I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
As Marvel Comics announces their next major crossover event, because the publisher will never again simply spend a year concentrating on creating the best stories possible for regularly recurring titles, I’m reminded of the colossal mess of a limited series from the nineteen-eighties that is arguably the oldest ancestor of this brand of nonsense.
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars didn’t come into being because of some compelling passion on the part of comic book writers and artists to tell a certain story, nor was it even a attempt to inject fresh excitement into the publishing line. Instead, it happened because Mattel wanted to sell some toys. The plaything manufacturer, flush with the unlikely success of their line of He-Man action figures, approached Marvel about creating a series of toys based on the company’s various super-heroes and super-villains. But they didn’t want to just license the characters as others had done previously. They wanted Marvel to create some big, splashy event that the new toy line launch could tie into. The editor-in-chief art the time, Jim Shooter, considered the vast parameters of the project and humbly determined that he was the only one capable of writing it. He recruited Mike Zeck to provide the pencils, lifting some key elements from the earlier Contest of Champions and set about creating a mini-series that would have damaging ripples which would last for decades.
It started with a variety of Marvel characters being mysteriously transported to a floating vessel on the outskirts of space, where they engaged in the always important task of delivering exposition. Right away, there’s a certain tone-deaf element to the writing, which is especially dismaying given that it emanates from the typewriter of the editor-in-chief. From what I’ve seen of more modern crossover extravaganzas, awkwardly out-of-character writing is a legacy that has endured.
Looking at it there, it doesn’t seem like that difficult a group to sort out without a roll call–these rather distinctive characters were bumping into each other in Marvel’s Manhattan all the time, after all–but I suppose introductions are always nice.
In short order, the heroes and villains are greeted by the ominous voice of a all-powerful being, who explains why they’ve been brought to this place. Sort of, anyway.
The shaky, ill-defined premise explained, the Beyonder, as the characters dubbed him, created a whole planet just for the battle and the opposing side were plopped down upon it. They started mindlessly attacking one another as little melodramas played out amongst both the good guys and the bad guys. Along the way, they also hung out with some of the alien being who were inexplicably populating this freshly created orb.
Besides getting the Human Torch high on space weed, the alluring female alien known as Zsaji also had mysterious healing powers, which came in especially handy as Shooter crafted a bunch of fake-out deaths of the different superheroes. A little bit of time under Zsaji’s glowing hands, though, and the deceased were returned to mint condition.
There were, of course, other unique troubles that the heroes had to face when they were displaced to the far reaches of the galaxy.
Oh, that Wasp, such a vain, superficial ditz. Of course, the character hadn’t really been portrayed that way since her earliest appearances in the nineteen-sixties when she was written by Stan “The Man” Lee, who could never quite figure out anything to do with female characters other than have them pine creepily after the nearby muscle-bound men or, when a little extra drama was needed, launch into panicked hysterics. No matter, though. Consistency was tossed out in favor of cheap, easy humor and empty conflict.
Part of the angle of Secret Wars was the promise of Major ChangesTM to favorite characters of the Marvel Universe. The story played out over twelve issues, released over the course of a full year. But the changes the series triggered were already in place since the characters vanished in their regular monthly titles at about the same time the first issue of Secret Wars was released only to return the next issue living with all the lingering ramifications of the limited series. So faithful fans already knew that She-Hulk had replaced The Thing in the Fantastic Four and that Spider-Man was swinging around midtown in a new costume. The fun, presumably, was finding out how these changes took place. That was lessened when so many of the story details that introduced new elements were resoundingly unexciting and, at times, even dopey.
Spider-Man tries out a special machine and it spits out a little glob that turns into a malleable black costume. Granted, the super-heroes are existing in a reality where physics-bending magic happens on a daily basis, but he seems remarkable unfazed by having a fluid substance covering his body and responding to his thoughts.
That new costume proved to have shocking staying power once it was revealed to be a living symbiote. Spider-Man discarded it, provoking an extended story involving the symbiote’s attempt to return to its host, which proved to be both creepy and oddly poignant. Then it was recycled into the power source for a villain called Venom that rapidly reached astounding levels of ludicrousness before completely disrupting Sam Raimi’s previously sterling about to realize enjoyable Spider-Man stories on film.
There was more and more mayhem in the limited series, none of rendered it especially well. In effect, Shooter and Zeck were true to the toy box inspiration of the series, pitting the characters against each other with the approximate artfulness of a hyperactive kid smashing plastic dolls together repeatedly.
What this series really represents is the first time I realized the full extent of my suckerhood. It was the first time I kept helplessly buying a series even though I fully recognized that it wasn’t very good. I’d committed to it, though, and, by god, I was going to see it through to the end. I wasn’t able to break free of the spell until midway through the even worse sequel, which found the Beyonder coming to Earth and proved the even an all-powerful being wasn’t immune from terrible eighties fashion choices. I finally realized that I didn’t actually have to buy this garbage, no matter how excitedly Marvel promoted it. That lesson, I’m embarrassed to admit, too me way too long to learn.
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez