Try as I might, I just don’t get Secret Wars so far.
It’s not that I can’t follow the events that are unfolding on the pages of the series, which is currently two issues into its run; I can do that just fine, despite both dialogue and art that tends towards the static and stately, preferring to reveal things less through action than outright exposition, as vague as it might be. (It’s a strange time when you long for the days of the original Secret Wars, wherein Mike Zeck would show a character do something and Jim Shooter would anxiously add dialogue wherein the character tells the audience that he’s doing it, just in case they didn’t get it already; and yet…!) It’s that I don’t get it.
We’re a quarter of a way into the series already, and I have no idea what the series is about from a narrative standpoint. The first two issues are intentionally disjointed and uneven; the first a frenetic disaster movie in which nothing is explained, and everything careens towards a disaster that relies entirely on the audience filling in the blanks and buying into the premise for it to work, while the second is a glacially slow introduction to Battleworld, the temporary replacement to Battleworld that relies on audience familiarity with traditional MU concepts for any real resonance. (Despite that, it’s kind of hilarious how unoriginal Battleworld is outside of the Marvel Universe elements; it’s Game of Thrones meets Judge Dredd, with Marvel characters plugged in to specific roles for cheap effect.)
By the end of the two issues, however, nothing but scene-setting has been achieved. There’s been no grand setting out of the series’ themes beyond implication (I’m assuming that we’re going to see Doctor Doom’s reach exceed his grasp, because that’s a familiar trope and we need the regular Marvel Universe to return by the fall), only one plot set in motion (The survivors from the previous Marvel Universe have landed on Battleworld: what will they do there?) and a whole heap of “so… what is going on here, exactly…?”
It’s a set-up that relies on a rejection of the hype in order to work, a cynical admission that things in superhero comics always return to the status quo. The tension that exists at the end of the second issue only exists if you assume that things are going to have to fall apart at some point; otherwise, you’ve just seen a travelogue through a rough area of town for little to no reason. “Look, this is what the Marvel Universe is now. It’s like a fantasy novel with superhero costumes.”
Part of what leaves me cold is that I find Battleworld to be particularly dull as a setting, especially when compared with the Marvel Universe that was; when everything is a fantasy element, the superheroic elements become flattened, somehow, and less outrageous and fun to me. Another part of it is that Secret Wars is, so far, entirely devoid of emotional engagement — not an uncommon occurrence with Jonathan Hickman stories, of course — which makes the whole thing an intellectual exercise that I don’t have enough passion to pursue; I like the Marvel characters enough, I guess, but the idea of “a police force made up entirely of Thors!” isn’t enough to make me do more than raise an eyebrow and think “Huh, cute,” in the same way that “It’s a mythical Britain ruled by Captain Britain’s family!” just makes me shake my head.
And the response from other people to the second issue in particular — the excitement over the new world, the feeling that this is mythical world building on a scale rarely seen and enjoyed — underscores, for me, that Secret Wars isn’t necessarily bad or a failure or whatever, but something that I clearly don’t get on some basic level. All I see are the seams and the familiarities and why it’s never going to last. I’m missing the basic wonder and suspension of cynicism and disbelief that something like this needs to work.