This is a spoiler-free rundown of Marvel Comics' "Secret Wars #1," probably the biggest event in the publisher's 76 year history, but I'm going to start it off with a spoiler: after the end of the issue, both the Marvel Universe, and it's companion, the Ultimate Universe, are gone.
Actually, that's not really a spoiler, because Marvel has been pretty straight up about this... The event itself is a throwback to what's arguably the original comic book event, also titled "Secret Wars," which was released in 1984. In that book, a cosmic being called The Beyonder summoned all the Marvel heroes and villains onto a patchwork planet called Battleworld, and told them to fight. In return, the winner got one wish.
The new "Secret Wars" is slightly more complicated than that.
Written by Jonathan Hickman ("Avengers," "Secret Warriors") with art by Esad Ribic ("Thor"), "Secret Wars..." Look, honestly, I've been reading comics for a very long time, and nearly every issue in Hickman's epic three year run on "Avengers" leading up to this, and even I'm going to have a hard time boiling this one down into something that won't send non-readers screaming for the hills.
Here's the simple version -- and feel free to skip ahead, unless you want to go slightly insane reading the simple version of an incredibly dense story.
SIMPLE EXPLANATION OF "SECRET WARS" BEGINS.
The Beyonder from the original "Secret Wars" was essentially a baby version of inter-dimensional beings also called The Beyonders. They've been running an experiment since the beginning of time to see if they could destroy every single aspect of the multiverse in existence. To do so, they created the Molecule Man, a one-time villain with limitless powers who was placed as sort of a ticking time bomb in every universe.
Molecule Man somehow became aware of his status, and recruited Doctor Doom to help him travel throughout the multiverse, killing versions of himself before they could blow up. The side effect though is that Doom killing that Molecule Man would still destroy that Universe, just on Doom's schedule -- not The Beyonders.
Meanwhile, this started to cause a chain reaction where universes would crash into each other called "Incursions." The Incursions would only end when one, or both of the Earths associated with those universes were destroyed. Two groups on the main Marvel Universe Earth had taken it into their own hands to destroy those Earths before they were destroyed... One, the ostensibly good Illuminati, made up of Reed Richards, Black Panther and more; and the evil Cabal, composed of Thanos, Namor and more.
Through a series of plot twists, the Cabal ended up exiled on an alternate Earth, the one in Marvel's Ultimate Universe -- basically the Marvel movie-verse, with a few twists -- and teamed up with an evil alternate version of Reed Richards who controls an insanely powerful computer/genetics lab called The City.
After every effort of the Illuminati failed, and Doom accidentally reduced the number of universes left exponentially while (unsuccessfully) taking the fight to the Beyonders, the number of universes was reduced to two.
Now, the Marvel Universe knows the Ultimate Universe is about to show up during the final incursion, and its heroes have built a life raft in order to "not lose," i.e. preserve what little of civilization they can. The Ultimate Universe, meanwhile, is preparing to attack, believing they can save themselves. And that's what you missed, on "Glee."
SIMPLE EXPLANATION OF "SECRET WARS" ENDS.
Good, only six paragraphs to get you set up for a comic. Cool. Great. The even shorter version? A bunch of Marvel heroes and their alternate universe opposites try to prevent the apocalypse by destroying each other. Everything go boom.
That's going to be one of the huge barriers for the casual fan to this massively hyped event, unfortunately. It's incredibly complex -- Hickman is nothing if not well planned out and heady -- and beautifully drawn -- if you're going to do an event, you could do far worse than the gorgeously realized superhero art of Ribic -- but the book doesn't pause very much to allow the casual reader to find out exactly what's going on.
Ironically, "Secret Wars" is dealing with a problem that the original "Secret Wars" didn't have... But DC Comics was dealing with a year later in 1985 with their own event, "Crisis On Infinite Earths." In that book, DC had become so caught up in alternate universes and crossing continuities, they had gotten away from the core of what made the characters interesting. So they destroyed the entire multiverse over the course of 12 issues, and condensed everything into a DC universe that was new, but different.
Here, the same problem is evident. You have two Reed Richards, one wearing some sort of cyclopian conch shell thing on his head. The other one has a beard and two kids. There's a bunch of people most readers have never heard of (Manifold, who is a great character but hardly a household name, plays a crucial role), and others doing things no casual viewer of the movies can even begin to comprehend (what happens with the X-man Cyclops in this issue probably requires more than six paragraphs of explanation).
That's the bad news. The good news is that this may be the last gasp of a Marvel Comics that is beholden to the insanity of comic book continuity. It'll never be gone entirely -- an interconnected universe is one of the joys of comics that's made its way to Marvel's TV and movie efforts -- but the publisher has had a ton of success with more mainstream friendly titles like "Ms. Marvel," Matt Fraction and David Aja's "Hawkeye," and others that depend more on their own internal storytelling and individual art style than churning out comics every month.
In fact, beyond this issue as a last gasp for continuity, we're also getting a chance to say goodbye to all the enjoyably ridiculous alternate universe and time-travel stories Marvel has published over the years, as this is all leading to a brand new Battleworld, composed of every story (pretty much) Marvel has told since the original "Secret Wars."
In all honesty, I don't know what lays on the other side of "Secret Wars." It could be that we get something even more dense and complicated than what we have now. But my guess is, not. My guess is, this is one last chance for the intensely talented writers and artists of Marvel to get this all out of their systems. It's a chance to return to the fun, accessible comic books Marvel used to publish -- and has been successfully publishing more and more often in the past few years.
Marvel has always been the publisher that represents the common man. From Spider-Man, to even Captain America, they've always been flawed... They have super-powers, but represent the world outside our window. And if they've got to clear the deck before Marvel can embrace this line-wide, then honestly, I can't wait.
But first, there is only... "Secret Wars."