32 Years Ago: The Mega-Event Was Born In ‘Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars’ #1
Superhero comics had crossed over many times before 1984, with various crises on various earths and plenty of Marvel characters invading other characters' titles, but the comic that set the template for the event series as we know it today is undoubtedly Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, the first issue of which was released on this week in 1984 (cover dated May).
The brainchild of Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, the series spanned 12 issues and threw nearly every Marvel Comics character into the mix. It even started the trend of more than one artist taking on penciling duties, as Mike Zeck and Bob Layton traded off every few issues.
Two years earlier, Marvel attempted a sort of test run of a Secret Wars-type event, titled Contest of Champions. It even had a pretty similar premise: A character named the Grandmaster challenged Death to a competition, and each entity gathered up a team of superheroes to fight on their behalf. But Contest only ran for three issues and was, all-in-all, fairly modest.
Secret Wars was anything but modest. It was clearly predicated on the idea of more: more characters, more issues, more fighting, more big speeches, more all-powerful entities, more impact. As author Sean Howe put it in his book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story:
Shooter's "Bullpen Bulletins" column and the articles in Marvel Age hammered it through the minds of readers and retailers alike: This is going to change everything about these characters, and you are going to buy it.
There would also be more toys. In 1983, toymaker Mattel had hammered out a deal with Marvel to produce Marvel action figures, largely as a way to compete with Kenner, which had a similar deal for the DC characters.
In that deal, Mattel insisted that Marvel produce a series to coincide with the toy line and title it Secret Wars, because market research found that kids loved the words "secret" and "wars." The market research also dictated that certain characters --- namely Doctor Doom and Iron Man --- be redesigned to be more high-tech, and that several new female characters be introduced. (Those turned out to be the Julia Carpenter Spider-Woman, Titania, and Volcana.)
The story Shooter developed was essentially a bigger version of Contest of Champions. More or less as an experiment, an all-powerful being, this time called The Beyonder, summoned virtually every Marvel character to an arena planet called Battleworld to fight it out for supremacy.
The series ended up changing a few things: Spider-Man got a new black costume, the Thing stayed behind on Battleworld for a year, She-Hulk joined the Fantastic Four, Colossus and Kitty Pride broke up; but Howe describes the series as having little lasting impact. "Apart from a few new costumes and a new Spider-Woman, nothing much had really changed in the Marvel Universe. Which, maybe is what fans wanted all along."
Arguably, that makes Secret Wars even more of a template for the events that would come over the next three decades.
Though its story impact was arguable, Secret Wars' sales impact was undeniable. It was easily Marvel's biggest-selling comic at the time, which led to a sequel, Secret Wars II, the following year. It also led to an infamous memo --- reportedly from Shooter, though some claimed it was a hoax --- in which he said his work on Secret Wars was "absolutely perfect," and any differences between how characters were portrayed in Secret Wars and their regular titles were other writers' fault, not his.
The event was adapted into a two-part episode of the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon, and the title has been repurposed for comics several times in the past few years. A 2004 series titled Secret War by Brian Michael Bendis and Gabriele Dell'Otto was about covert SHIELD operations. In 2010, an all-ages Marvel Adventures take on Secret Wars, titled Spider-Man & the Secret Wars told the story of the event through Spider-Man's eyes. There was also a 2015 event called Secret Wars that re-set the entire Marvel Universe. You may have heard about it.
In the years since the original Secret Wars, multi-issue event comics have simply become a fact of life. Indeed, readers expect the major publishers to generate one every year or so. You can basically chalk that up to a 1983 deal between Marvel and Mattel.
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