This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on January 28, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why is Secret Wars so much worse than Siege?
I suspect this may be the question to receive the most double takes of any you’ve asked so far, and that’s saying something considering the smack you’ve talked about Martian Manhunter. Secret Wars has received a lot of love after it finally finished earlier this month. People seem to really love this series and enjoy how it ended. On the other hand, Siege is a comic that I don’t think anyone has mentioned in at least a year. It was a thing, it happened, and then we all forgot about it as the next thing came along (approximately 3.42 days later).
Here’s what you have to remember about real, dyed in the wool event comics though: They are all terrible. No asterisk. No exception.
It’s worth defining what we mean when we say “event comics” before digging in too deep though. I don’t want a bunch of “um, actually” comments appearing. Event comics are actual events not just in terms of story, but in regards to marketing, sales, and real world effects. We use the term “event” in comics much like Hollywood uses it to describe significant movie launches. The new Star Wars was an event because it was made to be one no matter what those 150 minutes helf. Event comics are pushed as significant stories that readers must seek out because they impact everything around them. This means there are crossovers, effects on continuity, and an identifiable core story. The closest thing you’ll find to truly great event comics are really just mini-series. Cosmic Odyssey. The Valiant. Multiversity. Mini-series all.
Siege and Secret Wars are definitely both event comics though. They had a variety of tie-ins, were heavily marketed as being significant stories, and altered the status quo of the shared universes they occupy. Taken as a whole, they’re also both terrible comics.
I’ll admit that I generally like Secret Wars better than Siege. It’s much nicer to look at, provides some very nice moments for my favorite Marvel Comics team the Fantastic Four, and has a lot more concepts of interest on display. Hell, I just love that this is a comic that ends with Reed Richards being transformed into the god of the Marvel universe, and with his arch-nemesis Dr. Doom playing the role of a forgiven and restored Lucifer Morningstar. That’s a ballsy move I respect the hell out of.
This is also a comic that ends with Reed faking his family’s death to their friends and loved ones so he can toss chunks of the Molecule Man into space. It’s a comic that introduces a mysterious prophet in one chapter to reveal his identity to no effect in the next. There’s a bit that features Groot and Starlord, which only functions in a vacuum. If this event were a cow, it’s steaks wouldn’t be well marbled, they’d just be marble.
That problem extends well beyond this fatty, self-indulgent story. Just take a look at the effects it had on the Marvel publishing line. It didn’t just get the most mini-series ever associated with a single event (somewhere above 30? I don’t want to count). It didn’t just get multiple “End of Days” tie-ins from many of Marvel’s highest quality comics like Ms. Marvel and Silver Surfer. It didn’t just hijack about an entire year of marketing and printing from start to finish.
Secret Wars actually cancelled the entire Marvel line of comics.
And yes, most of the comics came back in some form or another. Both Ms. Marvel and Silver Surfer are still here. But if you wanted to be reading Marvel Comics during the summer and fall of 2015, it was impossible to not come in contact with this story. The folks in advertising weren’t lying when they dreamed up the tagline, “There is only Secret Wars.” I believe that Secret Wars is a far worse event than Siege because of its impact, specifically its impact on two groups: new readers and retailers.
You and I are old pros or at least experienced veterans when it comes to the superhero hype cycle, Mark. When marketing for Secret Wars rolled out, we were aware that it was temporary and cynical enough to know we could bail for half a year and return to whatever still piqued our interest afterwards. Many new readers were left baffled by the rollout and effects of this event though. If you speak to young people and non-typical comics readers (read: non-straight, white men) who have been attracted to reading comics through titles like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, this entire event was a disaster.
I’m speaking purely from anecdotal evidence, but this isn’t a statistics paper so who cares? Many high schoolers and converted friends didn’t know what to do when their favorite superhero comics were suddenly ended or appeared to feature a cataclysmic death of the earth. They weren’t used to the constant renumbering of titles or the cycle of events, and Secret Wars was so big they couldn’t even try to avoid it.
Most of these vaunted new readers that Marvel claims to be seeking out who I know just jumped ship. Those that hadn’t been shaken by the two-month catastrophe called Convergence stuck with their favorite DC pulls like Gotham Academy and Batgirl, and the ever increasing stacks of great non-superhero series from publishers like Image, Oni, Dark Horse, and Boom. Why try to figure out what’s happening at Marvel when Lumberjanes and Saga will be there for you on a predictable schedule delivering the same quality you’ve come to expect? It seemed like the best case scenario for many new readers was to stick with other comics, while the worst was to leave their local shops altogether.
That’s a scenario speaking with retailers has only reinforced as reality in my head. I have yet to speak to a single store owner who told me of new readers either buying into Secret Wars or sticking it out with all of the Marvel titles they had previously purchased. Sales for that comic came from the same buyers Marvel could reliably milk for decades, and even that crowd is shrinking.
Speaking with retailers and observing what others have said, like in Big Bang Comics’ recent discussion of their sales numbers on Twitter, it’s clear that both Secret Wars and Convergence had a negative impact on sales. Not only are new readers seeking out alternatives to this convoluted mess of storytelling, but old readers are starting to wear out. The highly praised pull list client is cancelling their subscriptions to either of the “Big Two” publishers at an increasing rate.
All of what I’ve just said comes with a massive disclaimer that this is comics and measuring numbers in comics is a fool’s game. Diamond statistics are the best thing you have and they don’t account for sell through, variants, or any sales outside of the physical ones occurring in the North American direct market. The best analysis that has actually been done on this was accomplished by David Harper at SKTCHD here. The most recent numbers from Marvel’s slue of post-Secret Wars #1’s appear to be following a similar trend of diminishing returns.
So what was Secret Wars really? It was an event that only looks like a good comic book when compared to other terrible event comics, and one that helped continue to trash the direct market.
Siege, while still a terrible comic, managed to not do any damage. It only ended runs on 4 series, two of which were past their expiration point anyway (Dark Avengers and Avengers: The Initiative). Its length of four issues both kept it on time and limited its interaction with other series. It was possible to be a Marvel Comics reader when Siege was published and largely avoid contact with it as long as you weren’t really into Avengers comics.
There are also some highlights in Siege, much like Secret Wars. The Sentry tears a dude in half. The Sentry dies. Ares gets torn in half by The Sentry. Actually, that’s pretty much it. But the series does manage to actually fix quite a bit of bullshit in Marvel Comics starting with the removal of The Sentry. It also banished the Superhuman Registration Act to the dustbin of history and set up Kieron Gillen’s superb run on Journey Into Mystery. It also had the benefit of not being an unreadable tire fire like Civil War.
Siege is pretty much a run-of-the-mill event comic. It has a horrific inciting event, some dead superheroes, some changes to the status quo, a big over-sized battle, and it’s all wrapped up in a variety of tie-ins and surface-level alterations. Comparing it to any other event is a matter of a few degrees. Yet when you move beyond the scope of the story and look at what it did as part of Marvel’s publishing line, your perspective radically changes.
The truth is that if you look at events holistically, not just as some sort of overhyped race to the bottom in regards to quality, then Siege isn’t just better than Secret Wars, it’s one of the best event comics ever.