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Friday, December 16, 2016

Secret Wars

In the early '80s, I was at my peak of comic book geekdom. I was almost exclusively a Marvel guy, buying almost every title they put out at Forbidden Planet, a huge comic book store in Greenwich Village (thankfully, it still exists, though a few blocks away and in a smaller space). I stumbled across a series they were doing called Secret Wars, and I was so tantalized by it that I went into Forbidden Planet's basement back-issues section and got all twelve issues. Somewhere I have them in storage, but to read it again I bought a one-volume collection, which also gives the history of the series.

Does it hold up after 32 years? Not really, not to a 55-year-old man, but it does speak to the 23-year-old guy I was. The premise was great--a god-like being known as the "Beyonder" somehow transports Marvel's greatest superheroes (though some didn't make the cut) along with some of the greatest villains to a planet created patchwork-like from other planets. He tells them (they only hear his voice) that whomever defeats their enemies will get their heart's desire. It was like Battle Royale with caped vigilantes.

Many serious comic book collectors pooh-poohed the whole thing, mainly because it was created to satisfy a deal with Mattel. They wanted to get into the superhero action figure business. Kenner had bought the rights to DC characters, who had the Superman movies as a tie-in. Marvel had yet to conquer the movie world, so Mattel wanted a big event to coincide with the launch of the toys. Jim Shooter came up with the idea and wrote it. The toys were pretty much a failure (Mattel cut costs), but they did give Marvel the title, as their marketing data showed that boys loved the words "secret" and "wars."

The heroes involved included the Fantastic Four, minus Sue Richards, who was pregnant, and The Avengers of the time (Captain American, Hawkeye, She-Hulk, Iron Man [though Tony Stark was not wearing the suit at the time, Jim Rhodes was], Wasp, Thor, and Captain Marvel (who at the time was a black woman--in her movie coming up she will be played by Brie Larson). Hulk was also there, and at the time he was always the Hulk, with Bruce Banner's brain. He still wanted to smash things, though. Also on the heroes side were the X-Men, with Professor X, Rogue, Storm, Colossus, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine. Controversially (in the story), Magneto was on the good guys' side, though the Avengers just considered him a murderer and terrorist.

Then, of course, there was Spider-Man. Not included was Daredevil, who was then palling around with Black Widow. I think Daredevil fans still are annoyed by that.

The villains side was an odd mix. Most of the Spider-Man villains that we all know, like Green Goblin, Rhino, Elektro, and Sandman, were not included--just Dr. Octopus and the Lizard. There was also Absorbing Man, a group called the Wrecking Crew, who I was not really familiar with, Ultron, Kang the Conqueror, Enchantress, Molecule Man, and most importantly, Doctor Doom, and Galactus, a giant who consumes planets.

The action was pretty good, with a lot of battles and shifting alliances. The X-Men for a while split off into a third group, and eventually Doom tries to go after Galactus, and failing that, takes on the Beyonder himself. It also marked a milestone in Marvel history, as that is where Spider-Man gets his black suit, which was actually a symbiote who would one day become Venom.

Where comic books from this period really date themselves is the dialogue. The Marvel Universe was a giant soap opera, as all characters existed in the Universe and could interact. Since the stories did not stand alone, there was a constant need for exposition (lest an issue fall into someone who didn't know the whole story). One of the nostalgic aspects of these comics is the little asterisk by dialogue that leads to a yellow box in the corner of the panel that says something like, "Last issue!"

And back then the panel style was pretty much the same that had been for forty years. Occasionally there would be a full-page panel, or a two-page spread splash, but the style was nothing like the contemporary comics, which is okay by me because at least in the old days I didn't have trouble navigating through it.

Anyway, we get lots of corny dialogue. There are plenty of Spider-Man quips, and in one battle Absorbing Man actually asks Titania (who was created by Dr. Doom) out on a date. The really annoying stuff is when characters snipe at their own teammates during a fight, Most of it has to do with bragging, especially Hulk, who appears miffed that everyone assumes Reed Richards is the smartest guy in the room. There is also some blatant sexism in the character of the Wasp, with comedy that has her upset that she breaks a nail. Racial issues are handled in a clumsy way, as Rhodey calls Captain Marvel "babe." She thinks it's Tony Stark, and is angered.

There is also the fun but ludicrous physics. The superheroes have a mountain thrown on them, and Hulk is the only one holding it up--150 billion tons. He's strong, but I don't think he's that strong. The deus ex machina is also pretty ridiculous.

Though it was simply a marketing gimmick, Secret Wars came out at the right time for me, and I cherished it. With a few tweaks and a better dialogue writer, it still would be the most awesome Marvel movie yet.

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