On History: Secret Wars

By | Tuesday, May 26, 2015 1 comment
You know the backstory to the original Secret Wars, right? It was about as cynically conceived idea as any in comics; Mattel approached Marvel to do a series in support of a toy line they wanted, and many of the high concepts came about from focus group testing. Like using the words "secret" and "war" in the title, updating Dr. Doom's armor to be less medieval-looking, that sort of thing.

Secret Wars #1
So Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter took all these ideas, and wrapped them up in a simple plot: lots of the Marvel villains battle lots of the Marvel heroes. There was the Beyonder there to provide some coceited impetus but, really, the plot is absurdly thin. Almost to the point of non-existent. In many ways, it was basically fan-service. "You want to see everybody fight everybody else? Here's twelve issues of it!"

I did pick up the first three issues when it first came out, and several of the issues where the heroes were swept off to this "Battleworld." But I didn't have regular, reliable transportation to get to a comic shop at the time and I didn't read the rest of the story until several years later. All I knew was that a lot of heroes disappeared, and returned shortly afterwards... except now the Thing had been inexplicably replaced by She-Hulk in my favorite title.

As I'm sitting here reflecting on the series, I'm struck by how very character-driven it was. Reed Richards' concern for his pregnant wife left back home, Dr. Doom's disregard for the Beyonder's instruction in favor of trying leverage the situation for himself, the justifiable suspicion the X-Men had for non-mutants, the Human Torch's "yeah, we do this type of thing all the time" reassurances to Spider-Man, the challenges Bruce Banner faced in keeping his intellect in charge of the Hulk... Every writer naturally has a slightly different spin on the characters, but Shooter did a good job of ensuring that every character was individually motivated based on their own characteristics and previously displayed personality traits. That made for a good read despite an absurdly weak premise.

Now, it's been a couple years since I've read any of the big event stories from either Marvel or DC, but the last several that I did go through came at things from a polar opposite direction. The events were designed to carry through a very strong story premise -- in the case of the current Secret Wars, reshaping the very Marvel Universe itself -- but what I've found lacking is the characterization. The heroes react to things because the story needs someone to fill a role, not necessarily because there's a driving force behind the character. In most cases, the characters don't suddenly start acting wildly out of character, but their reactions and dialogue ring hollow because they're acting without agency. We see characters, for example, acting sad because a comrade has fallen, but their grief is uniformly expressed. There's no difference regardless of how well one character knew another, what other stress factors might be in their background, what religious beliefs (in any) they ascribe to...

I'm actually kind of reminded of the old DC books from the 1950s and '60s where the heroes were heroes because they were heroes. There were no Uncle Ben moments, just heroes putting on costumes and fighting crime because that's what one does. And the only difference between Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter and the Flash was their power set.

Which is fine if you want to make simple stories that are meant to be obtained cheaply, read, and discarded without thought. And while I get not every writer is out there trying to make their comics into deeply profound, lasting works of high art, I think it's worth noting the success with which a heavily focus-grouped, blatant marketing ploy led to a more memorable series compares against the ostensibly writer-driven ideas that lead event comics today.
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Matt K said...

I think I can make a case for being reasonably objective about Secret Wars… I only got into comics years later… and I think it remains an excellent work of craft. I still find it very readable all these years later, when other Event stories that captivated me when they were new have lost their magic.

I think you nail the importance of characterization. The rest of Secret Wars is indeed mostly just arbitrary exercises in setting up character interactions. (If visually delightful exercises.) I think this may almost be a strength, though. Nearly everyone has his or her moment to be a unique personality, and so many of those moments appear to advance the plot. Maybe that works because the plot is so free-form. Who can forget the "they dropped a mountain on us" scene: a perfect example, but by no means the only one.

Maybe, thinking about it, there's also an element of self-awareness that helps make the otherwise manufactured plot less childish than it might have been. The way that Doctor Doom immediately begins coloring outside the lines is, in a way, a big old raspberry to the manufactured premise; here's an adult character capable of recognizing the artificial contest for what it is, and not only refusing to play along but eventually hijacking the whole story. The Enchantress might reinforces this aspect a bit; she also blatantly ignores the lines on the playing field and walks her own path, while adding an overt cynicism in contrast with Doom's towering ego.

There's probably something to the fact that while you certainly can make fun of Secret Wars, what's more, people still do… which is more than can be said for most other Event stories that no one even bothers mocking. Let alone still does so 30 years later.