Marvel Secret Wars: A Reader’s Guide

We explain the intricate Marvel Universe continuity as best we can, and even offer you a Secret Wars reading order.

This article contains pretty much nothing but Marvel spoilers. 

After eight and a half years and more than 200 issues on the highest profile comics Marvel publishes, Jonathan Hickman brings everything to a crescendo with Secret Wars #9. This issue closes out the giant crossover that dominated 2015 and its seeds go back to some of his earliest work with the company. That’s why we wanted to look back at everything worth knowing from Jonathan Hickman’s Marvel Comics work to help you appreciate just how wide the scope of what he accomplished is.

Please note! The books won’t necessarily be listed in chronological order. They’ll be listed in reading order. That’s why SHIELD is first, even though it came out between third and fifth: because it laid the groundwork for an entirely new Marvel Universe.

Note: Click the orange Amazon affiliate links to buy the stories.

Ad – content continues below

S.H.I.E.L.D.

What Was It: The secret history of mad science in the Marvel Universe. SHIELD told the story of Imhotep (and Apocalypse, in the background) repelling a Brood invasion in ancient Egypt. Inspired by his fight and the shield he used, a secret society of super scientists then worked to protect Earth through all of history – Galileo fought off Galactus, Zhang Heng takes down a Celestial in ancient China; da Vinci, Tesla, Nathaniel Richards, Isaac Newton, Howard Stark, and Michelangelo all turn up in some form or another, all protecting the earth from these crazy threats.

What You Need To Know: For Secret Wars? Not a ton.

First and most importantly: it hasn’t finished yet. The first issue of SHIELD came out in 2010. But for a variety of reasons, we only got one complete volume and four issues of the second volume before it disappeared.

The second thing you need to know is it’s stunning. This was Dustin Weaver’s first big project at Marvel. He went on to draw what I thought was the best Secret Wars tie-in, Infinity Gauntlet. As for story beats that are important, the Immortal City (SHIELD headquarters beneath Rome) shows up again in Avengers and Avengers World, and of course, Nathaniel Richards is very important to Fantastic Four.

What to Read:

Read order for SHIELD isn’t extremely complicated. If you’re doing a grand tour of Hickman’s Marvel work, it might be fun to drop this between volumes 4 and 5 of Secret Warriors (as a character here makes an appearance there), but it’s not narratively important.

You’re safe just picking up:

Ad – content continues below

S.H.I.E.L.D.: Architects of Forever 

And hang tight! Rumor has it the last two issues of volume 2 are drawn, and just need to have the dialogue filled in.

Secret Warriors

What Was It? Jonathan Hickman’s first major work at Marvel followed two threads.

The first saw Nick Fury and several hidden teams of superheroes fighting the enemies of a completely compromised SHIELD. At first, as a part of the “Dark Reign” story, it was compromised by Norman Osborn – just accept it, there’s no reason to read anything that explains why – and later, by Hydra infiltration.

Leviathan, a Cold War-era Soviet superspy agency, is back in operation and at open war with Hydra. And, fed up with Osborn’s leadership, Dum Dum Dugan splits off from SHIELD taking thousands of agents with him to form the Howling Commandos PMC, a mercenary group.

Meanwhile, the story also flashes back to 1961 and a secret meeting of all the Marvel spy universe’s big shots – Fury, Dugan, Baron Strucker from Hydra, Shoji Soma from the Hand, Magadan from Leviathan, John Garrett from Elektra: Assassin (and Agents of SHIELD), Fury’s brother Jake, and several others. They’re brought together by a mysterious man (cough cough SHIELD volume 1 explains it cough cough) who tasks them with hunting down mysterious objects around the world that, when combined, can grant people unnaturally long life.

Ad – content continues below

The two stories tie together beautifully at the end in a cascade of revelations and backstabbing and the secret origin of LMDs and triple crosses, and the series ends with Fury shooting Strucker in the head after he reveals that SHIELD had infiltrated Hydra some 40 years earlier.

What You Need To Know: Manifold, the teleporter who plays a large role in Avengers and Secret Wars #1, is first introduced here. Also, The Gorgon, a Hydra semi-mech who floats around Avengers World, is very important to this story.

Other than that, Secret Warriors is excellent, but it’s more essential to watching Agents of SHIELD than reading Secret Wars: Daisy Johnson, John Garrett, Daniel Whitehall, and a secret Fury team of superhumans on a SHIELD mole hunt are all story beats that started in this comic.  

What to Read

If you have some extra cash and don’t need to travel with the book, there is an omnibus edition. 

Secret Warriors Omnibus

If you need something more portable, there is a two volume complete edition, but be warned: if you’re going to read SHIELD in the middle of reading Secret Warriors, it should be read after issue 19, the end of “The Last Ride of the Howling Commandos” and like, the third issue of the second volume.

Secret Warriors Complete Collection Volume 1

Secret Warriors Complete Collection Volume 2

Ad – content continues below

Fantastic Four

What Was It: Maybe Jonathan Hickman’s Marvel masterpiece. The story in Hickman’s Fantastic Four was to many the most important work with the characters since the days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It reformatted huge chunks of the Marvel Universe, adding new layers to the Inhuman royal family, the Kree, Annihilus and the Negative Zone, Atlantis, Wakanda, and Galactus that were all emotional story beats and remained important through Secret Wars.

The most underrated aspect of Secret Wars (and the strongest evidence that Marvel is not spite cancelling the Fantastic Four books to mess with the movies) is the fact that Secret Wars is, at its very core, a story about Reed Richards, Sue Storm and Dr. Doom. The story that ends in Secret Wars #9 began here.

What You Need To Know: A ton, to be honest.

Like Secret Warriors, there are two main strands running through Fantastic Four: in one, a prophesied war between “Four Cities” is set up and eventually comes to pass. The cities are the Forever City of the High Evolutionary; the Old Kingdom of Atlantis; the Inhuman City Ship; and the 42 prison in the Negative Zone. This war brings Black Bolt back from the dead (that happened in one part of the wonderful Marvel space epic War of Kings) and rearranges the politics of the galaxy, putting the Kree, the Inhumans and the Annihilation Wave where we will later find them in Infinity.

It also sees Reed opening a window to the multiverse in Fantastic Four: Dark Reign that he will continue to use through New Avengers to monitor the collapse of the multiverse. In his quest to “solve everything,” he makes contact with the Council of Reeds, an interdimensional gathering of most of the Reed Richardses in the multiverse, all of whom are dedicated to solving difficult problems that these worlds face.

Unfortunately, that quest leads most of them to cut all ties with their families, and the subsequent detachment from their own humanity leads most of them to become bastards (some of them are much worse than bastards, as we’ll see in the next entry). Reed 616 leaves the group and in response to the Council’s coldness towards mankind, turns the Baxter Building into a school for the superhumanly smart: the Future Foundation, the group that on Battleworld is led by Valeria Richards, Reed and Sue’s daughter, and investigates the scientific problems God Emperor Doom has.

Ad – content continues below

Almost as soon as Reed 616 leaves their chambers, a group of mad Celestials attacks the Council, killing hordes of Reeds. Four of them escape into the 616 when Valeria, thinking she knows better than her father, opens the chamber Reed had locked when he left. This also gives the Celestials a view into the 616, and they start trying to invade. They are only stopped by the combined power of Doom seemingly sacrificing himself in the Council Chambers; Nathaniel Richards; the Future Foundation; Sol’s Anvil (a planetary weapon charged by the four cities that has its counterpart, Sol’s Hammer, show up at the end of Avengers) and Franklin Richards from the future, healing our mortally wounded Galactus and summoning Galan as his own herald so that the two of them may fight off the Celestials. Franklin’s pet Galactus is later seen guarding Doomgard on Battleworld and blowing the giant Ben Grimm to rubble at Franklin’s command.

Later, we find out that Doom survived the Celestial attack, grabbed a pair of Infinity Gauntlets from the wreckage of the Council chambers, discovered that they only work on their native universes (something that we are reminded of as it pertains to Battleworld in Secret Wars #6 when Black Panther gets one), and travels to that universe, where he sets himself up as God. It goes poorly, though the lessons Doom draws from that failure were undoubtedly applied to his solution to the end of the multiverse in New Avengers.

Even if it were entirely unconnected to Secret Wars, Hickman’s time with Marvel’s first family would be highly recommended. And while they’re not essential to understanding his grand finale, reading these adds depth to the epic that makes it an even more rewarding read.

What to Read:

Reprints make this complicated to read. It’s not difficult until Fantastic Four #600, when Fantastic Four and FF run side by side and should be read like one title coming out biweekly, rather than separate books. Fortunately, the two omnibus editions print the books in the correct order.

Fantastic Four Omnibus 1

Fantastic Four Omnibus 2

However, if you are reading the story in single issues or single volume trades, here’s how you should read them:

Dark Reign: Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four volume 1

Fantastic Four volume 2

Fantastic Four volume 3

Fantastic Four volume 4

FF volume 1

FF volume 2

Then, starting with issue 600 (the first issue of Fantastic Four volume 5), alternate issues between volume 5 and FF volume 3: Fantastic Four #600, FF #12, Fantastic Four #601, FF #13, and so on until you’ve finished both those collections.

Ad – content continues below

Fantastic Four volume 5

FF volume 3

And finally, you’re going to alternate back and forth between Fantastic Four volume 6 and FF volume 4 as follows:

Fantastic Four #605, 605.1 and 606

FF #17-18

Fantastic Four #607-608

FF #19-21

Fantastic Four #609-610

Ad – content continues below

FF #22

Fantastic Four #611

FF #23

Fantastic Four Volume 6

FF volume 4

Ultimate Comics Ultimates/Hawkeye/Thor

What Was It: After the irrevocable damage done to the Ultimate Universe by Ultimatum (do not under any circumstances read it…it was horrible), the final incarnation of  the comic line that saved Marvel was as a home for new or rising talent. One of those talented creators who got an opportunity to play around with these alternate versions of Marvel icons was Jonathan Hickman, who wrote a prequel to the first Ultimates series in Ultimate Comics: Thor and gave some background in Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye that he would later use in Ultimate Comics: Ultimates.

What You Need To Know: That Thor and Hawkeye are inconsequential and unnecessary to read unless you are an Ultimate Marvel completist or you want to see where half of Hawkeye’s characterization from the MCU came from. Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, however, ended up being critical not just to Secret Wars, but to Fantastic Four.

One of the key takeaways from Fantastic Four was that without family as a connection to humanity, Reed Richards turns into a bit of a jerk. In Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, we find out that if that family influence is negative, Reed turns into a complete monster. In the Ultimate Universe, he and Sue never make it past making eyes at each other before Ultimatum (again, do not read this comic) split them apart, causing Reed to hide and brood and slowly turn his moral compass 180 degrees toward “full blown supervillain.”

In Ultimates, a dome filled with horrifically advanced cyborgs pops into existence over northern Germany, killing millions of people. The cyborgs then leave The City (what they’re calling the dome) and kill all of Ultimate Asgard. We find out as Hickman leaves the title that The Maker, the one these cyborgs call leader, is Ultimate Reed.

Later, through a series of global crises, he regains his freedom and goes back to work in The City, and that’s where we find him in Avengers #41, when members of The Cabal crash on Earth 1610. Ultimate Reed spent Secret Wars hanging around with 616 Reed, breaking into Doomgard and having a final confrontation with Doom.

What to Read:

Ultimate Comics: Ultimates Volume 1

Ultimate Comics: Ultimates Volume 2

If you’re a completist and you have money to burn, you can also get Hawkeye and Thor, but they’re not necessary.

Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye

Ultimate Comics: Thor

A vs X

What Was It? A really bad crossover where the X-Men and the Avengers forgot all the times they had worked together AND all of the successful Phoenix hosts who were living on Earth at the time, and instead got into a junk-measuring competition over who got to make decisions.

What You Need To Know: A few things were set up in A vs X that were important to Avengers and Secret Wars. When the heroes of Earth found out that the Phoenix Force was returning, they all came up with their own plans to stop/harness it. Eventually, it was split into five and entered different X-Men hosts, among them Cyclops and Namor.

Most writers used this as an excuse to slowly turn Cyclops into a supervillain over the next several years. Hickman only came back to it in the closing issues of Avengers, with Scott reacquiring a Phoenix egg and hatching it in the final confrontation with Earth 1610 in Secret Wars #1.

Mild spoilers: even imbued with the Phoenix Force, God Emperor Doom snaps his neck when he is discovered. They never got around to resurrecting Checkhov’s Cosmic Entity, either.

Meanwhile, Namor used the Phoenix Force to devastate Wakanda, foreshadowing his actual turn to villainy that would end up happening in the pages of New Avengers, and setting up the latest round of Wakanda/Atlantis hate.

What to Read

None of it. You could get the hardcover collection, but Hickman himself only had his name called for the writing committee for two issues. As a whole, it was really bad. But what it set up was really good!

Avengers vs X-Men

Avengers/New Avengers/Infinity/Avengers World

What Was It? Everything that’s great about The Avengers and about Hickman’s writing was on display for this one, epic story. Following A vs X, the creative teams in the Marvel Universe got shuffled around, and Hickman ended up taking over the line with his almost-90 issue lead in to Secret Wars.

In hindsight, it’s a lot easier to see the connections between these series than it was reading them as they came out.

New Avengers is the story of the collapse of the multiverse and how the brightest minds in the Marvel Universe tried to cope with that. Avengers and Infinity are not about the Avengers themselves: rather they’re about how the universe is trying to protect itself from the coming collapse. Everything that isn’t interpersonal that happens in Avengers is about the self-defense mechanisms the universe has in place trying to prevent the destruction of the 616. It introduced completely new characters (Ex Nihilo, Abyss, the Builders); revamped old ones (Starbrand, Nightmask, Smasher), while in the end, the whole thing boiled down to a collapsing friendship.

What You Need To Know: Everything dies. That’s how New Avengers started, and how Avengers ended.

Reed Richards reforms the Illuminati (Captain America, Beast, Dr. Strange, Black Bolt, Namor, Black Panther, and Iron Man) to tell them he’s discovered that the multiverse is collapsing on itself, and the various parallel Earths are the focal points. Two adjacent Earths collide, and one is destroyed, or both (and their surrounding universes) are when they touch…and one is heading for the 616.

New Avengers follows this group as they collectively make terrible, villainous decisions (like mindwiping Captain America after the Infinity Gems shatter when they use them to repel one incursion) in an effort to try and stop these incursions. Sometimes that means trying to cover one up when it happens over Doom’s castle in Latveria; sometimes that means selling your soul to the Great Old Ones for the power to repel an Earth (as Dr. Strange did); sometimes that means killing the Justice League with an antimatter bomb (as Namor did).

New Avengers follows the big conflict of the incursions, while setting up the various important players working all the sides in the collapse of the multiverse: the Black Priests, an otherworldly religious order destroying Earths as they start their final descent towards collapse; Mapmakers, androids who travel to worlds about to collapse, strip them of their resources, detonate them, and move on to the adjacent one; the Ivory Kings, of which almost nothing is known; and Rabum Alal, a god using his disciples, the Black Swans, on the collapsing worlds.

Avengers, on the other hand, is the story about the various immune systems the universe has in place trying to deal with the imminent collapse of everything, and how the Avengers as a team and Captain America in particular, screw all of that up. They stop Ex Nihilo and Abyss from making the 616 Earth sentient. They integrate Starbrand and Nightmask, two characters from the New Universe who are part of Earth’s defense system.

Even after Cap’s mindwipe is erased and a handful of them are thrown into the future, when Cap is told directly by grownup lumberjack Franklin Richards (from Hickman’s Fantastic Four) 5000 years in the future, and again by Iron Lad, Kang and Immortus 50,000 years in the future “Leave the Illuminati and Stark alone, let them try and solve this,” Cap’s response is “Go to hell.” But before that happens, the assembled Avengers planet fight off a fleet hell bent on destroying Earth and everything in their way. The problem is, that fleet is trying to destroy Earth to prevent an incursion from killing everything.

Infinity is the story of the war with that fleet, the Builder army. The Builders are the oldest race in the universe, and they use the Ex Nihili, the Abysses, and androids called Alephs to speed up evolution everywhere they go. They’re hip to the danger the incursions present, but they tell no one, and cut a huge swath of destruction on their way to Earth, so they face the combined might of the Shi’ar, the Skrulls, the Kree, the Annihilation Wave, and the Avengers, and they eventually lose – the turning point comes after Thor throws Mjolnir through a star, then calls it back to his hand and through a Builder thorax.

It also puts into place Thanos and his lieutenants, Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive, for the eventual endgame of Avengers. They come to Earth seeking the Infinity Gems and Thanos’s son, and are in the end defeated and captured by him. They’re imprisoned in the Necropolis in Wakanda, alongside a Black Swan and Terrax from an incursion.

Avengers World gives Hickman, Nick Spencer, and later Frank Barbiere the chance to spend some time on the periphery of these stories. None of it is essential reading, but there’s some really fun stuff with Cannonball and Sunspot, who spent an early issue of Avengers getting drunk and gambling with a bunch of AIM beekeepers. Avengers World’s first arc is about AIM island, shortly before Bobby buys the entire organization. It’s wonderful.

What to Read

Fortunately, Marvel learned from the trade collection problems in Fantastic Four and integrated the books where it was absolutely necessary. If you’re reading along on Marvel Unlimited, you can read the issues in the order they’re listed in in these volumes.

New Avengers volume 1: Everything Dies

Avengers volume 1: Avengers World

Avengers volume 2: The Last White Event

Avengers volume 3: Prelude to Infinity

Infinity

(I know it’s expensive, but the omnibus edition is worth it just so you don’t have to buy 3 trades and flip back and forth. The omnibus integrates material from Infinity, Avengers volume 4 and New Avengers volume 2)

Avengers volume 5: Adapt or Die

Avengers World volume 1

New Avengers volume 3: Other Worlds

New Avengers volume 4: A Perfect World

Avengers volume 6: Infinite Avengers

“Time Runs Out.”

Cap’s reaction to being told to let the Illuminati try and fix the incursions is…pretty bad. He tells the whole world what the clever guys have been up to, and commandeers SHIELD to hunt them down. At the same time, the Illuminati, in the wake of Namor destroying the Justice League, decided to give up and let the next incursion happen. When it doesn’t, they realize something has gone wrong: Namor broke Thanos, his lieutenants, Black Swan and Terrax out of jail and teamed up with Maximus the Mad to destroy the other Earths.

“Time Runs Out” is the final storyline in both Avengers and New Avengers leading into Secret Wars. After an 8 month jump, Reed is using the Bridge (from Fantastic Four) to monitor the multiverse while the Illuminati, who have lost Tony and Dr. Strange, but gained Captain Britain, Amadeus Cho and the Hulk, try and figure out how to build a life raft to save as many people as they can from the incursions.

Eventually a peace is brokered between the two sides by Sunspot and AIM (!), who is hell bent on reminding them what it means to be an Avenger and has been using AIM’s considerable scientific resources to investigate the collapse. He sends a team – Hyperion, Thor, Starbrand, Nighthawk and an army of Ex Nihili – into the multiverse to try and fix it from the outside, and then works with a remorseful Namor to trap the Cabal on the wrong side of an incursion.

As the plan is about to be executed, Hank Pym returns from a trip through the multiverse with an issue’s worth of exposition and revelation. He found that the Ivory Kings are the Beyonders, and they’re trying to destroy the entire Multiverse. Meanwhile, we find out that Dr. Strange has taken over the Black Priests (who call themselves the “field surgeons” of the multiverse – they try and destroy Earths before incursions happen, like amputating a gangrenous limb) and met up with Sunspot’s Avengers.

They flip a coin to see who will go where: the Black Priests and Strange go to find Rabum Alal, while Thor and Hyperion go die in each others’ arms I mean in battle with the Beyonders (seriously, it’s an incredible scene, and Thor and Hyperion’s everything-but-the-kissing romance in Avengers is one of its high points). At least Strange is successful, though! He meets Rabum Alal: it’s Dr. Doom, who discovered the Beyonders’ plan to destroy the multiverse, and has spent 25 years “defusing the bomb” they set. By “defusing the bomb,” I mean “murdering as many Molecule Men as he can find.”

Molecule Man is the only being in the multiverse to share the same consciousness in every reflection of himself, and he was set to explode at the Beyonders’ behest when their experiment was done. Doom and the 616 Molecule Man were trying to stop them by detonating small parts of the bomb early, but even being able to travel through time, Doom wasn’t able to do this efficiently enough. So he finds Illyana Rasputin from an alternative universe, and uses her (and Illyanas from thousands of other Earths) to create a religion that worships him and kills Molecule Men.

Doom is still dissatisfied with his progress, though, so he stops killing Molecule Men and starts collecting them, and shortly after he reunites with Strange, the three of them head off to the rift where Thorperion (that’s my ‘ship name) died fighting the Beyonders. Doom flips them the bird, then throws 200,000 Molecule Men through the rift, killing them all (and, we soon find out, releasing their power, which gets stored…somewhere).

This is the point where Reed, looking at the multiverse through his Bridge on 616, thinks “Crap. We’re boned.”

So Reed hauls ass to build the lifeboat, while Namor, thinking he’s escaped death with the Cabal on the exploding Earth in favor of prosecution in the 616, finds Black Panther sticking a knife in his chest and giving the last word to Black Bolt, who sends him to what they think is his death by telling him “When you see my brother Maximus, tell him I said FAREWELL.” Little do they know that it’s a multiple incursion – three worlds are becoming two, and the Cabal escapes the exploding Earth by jumping to the adjacent one, where they are met by The Maker, Ultimate Reed Richards.

The last incursion is between the mainstream Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe, and the last thing we see before Secret Wars begins is Captain America and Iron Man, both armored up, beating the hell out of each other while the two New Yorks almost touch, and the text echoes back to the beginning of the end of the world: “Everything dies.”

Avengers: Time Runs Out volume 1

Avengers: Time Runs Out volume 2

Avengers: Time Runs Out volume 3

Avengers: Time Runs Out volume 4

Secret Wars

What Is It? An anniversary celebration, a song of praise to shared universe comic books, the last hurrah of a meticulous madman’s 5000 page epic story. Secret Wars is the comic that shut down the Marvel Universe for three months, something only Age of Apocalypse could do in one corner of comics before. And, thankfully, the threat of a Wanted-esque ending collapse never materialized.

What You Need To Know: Manifold sacrifices himself on Earth 616 to teleport people onto their life raft – Star Lord, Spider-Man, Thor, the FF, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and the kids from the Future Foundation. Cyclops, in possession of a Phoenix egg, also ends up on that ship. Ultimate Reed also created a life raft, but the Cabal was on that one, along with Miles Morales, a stowaway.

Both rafts escaped as the incursion was completing, but the part of the 616 raft holding Sue, Johnny, Ben and the Future Foundation kids breaks off of the main raft and disintegrates before Reed can grab them, leaving him to think that they’re dead. And the screen flashes to white, with only a glimpse of Doom’s mask ending the first issue.

[related article: Ranking Every Secret Wars Tie-In]

The second takes us through Battleworld. Doom saved shards of a handful of realities and stitched them together on one planet, leaving them to govern themselves and placing himself at their head as their emperor and god. His family is the same as Reed’s – married to Sue Storm, with Franklin and Valeria as his children, and the Future Foundation students running his ministry of science.

Stephen Strange is his sheriff, enforcing the will of God Emperor Doom around Battleworld; the Thors are his police force; Ben Grimm is the wall that keeps the Annihilation Wave, unfettered Ultrons and the Marvel Zombies away from the rest of the planet; Johnny Storm is the Sun; Franklin and his pet Galactus guard Doomstadt; and Sinister is the glammest person on all of Battleworld.

The final issue ties off not just Secret Wars, but with the use of a Time Gem and some smart narrative, loops back to the beginning of New Avengers to turn the entire story. I don’t want to spoil anything specific about the issue, because anything other than the broadest strokes would rob some of the emotional punch of how everything paid off, but there is a moment with the Maker that ties back both to an earlier conversation in Secret Wars he had with Reed and to his actions in Ultimates; Molecule Man stuff that ties back to the end of New Avengers; some Franklin pieces that go back to the climax of Fantastic Four; and T’Challa and Reed get closure on their stories that began in the first issue of New Avengers.

I’m still processing everything I read, but at this moment, fresh off of reading it for the first time, but conscious of how long it took to get here, I can’t believe how perfectly it paid off years and years of story. I don’t know if there could have been a better conclusion to a 200 issue mega-epic than what we got at the end of Secret Wars.

What to Read

Secret Wars #1-9 are still available at your local comic shop, or you can pre-order the hardcover here.