One of the defining reasons behind the success of Marvel’s Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the heightened anticipation for Avengers: Infinity War is the opportunity for fans to see their favorite heroes team-up. Even though Batman v. Superman was met with mixed reviews, viewers were excited to see Batman and Superman star in the same live-action film for the first time. Older television series like Smallville and newer series like Arrow and The Flash are built around crossover episodes where fans can see their favorite characters work side-by-side, or in some cases, fight one another. Thus, it is no wonder why comic book giants like Marvel and DC continue to execute large-scale comic book event series that usually bring multiple heroes and villains together for a dynamic story full of action. The storylines in these big events will then leak into other currently running comic book series to create tie-in issues. For comic book fans, these type of big-scale events are becoming more common. However, when it comes to new fans who are looking to break ground on a new series, big event series can be hit or miss.
There are many big events that can be explored in the canon of Marvel and DC, some of which have been adapted into feature films, like Captain America: Civil War, or animated films, like Flashpoint. For the purpose of this discussion I will be looking at Marvel’s last big event, or rather last, last, big event, Secret Empire. Spoilers will abound as I discuss Secret Empire and the various trends of the big event series, but I will attempt to keep the spoilers light and avoid anything that might ruin a unique surprise of the story. Before I get ahead of myself though, Secret Empire opens with Captain America, who is now the current Director of SHIELD, is revealed to be a secret Hydra Agent after having his memories/life rewritten by a sentient Cosmic Cube. Using his position at SHIELD, Captain America begins taking over the world and reforming the Marvel 616-verse into his own image. For those who are new to the comic book world, 616 is how Marvel differentiates the main comic book universe from other universes like the Ultimates, Marvel Zombies, and Old Man Logan, just to name a few. It is also important to note that the book does a significant amount of work to distance Hydra from the Nazis by establishing that Hydra existed before WWII and just sided with the Nazis because they wanted to be on the winning side of the war.
Given today’s hectic lifestyle, I, like many people, do not always have time to jump into the latest hit TV or comic book series. In an age of binge-watching and “give it to me now” readership, waiting for the next episode or issue can seem taxing and tedious. For anyone that grew up in the 90s watching the Uncanny X-Men or the Amazing Spider-man cartoon the words, “To Be Continued…,” were extremely frustrating. As a result, when I do have an opportunity to pick up the latest big event series I would rather pick it up all at once in a collected volume. I understand that not everyone shares my sentiments, and there is something special and magical about waiting for the next monthly or weekly issue to come in. My point here is that when I crack open the spine of my latest purchase or open up the digital file from Comixology to start reading, my hope and desire is that whatever I am about to read is good. In part, this is so I have not wasted my money. However, I also want the book to be good because after a long day of work and family I just want to relax and enjoy the ride.
The first thing I do when picking up an event series is ask two questions. First, will I understand this book if I have not read any of the lead in issues? And second, is this book for everyone, both old and new comic book fans? When looking at Secret Empire and to answer my first question, I was fortunate enough to have read Avengers Standoff: Welcome to Pleasant Hill and the three volumes of Captain America: Steve Rogers that lead into Secret Empire and the proceeding event series, Civil War II. The issues of Captain America: Steve Rogers proceeding Secret Empire are a great read and delve into the finer points of what happened to Steve Rogers to make him a secret Hydra Agent. Though you do not have to read Captain America: Steve Rogers to fully understand the story, it definitely helps. Also, and to be honest, the whole rewriting of Captain America’s memories/life was rather confusing for me and was not fully explained until the end of Secret Empire. At times I thought that only Steve Rogers’s memories were rewritten, but there are some characters in both Captain America: Steve Rogers and Secret Empire that I do not think existed until Steve Rogers’s memories were rewritten. This leads into my second question, if you are coming to Secret Empire having only watched the movies that make up the MCU, or if you have not read comics for quite some time then the book might come off as confusing. For example, Thor is now a woman, the original Thor is now called Odinson after having lost his hammer, and Odinson is missing an arm. Overall, Secret Empire is a culmination of various series and prior event titles, and as a result of this, I do not feel like the book is for everyone. I do highly recommend reading the various Thor books that proceed Thor losing his hammer and the Thor series starring a female version of Thor as both are great!
