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 Jay Rincher
The story so far: The Skrulls have enacted their grand plan to take over Earth. They’ve shut down every piece of technology based on Starktech and dropped a platoon of powered shock troopers in the middle of Times square. They’ve taken all the biggest brains on the planet off the chessboard. And they’ve managed to distract the Avengers with a threat tailor made to stop them in their tracks: a spaceship in the Savage Land full of their duplicates and dead allies.
Reader, Secret Invasion #3 really wants you to remember that everything in the Marvel Universe is screwed up. Cap is dead! Nick Fury is gone! Heroes fought a Civil War! In case you somehow managed to not understand this the issue opens with a downed Helicarrier floating in the ocean being seized by a Skrull in the shape of Jarvis, the Avengers loyal butler. And two pages which feature four of the six faces Leinil Francis Yu is capable of drawing.
Despite the counter-cultural cache Marvel Comics picked up in the late 60s and 70s, it is undeniable the Marvel Universe has always had a deep reverence for American institutions and their power. SHIELD is the embodiment of every excess of the military-industrial-intelligence complex. Jarvis, the prestige and power wielded by the post-WW2 ruling class. A narrative thread embedded in this Bendis era of Marvel Comics is something that has come to dominate the American liberal imagination: that our institutions are inherently good as long as they are led by virtuous and heroic men.
That’s all on display from the very beginning of this crossover. SHIELD doesn’t work because Nick Fury is gone – never mind that his exile stemmed from using a team of superheroes to execute regime change in a foreign country before erasing their memories of it. The Avengers don’t work because Captain America is no longer there to unite them. Putting both those institutions under the leadership of Tony Stark, a character whose fatal flaw is that he thinks he should be in charge of everything, just drives the point home: that they are due for a very messy downfall.
And as the issue continues we know that there’s really no organized group that can make a difference. The Thunderbolts are led by an evil billionaire. The Initiative, the government’s attempt to create a superhero team for all 50 States, has been infiltrated by a Skrull in the Guise of Hank Pym (not to mention having a Nazi scientist on staff) who urges them all to head to Time Square to confront the Skrull shock-troopers.
Two very big reveals happen in this issue. The first is the revelation that Spider-Woman is a Skrull. We learn this in a brutal two and a half page sequence where she encounters Echo in the jungle and appears to kill her.
On a practical level I know how unlikely it is that Bendis would unceremoniously kill off one of his favorite characters… but jeez, this looks like a death doesn’t it?
Skrull-Spider-Woman makes a beeline to the makeshift laboratory where Tony Stark has been attempting to fix his armor and deal with the Skrull invasion. She proceeds to thank him for his service to the empire, continuing to goad him into believing that he is simply another deep-cover Skrull agent. This is a jarring sequence on multiple levels: first because Tony barely reacts to the notion that Spider-Woman is a Skrull. He doesn’t get the chance to express shock or confusion as she pushes the notion that he isn’t who he thinks he is.
You have every reason as a reader to believe this is simply a Skrull trick there’s just enough left hanging to make you wonder…what if? If he wasn’t a Skrull why wouldn’t she simply kill him in his weakened state? And if you’d been keeping up with Marvel books at the time this was published, Tony being a Skrull would explain *a lot* about his actions during the Civil War event.
Which kind of goes back to my earlier point about Bendis’ fixation on the leadership of institutions. Are things the way they are because the wrong person made a bad choice? Can the turnings of the world be boiled down to the whims of great and mighty men?
Away from the Savage Land, the real meat of the issue is the knock down battle between the heroes of The Initiative and Young Avengers against the Skrull shock-troopers. Despite my earlier jab, it is hard to deny that Yu draws some of the best fight sequences in comics. His punches look like they hurt, battered and bloodied heroes like Stature look like fighters whose corners need to throw in the towel. Much like the situation with Echo, Wiccan and Hulkling are ridiculously battered and essentially vanish from the battle as it goes on, leading one to wonder if they’ve been dealt fatal blows. And then the Skrulls initiate their coup de grace, all on camera.
Through some manner of comic sci-fi mumbo jumbo they unleash a…purple wave, that downs all of the assembled heroes. Vision attempts to resist and a hole is blown through his face. You have every reason to believe that the Vision is dead (again) except for the fact the story doesn’t linger on it at all. Suddenly the tide is turned with our second big reveal: the appearance of Nick Fury and his new Howling Commandos.
Nick Fury returned from on high with the cavalry of… a bunch of largely brand new characters no reader has ever seen before.
A heavy-handed plot point in the first issue of this story was that Fury’s absence is why everything is as bad as it is – but something about him appearing to save the day feels very reactionary. He’s both Chekov’s gun and a deus ex machina mashed together, child soldiers in tow. In the 3rd issue of a six issue mini-series this might work as a great turning point. But this is the 3rd issue of an eight issue event. It is hard to see this as anything but Bendis playing his cards a bit too early.
I can’t say coming into this that I had fond memories of this particular crossover, but the last few months I’ve found myself admitting to a few friends that I’ve been missing Bendis’ tenure on Avengers. My issues with his pacing notwithstanding, reading his stories in 2021 reveals a writer who had a lot of ideas about how comic books should be responding to the undercurrents of American culture.
Looking at this story now, it’s undeniable that there’s a level of tongue-in-cheek subversion of a Jewish writer penning a story whose beats feel largely indistinguishable from antisemitic conspiracy theories and mainsteam white supremacist paranoia: our institutions have been infiltrated! Our society is crumbling because they want to replace us and take what is ours! But besides a few gags involving famous people who are secretly Skrulls after the big mass reveal at the start of the event, there is no interrogation of the Skrulls theocratic-colonial agenda for planet Earth. Sadly there’s no real playing in the very interesting sandbox of “okay, one of the wildest conspiracies that many people believe is real and it’s happening in the Marvel Universe.”
The idea of alien invaders and shapeshifters isn’t novel in comic books, much less science fiction, but by this point in Secret Invasion it becomes clear that this is a narrative with less of a focus on the sci-fi trappings of its villains and more of an interest in the fallout from a massive and undeniable institutional failure. And looking back this feels like a pretty important thing for a writer to ponder during the initial fallout from the Great Recession.
At every major plot beat in this issue we are faced with the failure of heroic institutional power to respond to the threats before it. This is a really interesting plot beat to ponder as it’s placed at a time in the midst of what we’d later understand as a massive upheaval of the global financial system. At the time of publication, millions of people were on track to lose their jobs, homes, businesses and retirement funds – and a conspiracy theory that would eventually have massive repercussions for the political landscape of the United States had just begun to take root during the increasingly heated democratic primary: birtherism.
I won’t beat you over the head with politics any further but I do honestly feel like Bendis deserves a lot of credit for one more thing in this issue. Something that has lingered with me about this comic, about this story as a whole, is how it plays with Norman Osborn.
The only character who isn’t actually floored by any of the Skrull shock-and-awe is Osborn. Not only is he not shocked by the appearance of a Skrull posing as the long dead Captain Marvel, he immediately takes steps to make sure he comes out on top. A manipulative billionaire seizing upon the failures of institutions to set himself up for power? In 2008 that was just a good comic book b-plot. In 2021 it hits kind of close to home for Americans who are living in the wreckage of that concept taken to its logical conclusion.
Secret Invasion #3
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.
Jay Rincher is a writer and critic who has written for publications including The MNT and GWW. You can follow him on Twitter here!
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