It’s not a secret that next month Marvel is implementing their universes-spanning Secret Wars event; one that will change the Marvel multiverse as we know it.
This gives us the perfect opportunity to revisit the event that started it all: 1984’s Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and artists Mike Zecker and Bob Layton.
Back in 1983, Marvel was approached by toy manufacturer Mattel who saw just how popular DC Comic’s superhero action figures were and wanted to cash in on the market, especially should their “He-Man” figure line ever waver in popularity. Mattel’s plan involved marketing Marvel’s major heroes and villains in a toy line, but they also wanted a comic tie-in or event to help get people talking as well as help advertise who these characters were—as odd as it may seem, there was a time when the Marvel brand wasn’t an immediate sell.
They requested that, whatever event or story Marvel could come up with, it had to be called “Secret Wars,” as the name proved popular among adolescent boy focus groups and that it provide the opportunity for distinctive character designs and potential play sets. Marvel agreed and tried their best to introduce new characters, different settings that could be made into playsets
, and new costumes for the heroes, but in the end, Mattel wound up not using most of them. Ultimately, the toy line would become a bit of a flop and many of the figures found their ways to discount bins two years later.
Marvel’s 12 issue-long Secret Wars comic on the other hand wound up leaving a strong legacy. It sold well enough for the heroes to reunite of Secret Wars II a year later and had almost every Marvel on-going tie-in with the event, and also had massive implications for Fantastic Four and introduced Spider-Man’s symbiote costume that would become Venom and its consequences were felt throughout Marvel’s main titles. The event proved popular enough to be compiled into a trade paperback in 1992, and has gone through several re-releases ever since, as well as being adapted into a novel by Alex Irvine.
With a new Battleworld looming, we must ask: does the original hold up after 30 years? Honestly, while the 1984 Secret Wars influence cannot be denied, it has not aged nearly as well as some may have you think.
Despite the meager amount of story in here, it still proves to be a fun piece of classic comic book space opera.
The story technically begins in Marvel’s main books, as heroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man (Jim Rhodes, filling in because Tony was struggling with his alcoholism at the time), the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Hulk, and the X-Men make their way to Central Park, where a fortress of unknown origin has appeared. The heroes investigate and certain ones find themselves compelled to enter, where they vanish in a flash of light. Secret Wars issue 1 picks up from here, with our heroes dazed aboard a space ship alongside another carrying their foes, hurtling away from our galaxy. Before they can figure out what is going on, they witness a galaxy torn apart, its pieces used to form a patchwork planet: Battleworld. From a glowing fissure in space, a presence declares “I am from Beyond! Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours! Nothing you dream of is impossible!” Landing on Battleworld, our heroes must unravel the mystery of the Beyonder and its challenge while trying to survive the villains’ onslaught and Galactus’s quest to devour the planet.
After that point, the story becomes reliant on the machinations and plans of Doctor Doom, who takes charge of the villains and uses them to try and figure out what the Beyonder is; meanwhile, the heroes mostly just react to whatever the villains do. It may sound odd, but Doom is essentially the main character of the story, which is a surprisingly long read. The pacing is all right and there are steady steps forward as the conflict escalates; however, the story walks the line of being both accessible and inaccessible at the same time.
While the event is essentially standalone and the premise simple enough that most can follow it and get the gist of who these characters are, much of their history and power sets are demonstrated with the assumption that you already know who they are. People checking out the book who are unfamiliar with the time will likely be confused to see Monica Rambeau as Captain Marvel instead of Carol Danvers or Mar-Vell, the fact that James “Rhodey” Rhodes is Iron Man and is apparently suffering frequent headaches, or that the Hulk can talk and perform scientific analysis because he has the brain of Bruce Banner. To their credit, Marvel does provide a brief recap of what the heroes were doing before they got summoned, it isn’t thorough enough for someone coming in cold to likely be fully satisfied.
