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A Lifetime of Superhero Comics — 1984 — Secret Wars 4
In which I discuss teenage awkwardness, toy licensing deals and my indifference to Spider-Man costumes.
Written by Jim Shooter
Pencils by Bob Layton
Cover date: August 1984
Warning: spoilers for the issue follow
By 1984, I was a teenager and therefore fully aware of my immense social awkwardness. In a marvellous adherence to stereotypicality, I had begun to mostly think of comic books as children’s stuff. Or, if I wasn’t thinking that, I was at least becoming very concerned that other people were thinking that.
(It didn’t help, of course, that my favourite comic book at the time featured a whole load of superhero cartoon funny animals that seemed somehow even more childish than the regular human superhero comics. (I knew they were examples of delightful parody, but if anybody else saw me reading a comic book with a squirrel dressed as Superman on the cover, I would surely be a subject of eternal ridicule. Or so I feared.))
But Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew was soon to be cancelled. And with it, one of my last links to my early love of comic books.
(Spoiler: I would get sucked back in to the superhero comics. As soon as the following year, in fact. Otherwise, this would be a pretty limited and sad personal history of superhero comic books.)
And yet, despite my fears of social ostracism should anybody discover my love of comic books, I continued to dabble. But without a reliable comic book series for me to collect and read, I needed another ways to keep interested.
Fortunately, around this time I discovered while browsing around the newsagency, somewhat disenchanted with the superhero comic books on offer that week, a completely different section of the store.
I knew about the magazine section, of course. Magazines were everywhere. Magazines were what grown ups bought when they went to the newsagency, and hence the bulk of the store was devoted to them. But what I had never really noticed previously was that there were magazines about comic books.
The first such magazine that I bought was related to Captain Carrot of course. Amazing Heroes 9 had a few years earlier featured an issue devoted to the superhero rabbit and his pals and, frantic for more content on my favourite comic book, I bought the magazine and read it cover to cover.
And it was fascinating! Behind the scenes interviews with the creators. Information on how the book came into existence and their plans for the future. (Plans that didn’t come to pass, alas. But fascinating, nevertheless.)
It turned out that I was somewhat of a process junkie — I loved learning how things were made (well, pieces of art, anyway — I didn’t really care how, I dunno, washing machines or chairs were made). In future years, I would choose DVDs based solely on the presence of a directors’ commentary. I would buy books on the behind the scenes making of my favourite movies and TV shows. I still have a frankly ridiculous collection of books on the history of Monty Python.
As far as I was concerned, the Amazing Heroes issue that covered the behind the scenes creation of Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew was an integral part of my Captain Carrot collection.
And once they’d hooked me in with that one, I started picking up others when, as increasingly became the case, the comic books themselves seemed too childish for me to risk the humiliation of being seen purchasing and/or reading.
These magazines that shared information about the comic book industry were things I was able to read without whatever misplaced version of embarrassment went through me while reading comic books. I could even theoretically read the magazines on the school bus by folding them around. If people couldn’t see the cover, they could be magazines about anything — cars or celebrities or property investment. As far as anybody knew, I wasn’t a childish little boy who loved superhero comic books. I was a teenager into proper, teenager things, like popular music and acne.
I don’t remember the name of the particular comic book magazine that revealed to me the upcoming series from Marvel that would gather all their heroes together into a gigantic crossover called Secret Wars. (Obviously all the comic book magazines would have been covering this story, assuming the Marvel publicity machine was working correctly. But I don’t remember which specific periodical containing those hard-hitting scoops made its way to my distant corner of country Australia.)
Whichever magazine it was, it did its job. I was only a dabbler in Marvel comics. But the idea of all the heroes fighting all the villains? That was interesting. Very interesting.
I read all the behind-the-scenes work that went into this crossover. The premise for the plot was fittingly simple. A cosmic entity called The Beyonder simply plucked all the heroes and villains from Earth to a distant planet and made them fight in exchange for their hearts’ desire. A classic tale, as old as toy manufacturer licensing deals.
(For that was all Secret Wars was, as I would later discover. Mattel were interested in buying the licence to sell action figures based on Marvel characters, but only if Marvel would build an event that would drive kids to want the toys. Also, focus groups revealed that kids reacted positively to the words ‘war’ and ‘secret’, so see if you can sneak those concepts in there somewhere, no matter how subtly.)
But behind the simplicity and crass commercial motivations of the Secret Wars maxi-series there were a variety of details that the comic book magazine revealed.
I still remember being vaguely confused by the idea that the editors of all three Spider-Man books had to work with one another to ensure that the disappearance of Spider-Man from Earth was depicted the same way in each book.
At the time it made little sense to me — if he’s having different sets of adventures, how can all the stories dovetail into the same ending? Doesn’t that mean he was kidnapped three times? (In retrospect, of course, I assume that the three stories all wrapped up, with a shared coda in which Spider-Man disappeared the same way. Because if they didn’t do it this way, thirteen-year-old me would like to have some words.)
