Most people remember Secret Wars for giving the world the black Spider-Man costume, but its influence is far more pronounced than that. Sure, the black Spidey was kind of a big deal, but did you know that it was one of the first, if not the first, company-wide crossovers done by the major comic book publishers. Regardless of whether not it was the first, Secret Wars has a long-standing impact on the comic book business, and since three of its primary architects – writer Jim Shooter, artist Mike Zeck, and inker John Beatty – were at Toronto ComiCon this past weekend, the venue was used to mark three decades since the release of Secret Wars.
“I didn’t think it was going to have the impact it did,” said Shooter. “It was the first, I think, mega-crossover that involved the major Marvel characters. Doing it with the main characters was kind of new and then everybody wanted to do it. Pretty much every company ever since, every summer, has come out with their big crossover.”
Marvel had tried something similar before with the standalone Contest of Champions, but that was with characters created specifically for the book, Marvel’s bosses were “afraid to mess with anyone’s continuity,” said Shooter, who was Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time. Still, “I got that suggestion 10 times a day” in letters he said.
At the time, Mattel was trying to launch it’s line of Marvel action figures to compete with Kenners’ Super-Powers line based on DC Comics heroes, and Mattel was looking for a way to generate interest in the characters, some of whom, at the time, may not have been well-known in the mainstream. “The average person on the street didn’t know who Iron Man was, or Thor, or Ghost Rider God forbid,” Shooter remembered. “Mattel said we need something a really big event and everybody looks at me and says ‘Well…'”
Shooter decided to write the Secret Wars miniseries himself to avoid personality clashes amongst creators. “When you have to grown men in the hall arguing over who’s stronger, Colossus or Spider-Man, then you have passionate investment,” Shooter explained. “There would be these little mini-fueds, but usually it came out okay, and that’s why I wrote Secret Wars, because i was Editor-in-Chief, and if i did [something] they could all be unhappy.”
But turf wars between writers and their characters wasn’t the only challenge for Shooter, who had to gather together random characters like the Avengers, Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four into one story and return them to their creators altered by the events. “It was calculus, it was hard, and I kept these guys waiting sometimes, but its not unusual in comics to go through great stress to get something done,” said Shooter. “I really can’t think of anyplace where we didn’t give our best.”
For Zeck, drawing all those characters in Secret Wars was a big adjustment. “I had just come off of three years of Captain America, and that was a challenge because my history prior to [Secret Wars] was single character books,” he said. “There was research to do because I didn’t know everyone’s costume by heart, and I had to back up the camera much more to get everyone in [to frame], so that was an adjustment.
It also fell to Zeck to draw the covers for each of the miniseries’ 12-issues, some of which remain very iconic 30 years later. “The first cover took longer than some of the others,” he said of the first issue’s cover, which featured a large group of many Marvel heroes. Of course, the most well-known, is the cover for issue #8 which introduced Spider-Man’s black costume. “Like that particular cover, some of them are no brainers,” he said. “The Dr. Doom one [issue #10], issue #1, some of those draw themselves in a way, sometimes they’re done by committee.”
Like Shooter, Zeck didn’t realize the long-term effect of Secret Wars, nor did he know it would the success it was going to be in advanced. “If we expected it to have had the popularity it had, that would have meant that we had a formula and we could used that formula again and again,” he explained adding that the real impact of Secret Wars was how it got so many new readers into comics, or created aspiring comic book makers. “There’s really not one convention where someone says Secret Wars #8 is what got me into comics. That’s the biggest success of that book, and I don’t think a book since has brought nearly as many people into the industry.”
“It grabbed their attention again,” added Beatty. “You can’t imagine anything like that it just happens its something that’s out of our control, it’s the fans that make that happen.”
All these years later, Beatty still remembers the challenges and the grind of making Secret Wars saying that he “did not get a lot of sleep for an entire year, and [there was] a lot of stress,” he remembered. “Looking back at it now, I’m glad it’s over, I’m glad that it has the legs that it has, and that it stood the test of time. But for the year that we worked on it there was a lot of frustration and a lot of head banging. It was a difficult thing to do.”
The most enduring part of the Secret Wars legacy has to be that black costume worn by Spider-Man, the one that ended up being an alien symbiote that bonded with Eddie Brock to become the villain Venom. Spider-Man had worn black for months in the comics before it was “introduced” in Secret Wars #8, but for Shooter, the idea was a lark, something inspired by a fan, and one that Marvel didn’t think twice about. “The idea sat in my drawer for a year and then we had Secret Wars and I wanted everyone to come back changed,” he said.
“When we decided to do it, no one decided it was a big deal at the time. Even I thought it wasn’t a big deal,” said Zeck who designed the black costume. “I had no anxiety when I was doing this thing. What you see on the cover is my first take. I sent that in, Marvel said fine and that’s it.”
“When we changed [the] costume, I told the licensing and PR people and I said ‘Shouldn’t we do a press release?’ and they said no one will care,” added Shooter. “When that book (Amazing Spider-Man #252) came out, I got these screaming calls from the licensing people all of the sudden their business doubled and they didn’t hate me anymore because it was so cool looking. It really turned out to be an event and the business people finally realized that.”