Saturday, February 5, 2011

Super Saturday: In Praise of Secret Wars

Comics post of the day: I've got a good bunch of perfect-bound collections of classic comics on my shelf, and the one I find myself re-reading the most often, and with the greatest satisfaction, is Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars.

I'll broadly assume that you know what that is; the 1984-5 series by Marvel in which their highest-profile heroes and villains are whisked to an edge-of-the-universe battleground by the omnipotent Beyonder and told to "Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours!" If you need more on the specifics, look someplace like here or here.

You could complain that it's a simplistic premise, and even that the overall motivation for the project was crassly commercial (according to writer and company editor-in-chief Jim Shooter: "Kenner had licensed the DC Heroes. Mattel had He-Man, but wanted to hedge in case superheroes became the next big fad. They were interested in Marvel's characters, but only if we staged a publishing event that would get a lot of attention, and they could build a theme around.") That said, I think that Secret Wars is one of those examples of a product that surpasses the commercial limitations in which it was incubated.

The primary things that I'll praise are that (1) the number of heroes and villains featured is limited and manageable, (2) the story is entirely self-contained, and at no internal point does it intrude on any other Marvel publication or setting, and (3) there is a specific narrative through-line for its plot, towards which all the action is building throughout the series.

Mostly this is a compare-and-contrast operation as regards other superhero cosmic mega-crossovers that I've read, such as DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths or Marvel's Secret Wars II, etc. If you have a truly "unlimited" number of characters, then they tend to not have enough time onscreen for any character development (or more broadly, for the reader to learn and remember who they are).

Furthermore, most of those other crossovers feature many promotional tie-ins to other publications of the following ilk -- Hero X appears for two panels, gasps "Oh my god, look at what I'm dealing with!!", a footnote says "Read more in Amazing X #497", and then you switch to some other unrelated scene. This is an almost unbearable intrusion in the long-term collected form, where I've got no potential or interest to actually encounter those referenced works (and sometimes barely even know the character who just appeared). When the whole work is largely a patchwork of such blurbs, it's almost totally unreadable.

Fortunately, the original Secret Wars manages to avoid both of these pitfalls -- I don't think that there are any forward-references in the entirety of the work, nor any characters appearing on only a single page. Note that structurally the story is not set on Earth at any point, thereby effectively "firewalling" the story from random intrusions, while the other crossover examples above are not in that category. It is, in fact, a flamboyant but self-contained story with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end, a characteristic which is frequently lacking in other examples of major-publisher superhero art.

Is it without flaws? Certainly not. Here are some of the initial criticisms I would lob at it: (1) While I really like the art by Mike Zeck, issues #4-5 are filled in by Bob Layton, and the work there is clearly sub-standard (a particular shame in #4, which features an entire mountain range being dropped on the heroes, temporarily held up by a maddened Hulk until they can escape -- I would've loved to see what Zeck would do with that). (2) Although initially the Battleworld is indicated as being made from the fragments of a ruined alien galaxy, about halfway through the series it changes course to assert that one of the chunks was a suburb transported from Denver -- allowing the introduction of several new human characters (Volcana, Titania, Spider-Woman), but popping the "totally alien and forbidding" tone of the story. (3) The very end kind of falls apart a bit, anticlimactically, with the villains goofily hunched in a space-traveling suburban apartment, and the heroes departing meekly in separate groups -- except for the Thing, who stays behind, and whose concluding monologue tellingly trails off in ellipses.

That said, a pretty good artifact of mid-80's major-label four-color superhero comics. All I can say is I keep re-reading it and being kind of surprised at how satisfying it is. Excelsior!

(P.S.: See also Zak S.'s blog for a serendipitous post on Secret Wars earlier this week.)

6 comments:

  1. I loved the Secret Wars as a kid and this was probably my first real attempt at collecting any series of comic issues...I only ever managed to find issues #7 through #12 and (later) issue #1 so I missed the artistic switcheroo.

    This is where I first became a huge Doctor Doom fan: "I'm not going to play your damn game, I'm going to take YOUR power and change the rules Mo Fo!" Who's the biggest badass, huh?

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  2. Definitely. By the end, you realize that the whole thing is really Dr. Doom's story.

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  3. Despite my love for Secret Wars, I will say I think the art is about as bad as art can be and still be not so ugly I won't read it.

    But the story is not nearly as dumb as Peter-Parker-Soap-Opera fans like to pretend. I read the entire (justly comic-wonk-acclaimed) Bendis run on the Avengers right after Secret Wars and, writing-wise, SW wasn't noticeably worse. It wasn't as funny, but Shooter's Enchantress dialogue is as funny as Bendis Spider-Man dialogue.

    And all those years on LSH clearly gave Shooter the ability to have everybody in the cast talk to everybody else and make sense and be distinguishable. With one or two exceptions, every character gets introduced and made interesting.

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  4. And all those years on LSH clearly gave Shooter the ability to have everybody in the cast talk to everybody else and make sense and be distinguishable. With one or two exceptions, every character gets introduced and made interesting.

    I remember back when Secret Wars and Crisis On Infinite Earths were coming out, and a review at that time noted that SW felt a lot like Shooter's LSH run, whereas Crisis felt more like Stan Lee's 1960's Marvel stories.

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  5. Shooter is what I call a "good hack" - the great majority of his work is dependably readable and eminently forgettable. In his heyday, he could churn out enjoyable super-hero yarns that would entertain but not challenge you (or the genre, or the format) one after another without breaking a sweat. That said, he occasionally turned in some brilliant flourishes - his run on Avengers back in the day has some great stuff in it, and of course I, too, am a fan of SW! He did about as good a job as anyone could have with what was essentially just a plan to sell toys. In particular, I think it compares favorably to "Contest of Champions," which was, in theory, undertaken with purely artistic intent and not for any merchandising tie-in purposes.

    (And anyone who thinks Mike Zeck does bad art is nuts! I said it!)

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    1. Yes, Avengers of the era was pretty compulsive reading. Still have to agree with the praise for Zeck.

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