The year was 1984. Li’l Scott was about to embark on a marathon six-week-long cross-country family vacation. Six weeks living in the back seat of a 1972 Chevy Impala. Clearly, a large stack of new comic books was called for. These being the days before comic-book shops (at least in my neck of the woods), the only place to get a good-sized stack of comics was Stacy’s Books, a musty-smelling little hole-in-the-wall secondhand bookstore on the old side of town. As I thumbed through the stacks of new and not-so-new Marvels, DCs, and Archies, I came across a cover that certainly got my attention, to say the least:
Secret Wars? What the heck was that? Is that the Avengers under there? What’s Spidey doing with them? Who’s the naked guy with She-Hulk? What’s Wolverine doing in the corner box? How’d they get stuck under all that rock? WHAT’S GOING ON?
Ah, to be a 13-year-old fanboy again.
Six weeks later, returned from the vacation, I scoured bookstores and convenience marts and bartered with fellow comics readers in the cafeteria until I had the first four issues and the various preludes to what was, at the time, the biggest thing to happen to comics ever, the first ever massive companywide crossover event: MARVEL SUPER HEROES SECRET WARS.
The series was conceived primarily as a marketing tool. A year earlier, Kenner had found great success with their “Super Powers” line of action figures, which had been accompanied by a 5-issue miniseries from DC Comics, with art by the great Jack Kirby. Looking to cash in on what was assumed to be a new superhero craze, rival toymaker Mattel contacted Marvel for a competing line of superhero action figures, and asked the publisher to come up with a new series to promote the toys, as well as provide a concept for the toyline. Under the leadership of Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, Marvel delivered and then some, not merely putting out a noncontinuity miniseries (events that took place in DC’s SUPER POWERS series were said to “not take place within the mainstream DC Universe”) to push the toys, but crafting a yearlong action epic that would radically change several of its central characters for years, even decades to come.
It’s easy to look back at the series and see it as nothing more than a 12-issue slugfest, with not much in the way of plot, and in a modern sense you’d be right. But in the context of the period, SECRET WARS was a bold experiment on Marvel’s part, on several fronts. First off, it was Marvel’s first 12-issue miniseries, a format which had previously only been done by DC Comics with their futuristic King Arthur tale CAMELOT 3000. Second, the series took place firmly within the Marvel Universe. In the individual issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, UNCANNY X-MEN, INCREDIBLE HULK, THE AVENGERS, IRON MAN and THE THING published the month before the premiere of SECRET WARS, Spidey, the X-Men, the Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man, and three-fourths of the Fantastic Four (the Invisible Girl, pregnant at the time, had to sit this one out) were all shown being irresistibly drawn into a giant futuristic-looking metallic structure that had mysteriously appeared in the Sheep Meadow region of New York City’s famed Central Park.
As soon as the heroes entered, they vanished, followed by the disappearance of the structure itself.
In the following month’s issues, the structure re-appeared once again, and the heroes, who, readers were told, had been gone from Earth for weeks, came-a-runnin’ out of the massive construct. However, some were quite different for the experience. Iron Man was sporting slightly modified armor, and most of the X-Men were wearing new costumes as well. More significantly, X-MEN readers would soon discover that member Colossus had met someone else while off-planet, and his long-running relationship with fellow member Kitty Pryde was now no more. Even bigger surprises were to come as well: the Thing had stayed behind, wherever they’d been, and replacing him in the Fantastic Four was the She-Hulk, now wearing the familiar “Fantastic Four” uniform. Most shocking of all, Marvel’s trademark character, their corporate symbol, Spider-Man, was wearing a radically different new black and white costume.
Even weirder, the costume seemed almost alive, and could move on its own and would obey his thoughts.
Here was the genius of Marvel’s (and presumably Shooter’s) plan. By making all of these drastic changes, but not explaining them to anyone’s satisfaction for months, it put Marvel’s readers in a tizzy, driving them all to the pages of SECRET WARS every month to find out how and when these things took place. It also lent a necessary degree of suspense to a series that might otherwise have lacked it, since the readers already knew the heroes had survived and returned home safely.
The series was written by Marvel boss Jim Shooter, and drawn primarily by ’80s Marvel mainstay Mike Zeck (with issues #4 and 5 ably filled in by Bob Layton, and inks by practically the whole Marvel Bullpen, including John Beatty, Jack Abel and Mike Esposito). Zeck’s angular, somewhat cartoony style was a good choice for the book, as his tendency to draw slightly more average, less musclebound physiques made his sense of scale really stand out when a smaller character like Spider-man or Hawkeye was standing near the truly muscular folk like the Hulk, Thing or Thor.
Zeck also has a good facility with facial expressions and emotion, which came in hand in a high-octane blockbuster kind of story, in which people are either shocked, frightened or outraged on every other page. Not a lot of quiet contemplation in SECRET WARS.
