Friday, 26 April 2013

Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars

By far the most popular post on this blog is the one briefly outlining Secret Wars and Secret Wars II. And it's about time to share my thoughts on the original series. As previously noted this hasn't yet been collected in the Essentials, but has had several other collections over the years. Most use a recoloured version of issue #1's cover but the 1992 tradepaperback has an original piece of art.

All of the original Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars twelve issue series is written by Jim Shooter. Almost all of it is drawn by Mike Zeck bar issues #4 & #5 which are drawn by Bob Layton. The project was a tie-in to support a now generally forgotten line of action figures from Mattel which was the first time the Marvel heroes had appeared in this form. Mattel requested a special comic event bringing all the key characters together to promote the line and this was the result. Shooter writing the series was a little controversial at the time because as Editor-in-Chief he had generally avoided writing actual series. Depending on what you read he made this an exception either because he felt the last-worst way to handle clashes between creative personalities was to have the already hated Editor-in-Chief handle the task of someone else writing "their" characters, or because he was aware each issue would be included in the comic bags then sold at toystores and thus attract royalty level sales. The toyline wasn't much success but the comic series was a huge seller and set a trend that would last for many years.

The cast of Secret Wars says something about importance at Marvel in the mid 1980s but I'm not entirely sure what. The heroes' ship arrives carrying:
  • Mr. Fantastic
  • The Human Torch
  • The Thing
  • Spider-Man
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Professor X
  • Cyclops
  • Wolverine
  • Rogue
  • Storm
  • Colossus
  • Nightcrawler
  • Lockheed
  • Captain America
  • Thor
  • Iron Man
  • The Wasp
  • Hawkeye
  • She-Hulk
  • Captain Marvel
  • Magneto
This selection was, and remains, very much the traditional big guns of the Marvel Universe. There are many obvious omissions from the next tier - Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the New Defenders (in this era a defined team based around the Beast, the Angel and Ice-Man), the Silver Surfer, Dazzler, Alpha Flight, Power Man, Iron Fist or Moon Knight. (Ghost Rider's story had ended by this point.) But instead it's limited to the biggest guns. I guess it was difficult enough juggling characters who between them had eleven regular titles without throwing in yet more.

The need to tie in with ongoing continuity resulted in several notable omissions and changes from the norm. The Hulk isn't the rampaging beast most often seen up until now, but instead has the mind of Bruce Banner (although the series coincides with him steadily losing control). The Invisible Girl was in the later stages of pregnancy and so out of action. Sprite (aka Kitty Pryde, later Shadowcat - in this era she suffered the burden of not having a clear single standard name) was planned to be in the series as late as when the artwork for the first cover was drawn (it was also used for adverts with her on it) but was reportedly dropped to allow certain plot developments with Colossus (part of an editorial struggle over her relationship with him). Cyclops was suddenly dropped back into the X-Men despite having recently withdrawn and got married. Less clear is why other active Avengers like the Vision, the Scarlet Witch and Starfox were left out. But perhaps the biggest change from the expectations of those not reading the relevant series is that Iron Man is not Tony Stark but rather his temporary replacement Jim Rhodes (later War Machine) who finds himself working alongside many of Stark's regular comrades for the first time without knowing just how much they know.

Magneto's reason for being included on the heroes' ship is a mystery not answered until the final issue, when the Enchantress consults a water spirit as a means to fill out several gaps the narrative has failed to cover. Otherwise the villains arrive on a separate ship and consist of:
  • Dr. Doom
  • Kang the Conqueror
  • Dr. Octopus
  • The Lizard
  • Ultron
  • The Absorbing Man
  • The Enchantress
  • The Wrecker
  • Bulldozer
  • Piledriver
  • Thunderball
  • The Molecule Man
  • Galactus
It's a rather shorter list making for some unequal battles, but also it's rather lopsided with nearly half the villains being from the pages of Thor. Of the Spider-Man foes, Dr. Octopus is a natural choice, though he doesn't get to do much in the story, but the Lizard is an odd choice for a collection of supposedly greatest foes. Many of Spider-Man's Rogues Gallery may not be suited for such a collection and setting, but for sheer strength how about the Scorpion and for raw power perhaps Electro could have fulfilled such a role. And there are no doubt many other foes of the various heroes who could have made for a broader line-up. Indeed the limitations were such that three extra foes were added - two new ones in the forms of Volcanna and Titania, and the return of Klaw after he was seemingly killed by Dazzler.

