This gallery contains 14 photos.
What is it with comic book supervillians and buttons, anyway?
Mark Ginocchio from a recently redesigned Chasing Amazing is back! You might remember him from his two-part look at the Top 10 Spider-Man Battles (Part 1/Part 2). While Mark normally blogs about his affection for all things Spider-Man at Chasing Amazing (and has even started talking about the “Wall Crawler” on the Superior Spider-Talk podcast), Longbox Graveyard is delighted to welcome him back to write about the larger comic book universe. This week, Mark shares his thoughts about the grand-daddy Marvel cross-over event of them all, 1984-85′s Secret Wars series. Take it away Mark!
Living in and around New York City for my entire life has made me elitist about certain things … and I hate that. A few weeks ago, my wife and I caught a Saturday matinee of the Broadway revival of the musical Pippin. Upon getting out of the theater, I found myself mumbling and cursing the Times Square crowd under my breath. Really, you’re going to stop foot traffic to look at a cowboy in his underwear? Really, you flew in from Europe just to see the Lion King on Broadway when there’s a dozen other quality shows that are dying on the vine right now due to lack of sales? (No, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is not one of those shows that I sympathize with).
I hate that I’m like this, because the same kind of snobby elitism has been used against me and my love of certain things in pop culture. In the case of my comic book fandom, that would mean my adoration of Marvel’s Secret Wars series.
Published in 12 issues between 1984 and 1985, Secret Wars is considered to be the comic book industry’s first true “event,” pitting all of Marvel’s A-List heroes against an assembly of (mostly) A-list villains in a fight to the “death” on another planet that’s simplistically dubbed “Battleworld.” The series is the brain child of then-Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, certainly one of the industry’s biggest lighting rods, with pencils courtesy of Mike Zeck and Bob Layton.
The series is largely considered a joke and a gimmick by anyone who calls themselves a serious comic book aficionado and with good reason – Marvel folks have been unashamed in the fact that the whole event was created to help market a line of action figures designed to compete with the “Distinguished Competition’s” Legion of Super Heroes line. With toys being the driving force behind the series, the plot is mostly flimsy and the characterization of some of Marvel’s most beloved heroes and villains is often quite puzzling. So you would think a guy who pens a column on the internet called “Gimmick or Good” would just rightly dismiss this series and instead focus my energy on the plethora of great comics that were released in the 1980s.
But I can’t do that. I love this series.
Never underestimate the power of a child’s rose-colored glasses. First, let’s talk about those action figures. I owned them all as a kid and my mother still has my “black suit” Spider-Man figure sitting on the windowsill in her kitchen as a joke after finding the toy buried in the backyard many years ago (I must have been recreating the events of “Kraven’s Last Hunt”). Last year, while watching an episode of AMC’s Comic Book Men and seeing Secret Stash store owner Walt become child-like with glee when a vintage Marvel World board game came into his store, I started to openly reminisce to my wife about the Secret Wars figures. I knew whatever wasn’t buried in the backyard was probably buried in my parent’s basement, and I was likely to never see them again. A few months later for Christmas, the first series of the action figures was waiting in my stocking. My wife found a used set on eBay – surely not for collectors. But I was ecstatic regardless because a piece of my childhood had been preserved.
But beyond toys, the series defined the Marvel Universe for me. As a (very) young child, these were some of the first comic books I ever purchased. Yes, my ownership of Secret Wars even predates my first copy of Amazing Spider-Man, which as many of you will note, is my ultimate obsession in the comic book universe. It was from these comics I was able to identify all of Marvel’s heavy hitters: Captain America, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk, the X-Men (the REAL X-Men, i.e. Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Rogue and Professor X), Doctor Doom, Magneto, Kang, Doc Ock, Ultron, etc. etc. etc. While I’ve read and enjoyed some DC stories throughout my lifetime, I have always been firmly entrenched in the “make mine Marvel” camp, and Secret Wars is almost entirely responsible for instilling that affection at an early age.
