se­cret wars

The first Marvel cross­over comic book was a huge suc­cess and highly in­flu­en­tial, writes Stephen Jewell

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

Un­cov­er­ing the story be­hind Marvel’s ’ 80s megamix.

With mega- crossovers like Civil War and Age Of Ul­tron now an an­nual if not twice- yearly fix­ture, it’s as­ton­ish­ing that Marvel’s in­au­gu­ral block­buster­style minis­eries didn’t see the light of day un­til more than two decades af­ter the ar­rival of its first comic, 1961’ s Fan­tas­tic Four # 1. More­over, Marvel Su­per He­roes Se­cret Wars – to give the 12- part epic its com­plete ti­tle – started out not as a re­sult of any kind of ed­i­to­rial man­date but as part of a li­censed deal with doll man­u­fac­turer Mat­tel, who wanted to cre­ate a ri­val line to Ken­ner’s DC- in­spired Su­per Pow­ers Col­lec­tion of ac­tion fig­ures.

“It’s a sit­u­a­tion that would have hor­ri­fied the hard­core read­ers in 1984,” ad­mits Marvel Ex­ec­u­tive Edi­tor and all- round en­cy­clo­pe­dia of knowl­edge Tom Brevoort. “I know, be­cause I was one of them. The no­tion that the im­pe­tus for such a huge story was to do with a tie- in to a toy line would have made it feel like an il­le­git­i­mate part of the Marvel Uni­verse, at least to some peo­ple.”

Writ­ten by Marvel’s then- Edi­tor- in- Chief Jim Shooter and mostly drawn by Mike Zeck and John Beatty, Se­cret Wars seems like such a blind­ingly ob­vi­ous con­cept that you have to won­der why it took the Bullpen so long to get around to it. “It’s the sort of idea that ev­ery child thinks of,” says Brevoort. “Put all the su­per­heroes and

su­pervil­lains into one big story, the hugest story ever! On the flip side, it’s in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to do that and not turn the char­ac­ters into ac­tion fig­ures and just cos­tumes and power- sets rather than peo­ple. The nat­u­ral dra­matic arms race of the comic book in­dus­try has since made do­ing such sto­ries a regular thing, but they’re no eas­ier to make work to­day than they were back then.”

Re­al­is­ing that the in­ter­con­nected, shared world na­ture of the Marvel Uni­verse was an in­trin­sic part of its ap­peal, Shooter had ac­tu­ally al­ready be­gun to think along such lines be­fore Mat­tel came call­ing. In fact, the tem­plate for Se­cret Wars was es­tab­lished two years ear­lier in the House of Ideas’ first ever limited se­ries, Marvel Su­per­heroes Con­test Of Cham­pi­ons. Writ­ten by Mark Gru­en­wald and drawn by John Romita Jr and Bob Lay­ton, the three- is­sue minis­eries was orig­i­nally de­signed as a spe­cial trea­sury edi­tion that would be pub­lished to co­in­cide with the 1980 Sum­mer Olympics in Moscow be­fore the sub­se­quent US boy­cott put paid to those plans. Cen­tring around two groups of su­per­heroes who are pit­ted against each other by a pair of com­pet­ing cos­mic en­ti­ties, its sce­nario boasts sev­eral similarities to Se­cret Wars. “About a year af­ter that, Mark Gru­en­wald and [ edi­tor] Tom DeFalco sat down with the work that had been com­pleted on it, and re­worked it into Con­test,” re­calls Brevoort. “That was done so as to not waste the money that had al­ready been spent on those pages, so I don’t know that Con­test was ever thought of that highly on a cre­ative level, apart from be­ing a clever way to re­pur­pose a lost story.”

toy sto­ries

With a multi- char­ac­ter epic called Cos­mic Cham­pi­ons hav­ing al­ready been in devel­op­ment for a cou­ple of years, Mat­tel’s stip­u­la­tion that Marvel should re­lease a spe­cial event book to co­in­cide with the toy range’s re­lease co­in­cided per­fectly with Shooter’s plans. How­ever, with mar­ket re­search in­di­cat­ing that both “se­cret” and “wars” were both buzz words that would at­tract young read­ers, a name change was nec­es­sary. “That’s such an ab­stract thing,” ar­gues Brevoort. “Cer­tainly the ti­tle Se­cret Wars is evoca­tive, and it im­plies a cer­tain sort of story. But if the same story had been called Con­test Of Cham­pi­ons II or Cos­mic Cham­pi­ons

would it have sold any worse or any bet­ter? Who can say?”

Bring­ing to­gether the Avengers, the X- Men and Spi­der- Man, Se­cret Wars # 1 opens with the he­roes be­ing trans­ported to the planet of Bat­tle­world by the mys­te­ri­ous Beyon­der, who forces them to battle a plethora of popular vil­lains in­clud­ing Doc­tor Doom, Galac­tus and the Wreck­ing Crew. For Shooter, it was an op­por­tu­nity to make rad­i­cal changes to some of Marvel’s best- known he­roes and vil­lains. Most sig­nif­i­cantly, 12 months be­fore that, he had pur­chased a story premise from an as­pir­ing writer, which in­volved Reed Richards designing a new high- tech, black cos­tume for Spi­der- Man, a devel­op­ment that would even­tu­ally lead to the cre­ation of the sin­is­ter alien sym­biote, Venom. “As I un­der­stand it, the re­mit was to do a se­ries that would tie in to the toy line,” ex­plains Brevoort. “That im­plied the use of cer­tain char­ac­ters, and even cer­tain de­signs such as with Doc­tor Doom, who when he ab­sorbs the Beyon­der’s power, winds up look­ing just like his ac­tion fig­ure. In brain­storm­ing how to make such a story work as part of the on­go­ing Marvel soap opera, as well as how to get bet­ter mileage out of the toy line – by be­ing able, for ex­am­ple, to re­lease two Spi­der- Man fig­ures, a clas­sic one and a black cos­tume one – Jim sim­ply landed on the ideas that he em­ployed.”

