Secret Empire is officially in the can, marking Marvel’s 25th event—by our conservative count—in a little over a decade. Following the undeniable success of early event books like Civil War and House of M, Marvel has made annual (or more frequent!) events a tentpole of its publishing line, reaching a fever pitch over the last few years as events have bled into new cross-title events in a cascade of Russian-nesting-doll comics. What was once a genuinely major meet-up of franchises has now become an expected tide marker of Marvel’s yearly story progression, with events just as likely to result in a satisfying clash of titans as they are to disappoint and derail existing series. Due to the preorder-heavy nature of the direct market, most events are “successful,” at least in the short term, and so remain a standard way for Marvel to ramp up hype, reset storylines, reboot characters and, above all, sell some darn comic books.
In honor of Secret Empire finally concluding after months of controversy regarding its “Nazi Cap” storyline, we revisited our list of Marvel’s modern events to determine where it fell between the best and the worst. To qualify as an “Event,” we determined a story needed a self-named core mini-series as well as tie-ins. This disqualified major sagas like “Messiah Complex” and “Spider-Verse,” which ran through existing titles, as well as limited series like DoomWar and Death of X that didn’t feature tie-in series. We evaluated series on their central storylines, ignoring tie-ins (for good or ill), and on quality of art and writing over impact (or else Civil War would hold the top 10 spots all on its own). Be sure to let us know on Twitter if you disagree.
Artists: Adam Kubert, Leinil Francis Yu, Terry Dodson, Jim Cheung
Does anyone really believe the same guy who wrote Uncanny X-Force, Deadly Class and Tokyo Ghost thought Kluh (read it backwards) was a good idea? Because “Hulk…except kinda like Doomsday, but also funny,” sounds suspiciously like a concept farted out by a merchandising executive who’s never seen the The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show.
Here are the spoilers: In Act One, all the superheroes, and then the villains, fight Red Onslaught (the Red Skull with Xavier’s stolen brain) in a blasting, punching and quipping contest that drags on and on and on. It looks terrible, because Adam Kubert and Leinil Francis Yu draw 38 things happening on every page. Scarlet Witch and Doctor Doom finally defeat Red Onslaught by waving their arms at him. Of course Scarlet Witch can’t order a cup of coffee without causing terrible unforeseen consequences, so her powers make everyone “switch alignments” from good to evil and vice versa. Act Two is superheroes acting like dicks, mostly to the same villains they beat up all the time anyway, and the plot drags on and on and on. In Act Three, Temporarily Nice Carnage throws himself on a bomb to save New York, and in his final moments, announces himself as a proud conservative who loves Lynyrd Skynyrd and the confederate flag. So the moral of AXIS is that even when he’s under a temporary niceness enchantment, Carnage is still a racist. Barry Thompson
Writer: Andy Diggle
Artist: Billy Tan
It’s a shame that Shadowland is so irredeemably bad, because its general premise—a street-level war featuring Daredevil, The Hand, Spider-Man, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and a whole bunch of other heroes—is actually quite good.
Shadowland begins with Daredevil in control of resurrection-happy ninja clan The Hand, which is uncharacteristic for the Man Without Fear, but not necessarily cause for concern on its own, except for the fact that he’s now rocking all-black duds. Daredevil also wants to build a base of operations (including a private prison) in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen, right where Bullseye blew up a building filled with people. Okay sure. But then ol’ Hornhead takes things way too far and actually murders Bullseye, in a manner similar to the way Bullseye famously killed Elektra back in the day. That’s when the street-level heroes step in to put a stop to Daredevil’s machinations.
Even before his Netflix stardom, there was little chance Marvel was going to turn Daredevil into a full-on villain, and so Shadowland relies on a hammy mechanism in order for all of Daredevil’s actions to be absolved by the end of the story. If you’re aware of the fall of Green Lantern Hal Jordan in the ‘90s and his return in Green Lantern: Rebirth years later, well then this whole Shadowland thing might seem a little too familiar, and it doesn’t help that Andy Diggle’s writing here is flavorless, and Billy Tan’s art is serviceable but uninspired.
A silver lining shines through on these duds, though. If it wasn’t for Shadowland, which brings Daredevil down to one of the lowest points in the history of the character (and that’s saying something), we would probably not have gotten the historic Daredevil run from Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera, Chris Samnee and Marcos Martin. That series was a serious reaction to and course correction for Diggle’s depressing run and Shadowland. Even Daredevil has to crack a smile once in a while. Jakob Free
23. Age of Ultron
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Bryan Hitch, Brandon Peterson, Carlos Pacheco, Others
Hopefully, Marvel forced Bendis and co. to grind this one out because Joss Whedon had already decided on the title for the second Avengers movie, and it needed a precedent in the comics for some arcane trademark purpose. Otherwise, there’s no reason whatsoever why this Days of Future Past Xerox ever needed to exist. Every idea within has been done before and better.
