Sunday, 15 July 2012

Secret Wars

Secret Wars and Secret Wars II haven’t yet been reprinted in the Essential series in their own right, though both have had several collected editions over the years. However as the big Marvel landmark “events” of the mid 1980s they impacted on the Spider titles in a number of ways so this post aims to sketch in some details for the unfamiliar.

The first Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars (to give it its full title) story was a twelve issue limited series published throughout 1984 and originated because Marvel had licensed its characters to Mattel Toys for a line of action figures, and Mattel wanted a special comic to promote the toys. Not to mention many fans had long written in asking for a special story that brought together all Marvel’s heroes. And the story itself owes a bit to generations of children bring all their toys together for one big battle.

At the end of 1983 a number of Marvel comics saw heroes detecting strange energies culminating in the appearance of a giant alien construct in Central Park. Many heroes entered it from different angles only for both they and the construct to vanish. The following month saw the construct and the heroes return, but many had undergone subtle changes. The Fantastic Four had lost the Thing (who, in his own series, was on an alien world) but gain the She-Hulk, who in turn had been succeeded in the Avengers by the return of Iron Man. In the X-Men Professor X had gained a new costume and also the team had turned up in Japan accompanied by a huge dragon. The Hulk was on crutches. And Spider-Man returned in a new black costume a black and white affair that responded to his thoughts, came with its own built-in webbing and which could alter its appearance, making for easy disguises and costume changes.

This was an early example of the “missing period” approach to comics whereby the regular series leaped forward with some big changes for readers to wonder about and a special series filled in the gaps. Unfortunately this approach can lead to some awkward continuity, particularly when regular writers have only some of the special issues to go on. So Spider-Man was shown looking at photos that he doesn’t appear to have taken, reminiscing about Galactus nearly stepping on him when this didn’t seem to happen, and maintained a cagey relationship with the X-Men in the final Marvel Team-Up because they’d got into a fight early in Secret Wars despite the X-Men reconciling with the other heroes later on in the series.

Despite this Secret Wars itself was a massive success, selling over 650,000 copies per issue – huge figures even for the time let alone today. The series told a story of how a mysterious powerful entity known as “the Beyonder” kidnapped both heroes and villains and created a strange patchwork planet by stealing many bits of other worlds. All were told “Slay your enemies and your heart’s desire can be yours!” The series saw the heroes and villains fighting a succession of battles whilst Doctor Doom successfully plotted to steal the power of both Galactus and the Beyonder to become the supreme being in the universe – only to find he couldn’t control it. After the final defeat of Doom the cast all returned home, many changed by their experiences.

The Spider world was represented by Spider-Man himself, plus the villains contained both Doctor Octopus and the Lizard. During the course of the series issue #7 introduced readers to the mysterious new Spider-Woman, a lady from a segment of Denver that had been stolen by the Beyonder. She wore a distinctive black & white costume but gave away nothing about her origins. Her powers included strength, speed, stamina and so forth, and the ability to spin short-lived webs made up of psionic energy. Not much more was revealed about her at this stage.

Spider-Woman’s costume influenced Spider-Man in the following issue where he learnt that other heroes had replaced their damaged costumes with new ones created by a machine that worked by thought. With his own costume in tatters and his webshooters dismantled, Spider-Man decided to have a go. He went into a room, selected the most likely machine, put his header under an upside down bowl and thought about a new costume. Out came a black blob that covered him and formed a new black and white costume, similar to Spider-Woman’s. He wore the costume for the rest of the series and went home in it.

The following year saw the sequel, Secret Wars II which took a rather different approach. This time the Beyonder came to Earth for nine issues in which he took human form (basing his body on Captain America’s but adding a Michael Jackson hairstyle – remember it was the mid 1980s!) and continued his quest to understand desire. It was an interesting philosophical take on how a being who could literally have or make things however he pleased tried to understand the concept. The nine issues saw the Beyonder encounter many Marvel heroes and villains who either taught him various aspects of existence (one hilarious moment saw Spider-Man potty train him!) or tried to stop his particular plans and schemes, culminating in a final grand battle in which the Beyonder had turned himself mortal and was killed. As well as the limited series itself the story also crossed over into nearly every single ongoing Marvel series, though unlike later crossovers it generally only showed up for one or two issues at a time. The issues either saw the individual heroes encounter the Beyonder or having to clear up some of the mess he made. (The Spider-Man issues are Web #6, Spectacular #111 and Amazing #268, 273 & 274. These break down into three separate mini-stories, which were the first times a story directly continued from one regular Spider-Man title into another.)

Whilst both Secret Wars series have their fierce critics they also have their fans. The original series has been reprinted in multiple tradepaperbacks over the years. The second series has seen print as well, both by itself and as a huge Omnibus edition that includes all the crossovers (well except the ones that Marvel no longer has the rights to such as Rom). And issue #4 is in Essential Dazzler volume 2. It remains to be seen if they’ll ever do an Essential Secret Wars.

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