Sunday, November 23, 2014

Let's Look At Secret Wars II Crossovers!


If the Beyonder's interference in the lives of both ROM and the New Defenders smacked of last-minute arbitrary editorial shoehorning, many crossovers actually did have interesting things to do with the character. In particular, the Thing had a particular relationship to the Beyonder, and the promise of the first actual physical slugfest between these two titans was more than enough of a hook on which to hang a crossover during the last days of Ben's solo series.

The first Secret Wars had a big impact on the Fantastic Four. One month, the Fantastic Four along with all of Earth's greatest heroes and villains mysteriously disappeared after stepping into ominous gateways placed across the world. The next month . . . the heroes returned in the pages of Marvel Super Heroes Secret War #1. But the heroes also returned to their solo books as well, with the events of the Secret Wars in their past, but (for obvious reasons) unable to speak about just what had happened during their (real world) year on Battleworld. Spider-Man returned with a crazy (but extremely cool) black costume that wouldn't be explained for another eight months. The X-Men returned and Colossus broke up with Kitty because he fell in love with an alien healer, in addition to having gained a sassy dragon stowaway named Lockheed. And perhaps strangest of all - the Fantastic Four returned, with new member She-Hulk, and without the Thing.

The same month Marvel Super Heroes Secret War #1 and Fantastic Four #265 shipped, so did The Thing #11, the first chapter of the "Rocky Grimm, Space Ranger" saga. The first page of The Thing #11 is also the last panel of the Secret Wars series, something readers wouldn't understand for a full year. Essentially, the first page of "Rocky Grimm" sees Ben Grimm - not the Thing - chilling on Battleworld, holding the switch set to take him back to Earth at the end of his adventure. Something strange happened to Ben on Battleworld: he became able to switch back and forth between his human body and the Thing at will. Furthermore, he realized that one of the reasons why he had been unable to consciously switch back and forth on Earth had been psychosomatic - a subconscious conviction that Alicia Masters would never love plain old Ben Grimm. So, since Reed had mastered the portal technology to enable Ben to return to Earth at his pleasure, he remained on Battleworld in order to sort some things out.

"Rocky Grimm, Space Ranger" has always been one of my favorite stories. In the first place, it's a weird story where Ben wanders around and explores all the strange parts of Battleworld they didn't get around to seeing during the actual Secret Wars. In the second, it's also an emotionally raw exploration of Ben's psyche, where he is taunted and tortured by physical manifestations of his self-doubt and fears. And, of course, it's still the Beyonder's doing: even though the actual Secret War ended when the Beyonder left our universe following Dr. Doom's defeat, he made Battleworld to reflect the deepest desires and fears of the combatants. His world made a woman for Ben to love, the supposed embodiment of his truest desires. His world made a villain, too, but if you haven't read the story I won't say who it is for fear of spoiling it. Leave it be said, by the time he gets back from the Secret Wars planet, he's been through an exhausting emotional ordeal. (Seriously: just seeing this cover makes me tear up, it's fucking brutal.)

So Ben returns back from Battleworld, (supposedly) unable to ever transform into Ben Grimm again, to find that the world has changed considerably. Not only had Sue lost her second child (or rather, she lost it for a time, until she sort of came back because the universe was destroyed by Reed Richards to defeat Abraxas, er, best to move on), but Alicia Masters had begun dating Johnny Storm. Ben came back, found this out, and almost killed Johnny, before leaving the Fantastic Four (supposedly) for good. (It was all good though, because the Alicia who married Johnny was eventually revealed to be a Skrull, which was itself eventually revealed to have been the opening salvo of the Secret Invasion.) Even above and beyond Johnny - his best friend - making time on his girl, there was the small matter of Ben having realized that Reed - his other best friend - had suspected all along the real reason why Ben was unable to switch between his human form.

After that, Ben spent another year and change on the road, as a wrestler for the Unlimited Class Wrestling Foundation as well as a kind-of sort-of member of the Avengers West Coast. But this was a different Ben - pissed, resentful, and angry like he hadn't been since the first year of the Fantastic Four. He was estranged from his family and his one true love. And he blamed the whole situation on one being: the Beyonder.

