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