider yourself warned!)
The first leg of Hickman’s lead up to Secret Wars may officially begin in Avengers #1 and New Avengers #1, but there are a lot of concepts the writer deals with in those two book that truly found their legs in Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four. The way Hickman deals with The Multiverse, Reed Richards attitude, and even the storytelling itself that relies heavily on characters making difficult choices, all grew from seeds planted in that series. It’s not technically required reading for Secret Wars, but it’s definitely worth a look if you want to get the entire scope of the story Hickman is telling.
Marvel’s Illuminati team also plays an integral role in every aspect of the build-up to Secret Wars, and it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to reread Bendis’ original run of this series. Especially the Beyonder issue.
There’s also a slight touch of a couple of Marvel series called New Universe and New Universal. While New Universe was an attempt to build a persistent superhero universe from scratch, New Universal was a re-imagining of that universe. It all gets kind of complex, and these series are pretty good reads, but they aren’t necessarily required reading, but they really fun.
Suggested Reading Order:
- New Avengers #1 – #3
- Avengers #1 – #6
- New Avengers #4 – #6
- Avengers #7 – #13
- New Avengers #7
I’m going to get into the full, spoiler-ridden summaries of the first 6 months or so of these 2 series, but first, a word about reading order. The word is: It’s a pretty big deal! While in this early state of the entire enterprise leading up to Secret Wars things are pretty simple, beginning with Infinity the reveals and goings-on happen in sequences, and reading order is important. That doesn’t really matter if you’re reading this to get up to date, but I want you to be able to keep up, give the fact-checkers a reference, and add another layer of awesome to Hickman’s ability to craft such a complex yet entertaining story.
Multiversal Incursions 101 (New Avengers #1 – #3)
The New Avengers series is, and pretty much always has been, a book about Marvel’s Illuminati, a secret organization made up of the most powerful and influential heroes in the Marvel U. Originally created by Brian Michael Bendis, the individual members of the group represented a certain aspect of vital importance to the Marvel U. While this team went through several lineups, The Illuminati was originally formed after the Kree-Skrull War as merely an information sharing network, but quickly grew into a team of Avengers who committed acts that were, at best, morally grey, including banishing the Hulk to Planet Hulk, threatening the Skrull Empire on behalf of Earth without consent, and collecting the Infinity Gems and Gauntlet to meet their own secret ends. Although The Illuminati do all of this and more for the benefit of the planet, there always seems to be an unintentional consequence to their actions. For example, World War Hulk (which only happened because the Hulk was sent away), Secret Invasion (which only precipitated due to the temporary capture of the Illuminati by the Skrulls), and actually using the Infinity Gauntlet (which marks an important moment in this series of events). The overarching tone of The Illuminati is always “disaster stemming from good intentions”, and that ideal persists within The Illuminati throughout the build-up to Secret Wars.
In New Avengers #1 we witness our first Multiversal Incursion; another planet Earth from an alternate universe colliding with the Earth of the 616 Universe; in Wakanda. T’Challa just happens to come across the Incursion by accident, and we’re introduced to the new character Black Swan, a different version of the Secret Warriors character Manifold, and we hear the name Rabum Alal, The Great Destroyer for the first time. T’Challa wins the day by capturing Black Swan, but witnesses the destruction of this alternate Earth by Black Swan and her cohorts. The ish ends with the introduction of the Illuminati team (Captain America, Iron Man, Black Bolt, Doctor Strange, Reed Richards, Namor, and Black Panther) as they converge on Wakanda to address this newly revealed threat.
After interrogating Black Swan, Reed Richards breaks the news to the team.
For some reason, Multiversal Incursions are occurring that threaten Earth. But what, exactly, IS a Multiversal Incursion? I’m glad you asked.
The Earth exists with the universe. The universe was created before the Earth, and the Earth will die before the Universe. This is simply the way things are…or it’s how they should be.
There also exists a Multiverse of realities; an infinite number of Earths within an infinite number of Universes. This represents “Endless Possibilites” and would make for a really cool event if they ever collapsed on each other, hence the Secret Wars. But “Everything Dies” eventually, and all of these realities are bound for the same destination: Oblivion.
However, somewhere in the Multiverse, an event occurred that caused the early end of one of these Universe, creating a tiny contraction of the entire Multiverse. Consequently, and this is where it gets important, that contraction of the Multiverse caused two Universes to smash together at the “Incursion Point”, which just so happens to be Earth. When the two Earths touch, both Universes are destroyed. This leads to another contraction and, you guessed it, even more Universal Incursions.
So, a Multiversal Incursion occurs due to the contraction of the Multiverse, is centered on the Earths of the respective incurring Universes, and ends with the destruction of both Universes…most of the time.
When two Earths incur there is an 8-hour period of “Harmonic Alignment” that allows both Earths to exist as they move toward smashing together to destruction. At the end of that 8-hours the two Earths crash together destroying themselves and the entirety of the two universes in which those Earths existed in the process. Or, one Earth is destroyed, eliminating the Incursion Point and saving both universes and the other Earth in the process. If you can destroy the Earth of the other Universe that is Incurring, you save both universes AND your Earth. The Illuminati can also detect theses Incursions, leaving us with the morally grey question: Will you destroy a World to save two Universes?
It’s an unthinkable situation, and the discussion between the members of the Illuminati as they consider all of their options gets heated, and eventually they break out their Infinity Gems and the Gauntlet.
At this point in the story Professor X dies due to the events of Avengers vs. X-Men and is replaced by Beast. New Avengers #3 shows the team utilizing the power of the Infinity Gauntlet, wielded by Captain America, to stave off an Incursion, however, all but one of the Gems shatters, and the Time Gem simply vanishes. While the Incursion was avoided, presumably saving both Universes, their lone weapon against the Incursions is now gone.
We now see the first good-intentioned steps this team takes toward Hell, with only Captain America seeing where their actions will eventually lead. Steve Rogers understands the wavering good most heroes have because his is so very unwavering. He knows The Illuminati will invent doomsday machines capable of saving their world by destroying others. There’s simply no way that Captain America would ever allow that to happen, and The Illuminati know this. Using a magic spell, Doctor Strange wipes Captain America’s memory of the entire existence of the Illuminati. Their voice of conscience gone, the Illuminati continue to devise solutions. All the while, however, Black Swan insists that their actions are completely futile; she couldn’t be more right.
Avengers World (Avengers #1-#6)
While Hickman was building the overarching story that leads to Secret Wars in New Avengers, the majority of the main players who star in the lead-up to the event are fully fleshed out within the pages of Avengers. But it really boils down to two men: Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.
Two main events encompass these issues of Avengers: The creation of Avengers World, and the terraforming of Mars. The former alludes to the grand scope of this event, while the latter introduces even more key players to the game.
In the wake of the decision made by the Illuminati regarding Captain America, out of a sense of guilt over Cap’s removal or out of the necessity of having Steve Rogers as a prime player in everything Stark knew was coming, Tony went to Steve with an idea. In order to tackle the threats that Earth constantly faces, the Avengers needed to get bigger.
We then move to the planet Mars, where a character called Ex Nihilo, a “gardener” created by a race called The Builders who, along with his sister Abyss, were ordered to spread perfection to any creation they encounter. Cap and some Avengers encountered Ex Nihilo after he fired Origin Bombs at several locations on Earth in an attempt to accelerate Humankind’s evolution in order to stop The Builders (one of the oldest know races in the universe) from destroying Earth due to its inherent imperfection, with those bombs affecting nearly 2 million people. After Ex Nihilo decimates the Avengers, returns Captain America as a message to Earth, and imprisons the rest of the team, Steve Rogers assembles the largest team of Avengers to date, including Spider-man, Wolverine, Hyperion, Manifold, and Captain Universe, among many, many others.
Seeing Captain Universe’s power as one that requires they obey, Ex Nihilo and Abyss stop their efforts on Earth per her request, but the Aleph (the Builders’ species-purging stopgap against creative errors) refuses to comply and is subsequently obliterated by Captain Universe. Ex Nihilo and Abyss remain on Mars, leave Earth alone, but the Origin Bombs set off two important outcomes. First, they bring the super-science group A.I.M. onto the scene, and, second, they introduce a group of highly-evolved, “zebra-skinned” children who hatched from Origin Bomb creations in the Savage Land. Also, Ex Nihilo creates a character called Nightmask on Mars, who, after the fight with the Avengers, is given shelter with the team. The character of Nightmask is an integral one to the Multiverse, and his introduction is but the first hint at the inclusion of the New Universe.
Hickman continues to tell the story within Avengers through the characters, which is important since many of these characters are new or require a reintroduction for readers.