We've all been there, and that's why I find this period in the Thing's career so enduring. If you look at the facts, sure, Ben is as much to blame for his problems as anyone. Reed and Johnny screwed up too. But Battleworld did what was promised: when the Beyonder said, "Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours," Ben took him up on the offer. He slew his worst enemies - his own fears and insecurities - and got what he should have been very careful to ask for: in the words of the oracle, he knew himself, and he didn't like what he saw in the mirror. But we've all had that One Bad Year where everything goes wrong. Every single bad thing that could happen to you happens and you're left out in the cold. And it's always easier to blame other people for your problems than yourself, and easier still to displace the blame from your friends and family onto a seemingly invincible third party. And that's exactly what Ben does.

But of course, Ben never really imagined he'd have the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the being who ruined his life.

The best thing about Secret Wars II - OK, maybe not "the" best thing because the series is nothing but a series of unimpeachable highlights - but one of the best things the series does is that it has a lot of fun with putting the Beyonder into the most banal situations possible. This is the point of the series, after all: he keeps running into people whose first reaction is to try and fight him, which is completely stupid since they've all seen him destroy a galaxy in a blink of an eye. If you think of all the laws of time and space the Beyonder would need to break just to make that event appear simultaneous to the combatants of Battleworld situated hundreds of thousands of light years away, well, you might begin to have an idea of just how bad a motherfucker the Beyonder is. ("Inhuman-mutant" my ass. "Incomplete Cosmic Cube" like fuck. There is only one omnipotent Beyonder, from Beyond, accept no substitutes.) Anyway, the Beyonder just wants to learn about human life, and the concept of desire. It's just misfortune that the only people he knows are super heroes with poor judgement control.

(Seriously, Marvel, I think you're going to be publishing as many Secret Wars tie-ins as you possibly can fit down the chute very soon. How about a Untold Tales of Secret Wars II with Derrida, Badiou, Habermas, Jameson, oh, maybe the Silver Surfer, too, since the Beyonder alludes to a meeting with the Surfer that we never see?)

So we meet the Beyonder in a bar, depressed because of his inability to make sense of life - as well as having been rejected by his first true love, Allison Blaire, AKA the Dazzler. He's upset even though, let's be serious, she was way out of his league to begin with. But because this a superhero comic, you can never have a scene set in a bar without a bar fight. A few local toughs think it's a good idea to fuck with One From Beyond, so he makes short work of them and demolishes the bar in the process. But he just so happens to be seen by a manager working with the UCWF, who sees in the Beyonder his ticket to the big time.

Now, we should say a few words about ethics in professional wrestling.

The Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation was Marvel's answer to the then-burgeoning national popularity of the WWF (later WWE). Because this was the Marvel Universe, the UCWF was comprised of super-strong individuals. One of the problems with the UCWF was that because, even in the MU, there are only so many people with naturally occurring super-strength, doping was a big concern. And by "doping" I mean this guy here would strap you to a gurney and do some mad scientist stuff until you came out roughly as strong as US Agent or D-Man (both of whom underwent this process). They would also get you addicted to opiates and lie to you, telling you that you needed a steady supply of the "special medication" or the procedure would kill you. So, y'know, not a very ethical outfit. (That guy, Karl Malus, was recently eaten by Carnage, so, you know, what goes around comes around.)

The Thing was the star of the Federation for a few months, before he figured out how crooked it was. But one thing was on the up-and-up about the UCFW, and that was the fact that the matches weren't scripted. Which means, of course, that any trip out to see the UCFW would have been taking your life in your own hands, watching a guy strong enough to fight the Hulk swap punches with guys who could tear Buicks in half, in a completely unpredictable fashion. How did anyone ever insure that business? Was it even insured? Or were they just one flying piece of jagged metal away from losing everything in a blizzard of lawsuits? Maybe it isn't that surprising: before the WWF came along and codified all the rules for a national audience, wrestling was even more weird and dangerous than it was before being "domesticated" in the 80s. Imagine all the fun of a wildcat wrestling league with a dangerous gimmick (think the ECW) and guys who can punch holes in battleships. (I do think, incidentally, that this storyline was prompted by some familiarity with and affection for wrestling norms on the part of the creators, Mike Carlin and Ron Wilson. For proof look no further than the joke on "From Beyond," as a play on the eternal formula "Parts Unknown.")

