It starts here! Marvel’s Secret Wars!

Ah, summer. For comics fans, summer is often known as the season of the big event. Just as the movie studios release most of their large blockbusters during the summer months, the big comics publishers also tend to pack the summer months with huge mini-series which promise to fundamentally alter their universes and after which “…nothing will ever be the same”! It’s an exciting time for some fans, and a frustrating time for others, but this has been the status quo at Marvel and DC since the mid-1980s. It was in 1984 that Marvel began releasing what many people consider to be the first of the huge mega-events, Secret Wars, or more accurately, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars.

By today’s standards, Secret Wars bears little resemblance to most mega-events. First of all, it was twelve issues long, which is much longer than any event has been since (with the exception of Crisis on Infinite Earthsat DC, which would be another post). Today, these events tend to somewhat derail the storylines of most titles, and the companies don’t want that going on for an entire year (well, except for DC the last few years, which mega-events haven’t really ended since Identity Crisis, but that’s unusual). The other difference is that Secret Wars didn’t really crossover into any other comics. While there were issues of various books which showed heroes reacting to a strange structure that suddenly appeared in Central Park, which whisked the heroes away after they entered it, these scenes were very short and not very important. Otherwise, books didn’t crossover with Secret Wars. Again, today, when a mega-event is happening there are bound to be many regular series which break into their ongoing storylines to feature tales that relate to the crossover, and there are usually special mini-series that also relate directly to the main story. Of course, when Marvel decided to do a sequel called Secret Wars 2 the following year, they addressed both of these problems; the sequel ran only nine issues (which is still somewhat long by the standards of today) and there were crossovers galore.

Secret Wars was written by Jim Shooter, who was then also Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, and it was pencilled by Mike Zeck. The plot couldn’t have been simpler: a powerful extradimensional entity called the Beyonder teleports Marvel’s most famous heroes and villains across the universe to a planet that he created just for them. He then tells them that they must fight, and whichever group wins will be granted anything they desire. There’s your premise. It’s basically every comic reading child’s fantasy, forcing team-ups (both heroic and villainous) and fights galore.

Secret Wars did well, sales-wise. Very well. It also spawned a line of action figures. After Marvel saw how profitable it was, they decided to do the follow-up series, Secret Wars 2. Jim Shooter again wrote the main series, this time aided by Al Milgrom on pencils. The plot this time was that the Beyonder had come to Earth and wanted to understand….well, everything. He wanted to understand humanity, his place in the universe, good versus evil…he was insatiably curious.

There is so much to discuss here, and I’m not sure where to start. These two series couldn’t be further apart in tone, style or appeal. They also bring to mind discussions on how they relate to the event series of today, what could have (and perhaps should have) been done differently in them, and what the heck was up with the Beyonder in the first place. Where should we start?

Let’s start with a list of all the great things that came out of Secret Wars:

  1. Spider-Man’s black costume
  2. Denver’s comeuppance
  3. White guys dressing like Michael Jackson
  4. Action figures (all with the same body) packaged with lenticular shields.

That’s about it. And, really, #4 is a stretch. How many times have you seen Wolverine going into battle carrying a bulky shield with his face on it? But, dammit, Denver deserved what it got!

I think there’s a lot we could say about both of these series. The completely divergent storylines are the first headache that come to mind for me…especially the unnecessary ridiculousness of the sequel. After that’s covered, I think we should explore how the Secret Wars phenomenon translated into a mess of big company crossover event books (like all the ones Marvel pumped out during Annual Season every year).

You make a good point with DC’s continuing crisis. I can’t recall a time when so much effort was invested into condensing a comic universe into a singular (in)coherent event. It screams of insincerity to me. Obviously, there are other things going on in the lives of these heroes and villains that would garner their attention. For that matter, there are other heroes in other countries who could care less about how Batman is handling the arrival of Darkseid. Honestly, forcing the issue into some sort of line-wide gospel is extremely short-sighted and only works towards hurting readership on those titles whose readers don’t want to get involved.

