I know I’ve been hip deep in the Distinguished Competition’s “summer” event for a while, and I apologize to the House of Ideas. (I won’t even bring up everybody else; I’m still a goddamn troglodyte making my way through 100 Rooms in the first Maggie the Mechanic trade, so please speak to me in short sentences with easy words, I’m a bit slow.)
So – Secret Invasion! The epic culmination of Brian Michael Bendis’s years-long epic, building since Secret War and possibly all the way back to Alias! I remember being pretty goddamn excited when the first issue hit, and thinking it was a pretty great detonator for a summer crossover. Hell, I liked it to the point where I wrote an article about some of the Internet reaction to it that made Kevin Church hate me forever. I remember saying, and I can pretty thoroughly regret this now, “I have no idea how Final Crisis can possibly match this level of high-octane excitement.”
Why was I excited? Because what Bendis promised, and what I really, honestly expected to receive, was (I mean, he had eight issues to do this!) a fairly decent and smart balance of high-octane superheroic mass violence and reflection on what happens when our planet is invaded by a bunch of dudes who thoroughly believe they are correct and just and don’t come anywhere close to sharing a moral or ethical worldview with us.
I guess I got the first half? Many of the religious aspects of the Skrull invasion were handled in the (admittedly incredibly entertaining) Incredible Hercules tie-in issues, while the ethical or moral boundary lines they were willing to cross where largely handled in the Avengers tie-in books, especially the fantastic New Avengers #44, where they illustrated how the Skrulls manipulated a cloned Reed Richards into using his exceptional brain to invent the technological framework through which they could fully impersonate Earthlings. The main book, though… all of this was absent. While the art team of Leinil Francis Yu, Mark Morales and Laura Martin (and Emily Warren) pulled off a herculean effort for the creative team of an event comic in 2008 with eight roughly monthly and consistent issues, much of what Yu was asked to draw (while no doubt incredibly time-consuming) was basically the same fight between everyone’s favorite heroes over and over again, except sometimes it was in a jungle or a spaceship or Central Park or all shrunk down on the landscape of the Watcher’s scrotum or something.
At the end of the day, it was a big fat fight with all of the character threads unresolved. Hey, remember that time Clint Barton declared motherfucking genocide on an entire alien race? Yeah, well, this main series didn’t, despite having it as a last-page shocker, although I’m sure it’ll finally be addressed in New Avengers #68 or whatever.
This is the problem: Brian Michael Bendis simply isn’t the kind of writer who works best with an event comic. I mean, God, I laud him for trying, because while so many others are confident to rest on their laurels and do the same shit they always do Bendis always wants to spread his wings to try a major-league superhero comic, or a sci-fi book, or an event comic, or an alternate-reality morality fable, or a true-crime story about Elliot Ness that’s about to get butchered by David Fincher, or a spy epic or whatever. His heart is in it – he cares, he gives a shit, he is no lesser writer and he is not a hack. I just don’t know if this is where his talents lie.
Much of what made this comic so popular was the anticipation and lead-up – “Skrulls are invading the Marvel Universe!” was the tagline, but people wanted to read it to know what was up with the Cage baby, who a Skrull was, and most importantly, how this would affect those remaining who weren’t secretly space aliens. And while I’m sure we’ll finally get that these nine damn months later, we’ve basically put all of this on hold for… some fighting? Every issue of Secret Invasion starts with an opening pattern for the recap, a sort of pseudo-astrological-Sephiroth kind of thing that implies that this is going to be one of those mythic stories of grand cosmic religious significance, like, well, Battlestar Galactica. And that’s where it falls short – more on this in a bit.
After rereading the eight issues that make up the series, it’s amazing how many of them fly by with so little happening. While this sort of slow-burn plot development works extremely well for Bendis in ongoing series – Hell, it’s how he made his superhero comics name with Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil – the simple fact of the matter is that an event comic is, well, an event. And every issue of that event comic should be, in its own way, an event.
