With this week’s release of the new Secret Wars, we thought it would be fun to revisit this August 23, 2006, review of the 1984-85 Secret Wars.
“I am from beyond! Slay your enemies and all that you desire shall be yours! Nothing you dream of is impossible for me to accomplish!”
If those words mean anything to you, then you’ll know that this book is a world away from the most recent “Secret War” to come out of the House of Ideas, and all the more enjoyable for it. One of my favourite crossovers of all time has now become something of a guilty pleasure with the passing of years, but if recent “comic events” like House of M and Infinite Crisis have shown us anything, it’s that they don’t make them like they used to. Secret Wars is one of only a handful of books that truly distil the essence of Marvel Comics, channelling their pantheon of colourful characters into a ridiculously overblown cosmic battle between good and evil which takes place on an alien planet, at the behest of a mysterious being known as The Beyonder. Whilst it loses something of the grounded, real-world touch that has always made Marvel comics so appealing, the essential characters of Marvel’s galaxy of heroes are all preserved pretty faithfully, and you don’t have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Marvel Universe to understand what’s going on.
It’s no surprise to learn that Secret Wars was originally conceived as a vehicle to help Marvel shift a new range of action figures, and this commercial imperative led to the inclusion of as many characters as possible, with the simplicity of the concept of the series making it attractive to anyone who had never picked up a Marvel Comic before but still appealing to the hardcore fan. Indeed, it’s easy to forget now that Secret Wars was one of the first comics of its kind, and the novelty of seeing so many popular characters slammed together was one of the major selling points for the book. But why the love for a series with such a flimsy premise which was unique in the ’80s but has seen countless imitations since? Admittedly, these twelve issues have a different sort of appeal now, as they hearken back to a more simplistic age of comicbook storytelling, making the series a major touchstone for fanboy nostalgia. Personally, I feel that the mid-1980s saw Marvel hitting a creative high which came close to recapturing the spirit of the company’s inspired inception in the 1960s: Frank Miller’s reinvention of Daredevil jostled with Roger Stern’s black-garbed Spider-Man, Byrne’s Fantastic Four and Claremont’s historic X-Men saga, and this collection really evokes a time at which the Marvel Universe was a very exciting place to be. Outdated styles of storytelling and anachronistic details which can be found in Secret Wars might put new readers off (Johnny Storm flying around singing Thriller always stands out for me), but they’re as much a part of the book as Mike Zeck’s classical comicbook art stylings or the simple, straightforward dialogue that Jim Shooter writes for the heroes and villains.
There are lots of memorable scenes to be found in this book: The Hulk holding up a mountain to protect his comrades, the mistrust between the X-Men and the other heroes causing in-fighting and prejudice between the two factions, Galactus’ mountaintop vigil as he prepares his attack, and Spidey’s first encounter with his black symbiote costume all stand as classic moments in Marvel history. Despite the presence of so many iconic heroes though, they can’t compete with one of the main attractions of Secret Wars‘ plot: it’s a cracking Dr Doom story. Doom’s endless quest for power makes for great character motivation, and his relentless attempts to usurp a being who is infinitely more powerful than himself are just as compelling as any battle against adversity that we’ve ever seen from Marvel’s heroes. He’s such a fun villain to root for that it’s not surprising that he starts to dominate the story so much in the second half of the series, and if you need any further evidence of just how exciting Doom can be as a love-to-hate anti-hero, take a look at the outstanding cover image of issue #10. It’s no wonder the man claims to record his every word for posterity, as he’s the one villain who’s ambitions and abilities really do live up to his egotistical and boastful monologuing.
By the time the book finds its way to an ending, you might well be exhausted by the rollercoaster of events – and possibly even a little disappointed by the way in which the plot is so easily and neatly wrapped up. Indeed, many of the effects of the series on Marvel’s characters were insignificant, and didn’t have much impact on their various individual titles after the series played out – bar Spider-Man’s alien costume, of course, which went on to spawn the extremely popular villain Venom. (It always amuses me that these post-Wars changes were introduced into the tie-in titles in the month immediately after their heroes had been shown disappearing off to Battleworld, when Secret Wars itself had only shipped its first of twelve issues – but I guess there wasn’t an internet around then for fans to whinge about these things). That said, to complain that Secret Wars wasn’t an important crossover because it didn’t have a significant effect on the Marvel Universe afterwards is to miss the very point of the whole series: that it’s a slab of shameless, unfettered over-the-top fun, and it stands as a perfect example of how entertaining even the most shallow of comics can be if executed properly.
This particular collection gains credit for including the many lead-up prologue sequences which appeared in tie-in issues of Marvel comics in the month that Secret Wars launched. Whilst they all show pretty much the same thing (heroes stumble across large structure in Central Park; heroes get mysteriously drawn into its centre; heroes disappear) it’s nice to see some effort and wider explanation put into collections like this, which could easily be simply slapped together and rushed out with little care. That said, there are a couple of problems with the quality of the reproduction of some of the pages here, as if the original artwork perhaps couldn’t be found and the publishers have had to make do with scans of the issues instead. Certain pages are definitely notable for a lack of sharpness in the linework, or a fuzziness of colouration: if all of the pages were like this, it might actually be more bearable, but the inconsistency between some of the crystal-clear (and recoloured?) pages and some of the blurry reproductions can be quite jarring to read.
The book’s epilogue describes the aftermath of the crossover in the Marvel Universe, and points out that Secret Wars was subject to many follow-ups, but none of them compared to the freshness and fun of the original. If a series like this was published today, it would probably be criticised as shamelessly commercial, with a stagnant plot and a meaningless concept with little or no reason to exist bar an easy buck for Marvel. As a product of its time, however, it’s an indisputable classic – and it deserves to be read and enjoyed as such.