Secret Wars (2015): A Beautiful Catastrophe

Unpacking the third Secret Wars was more challenging than I anticipated. This Marvel Event™ intended to streamline continuity and kick-off a new era for the house of ideas. In truth, the 2015 cross-over is the culmination of years of publishing mistakes, a series of line-wide cancellations, and chasing single-issue sales.

It sounds more salacious today than it might have at the time. Announced in October of 2014 as part of the company’s 75th anniversary celebrations, Secret Wars was to be their biggest event yet. Marvel called their approach “synergistic,” including tie-ins in digital releases (X-Men ’92) and consumer products. At the core would be a mini-series written by Jonathan Hickman and penciled by Esad Ribic, spinning out of the Avengers story-line Time Runs Out.

The threads Hickman weaved into the tapestry of Secret Wars (2015) can first be seen in his runs of Avengers and New Avengers. The Illuminati, a group Earth’s greatest minds, discovered that the Marvel-616 Universe was about to collide with another in what was known as an “Incursion.” To stop these Incursions as many worlds as possible would be destroyed — giving Marvel the opportunity to wipe its hands of the multiverse.

“The Ultimate Universe and the Marvel Universe are going to smash together,” then editor-in-chief Axel Alonso said in January 2015. “Imagine there’s two pizzas. They’re going to smash together. You’re going to have all-new toppings. Some toppings are going to drop off. You’re going to yell about some that are missing. You’re going to love the new ones that are there. That’s the new Marvel universe moving forward.” In this vein, the story of Secret Wars is also the story of the Ultimate Universe.

marvel-ultimate-universe.jpg

The Ultimate Universe offered a venue for creators to reintroduce comic superheros like Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Avengers (known as the Ultimates) without the baggage of continuity. Superheroes would have modern origins which could deviate from the 616, giving new comics readers an appealing entry-point. The first Marvel Ultimate comic was released in 2000 and was a hail mary for the struggling publisher.

By 1999 the comics market had shrunk 73% from where it had been six years prior, with Marvel on the brink of collapse. Still recovering from a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 1996, the company would experience an executive revolving door and intense editorial turnover before conceding its market share to DC in 1999. “When I got hired I literally thought I was going to be writing one of the last — if not the last — Marvel comics,” said Brian Michael Bendis to Vulture in 2015 about his work on Marvel Ultimate.

By 1999 the comics market had shrunk 73% from where it had been six years prior, with Marvel on the brink of collapse.

Before Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada reached out to Bendis to pitch a back-to-basics story about a teenage Peter Parker with a blank slate, Marvel had become known for expensive single issues and hard-to-follow stories. With the Ultimate line they finally had a home run.

Ultimate_X-Men_Vol_1_1Ultimate Spider-Man debuted at #15 on the September 2000 sales charts with 54,407 copies before blowing-up due to word of mouth. By December of 2000 Ultimate Spider-Man would sell 354,115 issues, kicking off a decade-long franchise. December of 2000 saw Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men debut with an astonishing 117,085 copies sold in the direct market. Millar would go on to introduce The Ultimates to runaway success, with the first issue being the highest selling book of 2002.

The success of the Ultimate Universe was exactly what Marvel needed to bounce back from the devastating late 90s, but by 2005 the line had become unfocused and yielded diminishing returns. They were running out of characters to reinterpret, new books were flopping, and art delays were constant. Quesada worked with Ultimates 3 writer Jeph Loeb to create a 2008 Marvel Ultimate event in order to reinvigorate interest — this event, Ultimatum, would be the first of two nails in the coffin of the Ultimate Universe.

Ultimatum presented the gruesome murder of dozens of iconic characters. It was a cruel event that took creative pieces off the board for direct market sales. Ironically, overall sales for the Ultimate line declined further after Ultimatum and both critics and retailers were disappointed with the event. Once the similarly themed New 52 was launched to acclaim by DC the writing was on the wall. Talks of a wind-down started as early as 2013, according to Vulture.