With all that said, Ben was pissed when he came back years' later to do some color commentary for the now-"clean" (about as clean as any wrestling outfit, I imagine) UCWF and found out the matches were now scripted.

But anyway. Given all this background, it's charming how the owners and promoters at the UCWF are so consistently worried about the health and safety of their wrestlers. It's also charming how the issue manufactures the coincidence of the Thing just happening to run across the Beyonder's try-out.

Apparently the tryout for the league is simply to lift (press) a bunch of 500 lb weights over your shoulders. Which the Beyonder, given that his power is limitless, accomplishes with ease.

I just would like to point out: that's around 50 weights, so at 500 lbs each that comes out to roughly 12 1/2 tons. That can't be five times what the Thing did, since the Thing is in Class 85, enabling him to lift (press) 85 tons. (I want the record to show that I didn't need to look that up.) Meaning: either the Thing's stats in the OHotMU are inflated, or he essentially lied to the UCWF promoters in order to get into the ring and be able to take out his frustrations on people who were significantly less strong than himself. I can't believe that Ben's stats were juiced since he is regularly able to trade punches with the Hulk - a confirmed Class 100 - so the only option is that Ben is a liar who has been using the goons of the UCWF as his personal meat punching bags.

So the Beyonder runs into Ben outside the auditorium and, what would you imagine to be the most impolitic thing he could possibly say? Yeah, "I think I understand how you felt about Tarianna now" - you know, the girl who died in Ben's arms on Battleworld. That's totally on par with being down because the Dazzler rejected you.

Ben is incensed. He insists on fighting the Beyonder, even though management is unwilling to hire the Beyonder, on the grounds that the Beyonder would be able to murder everyone else in the league. (Obviously these guys should have been in charge of booking for the last few years' of Ali's career.) Ben refuses to take no for an answer, even resorting to that time-tested means of persuading people, karate-chopping their desk into many pieces . . .

I just want to point out that even though the UCWF is a business predicated on turning wannabe wrestlers into super-powered junkies, the promoter cares so much about A) the integrity of his outfit and B) the safety of his wrestlers that he is able to face down a fighting-mad Thing in order to avoid jeopardizing the long-term viability of his business model. Somewhere, a young Vince McMahon is taking notes. Because grudge matches never sell, and champions losing titles to previously unknown heels never gets the fans engaged.

Eventually they relent and allow the match to go through, because the Thing is kind of a pissy brat sometimes. Meanwhile, the Beyonder is quite invested in this turn of events.

Seriously, if they're worried about the Beyonder killing other wrestlers, maybe they need to do something about the fact that he is drunk for literally the entirety of this comic book. He may not have learned much about the nature of desire, but he already knows the answer to the most important question of them all.

Finally the day of the fight arrives, and the management is still trying to talk Ben out of the fight.

Meanwhile, in another wrestling comic:

I just happened to be in the middle of a reread of the first volume of Love & Rockets recently, and it's interesting to compare the kind of promotion Jaime portrays in "In the Valley of the Polar Bears" to the kind of promotion in which the UCWF seems to traffic. "In the Valley of the Polar Bears" tells the story of Maggie's aunt, Vicki Glori, and her quest to demolish every other person in the WWW. (I think World's Women's Wrestling? I can't recall off the top of my head.) Vicki is on a tear, seriously putting her opponents in the hospital over the WWW's refusal to insure her title belt. (This sounds more like the kind of promotion an actual wrestling league might use.) What puts her presentation over the top, however, is her use of Maggie as a prop, the buttoned-down scowling accountant who watches over each match in silent disapproval over Vicki risking her belt. That's a good gimmick. If the UCWF were smart, they would have turned the management's reluctance to allow Ben to fight the Beyonder into a selling point. But one supposes that for the UCWF, it really is about ethics in professional wrestling.

The first few minutes of the match are uneventful, with the Beyonder easily dodging the Thing's brute-force charges. The UCWF's buttoned-down, respectable audience isn't happy about this.

