Secret Wars is Marvel Comics' huge event for the summer of 2015.
Though the story of Secret Wars will be told in a flagship 8-issue miniseries by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Esad Ribic, it's much bigger than that.
Though Marvel insists that the Secret Wars miniseries will be written in a way that will be accessible to new readers, the story is in fact the third act of an epic storyline that Jonathan Hickman has been writing since he took over the two main Avengers titles, Avengers and New Avengers, back in late 2012.
If you are looking for a huge, meticulously crafted sci-fi superhero story featuring almost every major Marvel superhero, you should read the whole thing. It starts off a bit slow as Hickman sets up all the pieces of the story, but by the middle he's delivering a steady stream of payoffs and revelations.
Time Runs Out, the final storyline leading into Secret Wars, is as thrilling as modern superhero comics get.
Here's what you need to know going in, if you haven't read all of these comics. This is all SPOILERS from here on out, and explaining all this will require blabbing about one of the central mysteries of the Avengers run. You are warned.
Hickman's story begins in New Avengers Vol. 1: Everything Dies with the Illuminati, a secret group of Marvel's most brilliant and powerful heroes, discovering that the multiverse is dying as a result of mysterious "incursions."
Captain America is one of the original members of the Illuminati, but strongly objects to his friends' plans to essentially commit planet-wide genocide over and over again in the name of self-preservation.
Iron Man then co-founds a new expanded version of the Avengers with Captain America designed to stave off any problems that come up while the Illuminati secretly work on saving the multiverse.
As the Illuminati investigate the source of the incursions, they learn from a woman connected to the events that it's all the work of the "great destroyer," Rabum Alal.
The second act of the story begins with Captain America discovering that Iron Man and the Illuminati had his memory of their actions erased.
When Time Runs Out begins, the story jumps ahead 8 months, and Cap's Avengers are at war with the Illuminati.
A fourth group of Avengers led by Thor is sent on a suicide mission to the far side of the multiverse.
The first Avenger to discover the truth of the Ivory Kings is Hank Pym, a.k.a. Yellowjacket.
Thor's team finds the Beyonders in a distant corner of the multiverse, and discover that they intend to wipe out all life throughout the multiverse before being wiped out by the all-powerful space predators.
Yes, Thor appears to die at the hands of the Beyonders. He goes out like a true hero.
Doctor Strange eventually finds Rabum Alal, and learns that he is in fact Doctor Doom.
The Molecule Man is aware of the Beyonders, and explains to Doom that he is their "bomb" – a single consciousness shared throughout the universe across infinite versions of himself.
Doom and Molecule Man traveled back in time to create the "Rabum Alal" persona to serve as a deity that their servants, the Black Swans, would obey.
Doom discovers the Beyonders' only weakness – they only exist in linear time, and are restricted to their own sequential timeline.
The Maker, an evil version of Reed Richards from the Ultimate Universe – home to the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man – becomes aware of the multiversal collapse and destroys several earths on his own.
This brings us to Secret Wars. By the end of the first issue, the Marvel Universe as we know it will be replaced by Battleworld, which appears to be a conglomerate world merging all the remaining Earths.
The second issue of Secret Wars will essentially be a tour of Battleworld, and its many domains based on classic Marvel stories.
According to Marvel, each domain of Battleworld will provide a key element of the new Marvel Universe. They've already said that some Secret Wars titles, like the all-female group of Avengers in A-Force, will continue into the new Marvel Universe.
Secret Wars #0 will come out on Free Comic Book Day, which is this Saturday. The first issue of Secret Wars will be out on Wednesday, May 6th, and the second issue will be out a week later on May 13th.
Dozens of Secret Wars Battleworld tie-ins will be released through the summer.
The final issue of Secret Wars is due in the early fall, and by that time, we'll see a new line of comics set in the new post-Secret Wars Marvel Universe.
Here's a suggested reading order for the Hickman Avengers comics leading up to Secret Wars, if you'd like to catch up first.
Infinity (includes Avengers Vol. 4 and New Avengers Vol. 2.)
Everything up through the first volume of Time Runs Out is available in Marvel Unlimited, which is basically like Netflix for Marvel's vast catalog of comics.