Selling Nostalgia: The Return Of Marvel's Secret Wars

Brian M. Puaca writes for Bleeding Cool:

As a regular reader of all of Marvel's titles, I am extremely excited to see the how the investigations of the Illuminati regarding the parallel Earths will unfold in Secret Wars.

Secret Wars 2015 0 issueWait. Scratch that. I have no idea what that even means.

The title? Yes, that I recognize. Secret Wars.That fabulous title from the mid-1980s that brought together all of my favorite heroes and villains for a battle royale. The story? Not so good. But that fact was lost on me as a kid saving up money to buy those books at the local newsstand. It took twelve issues for the world's greatest superheroes and supervillains to duke it out, defeat a new and mysterious figure, and head for home. But I bought and read all of them.

Now, thirty years later, we have Marvel publishing a storyline bearing the same title. With the zero issue just released as part of Free Comic Book Day, the main event launches this week. Secret Wars, it seems, will dominate all of Marvel's titles for the next several months. It will bring together the traditional Marvel Universe (or the 616, for those in the know) with the Ultimate universe. The destruction of the two universes will result in the creation of a new Battleworld that will display characteristics of many realities from the Marvel Universe. There will be, for example, A Spider Island, New Quack City, and Westchester, that will serve as settings for the story.

I won't pretend to be an expert on the event. I've read the zero issue and have to admit that I'm still not sure just what to expect going forward. The idea sounds promising – if not also pretty confusing – and I am curious to see what becomes of some of my favorite characters when it's all over. But I am most interested in the choice of the name. Why call this Secret Wars?

SECRET WARS TOY ADAs fans of the original series probably already know, the title was chosen as a result of focus groups with kids staged by Mattel. The company had made the decision to create a line of Marvel toys but wanted a high profile publishing event to support the marketing of the new products. Mattel determined that the two words "secret" and "wars" were exciting to children and, therefore, should be used in the title of the series. That made good sense, since the main idea was to use comic books as a vehicle to sell action figures. And so Secret Wars was born.

And as fans of the Marvel Universe know, there were some pretty neat things that happened as a part of the Secret Wars event. Most notably, Spider-Man acquired a new, black costume (an alien symbiote, in reality). The Thing decided to stay on Battleworld, thereby opening up a slot for She-Hulk to join the Fantastic Four. And perhaps most importantly, the tremendous sales success of Secret Wars turned the idea of a mega-event into an annual affair. Naturally, Secret Wars II would be next. Then there would be Mutant Massacre, Fall of the Mutants, Inferno, and Acts of Vengeance. And that only takes us to the start of the 1990s.

Thirty years later, it is clear that Marvel has no interest in selling toys this time. (That said, I should note that there are actually a handful of new Secret Wars action figures available for pre-order from Gentle Giant that retail for $90-$120!) Indeed, there likely won't be too many ten year olds buying the Secret Wars books at $4.99 each. And so why use the title Secret Wars? Nostalgia.

One could certainly make the argument that the superhero comic book industry has continued to exist in recent years due in large part to nostalgia. The average comic book reader in this country is now over forty years old. And Marvel (like their Distinguished Competition) continue to publish predominantly superhero books that appeal to those readers already familiar with their characters. Reformulating the tried and true has kept people reading these titles for decades. Stan Lee realized this more than forty years ago when he told his Marvel bullpen that their characters were too valuable to change. Keeping things the same while giving readers the illusion of change became the goal. And this has worked, more or less, ever since.

SecretWars_1The title Secret Wars, however, takes this commodification of nostalgia to a new level. Playing on the name recognition of the series among comic books readers aged thirty-five and older, Marvel is betting on the fact that the title will stimulate interest. Naturally, the use of the title also generates buzz online. Casual readers, and even those who haven't picked up a comic in years, could potentially return to see what Marvel has up its sleeve.

So we'll just have to wait and see how it turns out. It will be interesting to find out how the sales numbers (already promising) look when all is said and done. And it will be at least as much fun to speculate as to what it was that drove those sales. A great story? Hopefully. Important events that have a lasting impact on the Marvel Universe? Perhaps. A bunch of middle-aged comic book fans returning to buy a piece of their childhood? Quite likely. It makes one wonder if Jim Shooter will be getting any royalties on the sales of this series. He is undoubtedly one of the reasons that many readers will be picking up this book in the first place.

Brian M. Puaca is an associate professor of history at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, where he teaches a course on the history of comic books and American society. He can be reached at bpuaca@cnu.edu.

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.

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