Secret Wars 2: A retrospective
Well, it’s finally happening, Marvel has begun the “The biggest thing they have ever done” with the release of “Secret Wars #1”. However, I personally find the title a bit misleading. This is hardly the first “Secret Wars”. In fact, it’s actually the 3rd. I wanted to take a moment to talk about the first two which both occurred in the 80’s (which shouldn’t be confused with Secret Wars which happened in 2004 and dealt with a completely different plot). Well heck, you can count it if you’d like but we’re only going to discuss the first two.
The first Secret Wars was actually the first stand alone major crossover title event in comic book history, this is in 1984 for anyone keeping track. Rather than having a character from one title appearing in another (Spiderman meets the X-men for example), for the first time, you had to buy a separate title each month along with all your regular comic books. It was not only a brilliant marketing move but a highly successful one as well. The books sold fantastically and why wouldn’t they? They featured every single major hero fighting it out with every major villain that existed at the time. If you were a thirteen year old comic book reader at that time, it was like a wet dream; a battle-royale of cosmic proportions. Ironically enough, the entire premise was conceived to appeal to 13 year olds. Marvel wanted to sell it’s toys and was trying to convince Mattel it would be a good idea. To prove it, Jim Shooter (the editor in chief at the time) conceived of a premise that would involve all of Marvel’s major characters.
The story behind the first Secret Wars was a fairly simple one. A mysterious, seemingly omnipotent being calling himself the Beyonder, whisked away all the heroes and villains and dropped them off on a “battleworld”. A planet that was created before their eyes itself had been made up of other planets. The winning side was promised “all they desire” and the fight was on. Over 12 issues, the sides fought back and forth with all the typical drama Marvel is known for. Characters go through all the typical emotional paces. There is love, anger, jealousy, even some death, and plenty of drama in between. It’s not a bad story and worth a read. The series culminates in Dr. Doom (who else would be crazy enough?) designing a mechanism that successfully stole almost all the Beyonder’s power. Unfortunately, he’s not able to maintain mental control over the vast energies (a mechanic used again during the Infinity War years later) and the Beyonder is able to take back his power. He then returns all the heroes and villains back to Earth.
What was significant about it?
The first Secret Wars brought us some important plot points that’s now considered classic. The biggest and easiest example is Spider-Man acquiring his black costume in issue 7 (which is of course the symbiote that leads us to villains like Venom and Carnage). The events also lead to the introduction of the second Spider Woman (Jessica Carpenter), The She-Hulk joining the fantastic four (this was a big change at the time!), and poor Kitty Pryde’s heart was broken by Colossus. Oh, and the Hulk holds up a freaking mountain with his bare hands! That’s got to count for something, right? Okay, I admit it, not the most profound earth-shattering changes but the important thing to take away is that it generates a LOT of money. So much money that not only does DC try to replicate its success in their own massive stand alone crossover “Crisis on Infinite Earths” but a sequel to Secret Wars, with a “2” tacked on is also published a year later.
Secret Wars 2 is what I really want to talk to you about. When this series came out, it was critically panned and reviled. People just didn’t like it. However, I believe it to be one of the most underrated and best written comic book stories written by a major publisher. Secret Wars 2 was completely ahead of it’s time. On paper it has the same ingredients as it’s predecessor. It features the Beyonder, almost all the major superheroes at the time, quite a number of villains, and some epic clashes but there’s one major difference. The story itself doesn’t follow the heroes or villains but the Beyonder himself. You see, the Beyonder is basically a sentient galaxy*. He is a “complete” being in that he is the galaxy and the galaxy is him. The Beyonder is basically happy because he lives in a closed bubble, until one day, a pinhole is opened between his universe and ours and The Beyonder becomes aware of the “other”. He realizes that there’s something that isn’t him out there and is spellbound. He is fascinated by humans who he perceives as “incomplete” since they are always seeking things, money, answers, etc. It’s revealed that the events in the first Secret Wars were setup so that the Beyonder could study humans and their desires but he was not able to come to a satisfactory answer. As such, in Secret Wars 2 he comes to Earth to more closely study humans, because he is desperately trying to understand the human condition. In that regard, the comic is more philosophical than anything Marvel had attempted before. Over the course of 12 issues, the Beyonder undergoes an evolution of sorts as he struggles with the nature of humanity and also tries to figure out his own place in the universe.
