COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH: Secret Wars #1 vs. Crisis on Infinite Earths #1

Which event launch reigns supreme?

Fred Van Lente’s COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH is back and better than ever! Now, as a monthly feature for 2024!

See, Marvel this year is celebrating the 40th anniversary of 1984’s 12-issue Marvel Super Hero Secret Wars by re-releasing each installment as a Facsimile Edition every month. And of course, what is the DC event it’s always compared to? Why, 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, of course. Now, I’m hopeful that DC next year does a similar Facsimile Edition re-release with COIE, but even if that doesn’t happen, it’s a great time to revisit two maxiseries that redefined comics for good and for bad.

Secret Wars and Crisis were very different kinds of stories with very different intentions, so there’s plenty to compare and contrast, as they used to say in grade school. So every month, Fred will be going issue by issue and coming up with a winner each time out. And for your convenience and entertainment, the segments will come out just prior to that month’s Secret Wars Facsimile Edition. Issue #1, for example, is out Wednesday, Jan. 17.

Oh, and as an EXTRA SPECIAL BONUS, Fred has also put together SECRET WARS: THE TOP 13 WAYS IT CHANGED THE MARVEL UNIVERSE — AND DIDN’T. Click here to check that baby out!

And there you have it!

Ring the bell, Fred!

By FRED VAN LENTE

Two massive intracompany crossovers, involving all of a publisher’s major characters. One, to sell toys. The other, to bring a convoluted continuity kicking and screaming into a new era.

One has the deaths of iconic characters, major status quo shifts, and massive battles with all existence hanging in the balance.

The other has Malibu Stacey with a new hat! Wait, I mean, a Spider-Man with a new costume!

You may assume from that description that you know what the result of the COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH between 1984’s Marvel Super Hero Secret Wars and 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths will be, but friends, that is why we play the death matches.

Secret Wars and Crisis, by the power invested in me by the American Comic Book Death Match Commission (of which I am the sole member and chair), I command thee…

FIGHT!

SECRET WARS #1: “The War Begins” (Released Jan. 24, 1984)

Jim Shooter appears to have two super powers: writing team books and alienating his fellow comics creators. Secret Wars works whenever Shooter exploits both these skills at once.

By the time he became Marvel’s editor-in-chief, Shooter had paid his dues. He famously became the regular writer of Legion of Super-Heroes when most of us are clueless high school freshmen. He is responsible, in my un-humble opinion, for the best single run of The Avengers ever—apologies to everyone else, me included—in which the Assemblers battled, among others, Korvac and Graviton. These universe-shaking villains demonstrated Shooter’s susceptibility to The Gene Roddenberry Effect, in which one has an irresistible compulsion to make their characters meet and/or fight God.

By all accounts, Shooter was the major driver behind the maxi-series to promote Mattel’s upcoming Marvel action figure line. Mattel focus groups may have provided the maxi-series’ title—the words “secret” and “war” tested well with early ‘80s tykes, it seems—but the set-up is, let’s face it, “The Savage Curtain” from Star Trek with less Abraham Lincoln. Pure Roddenberry!

The Beyonder zaps away a mostly in-continuity contingent of Marvel Universe heroes—i.e., Smart Hulk, Jim Rhodes’ Iron Man, Lockheed the Dragon but not his kidnapped mistress, Kitty Pryde, etc.—and a weirdly toyetic selection of Marvel Universe villains.

The only reason I can see why the Wrecker and his Wrecking Crew made the Beyonder’s wish-list over other more deserving candidates (No Loki? No Red Skull? No Namor?) is that they are muscle-bound dudes carrying construction equipment, therefore catnip for the makers of plastic dolls for boys. (Though with the Absorbing Man already present, do we really need two wrecking ball-swinging beefcakes?)

The Big B sticks his fantasy teams on stations floating in the middle of Space Nowhere. For some reason only then does he show off his cosmic BDE by forming a Battleworld from galactic jetsam in front of his captives, then bitch-slaps down Galactus (who just bitch-slapped down Ultron) to prove his bona fides. We are off to the races.

People complain about the sheer simplicity of this concept as if it’s a bad thing, but as much as Shooter no doubt annoyed these heroes’ regular creative teams by playing with their stars like, well, action figures, said simplicity allows his character work to shine. Shooter proves from the jump he writes Marvel’s signature characters as well as any of the writers who work for him:

Magneto mysteriously shows up on the heroes’ ship, causing an immediate rift between the X-Men and the homo sapiens heroes; Dr. Doom instantly realizes that everyone, hero and villain alike, should unite against the Beyonder, but when Captain America expresses pity for him after he’s been shot down by a treacherous Kang, his ego gets the better of him and he decides, screw it, I’ll figure out how to destroy the Beyonder myself.

It’s all pretty rad. And I haven’t even mentioned the terrific work of Mike Zeck as penciller, which makes everything look appropriately epic.

CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #1: “The Summons!” (Released Dec. 11, 1984)

DC’s current It Boys, Marv Wolfman and George Perez, bring us another crew of heroes and villains teleported to a space station by a god-like being, but here it’s not just to watch them fight.

An insidious nothingness is laying waste to the multiverse, and we open with the destruction of Earth-3 while the Crime Syndicate futilely tries to stop it. In a nice nod to the beginning of the DC Universe, the heroic Lex Luthor of this world and his wife, Lois Lane, shoot their infant son in a rocket to safety. It’s a fantastic opener.