You can point to dozens of instances where a certain family of books is drawn into a crossover event, and that makes infinitely more sense to me. If Spider-Man is being bothered by the ghosts of his parents in Amazing Spider-Man, then it stands to reason that that annoyance would continue across Sensational Spider-Man, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Pretty Cool Spider-Man, Kinda Hungry Spider-Man, and all the other 73 Spider-Man titles that Marvel publishes. See also, the X books.

But first, Secret Wars: What’s up with that?

Well, I have to admit….I like Secret Wars. Is it high art? Um, not even close. Was it a cynical marketing ploy designed to sell toys. Well, yes. Was it good, straight-forward superheroey fun? I say yes. Now, the sequel? That was a train wreck from the word go. Let’s examine how these two series couldn’t be further apart in terms of quality and execution.

The original Secret Wars miniseries, as we mentioned above, had no real crossover issues to speak of. It was twelve issues, self-contained. This is a good thing, as it allowed the entire story to be told by one creative team, and it also kept the story focused. Secret Wars had a definite plot, and it moved along that plot without veering too far afield. Every reader knew what the final goal was, and yet there are still some twists and turns here. It would have been easy to simply have the heroes and the villains fight it out, but Shooter kept most of our cast in character, and so we saw the heroes splinter, when the X-Men left their group, and we saw problems with the villains, starting in the first issue when Kang tried to assassinate Dr. Doom. Yes, the last few issues bog down a little when Doom steals the Beyonder’s power, but mostly the series is good clean fun.

Moreover, Secret Wars did something that all of these event series promise, and precious few deliver; it made changes to the Marvel Universe. You laugh at the changes it wrought, but it actually did make some long lasting changes. Besides introducing Venom (or the costume which would become Venom) it also introduced Volcana, Titania and the new Spider-Woman (now known as Arachne). This series is where She-Hulk joined the Fantastic Four (which caused huge changes in that title), and it’s where the Molecule Man went from being a villain to being…well, whatever he is now. It started Magneto on his way to being a hero (although he’s changed back to a villain now, so perhaps we shouldn’t count that). Some of these are important to the Marvel Universe even now, but at the time, the Marvel Universe really was different after Secret Wars.

Now look at the sequel. This sequel had tons of crossovers, with just about every title that Marvel published crossing over at some time. Interestingly, Marvel seemed proud of this, and they even boasted that this was crossing over with all of their titles. It was so crazy that Circuit Breaker, a character from their Transformers comic, which was a comic that didn’t even share a continuity with the Marvel Universe, appeared in an issue of the series. It’s tempting to say that it was the huge amount of crossovers with the main miniseries that caused the story for Secret Wars 2 to become diluted and hard to follow. In actuality, that’s probably because the storyline for this series was so nebulous and hard to define as it was. While the original miniseries had a straightforward premise, the one for this series was harder to pin down. The Beyonder wants to learn about….humanity? Himself? Life, the universe and everything? Why the hell was he here anyway? No one seemed to know, and since his personality went all over the place during the miniseries, I never knew either. Some issues he was curious, sometimes he was angry, sometimes he was helpful….it was like the writers had a personality dartboard, and that’s how they determined what was going on with him.

Meanwhile, everyone learned something that should have been obvious from the start, but apparently wasn’t: cosmic beings are dull and boring. Seriously, who wants to read about the omnipotent? If the heroes have no chance of beating your antagonist, the story has no drama. Slugfests against those who can shatter universes, especially when some of the people involved in the slugfest can’t even lift a Buick, makes for a dull slugfest. The Beyonder could do anything, so what was the point? Ugh. The entire affair was horrible, just horrible.

At least, that was my take. Yours?

Well, you know, I’m not a fan of the cosmic storylines or the omnipotent villain types (even if they’re just “misunderstood”). But one thing that the first Secret Wars had going for it was the fact that they created an entire world just for the storyline. You didn’t have to worry about forcing a character into a setting that it wouldn’t work in…you merely plucked them from their own existence and put them on a pseudo-Earth. That way, the story could take place in its own sort of continuity, free from outside interference.

