So I read way too many funnybooks on my recent vacation to talk about them all. But I did notice something of a trend: lots of books coming to an end, and lots of other books starting up anew. Fitting for New Year's, I suppose. But whatever the cause, it made picking which books to discuss a whole lot easier. So let's start with the endings, and move on from there. And I suppose we might as well start with the crowd-pleaser...
Secret Wars by Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic
So they stuck the landing. I must admit, I wasn't sure they were gonna. While this book's been unusually readable for one of these giant corporate spandex events, the back half of it saw some serious pacing problems. I'm not even going to try running down the plot for anyone who hasn't been keeping up with it, but I seriously thought this thing was falling apart. Complicated political maneuverings were happening off-camera, and so much breathing room was given to the comparatively simple plot mechanic of the Submariner and the Black Panther recruiting some zombies that it felt downright airy. Granted, I was mostly entertained; I could read a Namor & T'Challa: Frenemies book for as long as Hickman cared to write it. So I didn't mind the inappropriate number of pages they got so much.
I'm sure, in fact, that many of the problems were down to the fluctuating length of the thing. First it was seven issues, I think, then eight, then nine, then the final issue got extra pages... I'm sure Hickman started condensing, then had to stretch to make the story beats come out right. It was a mess. And honestly, with all the irons he had in the fire, I wish he'd just been given a full 12 issues to tell his story from the outset. That would have allowed more time to fully flesh out the politics of Doom's Battleworld, and detail the havoc Reed Richards' group sowed in it leading up to the final battle. That could have been an immensely satisfying read, an alternate reality spandex epic worthy of a line-wide reboot.
Or not-reboot. Or whatever it is that Marvel's marketing people have decided will create that vital “illusion of change without actual change” that boosts sales figures for the quarter.
But enough cynicism about the now-endless cycle of empty events and fake change that defines corporate comics these days. As I said, Hickman and Ribic stuck the landing. And that's all that really matters. I'm especially impressed with Esad Ribic, who turned in consistently beautiful work under what had to be a lot of pressure.
The artist always takes it on the nose when late changes come down the pike, and from what I hear, he had a lot of revision to do. I'm not sure how much, if any, re-drawing was required, but I have heard that pages were inserted between previously-completed pages in some of the middle issues. It was his task to make sure it all flowed smoothly, and it did. And though some of his work in these final issues looks a bit rushed in comparison to his usual high standard, I can't really complain that much about any of it. Because it all looks better than your average monthly funnybook art by a wide margin. Considering the pressures he was working under, I'm surprised it didn't take even longer than it did.
But Jonathan Hickman is to be congratulated here, too. Even though he wound up taking longer to do it than originally planned, he still managed to pay off the themes of not just his Illuminati series (of which Secret Wars is really the conclusion) but also of his Fantastic Four run. And that makes me happier than you can know. Because Hickman and senior editor Tom Brevoort have confirmed it: the order for the cancellation of the FF's on-going title came down while this book was in the planning stages. So what was initially the wrap-up for Illuminati also became a farewell to the Marvel's first (and, if you ask me, greatest) team. And as that, it's pretty satisfying. He couldn't possibly service all the FF's many themes in a big splashy event comic like this one, but ultimately the fate of all reality comes down to the core FF conflict: Reed Richards vs Doctor Doom.
It's all about Doom's jealousy, his resentment of Reed's intellect, which he fears may be greater than his own. This inferiority complex is so deep-seated that, even though he's a literal god ruling over all that's left of creation, Doom has tried to become Reed. He's taken Reed's wife and family as his own, their memories edited to erase Reed himself from their minds. It's an astoundingly petty thing for him to have done, especially as he tries, at Sue's insistence, to be a better man.
But speaking of Sue, she's not especially well-served here. Most of the team isn't, I suppose; the Human Torch is moved off-camera completely, and we also don't see much of the Thing (though he's damned impressive when he finally appears, and is given perfectly fitting role). But Sue... There's something disturbing about her role in Secret Wars: she's being used. It's implied that there's a romance between her and Doom, that he had to win her hand before she became the “royal consort.” But if he hadn't erased her memories, it's doubtful he could have wooed her in the first place. She's being manipulated by Doom...
...to the point that the relationship is essentially a very complicated long-term rape. Hickman doesn't really address it as such, though. Sue seems more disappointed than angry when Doom's treachery is revealed to her, and after he's defeated, she's suddenly just back to being the Sue we know.
Now, considering the shifting nature of reality at play in Secret Wars, that may be appropriate. It's not even clear whether that's the same Sue we saw earlier in the series. Certainly, Franklin seems changed after Doom's defeat; he became something of a brat with Doom as his father, and there's no trace of that in the closing pages. So who knows?
Either way, though, Sue winds up coming off like a trophy, little more than something for Reed and Doom to fight over. And that rubs me the wrong way. Now, considering the strong role he gave Sue in his run on the FF's own title, I doubt that was intentional on Hickman's part. I suspect it's just something he didn't think through as well as he should have.