Solving the Problem (New Avengers #4-#6)
As the Illuminati continue to search for and create ways to avoid the end of their Universe we’re given hints to just how far Doctor Strange will truly go to avoid the end of his world, as well as shown Tony Stark’s Dyson’s Sphere (a solar system-sized sphere that surrounds a star and can, theoretically, utilize an entire sun’s worth of energy), all while the team deals with the continuing Incursions.
On an Incurring Earth-TRN267, Terrax, a Herald of Galactus, had already summoned his master to destroy his Universe’s Earth in order to avoid the destruction of this Incursion. A fight breaks out, Terrax is taken to Earth-616, and Galactus finishes off Earth-TRN267, avoiding the catastrophe. Terrax is imprisoned within the Necropolis of Wakanda…in a cell right next to Black Swan’s cell.
We then discover that Black Swan is only a single member of a group of Black Swans, who are all religiously dedicated to the yet-to-be-revealed Rabum Alal. Again, the mysterious Black Swan assures the Illuminati that there is no stopping what is occurring, but offers alternative methods of stopping the Incursions anyway. Basically, you have to destroy the other Earth, a solution the Illuminati understand quite well, but are still unwilling to concede to.
Finally, in ish #6, we’re introduced to the Mapmakers, as well as given our first hints as to who Rabum Alal truly is. As the Illuminati and Black Swan (now able to predict when and where an Incursion will occur) travel to the latest Incursion Point with a world-destroying doomsday device in tow, the usually Red sky that marks the Incursion Point is remarkably Blue, which means Mapmakers are on the scene. Mapmakers are, presumably, Earth-616 Multiversal Adaptoids that broke free from the control of A.I.M. Traveling via the Incursions themselves, Mapmakers strip the planet of every last resource, then set a marker as soon as a new Earth begins to Incur, and begin the process all over again. They are planetary exterminators to the Nth degree, but DO end up saving each Universe they travel to, albeit at the expense of each Earth they encounter.
But, because this Incursion happens over Latveria, Dr. Doom fends off the invading Mapmakers while the Illuminati and Black Swan set off their planet killer bomb on the Mapmaker ravaged alternative Earth.
Finally, the relationship between Black Swan and Terrax begins to blossom as the two bond over their shared desire to find new worlds to destroy. This represents the very earliest seeds of a tree that bears fruit 50+ issues down the road.
New Universal and Sentient Earth (Avengers #7-#13)
This arc of Avengers sets up most of the aspects of the New Universe and New Universal (The White Event, The Superflow, many of those characters, etc.) and it all fits so very well in the context of this series and the event overall. Nightmask is given his proper due in the series, Star Brand is brutally introduced as he always is, and the introductions between those New Universe characters and the Avengers is the violent encounter you’d expect. But, all’s well that ends well, as the heroes overcome the initial confusion of The White Event, and the Origin Bomb sites require more attention, with Star Brand and Nightmask retreating to Tony Stark’s still-under-construction Dyson’s Sphere.
Those Origin Bomb sites that were meant to evolve life on Earth, however, came with a twist from Ex Nihilo who was no longer content with his current job. Instead of merely evolving lifeforms, the five Origin Bomb sites were given new powers meant to make the very Earth itself self-aware. The rest of this arc is a roller coaster ride of the Avengers investigating many of these sites, including a romp with Alpha Flight through an area that causes rapid evolution, a race against A.I.M. for the scientific secrets hidden within the affected areas, and the formation of the best bromance in comics, as Hyperion and Thor bond over those advanced “zebra-skinned” Savage Land kids who find themselves in need of rescue from the High Evolutionary.
The final ish in the first act of Hickman’s epic run-up to Secret Wars is New Avengers #7, and while this single issue acts as a decent capstone for everything that came before it, Hickman uses the tension between Atlantis and Wakanda that was created due to Namor destroying much of the nation with a tidal wave during Avengers vs. X-Men, the rise of the Inhumans, and the last Incursion in Latveria to springboard right into the next act, all while reassuring us that the Illuminati are still preparing to do the worst. Doctor Strange goes into seclusion and deep meditation searching for answers, while the rest of the Illuminati prepare by overseeing the building of multiple world-destroying doomsday bombs for use against Incurring Earths.
This ends Part 1 of the Marvel Secret Wars Primer, but there’s a whole lot more to cover. Next up will be The Prelude to Infinity and the Infinity event itself, as Thanos invades Earth searching for his Inhuman son, and we realize that Ex Nihilo’s desire and failure to make the Earth sentient puts the planet right in the path of a seemingly unstoppable fleet of alien destruction.