Sunday, 21 June 2015

SW2 #7-9: "Charge Of The Dark Brigade!", "Betrayal!", "God In Man, Man In God!"

("Marge, I'm confused. Is this a good ending or a bad ending?"
"It's an ending, that's enough!")

Trigger warning: sexual assault.


Usually I like to run through the ongoings from a given month before turning to the minis, but I'm keen to get the second Secret Wars series off my desk as quickly as possible.

In issue #7 Mephisto, concerned that the Beyonder is a threat to him, finds ninety-nine supervillains willing to enter into a pact with him.  Their job is to attack the Beyonder whilst each imprinted with a mystical symbol that will destroy the Beyonder should they touch him, or should his power touch them. He also hopes the Thing will join in the carnage due to his hatred of the Beyonder, but ultimately Ben Grimm attempts to save the godlike being instead.  Oooh, Mephisto is cross!

"I got ninety-nine flunkies but the Thing ain't one!"
There's some fun to be had here playing spot-the-villain, as well as speculating about what Mephisto offered, say, Emma Frost or Victor von Doom that was tempting enough for them to mess around with literal Faustian deals. The issue also has the advantage of actually tapping into what made the original series work, or at least the structure that allowed what worked about the first series to take place, i.e. the sudden attack of dozens of the Marvel Universe's most notorious villains (a genuine strike, not the brief illusion SW2 #4 ended with to justify its terribly misleading cover). Even supercharged as he is, I'm not sure how the Thing manages to do so well stopping any of them from getting past him, but Grimm has had a hard life; I'm not going to begrudge him a big win here.

That said, the focus on the Thing is odd. This issue contains enough back-story on recent issues of Ben's own comic that I can see how this story represents a change to his status quo, but for anyone not reading that book this must have read very strangely; the clearest indication yet that this series isn't intended to work on its own terms so much as shake up other books.  Certainly this all underlines how poorly the Beyonder works as a protagonist [1].  More than anything, this issue reads like an admission that the last six instalments were totally unsuccessful. Which, since generally speaking they were, and since this is a lot better in comparison (it's slight and silly on its own terms, but there's clearly a large group of fans for whom it ticks a lot of boxes, so fine) seems like a sensible statement to be making. Plus, it's always fun when Mephisto actually has a pretty solid point. And sure, his plan will release energy that will flash-fry fully one third of the universe, but that still makes him three times more sensible than Rachel Summers.

(I suspect there's something I'm missing here with the subplot about the Beyonder accidentally setting up an island retreat for the rich to sit around and think all day. Was this a craze in the mid '80s I was too young or insufficiently American to catch?)

But if issue #7 suggests Shooter has belatedly realised the Beyonder just isn't that interesting, how can we explain issue #8, which focuses on Molecule Man's attempts to psychoanalyse the Beyonder by having him discuss his childhood. Which I suppose is proof Peter David didn't actually invent the idea of putting superbeings on the therapist's couch, though he could well still be the first to get it even close to right. Owen Reese is no Doc Sampson, though in fairness he himself admits he's just trying to ape the process his own therapist took with him. Which is a rather useful warning, really; listen to your friends, offer what advice you can, but don't try to play the role of a qualified therapist. You're playing with matches in an oil field, and the blazes can take years just to find, let alone put out.

Certainly, Owen doesn't achieve a great deal here other than to let the Beyonder briefly summarise his adventures to date (which were underwhelming enough the first time) and then enrage him with vacuous homilies. The Beyonder is about unity and wholeness - the result of originating in a dimension where he was literally everything - and simply cannot comprehend the worth humanity places on attempting to complete oneself with possessions, experiences, or other people [2]. On paper, there's something intersting to this conflict: no man is a dimension-spanning island, leaving humanity and the Beyonder unable to understand each other.  In practice, though, this is used as nothing more than a motivation for the Beyonder to want to blow everything up. The focus then - since even readers at the time must have been comfortable knowing the story wouldn't end with the utter destruction of Marvel's intellectual properties [3] - is on what changes the Beyonder's mind (or who changes it for him). That was always going to be a tough job, since by definition we can't understand how the character's mind works in the first place. Still, I'm sure one could come up with a better approach than what we get, which is for the Beyonder to be attacked by both mutant teams (who get nowhere) to visit Spiderman and the Hulk (who do nothing, though I'm sure it helped to have their current states of play plugged to readers), in-between which he rapes someone.

