Title: Secret Wars
Writer: Jim Shooter
Artist: Mike Zeck; Bob Layton
Inker: John Beatty; Jack Abel and Mike Esposito
Colorist: Christie Scheele
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of Secret Wars (1984). This is an older story, so its more salient points may already be known to you. Nevertheless, read at your own risk!
Here it is, folks – the very first big-name, universe-wide blockbuster superhero crossover. There’s no better time to revisit it, given that issues #0, 1, and 2 of 2015’s Secret Wars all come out this month.
Secret Wars #1 is cover-dated for May 1984, about a year before DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. To read Tom DeFalco tell it in the introduction to the most recent edition of the Secret Wars trade, the success of a DC toyline at another company inspired Mattel to do Marvel action figures. Mattel wanted only the most popular heroes and asked Marvel for a comic to go along with it, giving us the 12-issue limited series Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, so named because Mattel focus groups said young boys reacted most excitedly to the words “Secret” and “War.”
Various heroes and villains are gathered onto satellites, one for each side of the good/evil dichotomy. A planet is formed from chunks of others before their eyes, and a light appears in space, telling them in a spooky font, “I am from beyond! Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours! Nothing you dream of is impossible for me to accomplish!” The assembled characters begin calling the entity who spoke to them the Beyonder, which we still call him today.
Twenty-one characters begin on the heroes’ satellite, and thirteen on the villains’. The characters on the hero satellite can be split into a few groups. First, the Avengers: Wasp, who was leading the team; She-Hulk; Monica Rambeau, who was using the Captain Marvel name; Captain America; Thor; Hawkeye; and Iron Man, with James Rhodes, better known as War Machine, under the armor. Next, the X-Men: Professor X; Storm, during her first mohawk phase; Nightcrawler; Rogue; Cyclops; Wolverine; Colossus; and Lockheed, Kitty Pryde’s pet dragon, though Kitty herself does not go to Battleworld. The male members of the Fantastic Four are present without Invisible Woman, who was pregnant. Finally, there are the miscellaneous characters: Spider-Man, the Hulk, and… Magneto. Yes, the X-Men’s greatest enemy was placed on the hero satellite by the Beyonder. I’ll come back to this later. The heroes would eventually be joined by Julia Carpenter, the second Spider-Woman, who came from a chunk of a Denver suburb that ended up part of Battleworld.
The villain satellite contains Doctor Doom, the Enchantress, Ultron, Absorbing Man, the Wrecking Crew, Kang the Conqueror, the Lizard, Doctor Octopus, Molecule Man, and Galactus. They would later be joined by three more villains. First, we have Titania and Volcana, both making their first appearances in the Marvel Universe during this series. They’re created when Doctor Doom bestows superpowers on two normal women from the same Denver suburb as Spider-Woman. Second, Doctor Doom reconstitutes an insane Klaw from Galactus’ ship. Apparently, Dazzler absorbed Klaw’s sound body, and during a fight with Galactus, she sent Klaw into him with her energy projection. Klaw’s energy eventually circulated through Galactus’ ship.
So, is the original Secret Wars good? Well, to be honest, not especially. That doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining, of course. The most common comparison you’ll hear is that it’s like watching little kids mash their action figures together to fight. This is, for the most part, accurate. The heroes and villains go at it for no other reason than the Beyonder said so, and neither side is particularly trustful of their allies. For example, none of the heroes like the idea of cooperating with Magneto, who splits off at first, and mutant tensions send the X-Men splintering from the other heroes in the middle of the story. First, though, I’ll go into what I like about Secret Wars.
The art is pretty good, both under Zeck and Layton. Their styles match well enough that going from one to the other mid-series isn’t jarring. We can deride the senseless action-figure-mashy premise all we like, but the battles and setpieces feel appropriately big. There’s energy and dynamism to it, whether it’s Iron Man’s repulsors or Ultron’s energy blasts. The cover to issue 4 is particularly striking, with the Hulk holding up an impossibly large mass of stone and straining under its weight as he keeps it from crushing the other heroes. This is, in fact, a mountain that Molecule Man drops on the heroes, and I think Molecule Man is one of the most interesting parts about Secret Wars. When he’s first brought to Battleworld, he’s reformed, having become, frankly, a neurotic milksop who has forsaken his life of crime and abstained from using his miraculous powers to “control all molecules,” which he’s fond of explaining. But Doctor Doom begins to manipulate him until he’s comfortable using his powers again, becoming a more forceful and proud figure as he develops a rather sweet relationship with Volcana. In the end, Molecule Man uses his powers to bring the suburb back to Earth, showing just how powerful he really is.
To return to Magneto, we later learn the Beyonder placed characters on the satellites according to their desires. Though his methods are extreme, Magneto wants a world that is safe for mutants, and so his goals, his desires, are noble, like those of the heroes. When Doctor Doom steals the Beyonder’s power, his mortal mind is ill-equipped to handle omnipotence, and any stray thought becomes reality. Watching Doom struggle with this is really interesting, and it shows that for all of the writing’s other shortcomings, Shooter gave this some real thought. And, of course, Spider-Man’s black costume first appears in Secret Wars #8, before we know it to be the symbiote that would eventually become Venom.
Now for the less good. Like I said before, Secret Wars doesn’t go too far beyond “entertaining.” The plot is thin, such that it is, and though it becomes a bit thicker by the end, it’s never quite great. It was a marketing gimmick, and it shows. The beginning is somewhat interesting, but the middle drags as very little of consequence happens. The X-Men running off from the rest of the heroes feels like a bunch of high school drama. Colossus thinks he’s fallen in love with Zsaji, an alien healer, but given that Human Torch felt the same feelings of strong attraction, it’s surmised that it’s merely a side-effect of her healing. However, his “love” for Zsaji makes him question his relationship with Kitty Pryde, who he breaks up with after seeing Zsaji sacrifice herself for the heroes. It’s agreed by at least Nightcrawler and Wolverine that Colossus fawning this much over someone he can’t even communicate with is extremely unfair to Kitty, and I agree. And while this isn’t so much bad as it is bizarre, at one point Wasp makes out with Magneto. She suggests later that she was just manipulating his attraction to her until another hero could arrive and get her out of his base, but I really don’t think this should have happened at all.
Secret Wars is fun, even if it can’t claim much else. You can also look at it as a neat little window into this period of Marvel history, as it intersects with Walter Simonson’s Thor, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, and Roger Stern’s Avengers, also taking place right after Stern’s run on Spider-Man. It’s worth reading at least once if you pace yourself and don’t set your expectations too high. Just sit back and try to enjoy the ride, bumps and all.