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 Caitlin Rosberg

I wish I could start more of my writing with confessions. I belong to a group called Chicago Nerd Social Club (look us up, we have a great book club and a very cool Halloween party) and we kick off some of our in-person events with ‘nerd confessions’, things that would get your theoretical nerd card revoked by some people. It’s a fun tradition that leads to a lot of people realizing that we all actually hate Robert Heinlein and it’s okay that none of us have ever finished his books.

All that said, I want to start with several confessions before we dive into Secret Invasion #5, some of which will probably feel pretty obvious to people who know me. Firstly, I don’t read a ton of Marvel now, and honestly I never have. I got into comics because of the first X-Men movies but the Marvel that I’ve enjoyed the most has often been fairly self-contained, like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

Secondly, I hate event comics. Generally I do not like summer blockbuster events, even when they’re good. Usually there’s too many crossover and tie-in issues from series I don’t read, and the core premise is often a SuperFight, which I also dislike. Even worse, a lot of them try to tackle important social issues like gun control or racism and because they’re almost all written by a certain category of human, they almost universally fail at that. 

Third, and perhaps least importantly, I’ve never read Secret Invasion before this year. It’s worth knowing that I went into this arc with low expectations, a bad attitude, and no context. By the time we reach issue #5, we’ve finished half of the core title and it opens on one of the most interesting scenes in the whole event.

Norman Osborn is speaking to the Skrull that has been disguised as Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell version, not Carol Danvers), and appeals to the very human and Kree standards that the alien has been implanted with. The Skrull is incensed by the lack of honor that his fellow alien invaders have displayed and leaves Osborn and the rest of the Thunderbolts alone to regroup. There’s a great line from Osborn, “But I know something about not being sure if you’re really pink…or green.” It seems to be a moment of remarkable vulnerability from the man, and it’s shed quickly as he gets back to work. I appreciate moments like this, and they’re few and far between in major event comics.

Since this is a middle issue of a limited series, the main task is to shift from setting up the plot to starting to resolve it. There’s a couple of critical moments and characters that act as fulcrums for the story to move against, but they fall into two loose categories: man pain and women who are smarter than everyone else. Man pain is a cornerstone of superhero comics so it’s not entirely unexpected. Hinging everything on Reed Richards and Clint Barton getting really mad feels familiar and rooting their fury in the loss of their loved ones, particularly their wives, is easy to anticipate. It’s also profoundly boring, especially since an earlier issue revealed that Clint and his wife Bobbi suffered a miscarriage, a fact that he used to try to determine if she was a Skrull or not. Just a super casual conversation about a very traumatic topic, in front of other people. In the middle of a fight.

The women being smarter than everyone else is a lot more fascinating to me, especially because there are enough women in this event to have different and nuanced personalities and motivations. In the previous issue Black Widow used a code word system to determine that Wolverine was not a Skrull, a system that apparently no one else bothered to set up for some strange reason (probably because it would demolish the plot if anybody else had been that smart).

In issue #5 the stars of the show are Abigail Brand and Maria Hill, who respectively save Reed Richards and outsmart one of the leaders of the Skrull invasion. Neither one feels out of character or requires the suffering of another character to motivate them into action. It’s really nice to see that some superheroes and superhero-adjacent people don’t need personal tragedy and loss to motivate them to help other people. Reed keeps screaming about his family while Abigail is reminding him that the fate of literally the entire planet is at stake and that just about sums up how useful most of the men of Marvel are in an emergency.

The pacing is about where Jason Statham would need things to be in Crank to keep his heart from stopping. This is one of the big problems with event comics more generally, and not a specific complaint about Secret Invasion or even this issue, but there’s just too much story to tell and not a lot of pages to tell it in, which leaves everything feeling compressed and artificially fraught. It doesn’t help that writer Brian Michael Bendis packed almost every issue of this event with so much text that it’s dizzying. There are the expected demands for people to prove that they are who they say they are, though sadly no one counters with the iconic line “You’re a dick.” There’s also a lot of back and forth snarking, very standard Bendis one-liners and sarcasm that read really well individually but crowd the pages and interrupt the breakneck pacing at awkward moments.

Parts of this book would have felt weird at the time of publishing, but have aged pretty badly. The aforementioned man pain isn’t great, but it is pretty bog standard. With the ways that S.H.I.E.L.D. has changed in canon in both the MCU and 616 in the intervening decade, it’s weird to see the agency still up and running, and weirder still to realize that most of the groups that are being attacked and trying to fight off the Skrull invasion are at least nominally part of the United States government. It’s not that Marvel totally eschews the jingoistic military trappings and massive guns these days, but it does feel very of a particular time. To me at least, it’s less of a time capsule and more a magazine in a dentist’s office, somehow still there ten years later and almost totally irrelevant.

Part of that is the double page spread of Skrulls imitating politicians and famous people on camera to convince humans they come in peace is a bit too close to what deep fake videos are capable of now. And Oprah, or the woman I assume is supposed to be Oprah, is the least accurate portrait on a page that features recognizable likenesses of John McCain, Paris Hilton, Steve Jobs, and Stephen Colbert. Panels of President Obama and who I’m guessing is Chris Rock aren’t a whole lot better and overall it feels pretty gross to have relatively recognizable pictures of white people and hard to read pictures of Black people. Tiger Woods doesn’t even have eyes, his face is obscured by a baseball hat. The fictional characters are all much easier to recognize, and drawn in a very different style to any of the real people.

