(Sorry, this is more stream of thought than I planned, but I wanted to get it posted and couldn’t put it off any longer. Time ran out.)
This is the culmination of one of the best comic stories I have ever read. I grew up an X-Men fan and mostly stuck with all of those growing up until I slipped from reading comics for years. A couple years ago, I got back into and mostly gravitated to the various X-titles again, but with some branching out to independent and other material. Early last year, Marvel started hyping their big summer event of Secret Wars (another recommendation of mine, I normally don’t go for the big cross-over events, that one was really different and interesting). It was supposed to grow out of what was happening in Avengers and Secret Avengers – both written by Jonathan Hickman.
I was caught up on the X-titles I was reading, so through Marvel Unlimited I decided to start reading back issues of Hickman’s run on Avengers and Secret Avengers just to see what’s going on. I am incredibly glad I did, because it is easily in my top 5 comic stories I have ever read. Right from the start they are faced with an impossible problem and then spend the series (about 30-40 issues) trying to find a solution to this impossible problem and explore the implications so thoroughly I have considered using some of the stories in my ethics classes.
It all begins when Black Panther comes across another Earth appearing the sky, and when a strange person descends from that planet and then blows it up, everything changes for Black Panther and the rest of the “Illuminati” (the smartest Marvel characters who secretly meet to handle the big problems none of them can handle on their own). It ends up universes are collapsing on each other, and when this happens another Earth appears in the sky over a location with one of two results – either one of the planets is destroyed (and cascades to destroy the rest of that universe), or they collide and are both destroyed (including the universes). Once the planet appears, there is only 8 hours until the collision happens. So this can happen at any time, anywhere, and when it does, there is 8 hours to do something about it, or the entire universe is destroyed.
As we get further into the series, it obviously gets into massive cosmic issues with the Beyonders, creation of the universe, Dr. Doom takes his own approach that shows how incredible he is as a character (and that his super power is probably his incredible ego and ambition) etc. etc., but I’m a huge fan of stories that set up a simple but impossible problem and then just see how the characters handle it. (Run Lola Run is a great example of this in a movie.) The entire Avengers and Secret Avengers run by Hickman, I think, deserves a Hugo, but I also know 70-80 comic issues as a single story would be an unlikely Hugo winner as much I think it deserves it.
The Time Runs Out storyline is when, as you guessed it, time is running out. Nearly all of the universes have collapsed, characters have turned against each other as some are willing to go to lengths that others won’t, most of the Illuminati is on the run, some are missing, mysterious beings from other universes (as well as between universes) keep showing up, and the rate of incursions is increasing with fewer outs left. You have Captain America traveling into the distant future to see the impact of their decisions, you have Thor and Hyperion going on a likely suicide mission to find and confront the cause of all this, Reed Richards desperately looking for some answer – and the tension is incredible, and you really find out so much about who these people are and what motivates them. It’s a pity that the Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom haven’t had a better appearance in movies yet, because this storyline alone turned Reed Richards and Doom into some of my favorite characters.
Hickman took years to set up this endgame, and manages to have it live up to that setup. It’s amazing work and writing that is absolutely a superhero story through and through but shows that a massively superhero story can be so much more than fighting the villain of the month. Somehow, Hickman manages to make this story not just angst and depression. It’s easy to slide into the “heroes fighting each other, that’s so sad,” or “the world is going to end, we’re going to mope” cheap emotions. I think it’s because it’s a story about the end of the world that, rather than being depressing is about survival. It’s about not giving in, and clawing and scraping, and using all of your wit to find a way to keep going somehow, someway. With superheroes, time running out doesn’t lead to giving up, but to becoming more determined. Hickman captured that incredibly with the end to his epic Avengers and Secret Avengers run.
(Note: He also fits in brief recaps at the beginnings of issues, so it is possible to jump in later – even with the end of the story, and know what’s going on. Also, I’m wiling to bet that this is one of those stories, that even after reading the ending, it will just make you want to read the rest rather than being disappointed that the ending is spoiled.)