Jim Shooter, for all that he is a legendarily controversial figure who was practically burned in effigy when he was booted out of Marvel and who made life miserable for a lot of people during his time as editor-in-chief, was a very smart guy and a pretty good writer. Dialogue was never his strength, but he’s always had a knack for coming up with big, interesting ideas and relating them in an accessible way. And I have to say, ‘Secret Wars’ was one of his triumphs on that score.
It started much the same way that DC’s ‘Super Powers’ mini-series did; they were doing a toy line, and they wanted to tie it in to a single storyline that featured as many of Marvel’s big guns as possible so that you would read the comic and then buy the toys…or possibly vice versa. Either way, it was a much bigger success as a comic than a toy line; the ‘Super Powers’ toys did far better business than ‘Secret Wars’ ever did. But as a comic, there’s no question which was better.
For one thing, it worked really well as a Big Event. The way that Shooter handled it made it remarkably a) non-intrusive for a crossover that involved Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and pretty much every single big-name villain including one who was notoriously dead at the time, and b) caused a lot of anticipation among comics fans. Shooter had the heroes disappear at the end of one issue (being the EIC of Marvel meant it was a lot easier to get people to participate in your crossover) and reappear at the beginning of the next…but as with DC’s ‘One Year Later’, a lot had clearly happened between those two issues, and the only way to find out what was to buy ‘Secret Wars’. Why did Spider-Man have a new costume? Why was the Hulk’s leg in a cast? Why was the Thing off on another planet? Why was She-Hulk now a member of the FF? Why did Colossus break up with Kitty Pryde? These were the kind of questions that Marvel could reasonably expect fans to want to know the answers to, and it was smart to structure the series this way. (And for the most part, the answers even made sense. Although the Hulk didn’t stay in the cast for long.)
But for another thing, it had some interesting themes. First, the Beyonder worked perfectly for this crossover. It made sense, on a metatextual level, that a series that was a tie-in to a toy line would involve an impossibly powerful alien playing with Marvel’s heroes and villains as if they were his action figures. But more than that, Shooter decided to ask questions about why kids enact such complicated play activities with their toys, especially ones that are emblematic of struggles over good and evil. He suggested that maybe the play activity helped sort out moral questions on a level accessible to children, and structured the series around an alien that was trying to figure out what good and evil actually were, and around an omnipotent alien whose every desire was instantly fulfilled trying to figure out what it was like to want things.
The answers he came up with were pretty interesting. For starters, although it was never made explicit, the heroes and villains weren’t grouped according to our complex moral frameworks, but according to the very simple question, “Are their desires selfish?” The people who were predominantly selfless, who used their powers to help others, were grouped as ‘heroes’, while the people who were predominantly selfish were grouped as villains. This had two immediate and fascinating results, which played out over the rest of the series. By this logic, Doctor Doom was a villain, while Magneto was a hero.
This was a major thematic component to the series, and showed a really deep understanding of the two characters. Shooter realized that for all that Magneto is ruthless and even murderous, he’s not selfish. He does what he does for mutantkind, not for his own personal benefit. Magneto would be perfectly happy with a little house in the country somewhere in a world where mutants were free of persecution; he doesn’t need to rule. While Doom…Victor might delude himself into thinking that he wants to rule the world for all the right reasons. He might pretend that he would simply be the best choice as leader, and that everything he does is for the benefit of humankind. But the Beyonder saw into his heart and knew better. That pretty much formed the underpinning of the entire story.
But of course, we needed fights and betrayals and epic feats of strength and power and big cool battle sequences and heroes distrusting each other and villains distrusting each other and Galactus being apocalyptically bad-ass and all sorts of Cool Shit, too. And ‘Secret Wars’ paid off. You got to see Spider-Man beating the entire X-Men simply by virtue of being too flippy-shit to punch. You got to see Hawkeye putting an arrow into Piledriver’s shoulder. You got to see the Hulk ripping the Absorbing Man’s arm off…and, oh yeah, holding up a freaking mountain with his bare hands. Oh, and you got to see the Molecule Man dropping a freaking mountain on the Hulk. Mark Millar wishes he could come up with an ending as cool as the ending to issue #3 of ‘Secret Wars’. There were so many great, epic Big Moments in this, and yet it never felt like Shooter was trying to shove Big Moments into his story. He didn’t draw attention to them; he just kept going with one after another exciting scene.
And it all culminated in an epically awesome last four issues. After hanging around for most of the series being enigmatic, Galactus finally decided to just eat the planet and everyone on it. (Some people wondered why the Beyonder would include a character who was pretty much guaranteed to win, but that presumes that this was a fair-play competition and not a psychological test. Finding out how people responded to learning that they never had a chance at winning would be worth studying in and of itself.) The heroes debated whether or not to sacrifice themselves and let Galactus win, in order to see his hunger permanently sated and save untold future billions, but ulatimately the whole thing was rendered moot when Doom stole the power of the Beyonder and became basically God.
This has to be one of the all-time great moments of Doctor Doom’s history, by the way. It established Doom as one of the ultimate schemers of the Marvel Universe; while everyone else was trying to figure out how to win the contest, Doom was planning to screw over God. And it worked. That’s bad-ass. And his defeat was also amazing; the heroes didn’t beat Doom with cunning or teamwork or power, Doom beat himself because deep down, he knew he was unworthy of Godhood. He couldn’t consciously accept the truth about his uglier aspects, but his subconscious knew he wasn’t the noble monarch he wanted to think of himself as, and everything fell apart on him through his own doing. (Which, by the way, was another epic Big Moment in the series. The heroes debate whether to take on an omnipotent, seemingly-benevolent Doom, and Cap says, “Is it even possible? If we decide to fight him, he might just annihilate us all with a bolt from the blue.” But ultimately, they decide he has to be stopped…and Doom just annihilates them all with a bolt from the blue. The next issue opens with Cap’s shield in pieces on the ground.)
And ultimately, Doom’s defeat provided the answer to the Beyonder’s question, for the audience if not the characters. Doom’s selfish desires were poisonous, and getting what he wanted–getting everything he ever wanted–worked out very badly for him, because he didn’t really know what he wanted and he wound up getting the wrong things. Self-knowledge matters more than power, and the ultimate “winner” is the Molecule Man, who learns that he’s always been able to do anything he ever wanted to do; he was just too scared to accept responsibility for that. And armed with that ultimate power, and even more importantly with that ultimate self-knowledge, the Molecule Man settles down to a little apartment in the suburbs with a nice girlfriend, content in the knowledge that fulfilling one’s desires doesn’t come from grabbing more, it comes from learning when you have enough. That’s a pretty deep message to come out of a toy tie-in series, but Shooter told it in a way that the average kid could understand.
Then, of course, the Beyonder came to visit the Molecule Man…but since this is “Things I Love About Comics”, we’ll stop there.