I can’t recall off the top of my head…how was it explained that these particular heroes and villains were missing in action for a year? Weren’t they only missing from their own books for a single issue or so? I seem to remember Spider-Man disappearing and then coming back with the black costume (and wasn’t it a chicken-and-egg type situation where people were saying it appeared first in Secret Wars and others said it appeared first in Amazing Spider-Man?).

My memory is obviously hazy, having only read the series when it first came out waaaaaay back in 1984 when I was going on 13. However, I do recall being slightly annoyed by the Beyonder. It seemed like they were just making up powers for him as they went along…until I realized he was able to do pretty much anything. Then I really got annoyed. How are you supposed to have an intriguing storyline pitting the good guys against a common threat, when there’s absolutely no plausible way for the heroes to win? They had to make up an excuse for beating him, like one of them tapped him on the shoulder and, while he was distracted, they used a space vacuum to suck the lifeforce out of him…or something like that.

I will commend them for keeping the action contained in its own series. There’s definitely something to be said for that these days, especially looking at the latest Previews and the ridiculous amount of spin-off miniseries that DC’s Final Crisis has inspired. At the same time, you have to question the intelligence behind a 12-issue maxiseries. The storyline wasn’t that strong to begin with, and then they wanted to drag it out for an entire year? Wow. Like you mention, the only other 12-issue series I can remember are Crisis on Infinite Earths (which encompassed the entire DC Universe) and both Squadron Supreme and Watchmen (which were their own self-contained adventures). Attention spans just don’t seem to be what they were anymore, huh?

At the same time, Secret Wars II was a unique miniseries too. By putting the Beyonder on a sort of “quest” to find himself or the source of humanity, they gave the plot a flexibility that enabled it to crossover into such wildly divergent titles as Rom, Dazzler, Power Pack, Alpha Flight, Cloak & Dagger, Doctor Strange, Power Man & Iron Fist and New Mutants. Too bad the story itself sucked.

The Beyonder started dating Dazzler, became the head of a crime syndicate, killed Death, turned the Heroes for Hire building into gold, inspired a cult, killed the New Mutants, then changed his mind a undid everything before Molecule Man “killed” him and his energy returned to the pocket dimension it originated from. We learn later that Beyonder was just some sort of immature Cosmic Cube. And THEN, Bendis rewrites history during his Illuminati miniseries and says the Beyonder was just some sort of mutated Inhuman with delusions of grandeur. Ridiculous.

People lambast Secret Wars II for being such a load of crap, which it is, but as far as convoluted crossover miniseries go, I don’t find it to be that offensive. Since the story didn’t make much sense to begin with, you weren’t required to catch every single affected title to understand what was going on. Compare that to the headache-inducing Atlantis Attacks event that ran through all of Marvel’s titles’ annuals (and interludes in two regular issues as well) which assumed that every Marvel reader read every title and collected every annual. That story made no sense if you didn’t read every part…and Marvel was notorious for doing junk like that every year…Evolutionary War, Inferno, Acts of Vengeance, Operation: Galactic Storm, Infinity War, Infinity Crusade, Maximum Carnage, Age of Apocalypse (which confused the hell out of me), Maximum Security, blah blah blah. Out of those, only The Evolutionary War took place solely in annuals, but you get the point anyway. Seems like Secret Wars broke open the floodgates.

So, here’s an idea. Since our blog is all about reimagining things to make them better, do you think we should talk about how we would’ve made Secret Wars better (*cough*DON’T PUBLISH IT*cough*) or do you think we should tackle how to make long-form comic book events better? Hmm?