I believe that it was the philosophical nature of the series that turned a lot of people off. Marvel comics always had an undercurrent of adult themes and situations in their wheelhouse but there was also lots of punching and kicking thrown in for good measure. Here was a series that was more overtly confronting it’s readers to think about big philosophical concepts and I think a lot of people weren’t ready for it. Let’s take a closer look at each of the 12 issues and their themes:
This issue lays the groundwork for the rest of the series. It introduces the Beyonder and what he’s trying to accomplish. A bunch of heroes on earth are alerted to his presence and freak out because he could you know… kill everything on the planet with a thought. Most of the issue is unimportant except for the very end where the Beyonder realizes that watching events won’t lead to the understanding he desires. Only through experience can he hope to gain knowledge.
This is where things start to get a little interesting. The Beyonder decides that he needs to have a physical body as part of the whole “experiencing” thing (as opposed to a body made of energy or one that just looks physical). Which leads him to quickly discover gravity as he falls off the top of the World Trade Center.
In this issue, the Beyonder’s naivety is made clear. He is like a newborn with no concept of “normal” human behavior or social constructs. Things like eating, clothing, and money don’t have any kind of meaning to him. Slowly, he starts to learn about these things, there’s a particularly hilarious section where he realizes that having a physical body means having to use a bathroom. More importantly, the Beyonder starts to get a basic understanding of “desire” and that humans are constantly feeling it.
This is a pretty epic issue. It starts off with the Beyond being woken up by a NYC police officer because he had fallen asleep on the street. One of the downsides of having a physical body is that it gets tired. The cop acts very aggressively towards the Beyonder, waking him up with a strike of his baton. The Beyonder remarks on this, wondering out loud why so many encounters with people begin in an “intense” (violent) experience. This is one of the central themes of the series. The humanity is vicious, violent, and cruel. While I haven’t highlighting them, there have already been a number of physical confrontations between the Beyonder and various super heroes like the X-Men, Luke Cage, Captain America, as well as ordinary people in a gang among others. There’s nothing significant about the fights themselves. They just serve to show people natural hostility especially towards something they perceive as scary or powerful. The Beyonder is a Frankenstein of sorts. Incredibly powerful yet (at least initially) very simple.
After being woken up, the Beyonder encounters Toots, a prostitute (NYC was a different place in the 80’s!) while walking the streets. She directs him towards a sleazy motel where he falls asleep on the floor (awww! Silly omnipotent being doesn’t know what beds are for yet!). When the Beyonder awakens, he is not alone. In the room with him is not only the prostitute and her pimp but the pimp’s boss as well, Vinnie. Vinnie is essentially a mob boss. The Beyonder is only to happy to give Vinnie his life story. Now, Vinnie is a smart educated guy who recognizes what he has on his hands. A being of intense power who’s clueless. Dubbing him Frank (I kid you not!) Vinnie takes the Beyonder under his wing and becomes his mentor, instructing him on basic etiquette and how the world works (eating with forks, how money is and how to use it, etc). In exchange, the Beyonder helps him solidify his (minor) criminal empire.
(Fun Fact: One of the first things Vinnie does is to get the Beyonder some new clothes that look pretty ridiculous today. Marvel however, selected the look intentionally, the Beyonder is made to resemble a white 80’s Michael Jackson. The 80’s were the height of Michael Jackson’s popularity and this was a subtle way that Marvel hoped to capitalize on his image.)
Vinnie eventually tells the Beyonder that he’s taught him everything he knows. That he doesn’t want to hold him back, that he’s meant for bigger things. The Beyonder having been taught by a mob boss follows the hedonistic path he’s been set on to it’s logical conclusion. He surrounds himself with opulence, gadgets, and women, and starts to create his own empire. At first he simply takes over other criminal operations but gets bored and keeps going. The Beyonder becomes President of the United States, then ruler of the earth but still it is not enough. As an all powerful being, he can simply exert his will and desires over others with a thought. So the Beyonder keeps going, he gains control of plants, animals, bacteria, the elements, everything down to the atomic level. And yet, he is unhappy, feeling unsatisfied. The Beyonder goes to see Vinnie and asks him for help. But Vinnie has no real answers to offer. Partially because he has no free will but also because, “Why am I not happy?” can be quite a difficult question to answer.
