Wednesday, August 13, 2014


The original Secret Wars effectively created the template for the now-inevitable “Big Event” comics – once restricted to limited series and Summertime crossovers, now a sub-genre of its own in the superhero firmament and an almost perpetual ringer on the schedules of both companies. The first volume of Secret Wars was basically the first new milestone in the “teams and team-ups” motif of superhero storytelling since the Justice Society was assembled and the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner duked it out in the Golden Age, or the JSA and JLA inaugurated their annual crossovers in the Silver Age. For the first time, thanks to Secret Wars, you could just arbitrarily throw all of your currently most popular heroes and villains into a blender and Jackson Pollack the whole mess into a fan-pleasing mélange.

Weirdly, though, the actual sequel to Secret Wars resembled in no way the format of the original, even though it seems in retrospect like the most obvious plot in the world to simply throw some new heroes and villains into a mix with a different reward at stake. Instead, you got something a vague critique of materialism and ambition amidst a backdrop of bright, pop cultural artifacts.

Brought to life by then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter - the man famous for being able to say "The last thing this industry needs is another superhero comic" and "I'm writing a new superhero comic" in the same breath, and heavy-handed illustrator Al Milgrom (with inks by a seemingly often-confused and hesitant Steve Leialoha, and you can’t blame him), Secret Wars 2 picks up on what no man can call an "unresolved plot thread" without breaking into riotous laughter or bawling in horror. 

And what comes out is this story.
The Beyonder - an omnipotent being peering into our universe by means of a spontaneously generated cosmic peephole - kicks off the original Secret Wars series abducting Earth's greatest heroes and villains and having them act out the plateau of their eternal morality play for him. In this sequel, his curiosity about humanity left unsated, he ventures to Earth in a human disguise, hoping to learn about us by living among us. Call CBS, I think I smell a sitcom!

Abstractly speaking, it's an interesting enough premise for a story - a being of virtually limitless power and no moral barometer to speak of is driven to Earth by his one human characteristic, curiosity, to learn by walking among mortals what it is precisely that makes humanity so unique. It's a very Seventies story, very Green Lantern/Green Arrow, except that if Denny O'Neil had been writing it, it would've wrapped up in twenty-five pages, and the kicker would've been that the alien ends up finding happiness and contentment being a hobo.

By contrast to Secret Wars I, where the mightiest heroes and villains on Earth fought a cataclysmic war of mythic proportions, Shooter brings us in the sequel such riveting scenes as: A television cartoon writer gaining tremendous destructive powers and blowing up a McDonald's, the Beyonder destroying the earth and it gets fixed immediately (that happens like FIFTEEN times or something), and the Beyonder looking at all the STUFF he has. Over and over again.

I'm not one of those guys who thinks every book needs to have a fight scene, but I do consider myself something of a fight scene snob in that I want any fight scene I DO see to at least be ... any good at all. Whereas this book did have three battles per issue, or thereabouts, they all went like this: (A) group of super heroes leaps out from behind a billboard, parked car, toaster oven, etc (B) they whup on Beyonder for about two or three panels and then (C) Beyonder basically yawns and walks away.

Boom, three times an issue! Four times if there’s a matinee. Theoretically, all the heroes of Earth had been alerted to the Beyonder's presence and to the terrible destruction he could cause, but rather than, say, make a plan or come up with some inexplicable scientific gadget to defeat him (you know, the stuff they do every issue of their own comics and have done since the beginning of time) they just like to leap out from behind the bushes and try to jump on his head. It's about as effective as putting a flaming bag of poop on his doorstep, except that this way the Beyonder doesn't even get poop on his shoes.

To illustrate this point, allow me to recreate a particular scene for you: The Beyonder hooks up with Boom-Boom*, a character who debuts in this series though eventually ends up with X-Force and Nextwave. Boom Boom separates from him at some point and rats him out to the Avengers. The Avengers gather their whole roster, Dr.Strange, and the Fantastic Four. They jump out of the bushes and stumble over each other for four panels. Then the Beyonder walks away, and they LET HIM GO despite being there to defeat him in the first place.

"I understand! This story
is an abortion and should
never have been printed!"
But wait, there's more. Noticing that the Beyonder seems a little depressed, the heroes decide to ask Boom-Boom if she knows why, only she's slipped away in the confusion. So they write her off.

So, somehow, using the secondary mutation of her own two legs, Boom Boom left the scene of the battle which only lasted about a minute and a half, meaning she is clearly lost for good. Having traveled a full hundred yards, there’s simply no way these superheroes – including the all-seeing Dr.Strange, at least one hero with animal-like tracking senses, Iron Man who surely must have some sort of radar-device in his armor and Mister Fantastic who might have something handy that does the same thing, plus three different actual gods – could track a girl walking away presently.