The first issue is filled with tons of these events, to the point where you could almost say the series blew its wad, especially for the sort of superhero Tom Clancy/Robert Ludlum vibe it had going. However, this vibe just doesn’t stop, even though basically every Skrull has already been revealed – the fight in the Savage Land, especially on further readings, is especially unnecessary padding that doesn’t add a huge amount to the final story, especially considering all the emotional turning points that take place there (like the aforementioned Clint Barton going apeshit and declaring genocide) never seem to get any resolution, at least not within the main series thus far. Each issue of Final Crisis, or Civil War for that matter, had a discrete event that characterized the issue – whether it be Captain America making an alliance with the Punisher, the New Gods returning in different avatars, Stark recruiting the Marvel Universe’s villains or Turpin giving in to Darkseid.
With Secret Invasion, though, it’s all misdirection and fakeout. It’s arguable that this is part of the point when you’re dealing with an antagonistic species whose entire gimmick is misdirecting and faking out, but by the end of the story (and this is especially evident re-reading #1-8 in a row) the Skrulls seem to be little more than a plot device to sow the neverending paranoia and distrust amongst the heroes and provide Norman Osborn with an avenue to power. It’s got a strong opening and a strong closer, but by the time I hit issue four I was sick and goddamn tired of not knowing who anybody in the book was and just wanted to see the end result. And what was that result? Osborn’s taken the spot of King Douche of Fascist Hill. Meanwhile, another character I’ve never read in a comic before in my life will probably get Bendis to make me care about her in the upcoming issues of New Avengers where she won’t be given the short shrift of scenes and almost zero personality she got here in either authentic or Skrulltastic form. (I’m speaking, of course, about Mockingbird.)
And what happened to the religious intrigue angle? I remember when the series first started being promoted, Bendis was promising that this would be a look at a morality and ethicality completely alien to us in every way, but was internally consistent. I thought we’d get something truly unique and compelling, but instead the Skrulls just sort of seemed like a shapeshifting Al Qaeda with a samurai warrior code or some shit. Their planets got blown up, they wanted a new one, they were too proud to ask, so they pretended to be a bunch of people and did some degrading shit in what they perceived was a selfless manner. Even stated like this, there’s at least a bunch of potential there, but besides the incredibly ill-conceived protester scene that seemed straight out of Independence Day and the sad-ass prisoner Skrulls in the last issue, and I guess all the constant talk of Prophecy(TM), once the (admittedly very dramatically effective) undercover-agent aspect was blown in the second issue with the major ground invasion they were pretty much just little green men looking to be taken to your leader so they can shoot him with a laser rifle.
So in the end, how does this rack up? I just feel like Bendis was given, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, too much room. This wasn’t just pacing for the trade, sometimes this reads like he’s pacing for the panel like he’s getting paid like Charles Dickens or something (although, as I’ve said before, I wouldn’t accuse Bendis or any writer really of mercenary hackwork). The sort of slow-burn, read-five-issues-that-are-entertaining-and-then-blow-your-mind-with-the-sixth approach that worked so wonderfully on Daredevil just didn’t work here, and Bendis’s approach of front-loading the event with reveals and “OH SHIT!” moments in the first issue only served to make the second act seem more dragged-out and uneventful.
I like Brian Michael Bendis; I like him a whole lot, and I think he’s possibly the best character writer in superhero comics. He’s consistently inventive and thoughtful, and his run on Daredevil may be the high water mark for street-level superhero action in comics. Most importantly, though, he’s never content with where he is, and he always wants to try new methodologies, new media, new themes in the cause of building a better funnybook. But right now, his major strengths (character interaction and long-term plotting) just don’t seem to gel very well with the narrative demands of a tentpole event comic, as told like this in miniseries form. I’m very excited about the Dark Reign material, and I’d hardly take this series as any kind of indicator that Bendis is losing steam – he just tried to stretch himself in a new direction and it didn’t completely work. Kudos to him for trying, but especially considering the ludicrous glut of titles surrounding it, I’m just not sure it was how I wanted to spend My Summer With The Marvel Universe.
Leinil Francis Yu and Mark Morales, though? Jesus, man, those dudes deserve awards. Eight issues, on time (except for the final issue where pages were added), no fill-ins, no shortcuts, no laziness – just pure, dependable craft. Marvel deserves to pay for their upcoming hookers-and-blow-filled vacation in Acapulco if they have any measure of self-respect.