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 Ritesh Babu
‘What is it with Bendis and people who look like me?’
That’s the thought I kept coming back to, as I poured through issue after issue of this event.
I’d never read Secret Invasion before.
I have now.
Where to even begin? My god.
I- The Pulp Problem
A commonly accepted axiom is that Superman is an immigrant story. It’s an adage often used to emphasize the character’s relevance in a modern era. Now, we won’t be unpacking the flaws and problems of that adage too much here, but it is useful to delineate certain things.
Superman is an ‘alien’ from the made-up sci-fi world of Krypton. His true name is Kal-El, with ‘El’ coming from Hebrew, meaning ‘Of God’, conjured from the minds of two Jewish kids in the late 30’s. The ‘alien’ here is, evidently, analogous to ‘immigrant’, and ‘Planet’ is analogous to ‘Nation’. It’s pulp sci-fi genre conventions, those proxies, being used to lay a foundation.
And it is from that pulp foundation and thinking, one spanning Doc Savages, Tarzans, Flash Gordons, that The Superhero is born.
Superman is the fantasy of an immigrant (alien) from another world (nation) who is raised in America, and is thus a quintessential American story. But beyond that, at its root, Superman is the fantasy of an immigrant who can ‘pass’ in White America of the ‘30s. It is a fantasy impossible for any immigrant who isn’t white-passing, which is where you run into problems. But regardless, that is where the roots of the superhero are.
That is the inception of the superhero.
And from that source, we can establish certain basics: Pulp genre conventions aren’t meaningless. They’re representations of real things, just through analogous framing. Immigrants become Aliens, Nations become Planets.
It’s why you have ideas like The United Planets in DC Comics’ Legion Of Super-Heroes mythology. It’s quite literally The United Nations but writ large, scaled up and tweaked around, to fit the pulp setup. It’s why, even going back, you get so many stories of The White Savior who finds himself on some alien planet, usually with ‘exotic’ people of color, and becomes that land’s great legend. It’s a very real fantasy of White imagination and history writ large, made cosmic, made myth.
All of this stuff, it isn’t just meaningless Lore™. It comes from people, it comes from assumptions and ideas people hold. It is all emergent from reality, before people repackage that into a “[Insert Thing] IN SPACE!” conceit. It is all an expression of truths, hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, with or without intent. Whether it is deliberate or drawing on the subconscious, due to the nature of the reality they reflect, the pulp visions hold meaning, even without intentionality.
Which means it’s bound to come with problems, especially when you do ‘Alien Invasion’ plots.
II- The Case Of Brian Michael Bendis
It would be fair to say that Bendis is a largely careless creator. One need only look at his choice of naming Miles Morales’ father Jefferson Davis, which a PoC creator (Saladin Ahmed) had to later fix, critiquing the choice in the work.
He’s clearly passionate, and he seems to mean well. But his work is… often thoughtless, and rarely considered. And there are few better displays of that than this event.
Secret Invasion is a fundamentally Post-9/11 text about ‘aliens’ who’re hidden among us, but are secretly religious extremists that are fully willing to suicide-bomb themselves as they utter a phrase of devotion to their God (“He loves you.”). They are explicitly termed and called Terrorists by the text.
If all that seems like blatant Islamophobic garbage, that’s because, well it is. It reads as dreadful Bush-era propaganda made into superhero hero narrative. It plays like the tales of terrorism that White people tell each other about those spooky ol’ Brown people living around them.
Now, do I think Bendis sat down and went ‘I’m going to be horribly racist and Islamophobic with this book!’? Obviously not, but nevertheless, that is the work. And you needn’t be Brown to note what the comic actively screams at you, as even Grant Morrison of all people noted the issue in Supergods, all the way back in 2010:
It is incredibly transparent.
And reading it for the very first time, I was astonished that Bendis’ reputation survived this. How did people let this slide in the long run?! How had I never heard tell of how horrid this was? I’d only ever heard praise or discussions on Lore in regards to it. How were so many willing to overlook what this was? How had this not been re-evaluated and discussed in the years since for what it was?
And then the realization: Ah. It’s the direct market comics readership. It’s largely White Americans who’re closer to Bendis’ perspective than to mine.