Additionally, Jim Shooter draws attention to Rhodey’s headaches, the fact that the Hulk’s cognitive abilities seem to be decreasing, Spider-Man is confused by his new suit’s origins, as well as Thor’s history with the Norse God villain Enchantress and her apparent love of him—but these don’t go anywhere. They are meant to carry over for the solo titles, as Rhodey’s headaches are due to the armor not being calibrated for him and would ultimately be used to help get Tony Stark back into the armor, while Spider-Man’s suspicion about his costume would go on to spawn Venom; but as far as Secret Wars goes, they’re noted and never returned to again. Again, to be fair, Marvel includes an epilogue summary for some of the major impacts the event had, such as Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four but it doesn’t make up for the fact that the story spends time on them, but doesn’t really do anything with them; it doesn’t help that the casts are so big that we don’t really get to see much growth or development in them (with the exception of Doom, Colossus, and the Thing, but we’ll get to them in the character section)—for that matter, don’t expect too much resolution with the Beyonder either. Despite its involvement at the beginning and being the subject to many of the characters’ thoughts throughout, it takes such a back seat that when an origin is delivered right before the last three issues, it feels unsatisfying and simplistic (perhaps an unfortunate side effect of the event’s simplistic mission). Fortunately, future stories would go onto develop the Beyonder, but as far as this one is concerned, it’s secondary at best.
On the bright side, there is enough fun to be had here. While the story does prefer providing set pieces and new characters, it also occurs on such a scale that it’s hard not to be engrossed. When you see the galaxy destroyed, Battleworld constructed, or Galactus’s solar-system-sized space ship, and the distances the heroes have to travel, there is an epic atmosphere that raises the stakes from almost anything else Marvel had done up to that point. It both expands and contracts the Marvel Universe by taking part on Battleworld in a far off galaxy, and there is something almost Shakespearean about the dialogue, as villains boast aloud and heroes mutter their conflictions under their breath. This can get a bit annoying at times, but has its own cheesy charm for much of it. Plus there is something to be said about seeing all these unlikely match-ups together. Seeing Iron Man fighting alongside the Fantastic Four and Captain Marvel is enjoyable, and seeing Doctor Octopus trying to put up with lunkheads in the Wrecking Crew is funny; unfortunately, neither hero nor villain group chemistry is executed to its full potential, perhaps again due to the cast size or the surface layer depictions Shooter provides.
All in all, it does accomplish what it wants to do, and perhaps wound up being more epic and influential than a toy tie-in may have the right to be, but it does little that hasn’t been done since and done better.
Unfortunately, despite the cast size and those that make up it, the villains as a whole are pretty stagnant and, honestly, boring. As mentioned previously, Doctor Doom is more or less the default main character of the story, as his actions drive much of the plot progression, from deciphering the Beyonder and Galactus’s motives to organizing the villains and battle strategies. It’s quite interesting to get the chance to know his motivations a little more intimately and seeing how he moves beyond the hero-villain division towards the end of the story makes for some fascinating character growth that, given his reoccurring villain role, doesn’t take, but as far as the story is concerned, Doom is essentially the only one that has an arc that’s well handled and paced.
Galactus may be a close second in the villain category, given that he’s meant to be a god-level entity and therefore more distant and unknowable, which makes him a wild card that’s interesting to follow. While it would have been nice for the sympathetic motivation he expresses in issue one–for the Beyonder to take away his hunger for worlds–to come up more, it’s hardly a deal breaker, given how his presence looms in the background throughout most of the story as we wonder what his next move will be.
Doctor Octopus has maybe one panel of self-awareness or suspicion of Doom’s allegiance, but beyond that, he’s just another maniacal villain, and his personality can be lumped with the one-dimensional Wrecking Crew and Absorbing Man. For fans looking to see Ultron in action, this is not the story to do it, as he is completely wasted here. He spends most of the time as Doom’s reprogrammed lackey; likewise, Molecule Man’s character is almost equally wasted. To be fair, his skill set would render the whole conflict moot, given that his ability to control all form of molecules gives him the possible strength to win the entire fight should he so desire, which would make him pretty difficult to write. Shooter compensates for this by making him a wimp or under the impression that his powers are restricted, but there isn’t any explanation for what those restrictions are, so when he learns from Doom that he can do anything he wants, it’s hardly surprising.
