Jonathan Hickman on 'Secret Wars': It's the end of a horror story
It’s become something of a cliche in comic books to gush about how one story will change everything and nothing will ever be the same—but Marvel’s big Secret Wars event seems to be the rare story that will live up to the hype. It’s the end of the Marvel Universe as we know it, and the beginning of a completely new one.
To get a grasp of Secret Wars scope, EW reached out to writer Jonathan Hickman for what readers can expect and how it will serve as the finale to his three-year Avengers epic–along with an exclusive first look at Alex Ross’ cover art for Secret Wars #3.
EW: This is something you’ve wanted to do for awhile, and is something you’ve been building toward with Avengers. But it’s also a big crossover event. Is it difficult to do something that’s a conclusion to a story you’ve been working on for years, and also have it achieve all of these other ambitions outside of that?
Jonathan Hickman: The interesting thing is that is hasn’t changed at all since I pitched it. Where we’re headed was always the endgame. I guess you could say, could I convince editorial and convince everybody at Marvel that it was a good idea and something that they would want to publish. Three years out, it looked like an interesting thing.
[Convicing Marvel wasn’t easy] because Avengers is not really a happy story. The Avengers books, we kind of billed it as a mystery—what’s behind all of this stuff, what’s causing all of the incursions? Which is a total lie, because it’s not a mystery, it’s a horror story. And we just didn’t tell anybody, so everybody is waiting for this kind of, “Ta da, whodunit” kind of stuff at the end and that’s not what the story is.
It’s really interesting that you describe Avengers as a horror story, because after the Secret Wars announcement, it implied that you’ve been setting up these heroes to fail. What made you want to explore them this way, to show a slow motion car crash of this Avengers machine?
I’ve been writing two Avengers books for the past couple years, Avengers and New Avengers. New Avengers is a book where all the stuff that’s been prepared for Secret Wars comes to a head and then eventually it trickles over into the main Avengers book at the end of year two.
The premise of Avengers is that it’s a book about light and life, and New Avengers was always about darkness and death, and they contrast each other. What nobody saw coming was that the New Avengers book would completely eclipse the Avengers book at the end of the second act and rocket us into the stuff that’s going on now.
We get to a point where all of the arguments that we’ve kind of been talking about in both books — what do heroes do when they can’t win? — that’s kind of the story that I wanted to do. Some of them stop acting like heroes and some become villains, some go quietly and some do not. Some rediscover who they are.
A lot of the interesting chatter about the book has been kind of this weird pragmatism where people think that the New Avengers characters, the Illuminati characters, are the heroes, and that the Avengers characters are being overly idyllic and nobody understands that everything is a life and death scenario. No matter what, it’s more important if you stay alive.
One of the arguments about Avengers is, it’s how you live. It’s been kind of interesting to hear people talk about it, like that’s kind of a naive thing. It’s interesting, I don’t know whether it’s the winning argument or not and certainly I’m not going to say it. The books have been fascinating. It’s been very challenging, and certainly it is not the kind of Avengers stuff that everybody is used to. It’s certainly not the movies and all the traditional stuff. We’ve asked a lot of the readers over the last couple of years. It’s certainly not the story for everybody. So in May, people really get an option.
How does the wreckage of the multiverse in Secret Wars factor into these themes you’ve been exploring in Avengers?
It’s the logical conclusion of them. It’s the resolution, it’s the final act. Think of Secret Wars like this: it is absolutely a self-contained story in that you can pick up issue one and read through issue eight, and you don’t have to have read all the Avengers stuff that’s been going on for the last couple years. You really don’t. Even though it’s the final act, it’s structured in such a way that everything is there.
I would say [it’s self-contained] more than anything I’ve ever done at Marvel—because my natural inclination is that the books start with issue one, and if you’ve been paying attention the whole time, you’ll love it, and if you haven’t been, then I’m sorry.
This is certainly a self-contained thing. Saying that, if you read Secret Wars and you’ve been reading not just Avengers but Fantastic Four and SHIELD and all the other stuff I’ve done, there’s so much stuff in there, payoff-wise, if you’ve been reading those books, that it’s kind of scary. It’s definitely the culmination of everything I’ve done at Marvel.
If Secret Wars is a self-contained story, would you say it’s theme is, for anyone who hasn’t read Avengers?
Secret Wars is a book about the Marvel Universe as an incredibly varied and fascinating place, and even out of the ashes of the destruction of it, the thing that takes its place … You know how very important people die, and they make a statue? Secret Wars is the big statue of the Marvel Universe, and there’s all this stuff going on around it. That’s a terrible analogy, but it’s all I’ve got today.
So is Secret Wars your goodbye to the Marvel Universe, at least for the time being?
Marvel is a fantastic place to work. They’ve treated me exceptionally well. We’ve had pretty upfront and honest discussions about what I’m doing next, which is catching up on my sleep a little bit. I’m taking a couple months off. But I’m not a big fan of saying I am or I am not definitely going to do things, especially when I’m as tired as I am right now.
I’m positive that I will continue to do stuff for Marvel, I’m just not going to do stuff in the six months that follow Secret Wars. I don’t have a book I’m going to work on, I don’t have a pitch sitting on some editor’s desk. I’m trying not to even think about it.
You know, one of the cool things about Marvel – people don’t talk about this enough – Marvel is a fantastic place to learn your craft and experiment in a way that you can’t in other areas of comics. The same thing is true of DC, but at Marvel I’ve done a lot of experimentation on telling stories a certain way, doing these Byzantine, crazy, plot-centric things that I don’t know that I would do if I wasn’t operating under a contract and had a book to work on.
It’s one of those things where they afford you the luxury of doing a bunch of stuff, and some of it will succeed and some of it will fail, but they know the market is a complex place so it’s not as simple as “well Jonathan, you wrote a book for us and it didn’t sell particularly well, so you’re never going to work again.” It’s almost entirely relationship-based, so if you have editor and publisher trust in you, then you can try a bunch of different things and learn a bunch of different skills and test them a bunch of different ways.
I’ve been experimenting a lot at Marvel, and if I do stuff for Marvel in the future, it’ll probably be tighter things. You know, 12 issues on a book, telling a really tight story, get in and get out, give my take on a character. I don’t think I’ll do three years/double-shipping on Avengers. But that’s just where I am right now. Five years from now, I might really have a Guardians of the Galaxy or Star Wars story that I really want to do. I don’t know what I’m gonna do!
Was the Ultimate Universe always an important part of this?
I think that Ultimate stuff that Esad and I did is one of the best things I’ve done at Marvel. It was unquestionably a failure, but it wasn’t because the book wasn’t good, it was because it was the same time the New 52 came out. Our #1 issue came out the same time DC launched a bunch of New 52 number ones. It got completely crushed under a wave of product. That was a bummer, because the one book that I wanted to do when I started at Marvel was the Ultimates, and do it in a way where I’m basically building in the Ultimate universe. There’s only three other books coming out in the entirely Ultimate line, so you’re not constrained by continuity in the same way that you are when you’ve got 60 other books coming out in the regular Marvel line. I desperately wanted that book to succeed. I would’ve done that book for years.
You want to talk about an ambitious plan for what I wanted to do, that had some crazy stuff that was gonna happen. But the book was a total failure, because we just got crushed. So yeah, I’m absolutely looking forward to doing some of that stuff again. But that illustrates some of the stuff I’m talking about, where sometimes you just get to play in the Marvel universe or the Ultimate universe. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work, but it’s always good stuff to try.
Is there something you can tease or hint at for people who might be on the fence?
Sure. I’m a terrible salesman, because my honest response is I don’t want you to buy it if you don’t want to buy it. But I will say this about it: big things are only good if people buy in. I’m not just talking about fans, obviously we want the fans, but these things aren’t good if the creators don’t buy in.
You have one big book and of course that gets a lot of attention, but there are satellites. Like with Civil War, the only reason that worked was because there was so much external inertia around it—all the other books bought in. That’s a really important thing. And let me just say, all the other creators at Marvel have bought into this thing in such a huge way. I just feel like it’s gonna be one of those things with lots of stuff for everybody to talk about, for people to grab onto. And even if you don’t like the main book, there’s so many cool other things that are coming out around it, so you’ll be able to find the book you can latch onto. Even if you hate me, you will find something to love in this. That’s my big sell.
Are you concerned at all about event fatigue?
I think that’s real, and I think it’s appropriate a lot of the time. But this is different. I don’t think Marvel has done anything like this since Secret Invasion. And by that I mean, a lot of these books … it’s like the difference between movies and TV now. Movies almost seem simplistic because structurally they can only do so much in a two hour period of time. But with television series, even a short one, have five times that amount of real estate.
Most of the normal events are structured like a movie: you have to have a big opening. Readers nowadays, are just savvy to storytelling. We consume so much of this stuff that it’s really hard to be surprised. You have to carefully cultivate a surprise. That’s really hard to do in blockbuster-type stuff.
I think people get tired of seeing a story every summer that they kind of can figure out because it has to be a certain way. This is like Secret Invasion in that it’s been percolating for years. The amount of extra stuff that’s there, that’s organically happening—there’s no inciting incident. There’s no spaceship that’s gonna fall out of the sky so that you feel a sense of tension.
The inciting incident of this has been going on for years in the books, and that helps so much when it comes to structurally making these things work. So I’m not worried about that because the first issue is the resolution to years of plot stuff, years of story stuff. Where do we go in issue two?
Even though they’re teasing Battleworld and all this stuff, people won’t know where we’re going. I’ll also say this: the structure of Secret Wars is kind of interesting. There’s huge stuff about the beginning of the story that we don’t give away until issue four. It’s not nonlinear, but it’s definitely not as straightforward as these things normally go.