To make sense of the need to shatter the multiverse I spent two months researching publishing history, sales charts, and reading a ton of comics. It’s my opinion that Secret Wars didn’t begin with Jonathan Hickman or Time Runs Out. It began with the failure of the Ultimate Universe.

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I interviewed a handful of creators who had worked with Marvel before, during, and after the event to understand how the Secret Wars sausage was made. Out of respect to my sources and their careers I won’t provide direct citations. I can confirm, however, that creative teams had anywhere from 3-4 months of notice — hardly enough to time to satisfyingly wrap up their series and produce new content.

“Now in a perfect world, we’d have stopped every book with its April issue, putting out a nice clean May Previews catalog,” said David Gabriel, VP of sales and marketing, in a 2015 interview with ComicBook.com. “Everyone would have seen upfront all those titles that had their finale, and all those titles that were starting fresh. But things don’t always go so easily.”

Character arcs were aborted, creative teams were working in overdrive, and there were a few high-profile departures. Thankfully for Marvel, Secret Wars (2015) is remembered as one of their better events with a well written story by Jonathan Hickman at its heart.

tumblr_nmifc5tgwq1skzooso4_1280.jpgThe Incursions taking place before Secret Wars are revealed to be a machination of the Beyonders as part of an experiment involving the destruction of all life throughout the Marvel multiverse. The Beyonders had created Molecule Man as a singularity (identical in every universe) to function as a bomb that would wipe out their native universe. Channeling the powers of the Beyonders, Doctor Doom could take the scraps and create a patchwork of nations representing different parts of the Marvel universe known as “Battleworld.”

The set-up is convenient because all of the fat and filler of the multiverse could be dropped and the juicy bits carried forward. The biggest downside being the cancelation of the pre-Secret Wars ongoing titles.

“Canceled implies they sold poorly and we’re ending them,” said Senior VP of Publishing Tom Brevoort in 2015. “They’re reaching their 616 conclusion, which is to say that the Marvel Universe’s fan designation was 616, because there was a story once that designated it as such. That doesn’t mean that Captain America isn’t selling; it means that Captain America’s 616 adventures are ending here. And then, eventually, as we get into Secret Wars, the new Marvel Universe Captain America book will launch. Who will be Captain America, and what will be the circumstances of Captain America? That is all to come.”

Marvel canceled a total of 33 titles. The full list is below and is tragic given the quality of some of these books.

Cancelled Titles 
Elektra All-New Captain America Nova
All-New Ghost Rider Fantastic Four Rocket Raccoon
All-New X-Men Guardians 3000 Secret Avengers
Amazing Spider-Man Guardians of the Galaxy Cyclops
Amazing X-Men Hulk Spider-Man 2099
Inhuman Angela: Asgard’s Assassin Storm
Avengers Iron Fist: The Living Weapon Superior Iron Man
Avengers World Legendary Star-Lord Thor
Captain Marvel Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man Uncanny X-Men
New Avengers Spider-Man & The X-Men Wolverines
Deadpool Nightcrawler X-Men

Secret Wars is unlike any event ever published,” Brevoort said in a 2015 interview with ComicBook.com. “It’s not just an event with a few tie-ins, it’s an entirely new publishing line, an entirely new television network’s fall line-up if you will. It’s not unlike what was done in the 1990s with Age of Apocalypse. Even then, that was just the X-Men titles. But this is so much more. The entire Marvel Universe will be affected in some really shocking, really surprising ways. And that’s just the beginning of the fun!”

Secret Wars was a multi-layered event with a convoluted roll-out. Time Runs Out was the first introduction to the concepts taking center-stage, with Avengers, New Avengers, Avengers World, and Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man dealing with the the ongoing Incursions crisis. Last Days was the wrap-up title that some of the titles adopted to conclude their pre-Secret Wars story arcs. 10 titles, including  Magneto, Ms. Marvel, Silver Surfer, and Black Widow participated.

The core miniseries was planed to be a total of eight issues and expanded to nine after some significant delays. Launching in May 2015, the miniseries was originally set to end in October to fall in-line with the All New, All Different relaunch of the line, but would be pushed to January 2016. The reasoning, according to Marvel, was to “conclude this epic event as big and bombastically as it started.” Realistically, it likely had more to do Ribic’s art and the overflowing tie-ins bearing the Battleworld and Warzones! names.