But I said this was a fitting end for the FF, didn't I? And, in spite of my problems with it, I do think it's a good send-off. That Reed vs Doom dynamic is pretty key, and I love how this conflict mirrors the first one they ever had. Back in college, if you'll recall, Reed and Victor Von Doom were classmates. Doom was working on some calculations, and Reed (being Reed) tried to correct his math. Doom brushed him off, and the error resulted in the explosion that destroyed Doom's face. Well, this situation is ultimately the same thing: Doom, in attempting to find a way to stop the collapse of the multiverse, winds up causing it to happen in the first place. But in the process, he gains god-like power and pulls reality back together as best he can. Which is all well and good. But Reed sees it as a failure of imagination.
But, here. Don't let me tell you the whole story. Instead, let me SPOIL three of the most impressive pages in the issue for you, pages that cement Doom's jealousy and define he and Reed's relationship better than anything I could ever say. But since they're so very SPOILERY, why don't I put them... after the break?
Oh, and click to embiggen these things while you’re at it. They’re awful purty. The first one’s especially impressive:
And so the tide turns. As it turns out, Reed really DOES have a far better plan for putting everything back together, one that the megalomaniacal Doom would never have thought of: he works together with his family, rather than trying to do it all himself.
And so in the end, the FF is left to recreate the multiverse, starting everything up all over again, literally doing what they figuratively did back in 1961. And now they’re leaving to do what they do best: explore this new reality they’ve created. And that feels exactly right to me. If my favorite super-team has to be taken off-camera for a while, that’s just about the best excuse for it I can imagine.
So, yes! Secret Wars! Though far from perfect, it’s still that rarest of all things: a corporate crossover event series that’s worth reading in its own right! Granted, it’s probably better (a LOT better, I suspect) if you were reading Illuminati before it. Because, as I said, it’s the culmination of that series’ plots and themes, too. That series’ obsession with entropy, its sense of inevitable doom as reality collapsed, gives way here to hope and rebirth. The Black Panther, especially, gets some nice moments…
…and in the end winds up coming full circle, back to where he was at the beginning of Illuminati #1, where this whole mess started.
Which, again, is the illusion of change rather than actual change. But maybe I shouldn’t crap on that idea so much. These corporate spandex characters can only endure so much twisting around before they cease to be the things that made them popular in the first place. The occasional status quo reset is probably for the best.
Whew! Well, that took a lot longer to discuss than I’d planned. I’m thinking the beginnings will have to wait til next week. But I can still sneak in a couple more endings before we go…
The Fade Out
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
When I say that The Fade Out is the bleakest work Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have ever done, you have to realize how extreme a claim that is. These guys are the modern masters of funnybook noir, comics’ finest purveyors of Feel Bad storytelling. Seriously, The Walking Dead isn’t this depressing. I mean, sure. That book’s all about man’s inhumanity to man. But The Fade Out deals in those themes, too, AND wallows in nasty bouts of self-destruction, to boot. And the characters here don’t even need the excuse of a zombie apocalypse to get up to their ugly business. They just work in Hollywood.
Which brings us to what The Fade Out is all about: it’s a period murder mystery set at the twilight of Hollywood’s Golden Age. World War II is a recent memory, and the studio system is still in full effect, able to make lives or break them on a whim. And in the end…
…massive SPOILERS here, by the way…
…it’s that system that wins. Our Hero, blocked screenwriter Charlie Parish, doesn’t solve the case. He doesn’t see the killer brought to justice. He doesn’t even get to go out in a satisfying blaze of self-destructive glory. Instead, he just… lingers. The crimes he uncovered are quietly taken care of off-camera, with the mess his investigation caused swept under the rug to cause as little scandal as possible. And in the process, his best friend’s name gets dragged a little deeper into the mud, his murder made to look like the pay-off for bad gambling debts.
Charlie, though… Charlie comes out smelling like a rose. Because he wound up involving the studio’s new starlet in things, and that means his status and position are protected by the system. He’s living on the edge of connubial bliss with the widow of that dead best friend. His writer’s block is even gone. And all he’s got to do is keep his mouth shut.
Which he does. But in doing so, he’s revealed to himself as something he was all along, but was never able to admit: He’s a user, succeeding at the expense of friends and loved ones, dead bodies and ruined lives strung along in his wake. So Charlie winds up a shit-heel in the end. If he’s not quite as bad as studio enforcer Phil Brodsky…
…it’s only because he’s too weak to do the things Brodsky does. That’s a reality that Charlie can’t take, and it drives him into the bottle. We leave him stumbling, drunk, down the streets of Hollywood, safe but unsatisfied, a broken man.
Like I said: bleak. But oh, so entertaining to read.
by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham
Did I say The Fade Out was bleak? I did? Well, just never mind about that, because Nameless has got it beat.
This strange crossbreed of action movies and HP Lovecraft turned out to be one of the best Grant Morrison books in a long time, and a great horror comic besides. It’s an examination of Hell, with cosmic terror, vivisection nightmare, zombie madness, and soul-destroying emotional assault all rolled up into one. It’s a big ol’ bag of ick, is what it is.
And… You know what? I was going to go on and discuss the book at length, delving into its relentless, confusing, tortuous negativity. But, nope.
I think “big ol’ bag of ick” pretty much covers it.
Aaaaannnddd… I think that’s all for tonight. Even more books came to an end while I was on vacation, but I haven’t left myself any room to talk about them. Maybe I’ll get to them next time. Or maybe I’ll just move on to the new beginnings. Time will tell, I suppose…