There's also a new hero who shows up, having been living in a part of Denver that was snatched for the patchwork of the Beyonder's world. I've written previously about how Marvel created the original Spider-Woman to shore up their intellectual property, but then were never able to get a clear direction and purpose for her, with each new writer dramatically changing things. Having finally retired off the Jessica Drew character, a new Spider-Woman was introduced here. But beyond living in Denver and having only fought a few fights nothing is revealed about her background, leaving her open for future writers to sketch out without needing convoluted retcons. One can sense the company's intellectual property lawyers once again forcing the existence of a character to whom insufficient thought had been given, but at least this time they didn't leap in an awkward direction.

What of Spider-Man's involvement? Well to be honest the series rather set a trend for his involvement in subsequent grand events whereby all too often he's relegated a background role for much of the story, only stepping forward for the odd scene here and there. He doesn't even get a one-on-one confrontation with Dr. Octopus. However it does show Spider-Man can fit quite easily into the ad hoc combined team of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four and the Hulk (and in the later stages Spider-Woman) without much conflict or dissenting from orders (though admittedly Captain America is probably the easiest leader to follow of all the assembled heroes). Indeed in the various splits within the heroes he ultimately stays by the side of the Avengers when the X-Men break away and later when the Fantastic Four briefly decide against fighting Galactus.

During the middle part of the series Spider-Man is without his webs, after Mr. Fantastic cannibalises them to make an energy charger. But even without webs he fights on, with his most prominent one-on-one battle coming in issue #8 as he takes on and defeats Titania. Of course, issue #8 also sees a big change for him. With his costume badly torn in battle, he is naturally interested to learn of a machine that makes new costumes. So he wanders into a room, goes to the first machine that seems to ft the description and "thinks" into it. Not the smartest of moves for him. Out comes a black ball that expands into a new costume, one with its own built in webs and the ability to adjust and retract according to his thoughts.

But what of the story itself? In some senses Secret Wars reflects the nature of its creation - a powerful being gathering up lots of toys and pitching them against one another. All the characters are away from their comfort zone and their supporting casts, which has the benefit making it easier to follow if one isn't familiar with a particular title from the era. But it does also mean that at one level the adventure could descend into just one long endless fight. Wisely the series is structured in stages that allow at first for battles between the various sides, but for the last third it moves up a gear with first a battle against Galactus and then Dr. Doom's quest for ultimate power and the problems of holding it. Some characters get more attention than others, with Doom particularly benefiting. I'm not an expert on them all at this period in comics so I can't say for sure how well everyone is portrayed, but I did particularly find the portrayal of the Wasp a mess. She was at this time the Avengers' leader (although she deferred leadership of the whole group to Captain America as he was better known by the others) but here she's portrayed as the light headed, image obsessed wealthy kid that her caricature sometimes descends to. The plot provides for many moments of tension too, with perhaps the biggest when the heroes have to fight to stop Galactus from consuming the planet and there's a divide as Mr. Fantastic comes to the conclusion that not fighting may be the best thing for the universe whilst the others go to fight even though the odds are overwhelmingly against them. The heroes are not all united - the X-Men temporarily break away and even within their ranks Wolverine's methods are opposed by others whilst Rogue has crises of conscience. Elsewhere the Hulk is finding his intelligence slipping away, leading to self-doubt and angry moments with others as he fears for his future. (There's a myth that he holds up a whole mountain range in this story. Actually it's the Molecule Man who uses his power to lift one up and drop it on the heroes, and the Hulk just holds up the roof of the cavity the heroes quickly carve out.)

Secret Wars may be more about action and the excitement of bringing all the big guns together than about intricate character development and philosophical explorations, but it was inherently limited by its format and purpose. The plot may also be hackneyed - just how many times in science fiction have all powerful entities forced heroes and villains to fight in some special arena or other? - but it serves the main aim of the story. If I do have criticisms it's that there are times when the plot contorts slightly to cover points - the final issue sees the Enchantress consult a water sprite to find out more about the Beyonder, largely filling in gaps the narrative has missed out, and then a combination of her magic and the residual effects of the Beyonder's power inadvertently cures Curt Connors of the curse of the Lizard. But the series does not explain how Dr. Doom is alive and back in his existing body when it had recently been destroyed in an issue of Fantastic Four, or how Kang the Conqueror had survived his seeming destruction in the Avengers nearly a decade earlier (this was before time travel really distorted Kang's timeline as Kang). However the series is normally fast paced enough to evade such moments and the result is a good old action adventure that brings the top tier of the Marvel Universe together in an exciting battle. It served its purpose then and it remains a good read to this day.

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