Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Look Back At: Marvel Super Heroes' Secret Wars

Marvel's Secret Wars! Nuff' said
Nowadays, comic books readers are spoiled when it comes to major 'super hero crossovers'. Just look at Marvel's Civil War, Infinity Gauntlet, & Maximum Carnage story arcs or DC's Blackest Night, Crisis on Infinite Earths, & Final Crisis crossovers. Both publishers had even gone so far to do a Marvel vs. DC crossover back in the '90s. Nowadays, it seems as if heroes are teaming up in force every few issues.

Well, back in the '80s such title-spanning crossovers weren't the norm. Sure, Superman and Batman were oftentimes partnering up, and there was the Justice League, while Marvel had The Avengers and Marvel Team-Up -- but how often (prior to the mid-'80s) did heroes from nearly every popular title join forces for colossal crossovers that spanned issues and months? Hardly ever.

That all changed in 1984 -- with the advent of Marvel Super Heroes: Secret Wars, a defining chapter in comic book history.

Love it or hate it, Secret Wars proved to redefine the comic industry by signifying the unparalleled success of massive title-crossovers.

Marvel's finest, charging into action
Ironically, Marvel Comics didn't decide on creating the Secret Wars mini-series in a bid to create a startling new story. Actually, the reasoning behind Secret Wars was far more business oriented. At the time, DC Comics were still riding high from their Super Friends and Galactic Guardians cartoons, which both warranted toy lines. Kenner had released the Super Powers action figure line, which not only consisted of DC's most popular heroes and villains, but also a plethora of accessories, vehicles, and play sets.

Mattel, who were cashing-in big from the success of He-Man and The Masters of the Universe, sought to compete with Kenner, by licensing the A-listers from Marvel's hero/villain gallery. While Marvel didn't have a popular cartoon series at the time, Mattel recommended that a 'comic story' be published that would, in effect, be an advertisement for their action figure line. Thus, the 12-issue Secret Wars mini-series was born.

At the time, it was the largest crossover ever attempted in a comic series by any publisher. Marvel pitted nearly all of their most popular heroes together with an assortment of their most powerful villains.

Joining the fight on the side of good were:

Magneto: hero or villain?

Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, the Hulk, the Avengers (Captain America, Iron Man, the Wasp, Captain Marvel II, the She-Hulk, Hawkeye, Thor), the Fantastic Four (minus the Invisible Woman), the X-Men (Professor X, Colossus, Cyclops, Rogue, Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Lockheed the Dragon), and Magneto (placed into the hero camp, though his allegiance was often brought into question).

While the villains were composed of:

Doctor Doom, Doctor Octopus, the Lizard, Absorbing Man, the Enchantress, Kang, Molecule Man, Klaw, Titania, Volcana, Ultron, and the Wrecking Crew (Bulldozer, Piledriver, Wrecker, and Thunderball).

Galactus (more a force of nature than a villain) joined neither group.

Bring on the bad guys!
The premise of the Secret Wars mini-series revolved around the Beyonder, a nigh-omnipotent cosmic entity who transports Marvel's heroes and villains to a world of his own creation - aptly titled: Battleworld, in order to destroy each other. The Beyonder's reasoning is never quite clear, save for the fact he (or it) is intrigued by the concept of 'super-heroes' and Earth. The Beyonder declares that those who slay their enemies shall receive "all they desire".

Needless to say, many of the villains are all-too-eager to annihilate the super-heroes. What follows is a gripping 12-issue series that features many of the greatest battles in Marvel Comic history. Some villains fall in battle, while several heroes follow similar fates. Meanwhile, as the 'war' continues, Galactus attempts to devour Battleworld and Doctor Doom, realizing the folly and futility of such combat, devises a way to steal the Beyonder's power.

Without giving away too many spoilers (some are upcoming, however), for those that haven't been fortunate enough to read through the Secret Wars yet, the mini-series did make numerous impacts on the Marvel Universe after all was said and done.

Hulk mad!
Among many were:

-Spider-Man gaining his black costume, which later would turn out to be an alien symbiote that intended to 'bond' with him. Even further down the road, this 'living costume' would become one of Spider-Man's most popular foes: Venom.

-The creation of Titania and Volcana -- both of which are endowed with super-powers by Doctor Doom,  in an effort to bolster his army.

-The introduction of Spider-Woman (aka Julia Carpenter).

-The return of Klaw, the 'self-styled master of sound' as Doctor Doom describes him.

-An end to Colossus' relationship with Kitty Pride, due to his love for Zsaji (a healer on Battleworld).

-And finally, the addition of the She-Hulk to the Fantastic Four, due to The Thing staying on Battleworld (and, in turn, getting his own comic series).
A costume familiar to any self-respecting Spider-Man fan

Guess that wasn't the right machine after all!

Notable highlights in the Secret Wars series was the character interactions that typically never happened in regular Marvel titles, Marvel Team-Up included.

As could be expected, the Hulk -- even with his super-intelligent Bruce Banner intellect would lose his temper, while Mr. Fantastic was often sidetracked by his pregnant wife (the Invisible Woman, of course) on Earth. Each of the super-heroes personal lives, found within the pages of their respective titles, resurfaced in Secret Wars. It was elements like these that made the series feel more like it was written with the intention of being a big 'epic event' to rival anything previously seen in the comic industry, rather than some marketing, toy-selling ploy.

Left: Finished art from Secret Wars / Right: Original, unused sketches
Captain America leading the attack
Now, what about those toys? After all, there would never have been a Secret Wars had it not been for Mattel. The line consisted of all the main characters (and even some that didn't appear in the Secret Wars), including: Captain America, Spider-Man, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Iron Man, Wolverine, Kang, Doctor Octopus, Spider-Man (black costume), Baron Zemo, Daredevil, the Falcon, and the Hobgoblin.

Back in '84 it was a kid's dream come true
As with any action figure line, there are accessories and playsets -- and Mattel released them in abundance.

Can't have a proper 'Secret War' without these...

Naturally, many of these additional toys were never even featured in the mini-series. Not one panel in any of the 12 issues is there mention of the 'Freedom Fighter', the 'Turbo Cycle', the 'Doom Cycle', the 'Doom Roller', or the 'Doom Chopper'. Though, the 'Tower of Doom' was, in fact, Doctor Doom's headquarters in the comic series, but hey, what kid really cared?

Color-in your favorites!
However, as with most toy companies and comic book publishers, a successful toy line and comic series is simply not enough. Why not also release Marvel Super Heroes: Secret Wars 'Sticker Adventures' and a 'Coloring Activity Book'?

The Secret Wars was an undeniable, profitable success -- a 'Hollywood blockbuster' in comic form, and like any lucrative blockbuster, there must always be a sequel.

In 1985, a 9-issue Secret Wars II mini-series was published, however, it did not achieve the acclaim of the first series. The plot featured the Beyonder venturing to Earth, where he would encounter a majority of Marvel's heroes. Not nearly as fast-paced or gripping as the original, the sequel also suffered from uneven writing, characters, and artwork.

A one-shot Secret Wars III-of sorts was featured in Fantastic Four #319 in 1988, though some consider it best forgotten, as the Beyonder is given a half-hearted explanation as simply being a rogue cosmic cube.

In a way, the Secret Wars did make it to television, in the fifth season of the '90s Spider-Man animated series, though it was heavily watered down and the character-roster was shortened. In the 3-part episode arc, Spider-Man is told by the Beyonder and Madame Web to gather a list of Earth's greatest heroes to combat the likes of Doctor Doom, Alistair Smythe, Doctor Octopus, the Lizard, and the Red Skull on Battleworld. Spider-Man enlists the air of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Black Cat, and Storm (from the X-Men).

The closest thing to Secret Wars outside of comics thus far
Today, some issues of the original Secret Wars mini-series could fetch a decent price, depending on their condition and if they are graded. For obvious reasons, #8, where Spider-Man acquires his black costume, often attracts the most attention.

The Secret Wars were released in trade paperback format several years ago, though now they are out-of-print. 

Maybe, one day, we will see a resurgence of Secret Wars (possibly as another comic-sequel) or perhaps Marvel will one day create a Secret Wars animated feature, not unlike the two excellent Ultimate Avengers animated films.

1 comment:

  1. Please give credit where credit is due. The photos of the Secret Wars toys that you have posted came from our website, The Toy Box -