May 15

From Beyond

The Brown Wedge15 comments • 1,061 views

secret wars cover NEW THRILL!

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.

secret wars intro

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.

secret wars doom

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.


  1. 1
    Mark M on 1 May 2015 #

    There are several moments in the Avengers: Age of Ultron movie that look somewhat like that cover – where all the Avengers are launching themselves into action at once but heading in different directions so that you can see each of them distinctly. I don’t remember that particularly from previous Marvel movies – I could be wrong, but it seems to be a thing from this one.

  2. 2
    Tom on 1 May 2015 #

    It’s definitely a shot Marvel Comics remain fond of – it turns up on the cover of this weekend’s Free Comic Book Day offering (a relaunched Avengers), and it goes back at least as far as 1975’s Giant Size X-Men, which has the new team bursting through and radiating out of a mocked-up cover of the old. It feels so comic-book-y I’m not surprised it’s seeing use in the films.

  3. 3
    Andrew Farrell on 1 May 2015 #

    It’s also a call back to the first movie – kind of fanservice the first time it appears in Ultron, eye-rolling the second time.

  4. 4
    swanstep on 1 May 2015 #

    I have a general thought about Age of Ultron that maybe true Marvel-enthusiasts here can put me straight about.

    Famously Hitchcock in conversation with Truffaut (p. 191 in the second edn of Hitchcock/Truffaut) said ‘the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture’, which Truffaut immediately reformulated as ‘the better the villain, the better the picture’. Well, from this perspective, AOU is in trouble because Ultron is a very weak villain. The movie’s *title* builds him up, but far from having an Age to call his own, Ultron never rules anywhere at all, not even for a week, hence the title ends up being a farcical misnomer. Because of the villain’s weakness and lack of interest, AOU has no chance of succeeding in the darkened/stakes-raising way that classic sequels and ‘middle chapter’ films from Godfather 2 to Empire Strikes Back to Aliens to The Dark Knight (or Game of Thrones Season 3) do. Instead, AOU is a kind of status quo film in a possibly indefinitely extendible series like Goldfinger or Die Hard 2 or Ghostbusters 2 or Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. Is the point then of the ‘Marvel Universe’ that like formulas for things like Bond and Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones, the Universe is fundamentally not about drama, but about spending time with easily parsed characters in a kind of comfortable, fundamentally comic, occasionally Soapey hang-out space?

    I know that Marvel have planned a big two part finale for this particular crop of Avengers, Infinity War (where the big bad Thanos will finally take center-stage).That’ll probably be the end for Downey Jr and co, but rebooting with younger others will happen more or less immediately we can predict. There’s not any real big dramatic arc that’ll be being resolved in IW, just a sentimental changing of the guard in cozy hangout-space. There’ll always have to be further missions and more hanging out to be done, quips to be traded, and so on.

  5. 5
    Tom on 1 May 2015 #

    Ultron has always been (IMO) a pretty dreary villain – maybe people with less good relationships with their Dads (or kids!) relate more to him, since that’s the angle they’ve worked for most of his existence. Thanos is even worse on-page after about 1975 – and as the most serious thing in Guardians of the Galaxy he was also the dullest.

    Cosy hangout space is definitely something they are keen on pushing – the character relatonships are what drives the life of the films on social media and among fans. But in terms of conflict the build-up is to Civil War (Captain America vs Iron Man) as much as to Infinity War – not having seen AoU I can’t say how it moves this along.

    (I dunno whether I’ll be writing in this series about a 2000s-era event comic. But the master stroke of Civil War was in realising that creating a genuine (for a bit) conflict between two characters who would each be expected to routinely win in their own comic, some honest uncertainty as to the outcome and status quo could be generated for a few precious months. The problem is that in the comics there isn’t THAT much tension, because Cap is always going to be right, because he’s Cap (this was pointed out by the Singles Jukebox’s Sabina). But in the movies, where Robert Downey Jr is the motor and marquee star, perhaps that’s less of a given…)

  6. 6

    Not to spoiler (having seen the film) but for various reasons I concur re Ultron being weak as a main villain, and that not being a problem A:AoU remotely solves. As a total Marvel novice (except for the films) I wasn’t at all able to say whether this derives from fidelity or Whedonesque departure, in re Ultron as a character.

    (I am generally happy to argue that fidelity is a mistake! But here I had no idea, bcz no background. Of the current MCU dekalogy — is that right? — I think I enjoyed only The Hulk less, and that’s bcz I think The Hulk is dull w/o super-pals on his own side to uneasily interact with.)

    (Also Gruffalo > Norton)

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 1 May 2015 #

    It didn’t help that Ultron and his underlings were all CGI – so basically the Chitauri with a different ‘skin’ – without an engaging and (slightly) conflicted leader like Loki to focus on. The characterisation of Banner seemed to make him a ridiculously passive contrast to the aggressive Hulk. Plus pretty much all the havoc and destruction was down to Tony Stark ignoring the lessons about being over protective that he was supposed to have learned in IM3 – and no one held him meaningfully accountable. Maybe it’s all a commentary on US foreign policy and drones but if so we figured that out for ourselves Joss.
    I’ll probably watch it again tho ;-s

  8. 8
    swanstep on 2 May 2015 #

    @5, Tom. Interesting that you’re not impressed by either Ultron or Thanos in the comics. I was kind of shocked by how much I enjoyed The Winter Soldier when I caught up with it last year, and that’s the seemingly harder-edged creative team that’s doing Civil War and the Avengers Thanos movies. So maybe things are looking up. That said, I suspect now that I just do better with these comic book movies (and maybe serial, hang-out-type movies generally) at home than on a big screen. At home I’m much more likely to be in hang-out mode myself, i.e., the right mood for me for Marvel. And maybe for Bond too – I hated Skyfall, which I shot out to see first weekend same as AOU, after really enjoying Casino Royale at home (and skipping Quantum entirely because of its reviews). On the big screen I find that my expectations go up and maybe are fundamentally dramatic in a way that’s unhelpful with these sorts of continuing tales.

  9. 9
    Mark M on 2 May 2015 #

    Re8: I suspect you hated Skyfall because in many ways, it’s a rotten movie. I’d like to think they are attempting a subversion of Bond by making him so hopelessly thick, but I’m not convinced they (Mendes/Craig) are (I know that in the Fleming books can also be a numbskull, but not so consistently). (My feeling about Quantum of Solace, prog-rock title apart, is that is a) a bad film but b) not that much worse than the other Daniel Craig ones).

    As for A:AoU, I agree that a) the title is nonsensical, and b) Ultron certainly isn’t a great villain. I still enjoyed it, not as much as a bunch of the current Marvel movies, but more I think than I enjoyed the Winter Soldier*. But that’s because I like the whole hanging out thing.

    *Although I liked The Winter Soldier more retrospectively because of how the story played out in Agents Of SHIELD.

  10. 10
    IP on 2 May 2015 #

    As far as I remember Ultron barely even appears in the Bendis comic book Age of Ultron, which probably says something.

  11. 11
    Mark M on 2 May 2015 #

    Re7: Yes (at the risk of general spoilers), I too felt that the Tony Stark in A:AoU is someone at odds with the Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man 3. Then again, Shane Black was (interestingly) allowed to make IM3 as thoroughly Shane Black movie, while Whedon/Marvel movies have other agendas for the characters. I’m sure somebody who has been paying closer attention than I have has an idea of how much overall coordination there has been of the burgeoning onscreen Marvel universe. Sure, actual comics fans are used to multiple voices, multiple versions, etc but movie/TV audiences are somewhat different I feel.

    Someone was arguing somewhere recently (was it here?) that with so many movies and so many TV shows, we’ve now reached a point where the casual viewer is likely to get confused as hell. Certainly a couple leaving A:AoU in front of me were having an argument about where they had seen the character in the post-end credit (or rather mid-end credit) teaser before. That said, I’ve seen neither Thor movie and don’t get wildly distressed when references are made to the events in them during the Avengers movie or M:AoS.

    All this movie talk is getting away from Tom’s childhood memories, of course.

  12. 12
    crag on 3 May 2015 #

    Really looking forward to this series of articles, Tom.

  13. 13
    Ed on 4 May 2015 #

    @7 “Maybe it’s all a commentary on US foreign policy…”

    I just saw Avengers: Age of Ultron, and enjoyed it. But (mild spoilers ahead) it is, as Lonepilgrim says, a very obvious allegory for the War on Terror, like every other superhero movie I have seen in the past decade.

    It’s not really surprising, I suppose, that such a massive geo-political and psychological trauma should be worked out over and over again to the point of obsession. But it did make me wonder: what did writers do for thematic material before 9/11?

    From the 1940s to the 80s, was the Cold War equally dominant as a theme in comics? And what did writers do in the 90s?

  14. 14
    Mark C on 4 May 2015 #


    The Cold War stuff was certainly an ingredient in that era, and probably more explicit too. (The Fantastic Four’s fateful rocket flight, for instance, was rushed to make sure they beat the Russians.)

    As for the ’90s? They pretty much swapped out thematic depth for pouches and cyborg limbs.

  15. 15
    IP on 4 May 2015 #

    My origin story also starts with the black and white Marvel UK edition of Secret Wars. But in my universe, I got bored and went back to reading Whizzer and Chips.

    Although I was a big comic book fan (Groo and Tintin and Oink and Dragon’s Claws and such), the thing that got me into superhero comics was a TV show. ITV or Channel 4 were rerunning the original mini-series of “V”, and after a West End matinee of “Return to the Forbidden Planet: The Musical”, my dad took me to Orc’s Nest and some (now long-closed) comic shop basement in Covent Garden, where I picked up the DC Invasion mini-series, on the basis that it looked like a comic book version of V.

    A few months later I saw an issue of Justice League Europe on the bottom shelf of a newsagents in Hampstead (“Finally a superhero series set in Europe!” said no one ever – except, er, me, aged 10.) And then I started making my first parent-less trips to town to visit Comic Showcase.

    And yadda yadda yadda I’m now nearing 40 and posting messages on a blog about comics. Anyway – really looking forward to this series Tom!

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