First, let me correct a few points of confusion for you. Yes, the mini-series was 12 issues long and took a year from start to finish, but that didn’t mean the heroes were gone from the Marvel Universe for a year. Remember, this is Marvel time. The entire Secret War lasted about two weeks, if I recall, so the heroes weren’t gone long at all. Still, their absence was noticed in the Marvel Universe at large, and it was quite a big deal. As for how they dealt with the fact that heroes returned one month after they left (real world time), but we wouldn’t find out about their adventures for an entire year, well, all the heroes had agreed not to discuss the events of their little Secret War, on the advice of Reed Richards. Reed had decided that, if regular humanity had any idea of the cosmic events the heroes had witnessed, or knew of the existence of someone whose power was on the scale of the Beyonder’s….well, old Reed thought that normal people couldn’t handle that sort of knowledge. So, everyone agreed to keep the war a secret. In my opinion, what’s the difference to a normal guy between the power level of Galactus and the power level of the Beyonder? They’re still omnipotent to any one of us.

Also, while the Beyonder was somewhat annoying in the original miniseries, he wasn’t important. He shouldn’t have annoyed you, because he served simply as a plot device. He needed to exist to bring the heroes and villains together and to create the patchwork planet on which they would fight. He’s in the first issue, and then isn’t seen again until #10, and then he returns for the finale in issue #12. All told, he probably has about 20 lines of dialogue in the entire series. I’m not sure why Little Jason would have been bothered by the Beyonder when he read the original series, because the heroes weren’t supposed to fight him. Nobody was supposed to, and the only one who did was Doom. The Beyonder was like the Grandmaster, but even more of a Maltese Falcon; he existed solely to set up the plot and move it forward. Yes, he was contrived and he was a blank slate, but he was a simple way to get things moving, and he served his purpose well. The mistake was to bring him back for the sequel and try and craft a story around someone of his power level.

In response to your question, I’d rather tackle the problem with these two series alone, and we can hit other events if we feel like it. I’m sure we’ll discuss how to do events better as we go along, but for now, I’ll just focus on these two series.

First of all, let me say that, on the surface, I have no problem with these huge crossovers. I think that most superhero fans enjoy this sort of thing, where heroes and villains team-up, and these crossovers help remind readers that these events all occur in the same universe. The largest problem with crossovers (in my eyes) is when they derail a lot of strong titles in a comic universe with crossovers, and when they meander along with no real plot. The first Secret Wars didn’t commit either of these crimes, and the sequel was guilty of only the latter (most of the crossovers for this miniseries that I read seemed to fit into the ongoing storylines pretty well). I certainly would have published the first Secret Wars. I think it’s fun. It’s not Watchmen, Maus or Fun Home, but it’s a good summer blockbuster. You buy your popcorn, you sit down, and for twelve issues you watch colorfully clad characters cavort. I think the miniseries stalled and almost dies in the last three issues (when Doom challenges the Beyonder for his power and the aftermath of that; certainly that was in character for Doom, but the story stops dead at that point and never really picks up again. It’s easy to see why, since I’ve been praising the book for keeping the omnipotent Beyonder off the stage and once Doom becomes omnipotent, we’re stuck with him as a main character for the last three issues. Yawn). I think it was a huge mistake to have Doom actually steal the power of the Beyonder, and were I writing it, I would not have gone that route.

If it had been my series, I would have had the heroes realize what Doom was planning (and really, would that have been so difficult? It’s classic Doom behavior….of course he’s going to try and steal omnipotence!). The last few issues would have dealt with the heroes attempting to halt Doom, and they would have succeeded. In the long run, that’s a heck of a lot more heroic than watching your deadliest enemy succeed at his plans, which is what happens in the story. Once the heroes had won, the Beyonder could have made his second (and last) appearance in the series (after introducing the plot in issue 1) and sent everyone home. Anticlimactic? I think not, since basically the series did end with the heroes just sending themselves home. Perhaps they could have made it more interesting by having the heroes actually capture Doom and plan to put him on trial when they returned to Earth. Doom has never been tried for his crimes, and if his usual defense is diplomatic immunity, well, this time he was caught in an area where he has no diplomatic immunity. Now he’s been apprehended, and he is going to be tried before a World Court for crimes against humanity (like Magneto was).

