REED RICHARDS:“I can’t help but notice you decided to put yourself on a throne.”
PETER PARKER/SPIDER-MAN:“Yeah. We’re all absolutely shocked by that. Just floored.”
So what happens when a tyrant and self-proclaimed god is reunited with the world’s smartest but useless man with a body made of rubber? You get the latest chapter in Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s would-be magnum opus known as Secret Wars, of course.
“Part 4, All the Angels Sing, All the Devils Dance”
WRITER & DESIGNER: Jonathan Hickman
ARTIST: Esad Ribic
COLOR ARTIST: Ive Svorcina
LETTERER: Chris Eliopoulos
PRODUCTION: Idette Winecoor
COVER: Alex Ross
VARIANT COVERS: Simone Bianchi & Simone Peruzzi; John Tyler Christoper; Tomm Coker; Erica Henderson; Jim Starlin; Andy Smith & Chris Sotomayor; Chris Samnee & Matthew Wilson
ASSISTANT EDITORS: Jon Moisan & Alanna Smith
EDITORS: Tom Brevoort with Wil Moss
THE STORY: As the Thors and the Cabal fight each other in Utopolis, on The Hidden Isle of Agamotto, Doctor Strange explains to the Life Raft survivors the necessity for Doctor Doom’s rule; that Battleworld is an “unnatural world” centered around constant conflict, and thus “needs an god with a firm hand.” The Raft Survivors, however, think Strange sounds insane. When Reed asks how Doom was able to do this, Strange matter-of-factly tells them that when he, Doom and the Molecule Man faced the Beyonders, they killed them and took their powers. However Strange, when faced with the opportunity to become a god, “ran from it” while Doom embraced it. When Miles Morales laments how his world and everyone he knew is gone, Strange reassures him and the others parts of the various Earths are still left, and that while Battleworld does fall short, it should still counts for something. But Cyclops, still possessed by the Phoenix Force, disagrees, saying if one plays at being god and didn’t have the world they wanted, the responsible thing would be to “burn it down and raise up something better.” Strange starts to protest when the Young Thor’s hammer glows—a call of distress from the other Thors.
With the battle against the Cabal going badly, one of the Thors prays to Doom for help. Doom, along with Susan Storm and Valeria, head to Castle Doom’s map room to see the battle. Though Valeria, through her calculations, concludes the battle between the Thors and the Cabal is unpredictable (especially as Thanos gives off higher energy levels than his other incarnations on Battleworld) Doom, as far as he’s concerned, doesn’t feel the need to intervene, especially once Strange arrives along with the Life Raft survivors. Valeria states this makes the projected outcome even less predictable, and Doom, upon seeing the Life Raft survivors, states how they are both “disquieting” and “familiar.” Then Susan spots Reed Richards, someone she has never seen on Battleworld before, yet feels there’s something “special” about him. And when Doom sees Reed, he states how he’s finally found him after years of searching Battleworld for some version of him. Doom tells Susan to send for surgeons in preparation to treat the wounded Thors, and he teleports to the battle.
Reed compliments Doom for creating Battleworld, and while Doom gloats at being able to save the “unsaveable” from total annihilation when Reed and “his ilk” could not, he is impressed Reed managed to survive. When Reed points out how Doom has placed himself on a throne, Doom remarks how he already had one by birthright, and has now placed himself “a good bit higher than that.” Thanos, however, is unconvinced, saying how one playing at god shouldn’t be afraid to admit it, to which Doom responds by saying “I am God,” then causes the ground to explode beneath them. Doom says he’ll allow them to time to accept him as their god and bow before him. Cyclops, however, blasts Doom with the Phoenix Force, the heat so intense it melts Doom’s armor onto his body, proclaims Doom is still just a man, and that all worlds, including Battleworld, belong to him and his fellow mutants. But before Cyclops can finish, an instantaneously-healed Doom grabs Cyclops by the throat, tells him his “dream” of mutant supremacy is over, then snaps his neck.
Meanwhile, Strange casts a spell which scatters the Cabal and the Life Raft survivors to different realms of Battleworld. Strange tells Doom he did this to save them, knowing they would refuse to submit to him. When Doom says they will try to undo everything they accomplished, especially Reed, Strange states how, because they are people they really knew from “the old world,” he won’t allow Doom to destroy them and refuses to bring them back. Strange also says that while he didn’t tell Reed everything, he knows Reed will be more determined to stop Doom once he learns how Doom “stole” Reed’s family, adding that in spite of becoming a god, Doom is still afraid of Reed. And with that, Doom turns Doctor Strange into ash.
