Spoilers ahead! Beware!
For comic book fans, 1986 is a watershed year. Think about what 1969 means to space enthusiasts or why 1977 is important to punk music and you’ll get an idea of its significance. The year looms so large over us geeks because it was when Frank Miller debuted The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons began their magnum opus, Watchmen. Essentially, it was when comics grew up. Sure, the medium had flirted with serious issues before but these two titles represented a quantum leap in quality.
The importance of 1986 is not lost on Mark Millar. When he wrote Wanted, he made it the year that super-villains secretly took over the world, tapping into the fact that it was the year when comics got darker. By that rationale, 1985 was therefore the last year that comics were fun.
Which brings us to the new mini-series called 1985 that Millar has created with Tommy Lee Edwards. It’s a sequel of sorts to Marvel’s Secret Wars, the trend-setting template for all of the massive crossover events that now appear on the shelves every summer. Which is one of the reasons that 1985 is of far more personal signifance to me than the following year, and why this new title from Millar and Edwards has struck such a tone with me.
You see, although Secret Wars was published in 1984 in the US, it wasn’t reprinted in Britain by Marvel UK until 1985. Back then I was living in a housing scheme in Scotland, which was about five miles away from the housing scheme in Scotland where Millar was growing up. And I can’t speak for Millar, but Secret Wars was an absolutely seismic event in my childhood. During my early years as a comics fan I was largely reared on British reprints. Actual American comics were few and far between, something to be treasured. The stories I read in the UK reprints were sometimes years behind the times, but Secret Wars was almost bang up-to-date and I had never read anything like it before.
These days, event comics are the norm. Millar wrote one recently himself in Civil War, but back then seeing all of the Marvel heroes together in one title was mind-blowing. In the week running up to the first issue I distinctly remember not being able to sleep at night, because the adverts for Secret Wars in the other Marvel UK titles had me so excited. When it finally came out I sneaked out of school (I was in primary seven, which is the last year before high school) at playtime to buy it and it was the best 27p I had ever spent.
And now I can revisit this seminal period in my childhood through 1985. For the uninitiated, Secret Wars saw most of Marvel’s heroes and villains being transported to a planet called BattleWorld by an omnipotent being called the Beyonder. Once there, they were to have a massive square-go and the Beyonder promised them: “Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours! Nothing you dream of is impossible for me to accomplish!”
In 1985, characters from the Marvel Universe seem to have crossed over to our world, a place where they only exist in comic books. It begins with a scene from Secret Wars where Doctor Doom gained the powers of the Beyonder and then moves on to a young lad called Toby, a comic book fan from your average small-town dysfunctional American family.
From here, 1985 carries on one of the thematic links across much of Millar’s recent work, namely some huge event that intrudes on childhood. In Chosen, Jodie had to struggle with the Second Coming. Wanted saw Wesley’s father abandon him at a young age to concentrate on taking over the world. Kick-Ass sees Dave bludgeoned to within an inch of his life when he dons a costume to fight crime. In 1985, Toby stumbles across a house in the woods where Doctor Doom, the Red Skull, the Mole Man and a bunch of other Marvel villains are holed up.
The real-world setting is another common thread in Millar’s work but, at least in this first issue, the collission between the Marvel Universe and our own isn’t spectacular, it’s a slow build. A child plays with Ultron’s head in a garden. The Red Skull is spotted lurking behind curtains. The Mole Man politely offers Toby and his dad some comics he’s cleared out from the house. A sighting of the Vulture is dismissed as a fraternity prank. And then there’s Edwards’ terrific last page, which reveals that it’s not only the villains who have made it through to our world.
And what a job Edwards does. There are at least half-a-dozen absolutely knockout pages. Doctor Doom going up against the Beyonder is some seriously cosmic shit; the first shot of the creepy Agatha Harkness-style house is striking; a snatched camera shot of the Vulture is shocking, and reminded me of that scene in Signs where you see an alien scampering in someone’s back garden; while a double-page spread of Doctor Doom going tonto is so lethal that it just grabs you by the throat.
The original plan was for 1985 to be a fumetti-style production, Marvel’s most expensive comic ever, with a huge cast, the building of sets and the creation of superhero costumes and monster models giving it a photo-realism. Undoubtedly, the fumetti gamble would have been interesting but the finished product is all the richer from Edwards’ work.
I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into the relevance of Secret Wars here, or just how much of a companion piece to it that 1985 is. Characters like the Red Skull, the Vulture and the Mole Man didn’t appear in Secret Wars so it’s not immediately clear to me what the connection is, but I’m certain all will be revealed in the coming issues. There’s plenty more to keep you intrigued as well. What’s the signifiicance of H.E.R.B.I.E.? Just what is the mysterious Facility? Which mutant could have the power to rip a hole from the Marvel Universe to our own?
As I said earlier 1985, like so much of Millar’s recent work, deals with an ordinary character coming into contact with extraordinary beings, or finding himself in extraordinary circumstances. The absent parent, usually the father, is something that’s cropped up too in titles like Chosen and Wanted, and there’s a touch of that here as well. That human connection amid all the superhuman shenanigans helps give the work an emotional heft. The thematic concerns are grounded in reality, and you’re more likely to go along with all the wild and crazy shit because there is some kind of emotional journey.
There’s a lot of promise to 1985. Millar’s spoken about how it will tie in with his work in the Fantastic Four, Wolverine and even Kick-Ass, but for now this has been a pretty satisfying blast of nostalgia. I remember how cool it was to be a kid collecting comics in 1985. So do Millar and Edwards.