Marvel at 80: Secret Wars II
1984’s Secret Wars was a smashing success, with fantastic sales for the comic line and the action figure line owned by Mattel that triggered the whole thing. While fans didn’t necessarily clamor for another significant event, it was a sure bet that a sequel comic would sell like gangbusters. Jim Shooter, Marvel’s Editor in Chief, decided that a sequel comic would be awesome as well, but wanted to put more of a personal spin on the comic. What would come from the originally-named Secret Wars II is a complicated mess that delayed comics for months, derailed ongoing plotlines, and resulted in confusing just about every reader and creator involved.
So, in a way, the modern event was born from here.
To make an incredibly meandering story as short as possible, the Beyonder has decided to see how Mankind lives. He travels to Earth and subsequently does just about everything a white, straight male from the 1980s could consider doing. It is precisely as creepy and weird as it sounds, and every single comic Marvel was publishing under their main line was drawn in for various antics as the Beyonder learned how to be a human. Eventually, the Beyonder tried to incarnate himself and his infinite power and wisdom into a human form via technology forcing Marvel’s greatest heroes to debate about aborting his unborn presence to prevent the Beyonder from experiencing humanity. Killed for good, the Beyonder would erupt into a big bang for a new universe, experiencing life in a new and weird way.
As you might guess, Secret Wars II was a weird trip.
Stretching across 45 issues of Marvel Comics continuity, Secret Wars II is both a snapshot of the 80s and a perfect image of what Marvel was like in 1985. Featuring licensed toy comics like the Micronauts and ROM Spaceknight, as well as The Power Pack, Alpha Flight, and Dazzler, it’s hard not to look at the event and go “Wow, Marvel was a weird place back then.” A lot of the tie-ins wind up being very similar, however: The Beyonder shows up, interferes in the main plot, makes things very confusing, then leaves again. Easily the most memorable exampled featured the time Spider-Man taught the Beyonder to poop.
The Beyonder would also turn an entire Manhattan skyscraper into gold, kill off the New Mutants (they got better), kill off most of The New Defenders (they also got better, albeit more slowly), resurrect the then-dead Doctor Doom, and even make the X-Men fight the future from Days of Future Past. However, he would mostly lurk around most of Marvel’s comics as the writers tried to passively fight Jim Shooter’s demands to make the Beyonder the main star of the Marvel Universe.
Tales persist from various creators at the time that Jim Shooter would demand art re-draws on the Beyonder because he would look different than the original art given out, evolving from a literal clone of Steven Rogers into a white man pretending to be Michael Jackson as the series went on. Shooter would also demand rewrites of those books, as the Beyonder’s dialogue would also evolve as the character absorbed more and more of the weirdest aspects of the 1980s. Denny O’Neil would also be taken off of Daredevil for issue #223 because Shooter was dissatisfied with the writing. This event would result in O’Neil leaving Daredevil entirely, and not on good terms.
As you might guess, writing is all over the place. Jim Shooter seems to be working out a lot of personal issues with this comic, with the Beyonder romancing many prostitutes and falling in love with Dazzler. He runs through almost every major power fantasy, including making Dazzler fall for him, wearing the height of 1985 fashion, and even taking over the planet at one point. Shooter also seems to glorify the mob life, and the entire work devolves from “exploring how mankind works in the Marvel Universe” into an arguably demented take on life and death. While there are a lot of really amusing moments early on, like the aforementioned “Spidey teaches the Beyonder to poop” scene, the story quickly gives way to increasingly disturbing concepts like the Beyonder brainwashing Dazzler to love him, or the comics-code-approved-orgies in which he later takes place.
Between this and the sales disaster that was New Universe, Jim Shooter’s days with Marvel were numbered, and he was out by 1987.
Thankfully, while the core issues of Secret Wars II devolved into one of the worst messes of the 1980s, the art is pretty spectacular. Al Milgrom did the pencils for every segment, and it looks fantastic. Body language is emotive and expressive, while facial expressions give life to Shooter’s peculiar script. While the physical comedy of the early Beyonder’s antics pares likely from Shooter’s script, Milgrom does a great job executing them. Scenes like those almost make up for the disastrous text. Steve Leialoha and Josef Rubenstein share collective inking credit and make Milgrom’s art, pop wonderfully. Joe Rosen and Rick Parker also share lettering duties for this event as well.
When it comes to the colorists, though, it becomes remarkably hard to figure out who deserves credit. Oh, Christie Scheele, Max Scheele, and Juliana Ferriter all worked together on multiple issues, with Christie Scheele taking the lion’s share of the work. And yet, chapters five, six, and nine all have the credit of “Many Hands,” meaning that so many people worked on those books that there just wasn’t enough space to credit anyone in particular. It’s hard to know now if these books were running behind, or if there were personal issues involved, but the installments still came out on time back in the day.
The best thing someone can say about Secret Wars II is that it proved an event comic tie-in can sell big, and even raise sales for tie-in issues. Every issue with a “Secret Wars II Continued Here” label in the top right sold more as fans tried to follow this convoluted tale. Which makes for an epic-feeling storyline, but it also results in an overly complicated and convoluted story for collectors to grab. Each issue winds up tying in with the rest of Marvel’s releases that week. It winds up becoming so convoluted that some issues of the run wound up including a map of where to go next.
There was one real positive side of the mess that was Secret Wars II, though: The introduction of Tabitha Smith, aka the explosively awesome Boom-Boom. While far from a major player in Marvel’s chronology, Boom-Boom has almost always been a fascinatingly enjoyable addition to any X-book.
If you couldn’t tell, Secret Wars II is a chaotic mess, and the negatives almost entirely outweigh the positives. Rare gems of humor and great storylines to come from Secret Wars II still barely make sense in the context of their books, and it derailed Marvel’s entire continuity for almost a year.
If you want a perfect snapshot of 80s Marvel under Jim Shooter, go for it. There are easy lists to find these days to sort Secret Wars II into something closely resembling sense, and Marvel’s even released a few omnibus books featuring the comics needed. However, it indeed is a work of its time and hasn’t aged that well.
It would take Marvel a few more years before they came up with another line-wide event. In the meantime, though, the crew over in the X-Office could come up with some of their small crossovers. Between now and the next line-wide crossovers, however, Marvel would come up with a few different crossovers using the annuals of books as their format. Next time, though, we have the next big event: 1989’s Acts of Vengeance.