Sunday, 17 February 2013

Secret Wars #1: "The War Begins!"

(Let's hope no-one left the gas on.)


So after reading the first half of Secret Wars, I've decided that there's definitely enough material to put together more than one post on the series.  The next post after this will cover issues two to four, after which, we shall see.

So, let's start with background, for the uninitiated.  It's actually almost absurdly simple.  An alien entity of incalculable power named the Beyonder has decided that he'd like to watch the superpowered community of Earth slap each other about, so he abducts several dozen of them, placing the villains in one space station and the heroes - along with Magneto, and unsurprisingly we'll come back to that - in another.  He then obliterates an entire galaxy so as to take the best chunks of the best planets available, so he can superglue them into a battleground for the Earthlings to beat seven shades of recently-abducted shit out of each other.  The space stations are brought to the ground, and the battle begins.

I want to stop here so I can avoid making the same mistake this series does, namely papering over how the setting of Secret Wars is assembled.  I made a great deal of noise whilst discussing the Micronauts miniseries about how tastelessly large that series body count was, and how little time was spent reflecting on that fact.  The opening issue of Secret Wars cranks this up a whole host of notches, by obliterating an entire galaxy and using the remnants to assemble a suitably varied planet for the Marvelites to fight over. 

Doubtless the intention is to demonstrate conclusively how powerful the Beyonder is, and to make the ground our heroes and villains will fight over is appropriately interesting (though there's nothing in these issues at least that couldn't have just been done on a single world, so long as that world wasn't created by George Lucas).  The trouble is that neither goal needs to be accomplished this way; the Beyonder's bona fides don't need any further proving, because he's basically a MacGuffin here.  And even if I'm wrong about that, then what better way to demonstrate his power than have him construct a new planet for his playthings, rather than assemble one from various other planets. Even if that doesn't work - I suppose one could argue that a lack of imagination is fundamental to the Beyonder, hence why he has to steal superheroes in the first place, rather than creating them - there's no reason to tag a galaxy-sized butcher's bill onto the proceedings.

In fairness. the introductory narration mentions that the galaxy in uninhabited.  But if that's the case, why are there plants, animals and sentient aliens on the planet the Beyonder created?  I'm speculating here, but it strikes me as plausible that stressing the destroyed galaxy was uninhabited was a last-minute editorial call.  Even if I'm wrong on that, though, our superheroes have no idea that the Beyonder managed to find an entire spiral galaxy devoid of life. It certainly looks a damn sight like our own galaxy, in which you can't be in space for more than ten minutes without Skrulls or Kree or Badoon showing up to ruin your pleasure cruise.

What that means is that our heroes just watched what they had every right to think was the slaughter of countless slaughter of billions of billions.  How does that not ride over everything else here?. How are superheroes - people who by their very nature believe in caring about people they've never met and probably never will - supposed to cope with death on a literally galactic scale?  Alright, with the Beyonder promising godhood to whomever wins his gladiatorial contest, our guys are going to have to nut up (and our gals are going to have to, er, do we have a female equivalent to "nut up"? Because we definitely need one, and no-one wants me to be the one in charge of crafting it).  Captain America was practically designed to fill that sort of role.  But even if the nightmare the heroes witnessed on their way to try kneeing Doom in the cyber-ghoulies can't be allowed to stop them doing their jobs, it should colour everything else.  Why are the X-Men arguing about whether the other heroes are pro-mutant enough?  A whole fucking galaxy just blew up.  How is Colossus able to lust after an alien girl the heroes meet in a village near their base?  A whole fucking galaxy just blew up.

I remember how things felt on the 12th of September, 2001.  It was my friend's 20th birthday, and we'd arranged a few days earlier to go to a little pub we knew out on the moors that she's a big fan of.  We spent a third of that day debating whether we could stand to go, and another third sitting in a nearly empty pub heavy with silence, trying to make whatever vapid chitchat we could to distract our friend from the thousands of people in a country most of us had never been to that had been cruelly murdered the day before.  The remaining third involved watching the news and trying to turn our brains back to the position they'd held in our skulls before the first tower was hit.

This is the original sin that hangs over the whole series.  If you're going to open with something as horrifying as the flash-frying of a whole galaxy, you'd damn well have a solid reason to do it (and inserting "no-one lives there" as an aside to the reader doesn't change that if your characters don't get to find that out). Quite honestly, updating Contest of Champions so that the villains could join in just doesn't cut it.  If "Logopolis" taught us anything, it's that stories including interstellar destruction that aren't about interstellar destruction can be uniquely unlikeable, but I guess no-one thought to tell Shooter.

Apart from this massively problematic opening, what else is there to say? Well, first of all, if this was intended at least in part to act as an advert for whatever corners of the Marvel Universe a given reader had not yet explored, it doesn't strike me as particularly effective. The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from seeing all those Marvel luminaries crammed into the same panel isn't that more money should be shelled out upon watching heroes strutting through America, it's that hanging out with the bad guys is awesome.  This will be taken advantage of - and stretched to breaking point - during the '90s, of course, in which villains become entertaining and heroes become callous murderers, so I'm aware of where this line of thinking can ultimately lead, but damn, it's still much more fun to watch Galactus massacre Ultron for being a dick than it is to watch the heroes take it in turns to see who can thrust out their chin the furthest.

