Monthly Archive: February 2016

A Marvel Epic: Part 2 – The Start of the Tale

This week I resume the detailed look at Jonathan Hickman’s architecture for the Everything Dies storyline in which he orchestrated the massive end and reboot of the Marvel publication universe.  As discussed in Part 1, the genre that best fits what Hickman engineered is the epic.  Epics, by nearly universal agreement, need to be big in scope and have high-stakes outcomes and have to deal with the big questions of life.

Classic epics have dealt with the savage siege and subsequent fall of Troy in the Iliad, the long, world-encircling journey home of Odysseus in the Odyssey, and the establishment of the roots of the Roman empire in the Aeneid.  But no scope is broader than and no stakes higher than the total end of all there is.  And that is exactly what Hickman deals with in Everything Dies.

The plot is complicated, in a fashion that befits the epic, but it is possible to summarize it fairly succinctly and I’ll be doing so over the next three posts.  The central idea, which was discussed in the last column, is the fact that, for reasons mostly unknown during the bulk of the story, the multiverse is coming to a premature end.  Although published second, the New Avengers is the logical place to start.

The first tangible evidence of the coming catastrophe occurs in the African country of Wakanda.  The Black Panther is out in the Wakandan jungle observing a ‘coming of age’ ritual in which teams of young adults attempt to solve a treasure hunt.  Proud of the winning team, T’Challa approaches them and speaks to them of what the future holds.  Suddenly, a rhinoceros appears out of nowhere and nearly runs the lot of them down.  Investigating, the Black Panther soon finds himself caught up in an incursion, a multiversal collision between Earth-616 and another Earth from another universe.  As he looks up into the sky, he sees several figures fall from the other Earth and he catches his first look at a character that will dominate the storyline:  Black Swan.

Black Swan Arrives

Being quite ruthless, Black Swan soon orders her team to kill T’Challa and his young subjects.  In short order, only the Black Panther remains alive and while he is fighting to avenge the fallen, Black Swan takes the opportunity to destroy the second Earth, thus ending the incursion.

Taking her into custody, T’Challa summons a gathering of the Illuminati, comprised initially of Black Bolt, himself, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Reed Richards.  Their first meeting opens on the ominous observation by Reed Richards that

Everything Dies

It becomes even more ominous when Richard explains the central dilemma of their situation.  They can either kill or be killed.  They have only eight hours to pick between the two possible outcomes.

Trolley Problem

Captain America, repulsed by the notion that the rest of the Illuminati are actually entertaining the possibility of destroying a whole planet to stay alive, argues passionately that there must be a way to get out of the dilemma without crossing that line.  Under his urging, they resolve to reassemble the Infinity Gauntlet as a way of fending off an incursion.  At first this seems like a hopeless task as the Mind Gem is missing because it was in the keeping of Charles Xavier and he was dead.  Fortunately, Xavier arranged for Hank McCoy, the Beast, to become the keeper of the gem, and soon the ranks of the Illuminati have grown by one.

Shortly after the Infinity Gauntlet has been restored, a new incursion begins.  Citing that belief in the plan is central to its success, the rest of the Illuminati insist that Captain America wield the gauntlet and fend off the end of the world.  He successfully does just that, but in the process the gems are shattered and their power lost.

Infinity Gems


(The above is a composite of the Infinity Gems from New Avengers #3 and yes the color scheme for the gems changes during the course of the issue.  I don’t know if that was an oversight or intentional, a point that I will return to later.)

Now faced with no answer but the unthinkable, the Illuminati wipe the memory of Captain America clean of all traces of the death of the multiverse and then they set on the path of building world-ending weapons of mass destruction.

Against the backdrop of this facet of the story, the Avengers title presents an unusual collaboration between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.  Perhaps feeling guilty for what they did to Captain America, Tony Stark embraces Steve’s idea to grow the Avengers to a team truly capable of dealing with the big threats.

The first such threat is the appearance on Mars of the team of three aliens: an Aleph, an Ex Nihilo, and an Abyss.  There is considerable debate amongst the three of them as the Aleph wants the Earth destroyed while the Ex Nihilo, who has already terraformed a portion of the red planet into lush garden, would rather send origin bombs towards the Earth to transform it.

Ex Nihilo wants to Build

Ex Nihilo then asks Abyss her opinion.  Her response is that humans have learned to use tools and, as a result, have become dangerous creatures.  She continues by pointing out that a group of them are on the way to find the source of the origin bombs that are radically altering the Earth’s biosphere.

A short battle ensues, in which the Avengers are soundly defeated as the power of these aliens is too much for them.  As will be revealed later in the series, they are representatives of the Builders, the first race of the universe

Builders as the First Race

Originally they simply worshipped the ‘mother-maker’, the universe itself.  But later they fell away and took it upon themselves to create new, universal systems of a more aggressive character that promoted evolution and change.  The Aleph is one such system.  This automaton destroyed countless worlds it judged as unworthy, but finding one worthy world, it released two entities, Ex Nihilo and Abyss, to nurture and shape it.

Bruised and battered, the alien trio sends Captain America hurtling earthward.  However, his indomitable spirit soon has him on his feet again, gathering a different team, and heading to Mars to rescue those left in the clutches of Ex Nihilo, Abyss, and Aleph. One member of the team is Captain Universe, the living embodiment of the universe, and the deity that the Builders once worshipped.  Once spotted, both Ex Nihilo and Abyss bow in worship but Aleph refuses.  Captain Universe subsequently destroys him and forbids Ex Nihilo and Abyss to destroy or transform any more inhabited worlds.  Ex Nihilo and Abyss comply and are granted permission to stay and play with Mars.