You know the drill—giant robots who shoot lasers out of their faces (this time an army of Ultrons) obliterate human civilization, kill off a sizeable chunk of the superhero community and either Kitty Pryde or Wolverine zips back in time to redirect the course of history and avert The Mean Robot Apocalypse. Not only is that the same premise as one of the most famous X-Men stories ever—one which 20th Century Fox was adapting into a film at the time, incidentally—it’s also the same plot as the Terminator series, one of the highest-grossing action franchises of all time. And if there’s a new or interesting way to present bleak, urban devastation, Bryan Hitch didn’t figure it out in time to draw this comic, and neither did Brandon Peterson and Carlos Pacheco, who were called in after Hitch completed his portion of the book. Barry Thompson
22. Secret Empire
Writer: Nick Spencer
Artists: Steve McNiven, Rod Reis, Andrea Sorrentino, Leinil Francis Yu, Daniel Acuña, Others
Was Secret Empire worth the yearlong cycle of contentious publicity and accusations that Marvel and writer Nick Spencer indelicately handled Nazi-reminiscent plots at a time when actual incidents of Nazi violence are on the rise in the United States? No, it’s hard to say that it was. Despite pleas by Marvel for readers to read all of Secret Empire before judging it, and assurances from Spencer and Marvel editors that the book wouldn’t end with Cosmic Cube shenanigans, that’s exactly what happened, as anthropomorphic plot device Kobik, a sentient Cosmic Cube, essentially loads up an earlier save file of the virtuous Steve Rogers to go toe-to-toe with his fascist counterpart. Kobik similarly undoes Hydra’s takeover of America, including the deaths of Black Widow and longtime Avengers sidekick Rick Jones. Poor Sam Wilson is reduced to confirming Steve Rogers as the one true Captain America, even though Rogers is also the villain of this piece.
Spencer excels at snappy humor—his characterization of Ant-Man works even amidst this sound and fury—but his overwrought attempts at gravitas fall flat, particularly during the final fight narration that confirms that, yes, punching bad guys is good. Art chores are split between a squad of talented artists, but Andrea Sorrentino is a world away, stylistically, from Daniel Acuña, who clashes with Steve McNiven, and so on, resulting in an utter lack of coherent visual identity. If Civil War II felt like Marvel’s event nadir, Secret Empire is their “hold my beer” moment. The overlong train wreck taints an icon at a time when readers need him to shine brightest, and uses grand, controversial themes to signify almost nothing at all. Steve Foxe
21. Fear Itself
Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Stuart Immonen
Unfortunately, comic book writers have a habit of deploying the “secret [sibling/relative/spouse] you didn’t know about until just this very moment” technique too often for my personal tastes. (I’m looking at you Scott Snyder, and your little Lincoln March, too.) But Fear Itself may present the most egregious use of this ploy yet, which is a real bummer because Stuart Immonen is one of the greatest living sequential artists.
Odin has a brother, right? And he’s the total opposite of Odin. And you know how Thor has a magic hammer? This guy has seven magic hammers, which he gives to a who’s who of villains (and a few heroes) like Grey Gargoyle and Crusher Creel. These new hammer-wielders become “The Worthy,” totally extreme action-figure versions of themselves, with names like Mokk: Breaker of Faith and Angrir: Breaker of Souls. In an effort to combat these supervillains, Tony Stark, the infamous drunkard capitalist, unites a bunch of the magical metal used in the production of magic hammers, called Uru, and puts together a suite of action-figure accessories for his buddies. It’s at this point in the story that Matt Fraction realized this miniseries only had seven issues (one issue per hammer?) and not eight, so the book kind of just ends. It has no lasting impact on the Marvel Universe (Thor was “dead” for about a week), its characters or the mind of the reader. But it did have a whole lot of hammers. Jakob Free
20. Civil War II
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: David Marquez
Civil War II is a near-perfect study in everything fans don’t want from events: a transparent cash-grab that relies on a contrived deus ex machina, forces heroes against heroes, offs beloved secondary characters, twists other heroes drastically out of established character, derails the publishing line with tie-ins and ships late. Aside from allowing David Marquez time to complete the full series with his slick, clean line work, it’s hard to say that Marvel did anything right in this poorly conceived attempt at capitalizing on the Captain America: Civil War film. Ostensibly about the nature of free will, Civil War II sees Captain Marvel, soon to become Marvel’s first cinematic woman lead, hell-bent on Minority Report-style preemptive policing, rather than due process. Bendis, now coasting on event fumes after too many years crafting mega-stories, jettisons every ounce of goodwill that writers like Kelly Sue DeConnick earned for Carol Danvers, just in time for Marvel to attempt to prime the character for the spotlight. One of Marvel’s most prominent black characters is killed to offer Captain Marvel additional pathos, and one of the publisher’s biggest (literally) icons gets an arrow through the skull. For the sake of every god in the Marvel pantheon, let this mistake of a series be forgotten. Steve Foxe
19. Inhumans vs. X-Men
& Charles Soule
Artists: Leinil Francis Yu, Javier Garron, Kenneth Rocafort
It’s a peculiar time to be a Marvel fan attuned to social justice or wider cultural issues as reflected in fiction. Secret Empire hinges on a long-simmering fascist takeover led by a Hydra-affiliated Captain America, and IvX, which recently concluded and relaunched the X-Men and Inhumans books, was an all-out race war undone in its final issue by the sole reasonable character on either side of the conflict flat-out saying, “Why didn’t you just ask?” Looking at the long arc of Marvel events, IvX stands as a final nail in the coffin of a certain extremist take on the X-Men, from pushing hard to euthanize the Scarlet Witch in House of M to being willing to declare war on the Inhumans rather than attempt a peaceable compromise.
