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Crossing Over: Secret Wars

Secret Wars #1 CoverThis series of articles came about because for better than a year I’ve been promising I’d start writing comic stuff for Pornokitsch and in the course of an exchange about Friday Fives, Jared finally pinned me down.  It’s true - there are photographs. So this is going to be a guide to comicbook crossover ‘events’, in hopes of making whatever the hell they were about clear enough that even Jared can understand them.

Rest assured though, this isn’t going to be an index of issues, tie-ins and continuity minutiae, because frankly, I’ve got a life.  Instead I’ll aim to look at where the crossover came from, which characters were involved, the impact it had both in-universe and among the readership, and give a personal view as a reader.

For reference, I decided I needed a working definition of ‘crossover’ for the purposes of this series, which is:

A comic book story told primarily in a dedicated series and featuring characters from across the fictional universe it lives within.  It may or may not (but probably will) have associated tie-in issues in other series which expand the story (or are designed to do so - your mileage may vary).

That shuts out some stuff that could in theory be entertaining, but in the interests of my sanity there needs to be a line.  So that means, for example;

  • no inter-company crossovers - which tend(ed) to be one-offs and designed to be regarded as outside continuity, even though this means I can’t bang on about the definitive execution of its type, X-Men/Teen Titans
  • no intra-character crossovers - that is, where multiple titles starring the same character run a single storyline across more than one of them; ‘The Other’ from the Spider-titles in 2005/06 would be one of many examples of that
  • no Fall of the Mutants/Inferno/Rotworld-type crossovers between ongoing series where there’s no central stand-alone series, even if the story has tie-ins in other titles - I’m going to miss talking about some of these, but seriously, where would it end?

Also, it’s inevitable that most of the stuff I’m going to talk about will fall out of Marvel or DC, who have the biggest and longest-established shared universes where these things can happen.  So mainstream madness it is.

And speaking of madness, let’s talk about Secret Wars...

Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars (to give it its full name) arose out of a basically cynical motivation - Marvel wanted to sell toys.  These days crossovers are born out of Editorial Retreats where motivations are explored and creative executions discussed. Then, Editor-in-Chief (and eventual writer of the series) Jim Shooter had been involved in discussions with Mattel about a Marvel line and by his own account distilled the core elements for the series out of focus group requirements and some generic fan wishes.  You may call that an inauspicious starting point; I prefer to think of it as a sign of what was to come.

In scheduling the series and its links to the rest of the Marvel Universe, Shooter and co devised a set-up which no other crossover has attempted since - in the last issue of each participating hero or team’s own book before Secret Wars issue 1, they disappeared into a mysterious construct in New York’s Central Park. In their next issue they (mostly) all returned, but changed by their experiences.  So readers saw the results of the series but then had to follow the main title for a year to see how they came about.  (DC’s One Year Later 'jump' did something similar much later though via a very different execution.)

Though Marvel hyped the ‘huge changes’ which the series would bring to their heroes, this structure served to remove any real tension it might have produced.  We knew they were all going to come back alive, though some would have new costumes and there would be some minor shake-ups in the status quo. That didn’t stop the series selling huge numbers of course...

A quick round-up of the facts:

Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars was published monthly from May 1984 to April 1985.  Written by Jim Shooter and drawn for the most part (except issues four and five) by Mike Zeck.


It featured, well, the whole point of it was to launch the Marvel toy range, so it featured basically everyone who mattered among the company’s heroes.  Various members of The Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men, as well as Spider-Man and the Hulk all appeared on the heroic side, while the line-up of bad guys ran from Doctor Doom and Magneto through the Molecule Man down to Doctor Octopus and the Lizard. Even Galactus was dragged into the thing, though it was clearly obvious from the outset that this was a mistake as he was removed from the main plot for most of the series.  

Ah yes, the plot. A mysterious, never-seen being dubbed "The Beyonder" assembles a planet out of bits of others (including, it turns out, a chunk of Denver, though no one seems to have noticed), drags a bunch of super-heroes and super-villains there and tells them to fight each other to get whatever they want, and… well, that’s it, really.  

Look, I did say the prime motivator here was to sell toys - what were you expecting? High art?

Secret Wars 4Along the way alliances are formed and broken, mountains are thrown at people, Spider-Man gets a new costume (or does he?), and we meet three new ongoing characters. Admittedly they’re Titania and Volcana on the villains’ side and the second Spider-Woman on the heroes’, so big whoop, but looked at another way:  Secret Wars was pretty groundbreaking in creating three new female characters.  

(Who then went on to have pretty dull stories told about them, yes, but that’s not the point.)

In the end Galactus steps back into the plot to try and eat the planet (bet you never saw that one coming) and then it all turns into a “we have to stop Doctor Doom” story after he manages to steal The Beyonder’s power.

You may already be picking this up, but just in case I’ve been too subtle: I really don’t rate Secret Wars. The story is about as by-the-numbers as you can imagine, and a lot of the art looks like the rush job it probably was - lots of sketchy figures in frames with no backgrounds. Mike Zeck has produced some fine art in his career, but this isn’t close to the best, though the cover of issue one has achieved something like iconic status. And the worst thing about Shooter’s script is that there’s documentary evidence he could have done a far better ‘heroes encounter an omnipotent being they can’t really understand’ story than this - it’s called The Korvac Saga and he wrote it with David Michelinie in 1978.

Alongside the clunky dialogue, horrible exposition and frankly bizarre characterisation, one of the worst features of Shooter’s story is the incredibly flat cliffhangers that keep coming along. The last frame of issue four is Reed Richards looking at something out of shot saying “Oh...No! No!”, and given that what he’s seeing turns out to be Galactus’ planet-sized base appearing in the sky I can think of more dramatic final shots.  Then issue five ends with a close-up on Doctor Doom, exploring Galactus’ base, saying “Hold! What’s this?”  I don’t know, Doc, what?

At the other end of the scale, and to give him his due, the final cliffhanger of the series comes as the heroes are contemplating an assault on Beyonder-powered Doom, even though as Captain America notes, they could be “annihilated on the spot by a bolt from the blue”. As the last of them agrees they should attack, in a completely unexpected full page splash, they’re all annihilated on the spot by a bolt from the blue. It’s brilliant.

Even all the startling changes to the characters we were promised ended up falling a bit flat. The Thing stayed on Battleworld for a year to find himself while She-Hulk took his place in the FF, but then he came back; Colossus had comics’ least-convincing romance (a hotly-contested category) and broke up with Kitty Pryde when he got back, which was traumatic to read, but hardly earthshaking; Spider-Man got a new black costume (or did he?), but was otherwise entirely unchanged, and honestly, that was pretty much it.  It says a lot about this seminal series, the first major crossover of its type in Marvel history*, that most people’s fondest memory is of its sequel.

I worry that I’m looking at it with a more cynical eye than I did on first reading, but even though I ate up the individual issues as they were released, I remember thinking at the time it was all a bit sub-par.  

It’s invidious (because they set out to do radically different things in entirely different ways) to compare it with DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, which launched as Secret Wars was wrapping up, but timing, and the place of each at the start of each company’s crossover tradition, makes it inevitable.  On most counts DC wins hands-down: the quality of Crisis is far ahead of Secret Wars.  But at the risk of spoiling next month’s ramblings, Crisis suffers under the weight of its own premise and its desperate need to matter.  For all the efforts that Secret Wars made to have impact, it’s actually just a fun bit of fluff.

It did sell shitloads of copies though, and it launched the toys, meaning that on its own terms it was a significant success.

So it’s not terrible or anything.  It’s just a bit of a disappointment.  

The snappy round-up:

Best moment:  Hulk holding up a mountain that’s been dropped on the heroes.

Worst moment:  Captain America uses the magical wish fulfilment aura to wish his broken shield whole again.  I’m not even slightly making that up.

Key debut:  Spider-Woman 2, later Arachne and now the second Madame Web.

Significant deaths:  None that stick among the primary characters, so probably Colossus’ love interest, the alien healer Zsaji, who was doomed to a tragic end to make his betrayal of Kitty even more soap opera.

Best spin-off:  The She-Hulk era Fantastic Four

Best tie-in:  The toys

Best cover:  Issue 1 - though 4 is a close second

Worst cover: Issue 7 - “The Death of an Avenger!” (It’s the Wasp, and she’s back on her feet the next issue..)

On the comic book grading scale:  5.5: Fine- **

Jon Morgan has spent far too much of the last four decades reading comics, which he seems to think means he can now tell other people what he thought of them. He also occasionally mentions them on Twitter (@Morganised).

* You could argue that Secret Wars’ direct ancestor, 1982’s Contest of Champions, which had a similar “heroes kidnapped across space to take part in a challenge” premise, was the first, but even though it introduced a number of new heroes who later became canonical it was three issues which basically took place out of continuity, so I’d dispute ‘major’.

** Explanation of the grading scale.