It’s worth remembering that Shooter, as editor-in-chief, sank the original Avengers vs JLA project because he felt the DC writers had the Marvel heroes using their powers in a completely nonsensical fashion. Just worth remembering that, really.

This is only one of dozens of scenes that actually had me yelling at this comic book. Not just shouting in frustration or incredulousness, but also trying to force it out of existence using only my voice, like that one groovy black Legionnaire. I used persuasion where I could. "Staples! How can you stand to hold together a book this awful? Fall apart! Now!" and "Paper, you dishonor your noble tree ancestors by holding onto this image. I demand that you reject the ink that created it, NOW!"

Also weighing the book down like a pork-stuffed redwood log were the endless FLASHBACKS and RECAPS. Readers really didn't have to worry about missing the original Secret Wars story, because it was recapped for them ... in almost every issue. When Secret Wars 2 eventually stopped recapping its source material, itinstead offered recaps of the previous issues of its own previous issues. Heck, sometimes they went for the threepeat and would recap the first series, the previous issues of this series, AND any important events from any of the eight hundred CROSSOVER books they did. If you buy one Marvel comic in 1985, make it Secret Wars ... because it blows the plot of every other book they produced that year.

The thing also failed to follow the "show, don't tell" rule of good comics - "failed" in the same sense as when you say something like "The pilot failed to adjust his trajectory and crashed his missile-laden jet first into the children's hospital and then smack dab into the main gasline for the town." The average panel in this book is anywhere from one-third to THREE-FOURTHS dialogue, and at one point there becomes such a critical struggle between allowable text space and cramped art that the hand-letterer gives up and they have a typography machine add in text in a smaller typeface to several panels.

Not that every word was pure gold ... far from it. Most of it was sort of endless, over-obvious mewling about the varied state of the human condition, a plodding brickhouse of existential blubbering. Other parts would be the heroes or narrator taking a moment to describe what was happening before their very eyes. No kidding. Lots of "Look out, he's shooting energy beams" and "those shards of glass are coming right for us!" ... stuff that the artist should've been able to represent without the writer feeling he had to mention it. To wit: Captain America explains, as the Beyonder vanishes in a flash of yellow light, "He disappeared!" Oh Cap, you idiot.

"We're terrible at our jobs."

There's more to loathe, but to document every failing in the book would be to reprint this book. Suffice it to say, the heroes unveil their boots of clay as they make a resolution to actually go kill the Beyonder (!!)and then end up changing their mind, because he turns himself into a baby. That the heroes, all of whom abide by that hoary old comic standard of the Code Against Killing (worth fifteen points in Champions), decided to snuff the super-being but then change their minds when it's a super-being baby being puts the lie to their ethics. If the intention was to ice the Beyonder not for the things he’d done but for the things he might do, well, babies might do even more things than grown-ups, mostly because they’ve got more time to do ‘em but also because of the liberating freedom of wearing a diaper.

Lest it not be underlined, it was the awakening maternal instinct of the female heroes who kept the good guys from killing the Beyonder baby. This is the cap on a book which featured a walking clone of Captain America dressed like Kurtis Blow and walking around in the company of a con man I can pretty much guarantee you was meant to be yet another of mainstream comics’ endless satires of Stan Lee. 

As a sequel, it doesn’t leave you wanting more, but you can’t say it wasn’t ambitious, even if it was wrong-headed.

*Boom Boom makes her first appearance in Secret Wars 2 #5. I called Bob Rozakis night and day at his home number, trying to figure out how much a mint edition copy would get me. He would just say stuff like "Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash, is Eobard Thawne" and "Man-Bat #1 is worth thirty cents in good condition" and "Leave me alone or I'll have you arrested."


D said...

I really wish you had included the panel where the Beyonder was learning that he needed to go to the bathroom. That was the pinnacle of how lane SW II was (IMHO).

BillyWitchDoctor said...

"The experience is consummated!"
"You flushed afterwards, right? AWWWWGH DAMMIT NO"

neofishboy said...

... and then Peter Parker basically shuffles him out the door. "Okay, you can shit now so my work is done. Good luck finding someone intelligent and compassionate to teach you about the human condition. Oh, and don't get a perm!"

Matt Fugate said...

"There's more to loathe, but to document every failing in the book would be to reprint this book."


cup king said...

You didn't got for the "This is beyonder joke" pun.

Which, after now having seen it written down, is a good move. Syung Myung Me said...

....wait, does that mean that this is where Adventure Time got the idea for the Lich turning into a baby to be taken care of by Tree Trunks and Mr. Pig?

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