THOUGHTS: If any of you have read any film or literary criticism, no doubt you might have come across the term “three-act structure.” Being the attentive readers that you are, you may have figured out that when someone talks about “acts” they are talking about the parts which make up a story, and thus conclude a “three-act structure” is a story is made up of three parts. There are some schools of thought which believe this model is too restrictive, that not all stories can be so easily divided into three acts (William Shakespeare’s plays, for example, used a five-act structure). But really, when we talk about a “three-act structure,” it’s just a fancy way of saying every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Also, no matter how many acts a story has, it’s typically agreed the first act is what establishes the setting, the characters and the conflict which drives the action forward, which also means ideally it’s one of the shortest parts of the story.
Now you might be reading all this and saying, “Gee, thanks for the brief lesson in English Lit, Stillanerd, but what does any this have to do with Secret Wars?” Simple—even though this comic is part four of an eight-part series and at the half-way point of the story, it feels we’ve only just finished the first act and are starting into the second. Think about it: we’ve had one issue showing us the Final Incursion and thus explaining what happened to Marvel and Ultimate Universes, a double-sized issue giving us a guided tour of Battleworld, another issue which brought back all the survivors of the Final Incursion—and yet only now is Jonathan Hickman getting into the main conflict of the story, which is those survivors, having been scattered all across this patchwork planet, having to find a way to fix things while being hunted by Doom. That, my friends, is what we call very, very, very slow pacing.
Not that this doesn’t allow for some decent characterization. Once again, Hickman explores the psyche of both Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom, this time with the focus on how they respond towards the survivors while also continuing his overall theme on what is the purpose of having power. As we see in this issue and the last one, Strange has chosen to side with Doom out of a sense of obligation and gratitude for his saving what was left of the multiverse, that even though Doom is a tyrant, he’s the person with the power to keep Battleworld together. But there’s also the implication another reason Strange collaborated with Doom is out of both regret and fear, regret over having refused to take the Beyonders power as Doom did, and fear that, because Doom has become a god, he knows there’s no way he can oppose him. His decision then to save the survivors of the Final Incursion isn’t just an act of defiance, but an act of repentance, and that his duty lies more with protecting what little is left of the universe that once was—which the survivors are—more so than Battleworld’s God.
Hickman also has a perfect understanding of Doom and his motivations. We see than in spite of becoming all-powerful, of having literally everything he ever wanted, Doom can never let go of his jealousy of Reed Richards. Over the course of Secret Wars, we’ve seen Doom, in having become a god, has also grown despondent and disinterested, willing to delegate positions of authority to others such as Strange, Valeria and the Thors. His deciding to intervene in the fight between the Raft survivors, the Cabal and the Thors only when he saw that Reed was still alive speaks volumes. Having claimed Susan as his wife and her and Reed’s children as his own already showed the level of Doom’s envy, but Hickman shows just how deep it really is with the suggestion that Doom has also altered the memories of Reed’s family to the point they don’t even know who he is. Doom, under Hickman, isn’t just a jealous god but a petty one, as well. The conflict between Mr. Fantastic and Doctor Doom has been one of Marvel Comic’s longest-running and classic rivalries, and with Secret Wars (2015) #4, Hickman continues this tradition in what appears to be the culmination of their longstanding feud.
When it comes to the relationship between Doom and Strange however, it isn’t nearly as effective. With Doom and Reed, we have over fifty-years of comic book history from which to refer (including The Fantastic Four which Hickman himself used to write for), so one has clear understanding where these two are coming from and why they’ve been enemies over the years. We don’t really have this with Doom and Strange as it pertains to their time together on Battleworld. That’s because, as I stated in the review for Secret Wars (2015) #3, we’ve never actually seen their time together on Battleworld. Yes, we’re told they are friends united in the common cause of maintaining order in Battleworld, but we’ve never seen how that friendship between them developed. So when Doom kills Strange as punishment for his defiance, what little sense of regret, betrayal and loss is undermined. The only emotional resonance from the death of Doctor Strange is shock and little else. (And considering how he’ll be getting his own series post-Secret Wars there’s not even that.)
More impressive, however, is the death of the Phoenix-possessed Cyclops. Granted, like Strange, we suspect Scott Summers will be revived somehow after Secret Wars, and it clearly was a means for Hickman to show just how powerful Doom has become, if not also a “take that” to the current state of the X-Men comics. Nevertheless, the scene itself has some terrific dramatic monologues and fantastic visuals by Esad Ribic. In general, Ribic’s art in the beginning of this issue still has the same strengths and weaknesses as before, that while perfectly rendered, his figures look far too rigid and posed, and appears to have only mastered two to three facial expressions. There are also some panels in which it seems to be at least one or two instances where Ribic may have swiped from the last issue. But once Doom arrives at the scene of the battle, Ribic art suddenly takes on a whole new life. Ribic is able to capture both the awesome and terrifying display of Cyclops as the Phoenix when he starts to literally melt Battleworld’s “God Emperor,” and when Doom grabs Cyclops throat had holds him aloft, you can see the strength and power he truly has. If only Ribic didn’t feel compelled to have Doom’s mask have a movable lower jaw; it’s far better when Doom’s mask is expressionless with all the emotion being projected from his eyes.