Yes, Secret Wars II #8 includes a rape.  Not on-panel, but it's there. The Beyonder forces a woman to come to his suite with him, and when next we see her she's partially dressed and begging him to let her stay longer. It's done in such a way that it isn't a slam-dunk case, of course - maybe the Beyonder only mentally compelled her to unbutton her blouse; maybe she wasn't wearing a bra to begin with, etc. etc. etc. - but you have to work harder to believe the Beyonder didn't have sex than to believe he did. In a book where actually showing sex is never going to happen, the conclusions we are meant to draw are fairly clear.  It's a standard case of the horrible sci-fi rape, of course, where someone is mind-controlled into wanting sex, as though that can possibly make it better. It doesn't. It's still rape, and the casualness with which it's just thrown into the issue and then forgotten about (serving as it does literally no plot function) takes a poor book and makes it very much actively disgusting. Before I was bored, and now I am offended.   This tale? Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing. But sod it, let's toss a rape in. Gritty! Real!

(Actually, speaking of classic tragedies, I actually quite like the ending of this issue, whereby the Beyonder decides he's been hasty and owes Owen an apology, only to get back to Reese's pad to be attacked by the Molecule Man before he can make good on his original promise to destroy reality. The end result of this betrayal, to no-one's surprise, is that the destruction of all that is returns to the top of Beyonder's to-do list. It's the best part of a terrible issue and one of the rare highlights of the whole story. There's also a way we could tie together issues #7-8 in terms of the dangers of the powerful failing to think through their actions: all that keeps Earth safe in issue #7 is the Beyonder refusing to engage the Crazy Evil Ninety-Nine, and reality itself only dodges the bullet in #8 because he chooses to spend time thinking things over.

But who cares? What can themes or local maxima matter? Shooter has ticked the "Unnecessary Rape" box.  Everything else here is irrelevant).

The penultimate issue ends with Earth's mightiest heroes declaring war on the Beyonder, only to be almost instantly squished.  Issue #9 picks up with the Beyonder determined to destroy everything. First, though, he has one more experiment to run: what happens if he places himself in a human body, and tries to see things from the perspective of the tiresome insects that keep crawling over him, biting and stinging whilst he's trying to think?  Like the other issues in this final third, then, there's some credible attempt to point out the importance of the powerful considering their actions and attempting to understand those they have power over, though at this point the repeated last-minute callings off of universal destruction are becoming rather silly. We'll just add that to the eighty-two reasons the Beyonder makes for a poor protagonist. Still, his choice here has interesting consequences (and leads to the resurrection of the New Mutants to be his bodyguards, which is not so much interesting as useful information for later).  The Beyonder creates his "mama machine", a device that will turn him human, and after a few failures (by which I mean he ends up too human and freaks out about stuff like getting stitches and the inevitability of cellular decay) he hits upon a formulation he thinks will combine the best of humanity and his own limitless power, and returns to the machine.  It's at this point that pretty much the entire heroes' roster of the Marvel Universe show up, assembled by Molecule Man, for a last stand against the thug who announces the universe has had it approximately twice a week.

What happens next is interesting. We get the standard superbeing smack-down an issue like this pretty much demands, but with two teams of Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Namor, Cloak and Dagger, and even Alpha Flight (team motto: "Maybe the villains will trip over our bodies and hurt themselves, eh?") ranged up against the brainwashed New Mutants, things wrap up rather quickly, and the heroes descend to the Beyonder's underground bunker, where obviously they are defeated almost instantly. Fortunately, they escape, and when they make their second strike they find not the omnipotent bully they expect to lose their lives fighting, but a baby growing in a machine.

This sets up a rather nice moral quandary in place of the expected beat-down.  It's a common enough fictional crisis: can you justify killing a horrifically powerful enemy whilst it is still in its earliest, helpless form? But there are differences to the standard model of this question. We don't here have the innocence of youth angle which exists with, say, the old question about whether one could be justified in killing Hitler as a baby. Nor do we have the ugly idea that all those of a specific race must essentially be the same; the kind of "burn the alien eggs!" approach that's horribly reductive and would have denied us those like Broo who can grow beyond a compromised culture. Here the heroes know the baby was, is and will be the Beyonder, a single specific person who has repeatedly threatened to kill them, something he could do almost effortlessly. So is it morally acceptable to kill this baby? And if one is tempted to say no (as, alas, only the female heroes seem to) is that because of something inherent in the nature of babies? Or is it just stemming from our idea of babies; a set of ingrained assumptions which have no relevance in the case of the Beyonder? As endings go, that's more interesting than the expected brawl, and whilst you could make a case for this being anti-climactic, that rather assumes a degree of build-up from the preceding issues that is almost entirely lacking in any case. Simply put, this series has a structure vastly too screwed up for the ending to do much damage.

