Monday, October 12, 2015

Let's Talk About Secret Wars Crossovers!

Everything That Now Exists

Cover by Gabriele Dell'Otto

After spending decades in contemplation of the subject, it has become clear to me that the first two Secret Wars series occupy a unique and central place in the history of the Marvel Universe. The first issue of Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars shipped in January of 1984 and the final issue of Secret Wars II shipped in December of 1985 - two years precisely during which the entire line was preoccupied, in one way or another, with the threat of the Beyonder. In the real world, of course, the two Secret Wars were just crossovers - two of the very first, yes, but followed by many to come. But in-story the scope of the Secret Wars had not, until 2015, been equaled. So while there may have been bigger or better crossovers published in subsequent decades, "in story," to the heroes themselves, the stakes were never higher, nor the repercussions as deep.

Rather than Secret Wars being "merely" a single crossover, therefore, it would be more correct to say that everything else Marvel has ever published has been a Secret Wars tie-in. Allow me to explain.

1. Jim Shooter and the High Evolutionary

In 1987, Jim Shooter was fired from Marvel comics. The Secret Wars franchise - and the Beyonder as a character - were Shooter's creations. As soon as he was gone the company immediately set about dismantling his legacy. Before his chair was even cold they demolished his New Universe initiative, having his pet creation Ken Connell blow up his hometown of Pittsburgh, setting in motion a chain of events which would eventually lead to the already-ailing line's death in 1989. (This pattern should be familiar to anyone who followed the long decline of Marvel's Ultimate line, which never recovered from 2008's controversial Ultimatum series [which, similarly to The Pitt, launched a soft reboot with the destruction of a major city - in that case, New York], and was finally put to rest in the pages of . . . 2015's Secret Wars.) Special rancor was reserved for the Beyonder. IN 1988 Steve Englehart was in the middle of his excellent, if ill-fated run on Fantastic Four when the word came down that the Beyonder needed to die. As Englehart explains in his annotations to the run:
Editor Ralph Macchio had always hated Jim Shooter's Beyonder, and asked me to write the guy out of the Marvel Universe. I did not hate the character so I wrote him out with, I hope, some heroism and grandeur.
You can't blame Englehart for the debacle of Fantastic Four #319. He was the bag-man. I believe based on his own testimony that he tried his best to be done with the matter as well as he could. He had no investment in the Beyonder or the Secret Wars either way.

But unfortunately, he did his job a little too well.

Cover by Ron Frenz and Joe Sinnott, middle finger by me

Ah, Fantastic Four #319, the so-called "Secret Wars III." Long have I hated you. Your existence these past 27 years has been for me a never healing canker, a wellspring of bile and revulsion. You were born of spite and midwifed by regret. It wasn't enough simply to kill the Beyonder, you see. Not only did the Beyonder need to die, he needed to be wiped from existence - and not just wiped out of existence, but the entirety of the Secret Wars completely retconned.

Like I said: Englehart was very good at his job. The storyline that ended with the Beyonder's erasure was the climax of a multi-issue storyline partially designed to wrap up a number of loose ends, not merely from the Secret Wars, but stretching back to the very beginnings of the Marvel Universe. If you can discount the end result, it's a remarkable run. Who built the Savage Land? Where do Cosmic Cubes come from? What the hell was up with Bill Mumy and Miguel Ferrer writing Comet Man in 1987? The answers to these questions - as well as a few tantalizing hints into the origins of the Celestials and even the resolution of the first Kree / Skrull War - were, as it turns out, bound up with the origins of the Beyonder . . . and the Beyonders.

Art by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott

The trail starts a few years earlier, before the first Secret Wars, all the way back to the (second) death of Adam Warlock, in Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 [1977]. Three years later the character known as Her (originally Paragon, later Kismet, created by Len Wein, David Kraft, and Herb Trimpe; first appearance in The Incredible Hulk Annual #6 [1977]), the second artificial offspring of the same Enclave that created Adam Warlock (originally known as Him, created by Lee & Kirby; first appearance in Fantastic Four #66 [1967]), set out to resurrect Adam Warlock in order to mate with him and spawn the race of genetically perfect superhumans that the Enclave had dedicated their lives to creating (Marvel Two-In-One #61 [1980], written by Mark Gruenwald). The problem was that Adam Warlock had been buried on the High Evolutionary's Counter Earth (the duplicate Earth for whose sins he had died, before he was resurrected the first time as a Christ-analogy, with the Hulk as his John the Baptist (Incredible Hulk #178 [1974]). And this was a problem because when they ("they" being Her, the Thing, Alicia Masters, Starhawk [of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, then marooned in the 20th century], Moondragon and the High Evolutionary himself) went to find Counter Earth, they discovered it had been stolen, by a group of Pegasusians called the Prime Movers of Tarkus (Marvel Two-In-One #62 [1980]) (no relation, I'm sure).

The Prime Movers were themselves merely hired hands, however, having been contracted by the Beyonders to steal Counter-Earth, for their own mysterious purposes. The High Evolutionary (created by Lee & Kirby, first appearance The Mighty Thor #134 [1966]) - well, he's an interesting fellow. On the one hand, he's probably the most powerful baseline human Earth has ever produced, a "normal" (as in, non-mutant, non-Inhuman, non-Eternal) man who by dint of technology and genetic manipulation elevated himself to the level of a cosmic power. But on the other, he's also pretty much insane, due to his mind being fried after having been up and down the evolutionary ladder dozens of times. He's very unpredictable. On any given day you have no way of knowing whether or not he'll be a kindly father figure, a genocidal eugenicist working from the same playbook as Apocalypse, a reluctant but dedicated galactic defender, or a dude trying to make it with Shanna the She-Devil (as one does). So, when confronted with the theft of Counter-Earth at the hands of the Prime Movers (Marvel Two-In-One #63 [1980]), he did pretty much the opposite of what you might expect: nothing.

