By popular(?) request, the first modern crossover — and the first crossover to be justly forgotten. More beyond the jump.
What do you do when you’ve already taken Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and made them all fight one another to determine the supremacy of good or evil? Well, you get a jheri curl, for one. Apparently someone on Twitter or wherever suggested that I cover Secret Wars II. Whoever that was, I just want you to know: I read every single stupid tie-in to this stupid thing and I kind of really hate you. Last week, I reviewed Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine and remarked how it was interesting to see a superhero comic book address the inherent pointlessness of its adventures within a neverending continuity where status quos have to be maintained. Praising that seems to have sealed my fate here.
The idea that the Beyonder is despondent and lacking meaning in his life — he’s got all the power in the universe but no idea what to do with it — is an interesting one. So is the idea of an inhuman being becoming fascinated by mankind and seeking to emulate it (it steered Brent Spiner through seven seasons of TV and a couple movies besides). Of course, I can’t think of a comic book that has ever successfully managed to convey any kind of transition from inhumanity to humanity. Secret Wars II is no exception. In fact, Secret Wars II might as well have set that rule in stone. The Beyonder’s cosmic threat is the whiny friend who you can’t make go away, who embarrasses you in public places and pounces on you with chat messages as soon as he sees you’ve logged in to AIM. The heroes of Earth might want to protect Earth from the possibility of the Beyonder becoming a threat, but more likely, they’re just sick of his bullshit and want him to go away. In that way, it is possible for the readers to identify with their favorite Marvel characters more than ever before.
This central concept, a godlike being trying to find purpose, could work, but for whatever reason, Secret Wars II mostly plays it as a comedy. The Beyonder is a cosmic Balki, minus the folksy wisdom. In the tie-ins, he drifts in and out of making sense at all; consider his appearance in Cloak and Dagger, where he uses his cosmic powers to get loaded on heroin (apparently it seemed like a good idea at the time) and then declares it to be so awful that he uses his powers to eliminate not only the drugs in the bloodstream of everyone within a mile radius, but also the neurological effects of their drug addictions. This is what the Beyonder does when he’s feeling jovially curious, of course. When he’s angry… well, he also flies around having random encounters with people, but he shouts a lot more about how angry he is.
The Beyonder’s quest to learn about humanity culminates in building a giant machine that turns him from human to Beyonder and back, powered by the star child from 2001: A Space Odyssey or something. This is obviously terrible enough that not only does every super hero ever crash the party, but they’re all so horribly belligerent that they start punching each other and calling one another nasty names. This is in the ninth and final issue of the series, mind; only nearly a year in does Secret Wars II remember that part of the appeal of the first Secret Wars — a huge part — was seeing everyone team up and fight everyone else. In the first series, it was heroes vs. villains; in the second, it’s mostly the heroes teaming up against the concept of entertaining the reader.
I’m sure someone, somewhere, finds Secret Wars II a touching meditation on what it means to be human, on how absolute power bores absolutely, and on the necessity of experiencing the human condition (and at the same time, the futility of trying to comprehend it as if it was a math equation). To that someone: do you drink paint? I’m as big a Jim Shooter booster as they get, but there’s just nothing nice I can say here about the writing. If your series wants to play up the importance of the Molecule Man by spending eight issues showing him sitting around eating TV dinners with his girlfriend, I don’t even know what to say.
For better or for worse, though, this is the first modern crossover. Secret Wars was almost completely self-contained; Secret Wars II spread out into other titles, to try and cajole readers into picking up titles from across the entire Marvel Universe. Five titles a month, on average, carried the signature little Secret Wars II corner tag — five titles a month! Can you imagine? Because you should. Imagine, that is, because it’s better than actually reading it.