Adventures in Bendisshitting #4: Secret Invasion by Ronnie Gardocki and Christopher Ludovici
A little context before we head into the latest Adventure in Bendshitting, lest you end up confused. In between House of M (our last column) and Secret Invasion (this column), an event called Civil War happened. I’m not covering it because a) Bendis didn’t write it and b) contrary to the other events discussed in this space, it didn’t suck. There were problems on the margins, like editorial never bothering to determine what the Superhero Registration Act (the macguffin of the series) constituted, but the main series told an exciting story of heroes beating each other up over an issue with relevant real world parallels. It helped that it was written by Mark Millar, who I think is a good writer with a grasp of politics both specific to the United States and in broader contexts. By contrast, Bendis has no politics. He’s like the Brundlefly. Sure, he knows what politics is, and he can mimic it to satisfactory results, but his actual work contains no politics. There’s no “there” there. Hence Secret Invasion, a series that feints at several zeitgeists in our culture around 2008 but never manages to be more than a muddle. It certainly doesn’t say anything. On a personal note, this series was the one that broke my adherence to Marvel events in general and Brian Bendis specifically. At a certain point in the miniseries I said “fuck it” and stopped buying and reading. I’ll point it out when we get to it. But given the piles of shit I readily shoved into my gullet for years, it’s saying something that Secret Invasion was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Imagine caring enough to read excerpts from a fake holy book of frog people from outer space.
The Skrulls were introduced in the 1960s as a race of shapeshifting aliens that represented the collectivized threat of communism. They’re also funny looking frog people whom Reed Richards once transformed into cows because he couldn’t think of a better way to get rid of them. Now they’re back and mad as hell. To Bendis’ credit, he did do some legwork on this event, foreshadowing the Secret Invasion and sowing mistrust among the heroes, having come across a Skrull posing as Elektra and having no idea what it means. In fact, early on the event looked promising. Skrulls had infiltrated every strata of society and no one knows who to trust. Of course, when it comes to the actual miniseries our esteemed bald bard blows it and everything devolves into repetitive fights and general inanity.
That’s right, Brian: black people love saying “word!”.
After all this careful infiltration, the Skrulls finally put their plan into motion in Secret Invasion #1. They send the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building into the Negative Zone, neutralize Reed Richards and waste both teams of Avengers’ time with a ship full of supposed Skrull captives. Who’s real? Who’s not? Will the characters discuss this like adults or will they get into a big ol’ fight? Come on, you’ve read comics. The Avengers spend the majority of this miniseries stranded in the Savage Land and let me tell you, I have a low tolerance for that place at the best of times. I felt like Joel Robinson during Manos: The Hands of Fate, screaming “DO SOMETHING!” at the comic. As it was coming out, I thought “okay, this is the issue they get out of the Savage Land” and then it didn’t happen. When it finally does you’re almost numb from the inanity.
And talking about disrespect!
You’re probably thinking to yourself “well, with these Skrulls characters replacing people, there must be some pretty significant characters that got switched out”. Well, you’d be wrong. Dum Dum Dugan was never significant. Nor Jarvis the butler. The closest Secret Invasion comes to having a consequential replacement is either Yellowjacket/Hank Pym or Spider-Woman. Spider-Woman is in fact the Skrull Queen, and it’s supposed to be this whole shocking thing, but the fact of the matter is no one but Bendis wrote her and no one but Bendis really cared about her. She’s a character who exists so another comic book company wouldn’t come up with a character named “Spider-Woman”. That the character with a complex set of allegiances to SHIELD/Hydra/Avengers is in fact a quadruple agent is not the twist Bendis thinks it is. As for Hank Pym, he’s been shit upon enough that “replaced by alien frog person” is not even on the Top 10 of unfortunate events to occur to him. Hell, he was replaced by one at the climax of Civil War! That means a Skrull replaced a Skrull and it was during the climax of the last big crossover. It speaks to the risk averse nature of Marvel that the likes of Iron Man, Spider-Man et al had not been switched out. On the one hand, good on them for not reversing controversial characterization choices through this easy method. On the other, you mean to tell me the whole Marvel Universe comes crashing down because the Skrulls were able to kidnap Jarvis? Maybe if there had been a scene where the Avengers are immobilized by spiked tea the butler serves them…
Who did it better?