The Beyonder goes to see Toots, the prostitute who originally befriended him. She too starts to give him canned answers. Realizing that by exerting his will over others, he has robbed people of a certain “spark”, the Beyonder releases his control over Toots. Surprisingly, she starts to thank him for turning her life around. Earlier, he had treated her as a regular person, something she was not used to. That act of kindness gave Toots a confidence boost and she informs the Beyonder that she has quit being a prostitute and has since become a waitress. She sporadically kisses him in gratitude and walks away wishing him the best. The Beyonder is very taken aback by her actions, he releases the entire planet from his control and wipes everyone’s memory. He does this because he is surprised to find himself more pleased by the sincere act of gratitude than having everyone’s will twisted to worship him as a god.
It’s in issue #3 that we first start to see the philosophical nature of the story start to come through. The theme of free will is quite powerful. The Beyonder outright states that,. “possessions and power do not bring fulfillment!” and while the message is a bit heavy handed, there were not many comic books to be found in the 80’s that were addressing the nature of free will in issue #3. The next issue decides to tackle an even more complicated issue, love.
As any writer will tell you, love is hard to write about. When we are little kids, falling in love at first sight is taken at face value but as we grow up, we realize that it does not really exist, or if it does, it is something so rare that it can hardly be used as a thematic device. I feel that Jim Shooter (the writer of Secret Wars 2) knew this but regardless, he only had one issue to write about love and he does the best he can with a limited amount of space. Unfortunately, because of the constraints, Issue #4 can come across as cliche and ham fisted. It does however, provide an excellent example of what NOT to do with someone you like.
Issue #4 starts off pretty dull. The first panel has the Beyonder passionately kissing Sharon, a random beautiful woman who we’re informed is some rich heiress. She declares her love for our favorite omnipotent being before he casually walks out on her. Oddly enough we’re never given any real backstory on Sharon. We don’t know how she met the Beyonder and why they were making out in the first place. The Beyonder meets up with the Molecule Man (who he considers a friend) and tells him that he’s starting to figure out this whole “desire” thing but wants to know more about love (he was first introduced to the concept last issue). The molecule man gives a standard answer along with a standard warning, that love should be mutual and consensual but also has the potential to be dangerous.
The Beyonder returns to his hotel only to discover that *gasp* the heiress has committed suicide because she cannot live without the Beyonder as her lover. He proceeds to bring her back to life and explains to her that he will never be with her because he wants to experience “real” love. One that’s not one-sided. The Beyonder begins to consider potential partners, including men. When Sharon remarks on this, the Beyonder reminds all of us that he has no gender by briefly becoming a woman. Ultimately, he decides to stick to being a man and considers a female mate (one of his considerations is Aunt May!). The Beyonder ultimately settles on Alison Blaire, better known as the Dazzler because “Her love cannot be bought at any price.” He then literally spends the rest of the issue trying to buy her love at any price. The Beyonder doesn’t fall in love with Alison so much as that he decides he should love her. Their whole interaction comes across forced and rushed and in a way it is (there are only so many pages in a comic book!). The Beyonder tries to instill love in Alison any way he can. From teleporting her to the arctic with a convenient bearskin blanket to a “romantic” horse carriage ride through central park and more. He comes across as a creepy asshole and to her credit Alison refuses him time and time again. The Beyonder even creates a fake fight between himself and the Avengers where Alison comes to his rescue in any attempt to foster emotions under a stressful shared experience. When all else fails, he gives Alison half of all his power which again to no surprise she completely rejects. You know who is surprised though? The Beyonder. He can’t believe that Alison is rejecting him (despite him explicitly selecting her as being difficult to woo) and he seems genuinely upset. He ends the issue promising to wipe Alison’s memory and then dramatically wishes he could forget the whole ordeal himself.
The whole thing comes off contrived but what can I say, not every issue can be amazing. While issue 4 is one of the weaker issues, it’s the Beyonder’s first experience of rejection (no matter how forced it may be) that leads to true character growth and interesting development in the rest of the series. Curious to hear what happens next? Here’s a hint, things get… cosmic! Leave a comment below, hit me up on twitter (@Kronocloud), let me know your thoughts and perhaps I can be persuaded to begin work on part 2!