Yes, when re-reading the series today, there are plenty of cringe-worthy moments. Shooter’s choices for some of the characters border on downright bizarre in sections: does the Wasp survive a near-death experience and really complain about her hair and make-up? Did She Hulk just say “tubular?” And why is “Rhodey” Rhodes (filling in for Tony Stark as Iron Man) getting all “what do you mean you people” with everyone?
Every issue is basically just building up for another confrontation between good and evil. Having Doom eliminate a character as awesome as Kang via Ultron so early in the series is questionable. The Lizard’s presence is a flat-out mystery to me. Was he even a featured Spidey villain during this time? Having Ultron get so easily manipulated by Doom is also disappointing.
Irrelevant. The fights are fun and everyone gets their moment, whether it’s Hulk holding up an ENTIRE MOUNTAIN to save his teammates, or Spider-Man outfoxing the X-Men who operate as a pseudo-rogue third party based on how the heroes mistrust the “mutants.” On the villains side, watching all of these immense egos try to get along is more entertaining than any season of the Real World. Plus, as the series goes along, it becomes perfectly clear that this is Doom’s story, and considering I find Doom to be one of the most compelling villains in comics, I’m alright with that.
There might be some panels where there’s just too much going on – too many people – for the art team to effectively draw, but Zeck creates three unquestionably iconic covers in the series’ first, eighth and tenth issues. Other artists continue to homage these covers to this day, which is always the ultimate testament to an illustration’s influence.
And despite the fluffiness of the series, there are a few moments that have gone on to have a long-term impact on the comic book industry. At the end of the series, The Thing, who has mysteriously been transforming back and forth between his rockman persona and Ben Grimm, decides to hang back on Battleworld to figure some stuff out, leading to a period of Fantastic Four where She Hulk is the fourth member. We get the first appearance of the second Spider Woman, Julia Carpenter, who also happens to have “nice legs” per the data collected by Rhodey’s Iron Man technology (or maybe that was just his own observation).
But more than anything else – and of course as one of the web’s biggest webheads you know I would zero in on this – the series’ eighth issue marks the official first appearance of the alien symbiote. While it initially looked like this moment was just another gimmick to get Spider-Man in a svelte black costume (complete with action figure), the symbiote would later be used to create one of the most significant entries to Marvel’s rogues gallery over the past 30 years – Venom.
Yes, as I’m sure most members of the cult of symbiote know, Venom’s first appearance wasn’t “technically” Amazing Spider-Man #300, but rather Secret Wars #8. I did in fact own this issue as a kid, but read it into a non-collectible pulp. I haven’t picked up a replacement issue because I’m more focused on using my (limited) financial resources to finish out my run of Amazing Spider-Man, but mark my words, I will come to own a nice copy of Secret Wars #8 at some point. It’s a must own for any fan of Spider-Man or Venom.
So, just like it’s futile to tell an NYC tourist to not waste their time and money staring at wax figurines at Madame Tussauds (and seriously, why are you eating at a TGIF’s when you’re in the culinary capital of America?), don’t expect to ever get me to change my opinion on Secret Wars. You’d essentially be arguing with a five-year-old, which is analogous to my mental state of comic book euphoria every time the words “Secret Wars” are so much as whispered around me. The series is just a demonstration of how hopelessly subjective our opinions about comic books can be.
Thanks to Mark for this week’s blog! Be sure to visit him at the all-new Chasing Amazing!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: It’s my big anniversary issue … #100 Top Ten One Hundreds!
This gallery contains 14 photos.
What is it with comic book supervillians and buttons, anyway?
Super-villains should rule the world.
It’s simple math. There are more super-villains than there are superheroes. A lot more.
Every superhero has an arch-nemesis. Some — like Spider-Man and Batman — have dozens of them. And every hero has a host of lesser villains that pop up, time and again, to give them grief. Even when heroes band together, all they get are more villains! When the they don’t catch a break — they have to contend with the likes of Count Nefaria, Ultron, Kang the Conquerer, and Korvac in addition to the villain-of-the-week in their normal books!
The bad guys must outnumber the good by 25:1 — maybe more! If the villains ever get on the same page, the world is doomed. So why hasn’t it ever happened?
Super-Villain Team-Up tells us why: super-villains are divas.
Super-villains argue over everything! Whether they should team-up in the first place, what their goals should be, who should be the boss.
They’re touchy, too. Very prideful, these super-villains. The headlining alliance of Super-Villain Team-Up between Dr. Doom and the Sub-Mariner falls apart on every other page in this book, largely because neither man can accept that they need the other.
And they’re mistrustful. It’s a staple of the Marvel Universe that heroes go brain dead when they run into each other, and slug it out for a few pages before they remember they’re on the same side. The bad guys have that same dynamic in spades.
Add to this their poor PR instincts — self-identifying in groups like The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and The Masters of Evil — and I guess we can conclude that super-villains are their own worst enemies.
So, too, was Super-Villain Team-Up its own worst enemy.
There’s a kernel of a cool concept in this book — late 1970s Marvel super-villains chewing the scenery and battling the world (and each other) for global domination. At it’s best, Super-Villain Team-Up is full of Grand Guignol and low-stakes action, like an all-villain WWE wrestling match where you can’t predict the outcome. For the most part, though, Super-Villain Team-Up is an incoherent mess.
Many of Marvel’s books had rotating creators through the seventies but Super-Villain Team-Up must set some kind of record. In seventeen regular issues — and two Giant Size editions — this book had an astonishing sixteen different creative teams! That’s right, almost more creative teams than there were issues published! That’s quite a trick. Take a deep breath and try to read them out all at once …
Roy Thomas/John Buscema, Thomas/Larry Lieber, Thomas/Mike Sekowsky, Tony Isabella/George Tuska, Isabella/George Evans, Isabella/Sal Buscema, Jim Shooter/Evans, Bill Mantlo/Herb Trimpe, Steve Englehart/Trimpe (for three whole issues — stability!), Englehart/Keith Giffen (so much for stability), Mantlo/Shooter (now on pencils!), Mantlo/Bob Hall (another streak of three!), Mantlo/Giffin, Mantlo/Hall (they’re back … But now the book is cancelled!), then Mantlo/Hall again as they finish off the series in Champions #16, but wait the book is back from the dead a full year later with a reprint of Astonishing Tales #4-5 by Lieber/Wally Wood, then finished out with a two-part Red Skull story by Peter Gillis/Carmine Infantino and Gillis/Arvell Jones!
Phew! They should have called this book Super-Bullpen Team-Up for all the guys that pitched in on the series. And don’t even ask about the inkers on this book!
With the revolving door of creators spinning off its hinges it’s no wonder the book jumps the rails almost from the outset.
In a confusing start to what would always be a confusing series, Super-Villain Team-Up launched with a pair of Giant Size issues that stitched together new material and reprints to explain how Doctor Doom survived some death trap in the pages of Fantastic Four, then was rescued by Namor, the Sub-Mariner, who was bitter over cancellation of his own book and the nerve gas that has rendered his dull, fishy Atlantean subjects unconscious.
After arguing for a couple books about who should be the boss and if they even need to be a team (pausing for multiple flashbacks and a revolt of Doom’s androids), the two kinda-sorta agree that it might be cool to conquer the world together.
But first, the most villainous menace of them all — backstory!
Marvel was pretty good about finishing out stories from cancelled books, but Super-Villain Team-Up went overboard trying to wrap up the loose ends from Sub-Mariner’s book, which bit the dust after issue #72. Were you clamoring for more Hydrobase Amphibians, Octo-Meks, Attuma, Dr. Dorcas, Men-Fish, and Ikthon? Neither was anyone else — but that’s what we get, as Namor is fish-slapped around by his C-level rogue’s gallery for most of the (non-Giant Sized) first issue of the run, giving Dr. Doom the opportunity to intervene and seal his alliance with Sub-Mariner. But nothing lasts forever — or even for an issue or two in this book — and no sooner have Doom and Subby put paid to Namor’s dull opponents than Doom and Namor are at each others throats again. Doom disables Namor’s pimp suit and robs him of his ability to live outside of water, then bombards Atlantis for good measure, winning a vow from Namor to serve him.
As the writers come and go, the story makes less and less sense. Doom is captured, somehow, by the Atlanteans, while Namor is smuggled out of Latveria by the Circus of Crime (!). A cross-over with the Avengers makes things even more confusing. And don’t even ask about the inexplicable guest appearance from Deathlok’s Simon Ryker in issue #4, or the most shocking guest-star of all … Henry Kissinger!
The book gets its feet back under itself around issue #10, when the Red Skull joins the cast. A sure way to make Dr. Doom seem like a swell guy is to match him against someone more evil, and there’s no one more evil than the Red Skull. The series peaks in issue #12. Forget the details and the backstory — here’s the setup. The Red Skull has taken advantage of Doctor Doom’s apparent death to fill the power vacuum in Latveria, building an orbital death ray using Doom’s technology and occupying Doom’s throne himself! After a preliminary battle, the two move to the moon … and here, we see the promise of Super-Villain Team-Up fulfilled at last, as Doctor Doom and the Red Skull engage in hand-to-hand battle on the surface of the moon!
We get this …
… and this …
… and this …
… and THIS!
After the moon story we got a pretty good wrap-up to the book’s long-running Doom/Subby story (which you can read in it’s entirety in my guest post over at Mars Will Send No More) and then a Twilight-Zone style tale where Doctor Doom had conquered the world with an invisible gas, but the victory rung hollow because no one was aware of his triumph. It was a gimmicky story, but still entertaining, and was further evidence this book had finally found its way.
But by then of course it was long past too late for this crazy concept of a book. An orphan, bi-monthly book in an era where Marvel would cancel a comic without a second thought, the odds were always against Super-Villain Team-Up, and the rotating creative teams, changing focus, and erratic publication schedule were too much for the poor book to bear. The series was cancelled, only to inexplicably reappear a year later with a Red Skull story that was frankly a bit too grim, with Herr Skull and Hate Monger (nee Hitler) lording it over their own private concentration camp.
And then the book was done for good. It’s a shame, as I still like the concept and it fit the late-1970s Marvel editorial approach well. The premise is too goofy to work under the current grim-and-gritty Marvel editorial style (and a 2007 attempt to resurrect the series under Modok was scuttled after a half-dozen issues). I suppose the miracle isn’t that the book was ever any good, but that it existed at all.
At least we got some groovy covers, like …
… and …
… and this timeless image of Doom über alles.
To generalize, and putting on my Goldilocks wig (DON’T try to imagine that!), I can say that the Giant Size books and issues #1-11 were too silly, issues #16-17 were too serious, and issues #12-14 were just right. It was with issues #12-14 (all scripted by Marvel’s jack-of-all-books, Bill Mantlo) that the series dialed it in right for me — these issues were all about melodramatic villains chewing the scenery and beating the crap out of each other. It’s a bumper crop of awesome, highlighted by Doctor Doom stomping around, talking about himself in the third person, showing off a never-ending supply of gadgets and acting all noble and Bond-villain smooth. If the earlier issues had adopted a similar tone, and treated my old favorite Namor with the same aplomb … ah, what might have been!
In a previous column I said it was rare to find a genuinely dreadful 1970s Marvel book … and Super-Villain Team-Up might be the exception that proves that rule. I love those late Mantlo issues enough that I won’t “Fail” the book like I did John Carter, or demolish it with a “D” as I did Deathlok. Super-Villain Team-Up earns a passing grade — but just barely, and only because Doom is giving me a hard stare!
(And no one wants to disappoint a super-diva!)