So do we kill the baby? Thinking of the Beyonder in terms of the oppressor (as I did when discussing New Mutants #37), the answer is an unequivocal "yes". The oppressed are under no obligation to leave the oppressor alone in his times of weakness. On the contrary, that is clearly the best time to strike. Whether the Beyonder really fits the description of oppressor well enough to justify his murder perhaps a little harder, especially since he's proved himself able and willing to reverse what damage he has done, even when that damage has been fatal. But even if the Beyonder doesn't quite fit the oppressor mould, I'd have thought it's at least arguable from a legal perspective that executing him is justifiable, since the only alternative is his escape. He's committed serious crimes, he's announced his intention to commit more, and literally the only way anyone can see to stop him is to kill him. As always this argument makes me a little uncomfortable, because deciding we have no other choice but to kill almost always betrays a lack of interest in considering alternatives, and a body-count generated simply through a lack of imagination or care. But as a solution to this particular moral quandary, I can live with it.

Whatever the moral justification for it, it's ultimately the Molecule Man who takes the shot, sparing our heroes the job. You could argue this is a cop-out, but really I'm happy enough none of the '80s super-heroes are actual baby-killers, there just isn't sufficient maturity in the setting to handle that even if anyone wanted to try. Besides, one of the few successes this series has had has been its work on Owen Reese, and letting him be the one to save reality is rather nice.  It also makes sense since he alone has the necessary ability to deflect the shock-wave released by the Beyonder's death, which he shunts into the Beyonder's old reality to kick-start a parallel universe (making me think of Lucifer, of all things).

The resulting coda is short but nice, reminding us that the Beyonder's real problem was trying to balance his dislike of the boredom of immortality with his fear of the finiteness of life as we know it. By transforming him into a new reality, he gains both the unchanging unending vastness of the cosmos, but also the endless cycle of death and rebirth of those who live within it. In other words, the Molecule Man finally does what the Beyonder was hoping he would since the very first issue, and brings him peace.  It's a neat end to an appallingly messy series, but what matters more than the neatness is the fact that it is at long last finally over.

But for all that this series has many insurmountable faults, it added to the tool-box for crossovers generated by its predecessor, tools that are still in use today. It would be almost thirty years before Marvel tried the Secret Wars title once more, but like the Beyonder itself, Secret Wars II has generated a series of cycles that roll on, so far as I can tell, into infinity.

[1] Or at least, the Beyonder as Shooter writes him. Claremont's unknowable ultimate threat actually works fairly well, though of course that's as antagonist. Either way, though, Shooter's bellicose rampant arsehole isn't getting the job done.

[2] In a sense the Beyonder is the ultimate solipsist. Or really, he goes beyond that, reaching a degree of self-love so profound the actual existence of the not-him causes him aggravation. How appropriate it is to focus on this idea in a sequel written on the basis that the best character to come out of Secret Wars was the only one the writer actually created himself is left as an exercise to the reader.

[3] Though those reading Crisis on Infinite Earths, which started before this series and ended in the same month, might have suspected a thorough shake-up could likewise be in the offing here. I confess to having no idea how obvious it was that the DC Universe was about to undergo total restructuring one month before the final issue of that series.


Issue #7 opens days after the events of SW2 #6, and takes place over three days. It must take place before Uncanny X-Men #202.  Issue #8 starts some brief amount of time after the previous issue, and takes place over two days. Issue #9 also seems to follow on quickly from its predecessor, and takes place over a single day.

The timing of all this is somewhat tricky. Issue #9 obviously has to take place after NMU #37 and UXM #203, and the text boxes suggest issue #8 takes place after UXM #202. This is a problem since those two X-Men issues (as always on this blog, Uncanny X-Men is the central text around which all timing issues revolve) are at least days and more likely weeks apart, and yet this issue explicitly states it's only a day or two on from SW2 #8. I don't see much option here but to ignore the proposed reading order for the crossover issues (which of course are determined by publishing schedules rather than continuity in any case) and assume the Beyonder's attack on San Francisco happened before
SW2 #6.


Thursday 11th to Tuesday 16th April, 1985.


X+7Y+30 to X+7Y+35.

Contemporary Events

The USS Coral Sea collides with the Napo, an Equadorian tanker ship.

Standout Line

"Good help is so hard to corrupt."  - Mephisto


  1. "You could argue this is a cop-out, but really I'm happy enough none of the '80s super-heroes are actual baby-killers, there just isn't sufficient maturity in the setting to handle that even if anyone wanted to try."
    Interestingly enough, about a year and a half after this, Dr. Strange DID kill an African child to stop a demon that was only loose because Strange destroyed the talisman thingie that was keeping it in check to save Rintrah, Topaz and Wong. Needless to say, that was swept under the rug.

  2. By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, really? I'd never heard that before. I suppose one could make use of that as a rather pitiless critique of Western meddling, but still. I can't believe that was signed off on.