Fa­mous for his au­to­cratic meth­ods, Shooter knew that there was only one choice when it came to who would script the se­ries: him­self. In the in­tro­duc­tion to the Se­cret Wars 30th

An­niver­sary Edi­tion, he ex­plains how Marvel’s lead­ing au­thors of the day could be very ter­ri­to­rial about their books, of­ten bit­terly re­sist­ing any crossovers or guest ap­pear­ances with any other scribe’s ti­tles. “Al­low­ing any one of the writ­ers to han­dle pretty much ev­ery­one else’s char­ac­ters in Se­cret Wars, con­tem­plated to be the big­gest, most con­ti­nu­ity- in­ten­sive cross­over ever done, would have led to blood­shed in the hal­lowed halls,” Shooter re­calls. “So, I wrote it. As Edi­tor- in- Chief, by def­i­ni­tion, I was the com­pany’s des­ig­nated Keeper of the Fran­chises, and the or­dained Ab­so­lute Author­ity on the char­ac­ters – all part of the job, at least back then. The writ­ers could – and did – ar­gue with me, and on some oc­ca­sions talked me into their point of view re­gard­ing what Thor, Spi­derMan or the X- Men would do or say in a given sit­u­a­tion. But, ul­ti­mately, it was my call. That made things a lit­tle eas­ier. And, less bloody.”

artists as­sem­ble

As for who would take on the for­mi­da­ble task of il­lus­trat­ing the se­ries, Shooter re­sisted em­ploy­ing one of Marvel’s su­per­star artists of the day, such as John Byrne or Frank Miller, and in­stead opted for the less cel­e­brated team of Mike Zeck and John Beatty. “That was a canny choice,” says Brevoort. “Mike was a very popular artist when he got the Se­cret Wars as­sign­ment, as he was com­ing off of a well- re­ceived run on Cap­tain Amer­ica.”

Per­haps best known nowa­days for his work on the sem­i­nal 1987 Spi­der- Man sto­ry­line

Kraven’s Last Hunt, Zeck’s Se­cret Wars pen­cils are no­tice­ably less or­nate and de­tailed than usual. Even­tu­ally the oner­ous task of hav­ing to

“the re­mit was to tie in to the toys”

jug­gle a cast of over 30 char­ac­ters would take its toll and Zeck was re­placed on is­sues 3 and 4 by Bob Lay­ton. “It was a dif­fi­cult choice for Mike, in that Shooter had a very spe­cific idea as to how he wanted or needed the sto­ry­telling on that project to go,” says Brevoort. “And that wound up cre­at­ing sit­u­a­tions where pages were rou­tinely be­ing re­drawn, putting a lot more strain on the sys­tem. In the Se­cret Wars Om­nibus we pub­lished a few years ago, Zeck gave us copies of his orig­i­nal pen­cils to the first is­sue to run, and you can go through and see just how many changes were made from them to the fin­ished book.”

As the se­ries pro­gressed, Beatty’s work­load in turn had to be eased by artists such as Mike Es­pos­ito and Jack Abel. “The deeper into the project they got, the more peo­ple had to be called in to help get the is­sues done in time, which is why the last two or three is­sues have mul­ti­ple inkers, in­clud­ing some peo­ple who weren’t of­fi­cially cred­ited. They were get­ting those books done by the skin of their teeth – a cir­cum­stance that’s par for the course for big event books to this day.”

With each is­sue sell­ing around a mil­lion copies – over twice as much as the likes of Un­canny X- Men – Se­cret Wars was a run­away sales suc­cess, lead­ing to an in­evitable se­quel only 12 months later. Cen­tring around the Beyon­der jour­ney­ing to Earth, Se­cret Wars II broke new ground once more as it crossed over with ev­ery sin­gle Marvel ti­tle. From The In­fin­ity Gaunt­let to House Of M and Avengers Vs X- Men, uni­verse- wide event books have since be­come a fix­ture of not only ev­ery sum­mer but the re­main­der of the year as well. Now af­ter lend­ing its ti­tle if not its plot­lines to Brian Michael Bendis’s Se­cret War in 2003, this May’s Se­cret Wars: Bat­tle­world by Jonathan Hick­man and Esad Ribic will in­volve el­e­ments of Marvel’s var­i­ous mul­ti­verses com­ing to­gether to form a new Bat­tle­world.

“The le­gacy of Se­cret Wars can be seen ev­ery time we do an Orig­i­nal Sin, In­fin­ity or Axis,” says Brevoort, re­fer­ring to Marvel’s last three line- wide crossovers. “It showed that such a se­ries could be both com­mer­cially and cre­atively vi­able, and that the au­di­ence was ravenously hun­gry for such tales. But Se­cret Wars was the first such se­ries, and that more than any­thing is its le­gacy. There have been plenty of crossovers since, some bet­ter, some worse, but none of them can be the first.”

The new- look Doc­tor Doom Mat­tel fig­ure.

Our he­roes find them­selves in a strange alien en­vi­ron­ment. Ben Grimm finds he’s not the Thing any more – for the mo­ment.

Doc­tor Doom goes su­per sized thanks to the Beyon­der. Look out, Marvel su­per­heroes… … Marvel su­pervil­lains are along for the ride too. A new Spidey suit de­buted in the now valu­able is­sue 8.

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