As for a sequel…..I’m not sure if a sequel would have been necessary. If there was one, I would have never shown the Beyonder, or allowed him much time in the spotlight. The Beyonder could have actually had a long life in the Marvel Universe, showing up as a cosmic deus ex machina or as a plot device when needed. Would people have wanted to know more about him? Possibly, but that doesn’t mean you give them more. The Beyonder should never be explained. He should be a voice and nothing more, except perhaps for a light from the sky or something equally mysterious. I understand why they didn’t want to have him grab more heroes and villains for another Secret War (that would have been redundant), but there has to be a better way to go than trying to define the undefinable. I think I would have left the series after the original and not done a sequel.

You’re right. Little Jason was recalling an amalgamation of both Secret Wars series. However, that does not mean that the Beyonder shouldn’t annoy me. Just look at the guy. You know I have an inherent aversion to all things cosmic and the Beyonder manifests all of the phenomenon’s worst attributes in one jheri-curled mess. I refuse to believe that the Beyonder should have ever been created…and his was a ridiculous origin (and an even more bizarre series of retcons) from the beginning. And, even though you seem to be advocating his return on some level, I can’t even fathom his existence as a “spirit voice” or plot device in the least. What’s the point? I mean, he’s already dated Dazzler…the Paris Hilton of the mutant world.

Taking it one step further, what was the point of the first Secret Wars itself? To pit heroes against villains? Doesn’t that happen organically anyway? Marvel seemed to be instituting just another version of their Contest of Champions from a year or two prior.

Y’know, now that I have a chance to reconsider my opinion, I may not be so enamored with the idea of a 12-issue maxiseries in this format. If you look at the entire product, Watchmen and Squadron Supreme are much stronger stories than Secret Wars. The standalone aspect of these books lends itself better to an extended storytelling format where characters can develop without having to worry about affecting overall continuity. Secret Wars was kind of awkward.

It’s not that I necessarily disagree with anything you’re saying, except that I think you’re taking Secret Wars too seriously. Do I think the Beyonder should come back? Good grief no. I don’t at all mean to advocate his return. What I was saying was, if Marvel felt they had to use him again after the first series, they never should have tried to make him a character. The Beyonder is not a character; he’s a plot device. He’s a clunky, awkward plot device. He existed to make Secret Wars work. Was he needed? I’d say probably not, since the Grandmaster could have basically done the exact same thing, and he was already established. Still, the Beyonder was created to fulfill a role, not to establish a character. It was when Marvel brought him back for the sequel that they tried to make him a character, and that was there mistake. What I was saying was that, if the Beyonder had to be brought back, he should have been brought back as an enigmatic cipher, as he was in the first Secret Wars, and he should never have been developed. No physical form, no attempt at a personality….nothing. That was a bad idea.

In the end, we seem to agree on one thing: cosmic characters ruin storylines, particularly when they’re placed in the center. We also seem to agree that crossovers started as an excuse to sell toys and comics, and not as a story that really needed to be told. I think that, once you get past the contrivances, the first ten issues of the original Secret Wars was good solid fun, like a good summer popcorn movie. You seem to disagree. And we both agree that the second series had no redeemable qualities whatsoever. These were not exactly the perfect models from which to build future crossovers. Unfortunately, many of the negatives we’ve mentioned would continue in the future.

2 Responses to It starts here! Marvel’s Secret Wars!

  1. Harvey Jerkwater says:

    For what it’s worth, the toy line was the reason for the miniseries, not the reverse. From what the interwebs tell me, Mattel approached Marvel about doing a Marvel action figure line with an accompanying tie-in comic.

    My first trip to a comic shop and my start as a collector coincided with “Secret Wars.” What ten year old boy could resist the cover to #4, with the Hulk holding up a mountain? None. None, I tell you.

  2. John says:

    Thanks for clarifying that point about the toyline.

    Yeah, that cover is a classic. I think Mike Zeck is a great artist and the work he did on this series was top notch!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: