This is an origin story. Thirty years ago, give or take a day, I went to my local newsagent and I bought a new comic. The next day I asked the newsagent, Mr.Mann, he of the back room full of protein supplements and ‘marital advice’ partworks, to reserve it for me every fortnight. Two months later he was putting aside a second comic, 2000AD. Six months later I found a source for imported US Marvel comics, and I started ordering those. And so it grows.
The origin story is no different from any other comics fan’s. It begins when something radioactive bites you. Bought in a corner shop (but it could have been glimpsed in an attic, snipped up on Tumblr, passed on by an older sister, found in a doctor’s waiting room) – it sinks its teeth in. You’re changed. You borrow, and read, and buy. With great power comes financial irresponsibility. You walk away sometimes, you come back other times. And thirty years later, here you are.
There’s nothing special about the comic that does this to you. It could have been any comic. Like every origin story, mine comes with precedents, and acquires retcons. I can go back to 1978, age 5, and fill in the gaps of my comics prehistory. I will. But even if it wasn’t my first, that one comic is a turning point.
What was it? Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #1. Not the American one. The British one. It had free transfers, and free foam stickers, which tore the covers up and lived on my bedroom door for months until they finally peeled away. It had a bonus feature – the Secret Artist, drawing distorted mockeries of Marvel characters, Basil Wolverton style. (The Secret Artist looks a bit like Cliff Robinson, who drew a few Dredds later in the 80s for 2000AD)
It also had the main story, a full reprint – flicking between colour and black and white – of the American Secret Wars first issue. That was what did it.
Secret Wars feels enormously contrived now. It felt enormously contrived then. Sean Howe, in his book on Marvel, uncovers market research by toy company Mattel which revealed that the most attractive words to small boys were “Secret” and “War”. Rather than go with a Contras playset, it teamed up with Marvel whose editor in chief, Jim Shooter, cooked up and wrote the series.
Shooter establishes the tone of Secret Wars immediately. The comic opens with two space stations floating in the void. On one are twenty or so heroes. On the other are a dozen villains. Each station gets a long panel where all the heroes, and all the villains, stand in line, and say one line of dialogue each. That dialogue is as stilted as the staging, making sure a newbie kid could understand who everyone was. I get the impression anyone who had been reading comics for longer than a year rolled their eyes hard at it. I was that newbie kid, though. I loved it.
Secret Wars gave you heroes by the yard. For a long time my mental hierarchy of Marvel Comics was defined by who had been in Secret Wars. The Vision, mopey android and Avengers perennial, wasn’t in Secret Wars: so he was second tier. The Wrecking Crew, interminable Thor cannon fodder, were in Secret Wars: so they were major players. Recently I read a Thor issue where Titania (white trash, spiked shoulder pads, introduced in Secret Wars) rocked up. Somewhere in me, my kid self was delighted: I was there when WIMPY SKEETER DAVIS was transformed into TITANIA. And she’s still with the Absorbing Man! Aw. When you’re present for a character’s first appearance, they become yours – a trick of nostalgia that has served American companies very well over their long, recycled history.
The idea of Secret Wars is that the heroes fight the villains. Obviously. This is Marvel, though, and what I didn’t understand was the narrative pressure, which Marvel has often tried to corral and civilise but never quite controlled, to make things not just more complicated but stranger: to let the flaws and angst and breast-beating characterisation of 60s Marvel in, and the freewheeling stoner oddness of 70s Marvel. Secret Wars should have been the corporate fight comic par excellence. And yet… there was issue two, and already Magneto was wooing The Wasp in a building that looked like a tuning fork crossed with an airport viewing platform, set amidst a plain of colossal, writhing pink worms. Shooter, I learned later, had made bloody sacrifice of Weird Marvel at the start of his editorial reign, but he couldn’t shake its ghost.
By the end of the comic, Doctor Doom – its secret lead – was weighing up the problems of omnipotence (a favourite Shooter theme) after galvanising a plot that swung wildly between invention and inanity. My Dad was very taken by Doom. So was I. His drive to dominate any story he’s in rescues the comic. The superhero event – here almost at its birth – is already being recreated in the image of Doom and his soliloquys. He’s won, the heroes are dead. (Shooter, inheritor of Marvel’s hallowed properties, wanted to destroy and replace them, making grand plans for a New Universe that would supplant the sixties icons). But as long as one scrap remains, might not Doom himself bring them back to life, by some freakish impulse? (And here he was, writing the story designed to make them more iconic – by which we mean, saleable – than ever before.)
Art and money and megalomania and trash – Secret Wars has the ingredients that made the American comics biz so terrible, so great, and so addictive. Thirty years on, Marvel are about to release a sequel, and my brother (who read my issues, and had his own favourites: he dug Hulk best, I liked Thor) is writing tie-ins. I’m delighted. But that is, genuinely, a coincidence. This series of pieces is not about that comic, or Marvel. It is about a life loving comics, and occasionally despising comics.
The rules. One comic for each year I’ve been reading them, except 1985, which gets another bite as well as this. Not always written or published that year – just my own firmest memory of being a reader. Where I was, who I was, but mostly what the comic did, the sensation of reading it. On one of the drifting space stations, lined up ready to fight, are thirty years of memories and fond recollections. On the other are my adult perspectives, doubts, issues. For now, they’re the villains, alright. But this is comics. Nobody stays a villain for ever.
NEXT: Adventure! Spiders! Racism! It’s 1978, and I’m reading Tintin.