Jeff Lemire, whose time on Extraordinary X-Men was an unusually weak showing for the prodigious writer/artist, portrayed the mutants as reactionary and hasty, with nearly every member of the sprawling Xavier family ready to throw down over species lines. Rotating artists Leinil Francis Yu and Javier Garron turned in underwhelming and passable work, respectively, but IvX is little more than a whimpering epitaph for an era during which fans were convinced Marvel was trying to tank the X-Men (whose film rights are controlled by Fox) to bolster the Inhumans (fully owned by Marvel). While the now-booming X-corner of the Marvel U. helps to dispel that rumor, there are few books that sacrifice the X-Men in favor of Medusa and her crew quite so blatantly as IvX. Steve Foxe
18. Avengers vs. X-Men
Writers: Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Jason Aaron, Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman
Artists: John Romita Jr., Olivier Coipel, Adam Kubert, Frank Cho
Comic companies have a history of learning the wrong lessons from their successes and failures. Whether you like it or not, Marvel’s Civil War was a huge win for the publisher at the time of its release and remains a perennial seller. What’s the takeaway there? One way to look at it is that fans loves to see their favorite heroes fight one another. And apparently the reason for their fisticuffs doesn’t have to be a particularly good one.
AvX is the logical conclusion of the relentless event generation we’ve been caught up in during this last decade. It is literally [Intellectual Property] versus [Intellectual Property]. The crazy thing about this book is just how damn long it is. With a plot simple enough to be its own title, four or five issues would seem apt to cover this scope of story. The Phoenix Force is coming to town again and, for whatever reason, it’s gunning for deus ex machina of the week Hope Summers. Captain America and the Avengers want to put her into protective custody, but Cyclops isn’t having any of that. A literal war, drawn capably by a team of Marvel heavy hitters, ensues because of this disagreement. So why is this series 12 issues long? When you hire five writers to come up with one story, everyone has to get a few licks in. Jakob Free
17. House of M
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Olivier Coipel
Even if the Marvel bullpen partially intended House of M as a pretext for erasing prominent aspects of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, at least it respected the cult icon enough to undo his work in the most spectacular fashion possible. Whilst debating the pros and cons of offing an unhinged and omnipotent Scarlet Witch, the X-Men and Avengers abruptly wake up on a reimagined Earth where most of them live idyllic, wish-fulfillment fantasy lives. Suddenly Magneto—now going by “Lord Magnus”—presides as head of state over a semi-fascist, mutant-supremacist society! Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy aren’t dead, and Spider-Man is a beloved celebrity! Wolverine remembers his childhood! Steve Rogers is a…useless old man? Kitty Pryde teaches middle school? Luke Cage is a quasi-criminal?
At least the mid-‘00s version of Bendis makes up for holes in the execution of House of M with his mastery of dialogue and characterization. Two scenes in particular—Wolverine’s rooftop pep talk with a soul-broken Spider-Man, and a casual chat between Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange that takes a disturbing turn—belong on Bendis’ greatest hits compilation. Cover artist Esad Ribic establishes a dreamlike quality that Olivier Coipel’s slick pencils and occasionally confusing layouts don’t quite follow through on, but overall, the art does what it needs to do.
In hindsight, X-Men fans may have lashed out at House of M too hastily. Scarlet Witch’s infamous three-word, event-defining decree feels a lot less upsetting now that we know she (and Marvel) didn’t mean it quite so literally. Barry Thompson
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artists: Jim Cheung, Jerome Opeña, Dustin Weaver
Infinity suffers on this list largely because of its unusual structure. Plenty of these events make the most sense only if read in tandem with key tie-ins—House of M’s most poignant plot points happen in other books—but Infinity fully requires the reader to follow along with Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers. The six-issue space war also serves too many masters. For as purely cool as Thanos’ Black Order looks and acts, they’re ostensibly not the biggest danger here, as the ancient extraterrestrial Builders and fallout from Age of Ultron help incite intergalactic conflict with Earth in the crosshairs. Infinity also sets up the “Inhumanity” storyline, in which Black Bolt unleashes the transformative Terrigen Mists across the globe to mass-ignite his dormant species…and unknowingly threatens mutantkind in the process. Ultimately, Infinity, as gorgeous as it is thanks to the dream team of Jim Cheung, Jerome Opeña and Dustin Weaver, is a midpoint in Hickman’s grand saga and in the arc of Marvel events, and not a story that can stand on its own superheroic legs. Steve Foxe
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Olivier Coipel
Or, “Brian Michael Bendis Does Passover.”
Siege isn’t bad—some might say it’s even good. It’s four issues long, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It has one artist and one writer, so it feels consistent and competently produced. And it caps off Dark Reign, which was a year-long, villain-dominated storyline that spanned the entire Marvel Universe, and was also pretty damn good.
After firing the shot that ended the Secret Invasion, Norman Osborn (yes, the unhinged Spider-Man villain) gets promoted to the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., turns the world police organization into H.A.M.M.E.R. (an acronym that’s never sufficiently explained), sets up a secret cabal with Doctor Doom, Emma Frost, Namor, Loki and the Hood, and goes to town on the Marvel Universe. In an effort to rule the whole planet or whatever, Norman sets his sights on Asgard, which is at this moment in time floating over Broxton, Oklahoma (long story). He sics his Dark Avengers (a bunch of bad guys dressed up as good guys) on the fabled Norse city and the real superheroes intervene. Punch, kick and then the Sentry (Marvel’s dubiously sane Superman analogue) reveals himself to be the actual Angel of Death. It’s quite bizarre, as writer Brian Michael Bendis actually used the story of Passover from the Old Testament as grist for the Sentry’s transformation—who, for some reason, becomes a sort of crab monster. Eventually the heroes win the day, everyone who isn’t dead goes to jail, and the line moves onto the Heroic Age. Jakob Free
14. Monsters Unleashed
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artists: Adam Kubert, Greg Land, Salvador Larroca, Steve McNiven, Leinil Francis Yu
Monsters Unleashed is—Groot forgive us—an odd beast of an event. It doesn’t attempt to change the status quo (beyond introducing a new kaiju-creating preteen Inhuman) and its tie-ins were restricted to “.MU” issues, most by rising talent, that didn’t disrupt existing series. Cullen Bunn has done reliably good (if rarely great) work for Marvel, and the rotating art team of Steve McNiven, Adam Kubert, Greg Land, Salvador Larroca and Leinil Francis Yu meant the book came and went quickly and looked four-fifths great. Monsters Unleashed seems to have taken to heart most criticisms of Marvel’s constant event churn. So what’s the rub? By training readers to expect huge, universe-shaking changes when the “event” banner is trotted out, self-contained series like Monsters Unleashed end up feeling like a symptom of Marvel’s need to constantly have an event running regardless of whether or not a story calls for a tie-in sprawl. MU was further hurt by arriving as the much-maligned Civil War II stumbled to the finish line and the hotly debated Secret Empire revved up. It’s hard to hate on giant monsters, but MU ultimately feels like filler—the opposite of what an “event” should signify. Steve Foxe
13. Secret War
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Gabriele Dell’Otto
Flowing from his creative high on Daredevil with Alex Maleev, Brian Michael Bendis gave Marvel its most distilled black-ops opus with Secret War, though the miniseries trades in every shade of grey. These issues feature Nick Fury recruiting and brainwashing a group of Marvel capital-S superheroes to eliminate an Eastern European government arming and funding supervillains in the United States. The target of that mission, Lucia von Bardas, returns to wreak vengeance on New York in the comic book equivalent of this Onion article. The event offers a cooler and more relevant political allegory than Marvel’s other attempts, and Gabriele Dell’Otto, while glacial, still channeled a stately, heavy sense of doom with his digital paints; just look at the scales on Cap’s armor. Bendis nails the ultimate themes of greater goods, deception and how the best scenarios in terror navigation are only slightly less awful than the alternative. While its ending devolves into familiar superhero tropes, Secret War stands as an ambitious and cool footnote in the Marvel mythos. Sean Edgar