But that didn’t make it go down any easier. This was vile work. I cannot ever recall being this uncomfortable reading an event book. It felt sickening to turn page after page and see what was being said, what was being done.
Because the horror at the heart of this text? The fear at the crux of this epic? It is that of The American Empire falling, and being taken over, by the hands of those scary Brown people, who’ve assimilated themselves into the fabric of things.
That’s the unsaid thing about the pulp conventions like ‘The United Planets’, right? If all these other worlds represent other ‘nations’, then the question becomes ‘What does Earth represent?’. And the answer is obvious.
Earth = America.
That’s the truth of these stories, even as they flash windows into other nations. The core of these stories, these alien invasions, in the way they are done, pursuing realism, is that of The Fall Of Empires. It is all about The American Perspective, for it is a post-9/11 terror of The End Of The American Way.
It’s why the text even invokes imperialism, only to present the fear of ‘Well, what if it was done to America?!’. It’s never stated, but it’s implicit in the text.
III- Millar and Bendis, The 2000s Champs
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s foundation is often credited to The Ultimates. The seminal text by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch is, indeed, defining, to be sure. Its brand of ‘realism’ and ‘grounded’ militaristic vision would become a fundamental part of The MCU, which is what gets us to its neoliberal imperialist task-force Avengers.
But what is often missed in those conversations about Millar’s towering influence is the influence of Bendis. Bendis really was a pillar of 2000s Marvel, and the foundation of the MCU alongside Millar. So much so that he was part of the once Creative Council that informed the MCU – he literally scripted that very first iconic credits scene wherein Nick Fury makes his offer on The Avengers Initiative to Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008).
That blend of ‘classical’ superheroes, silly quips and endless back and forths with realism, big action, starring paramilitary Avengers, who are now the central pillar of the MU? That feels far closer to Bendis than Millar.
And reading Secret Invasion, that influence is impossible to not see. Bendis’ work here has so much of that same flavor that you’re almost getting a pre-viz for the Secret Invasion movie that never was.
Millar’s touch is obviously informative to the MCU, but it’s Bendis that really feels even more on-point as its core influence. And Secret Invasion is very much a text that feels like a perfect synthesis of a vision of the Marvel world wherein those two were the leading heavy-hitters.
The Ultimates could at least at certain points be argued or considered as a ‘taking the piss’ with potential satire. I wouldn’t make that argument, personally, but I get why some might. However, you read the above page with Clint Barton/Hawkeye by Bendis/Leinil Yu, and there is no hint of such a thing. There is none of that in the entire comic. It’s a very straightforward comic – Clint Barton, very casually, proclaims his eternal hatred of an entire race of people, and how he’s going to commit genocide.
He will not rest, not until every single one of those bastards is dead!
And this is a beat that’s played very sincerely. It’s done as a very sincere expression of deep rage and frustration, the way a comic might end an issue on Wolverine swearing vengeance on some supervillain, while unleashing his claws. It’s meant to be a ‘badass’ proclamation, that gets you going ‘Damn’.
It’s Bendis’ version of Millar’s infamous Cap scene, but somehow dumber.
There is no indication whatsoever that this is wrong, no actual awareness of what this is on part of Bendis, as the entire comic is full of ‘badass’ moments like this one, as the super-americans take down these evil aliens, all meant to elicit a ‘hell yeah!’ from the reader. But while certain White readers may have been cheering, I was gripped by horror and intense discomfort.
And thus, I come back to the thought:
‘What is it with Bendis and people who look like me?’
IV- The Fate Of The Other- Past and Future
I’ve touched on Legion Of Super-Heroes here before, and it’s, of course, one of the books Bendis is at the forefront of. It’s also the book wherein Bendis introduces the race-bent Brown Ultra-Boy, and sets up his backstory as… being from a race and world of Barbarians… fighting a Holy War.
A book set 1000 years into the future, and this is his vision of Brown people, and all their gosh darn weird religions. (The book also has the two most prominent Black characters come from the world wherein everyone has Lightning Powers. Yeah.)
This is not the only example, as there’s loads more, but it is the most recent. I note this simply because I don’t think Bendis has, in over a decade of time, gained meaningful awareness or learnt much significantly in this arena.
Comics. They will bum you out.