With my two questions out of the way, I then look at the artwork and panel layout for a new big even series. Art is subjective to the individual, but should work off some basic principles. In any comic book, the art should help you follow the story and action, and recognize the characters. The art of Secret Empire, at least for the majority of the book is great, with spectacular panel layouts that are able to convey action and story development in a dynamic way. The reason I stated for the majority of the book, is that for the last several issues the art shifts dramatically to a different art style. I am uncertain why the art changes, but it is possible that the art shifted to match the tone of the story. At the beginning of the book, the art is bleak, but shifts near the end of the book as the rebels start gaining ground on Captain America’s forces. Again though, the shift in art may not have been intentional, and a common issue with event books is that the artists on a book might change due to delays, background politics, and/or a variety of other reasons. When reading a regular series the shift in art is almost expected, if not welcomed as it can spice up a book or present a tonal shift into the next story. At the same time, if you are a fan of an artist or art style then this shift could ruin the book for you. Once again, I enjoyed the art of Secret Empire, but that does not mean the book was not without its flaws, some of which were major. For example, when Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon and Captain America, pops up in the story I did not recognize him. This is not because Sam Wilson was not in either his Falcon or Captain America costume, but because the artist drew and painted Sam Wilson as a white man. I honestly did not know who Sam Wilson was until characters started referring to him as Sam in a later issue. This issue with distinguishing the character made his big reveal early on less impactful and confusing. Another issue with the art is the lack of subtext and symbology. At one point in the story Captain America’s forces, led by Odinson, a newly resurrected Hulk, and several other heroes, attack the rebel stronghold. In a last-ditch effort by the rebels to gain time to escape Avenger robots/LMDs are released to fight the Hulk. This scene should have been so much more impactful than what it was. The reason for the lack of umph is that the robo-Avengers were modeled after the current Avengers lineup and not the classic Avengers. I huge part of the story is how the Avengers have, as individuals, lost their way. To have models of the original Avengers fighting the Hulk to save lives would have symbolized and contrasted how the original Avengers use to be with how they are now. Tony Stark is a pale image of what he used to be, Captain America is a Hydra agent, and Thor, now Odinson, has lost his way. After this scene wraps the Hulk quickly turns from green to grey which symbolizes his death or the end of his temporary resurrection, which is beautifully illustrated by the way. Yet given the scene that had just unfolded, this death loses some of its impact. The robo-Avengers are destroyed and now Hulk is dead which should represent how the Avengers of old are no more, and not just the ending of a climatic battle.
Upon looking at the art and panel layout in a book I will then ascertain if the book is a complete story, or if I will need to read tie-in issues in order to completely understand the book. Tie-in stories could be the subject of an article on their own since the way Marvel and DC handle these issues differs depending on the book. For a series like Flashpoint the tie-in or limited series were a way to tell new stories that were set in the alternate world of Flashpoint. In Civil War, tie-in and limited-run series allowed for the expansion of scope of the main big event series. The reader could then jump from Civil War into Frontline and then into the latest Spider-man or X-Men book to see how the larger Marvel 616 universe was handling the events of Civil War. Overall, tie-in stories are a way for comic book publishers to tell original stories, pull readers into a new series, and, of course, to make more money. When looking at Secret Empire I do have concerns with how Marvel handled the tie-in series. I do feel that a person could read Secret Empire and, for the most part, understand the story. I do have to wonder though if some of the inconsistencies presented in the book were due to tie-in issues that I did not read. For example, at some point in the storyline the rebels are working with Sam Wilson to gain access to another country as they hunt for a missing fragment of a Cosmic Cube. The characters go from being in what is supposed to be Brazil to then being in Alaska. The reason I say, supposed to be Brazil, is that the landscape art mirrors Canada. The jump from Brazil to Alaska is never fully explained and is rather jarring. I will admit that could have missed something when reading, if not then I can only assume that these missing pieces were in another Marvel series that I have not read. On this same issue, prior to reading Secret Empire I was told that Spider-man would be doing battle with a new Doctor Octopus. To my disappointment, I discovered that Spider-man only appears in Secret Empire in the last issue or two of the book. To witness Spider-man’s confrontation with Doctor Octopus I will need to read Spider-man’s own series that ties into Secret Empire.
As we roll into the New Year, Marvel and DC are already working on the next and/or in the middle of a current big event series. I do not want to dissuade anyone from reading Secret Empire or big event series in general. Despite the books flaws, Secret Empire had some great moments and left me wanting more. I also have to thank big event series like Necrosha-X and Civil War for getting me back into comic books. Picking up the large volume of Necrosha-X with all its tie-in issues included was a rewarding read. As for Civil War, and even though that book has its own flaws, I enjoyed picking up the series monthly and diving into the various tie-in and limited released series such as Frontline. Moving forward though, my hope is that Marvel and DC, along with any other comic book publishers, will rethink how big event series are done. My concern is that if changes are not made that new readers will not be able to jump into a new big event series and that current readers will feel burnout and turn away from those big event series. I do not see the comic book industry going anywhere anytime soon, however, these same publishers, and thus series, will only survive as long as readership is present. Alienating readers will have negative consequences that can greatly impact both established and new characters. For example, if a big event series does well then Marvel or DC might take a risk on introducing a new series for a less well-known character, but if a series does bad, then less risks will be taken.
Sound off below with your thoughts on big event series: What big event series are your favorites?What big even series did you not like? What big even series are you looking forward too?
Guest Article by Joseph Fridley (@brother_fridley)