Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Senseless Battle

"I am from beyond! Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours! Nothing you dream of is impossible for me to accomplish!"

That quote from "the Beyonder" heralded Marvel's 12-issue series in the mid-'80s which pulled a number of heroes and villains together in battle for Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. Why were they "secret," you may wonder? It depends on your cynicism.

Reportedly, this series was the result of a proposed licensing deal between Mattel Toys and Marvel--and Mattel's focus groups "indicated that kids reacted positively to the words 'wars' and 'secret'," according to Jim Shooter, who was at the time Editor-in-Chief of Marvel. Fine, if he says so. I'm not quite swallowing that. Because while the "secrecy" of these "wars" works out well in terms of marketing the series (i.e., none of the characters involved will talk about their mysterious disappearance from Earth, which means that buying this series is the only way to learn about what happened), it's not really clear why these battles should be such a big secret. When everyone on the "battleworld" is getting ready to return to Earth, there's no discussion at all about any necessity for keeping the events that went on there private.

And that's because there's no need to.

To readers of the crossover books--the titles that featured characters who suddenly went missing--they had more teasing clues tossed their way when the characters returned, just in case the absence itself wasn't enough. Spider-Man returned in a black costume that seemed almost alive. The Hulk was limping with a leg brace and a crutch. Iron Man's armor had been altered. The She-Hulk had replaced the Thing in the Fantastic Four. But if readers were looking for explanations--shhhhhhh. Sorry, it's a secret. Which isn't really accurate. The characters are just being coy with the reader--they make mention of their experience, but they don't go into detail. Instead, life pretty much goes on as usual, once they pick up where they've left off.

As for the series itself, I ended up buying and reading it well after the fact, because it held no real interest outside of the scope of the conflict. The "Beyonder" is some all-powerful being that pits the heroes and villains against each other--a series of battles (apparently they're "wars") that see-saw one way or the other, since we have twelve issues to fill up with them. The X-Men, at the peak of their popularity at the time, are dealt in as a third group so that they don't get shuffled in and lost with the "heroes" group. The villains are used pretty much as cannon fodder by Dr. Doom, who seeks greater power behind the scenes--first from Galactus, whose presence seems completely out of place, and then from the Beyonder himself. And the heroes, led by Captain America (these are "wars," after all), are in battle and/or are spotlighted in different "team-up" combinations that we don't normally see in their own books.

So for the bulk of the series, at least until the main clashes between heroes and villains were dealt with, you saw a lot of exchanges like this one:

I actually found Doom's machinations the most interesting part of the series. The Beyonder's proclamation is only the means to an end for him, manipulating events and characters like chess pieces as his plans take shape. Shooter, the series scripter, writes him well; in fact, he does a good job in capturing the essence of just about all the characters. The trouble is that there are so many characters--they can be dealt in, but not really doted on. He can only acknowledge characterizations that we're already familiar with--there's no time to linger, and he doesn't have the luxury to expand on them. His hands are tied in that respect--because when the characters return to their regular books, there can only be ripples of any effects from their off-world battles, not full-fledged consequences. This was all a "secret," right?

As for the art--well, you tell me. Artist Mike Zeck does a good job with all the characters, and there are certainly plenty to worry about. Everyone is recognizable. The story and action are easy and interesting to follow. But to me, everyone tends to blur together. The only characters who really stand out to any degree are Captain America, as the leader who battle-readies his "troops" and charges them into action; and Dr. Doom, who is given a great deal of separate attention. But to make the others distinctive, they need to be detailed much more than they are--and Zeck's art, combined with John Beatty's inks, just aren't doing that when the characters are en masse. I just see a lot of flailing figures--and small ones at that, because so many are being featured in a panel at any one time. Picture this story with, say, John Buscema and Tom Palmer on art--or a dynamic combo like John Romita Sr. and Joe Sinnott. You wouldn't need manipulative marketing to make those issues fly off the shelves.

We never do learn anything substantive about the Beyonder by the series' end--and since he (it?) was the instigator of this conflict, everyone simply heading back to Earth sort of takes the wind out of our sails. We've all heard the phrase "senseless battle" at one time or another, given in more profound context--but in the literal sense, it applies almost perfectly to this series. What was accomplished here? One big battle scenario with Marvel's major heroes and villains--that about sums it up. And the heroes only confront the Beyonder in the form of Doom, who has usurped his power (for all the good it does him). Shooter provides some good dialog to keep us interested throughout--but for these "wars," perhaps less time should have been spent on secrecy and more on their raison d'ĂȘtre.

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