MARVEL SUPER HEROES SECRET WARS opens with the assembled heroes finding themselves together in the mysterious structure, now hurtling through outer space, alongside a sister construct which also bears a full complement of super-folks, if of a decidedly less noble nature. After a quick head count, their numbers are clear.
In one construct is Captain America, the Wasp, Captain Marvel, Hawkeye, Thor, Iron Man, She-Hulk, Professor X, Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Rogue, Nightcrawler, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Reed Richards, the Thing and the Human Torch. Also in with the heroes is Magneto, whose inclusion is met with much suspicion.
A mental scan of the other construct reveals a formidable congregation within: Spider-Man’s enemies Doctor Octopus and the Lizard, Avengers foes Kang and Ultron, Thor’s frequent opponents the Enchantress, the Absorbing Man and the members of the Wrecking Crew (the Wrecker, Piledriver, Bulldozer and Thunderball), and Fantastic Four antagonists Molecule Man and Doctor Doom. And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, there was also Galactus, Devourer of Worlds. Quite a handful.
While the villains were well represented, there were a few notable omissions from the heroes’ side, characters that I had always considered to be fairly significant who didn’t make the cut. Upon closer consideration, though, their absence makes sense from a story standpoint. Characters like Daredevil and Nick Fury wouldn’t have added much to the balance of power, being just two more normal guys in the crowd, while the other most glaring omission, Dr. Strange, would’ve added too much power to the equation, as well as easily provided a quick ticket home, which certainly wouldn’t have done the plot any favors.
Before the eyes of the stunned heroes and villains, an entire galaxy is snuffed out of existence, presumably to make way for the game about to be played, and a planet is created from stolen chunks of countless other worlds, orbiting the murdered galaxy’s lone remaining star. Finally, a rift opens in the void above the new planet, revealing a blinding light, and a voice from within:
“I am from beyond! Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours! Nothing you dream of is impossible for me to accomplish!”
That’s all the villains need to hear, and with that, they’re ready to rumble, as both groups are beamed down to the new planet”s surface.
After an initial skirmish, Magneto bails out and heads off on his own, while the heroes contend with the attacking forces. Soon enough, the new occupants of what comes to be called Battleworld have split into four factions:
…The Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Hulk and Spider-Man, under the leadership of Captain America, who are continually at odds with…
…Doctor Doom and his assembly of villain types. Also opposing Doom, but separated from Cap’s group by suspicions over Magneto’s past and even a bit of anti-mutant prejudice are…
…The X-Men and Magneto, under the command of Professor Xavier (despite the qualms of then-current team leader Storm). Finally, all three factions live under the constant threat of…
…Galactus, who looks to be readying the newly created world for consumption, winning the Beyonder’s game in one fell swoop, and having a lovely meal at the same time.
One of my favorite moments in the series comes in issue #3, in which a wandering Spider-Man, cruising through the enormous citadel in which Cap’s forces have set up shop, stumbles across the X-Men meeting in secret, and overhears them agreeing to leave and go to join up with Magneto. When Spidey is caught eavesdropping by Professor Xavier, the understandably concerned webslinger (after all, Magneto’s most recent exploits had involved his sinking of a Russian submarine, drowning its crew) goes on the attack, and trounces the X-Men singlehandedly, taking off to warn Captain America that the X-Men are jumping ship.
For an old-school fan like me, seeing Spider-Man backhand Wolverine across the room is a thing of beauty. Unfortunately for Spidey, Professor Xavier erases the memory of the event from Spider-Man’s mind, allowing the X-Men to leave to join Magneto.
Another running subplot involved the Thing, who began changing back to his human form while on the planet, usually at the worst possible moment. Now all too human, Ben Grimm found himself wishing for the one thing he never expected: a return to his hideous rocky shape. By series’ end, Grimm would master the metamorphosis, prompting him to remain behind on Battleworld after everyone else had returned to Earth, as it was the only place he could be human.
(As it turned out, this wasn’t the case, and Reed Richards, Ben’s Fantastic Four partner, knew it — but in a typical Reed Richards “I’m-smarter-than-everyone-else” decision, elected not to tell Grimm the real reason for his transformations until his eventual return to Earth, at which point, it was too late.) The next ten issues of Ben Grimm’s solo series THE THING detailed his adventures on Battleworld, before he eventually triggered the device that brought him home.
Oddly enough, romance also seemed to be in the air on Battleworld. First was Magneto’s flirtation with the Wasp, in which Maggie indicated his interest by kidnapping her. Ah, romance. Still, Wasp seemed to be falling for his mutant charms…
Johnny Storm also found himself some lovin’, with an alien healer named Zsaji who was part of an extraterrestrial population ripped from their home planet in order to create Battleworld. Not sure if hooking up with aliens is the wisest move, but apparently the Human Torch loves the orange babes. Unfortunately, so does the X-Man Colossus, who immediately forgets about his girl Kitty Pryde back home and begins nursing a crush on Alien Girl that borders on stalker status.