Indeed, the only particularly interesting exchange to be had over at the heroes' base is the obvious one: what the hell is Magneto doing hanging out over there?

I spent some time trying to pick this apart, actually.  For a while I figured the real question was why Magneto and Doom ended up on different teams.  Monomaniacal egomaniacs convinced that they are the logical choice to lead their people into a new golden age?  Check.  Willing to perform acts of massive destruction with potentially horrifying body counts along the way?  Check.  History of working alongside heroes when it suits their ends? We got that one too.

The more I tried to figure that one out, though, the more I started to see larger cracks in the proceedings. When I think of Secret Wars, the story that feels to me most like its logical ancestor is the old Star Trek episode "The Savage Curtain", in which Yarnek, another massively powerful alien entity, decides to force various major figures into a death match on an alien world; in this case, Kirk and Spock, ably assisted by Abraham Lincoln and the Vulcan philosopher Surak against Genghis Khan and a clutch of villains from the future and/or space.  It's not a tremendously good episode, really, especially for anyone leery of the idea of holding Honest Abe up as some kind of human paragon, but it does contain a nice idea at the end.  When the fighting is done, and only Spock and Kirk are still standing, their captor confesses that he saw very little difference in how those history viewed as heroes fought for their lives in comparison to how the alleged villains behaved.  Kirk responds by noting that they had been fighting for the safety of the Enterprise, which clearly wasn't the villains' motivation, and Yarnek admits that Khan's gang had been fighting in exchange for greater power.

Now, there's something inherently problematic about arguing that it's one's goals that determine whether you are a good person, as oppose to your actions.  That goes without saying.  That's not something to discuss today, though.  What's interesting for our purposes is that Yarnek's actions are superficially similar to the Beyonder. However, where Yarnek was forced to offer different prizes to each side in order to force a confrontation, the Beyonder offers the same prize to both sides, which is basically godhood.

This is the critical difference.  In offering each side what they wanted, Yarnek contaminated his own experiment, but at least he understood what was motivating his captives.  The Beyonder doesn't seem to be remotely interested in whether those he's forced into competing have the slightest interest in the prize he's offering.  That is, he doesn't seem to have any awareness of or interest in the motivations of the people he has abducted.  The clearest indication of this is probably the idea that an offer of godlike powers is something he can expect to motivate Thor.

So the fact that Magneto and Doom have more in common with each other they do with either of the two camps the Beyonder has sorted his captives into doesn't seem particularly relevant, because it doesn't seem that the Beyonder even understands why the two sides oppose each other in any case.  Indeed, anyone who can try acting neutral and disinterested in a battle between superheroes and supervillains whilst torching entire galaxies suggests that the Beyonder, like Yarnek before him, has no grasp of human motivation.  The difference is that the Beyonder doesn't care.

So if the goal isn't to gain some kind of insight into the human condition, what exactly is going on?  That's not a difficult question to answer, and once again we can return to the classic Trek series for the answer:

I t seems something of a letdown to hit so unenlightening a mark after all that build-up, but the truth is the truth.  The Beyonder is essentially Mellvar, a grotesquely powerful fanboy determined to have his favourites dance to his own particular tune.  Obviously, that's obvious in its obviousness.  But it's worth considering just how far the fact spreads.  Why, for example, is Cyclops around despite having quit the X-Men?  Because superfan Beyonder thinks he should be part of the X-Men.  Why is Xavier back in his wheelchair, despite being at least close to the point where he can walk at will? Because that's the mental picture the Beyonder has of Charles.

So why is Magneto with the heroes?  Because that's what the Beyonder thinks is coolest.  There's no point digging for anything deeper, because we're at bedrock already.  The Beyonder is the MacGuffin that allows Jim Shooter to write the most pure strain of fanfic imaginable, designed to set the lizard brains of as many readers aflame as possible.  Indeed, why else would one start off with the entirely pointless destruction of a galaxy if not to scratch the same itch that the entirety of Marvel's '90s output was aimed at - destruction without connection.

The ways in which Secret Wars represents a beginning are obvious. In other ways, though, we're looking at the beginning of the end.

Things get rough from here.


We're going to run into a common problem as regards dating here, namely that the team are stuck on an alien world, with no clues as to how long the days last, or how long it took for them to travel there.   That said, given the Beyonder has such crazy power levels, and that he built this world to act as a battleground for humans, it's at least plausible that they arrived in system more or less as soon as they were abducted, and that this planet has been created to have the same day length as Earth.

This issue itself takes place over the course of an hour or less, I think; it's difficult to be sure.


Tuesday 10th January, 1984.



Contemporary Events

Former Argentine President Reynaldo Benito Antonio Bignone was arrested.

Standout Line

The whole Ultron vs Galactus throwdown is pretty funny.

ULTRON: "Perhaps Ultron will slay you less efficiently, more slowly, for this indignity, organism.  Perhaps Ultron... RAAARRK"
THUNDERBALL: "That is one baad dude!"

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