V- The Perilous Politics In Play
At this juncture, it is useful to unpack the exact specifics of the threat that Bendis and Yu’s Secret Invasion presents via The Skrulls.
They, effectively, critique Capitalism, which enables poverty and class division, which lets corporations pollute and destroy the environment and places profit over the prosperity of people. They promise to create a world wherein people will not have to suffer from poverty or disease. But of course, all of this is done through propaganda-esque media screen displays, as it all ultimately twists to the insidiousness of Empire, of that which subsumes the American one and expects its surrender.
The Skrulls even point out that The Superheroes, are not an actual solution to the world’s problems, but a part of it. That they stand as forces of authority, enforcing the status quo, by and large, rather than try and build a better world.
All of which, given the realism undercurrent and approach of this period and the work here, are fair points and criticisms, but they’re also not ones the book is willing to really give time to consider or ruminate on.
Instead, what you get is every potential valid critique or point levied by them be undercut or done so in a monstrous way, thus justifying the eventual ‘heck yes’ beat-down of them. It’s an approach the MCU quite loves and enjoys using, as the ideology and presentation of the antagonistic forces are muddled in such a way that the status-quo enforcing hero can be presented as ‘the good one’ for doing…virtually nothing.
The most telling scene, the one that really lays out the problems of the politics Bendis tries to peddle here, is in #6, wherein the cops are arresting a man, and a group of young, rebellious college students arrives:
The students are protesters, protesting against the fascist status quo of things as they are, with the cops, and The Avengers, who are basically cops with superpowers. The students cheer on the change to come with ‘the aliens’, for then perhaps they can be rid of the capitalist hellhole we’re trapped in.
But the entire point of this scene is to point out the protester kids as foolishly naive and stupid, ‘out of your mind’ as the cop puts it, for believing these alien invaders rather than their status-quo loving super-champions. For hoping for any future that isn’t this one. It is to underline how ridiculous their faith is, as the entire scene breaks out into an attack, as The Skrulls don’t care about these kids or their lives.
In the end, the cops who consider these kids to be deranged are proven right, just as they are right to attack The Skrulls. The cops are as right as The Avengers and the heroes, who take down and slay Skrulls left and right, dishing out deserved retribution.
It’s why Nick Fury and his posse of ‘heroes’ arrive and immediately take down the pesky aliens, as the progressive protester kids watch.
And this is the moment that most sticks with me, as the girl asks Fury, the face of the authoritarian forces and ‘heroes’ on Earth:
“They’re here to change the world. What are you here for?”
And there is no answer.
Or, well, if there is, it’s just the BOOM of Thor’s arrival, after which everyone Assembles to murder the living shit out of all those gosh-darned aliens. That’s ‘the answer’, if you’re willing to count it as one.
And that’s just it, in the end. This entire event is encapsulated in that single scene. Secret Invasion is a comic about the (largely White) American Imperialist forces, these paramilitary task forces, who represent its larger infrastructure, and their fall and re-building in the face of this ‘alien’ terrorist threat. It concludes ominously with Norman Osborn being put in charge of this entire infrastructure (working in secret with some of the most notorious supervillains in the Marvel Universe), and you’re meant to go ‘Oh no’, as the power has shifted hands in this structure.
It’s a comic wherein the heroes are all openly monstrous and vile, even as it plays it as the most heroic, triumphant, cheerful thing for you to pump your fists at. The massacre of an entire people is meant to be great catharsis. Which is why by the end, I no longer care. I do not care that Osborn is now in power.
This isn’t compelling political plays of the Wildstorm world, with secret societies, cults, and political factions, wherein the problematized nature of the whole enterprise IS the entire point. This is just dull, careless, and thoughtless action blockbuster comics about the cop-esque forces relishing the massacre of ‘aliens’ among us. It’s the not-brown people with their craaazy religious beliefs being shot dead with guns and lasers.
It is a work built on the horror of a secret cabal of ‘aliens’ who’ve assimilated, who are just waiting in the shadows, plotting the downfall of The American Empire, who wish to destroy the way of things.
And I’m supposed to cheer for this?
I think I’ll pass.
Secret Invasion #6
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.
Ritesh Babu is a writer and critic whose work has been featured in publications including PanelXPanel, ComicsXF, and ComicBookHerald. To find more from Ritesh, you can follow him on Twitter here!
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