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A Secret Wars Apologist

Longbox Graveyard #99

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.

Secret Wars Heroes

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.

Secret Wars villains

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.

Secret Wars #1

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.

SecretWarsFigures

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?

Secret Wars Wasp

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.

Secret Wars battles

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.

Secret Wars Hulk

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).

Secret Wars SpiderWoman

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.

Secret Wars 8cover

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.

Secret Wars Spiderman

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!

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Top Ten Spider-Man Battles (Part II)

Longbox Graveyard #95

(Last month, Mark Ginocchio of Chasing Amazing began his survey of Spider-Man’s top battles by spotlighting confrontations with Mysterio, Thanos, and more. This month, Mark counts down the final five entries on his Top Ten List! And now … heeeeere’s Mark!)

We’ve now reached the second half of my top 10 favorite Spider-Man battles of all-time. The first half of this list consists primarily of Silver and Bronze Age altercations that are right in Longbox Graveyard’s wheelhouse. Well, the second of these lists will definitely contain some old-time classics. But, I’m also about to push some of you out of your comfort zone and introduce some scenes from comics that – gasp – occurred over the last 20 years during the much reviled “Copper” or “Chromium” Age.

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You Might Also Like: Top 10 Spider-Man Battles (Part I)

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5. Spider-Man vs Hobgoblin (Amazing Spider-Man #249-251)

Hobgoblin

When Roger Stern introduced Hobgoblin to the world in the mid-80s, the character could have easily devolved into just another cheap Green Goblin rip-off capitalizing on all the heat between Spidey and the Osborn family. Instead, Stern crafted a villain that was as intellectual as he was mad. The three issue arc starts off with Hobgoblin having obtained scores of confidential information about some of New York City’s most elite residents and businessmen. His objective is to blackmail these people for financial gain. Of course Spider-Man gets involved, but during the course of these issues, his Spider-Sense is no longer working (that seems to be a common device in Marvel deck stacking strategy for Spidey). The altercation culminates with Spider-Man attacking Hobgoblin aboard his “Goblin Van.” What follows next is the comic book equivalent of some of the better car chases scenes you’ve ever seen in the movies. The Goblin Van is set to auto-pilot as Hobgoblin and Spidey throw haymakers at each other, including one well-placed punch that reactivates the hero’s Spider Sense. From there, the van crashes into the Hudson River and thanks to the power of self-destruct mode, explodes. Spider-Man moves far enough away from the explosion but finds Hobgoblin’s mask. These issues mark probably the last great Hobgoblin story for Amazing Spider-Man (Stern would later leave the title before the mystery of his identity was resolved). I’ve also long appreciated the indulgence of the Goblin Van sequence. Artistry and nuance is great and all, but sometimes I just want to see stuff blow up.

4. Spider-Man vs Venom (Amazing Spider-Man #346-347)

top 10 ASM 347 01

I’ve spent a lot of time on my own site, Chasing Amazing, reminiscing about the early appearances of Venom. I understand that he’s a bit of a punch line now (though I’d argue that Rick Remender’s run of the Venom solo series starring long-time Peter Parker bully Flash Thompson as the symbiote was pretty solid). But you have to understand that as a reader who first came to comics in the mid-to-late 80s, Venom was the first major Spider-Man adversary created in a comic book that I bought off the rack (Amazing Spider-Man #300). In previous run-ins with Venom, there was always an understanding that Spidey was just lucky to survive. Between Venom’s brute strength, and the ability of his alien symbiote costume (that used to be Peter Parker’s black costume) to disarm Spider-Man’s coveted spider-sense, I always wondered if there would be a situation where the Web Slinger would finally be toast. And that moment was poised to happen in this two-issue arc from the early 90s. Here, Venom scouts out a desert island, knocks Spider-Man unconscious, and then brings him to this island to be hunted and ultimately killed. Spidey is completely out of his element here, as Venom knows the layout of the island quite well and is essentially toying with the hero every step of the way. Venom even sets up a barricade of symbiotic tentacles to prevent Spider-Man from just jumping into the water and swimming to safety. But as is often the case with Spider-Man, when the deck is stacked against him, he is able to use his keen intellect to save the day, or in this case, himself. After finding an old skeleton and some explosives on the island, Peter simulates an explosion to fake his own death. Venom finds a skeleton wearing a Spidey outfit among the wreckage and is suddenly at peace with finally slaying Spider-Man. That gives Peter an opening to escape off the island by swimming to a nearby boat. This issue also marked a certain finality to the Spider-Man/Venom story that had been introduced 47 issues earlier. Of course Marvel went and ruined it all by bringing Venom back to battle another symbiote named Carnage…

3. Spider-Man vs Green Goblin (Amazing Spider-Man #121-122)

ASM 122

Probably more famous for marking the death of Gwen Stacy and the end of the Silver Age, these issues are significant from a conflict resolution standpoint as well. Namely, throughout the duration of his existence Spider-Man/Peter Parker had vowed never to kill an adversary and these issues show Peter moving as close as he ever really gets to delivering a fatal blow to an opponent in the Green Goblin. And even though Peter still doesn’t betray his moral code of power and responsibility, writer Gerry Conway and artist Gil Kane have the sense to at least give the audience some satisfaction, by having Norman Osborn inadvertently kill himself when he summons his glider past a leaping Spider-Man right through the center of his torso. These two issues are filled with sadness and mourning for the death of Gwen Stacy and the personal battle Spider-Man was left to fight against the Green Goblin. The reader is also left questioning Spidey’s failures in rescuing Gwen – did his webbing inadvertently snap her neck after she was thrown from the bridge (most people believe so)? It’s probably the one time in Spider-Man’s history where I would have gladly looked the other way if he decided to beat Norman Osborn to death, and yet the fact that he doesn’t, makes the character all the more noble and heroic.

2. Spider-Man vs Morlun (Amazing Spider-Man #30-35, volume 2)

Morlun 01

My affinity for this storyline has always seemed to cause controversy when I speak about it on Chasing Amazing. It’s not because people don’t think it’s great – but I’m guessing the fact that it was only written in 2001 makes it difficult for some to rank it among the all-time best. For me, this is the pinnacle of J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Amazing Spider-Man (for what it’s worth, it was also his very first arc). The storyline introduces a new spin on Spidey’s character – that perhaps his animalistic powers were inherent and the radioactive spider bite just brought him the awareness needed to use them. It also introduces Morlun, a supernatural ghoul who feeds off the energy of super-powered folk like Spider-Man. Spidey’s confrontation with Morlun is yet another instance of the creative team throwing as many obstacles as they can think of to stack the odds against Spider-Man. Morlun is faster, stronger and more persistent. And because he’s a brand-new character with plenty of motivation to “feed,” it makes readers wonder if this will finally be the time where Spider-Man doesn’t survive. Spidey himself even questions this, when he makes a depressing call to Aunt May saying he loved her before marching off to meet his uncertain fate in battle. Never have I remembered Spider-Man being so resigned to defeat, but looking straight ahead anyway. And it’s ultimately Peter’s resignation that helps him to succeed. By allowing Morlun to “feed” on him, the villain discovers that Spider-Man is in fact, not pure, and tainted with radioactive blood. The radioactivity weakens Morlun enough that Spider-Man finally has his opening to physically subdue his opponent. I don’t think there was ever a superhero whose impurity was celebrated the way Spider-Man’s was in this storyline.

1. Spider-Man vs Juggernaut (Amazing Spider-Man #229-230)

Juggernaut

Probably Roger Stern’s most famous story-arc, the Juggernaut’s crossover into the world of Amazing Spider-Man celebrates everything we love about the Web Slinger. Juggernaut shows up on Spidey’s turf and nearly kills the hero’s friend, Madame Web. From there, every panel is filled with non-stop action and tension as Spider-Man throws every trick in the book to try and subdue his opponent. Juggernaut meanwhile keeps brushing Spidey aside as if he were an annoying little gnat. What makes this confrontation so exceptional and head and shoulders above every other one on this list is that Juggernaut ends up being an absolutely perfect foil for Spider-Man. By definition, “nothing can stop the Juggernaut.” And yet Spider-Man is best known for his uncompromising, never-say-die spirit. So when these two collide, it’s the unstoppable force versus the unbreakable spirit. Of course, because this is a Spider-Man comic, spirit ultimately succeeds over force, but it takes Peter’s intellect, along with some well-placed wet cement to finally stop the Juggernaut in his tracks. There’s a reason why this is consistently ranked one of the greatest Spider-Man storylines of all-time. Because even after reading it dozens of times, it still gets me up and out of my chair and cheering each and every time I give it a look.

(There you have it … Mark’s ten favorite Spider-Man battles of all time. Do you agree with his choices? Which great battle has he snubbed? Sound off in the comments section, below, and please repay Mark’s kindness in writing these guest blogs for Longbox Graveyard by visiting his home blog, Chasing Amazing. You’ll be glad you did!)

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #96 Bend It Like Bendis

LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS

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