Finally, speaking of wasted potential, the villains Titania and Volcana are introduced as two girls that Doom apparently found out of the blue and gifted with powers, and little development is given beyond that. They literally show up for the first time with Doom using a machine to power them up and that’s it. Titania is essentially a gruff powerhouse while her more feminine and empathetic friend Volcana quickly falls in love with Molecule Man (apparently she was a fan before she got her powers) and that defines her character and actions for the rest of the story. While they may have helped raise the female: male character ratio, little is actually done with them. They’re basically unnecessary and don’t bring much to the table. All in all, while future writers may make them interesting, here they were just a waste, and stereotypical one at that.
Unfortunately, the heroes aren’t any better—in some ways they’re a little worse. There are a few heroes that seem to be singled out by the story to be experiencing arcs, the most obvious being Ben Grimm/the Thing, as he keeps transforming from Ben to the Thing without any control over it, and his attempts to figure out why it’s occurring. Reed Richards also gets some development, as he tries to balance his desire to get back to his pregnant wife, Sue–who, due to the pregnancy, didn’t go to Central Park with the other three until she heard that they had vanished–with his responsibility to figuring out a way to keep everyone alive while finding their way home. Finally, there’s Colossus, who is in love with Kitty Pryde, but finds himself falling in love with a local healer, and the confliction that he feels as a result. However, Ben’s problems fade to the background and while we get to hear more from Reed, he’s mostly focused on exposition.
Now Colossus . . . oh boy. The romance is something of a love triangle between himself, a healer named Zsaji and Johnny Storm—however, none of the three of them exchange a line of dialogue. We have no idea what Zsaji’s backstory is, and there is a strict language barrier between her and the other characters; yes, she has a Vulcan-esque ability to link minds via smoke, and while Johnny gets to see into her mind and history, we just get treated to a summation about previous issues. Colossus falling for her is terribly paced, makes little sense, and goes from 0-60 so fast that he spends the next half of the story whining about her whenever we switch to his point of view—the only reason it’s included, it feels, is to break up him and Kitty in the X-Men title.
In general, this is not the story for strong female characters: Zsaji is bland as heck, Wasp is irritatingly one-dimensional (there is an art to writing a well-developed girly girl character, and it wasn’t present here) to the point that her absence for a decent amount of the story is appreciated. Captain Marvel is barely around, likewise for She-Hulk. Storm at least gets some struggles with Professor X and Cyclops taking back authority of the X-Men from her due to experience, but again, doesn’t go anywhere in this story. Rouge spends much of her brief time wondering whether she was truly a good guy, and getting punched in the face in almost all of her fights.
As for the others, they’re okay—Rhodey is serviceable, if a bit of a dated stereotype of the time (which is a shame, as him being new to the world of heroing could have been a great character focal point to help ground things a bit more) This event takes us back to a time where Wolverine wasn’t the center of the X-Men, as hard as that is to believe. Hulk and the Human Torch are just happy to be here and, to be fair, one can hardly expect all these characters to be given justice, but at least Johnny could have had something with the whole Zsaji thing, but nope. The new Spider-Woman is basically pointless, introduced 3/4 of the way through
, and, while she may go on to do interesting things, in this story, she should have been cut and was clearly just there to make another action figure, which, like Volcana and Titania, is wasted potential.
Overall, Mike Zeck and Bob Layton do well on the drawing front, with the character models looking distinctive and the action easy to follow. Despite the large casts, no one feels really lost in the page, and the backgrounds are well done. The duo can capture some jaw-dropping moments, especially early on with the galaxy’s destruction and the creation of Battleworld. As for the presentation, it’s hard to get better than this: as mentioned before, it reprints the final moments from the main series that led into the event and also provides a brief description of what they were doing when it happened, while also including a introduction by then-Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco from the 1992 initial release describing what inspired the event, with an epilogue to further demonstrate its impact on the characters. Finally, beyond the concept art and previous printings covers, it includes ads for the event and a thorough description of the toy line that inspired it all. It’s printed on great quality paper, doesn’t take up a lot of space; all in all, a great release and worth the $35 price tag—now whether the story is or not is up to you.
Despite a great release and some fun and genuinely epic moments, Secret Wars falls short of its ambition. Besides Doctor Doom and Galactus, the characters generally are simplified versions of themselves, the women insultingly so, and the story is bogged down by character arcs that only the solo titles get to follow up on. Its influence shouldn’t be denied, but crossovers have improved since this and here’s hoping Hickman can avoid this one’s missteps.