The past couple weeks, I’ve written about crossovers that were forgotten for one common key reason: no one really cared about them to start with. If you sat around in 1995 going “Gosh, I can’t wait for The Siege of the Zi Charam,” well, point taken, but know also that I seriously pity you. Likewise, I can’t remember anyone reacting positively or negatively to Wolverine getting married — I can’t remember anyone reacting at all, because that would be contingent on anyone having read the damn thing. It’s different in a case where the event is a fully hyped, genuinely anticipated story by a creator just reaching the apex of a hot streak, in a marketplace where the competition for major events is sorely diminished. Brian Michael Bendis has a zillion Marvel things to his name, but his first crack at being a “Marvel architect” was back in 2004, with Secret War.
Secret War isn’t completely forgotten, but I don’t think its real role in the development of the modern-day Marvel Universe is called out very often, if at all (it is a slow week. I do not feel like writing about comics I know are garbage). Secret War itself ran out of steam, but by sheer force of will it lurked in the back of future events (particularly Secret Invasion), playing cards it’d been holding while no one paid attention. It also was the blueprint for what I want to call “the Bendis event style,” a peculiar format of superhero event story that has nonetheless taken over as the dominant mode at the House of Ideas.
If I was to ascribe one key idea to the way Bendis does events, it would be: “Leave them needing to know more.” From the privileged position of hindsight, this shows ambitious macrostorytelling urges, if not meticulously executed planning. Reading Secret War at the time it was published, though — and do recall that it took nearly two years to finish five issues — I think I shared a common reaction with many comics readers: “What the hell was this?” It was probably the tipping point for when the internet comics community’s love affair with Bendis was definitively over and the backlash was free to begin in earnest.
The way Bendis handles his multi-year, multi-series mega-arcs is not objectionable on a conceptual level. There’s actually something really neat — at least to me — about the idea of a story told entirely in fragments, with the reader having to slot the pieces together. In this respect, Bendis and Grant Morrison are unlikely kinfolk: both thrive on what could be called passive-aggressive misdirection, where many of the most important things occur off-panel, only coming to light when a twist climax hits. Ideally, in the aftermath, we can look back and say “Oh, well, that makes sense!”
Compare Final Crisis and Secret Invasion. The former is a relatively compressed frag-grenade of ideas, moments, and concepts that try to capture the view of an apocalypse from ground, sky, stars, inside and outside the story, all at once. The latter is a no-stone-unturned thirty-issue rampage (and this is only counting Bendis’s “core” books) that simultaneously published the present and the past in one sustained deluge. Indulge me this metaphor: if Final Crisis is Nadja, then Secret Invasion is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Not only were we reading about the Skrull invasion of Earth, we were reading about the specific cases of high-profile infiltration, the genesis of the Skrull plan itself, and Nick Fury running around recruiting Secret Warriors. (Unlike Shandy, we gain a resolution at the end of Secret Invasion, but it feels strangely and intentionally alienating: we are not shown the climax of the story “as it happens,” but rather, the final issue abruptly shifts to a character recounting “what already happened” — making it an on-panel depiction of off-panel events.)Continued below
This brings us back to Secret War. Here’s the plot: in the aftermath of Doctor Doom being sent to Hell (it happened), Latveria’s new prime minister is playing both sides of the field, getting chummy with the United States while running an orgiastic black market of villain tech. Nick Fury can’t get authorization to go in with SHIELD, so he recruits superheroes (and Agent Daisy Johnson, as played by Angelina Jolie in Hackers) to go into Latveria covertly and smash things up. It does not succeed, and Fury wipes the heroes’ memories because he does whatever the fuck he wants. A year later, Latverian-backed super-villains launch a reprisal on the various heroes, until it turns out that none of them noticed Latveria linking all of their tech into a giant bomb. After the heroes save the day, they turn on Fury to go all “what the hell, bro,” at which point Fury announces his retirement from active life — he is then replaced by Maria Hill, and disappears completely until the events of Secret Invasion some three years later.
The summary I gave above is the chronological order of Secret War‘s events, but not the order in which the series itself presented them. Secret War played fast and loose with its own internal timecodes in a way that makes a good deal of sense when read in one sitting, but which was almost agonizingly abstruse on a two-year publishing schedule. Cap gripping Nick Fury and screaming “DAMN YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID TO US” is a nice cliffhanger but not one that supports waiting a year to find out what the hell Steve is even talking about. By the time it was resolved, readers had to go back and remember what had happened, in a theoretically (but not actually) fun bit of synchronicity between real and fictional participants. The real problem with all of this is that for all of its tricky time-dancing and marquee stars, it’s too claustrophobically small to really convey its own scope. Invading Latveria and the resulting domestic-terrorism reprisals is a big deal — a Civil War big deal, a Secret Invasion big deal, and we know this because everyone constantly talks about how big a deal it is. And yet it’s a big deal that can be resolved in flashbacks, asides, and brief scuffles.
Now, people can go “oh, but see, it laid the groundwork for this and that,” which is pretty much true. Secret War set up the idea of Nick Fury disappearing. New Avengers‘ opening storyline, published contemporaneously, established corruption within SHIELD. Years later, we were told Nick Fury disappeared to recruit the Secret Warriors to combat the Skrull invasion which had caused all the corruption within SHIELD. This begs the question: is a mediocre story made retroactively acceptable when it takes on a different timbre in hindsight? (Let me tell you: absolutely nothing about Secret War, when I was reading it, gave me the slightest clue as to where it was leading. On the one hand, that’s lame. On the other, it’s a good CYA policy in case Bendis had to leave before he could get where he wanted to get.) Still, even if it did lay the groundwork for this and that, it’s a forgotten step in the process. Think about the last time you took a trip: what do you remember, the stuff you did at the destination, or the time spent sitting in the plane? This is event fatigue distilled to its core: constantly asking “are we there yet” only to find that the end of one leg of the trip is just a small stretch of the road to where things are really going. Sure, hindsight gives us the perspective that it’s all one route, but all that does is reinforce the transient nature of these stories, a perpetual motion that prevents the growth of any roots. And it all started here.