As the Avengers are leaving to return to the Earth to contend with the damage already done, Ex Nihilo can’t suppress asking a question of wonderment.

Why is Earth So Special

This question of what makes Earth so special is one that Hickman comes back to again and again,  Avengers can’t defeat them but they convince them to play only with Mars.

These two pieces, the incursion-driven multiversal death and the universes response to this inevitable occurrence, form the backbone of the New Avengers and Avengers titles respectively during their run.  Next week, I’ll be looking at the second stage of the tale, in which tensions mount in the Illuminati as they try to muster the will to kill an entire world, and the Builders, seeing the Earth as the lynch pin in the coming destruction, launch an all-out campaign to destroy the blue marble once and for all.  This second stage includes all the events in both titles leading up to and including the Infinity event.

A Marvel Epic: Part 1 – Overview

Well it’s over.  It’s been a few months now since Marvel’s company-wide, total reboot of their creative universe has drawn to a close with the last installment of Secret Wars #9.  I thought it was a good time to pause, survey the new landscape, and reflect on how we got here.  Over these next four installments, I’ll be analyzing just what Jonathan Hickman, the writer and creative glue, tried to do, what the high points and the lows were, and whether or not it really came off as expected.

In this article, I want to set the stage for Hickman’s undertaking by giving an overview of what he tried to implement and the creative and commercial tensions under which he operated.  In a nutshell, Hickman attempted what could only be called comics first, true foray into the epic.  This may seem a strange thing to say since ret-cons and reboots have been fairly common on the comics scene for several decades now and mega-crossover events are nearly as common.  But I stand by this assessment since an epic is not and should not be judged solely by how large it is.  It is true that size and scope are crucial elements, but an epic must, simultaneously, also deal with the big questions in both big and small ways.  Hickman’s work on what I will call the Everything Dies storyline (the reason for which I give below) meets both criteria, albeit not always successfully.

The question of size and scope is the easiest one to understand and support, so let’s discuss this one first.  The scope of Everything Dies was unprecedented in the comics industry.  To appreciate that claim, consider that the first of these continuity cleanups, DC’s The Crisis on Infinite Earths, was a 12-issue limited series with important links to the existing titles but with a storyline comprehensible and digestible as a standalone event.  Subsequent reboots of the big two have grown even more and more complex and more cosmological with dimensions, universes, and multiverses being taken apart and put back together within most if not all of the current series, but the size and scope has always been limited to at most a year of crossover events.  What Marvel did in the Everything Dies storyline literally dwarfs everything that has come before combined.

The core Everything Dies storyline actually starts publication in starts in the winter of 2013 with launch of the twin Avengers publications Avengers and New Avengers.  Both of these titles, which were written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn and inked by a host of artist teams, ran for almost 3 full years; spanned 78 issues (plus additional ancillary tales); played host to two separate company-wide crossover events: Infinity and Original Sin (each of which brought even more issues into the fold); and eventually led into the final Secret Wars climax.

The Core Titles

Obviously Everything Dies storyline was required to be more than a creative, literary success; it also needed to be a commercially lucrative, since it would set the stage for all future Marvel titles.  In addition, although not explicitly stated, it also needed to be done in such a fashion that allowed Marvel to downplay the X-men, Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four franchises since none of these was in the stable of Marvel Studios at the time of the publication.  As a result, the core of the tales centered on the Avengers, Inhumans, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and the Sub-Mariner, with only bit appearances by the X-men and Spider-man.  The Fantastic Four are almost completely absent as a ‘brand’ and only Reed and Sue Richards really play a role.

Of the two of these titles, the Avengers title is more action oriented, more classic, and more wholesome.  The New Avengers is a darker and, perhaps, more interesting title.  At the core of both of them is the ethical dilemma called the Trolley Problem, which asks when is it permissible, or even imperative, to sacrifice some life so that other life may be saved.

To set the stage for this form of the dilemma, Hickman had to invent a new type of cosmology.  The following composite image, pieced together from material taken from the New Avengers, Hickman tries to explain the roots of the quandary.

Hickmans Cosmology

The pinching together of two universes happens along the specific timelines (worldlines in the technical jargon) of their respective Earths.  Left unchecked, such an incursion destroys both universes. However, if there were a way to destroy one of the Earths, the both universes would survive as another discussion of the multiversal fate informs us

One is Saved

On the surface this may seem to be no different than the continuity cleanups but the Trolley Problem aspect, which is now so large as to engulf the entire published output of Marvel comics, provides a nuance not in the earlier reboots.  It is no longer a good versus evil race-against-time, but an authentic situation wherein men of good conscience can view the same set of facts from different points-of-view and take widely different actions, as a result.

Of all the infinite possible universes, the reader is, of course, privy to the events surrounding those men who live on the most familiar and beloved Earth of the Marvel universe (dubbed Earth-616).  The core characters who wrestle with this ethical conundrum are Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Hank McCoy the Beast, Reed Richards, and Tony Stark/Iron Man.  Their anger, fear, comradery, indecision, and bold actions link the huge with the small and turn what would have been an ordinary cosmic opera into a full-fledged epic.

Next week, I’ll present a careful look at the timeline of events that comprise the full story.  In third installment, I’ll be looking at the personality conflicts and revelations that make up the human element of the story.  And in the final installment, I’ll discuss what I thought worked and what didn’t in both the literary and commercial fronts.