This shows off some of artist Leinil Frances Yu’s biggest weaknesses, besides his penchant for panels that show far too much of a female character’s ass for absolutely no reason: he’s got a problem with faces. It’s a little bit of same face syndrome, but more than that the way he draws jaws, lips, and the philtrum on male characters is distracting. Almost every close up of a male character has an exaggerated groove between the upper lip and the bottom of the nose, and it yanked me out of even the most emotionally fraught moment of screaming man pain.

It wasn’t impossible, or even mildly painful to read Secret Invasion without any context. I wasn’t reading any Marvel books at the time it came out, but I do have a fairly deep well of character knowledge so I wasn’t completely lost until we hit some of the C- and D-listers that showed up from criminal organizations and the trainees from the Initiative. But without at least a basic understanding of these characters I would have been completely lost. Funny lines would have flown straight of my head and emotional beats would have read as awkward and nonsensical. It’s never good when an event comic is confusing to new or new-ish readers, but it’s an extra big problem here because the first issue came out a month after Iron Man premiered in theaters. If a new fan of Iron Man had walked into a comic shop they likely would’ve been inundated with messaging about this big, important comic book event that would have been completely impenetrable to them.

I’m still really torn about this title overall. One of the biggest problems it has, and part of why it’s aged so badly, is that the messaging around the Skrull invasion is so muddled. Bendis goes to great pains to explicitly lay out how the Skrulls not only sowed seeds of distrust and resentment among the Marvel heroes, but also took advantage of tension and frisson that already existed. People suck, I wholeheartedly agree. But Bendis goes on to say that the Skrull are just doing to humans what humans have been doing to each other for generations, namely violent colonization. But not every human did that, and painting the entirety of earth both as colonizers and thus deserving their own colonization erases the racist violence that predominantly white European people have done to native and indigenous populations worldwide and also implies that colonization can be deserved.

There’s awkward moments where people who hate cops and superheroes are painted as cranks that kinda deserve to get killed because of that lack of support. There’s mention of previous interactions with the Skrull that paint them as the victims of human violence and mockery, and that assessment doesn’t just come from the Skrull themselves. The Skrull keep repeating “he loves you”, which is so clearly ripped from Big Brother that it’s kind of comical, but feels doubly uncomfortable since most real-world mentions of “sleeper agents” and “hidden threats” are things like the Red Scare, the Lavender Scare, and as a more recent example “secret, dangerous” trans people, which puts the nominal heroes in the camp of TERFs and Republican senators.

I struggle a lot with the implications of this, and in particular because of the absolutely brutal violence that underscores not just this issue, but the whole series.  It’s tempting to gloss over violence in cape and cowl comics because it’s just so commonplace.  And the truth is, my brain seizes up when I consider the body count of this series, and what it means.  If the Skrulls are sleeper agents, and sleeper agents are code for marginalized and oppressed groups, and the Skrulls are killed, what does that mean about not just this comic, but Bendis, and all of the folks that read it?

Steve Morris, the rabbit-brain at the helm of Shelfdust, rightly pointed out that the Skrulls in the Savage Lands do not act as though they are Skrulls, and in some cases do not even know they are Skrulls.  They truly believe that they are the Marvel heroes that they have been brainwashed to be, and they still get murdered by the Avengers with impunity. Thinking about the scene where Norman Osborn speaks to Skrull!Captain Marvel and reminds him of his “humanity” (or “Kree-ity”?), I’m struck by the tangled imagery: a villain manipulates a brainwashed secret agent into going back and killing his own kind, but in this moment Osborn is cast as sympathetic and heroic.

I don’t handle that kind of thing well emotionally, another confession. It makes me think about the anti-Semetic conspiracy theories of secret wealth and power that have worked their way around the world for centuries, the “one drop rule” that classifies people as secretly Black, Japanese internment camps meant to contain and condemn people who might have secretly been plotting against their home and neighbors. Or: accusations against Muslims which have swirled since the Inquisition, escalated in recent years, and result in real threats and violence against not only Muslims – but people misidentified as Muslim; whether they be Sikh, Hindu, or even the sitting President of the United States

If Marvel’s heroes are comfortable not just condemning people to death because of their (alien) race, but also regardless of their behavior, are they still the heroes?  They saved the earth from an alien invasion, that’s a good thing. But without knowing anything about the Skrulls’ true intention, all we have is the conduct of these heroes, these bastions of justice and righteousness, who seem to be totally ok murdering people because… reasons? Especially with so much of the violence rooted in Man Pain™, watching Hawkeye and Reed Richards decide that they have the right to wipe out an entire (alien) race because their white, pretty blond women got hurt, the implications are deeply uncomfortable well beyond the bounds of this comic’s pages.

Some of the Marvel heroes are coming out of exile to fight this battle, half of them aren’t talking to the other half, and they’re all just generally being terrible to each other. The effect is that it’s impossible to tell who is supposed to be the good guys in this book, which doesn’t make for great reading.  Set against the current newscycle of increasingly influential conspiracy theories and the terrifyingly rapid spread of misinformation and outright lies, Secret Invasion feels like a ride in the bus from Speed while everyone in Marvel 616 continuity yells at each other like they’re either Senator Joseph McCarthy or Jenny McCarthy. And then somebody starts swinging. Frankly I’d like to get off at the next stop, but maybe that’s because I, too, am a Skrull.

 

Secret Invasion #5
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.

 

Caitlin Rosberg is a comics critic with bylines for The AV Club, Paste, and Polygon, among many others. For more, head to their site here or follow Caitlin on Twitter here!

 

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