This is it! The grand finale of a story that’s been a decade or more in the making! The culmination of an epic that pitted our heroes against powers unfathomable and infinite! A titanic event that featured literally destroyed the foundation of the Marvel universe! Omigosh, you guys. Secret Wars #9 has finally appeared.

Let’s pause on that cover for a moment. It features Dr. Doom and Mr. Fantastic locked in a struggle framed by the lighted-silhouette of the Molecule Man, as snippets of famous stories flare around them. The cover promises an epic throw-down with the fundamental stories of the Marvel universe as the background. It takes a quick eye to catch them all— everything from the rising of the Phoenix and the death of Elektra, to crying androids and the birth of Franklin Richards. As a single image, it isn’t quite striking, but as your eyes take in each aspect, you realize how detailed it really is.

Inside, the story shifts from the massive battle that’s been raging from issue 8 to the more one-on-one personal stakes. (“I see,” says Doom, “Gathered armies sprawling to the horizon.” Well, that makes one of us, Doom. Our artist Ribic doesn’t let us see anything like that.) And perhaps appropriately, we get pages and pages of the battle between Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom, one that’s just as much a battle of wills and wits as it is physical power.

On that level, it’s pretty amazing. This is classic Doom and Reed Richards, with the fate of the multiverse in the balance, and it comes down to very personal choices about willpower and courage and acceptance and ego. It’s classic and quintessential stuff, making it appropriate, then, that the cover features key cornerstones of the stories of the Marvel universe themselves.

So, this *is* all about the power of captial-S “Story.” Doom’s vision, and indeed his failure, is to hold tightly to the stories that have been written, to perserve the memories of each one and lord over it all as an all-powerful caretaker, whereas Fantastic’s victory comes from listenting to himself and others (like the imagination of his son) and being open to where stories might take you. To re-imagine. Hmm. Meta-commentary, much? Be careful, author(s). You are chiding the very readers who celebrated Secret Wars’ return and homage to the favored stories of the past.   

On pretty much all other levels of the story, things fall apart. The range of characters and sprawling battles are left to off-panel reference, at best, or are completely missing. It’s been a pattern of this series from the beginning, so it’s no suprise, but neither is it satisfying. Remember those Black Swans or Priests or whatever? Yeah, well, none of the characters really do. Taken as a whole, or perhaps reading in a collected form, issue 9 wouldn’t leave themes, characters, and plot elements removed from one another (and months at a time.) Motivations for characters are often missing, including key players like the Molecule Man, who shifts from Doom to Richards for no discernable reason. If Owen always prefered Fantastic’s mind to help solve the problem, then why not go to him in the first place?

And there is a surprising lack of clarity in the narrative. I’m left with some serious questions about what exactly the Black Panther does as Dr Doom and Reed Richards make Battleworld explode into whiteness. I also don’t know how the Molecule Man can be depicted in his native negative space below the panel of Miles Morales overlooking New York City. I don’t know if the Invisible Woman and Valeria we see at the end of the book are the same ones that encountered Reed in the beginning or not, likewise the entire Future Foundation. And why, exactly, does Doom appear as he does on the final page? Are we meant to assume that Richards re-made him, or healed him?

Are all worlds re-made, or are the people simply put back where they are “supposed” to be? Are there resurrections and reimaginings? Philosophically, how can they really be the “same” if they are, either way? How many molecules of your body should you change before you aren’t really you anymore?   

Some confusion comes from the use of narrative balloons. It’s not quite clear whose voice is which balloon, although careful reading might help. At one point it shifts the Maker instead of Mr. Fantastic, which also coincides with a panel that appears to have Doom fight the Black Panther with Richards looking on for some reason that’s too confusing in juxtaposition. Similarly, some panels’ timing are just simply flat, including a one-panel demise for the Maker that undercuts a few pages of threat. In the beginning, does the Black Panther turn Doom into something that shatters, or does Doom turn himself as a defense mechanism before Namor shatters him? How does Doom hold T’Challa’s hand in one panel and then grasp and “crunch” the very same hand in the next panel? Is the Black Panther’s face colored as a caucasian at one point, or was that supposed to be a glow?

At this point, I feel like I’m not sold on Esad Ribic’s art for the series. It has a nice, stately quality about it, with very hyper-real flair. But when there’s call for action or dramatic set pieces, it’s too solid and staid for any sense of movement or dynamism. Rather, it comes across as silly. Whether it’s Valeria throwing up her hands in excitement, or Mr Fantastic checking himself to see if he’s injured, it makes you laugh and takes you out of the tense moment. Yet, there are some moments that are nice as stand-alone, static images. The snapshots of various scenes between the Panther and Doom, for example, or the checkboard way to superimpose portraits of Doom and Reed. Very poetic.   

It’s also somewhat weird to leave the final page to Doom. He is shown smiling, almost joyful, which kind of undercuts his tragic fall. The last words are “Everything lives,” which is nice to hear after being hammered with “Everything dies” in the issues of Avengers for about two years straight. Like a lot of moments with Secret Wars, though, with all that build-up, a simple line or a single image isn’t enough to release the tension and address the stakes that have been raised so high. Try that with comedy— a short punchline after an epic build-up is going to feel like a non-sequitor that will have your audience gunning for you instead of grinning.

Ah, well. I guess I need to take my cue from Mr. Fantastic. “I’m letting it go.”

Grade

B

Conclusion

I sigh as I as finish the issue. In part, because it’s the release of breath that I’ve been holding for the lenght of the series, and in part because there are so many more elements that I wish could have been futhered. The final battle between Reed and Doom is so classic and satisfying, but nearly every element outside of that leaves so much that’s unresolved, confused, or might be missing altogether. Like much of the series, it reads better “on paper,” as if being recounted by someone from a summary, but when it comes to actualizing it, it could never hope to live up to that.