To this day, the Secret Wars limited series is considered a landmark story in the history of Marvel Comics. This actually has nothing to do with its content, which is typically seen as lackluster when compared to most of the publisher’s other works at the time. Instead, the series is most regarded (along with DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths) for jumpstarting the concept of the comic book crossover event. Ironically, the creation of this genre-changing comic had nothing to do with comics at all.
Secret Wars exists due to Marvel trying to carve out a space for itself on the toy aisle, owing even its name to this commercial endeavor. This led to more revenue than Marvel anticipated, as the popular publisher realized how many fans were committed to collecting every issue of their first ever crossover event. Much to the chagrin of diehard collectors, this pandering to feverish acquisition would have its start in a comic merely meant to promote a line of toys.
Marvel’s Secret Wars Was Conceived By Marketing
As mentioned, Secret Wars wasn’t planned by any of Marvel’s creative staff, but instead by the needs of the toy industry. In the early 1980s, toys were a huge market among children, with the majority of the era’s cartoons attesting to this fact. One of the first examples of this was Masters of the Universe, a cartoon which little more than a giant commercial for Mattel’s toyline of the same name. Likewise, DC Comics had struck gold with Kenner’s Super Powers Collection of action figures, leaving Marvel desperate for a piece of the pie.
Mattel agreed to make a toyline based off of Marvel characters as long as there was an accompanying comic book that promoted the figures. This was the same logic used for the cartoon/toyline of Masters of the Universe, applied to a comic book in order to play toward Marvel’s strengths. The other major request was that the title have something to do with the words “secret” and “wars,” since marketing had found out that these buzzwords tracked well with kids. The storyline featured major Marvel heroes and villains transported to an alien world to fight each other, so it made sense to utilize the most popular and mainstream characters of the superhero universe.
This was the first such event of its kind, as it was pulled in a whole host of big time players from the Marvel Universe. Not only would Marvel’s titles be affected by the events of secret wars, but the industry as a whole would make it an annual mission to chase after its monetary success.
Secret Wars Heavily Impacted the Development of Marvel Comics
Secret Wars‘marketing-based narrative resulted in several interesting and now iconic concepts being introduced into the Marvel Universe. Most notable of these was Spider-Man’s black alien costume, which allowed Mattel to easily make a “new toy” out of the same mold. This costume would later bond with Eddie Brock to become Venom, adding the mythos of the symbiotes to the world of Spider-Man. New female characters such as the villainous Titania and Volcana, as well as a new version of Spider-Woman were introduced in the story simply to bolster the toyline, although no toys were ever produced for them. Titania will soon be making her live-action debut, providing the longevity of some of the characters introduced in the story.
Marvel saw how much of a financial success Secret Wars was and begin “replicating” it by doing annual crossovers and events. Some of these would be of the same scope as the original comic book series, involving almost all the major Marvel heroes and their books. Others would be contained within respective families of books, such as the Mutant Massacrewhich spread throughout the X Men comics, as well as powerpack and Thor. The linewide crossovers would usually happen at least once a year, acting as summer blockbusters in comic book form. By having different books tie into these storylines, Marvel (and DC, for that matter) could guarantee a boost in sales from completionists who wanted to have every chapter of the epic. It also made the Marvel Universe feel more interconnected than ever before.
This arguably fed into the speculator boom of the 1990s that lifted comic books to even greater heights before almost killing the industry for good. Whether its legacy is seen as positive or negative, it’s undeniable that Secret Wars had a dramatic impact on Marvel’s business and creative model going forward. Given that crossovers such as the current “Banner of War” storyline are still going strong at Marvel, it seems that the real war will always be with readers’ wallets.