Even the villains were getting themselves some action. Early on in the series, Doom decided to increase their ranks by granting superpowers to two women who were eager to join up, although it wasn’t clear at first where they came from.
(It was revealed later in the series that a big chunk of Denver, Colorado, was torn from Earth to help make up Battleworld.) The two new characters, the flame- and lava-spewing Volcana and the super-strong Titania, before long had new beaus to go along with their new powers. Volcana soon fell in love with the mild-mannered but nearly omnipotent Molecule Man (in a codependent relationship that even my 13-year-old self knew was unhealthy), while the now physically dominating and totally racked-out Titania found herself involved with Crusher Creel, the Absorbing Man, one of the few men strong enough and confident enough not to be intimidated.
The Absorbing Man-Titania relationship was, I always thought, rather charming, and one of the better bits of characterization for Marvel villains of the period.
Of course, Titania also received a proper welcome to the Marvel Universe in issue #8, when, after tussling with the X-Men and beating the She-Hulk into a coma, thereby establishing her main-event credibility, she took a good ol’ fashioned beatdown from your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
The way he was going, it’s a wonder he didn’t head off to thumb-wrestle Galactus next.
The series offered a good mix of highly charged dramatics, such as Captain America’s decision to attack after the presumed murder of the Wasp by the Wrecking Crew:
And small, character moments, such as this confrontation between the super-strong Piledriver and average-joe Hawkeye, in which a concerned Hawkeye begs the bruiser to back off:
Shooter was actually quite good at balancing the characterization in a series with so many characters to keep track of, giving us brief glimpses into just about everybody’s concerns and conflicts, such as the Hulk, who at the time retained the mind and intelligence of Bruce Banner:
While the factions brawled, naturally Dr. Doom had his own agenda, managing through various machinations to claim for himself first the power of Galactus, and then the incalculable, all-encompassing power of the Beyonder, rendering him omnipotent, omniscient, and essentially unbeatable. Declaring himself a god and above the petty concerns and rivalries of his past, Doom announces his intention to leave this plane of existence, but first offers Captain America and his forces anything they wish, “to atone for the suffering you have endured at my hands.” Captain America and company discuss whether to accept Doom’s offer, or to attempt to wrest his power from him somehow. The matter is put to a vote, with Captain America warning, “keep in mind, by the way, that if we do decide to confront Doom, it’s possible that we might be annihilated on the spot by a bolt from the blue!” Finally, the vote from Colossus makes the decision to fight unanimous, and, well…
MARVEL SUPER HEROES SECRET WARS is available collected in trade. If you haven’t read it in years, go back and take a look — you’ll be surprised how well it holds up. If you’ve never read it, and you’re in the mood for the Marvel Comics equivalent of the big summer blockbuster “crank-it-up-to-11” popcorn movie, well, then, you’re in for a treat.
As for the toys, they didn’t quite meet the level of quality set by the series, nor could they compete with Kenner’s far superior “Super Powers” line of DC superhero action figures. Where the “Super Powers” figures boasted excellent, comic-accurate sculpting and unique “action features” that reflected the characters’ powers, Mattel’s “Secret Wars” offered far inferior sculpting and paint decoration, less articulation, no action features, and a dorky “secret shield” accessory for every figure.
Major characters from the SECRET WARS comic like the Thing and the Hulk were ignored because their larger size would have required a new body sculpt. Instead, the company gave us background players like Iron Man and Kang. The “Secret Wars” line limped through three series of figures before being abandoned by Mattel (although it did produce a halfway decent playset, the “Tower of Doom”).
The unprecedented success of the comic didn’t go unnoticed by Marvel, though. The following year, 1985, saw the publication of SECRET WARS II, written once more by Marvel Chief Jim Shooter and drawn this time by Al Milgrom. However, SECRET WARS II was everything the first SECRET WARS was not: dull, pedantic, pretentious, lackwitted and just plain no fun.
In this 9-issue train wreck, the Beyonder, his interest in humanity piqued by his observations last time around, shows up on Earth and decides to try humanity on for size. The Beyonder creates a body for himself (a perfect duplicate of Captain America, as a matter of fact) gives himself a Jheri-curl hairstyle and heads off to discover life as a human, starting off with a trip to Spider-Man’s apartment, where he gets a lesson in how to take a crap. (“The experience is consummated!” says the Beyonder as he exits the bathroom.) I only wish I was kidding.
Over the course of the series, the Beyonder would become a hero, become a villain, become a pop idol, murder the New Mutants, and vanquish Death himself in a seesaw of manic-depressive superhero melodrama. Even worse, Marvel took the subtle approach to crossovers exercised in the first SECRET WARS series and threw it out the window, instead having the Beyonder and his various misadventures appear in nearly every book published for that nine months, making the story practically inescapable. Unfortunately, this model of crossover mania would be copied ad nauseum for years to come by both Marvel and DC, although admittedly in mostly better stories than this one.