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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, January 15, 2016

NULL MYTHS: SECRET WARS #1-12 (1984-85)

While a relatively recent re-read of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS disclosed some mythic diamonds amid the multi-crossover dross, there's not even the glitter of fool's gold in the abominable awfulness that is Jim Shooter's SECRET WARS.

I reviewed SECRET WARS for the Comics Journal back in the day, and I don't mind saying that the review contains one of my favorite insights for that period of my critical writing. In essence, I said that because Jim Shooter had written for several years about the Legion of Super-Heroes-- characters who ranged from the one-dimensional to the no-dimensional-- he was simply incapable of adjusting himself to the demands of Marvel characters, who tended to be at least two-dimensional.

I still believe this to some extent. And yet, now that I've reread SECRET WARS straight through for the first time since that review, I wonder if my original verdict was a bit glib. After all, Shooter's LEGION work showed that he understood the basics of good storytelling. With a little bit of studious endeavor, is there any reason that Shooter could not have adapted to the Marvel standard of characterization at least as well as average scripters of the period?

And the verdict is: of course he could have; he just didn't care whether he got characters right or not. To judge from this Wikipedia entry-- and from his spotty record as a scripter on Marvel titles like AVENGERS-- Shooter cared primarily about making deals with companies like Mattel and about protecting Marvel's company image. Stan Lee tried to make Marvel's characters as distinct as possible from one another, despite their two-dimensionality. The SECRET WARS script shows no evidence that its writer studied any of the regular titles to get a sense of how the characters sounded at the time. Wolverine's snarliness can't be distinguished from the Hulk's grouchiness. This shorthand approach to characterization allowed Shooter to give the fans the appearance of character-moments, even though his approach contradicted even the bare rudiments of the Marvel style.

If one picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture overburdened with what *seems* like a thousand words should be even better to clarify how bad Shooter's writing is:

This scorecard approach to introducing characters easily rates as some of the worst writing ever to appear in comic books. Beside it, even stories that are nearly incoherent are preferable, like Gerry Conway's clumsy "Ego-Prime" storyline.

I won't dwell too much on the mismanaged characterizations, given that these are failures within the dramatic potentiality, not the mythopoeic one. But as I move away from this topic, I can't resist mentioning one of the worst: a B-story in which Colossus and the Human Torch both fall in love with the same alien girl. Suddenly, because Shooter wants a hyper-melodramatic moment in issue #10, he has the Torch-- a character with his share of faults, but hardly a diehard chauvinist-- disparage the girl as a "chippie," causing Colossus a lot of emotional turmoil-- though it comes to nothing, since the X-Man doesn't even try to knock the FF-member's block off.

There is *potential,* but completely unrealized, mythopeoic content in the rambling mess that is SECRET WARS, but at that, it's entirely derivative of the "Galactus mythology" I examined here  this week. However, Shooter seems to have been less impressed by the original "Galactus trilogy" than by one of Lee and Kirby's follow-ups: FF #57-60, in which Doctor Doom manages to steal the Power Cosmic from the exiled Silver Surfer, so that the monomaniacal villain obtains something close to omnipotent power.

While every other Marvel character in SECRET WARS is treated with a mechanical disinterest, Shooter seems preternaturally concerned with Doctor Doom, who apparently has not forgotten his brief stint as a demigod. Doom seems less concerned with the immediate situation he shares with the other characters-- that of having been dumped on an alien world by an unseen entity called "the Beyonder"-- than in figuring out how he can once more attain godhood: this time by tapping into the power of the Silver Surfer's former master, Galactus himself, who is one of those abducted by the Beyonder. Galactus hovers on the periphery of the action for most of the story, a potential threat to the Earth-heroes as both he and they seek to escape the Beyonder-- but once Doom does manage to siphon off Galactus' power, the planet-eater is summarily dismissed from the storyline, and it focuses almost entirely upon Doom's attempt to act the part of a living god.

While Shooter's exploration of Doom's godhood is mediocre at best, I must admit that he's the only character whose characterization seems relatively in line with his previous Marvel incarnations. Here's a short excerpt:

Whereas the other characters in this scene are all Johnny One-Notes, Doom comes off with an imperious dignity and an obnoxious belief in his own superiority. This at least makes him interesting, while all of the other characters are simply being put through predictable paces.

I've sometimes come across fans who evince an affection for SECRET WARS because it was the first of its kind: a limited series whose influence spilled over into several ongoing titles. This marketing strategy became a standard practice by both of the "Big Two," and generally the crossovers that followed SECRET WARS were never better than "adequate." But even the worst of these descendants of SECRET WARS doesn't evince the original's utter contempt for good characterization and good plotting-- to say nothing of good mythopoesis.


A. Sherman Barros said...

Hi Gene,

Nice take on SECRET WARS. I'll have to go back and re-read it. I read the series only once, when it was published in Portuguese, when I was about fifteen or sixteen, and I remember having enjoyed it greatly - maybe for the reasons you put forward, it being the first of its kind.

Although the only thing I've retained from it was the concept of The Beyonder (that I find must have been the direct inspiration for the character Q on Star Trek - TNG); I got fascinated by the idea of a god-like being whisking the champions of Earth (all of them powerfull super-heroes) and sicking them on each other on an alien planet.

I'm sure that if I re-read it now, all the patina of nostalgia will be washed away by the new cynical me...

Anyway... I wonder what's your take on the messy new SECRET WARS event that is shaping the new Marvel Universe (I didn't quite take to it, but I'm yet to read any of the new titles, so I'll reserve judgement...)



Gene Phillips said...

I might have liked the series better if I'd been younger when it came out. I'd probably have liked the idea of seeing a buttload of heroes brought together for some common reason,. since I'd liked the hell out of the Avengers/Defenders crossover ten years previous. By 1984, I had pretty firm ideas about good characterization in my superheroes, and Shooter certainly didn't even come close.

I haven't got a good idea as to what the new SW is supposed to accomplish, beyond providing a reboot-- maybe in line with hyping the properties that Marvel Studios can still adapt freely, I don't know. I haven't read any of the new stuff either.