Other things intrigued me about the series. The idea that the X-Men would refuse to fit quite so easily into the simple binary division of heroes vs villains, and would instead strike out on their own to form a third front in this battle, for example.
Ha ha ha! Classic X-Men move. You go, my (Jean) grey-shaded mutant recalcitrants.
There were also revelations that Spider-Man would get a new black costume during the battle. This was also a big deal. I guess. I dunno. The black costume was different from the usual Spider-Man costume. But whatever. I wasn’t a big Spider-Man fan. As far as I was concerned, Peter could wear a trench coat and fedora if that made him happy (and why wouldn’t it!).
But everybody in the magazine seemed excited by Spider-Man’s new costume. Even if it didn’t appeal much to me, it certainly seemed like it was going to be a big deal for the Marvel fans. (The costume change would ultimately lead to the creation of the character Venom, who I have remained determinedly indifferent towards for thirty plus years and counting.)
Anyway, Spider-Man’s costume reveal on the cover of Secret Wars 8 didn’t do it for me. What did do it for me was the cover of Secret Wars 4. A cover so utterly, stupidly magnificent it singlehandedly sold me on the entire series.
On the cover of this issue, we see the Hulk standing beneath a mountain range, holding it up and protecting all the other heroes. And surrounding this image, the thrilling caption: “Beneath one hundred and fifty billion tons, stands the Hulk — and he’s not happy!”
This registered almightily on the cool scale to thirteen-year-old me. Even to a Marvel casual, the Hulk was a known entity. One who’d had a hit TV show, in which a green-painted Lou Ferrigno would throw people around while wearing no shirt, before Bill Bixby would wander sadly off to find a new town at the end of each episode.
Everyone in 1984 knew you had to keep the Hulk happy. “Please don’t make me angry,” his TV show had pleaded with us regularly. “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” (Was the Hulk blaming others for his poor anger management skills and (quite literal) toxic masculinity? With twenty-first century eyes, it sure seems like it.)
The cover of Secret Wars 4 tapped into everything that was cool about the Hulk. There were no convoluted power sets when it came to the big green guy. He didn’t have super-ventriloquism and microscopic vision. He didn’t muck about with web shooters or the proportional strength of a spider. He didn’t have a power ring that needed to be recharged every twenty-four hours and failed to work on anything yellow.
No, the Hulk was strong. And he got stronger when he got angrier. And that was it.
And the idea of him being angry because a mountain range was dropped on top of him and his friends was so utterly outlandishly superheroically brilliant that I was sold on the series instantly.
(It was such a powerful image that my youngest brother, who was never into comics in anywhere near the same way I was, also delighted in the coolness of it. So much so that, 35 years later, after seeing Avengers: Endgame, in which (minor spoiler) the Hulk at one point holds up a pile of debris to protect his team mates, instantly texted me: “Did you see the Hulk? He’s not happy.”)
Most cover images have to sell the issue of the book. To, at the very least, entice you to pick it up and flip through the contents and see if this might be a superhero comic book for you.
The cover to Secret Wars 4 did not just sell me on the issue of that particular comic book. It sold me on the entire series.
The only problem, as it turned out, was that Secret Wars didn’t arrive at my newsagency. And I had no other way to read it. So despite being sufficiently enticed by the Hulk’s annoyance at the nuisance of a blasted mountain range being dropped on top of him, to perhaps risk the imagined social ostracism of purchasing a comic book, I wasn’t given the opportunity.
And I didn’t have any real alternatives. Maybe by 1984 there were comic book stores in the bigger cities in Australia. But that didn’t help me. I didn’t live in one of those cities. I still had to go with whatever showed up at my local country town newsagency.
And Secret Wars did not.
The Marvel publicity machine had done its job. The Marvel distribution machine had blown a gasket in attempting to do its.
I would not get to read Secret Wars until after I’d finished university and moved to Sydney where I obtained a real job and real comic book store. Flush with disposable income, I would one day in the early 1990s purchase a trade paperback of the entire 12-issue Secret Wars book.
And then, sadly, discover that it was utterly dreadful. Tedious and wordy. Goofy in a not fun way. Nothing like the thrills that the comic book magazine and, more particularly, the cover of issue 4 had promised. A disappointment on every level.
But in 1984, I didn’t know this. I just knew that the idea of a limited comic books series in which all the heroes fought all the villains was out there. And it was a fantastic idea.
Of course, as good an idea as it was, it would be even better, as far as I was concerned, if it were a DC idea. The Marvel universe was fine, but DC was where I lived.
Heck, if there ever happened to be a DC book that brought together everybody in the same way that Secret Wars had for Marvel, I would almost certainly lose my newfound carefully studied faux disdain for comic books. Because such a book featuring the DC characters would be the culmination of everything I’d ever loved about comic books.
But such a massive all-encompassing DC event was too much to hope for, surely?
Next month: Crisis!