Embrace change! Shelfdust has been invaded! For the next eight weeks, we’re looking back at Marvel’s 2008 event storyline “Secret Invasion” and how the eight-part storyline changed Marvel. It’s a “SeCritic Invasion!” taking over comics criticism this Summer! But… are we working alone? Is Shelfdust the only place the Skrulls have taken over? Who do you trust…?
By Samantha Puc
It may not be the oldest story in the Marvel Universe, but it certainly is an influential one. Although Secret Invasion was released in 2008, which feels like five years ago but was allegedly more than a decade past, it’s already become an iconic plot — so much so that even though my first time reading it was for this essay, I’ve known the hallmarks of it since I got into comics (which was less than a decade ago. Time is strange).
Secret Invasion #1, written by Brian Michael Bendis, with pencils by Leinil Francis Yu, inks by Mark Morales, colors by Laura Martin, and letters by Chris Eliopoulos, sets up a crossover event that impacts the entire Marvel Universe. Tony Stark is the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and he has a problem: Skrulls have invaded Earth and have been living among humans, undetected, for an undisclosed period of time. Newly-dead Elektra was actually a Skrull, and neither mutant, magic or tech user could tell. Now, more Skrull ships are entering the atmosphere, and all hell is about to break loose.
On its surface, Secret Invasion is designed to be chaotic and confusing. As the heroes struggle to figure out who’s who, so do readers, which creates plenty of room for theories — and retcons. By the end of the issue, it’s clear no one can be trusted, which creates an interesting type of tension.
Whenever mimicry is introduced as a plot device, it forces readers to consider scenes from every angle, to revisit past happenings after reveals have been made, and to go into each part of a story expecting the worst. In some ways, it’s an incredibly uncomfortable experience, made worse by how beautifully everything is executed. A creeping sense of discomfort spawns on page 1 and becomes more urgent as the issue progresses, especially when it becomes apparent just how all-encompassing the Skrull invasion truly is.
Through this lens, Secret Invasion #1 establishes a baseline for what is perhaps one of the most terrifying arcs in Marvel history. In the climax of the issue, several Skrulls commit violence against Earth’s heroes and repeat the line, “He loves you.” On the final page, the Skrull mimicking Hank Pym says, “He even loves you.” This suggests some kind of hive mind or religious order, though it could also be read as the Skrulls attempting to comfort themselves or the humans with something vague and a little godly.
There’s a sense here that the Skrulls are invading Earth as a hostile act, but there also seems to be more to it. The Skrull Throneworld has been destroyed, but the comic indicates that Skrulls themselves did this. Secret Invasion #1 also features a quote in its prologue: “A wave of destruction. Nothingness. And out of nothingness will you outstretch your hand and take in that which needs you. Only then will the doors to the heavens open for you and your brothers.” Soldiers inform their queen of the destruction of the Skrull Throneworld and she mentions the scripture being right, which again reinforces the religious connotation of this entire issue. But what does Earth have to do with Skrull scripture, and how will replacing Earth’s heroes help them in this apparent quest for salvation?
Like any good Bendis script, Secret Invasion is a complexly layered story with dark undertones and a longform arc that can’t be resolved in an issue or two. The crux of issue #1 seems to be this part of the opening quote:
“And out of nothingness will you outstretch your hand and take in that which needs you.”
This can be read as the Skrulls attempting to somehow save Earth, a theory packed with enough religious trauma that it would be impossible to fully break down here. The violence they exhibit certainly doesn’t feel like salvation, but what of martyrs and sacrifice? These are questions that can’t be answered in a few hundred words, but they’re worth considering as one moves through the Secret Invasion event.
This issue also paints a stark contrast to how non-comics readers understand the Skrulls, thanks to their introduction in Captain Marvel. There, the Skrulls are refugees being invited to a new planet, as a way of escaping a war and surviving as a species. In the source material, however, there’s no consideration of the Skrulls as refugees, despite the concept of “taking in that which needs you” being so prominently featured in Secret Invasion #1. Perhaps because the comics need a conflict, or perhaps because the Marvel Universe doesn’t tend to treat its aliens well, the Skrulls are pigeonholed into being a hostile, colonizing force, rather than a group in need of sanctuary.
Also worth considering is how heavily this story deals with identity. Although Tony seems hyper-concerned about how the Skrulls are mimicking Earth’s heroes without detection, which he seems to think is a biological thing, there are also several moments where characters question each other’s memories and knowledge of the world around them. If Skrulls are so easily able to adopt and perform their identities, how well do these people really know each other? What secrets do they keep, and who do they trust? What are their ticks? What are their greatest desires?
Because of the circular nature of legacy heroes, such as those in the Marvel and DC Universes, it’s difficult for beloved characters to undergo real, lasting, and permanent growth before a reboot, retcon, or crossover event rips the rug out from under them. This pushes creators and readers alike to establish their own versions of these characters, which is why so many of us get so attached to our comic book faves. Every time a character or series is rebooted, fans keep piecemeal characterizations in mind, which informs how they interpret that story going forward. If someone seems out of character when written or illustrated by a specific creator, fans may drop off, and wait for someone else to take over. To prevent this pattern, the Big Two would have to let money-making characters retire, permanently die, or both, and that doesn’t seem likely to happen as long as these heroes sell books.
Secret Invasion challenges this model by intentionally asking readers to question every single character they meet. Is that Tony Stark? Is that Sue Storm? Which Wolverine is the real Wolverine, and which one is the Skrull? How can you tell? What parts of their personality pushed you to make that distinction, especially when their physical appearances are mirror images? Even without the religious intonations, Secret Invasion effectively challenges our perceptions of legacy characters and their souls, which is so deeply uncomfortable because it’s so hard to say, definitively, “This character is who they are because of these events,” which may not have even occurred in the official canon, once retcons and reboots have been applied.
The idea of Skrulls invading Earth is scary, but scarier still is how Secret Invasion removes any possibility of sure footing from the Marvel Universe and its fans, not just in the crossover, but in every story since.
Secret Invasion #1
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Drawn by Leinil Francis Yu
Inked by Mark Morales
Coloured by Laura Martin
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
He loves you.
Samantha Puc (she/her) is an essayist and culture critic whose work has been featured on Bitch Media, them., The Beat, The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. She mostly writes intersectional pop culture analysis with a particular focus on representation of LGBTQ and fat characters in fiction. Samantha is the co-creator and editor-in-chief of Fatventure Mag, an outdoors zine for fat folks who are into being active, but not into toxic weight-loss culture. She is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at The New School, and she lives in Brooklyn with her cats. Find her on Twitter here!
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