The genesis (not to be confused with this steaming pile of turd) of today’s eternal cycle of BIG! UNIVERSE-CHANGING! EVENT! TALES! can be traced back to the original Secret Wars “maxi-series” published by Marvel in 1984. The twelve issue epic pitted the major (and “major-ish”) players of the Marvel Universe — heroes, discount mutants, treat villains, visit web and (for some unexplained reason) Galactus — against each other in a long-form donnybrook with “all they desired” as the grand prize.
The plot (or what passed for one) was a mish-mash of easily placable sources — the “Arena” episode of the original Star Trek series, the “Korvac Saga,” and Marvel’s Contest of Champions mini from a few years prior — and reflected the illogical bombast of its roots as a promotional tool for a line of Marvel toys (and, as Mike Sterling pointed out the other day, it certainly feels like the transcript of an excitable five year old’s action figure adventures). While it was no great shakes in terms of artistic merit, the series sold like hotcakes and thus established “event” storytelling as a profitable business model to be — in true comics industry fashion — exploited past the point of diminishing returns.
The success of Secret Wars guaranteed that readers would be treated to an even more self-consciously “epic” and overhyped sequel. Where the original series was a self-contained affair with fairly modest repercussions for Marvel Universe, the folks over at DC had upped the ante with the publication of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Crisis was a less a cohesive story than a massive editorial overhaul intended to untangle and streamline the publisher’s syncretic fictional multiverse into a single coherent universe. It was accomplished via a smorgasboard of retcons, kill-offs, and reboots which spread past the confines of the core series and into nearly every title DC published at the time.
From a narrative standpoint, this barrage of crossovers was a effective (if frequently flubbed and misleading) means of establishing a sense of scope and consequence to various goings-on. From a publishing standpoint, it served as a means to goose sales of crossover issues to the curious and/or completist segments of the target audience. It shouldn’t be any surprise that Marvel would attempt something similar for Secret Wars II.
It has been fairly well established by this point that Secret Wars II was a hot mess of the highest order. If the sprawling execution left a lot to be desired — a sprawling anti-narrative designed to maximize crossover potential over lucidity — the same goes double for its core concept.
The original Secret Wars was rock stupid, but in a way that appealed to fandom’s collective id. “A bunch of our big-name characters punching each other” was (and remains to a certain extent) a pretty solid through-line for a mainstream superhero comic. It’s the lowest common denominator, the old stand-by, the low-hanging apple of the genre. In trying to top the success of its precursor, Secret Wars II lost sight of its core appeal and collapsed under the weight of its pretensions.
Rather than focusing on an ensemble cast of proven favorites, the nine-issue sequel decided to shine the spotlight on a single entity, the uber-powerful Beyonder.
Originally more plot device than character, the Beyonder acted as both the instigator and closing act for the first Secret Wars series. A sentient universe suffering from boredom, he (or “it”) was responsible for gathering up the participants and getting them to to battle for shits, giggles, and the chance to score a free Unlimited Wish spell. His rationale can be summed up as “We need someone like the Grandmaster, only tough enough to slap around Galactus.” Having served his purpose to the story, he abruptly vanished in the final issue…only to return in Secret Wars II.
Fandom was teased with “THE BEYONDER ARRIVES ON EARTH” as the premise for the much-hyped sequel…
…which was true enough, through they left “as a Jheri curled, parachute pants-wearing whinebag” out of the solicitation text.
Having established the Secret Wars brand identity on the solid hook of a colorful superheroic slugfest, the sequel instead opted to tell an all-thumbs rehashing of A Stranger in a Strange Land. Over the course of the series, readers got the chance to witness a cosmic being of terrible power learn the intricacies of what it means to be human — things like…
SEX WITH HOOKERS!
CHILI CHEESE FRIES WITH EXTRA BACON!
THE WISDOM OF TUCKER MAX!
(I didn’t notice it back in 1985, but the Beyonder sure sexed up a lot of ladies in Secret Wars II, including — in a instance of cosmic date-rape which tops Avengers #200 for sheer grottiness — the aerobicized iteration of Dazzler.)
Not only is the “I want to live and love like a hu-man” trope one of the hoariest and hollowest of the speculative fiction genre, it also rings incredible false when applied to an omnipotent being like the Beyonder. The drives, emotions, and motivations of humanity are the products of biological hardwiring and socio-environmental responses. They are the interplay of nature and nurture within a specific local context, the idea of a super-powerful abstract entity coveting those responses is as silly as the old line of bullshit that poor folks are intrinsically happier than rich folks.
I’m fascinated by my puppy’s behavior, but I’ve never felt the urge walk on all fours, lick my own ass, or eat cat poo from the litter box. (For the most part.) A clinical fascination with a “lesser species” would have made more sense that what was delivered, which portrayed the Beyonder as Russian mafia member who behaved like a man-toddler in one panel and a sage voice of wisdom in the next.
The Beyonder met his end — via a nuclear act of infanticide — in the final issue of Secret Wars II, though his contentious (read: “hated”) role in the Marvel Universe has sinceundergone a couple of retcons — becoming an “infant” Cosmic Cube in a Fantastic Four arc before getting post-facto outed as a renegade Inhuman during the “Illuminati” nonsense of a few years back. (Secret Wars II: The Gift of Stupidity that Keeps on Giving!)
As bad a rap as the funnybooks of the 1990s get, it’s important to remember that long before a million Liefeld imitators unleashed their inner man-child on the industry, the #1 funnybook publisher in America released a flagship event title in which its top-tier character had to teach someone how to use the shitter — which is why The Beyonder (and Secret Wars II by association) has netted the honor of being this week’s Nobody’s Favorite.