Then we get bogged-down in set-up. Unlike in Secret Wars, where A-listers predominate, here Marv & George go out of their way to have Harbinger, the herald of multiversal babysitter the Monitor, pluck backbenchers from various parts of DC’s history to combat the encroaching menace. This motley first-issue crew includes King Solovar of Earth-1’s Gorilla City, Dawnstar of the 31st century’s Legion of Super Heroes, Firebrand from World War II’s All-Star Squadron, the not-yet-“Bwhahaha” Ted Kord Blue Beetle, and Earth-2’s Psycho Pirate.

This showcases the breadth and depth of the DCU, to be sure, particularly when compared to the younger, smaller Marvel Universe. In hindsight, a lot of this feels like the old war movie cliche of the fresh-faced farm kid going on and on about his girl back home before he takes a bullet to the face. A bunch of these heroes aren’t going to last long after the post-Crisis reboot and here we get to see such worthies as Arion, Lord of Atlantis, showcased for the last time.

Crisis is what we’ve come to expect from the Wolfman & Perez pairing: gorgeous art, dozens of costumes all deftly characterized with a few choice bits of dialogue, and questionable romance. Psycho Pirate mind-zaps Killer Frost into falling in love with her arch-nemesis, Firestorm, so they’ll both come with Harbinger, and Frost spends the rest of the issue awkwardly trying to get down Firestorm’s pants.

A bunch of shadows show up for an obligatory, cryptic fight scene, the Monitor makes his first full appearance on the last page, but nothing terribly amazing happens after the destruction of Earth-3. Good harbinger (pun intended) for the future, but makes for a so-so present.

ROUND ONE WINNER: SECRET WARS

MORE

— SECRET WARS: The TOP 13 Ways It Changed the MARVEL UNIVERSE — and Didn’t. Click here.

— The Complete COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH Index. Click here.

13th Dimension contributor Fred Van Lente is an award-winning, New York Times-bestselling comics writer, as well as an occasional novelist, teacher, and playwright. Sign up for updates on his upcoming projects and check out the trailer for his comics-writing course at his web site, fredvanlente.com

Author: Dan Greenfield

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9 Comments

  1. The first issue of Crisis was released about six months after I started reading comics regularly. I was about 12-years-old and was just getting an understanding of the then-current status quo of the DC Universe (I’ve always had a DC bias) that was so different from the Super Friends cartoon and Christopher Reeve and Adam West live-action versions that I was familiar with. Picking up that first issue was intoxicating, being dropped into the middle of a story where I had no idea what was going on, and then over the course of the next year, learning more and more about the DC characters and the multiverse as I tried to decipher what was going on (only for the real excitement to begin in 1986 when DC began their wave of hard reboots (“revamps” as they called them back then), allowing their target audience like me to get in on the ground floor of their new universe).

    I tried re-reading Crisis again a few years ago. And while the artwork is as amazing as it ever was, I find the story today to be almost impenetrable. That said, at the time it was pretty amazing to experience as it was happening.

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  2. “Weirdly toyetic selection of Marvel villains.” I love it! I love this article! I was 12 40 years ago, and Secret Wars was just what I needed from a comic! I skipped school, and walked about 5 miles each way to the comic shop to get the first issue.

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  3. You make it sound like a KO by Secret Wars.
    Marvel’s job was easier from the start with little chance at failing as simply a showcase for action figures.
    Wolfman had to, in an almost meta way, show, in-story, how convoluted the DCU had become.
    I would also say that S.W. won but, like Apollo Creed, on points.
    BTW, that was a fun read. Thanks for sharing

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    • My favorite comment from the thread–as very much the most apt. I’d have to agree (if admitting to a very strong bias toward DC’s Crisis over Marvel’s Secret Wars). I thought the opening issue to Crisis was stellar (I was 21 – 22 at the time and bought the 12 issue series as a set (since they’d all been published at that point)–and couldn’t put it down once I got home to read them.

      Caleb makes the excellent rejoinder that SW may come out on top here, at least for the opening issue, but as on a technicality. But I am much more impressed by DC’s literary ambitiousness here as dealing intrinsically in dealing with its own history and continuity over Marvel’s need to huckster a toy line–and again, I thought issue # 1 of Crisis was superb in getting things set up for what’s to come.

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  4. Crisis was peerless and is to this day but everyone forgets the Contest of Champions. That was Marvel’s first true, albeit short crossover and flat out first ever mini-series. Loved SW as a 14 year old kid but you could feel the unevenness of it, especially Zeck popping out then back in. Still, it’s a classic and toy promotion or not, is legendary. Crisis set the standard for multiversal epic story telling. DC surely established the multiverse concept in the Flash of Two Worlds but it was really Michael Moorcock’s Elric and company that first took an idea that had been floating around in science and myth for millennia and brought it to literature.

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  5. Secret Wars is unreadable crap. Crisis has a tougher job but is competently written and the art is far, far superior.

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  6. Probably also depends how old you were at the time these came out. I was 17 and was enjoying the more mature storylines of X-Men, Teen Titans, Legion of Superheroes, Daredevil, and Thor (Simonson’s run had just begun in the summer of 1983). Secret Wars #1 was fun, but at the time I much preferred Crisis #1.

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  7. I was 8 when Secret Wars began. My third grade teacher confiscated my copy of Secret Wars #4. I still love it today. It gave me what I wanted and still want from comic books: Fun.

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