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Like Time Runs Out and Last Days, Battleworld and Warzones! were intended to provide context around the events of the new landscape outside of the Secret Wars miniseries. In speaking with creators who contributed to both tie-ins I was surprised to hear how much creative freedom they were given. Almost any off-the-wall concepts could be explored in these series because Battleworld was essentially an Alternate Universe.

The Battleworld tie-ins were closely linked to the Secret Wars miniseries. The Marvel Wikia describes it as “The Secret Wars are waged across the fragments of hundreds of devastated universes during the explosive events of the core Secret Wars Series.” I’ve created a breakdown of those tie-ins below:

Battleworld Tie-ins
Master of Kung Fu Secret Wars Journal Siege
Ghost Racers Red Skull Ultimate End
Inhumans: Attilan Rising Runaways Thors
Marvel Zombies Age of Ultron vs. Marvel Zombies
Star-Lord & Kitty Pryde Secret Wars: Battleworld Secret Wars: Secret Love

Meanwhile Warzones! tie-ins focused on geographic areas within Battleworld, such as Arcadia (A-Force), Mutopia (E is for Extinction), or Technopolis (Armor Wars). Marvel Wikia describes it as “While the Secret Wars rage, the building blocks of a new Marvel Universe take form within the war-torn Domains that make up Battleworld!” You can find another breakdown of titles below:

Warzones! Tie-ins
1602: Witch Hunter Angela The Age of Apocalypse Planet Hulk
1872 Guardians of Knowhere Secret Wars 2099
A-Force Agents of Atlas Hail Hydra
Giant-Size Little Marvel: AvX Hank Johnson, Agent of Hydra Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows
Spider-Island House of M Spider-Verse
Armor Wars Howard the Human Squadron Sinister
Captain Britain and the Mighty Defenders Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps Deadpool’s Secret Secret Wars
Inferno Infinity Gauntlet Where Monsters Dwell
Civil War Korvac Saga X-Men ’92
Weirdworld M.O.D.O.K. Assassin Years of Future Past
E is for Extinction Old Man Logan X-Tinction Agenda
Future Imperfect Mrs. Deadpool and the Howling Commandos

In total Secret Wars featured 59 tie-in series alongside the core event by Hickman and Ribic. That’s a lot of books that Marvel was betting on and retailers were along for the ride. According to Vulture, retailers collectively ordered 62,939 copies of Hickman’s last issue of Avengers and 527,678 copies of Secret Wars #1. It goes without saying that there would be an expectation to order quite a few copies of each tie-in as well.

These are some strong sales but retailers reported a drop-off in line during the delays. Independent retailer Brian Hibbs indicated a sales drop of 27% during the eight-week gap between miniseries issues #5 & #6 to Vulture. Sales charts from May 2015 onward also suggest decline with each successive issue, however, with positive word-of-mouth around around the book’s quality reorders became common. That’s just the miniseries though.

Retailers collectively ordered 62,939 copies of Hickman’s last issue of Avengers and 527,678 copies of Secret Wars #1.

The tie-ins were of varying quality and the strength of sales reflect that. According to Adventures in Poor Taste, “Marvel published around 80 different comics in March, prior to Secret Wars, to the tune of 2.72 million units in the Top 100. By the time most of the tie-ins ended in September, with just about the same number of titles being pushed out as in March, the total number of Marvel books in the Top 100 had declined to 2.37 million, a drop of about 13%.” So, while the Secret Wars miniseries was a grand slam the collective event was a bunt.

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The publishing story around this event doesn’t end with its conclusion. Secret Wars was the end of the Marvel Now era and the kick-off of All New, All Different. This relaunch is notable for introducing a number of new, more diverse characters. Examples include Riri Williams (Invincible Iron Man), Amadeus Cho (Totally Awesome Hulk), Jane Foster as Thor (Mighty Thor), and Sam Wilson as Captain America (Captain America: Sam Wilson).

