Friday, 3 May 2013

Secret Wars II

But what about Secret Wars II itself? It was one of the first crossovers to be based around a limited series with tie-ins in other titles, but by and large the core series should be readable on its own, hence its presentation in a trade paperback without all the tie-ins. All nine issues are written by Jim Shooter and drawn by Al Milgrom.

Few series have a reputation on the scale of this one. Long seen as the triumph of sales and marketing over story, as the harbinger of the huge, company wide crossovers that stomped through numerous series without leaving a great impact, and as the personal project of one of the most controversial of editors-in-chief, it has been much mocked over the years. Many have attacked it not because of the content itself but because of these external factors. After Jim Shooter was replaced as Editor-in-Chief the series and its lead character were generally marginalised, with one storyline even downgrading the Beyonder's status. As for the story itself, has it been unfairly caught up in wider office and industry politics that have kept people away from one of Marvel's gems? Or have all the wider factors generated helpful smoke that has discouraged later readers from discovering a rather awful storyline? Or should the verdict be somewhere in between?

The story has a relatively straightforward plot, but that's probably to its advantage as it makes it easier to read just the core series without the numerous spin-offs. In this tale an all-powerful outsider visits our universe and tries to make sense of existence, particularly the concept of desire. Along the way he takes on a human body and learns about the ways of mortals, encountering most of the Marvel heroes en route.

This is a very different set-up compared to the original Secret Wars and lends itself to a much looser narrative. Each issue sees the Beyonder undertaking a specific activity and encountering some of the heroes in the process. Issue #7 sees an attempt by the multiverse's grand cosmic entities to destroy the Beyonder through using a legion of supervillains, whilst issue #9 brings together almost all the superheroes for a final assault. Some of the plot threads run over into crossover issues, but only two cliffhangers do so - issue #1 ends with the Beyonder following Captain America and issue #8 ends in a confrontation with the Avengers. On other occasions the issue manages to end in such a way to cover both bases - for instance issue #4 ends implying this is the end of things for the Beyonder and Dazzler, but they would reunited in her own title. Broadly it's possible to follow the series without getting confused by all the tie-ins, though it's not as tight as some later crossover core series. What does get repetitive when read all at once are the large number of flashbacks recounting the original Secret Wars series. I guess this is a curse of conflicting practises - back in the 1980s and early 1990s it was not uncommon for collected editions to trim out pages, especially multiple recaps, whereas in more recent years the demand is to have the issues absolutely complete and series are often written with collected editions in mind.

Unfortunately the core character isn't terribly interesting. We have an all powerful outsider trying to understand the basic nature of existence and the motivation of desire when with his powers he can have almost anything. The result is an almost childlike naivety combined with infinite power and a not terribly fascinating personality, and it's hard to get excited about that. The reaction of many of the other characters doesn't ring true either - in general they try to attack the Beyonder and drive him back to his home dimension despite his infinite power level making him almost unbeatable. Only the scheme headed by Mephisto and Eternity seems plausible. Only the Molecule Man really tries to educate the Beyonder and even then it's only occasionally and when the Beyonder visits him. Otherwise we get far too many issues of the Beyonder just wandering about trying to achieve some goal, often one that can't be done with his powers such as understanding or free will, and various heroes falling over him along the way. The series is trying to make a commentary on life in general but many of the philosophical points are vague and just not terribly interesting. It also draws back from the deeper concept that the Beyonder is close to a deity, with all the consequences that could flow from such a revelation.

There's a lot of humour along the way, such as in issue #5 when the supposedly omnipotent being doesn't realise a time bomb has been stuffed down his trousers. Or there's an infamous scene in issue #2 when the Beyonder feels pressure in his body, and Spider-Man has to explain the basics of how to go to the loo (fortunately the precise description comes off-panel). Yes Spider-Man meets the most powerful being in the universe and potty trains him. Still the experience could come in handy in the right circumstances, especially if certain Marvel staff and demons from the netherworld ever relent on their hostility to a married Spider-Man.

Spider-Man gets a few other appearances in the story but they are mostly brief rather than a substantial full-on encounter (although his own titles managed to make up for that). There's an odd moment in issue #8 when the Beyonder visits to discuss attitudes to life and death. He knocks on the door and it's answered by Peter wearing his Spider-Man costume albeit unmasked. Talk about taking risks with one's secret identity - the Spider-Sense hasn't always been enough to protect him and there's no sign that the Beyonder has taken control or forced his way in. Otherwise Spidey is one of many heroes gathered by Phoenix for the final battle in issue #9 and it's his Spider-Sense that warns everyone of an initial explosion, allowing forcefields to be erected in time. But in general he falls into the role of bit part that he plays in many a cosmic event, being just a small player on the sidelines whilst more powerful heroes drive the story.

As well as Spider-Man himself, some of his villains show up in issue #7 when Mephisto assembles an army of villains as pawns in a master strategy against the Beyonder. Most of them have fought Spider-Man over the years but from his own titles come Electro, the Vulture, Kraven, Doctor Octopus, the Hobgoblin and the Rhino. Most of them are the type to be easily combined into an army, but this is the first time the Hobgoblin has been used as generic muscle, an early indication of where the next incarnation of the character would go. Some of the other villains are surprising choices, particularly Doctor Doom whose other dealings with Mephisto suggest he wouldn't easily just sign up to the scheme the demon's agent proposes. Baron Mordo appears to grasp the idea, but Doom is much more likely to be sceptical.

The final battle in issue #9 gathers almost all the Earth based heroes of the day but there are a few surprising omissions including Daredevil, Dazzler, Doctor Strange, Power Pack and X-Factor (who had only just formed, though it was very soon after the end of the New Defenders), plus the various former Avengers and X-Men who were little used at the time. Otherwise Spider-Man is joined by both Avengers teams, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Alpha Flight, Cloak & Dagger, Power Man & Iron Fist, the Vision & Scarlet Witch, the Silver Surfer and the Hulk, with the New Mutants also showing up as pawns of the Beyonder. This is a pretty large gathering but it ultimately takes a combination of the Beyonder's desire to experience humanity and the Molecule Man's power & willingness to press the advantage when the heroes are reluctant to attack a being in the form of a baby.

(The very last scene takes place in the Beyonder's own universe, where his power is detonated, creating a whole new universe of life. Was this intended to be the origin of the New Universe, which launched the following year? If so I suspect it was rapidly changed whenever either the Beyonder universe or the New Universe were fist referenced in the post-Shooter Marvel.)

Overall Secret Wars II feels rather hollow. It was clearly commissioned as a quick sequel to the publishing success of the original Secret Wars and it's to be commended for trying something different rather than just arranging another grand battle between all the major heroes and villains. But instead we get the tale of a rather uninteresting character wandering through the universe bringing accidental chaos with him that's invariably quickly resolved without much fuss. The artwork is functional but nothing spectacular. Maybe as a four part limited series on its own the story might have worked, but as a nine parter plus numerous crossovers the story feels overstretched and just not worthy of being the first mega crossover event to consume the entire Marvel superhero line. It's not the worst but its reputation hasn't kept later generations away from a classic.

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