Did Marvel already outdo Secret Wars? Well... no. But they did create a work of crazed genius that you need to check out.
Marvel Comics isn’t very good at secrets. Oh sure, it had that big one back in ’85, which went so well that it inspired the entire concept of company-wide crossover summer events.
Every ‘crisis’, every ‘age of’, every act of vengeance, and every time Atlantis gets its Speedos in a twist and decides to bombard Manhattan, you can trace it right back to Secret Wars. Since then though, the magic seems to have waned somewhat.
Secret Avengers was great fun, but didn’t hit the numbers and the less said about Secret Invasion the better (all those heroes you loved for the last ten years? Yeah, they were actually evil Skrull agents). And if you ask most people (and please realise that by ‘most’, I’m talking about people who remember the mark numbers on Doombots), they’ll tell you that this sad decline began with the much-maligned Secret Wars II.
Secret Wars II is a series born of a commercial agenda. The original Secret Wars (see our reading club for more details, Galactus-fans) achieved gonzo sales numbers, introducing a new generation of young readers to Marvel’s biggest hitters, so it was inevitable that the company, still struggling in the shadow of its Distinguished Competition, would try to hit gold twice. While this is a process that occasionally comes up trumps (Read any issue of Transformers published between 1984-86), it’s usually a pretty shaky place to start a franchise.
The plot itself is straightforward enough. The original series’ Big Bad, The Beyonder, heads to Earth and, through a series of misadventures, tries to better understand humanity. It’s a Star-Trekkian conceit that has heaps of promise. It lends itself equally well to drama, comedy, adventure, even romance. And yet for all this, it’s fair to say that the series never quite gelled with readers.
In fact, it’s fair to say the whole thing was a complete disaster. So much so that Marvel actually retconned the events right out of existence. Most people (remember, Doombots) will say that it’s because it was… well…. crap. Shoddily written, badly drawn, no real arc to speak of. But I think those guys are missing the point. For me, Secret Wars II will always have a special place in my heart, because it truly embraces the absolute insanity of the wider Marvel Universe. It really is utterly bonkers.
At one point, our all-powerful protagonist is flying around in a fighter jet. He can fly on his own you understand, but hey, fighter jets are cool. When he’s inevitably engaged by USAF pilots, they discover he’s sat in his cockpit operating a carrot-chopper he bought from the shopping channel. Because hey, he’s never come across gadgets before and is fascinated by them.
It’s this kind of absolute absurdism that holds the entire thing together, filling it with a joyous sense of mischief that leaked quickly away as comics entered the grimdark realms of the 90s soon after. Tim Burton has a lot to answer for.
It also imbues the Beyonder with a level of alien-ness we’ve never experienced before. In the Marvel U, aliens are traditionally weird, but usually solemn, noble, or outright evil. They all have a modus of some kind. But not this guy. He’s just hanging out, seeing what happens. Occasionally sleeping with supermodels on the way. It comes off as naivety, but it hints at an unknowable cosmic weirdness.
What would you do if you were absolutely all-powerful? How would you behave around regular people? Even the concept of limits is completely bizarre to the Beyonder, so understanding why labour-saving devices (carrot-choppers included) exist requires a colossal cognitive leap for the character.
This allows the writing team to try out all sorts of fun stuff along the way. At one point, a bored accountant/superhero fanboy has a chat with the Beyonder about his deepest wishes, and is duly rewarded with enormous power. He quickly gives himself a suit of golden armour and runs amok in downtown Denver, requiring a team of The Avenger’s heaviest hitters to finally take him down. It’s hilarious and terrifying at the same time, and ultimately helps the Beyonder understand why people have limits.
He pals around with The Molecule Man for a bit, trying to understand this in more detail, then heads off on a road trip across the States. At one point he helps out a New Mutant (Boomer, for those keeping score), and we get a few issues that are basically ‘Knight Rider’, if the Hoff had the power to destroy the planet in an instant.
It’s weird. Really fucking weird. And for that reason alone, it’s fantastic.
What really makes it solid gold is that when viewed with the benefit of hindsight, you’re able to remember that in the mid 80s, Marvel’s target audience was still mainly composed of kids. So there’s a team of crotchety old guys in New York trying to come up with a way to sell comics to children. Imagine the editorial conversation behind the series:
So…what do kids like?”
“How about an aimless journey into the Jungian psyche, with no clear resolution, exploring both the fragility and nobility of humanity, with the constant, looming shadow of worldwide destruction hovering in the wings?”
“I’m not sure it’ll sell…”
“Well, it’ll have explosions every three pages and you’ll sort-of see Volcana’s bottom in one issue…”
If this had been written in any other genre it would be digging itself out from under the awards pile, but the medium was not yet worthy of widespread respect, so it remains, a heroic, buried misfire.
There is a collected edition available, but you can dig up back copies on eBay (and they’re an absolute steal). If you really want to understand what separates the Marvel Universe from DC’s, then this run is for you. It has hapless villains, heroes overcome by doubt and indecision…in other words, people who behave like people, struggling to make the right decisions.
This summer, Marvel will try to recapture the Secret Wars lightning in a bottle again, but whether it will do so with the humanity, humour and high-mindedness of this very silly, brilliant series remains to be seen.
Secret Wars II is an underrated masterpiece, and I challenge anyone who says otherwise to a carrot-chopping competition.