It has been suggested that diversity alone is responsible for the sales slump Marvel has seen since the launch of All New, All Different — a message championed online by bigots, alt right, and fringe commentators.

In an interview with ICv2.com Marvel VP of Sales, David Gabriel, claimed that retailers were seeing lower sales because of their inclusiveness efforts, saying “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. I don’t think that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales.”

Here’s a generational sales breakdown of three ongoing titles from different creative lines to illustrate the post-Secret Wars drop:

All New X-Men
Issue 2012 Relaunch 2015 Relaunch Change
#1 181,693 81,342 -55%
#5 76,007 42,402 -44%
#10 84,760 39,978 -53%
#15 73,035 31,668 -57%
New Avengers
Issue 2012 Relaunch 2015 Relaunch Change
#1 116,280 71,243 -39%
#5 63,423 33,010 -48%
#10 60,682 30,102 -50%
#15 47,178 27,140 -42%
Guardians of the Galaxy
Issue 2012 Relaunch 2015 Relaunch Change
#1 211,312 118,342 -44%
#5 110,372 40,581 -63%
#10 53,527 36,614 -32%
#14 53,976 28,405 -47%

The loudest voices aren’t often representative of the majority, and while the presence of a black, female Iron Man or a female Thor might make it harder to convert MCU movie-goers to comics readers (given a lack of context) any other diversity-related argument would be in bad faith. The more nuanced understanding is that the post-Secret Wars relaunch had many factors working against it.

All New, All Different started strong in October 2015. In fact, there was a 12% increase over September 2015 — widening Marvels market share considerably. The momentum stuttered due to poor publishing practices and bad timing. According to CBR there were 104 launches or relaunches to ongoing superhero books between October 2015 and February 2017. That’s an average of six new #1s per month. Worse, on top of their books struggling to find audiences, DC issued a price drop for single issues and their line-wide Rebirth relaunch (May 2016) was a huge success.

With a high volume of direct market competition roughly a quarter of Marvel’s post-Secret Wars titles were canceled with 10 issues or less.

Many of these All New, All Different titles were designed to bring new readers into the fold, but 24 of the continuing pre-Secret Wars series also saw significant declines. You can’t blame those sales drops on diversity — in most cases, creative teams and character rosters hadn’t changed. The drop was because of Secret Wars.

28252721When I first picked up the trade of Secret Wars I was blown away by the grand design approach of Jonathan Hickman’s story, the detail in Esad Ribic’s pencils, and the pastel style of Ive Svorcina’s colors. It’s a spectacular story in its own right and many of the tie-ins are great inclusions (Warzones! Inferno and A-Force are favorites). The more I looked at the event itself though, the more this status quo change seemed like a mistake.

If not for Marvel’s line-wide cancellation and Secret Wars push the sales momentum they had built by 2014 could have been maintained. Instead, the Marvel multiverse was annihilated for a sales bump that never materialized. Even the best books coming out of Secret Wars (Doctor Strange, Spider-Woman, Karnak, Mockingbird, A-Force) were neglected because 70 Marvel books were hitting stands at the same time.

It’s specifically because of the annual Marvel Event™ approach taken since the mid-aughts that “core readers” have drifted towards the competition. Relaunching already successful books for events with dozens of tie-ins is frustrating for readers of specific creative teams or heroes. What’s more frustrating is the upending of solid runs so that Marvel can reboot to chase the higher sales of new #1s.

The wallet of the average consumer is only so large and most readers are hesitant to become emotionally invested in characters and stories that may not be long for this world. And that’s what this comes down to: emotional investment.

Comic books may be a publishing business but to the readers — the consumers — comics are a relationship. A bond to a creative team or a specific story is so important to a title’s long-term success, and given the already high price point of Marvel comics there is a risk of that relationship going side-ways when cross-overs are forced, titles are renumbered, or books are rebooted. Given the long-term damage of the Secret Wars event, my advice to Marvel is to get back to basics in focusing on character driven stories by fully-invested creative teams. That’s where the money is.

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