Art by Jerry Bingham and Gene Day

Long story short, the Thing punches the green guy a couple times and they let the group go down to Counter-Earth briefly, where Her tries and fails to resurrect Adam Warlock (an attempt which may have worked, had she possessed Warlock's soul gem, then in the possession of the Gardner, where it would remain until 1990 and the publication of Thanos Quest). But more importantly, the High Evolutionary accompanied the Prime Movers to meet the Beyonders, in the hopes of . . . well, I'll let him explain, as he does here to Dr. Bruce Banner, one year later, in Incredible Hulk # 266, written by Bill Mantlo.

Art by Sal Buscema

It's worth pointing out that the scene of the High Evolutionary's encounter with the Beyonders - the first "appearance" of the Beyonders - has only ever been shown in flashback. The flashback was expanded later during the Evolutionary War (in the backup to Avengers Annual #17, written by Mark Gruenwald), which also gave us the first-ever visual representation of anything connected to the Beyonders (this would also remain, until 2014, their only visual representation).

Art by Ron Lim and Tony DeZuniga

The High Evolutionary was never a stable dude to begin with, but this was the beginning of what would be many decades of mental problems (only exacerbated when he witnessed the birth of a Celestial a while later in the pages of Thor #424). But back in 1981, in the aftermath of his run-in with the Beyonders, his first priority was to kill himself as quickly as possible - and to his credit, suicide by Hulk is a pretty baller way to die.

Art by Sal Buscema

It didn't stick, obviously. He came back seven years later and triggered the Evolutionary War, an attempt to forcefully speed-up the evolution of humanity to catch up with the Beyonders (which actually makes sense in the Marvel Universe, where you need to remember that evolution doesn't work the same way as it does here). But even though his brief encounter with the Beyonders would mark him forever, for the moment he recedes into the background of this story.

Next: The Savage Land and Comet Man


Adam Farrar said...

One note Tim, by Thanos Quest #1, the In-Betweener had Warlock’s Soul Gem, not the Gardener. The Gardner at that point possessed the Time Gem, after twice losing and once recovering the Soul Gem. (I’m sure you’ll remember this after I note it.)

In The Incredible Hulk #247-248 ([1980]), The Gardener interfered with the Hulk’s attempt to bury Jarella on her dying home planet of K'ai. The Gardener explains that he scooped up the Soul Gem from Warlock’s grave to replace the one he abandoned on Earth’s Moon (which was presumed destroyed in Avengers Annual #7 [1977]). The Hulk rips the gem from the Gardener’s forehead and throws it to the center of the planet, restoring the planet to life. The story ends with the Gardener seemingly ok with this development.

The Soul Gems next appear in Silver Surfer #3-10 (by [1987-1988]) as the Elders of the Universe try to kill Galactus. In #7, the Gardener has the Soul Gem and says he has possessed it “since” he got it from Warlock’s grave. The Elders tend to be liars and cheats so we can assume that after the Hulk left K’ai, the Gardener retrieved it and is skipping the loss when telling his “brothers” about the gems. Unfortunately for him, the Elders’ plan goes awry resulting in three Elders and all six Soul Gems lost in a black hole while the Gardener and four other Elders are eaten by Galactus.

But eating the immortal Elders is killing Galactus, who asks the Silver Surfer and Reed and Susan Richards go after the soul gems to cure him (in Silver Surfer Annual #1 and Silver Surfer #15-19 by [1988]). The trio go into the black whole and find that the Elders Astronomer and Trader have the Soul Gems. Susan gets the gems but becomes Malice, there is a struggle and the In-Betweener uses Reed Richards to get Warlock’s Soul Gem. As the In-Betweener battles Galactus, the eaten Elders return and gain gems. The fight ends when Master Order and Lord Chaos send everyone away and imprison the In-Betweener where Thanos finds him in Thanos Quest #1.

timoneil5000 said...

You are 100% right here, and I even remember the sequence in question now that you point it out - along with the surprising poignancy of the reveal that the Gardener was using the Time gem to keep his garden from ever wilting. I even talk about the Englehart run on FF (which is already up now, above) which ran simultaneous to his SILVER SURFER - but of course, before Starlin came along it was difficult to keep track of which gem did what because their roles hadn't been defined.

Man, I love that Englehart run on the Surfer - the best the character's been written since the 60s, I'd argue, even if I still think it's a missed opportunity that he failed to tie in the Gems with the Beyonders at the time. Which would have united the two great Marvel cosmic plotlines once and for all, but maybe I'm the only one who would have been excited about that.

Adam Farrar said...

I’ll admit to being a novice on the Surfer but Englehart seems to approach the character with more compassion and provides him more purpose. You can tell me I’m wrong but most depictions of him, that I remember, are of an aimless wanderer naively getting into trouble or just mopey.

I’ll admit I had forgotten that the Gardener picked up the Soul Gem instead of regaining his previous gem until you mentioned it and made me pull those issues out. The Gems are easy to confuse at that point in time since they were pretty inconsistent until Thanos Quest when Starlin/Thanos renamed them “Infinity Gems.” In the early days they each produced energy blasts and whatever else the plot needed. The first thing Warlock uses his Soul Gem to do in Marvel Premiere #2 is revert a New Man back to its animal origin…which makes no sense in retrospect.

And, I suppose there’s always still time to tie the gems and the Beyonders together. After all, it was never said how the High Evolutionary got the Soul Gem in the first place.

Unknown said...

Beyonder was downplay he was God an Marvel got butthurt plain and simple.