There are other moments within the comic which are particularly noteworthy. Hickman is able to capture the sense of despair in Miles Morales’ response to learning his entire world has been destroyed along with his family and friends, and Ribic having Spidey offer a comforting arm really sells it further. There’s also some choice, referential humor. Spidey’s sarcastic reaction to Doom becoming the self-proclaimed ruler of Battleworld is priceless, as is Maixmus’ response to the Maker—who is Reed Richards from the Ultimate Marvel universe—when the later believes Doom is addressing him instead of the 616 Reed. It’s a subtle jab which further underscores how it isn’t just any Reed who is the source of Doom’s ire but the original and (as some would argue) the real Mr. Fantastic.
Still Hickman did take too long when it came to setting the stage for the main conflict of Secret Wars, and based on the promotional material of the “All-New, All-Different Marvel” hinting the status-quo post-Secret Wars, what deaths we see here carry little meaning as they otherwise should. Even so, the inevitable conflict which Hickman has finally established now has the potential to make the rest of Secret Wars even more dramatic. More intriguing, however, is where exactly on Battleworld have the various survivors been sent, though that also means one will have to buy various tie-ins to find out. Still, in spite of its imperfections, Secret Wars (2015) #4 is still a well-crafted and enjoyable comic, even if you, like the cast of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, would wish Hickman would “just get on with it.”
- What’s this? Only one all-white page with grey text in a Jonathan Hickman comic? Wow! Maybe Hickman is starting to realize comic books don’t need to be divided into “chapters” with novelesque title pages, after all?
- Okay, I realize the Cabal are supposed to be an extremely powerful group of villains. After all, it not only includes the likes Thanos and Namor, but also a Herald of Galactus from an alternate universe. Even so, they’re all up against an entire group who all have the power of Thor. One would think Doom’s cops wouldn’t be having this much trouble taking these guys down, or be so desperate as to pray to their “All-Father” for help. Still, guess had to be some way of advancing the story.
- Star-Lord? Is that a toothpick in your hand, or are you offering Dr. Strange a joint? Seriously, what is Peter Quill supposed to be holding?
- There have been a lot of different incarnations of Thor over the years. There’s been Beta Ray Bill who looks as if he has the head of a horse. There’s that time when Thor was transformed into a frog as seen during Walter Simonson’s classic run on Thor. But a Thor with the head of a warthog? (Or is that a boar?) That’s definitely got those other Thunderers beat.
- In case some of you don’t know, Black Panther and Namor have had a very antagonistic relationship over the past few years. Namor has been responsible for destroying Wakanda at least twice now, and T’Challa did try to kill Namor during Hickman’s “Time Runs Out.” So having a panel in which T’Challa goes after Namor is a nice bit of continuity, but you kind of wish there was more words exchanged between them. Heck, it would have been nice to see more of the actual battle between the Cabal and the Raft Survivors as opposed to having it all be watched and commented on by the family of Doom.
- Something else just occurred to me about Cyclops’ death. Shouldn’t he have already ceased to exist? Because don’t forget, the premise of Brian Michael Bendis’ All-New X-Men comic is that the younger versions of the original five X-Men (Cyclops, Jean, Beast, Iceman, and Angel) have been brought to the present. And, as hinted in the X-Men crossover “Battle For the Atom,” if any of those younger versions are hurt or killed, then the older versions of themselves will cease to exist. Well, if the teenage versions of the original five were still on Earth during the Final Incursion and none of them survived, then how is the grown-up Cyclops still alive? Maybe this is why Hickman should have used Magneto instead, especially since mutant supremacy is more his deal anyway.
- I think it’s safe to assume Miles was sent to Manhattan and will probably show up in Ultimate End. Also, we already know Star-Lord will show up in Star-Lord and Kitty Pryde, and I think it’s a safe the Jane Foster Thor will appear in Thors. And maybe it’s the 616 Thanos over in Infinity Gauntlet, which would make sense given how that comic is supposed to be taking place behind The Shield which keeps all the most dangerous threats out. So the question is where was the 616 Spider-Man sent to? My guess is he’ll show up in Spider-Verse to be reunited with the All-New Web Warriors (Spider-Gwen, Spider-UK, Anya, Spider-Ham, Spider-Man Noir and Spider-Man India). Though it would be nice if he popped up in Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows.