The second most-surprising thing about Marvel Comics’ big 2015 crossover comic book event is that it’s very good. These epics tend to disappoint, but not this one. The bigger surprise? Even the comics tying into it are mostly really good. That never happens.

There are more than three dozen Marvel mini-series that tie into Secret Wars. Some are only up their first issue, others up to their fourth and a few still set to debut. There are so many that Marvel’s recent checklist of the books left one out:

Sorry, Korvac Saga!

Only a Marvel zombie or a maniac would read all of them, and as someone who grew up mostly reading DC, I can’t plead to being the former. I guess I’m the latter, though, because I’ve found myself, by choice, reading nearly every Secret Wars tie-in series. I’ve read so many of them that I recently decided to also buy and read an issue of each of the few that I’d skipped, just so that I could then tell anyone who was curious which Secret Wars crossovers to get.

A few things to know about this Secret Wars stuff and my reading habits:

  • The gist of Secret Wars is that all the various Marvel Universes, including the mainline “616” universe and the decade-old Ultimate Universe have all been destroyed and replaced by a single planet called Battleworld that is ruled by Doctor Doom. Battleworld is a patchwork of realms that are mostly based on the Marvel status quo of various major Marvel storylines of the past. So there’s a realm based on the dark future glimpsed in the 1980s X-Men storyline Days of Future Past, another based on Marvel’s 2006 crossover Civil War, another riffing off the 1991 mini-series The Infinity Gauntlet, and so on. Doom is considered the god of all these realms. Hundreds of Thor-like characters police all the realms.
  • In theory, these tie-in series are supposed to ensnare fans who are nostalgic for the storylines they reference, but I’ve read very few of the originals. I didn’t read the first Civil War, nor the original Age of Apocalypse, Old Man Logan, or whatever Inferno was. I only started reading Marvel regularly in 2000 or so. I’ve come to all the new riffs on these series with very few ideas of what the originals were. You’d think I’d be confused but instead I just feel liberated by not knowing how different the new books are from the originals, while I benefit from reading books that are using ideas that have been tested out before and are now being iterated upon.
  • A key meta-story point that should clear up a lot of the confusion that people have had with the crossovers: There isn’t just one version of, say, She-Hulk or Captain America in Battleworld. Doom’s realms can have duplicate versions of characters, so there are numerous Punishers, Wolverines and so on. They’re mostly unaware of each other, and just about no one remembers the universe(s) before Secret Wars. Doom would like to keep it this way.

Alright, ready? Here we go!

Excellent

  • Civil War - This is a dramatic what-if scenario that sees the super-hero clashes of Captain America and Iron Man literally divide America. Steve Rogers leads the supposedly freedom loving Blue; Tony Stark runs the more heavily policed Iron. We begin with an attempted peace negotiation. At first it seems that there are no strong hooks to Secret Wars other than token acknowledgment that this series is taking place in a region of Doom’s Battleworld but in an exciting moment masterfully written and drawn in issue #2 by rising star Charles Soule and artists Leinil Francis Yu and Gerry Alanguilan, someone begins to figure out things Doom probably doesn’t want them knowing.
  • Deadpool’s Secret Secret Wars - Funny! A comedic crossover to the original 1984 Secret Wars series, not the new one. Writer Cullen Bunn and artist Matteo Lolli have a great time inserting Deadpool into scenes from the first Secret Wars that he wasn’t actually in. I never read the original but knew some of the crossover’s highlights, such as Spider-Man getting his black costume. Who knew that Deadpool was largely responsible for the good and bad of that wardrobe change? I have rarely enjoyed Deadpool stories, but this one has me laughing for the right reasons.
  • E is for Extinction - A what-if continuation of the great New X-Men run of writer Grant Morrison and a host of artists this time by frequent Morrison collaborator Chris Burnham and artist Ramon Villalobos. Morrison’s core X-Men— Cyclops, Wolverine and Emma Frost—are getting old and pudgy, but they’re itching for a comeback. The many younger mutants from the Morrison run are now in their prime and don’t want to give up the spotlight. There are minimal connections to Secret Wars so far but this is catnip to huge fans of that X-Men run, myself included.
  • Marvel Zombies - Writer Simon Spurrier once again works wonders with Marvel’s d-list characters, this time monster-hunting Elsa Bloodstone, who has found herself beyond the massive “Shield” wall that rings and protects the realms of Battleworld from zombies and other nastiness. She is deep in zombie territory, where she comes across a child who she begrudgingly has to protect, all the while having flashbacks to her own upbringing by her stern monster-hunting dad. One of the most heartfelt series of all the crossovers.
  • M.O.D.O.K. Assassin - A comic of violence and (unrequited?) romance starring M.O.D.O.K., giant floating head slash killing machine who lives in the Battleworld realm of Killville and an incarnation of Angela, the warrior woman who recently joined the Marvel universe by way of Image Comics. This version of her is a member of the Thor police force. M.O.D.O.K. is not a character to be taken seriously, but his confused affection for Angela is affecting. Their battles against all sorts of alternate-world Marvel villains are manic and fun. Writer Christopher Yost and artists Amilcar Pinna and Terry Pallot stitch this series tightly into the Secret Wars fabric, with the first issue demonstrating how M.O.D.O.K. deals with problems crossing over the borders on opposite ends of Killville.
  • Siege - A story about Marvel characters condemned to patrol the Shield wall that rings and protects the rest of Battleworld (and also appears to be Doom’s warped incarnation of The Thing). The lead character is the green-haired Abigail Brand, who basically serves as the head of this Marvel riff on Game of Thrones’ Nights’ Watch. The main story by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Filipe Andrade is good and even lightly connects to events in A-Force and Secret Wars Journal #1. The best part of the series, though, are the incredible two-page spreads used to depict various epic clashes Brand has witnessed on the wall. These are drawn by guest artists, including James Stokoe (above - click the top left corner of the image to enlarge) and Yasmine Putri (below). Wow.
  • Thors - Okay. Probably the best Secret Wars crossover of them all, a police procedural by writer Jason Aaron and artists Chris Sprouse and Karl Story, the book makes the most out of the Secret Wars idea that a panoply of Thors serve as law enforcement across all of Doom’s Battleword realms. Our lead in this book is a Thor seemingly from the Ultimate Universe though scenes are stolen by many others. This one’s going to be a murder mystery, and the identity of the victim makes it seem like the series has some connections to the excellent Thor books Aaron was writing right before Secret Wars began. Perhaps it’s all connected.
  • Weirdworld - Another excellent tie-in by writer Jason Aaron with great art by Mike Del Mundo, this is a fantasy adventure starring a guy named Arkon, who might as well as be Marvel’s Conan. Supposedly many of the characters in this series are pulled from Marvel’s past sword-and-sorcery comics. They’re all new to me, the dragons, the sea apes, the crystal warriors and the like. So far there are negligible connections to Secret Wars, making this the best of the crossovers that can—for now,at least—stand on their own.

Very Good

  • 1602: Witch Hunter Angela - A mash-up of Neil Gaiman creations. We’ve got a version of Angela, the warrior woman who the acclaimed author first introduced in Image Comics’ Spawn series back in 1993, and she’s doing her thing in the fantasy era of his 2003 Marvel series 1602. Gaiman doesn’t write any of the new book, which is authored by Maguerite Bennett and Keiron Gillen with art by Stephanie Hans and Marguerite Sauvage. It’s fun to spot 1602-ized versions of all sorts of Marvel characters, including a more down to Earth take on the Guardians of the Galaxy. The core idea of Angela as a mutant-hunter is compelling, because it sets her against characters with whom we would traditionally sympathize. No great connections to Secret Wars but an interesting enough tale to follow.
  • 1872 - We’ve got Marvel’s modern heroes and villains but in a 19th century Western, with Captain America as sheriff, Tony Stark as town inventor turned town drunk, Wilson Fisk as the corrupt mayor and Ben Urich as the morally conflicted reporter. This could rise to excellent if subsequent issues are as good as the set-up in Gerry Duggan and Nik Virella’s first issue. No strong connections to Secret Wars yet.
  • A-Force - It risks coming off as a gimmick, as this is the story of an all-female team of Marvel’s top women heroes, led by She-Hulk. The first two issues have shown some basic super-hero team action, so it also risks coming off as formally unexceptional, but the mix of characters really does make it feel fresh. Lots of connections to Secret Wars, too, with the first issue leading to a cameo in Siege and the second involving a portal that may connect A-Force to a lot more of Battleworld. By the third issue, things are pretty wild. Written by Marguerite Bennett and G. Willow Wilson, with art by Jorge Molina.
  • Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows - A more harrowing than expected what-if featuring a Peter Parker who stayed married to Mary Jane and had a daughter with her. Longtime Spider-Man writer Dan Slott tells the tale which has Peter and Mary Jane in perpetual panic as they try to keep their daughter safe in a New York that is ruled by a hero-destroying tyrant. The one drawback is that the series feels like a thought experiment and lacks any connection to the very long Peter Parker story that Slott has been telling for about a decade. For some, that will likely be a plus.
  • Captain Britain & The Mighty Defenders - An odd but intriguing story by Al Ewing, Alan Davis and Mark Farmer that is set in a region where multiple super-powered residents, a She-Hulk among them, have begun to realize that Battleworld is a farce and not the world as it is meant to be. They suffer Doom’s vengeance as a result.
  • Captain Marvel & The Carol Corps - Another odd one, this featuring Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel) as the leader of an all-women fighter squadron who get the idea to fly... up. After all, they wonder, where are all the stars? They should be figuring out that Battleworld is a sham any issue now. Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Kelly Thompson, drawn by David Lopez.
  • Infinity Gauntlet - I haven’t read the original Infinity Gauntlet but I’m guessing that it’s not a beautifully drawn story about a family trying to survive alien attacks, nor a series that doubles back on itself when one of the key characters starts time travelling. But maybe it is? This is a nearly excellent story, albeit for some lumpy pacing. Written by Gerry Duggan and Dustin Weaver with art by Weaver. The series has vague connections to the rest of Secret Wars, as the Thanos in this series is referenced in another of the crossovers.
  • Inhumans: Attilan Rising - Before Secret Wars began, writer Charles Soule had been doing his damnedest to raise the profile of Marvel’s mutant-like Inhumans through a very promising ensemble series called... Inhuman. This is a quasi-follow-up with Soule and artists John Timms and Roberto Poggi remixing that previous book’s characters (and M.s Marvel) as rival factions in a conflict between a Doom-approved Inhuman establishment and an insurrection headquartered in a speakeasy run by Black Bolt. Lots of action and plot twists in Soule’s ever-capable hands. Also, it might be crossing over with Future Imperfect.
  • Korvac Saga - A surprise through and through, this supposed Guardians of the Galaxy riff is actually about the meeting of a celebrity-obsessed version of the Avengers and a New York City-based realm protected by the Guardians. Oddly, this is the Secret Wars book to read for a dollop of political intrigue and also the one to follow if you’re a fan of super-hero battles that occur in and around government motorcades. Written by Dan Abnett, drawn by Otto Schmidt, one of the sleeper books of the stack.
  • Old Man Logan - Stunning art by the ever-wonderful Andrea Sorrentino with minimalist writing by Brian Michael Bendis, this is the tale of an older Wolverine who still has some killing left in him. Light on story but rich the spectacle as it hopscotches through Battleworld. Buy it for the art.
  • Planet Hulk - Based on the title, you might be expecting a Hulk comic but it’s more of a Captain America adventure as our hero, one of many Secret Wars versions of Steve Rogers, acting as something of a gladiator complete with his loyal red T-Rex makes his way through a desert realm filed with gamma-irradiated Hulks. As with Old Man Logan, not a ton of story, but definitely a lot of spectacle. Written by Sam Humphries with art by Marc Laming.
  • Red Skull - One of the better surprises in this huge batch, the first issue reads like a Marvel riff on the great DC comic Suicide Squad, what with all the d-list Marvel characters bolted into explosive collars and sent beyond the protective Shield on a mission doomed to fail. They’ve been charged by Doom’s right hand man, Dr. Strange, to track down the dissident Red Skull. The second issue goes somewhere else entirely and now seems to be setting up a major conflict with Doom. Weirdly, it feels as if it’s moving toward the same conclusions as the series Future Imperfect. Two very different series converging. Writing here by Josh Williamson with art by Luca Pizzari.
  • Runaways - It’s a school drama, by Lumberjanes co-writer Noelle Stevenson and artist Sanford Greene, though it’s set in a school where kids are killing each other. At least some of them figure this out and try to run away. A well-told story and yet another one that looks like it’ll come down to a clash between the forces of Doom and folks who are Figuring It All Out.
  • Secret Wars 2099 - This is a not very complex fight-filled comic starring futuristic versions of classic Marvel super-heroes. It makes it into the Very Good section on the strength alone of featuring a Captain America character who doesn’t realize she’s Captain America when she is in her secret identity. Neat concept by writer Peter David and artist Will Sliney.
  • Squadron Sinister - From what I gather, the various versions of Squadron Supreme through the years have all been Marvel riffs on DC’s Justice League. That’s true here with a batch of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman analogues who are plenty villainous and busy outfoxing rival provinces of Battleworld. Fun if a little difficult to follow, what with the layers of reference going on here. Written by Marc Guggenheim with art by Carlos Pacheco and Mariano Taibo.

Just Okay

  • Age of Ultron Vs. Marvel Zombies - A forced concept that combines the titular factions of two major Marvel events. By the end of the second issue, writer James Robinson and artist Steve Pugh appear to be taking things somewhere interesting. But the book still pales compared to what Robinson is doing in his current Image series, Airboy, which is a comic featuring Robinson himself as a character and is very much about the quality of Robinson’s recent super-hero writing.
  • Future Imperfect - This one would be higher if it didn’t feel like so much busywork to get to a more fruitful end. That end would be the positioning of the Maestro, a mean, bearded, realm-ruling future version of the Hulk as a major challenger to Doom and, apparently, as a key player in the post-Secret Wars Marvel universe. Written by Peter David, drawn by Greg Land.
  • Ghost Racers - Versions of Ghost Riders in a death race. Stylishly done, but just such a thin concept. Written by Felpie Smith, drawn by Juan Gedeon.
  • Guardians of Knowhere - Another story-light, art-beautiful book from writer Brian Michael Bendis, this time with art by Mike Deodato. We’ve got a version of the Guardians of the Galaxy who are living and fighting in a moon-like massive robot head. This one has pin-up worthy art and the added intrigue of a key character who sees through the lies of Doom’s Battleworld.
  • Inferno - One of several somewhat messy Secret Wars spiritual successors to major X-Men crossovers that I never read. This one has a Colossus-led team battling demons and a twisted version of Nightcrawler in New York, which is fun and all but not very deep and seemingly not that consequential to the goings on of Secret Wars. Written by Dennis Hopeless, drawn by Javier Garron.
  • Master of Kung Fu - I bailed after one issue, but it did seem like a solidly told martial arts story starring Shang-Chi reassuming his position as a martial arts master in a realm controlled by his tyrannical father. It doesn’t seem tightly connected to the rest of Secret Wars, but maybe that’ll change. Written by Haden Blackman, drawn by Dalibor Talajic and Goran Sudzuka.
  • Secret Wars: Battleworld - One of two Secret Wars anthologies with stories of uneven quality. The best were Josh Williamson and Mike Henderson’s Dr. Strange-as-the-Punisher story (pictured above) in the first issue and the one-page Ant-Man vs. Ant-Man vs. Ant-Man battle by the great Paul Pope at the end of the third.
  • Secret Wars Journal - One of two Secret Wars anthologies with stories of uneven quality. The best were the Egyptian Moon Knight story in the first issue, the cooking-based Elektra and Daredevil story (pictured above) in the second, and the noirish Wolverine story in the third. Two stories per issue.
  • Spider-Island - Writer Christos Gage and artist Paco Diaz take a recent Spider-Man crossover idea involving everyone in Manhattan getting spider-powers and add the twist that most everyone is a bad guy as a result (Or was that also how the original went? I didn’t read it). Anyway, our Spider-Heroes, led by Venom, Vision and Spider-Woman figure out that the best way to stop your former friends-turned-spider-enemies is to mutate them into something else. So you get a Captain America who is no longer an evil Spider-Captain-America but is now a friendly Wolfman-Captain-America. And so on. Sounds fun on paper, but the comic so far isn’t anything more than an average super-hero punch-em-up.
  • Star-Lord & Kitty Pryde - A strange one that is crazy enough to maybe work. This series stars a Star-Lord who completely remembers the pre-Doom version of the Marvel universe but has gone undercover in the Black Bolt’s speakeasy (see Inhumans: Attilan Rising) as... a nightclub singer. And by the end of the first issue he’s found another realm’s version of his pre-Secret Wars love, Kitty Pryde, though she doesn’t know who the hell he is. It’s fun to follow the adventures of someone who remembers the old stuff and, so far, this book is offering that more directly than any other. Written by Sam Humphries with art by Alti Firmansyah.
  • Ultimate End - What a debacle this is, the alleged final (no they really mean it this time) end to the Ultimate Universe line of comics, except that they couldn’t simply offer what was seemingly promised: a battle between the main Marvel universe and the Ultimate Marvel universe. Instead, we get a confusing meeting of Marvel heroes and their Ultimate doppelgangers that provides some fun scenes of Hulk meeting Hulk and Iron Man brainstorming with Iron Man but is providing little closure to long-term Ultimate readers. The continuity of both Marvel universes being depicted here is all messed up and the series is stumbling over itself to tie into Secret Wars. Marvel should have stuck a fork in the Ultimate Universe back when the original Galactus invaded a couple of years ago. Instead, we’re limping to more false endings than Return of the King. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, drawn by Mark Bagley and Scott Hanna.
  • Where Monsters Dwell - What if Marvel got Garth Ennis to do a very Garth Ennis book about a horny male fighter pilot, his mysterious lady partner and an island of man-hating warrior women? And then claimed it was, despite any visible connections, a Secret Wars crossover? DC’s Multiverse series was more of a Secret Wars crossover than this book, which a plane dogfights with a pterodactyl. Art by Russ Braun.
  • X-Tinction Agenda - Another X-Men crossover semi-sequel, this time featuring X-Men in the mutant nation of Genosha invading another part of X-Men turf to get a cure to a mutant plague. Some good back-stabbing here, but this feels mostly for fans of giant X-Men casts who’ll be excited to see characters who haven’t popped up in recent X-books. Written by Marc Guggenheim with art by Carmine Di Giandomenico.

Not For Me

  • Age of Apocalypse - Artist Gerardo Sandoval does his best Joe Madureira impression as he and writer Fabian Nicieza present what I guess is a sequel or homage to the kind of anatomically exaggerated X-Men books that seemed unreadable to me in the 90s. I could make it through one issue of this about as smoothly as these giant-shouldered, pin-headed X-characters could make it through a doorway.
  • Armor Wars - A series in which every Marvel hero is decked out in some form of Iron Man armor, which sounds like a great concept. But one issue was enough for me unless someone is going to tell me that it turned out amazing. Given that James Robinson is writing it, that’s a possibility, but it didn’t seem like it from the first pedestrian issue. Drawn by Marcio Takara.
  • Giant-Size Little Marvel: AvX - If you like your Marvel heroes presented as big-headed comic-strip characters having food fights, try this, though I found it far less amusing than writer/artists Skottie Young’s recent Rocket Raccoon run.
  • Hail Hydra - The underest under-achiever of the batch, this really should just have been the final issues of writer Rick Remender’s emotional run on Captain America but somehow morphed into a forced Secret Wars’ crossover. We’ve got Steve Rogers’ son, Ian (aka Nomad), wandering through a New York City controlled by the villainous Hydra, with Remender falling into his old habits of using shock violence to get a reaction from the reader. Art by Roland Boschi.
  • Mrs. Deadpool & The Howling Commandos - Given my enjoyment of writer Gerry Duggan’s other two Secret Wars books, 1872 and Infinity Gauntlet, along with my newfound affection for Deadpool through his Secret Secret Wars book, I thought I might like this. It’s a shame that it feels like one big joke that I’m not in on. Deadpool’s wife (ex-wife) marshals some monsters to help her fight Dracula, though they might be fighting her. Not very funny. Bummer. Art by Salva Espin.
  • Spider-Verse - While I liked Dan Slott’s efforts in the original Spider-Verse crossover to depict every Spider-Man ever, this semi-sequel by writer Mike Costa and artist Andre Araujo just didn’t do anything for me. We’ve got British Spider-Man, Indian Spider-Man, Spider-Gwen and other Spider-heroes running around a New York City where a not very nice Norman Osborn is mayor. I was bored and didn’t care for the art. I read one issue and bailed.
  • X-Men ‘92 - I guess I’d love this if I liked, read or cared about the Chris Claremont and Jim Lee era of X-Men, but I didn’t. I was a DC kid at the time and the thought of reading a comic heavily featuring Jubilee just doesn’t grab me. Maybe this is for you. Note that it’s the only Secret Wars comic offered first (and maybe exclusively) digitally. Written by Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, drawn by Scott Koblish.
  • Years of Future Past - I’ve heard great things about the 1980s X-Men storyline Days of Future Past, which I guess this is a sequel to or riff on or something. Was the original also a dramatic soap opera in the guise of a big battle between X-Men and people who hate X-Men? I’m guessing it was! This feels both like a prototypical X-Men story and the last thing I want to read, given my lack of interest in whiny young X-Men who are struggling to express their true feelings. When your first X-Men comics are the sophisticated Morrison New X-Men stuff—as was the case for me— it’s tough to go further back to this soap-opera-in-tights material. Negligible connections to Secret Wars so far, to boot. Written by Marguerite Bennett, drawn by Mike Norton.

Bonus!

  • Ms. Marvel #17 - Definitely a Last Days book, as the world appears to be ending over in Manhattan. Ah, but this is a book firmly set in Jersey City, where the plucky Ms. Marvel is finally teaming up with the previous Ms. Marvel in what continues to be one of the best books Marvel publishes (second best to Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I dare say. Go read that book, too, people!). Written by G. Willow Wilson, drawn by Adrian Alphona.
  • Silver Surfer #13 - Technically a Secret Wars crossover only in that it’s part of the Last Days line of Marvel books that basically are pre-Secret Wars series that Marvel has allowed to run through their original storylines. But: this just might be the prologue to the post-Secret Wars Marvel as the Silver Surfer lands the cosmic assignment to rebuild the Marvel universe. Why, this seems more relevant to Secret Wars than most of the books mentioned above! Even better, it is winding down a terrific Silver Surfer run by the amusing and imaginative writer Dan Slott and all-star artist Mike Allred. The team found a great groove in telling the story of the Silver Surfer and normal human Dawn Greenwood’s intergalactic 13-issue-long date. Read the whole run. It’s really good.
  • Spider-Woman #9 - Barely even a Last Days book, let alone a Secret Wars crossover, but who the hell cares given how good it is. Since the big tonal shift in issue 5, writer Dennis Hopeless and, more importantly, artists Javier Rodriguez and Alvaro Lopez have been killing it. Look at the spread above. Goddamn, it is good!

Oh no, there are still more Secret Wars crossovers coming out later this month!

  • Hank Johnson: Agent of Hydra
  • House of M
  • Howard the Human
  • Secret Love

To contact the author of this post, write to stephentotilo@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter@stephentotilo.

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