The Issues of Today: “Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars” (Part 1)

by Nathan on July 27, 2019 (ComicsIssues of Today)

With the “Infinity Gauntlet” discussion under our belts, we move on to the Marvel crossover that began the trend of summer blockbuster crossover events: the original “Secret Wars.” Created as a tie-in narrative for a line of Marvel action figures produced by Mattel (which may be the most zany reason to ever make a series of comics), “Secret Wars” became the best-selling series in the last 25 years as of its 1984-1985 publication run, probably far outstripping the sales of the (mediocre) toy line.

I first read “Secret Wars” late last year, inspired by my enjoyment of the “Infinity Gauntlet” series. My thinking? “Well, if I really liked reading one cockamamie pre-21st century crossover fable, why not give another one a shot?” And, like with “Infinity Gauntlet,” I ended up discovering “Secret Wars” was a lot of fun.

So what does a reread unveil for me? We’re covering the first four issues today and will proceed to discuss what I read over the next couple of days, depending on whatever I get through. I don’t want to intentionally take this slow and make this story drag on for a while; I think I can squeeze a few entries out of this tale, though, before I move on to the next one.

Still, it’s nice to tackle the twelve-issue limited series in pieces, give myself the chance to flesh out the particulars rather than focus on the series as a whole. Because, in truth, some of these pieces are really interesting.

“Marvel Super Hero Secret Wars” (Part 1)

Writer: Jim Shooter

Pencilers: Mike Zeck, Bob Layton

Issues: 1-4

Reading this tale in a post-Katniss Everdeen world, you get a lot of “Hunger Games” vibes from “Secret Wars.” Or, maybe, if you read this series as it was published, you’d get a lot of “Secret Wars” vibes from “Hunger Games”? Both stories give us a collection of individuals, herded into an arena of sorts, forced to do battle with another. In the case of our wondrous stable of Marvel characters, we get a team of heroes and a team of villains gathered together by a mysterious entity known as “the Beyonder,” a godlike individual who has fashioned his “Battleworld” from diverse pieces of other planets. It’s on this Battleworld that our two teams are coerced into fighting one another: whichever team survives gets rewarded.

Ooooh.

The plot is simplistic in nature and, given that this was basically advertising for a line of toys, feels like the kind of story a kid would invent with their Marvel action figures. A host of heroes and villains beating the tar out of each other? Heck, yeah! Sounds like fun! It’s the sheer simplicity of the plot that made me smile the first time I read this story. Writer Jim Shooter, just by throwing characters together on a bizarre planet, gives himself an incredible amount of leeway here. This isn’t “The Clone Saga,” where writers came up with a relatively basic plot (“What if Spider-Man’s clone returned from the dead?) and then dug their early graves by getting hung up on plot points and subplots that infested the story. I’ll admit that I usually don’t like it when I can tell a writer didn’t develop much of a plot before writing a story (though I myself am guilty of this “literary crime”); but “Secret Wars” gets a pass because, well, it’s not complicated enough to warrant a thought-through plot or brilliantly devised series of scenes. It’s basic, it’s simple, and that might be its greatest weapon.

I hesitate to say the same thing about the assembled teams. I mean, yes, on the side of our heroes, this is absolutely a child’s dream team of characters brought together: Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man (James Rhodes, at the time), Thor, the X-Men…several classic characters are here, and Shooter’s interactions between them fill in the quieter spaces nicely. Again, we’re not talking amazing character development here, but scenes where Spidey spies on the X-Men, or when several heroes lament what they’ve left behind on Earth, or where tensions flare up between characters and factions (eventually causing the X-Men to leave the assembled heroes!) really work in favor of the story. Even the fact that Magneto, the X-Men’s arch-foe and Master of Magnetism, is lumped in with the heroes adds a dash of complexity: here, you have a character who is clearly not a “good guy” but is still one who views his intentions as noble. Moments and story beats like these make you slow down, think about the characters, take a bit of a breather between moments of pulse-pounding action.

The same cannot be said of the villains’ team, sadly. Some of the choices for their squadron just don’t make much sense: early on, Dr. Doom says they are some of the “most dangerous individuals” ever assembled, and while this may be true for Doom, Kang, Ultron, Enchantress, and the Molecule Man, you’ve also got…the Lizard? Doc Ock is also present, undeniably because he is one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes, but if you wanted to represent Spidey’s rogues gallery further, why choose the Lizard as one of your “most dangerous”? In terms of sheer power, why not Electro? Or Sandman?

Galactus is present on this side as well, but after a disastrous attempt at battling the enigmatic Beyonder, he is left temporarily comatose before assuming a sentinel-like position on a mountaintop. His purpose? Further issues will divulge.

And the villains themselves, at least for these first four issues, don’t have a ton of development themselves. You’ve got Doom striving in a mad quest for power and egging the villains on to destroy their foes, so he naturally stands out from the rest. And Owen Reese’s Molecule Man has an interestingly fractured personality that Shooter plays with nicely. But the other guys? Well, they all kinda feel like pieces of the same organism. Nothing they do makes them stand out. When you’ve got Kang, a master of time, just firing lasers at people, or Doc Ock shouting “Hey!” at his comrades in very non-doctor speak, or no member of the Wrecking Crew really distinguishing himself from the others, you end up with some bland characters.

And then Shooter makes a rather odd decision by introducing two women who Doom turns into supervillainesses, Volcana and Titania respectively. At the moment, their appearance has not been explained and feels random. “Where did they come from” the Wrecker asks after Volcana and Titania appear on page, reflecting my own thoughts perfectly. Shooter delivers heroes who you really believe are fighting for the chance to return home and to their families, but the villains? They’re just present to add conflict.

Which brings me to another point: this hasn’t occurred for everyone yet (I’m only four issues in, remember), but I also enjoy seeing how Shooter takes care to give some of his heroes “moments.” By “moments,” I mean panels or pages where certain heroes do something extraordinary, something that makes them showcase their abilities and worth to the team. Hawkeye destroys a giant falling piece of metal and keeps his friends from being crushed; Thor defends the heroes’ base against a massive storm; the Wasp wins over Magneto’s confidence as a “spy” for her friends; and in perhaps the comic’s most impressive moment so far, the Hulk holds up an entire mountain (which definitely inspired the scene where he holds up the Avengers’ HQ after Thanos blasts it to smithereens in “Endgame). Like I said, some heroes have yet to get this moment—none of the X-Men have done anything spectacular, nor has Monica Rambeau’s Captain Marvel or She-Hulk, for example—but I don’t remember enough of the story to say they won’t by time it’s over.

Speaking of story, though the plot is simple, as I stated earlier, by no means does it feel repetitive. Let me contrast this with another Marvel crossover I read recently, the Spider-Man-centric “Maximum Carnage.” Here’s a story that sees Carnage and some of his despicable allies go up against Spider-Man and some of his amazing friends. And that’s basically it, that sentence I just wrote there. The story is issue after issue after issue of “Team Carnage vs. Team Spidey” in bout after bout that seemingly ends in stalemates or with some “change” in the status quo that gets easily fixed shortly thereafter. “The bad guys kidnapped Venom? Don’t worry, he gets freed the next issue. The good guys have their adversaries on the ropes? Aw, shucks, wait, the bad guys just got away! Man!” Point being, there are no real consequences to anyone’s actions, and by extension, the stakes don’t feel all that noticeable.

Contrast that with “Secret Wars.” Yes, we get several skirmishes between our assembled heroes and villains, but these carry weight. The heroes win their first fight, capturing the Wrecking Crew, Kang, and the Enchantress. And then, yes, the villains retaliate and free their imprisoned comrades (except for the Enchantress, who spirits Thor away for an impromptu “date” of sorts). But in the process, they decimate the heroes’ base of operations, forcing them to flee and seek shelter elsewhere. The Torch gets badly injured, other heroes are hurt. The status quo is altered, the scenery changes, the plot moves forward. Unlike “Maximum Carnage,” bowed by a premise too weak to hold a story of its length, “Secret Wars” actually progresses.

That being said, since this is a comic book, there are often hilarious moments that crop up, intentional or not, usually because of odd dialogue choices. As someone who loves coming across an amazingly ridiculous piece of verbiage or image in a comic, I just want to point to some of the moments that made me chuckle inwardly as a bit of a bonus.

• During a tense moment between Cyclops and Hawkeye, Wolverine barks, “Hands off, Hawkeye! Cyclops is a jerk, but he’s our jerk!” I don’t think a truer description of Cyclops has ever been uttered.

• When Doom suggests that it’s best for the villains to not fight their opponents and resist bending to the Beyonder’s intended purpose for them, Absorbing Man interrupts and says, “Lemme get this straight—you’re a wimp, right?” Carl Creel calls Victor von Doom a wimp. That’s fantastic.

• Wolverine at one point tells the Human Torch, “I’ll carve you into briquettes!”

• After punching the Enchantress, She-Hulk says “Oh, wow! That was, like tubular, you know—to the max!” and I can’t tell if Shooter is being sarcastically hip or it’s a legitimate attempt at sounding cool by keeping up with the kids and their slang. Either way, it’s hilarious.

• When the heroes find their first base, the Hulk (under the control of a smarter Bruce Banner, not a mindless monster) estimates it’s “bigger than fifty-four and a half Pentagons!” Such an oddly specific measurement makes me wonder if Shooter was just trying to assert how smart the Hulk was with Banner in the driver’s seat. It also doesn’t help me at all visually, because I don’t know how big a single Pentagon is, let alone fifty-four and a half.

• According to Captain America, this base has at least four-hundred and fifty-one levels. Why in heaven’s name did Shooter think it necessary to add all those floors? Are they numbered or did Cap count them? And why doesn’t Shooter take the time to explore at least a dozen of them before it gets blown to rubble?

• One panel sees Iron Man zipping around the base on roller skates. Remember that this is a man who can fly.

• Titania takes to being a supervillain instantly for no discernable reason, immediately challenging the Absorbing Man to a fight and yelling things like “I will crush them all!”

• After watching Titania heft a slab of metal after the heroes, the Wrecker encourages his Wrecking Crew teammates to do the same, but with “smaller chunks of debris!”

And that’s where I left off with my reading for today. Our heroes, beaten and battered by their foes. The X-Men, off on their own. Oh, and Galactus is hanging around, planning who-knows-what. Shooter has built some nice tension to this point. His gathered group of grinning ghouls could use some fleshing out—and I honestly cannot remember if he gets to them further as the series is unfurled—but if we’re talking sheer enjoyment factor, “Super Hero Secret Wars” is shaping up to be just as good as the first time I read it through.

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