The takeaway is that even though the Beyonder is insanely powerful, he really doesn't know how to fight. Also, he actually has learned a few things in his time on earth, as he does accept some of the blame for Ben's unhappiness, so he's willing to let the Thing pound on him.

This is where the story gets dark. In many ways, this is the mirror universe sequel to the famous Marvel Two-In-One Annual #7, where Ben overcomes the Champion of the Universe and refuses to give up, even after having been almost killed in the process of trying to save the Earth. (Incidentally: that story made #72 on Marvel's recent 75 Best Stories poll, and I like to think that my Twitter lobbying made all the difference there. It finished ahead of Nextwave, so suck it.) But here, instead of being the overmatched underdog, Ben becomes the bully. The Beyonder could destroy him in an instant, but he refuses to raise a hand against Ben.

Meanwhile, Ben's latest love interest, Sharon Ventura, just happens to arrive in time to see Ben about to murder the Beyonder. It's worth noting that Sharon's initial gimmick was that she was the splitting image of Tarianna - the same Tarianna who died in Ben's arms on Battleworld. I've always wondered if maybe that was too good a coincidence to be true, but no one ever followed up on it and Sharon went on to be a supporting character in the Fantastic Four for many years without any more mention of her creepy status as Ben's imaginary dream woman made flesh.

This is the crucial moment. Ben has to weigh everything - his self-respect, his reputation, his career as both a hero and a wrestler - against his very real desire to kill the man who he blames for having destroyed his life. Ben is usually portrayed as one of the most selfless and stalwart heroes in the world, willing to sacrifice everything to do the right thing, to overcome any obstacle in order to achieve victory over impossible odds. This is one of the most terrible fights in his career, not because he's fighting the Beyonder, but because he's ultimately fighting himself. And he loses.

Ben, being Ben, instantly realizes his mistake.

Because he's a genuinely good and decent person, Ben wastes no time in blaming himself for losing control. He is especially humiliated by having done so in front of Sharon.

This is why, regardless of what anyone says, I will always defend Secret Wars II. It may be universally mocked. It may have been a curveball compared to what most people's expectation of a Secret Wars sequel would look like. I daresay if the story hadn't been called Secret Wars and hadn't had so many goofy crossovers, it might be better remembered today. Because at its core its about a guy who comes to Earth wanting to learn how to be human but who keeps learning the wrong lessons from people who should really know better. It's a strong hook, and a few writers were able to take use it as a springboard for some interesting stories. The Beyonder is a child, basically, and having to face the consequences of what he did to Ben seems almost cruel given the fact that he was as innocent of his actions at the time as a child tearing the wings off flies.


Michael Hoskin said...

>in addition to having gained a sassy dragon stowaway named Lockheed

...Or, rather, said sassy dragon's girlfriend. Also, Hulk broke a leg, Iron Man had some extra doodads on his armour, and you had to wait until the end of the series for most of those teased changes to enter the story!

>He's upset even though, let's be serious, she was way out of his league to begin with.

Dazzler's attainability = infinity+1? That's not what Roman Nekobah says.

Man, this was a fantastic review, Tim. I've never read "Rocky Grimm" in its entirety, but you've made a great case for delving into it. Thanks! Please keep these coming as you're able to, I'd be interested in your thoughts on the Power Man/Iron Fist tie-in.

DanielT said...

Thanks for these and I'd love to see them continue.

I bought SWII when it first came out and liked it fine but didn't give it much thought afterwards. Then, five years ago, had the omnibus on sale (I think on Black Friday) for some insanely low price. I bought it only with the intention of flipping it for a profit. But I decided to read it first and, well, it sits on my shelf still.

5c11 said...

You know, I've been friends with you so long that it really never occurs to me that most people don't consider Secret Wars II to be more or less the Platonic ideal of superhero comics...

etag said...

I was 10 years old when Secret Wars II was coming out and I actively sought out its crossovers as a chance to sample *every* Marvel title ever.
Given my limited allowance I didn't buy too many books off the newsstands but managed to find many a Secret Wars II crossover book in the quarter bins in later years. That really should have been a hint about the quality.
I'm looking forward to more reviews in this series.