It’s important to stop and acknowledge that, like all Big Event Books, Secret Invasion almost certainly suffered from editorial interference. For one thing, it wasn’t even supposed to be an event, it was supposed to be an Avengers story that unfolded within the Avengers books. But like sharks and Woody Allen relationships, Marvel Events must stay in constant motion or the whole line dies. Or something. Whatever, the point is it got all inflated and extended and stretched out of shape until what was left was an interminable seven issue fight scene that could take place over a few hours or a few days. All the character, context and the majority of the actual plot mechanics were relegated to tie-ins so the actual book itself could be structured like a summer action movie, all killer no filler, blasting from thrill to thrill, each spectacular moment topping the last. But Bendis doesn’t have the skill to manage a seven month climax; that would be hard for a good writer, and Bendis is more of a bunch of tricks and gimmicks standing on top of each other in a trenchcoat and hat than an actual writer. Add to that the cheap sheen of Moral Relevance that feels tacked on at the last minute to give a little extra heft to what was presumably designed as nothing more than a big punch-em-up and justify all the attention (not to mention money) Marvel was asking its readers to dedicate to such a thin story, and you’ve actually got one of the worst events of the decade. That’s saying a lot but it’s true.
Joking about the Watcher showing up to every momentous event doesn’t make it less of a cliche when he does show up. On another note, I like how the event took great pains to establish Skrulls needed to keep the people they’re impersonating alive to impersonate them on a genetic level and it’s all so complicated but by the end it’s nonsense mashup Skrulls and Galactus Skrulls wrecking shit up. “Whatever, fuck it” is the ethos of Secret Invasion.
To be clear, none of the above excuses Secret Invasion, or suggests that in its original form it would have been any better. God knows Bendis can ruin a comic all on his own, and at the end of the day, it’s his name on the book and he’s the one getting the residuals every time some poor dope stumbles across the trade with the cool McNiven cover and fun Mars Attacks! style logo at Barnes and Noble and decides to give it a chance. Event Books are the blockbusters of the comic world: they’re high risk, high reward and they require meticulous planning and coordination between lots of different people as well as the ability to adapt to unexpected problems. Event comic writing is almost a wholly different set of skills from regular comic writing, thereby explaining why so many normally good writers flail at the prospect. It’s thinking on your feet, it’s laying the tracks in front of the train while giving the customers a smooth ride; in short, it’s very difficult to actually pull off. If Civil War is the gold standard for this kind of thing, Secret Invasion is somewhere around fools tin. Assuming that’s a thing.
Classic Bendis: fucking up Tony Stark’s fake Skrull name issue to issue.
Attuned readers can sort through what in the series is Bendis grappling with the machinery of event comics and what is pure uncut Bendis. Obviously certain scenes exist to set up tie-in comics by other creators. (They’re a mixed bag. More on that later.) But I can’t believe any higher up at Marvel asked Bendis to throw in some half-assed, perpetually confused sociopolitical commentary. While Marvel likes to have real world undertones to their material, it’s by no means a requirement. Everything eventually boils down to Thor calling lightning on people and Iron Man firing repulsor beams. Again, there’s no way whatever the fuck Bendis is going for was a mandated choice. Now, in the past, the Skrulls invaded Earth because they wanted to conquer it. Why did they want to conquer it? They’re conquerors. That won’t do for a 21st century event, though, so Bendis turns them into religious fanatics. Apparently their Skrull religion tells them that Earth is promised to them. Culture does not occur in a vacuum so it takes little deduction to see the parallels between the fundamentalist Skrulls and, say, fundamentalist Muslims against whom the United States is fighting an unending War on/of Terror. What does the religious angle add to the story? Nothing. Nothing besides the queasy feeling that Bendis is trying to say something. Given Skrulls are massacred en masse throughout the story, characters exclaiming they need to kill every last one of them, Skrulls that pose no threat are nonetheless butchered…you have to question the authorial intent.
Getting dangerously close to blood libel here…
Actually, to say the fundamentalist angle is half-assed would be a gross understatement; it wouldn’t even qualify as quarter assed. Think more somewhere in the eighth area. The Skrulls believe that Earth has been promised to them as a Promised Land by their god as recompense for Reed Richards blowing their planet up, so they infiltrated various high level positions of influence all around the world in order to make the transfer of power easier and safer and then at the last minute decided to fuck it and just start slaughtering people. If it weren’t for the fact that this story was released during multiple wars against Muslim cultures and simmering domestic panic about Muslim influence in America, Secret Invasion could pretty easily be read as trucking in some pretty ugly old conspiracies about Jews. The idea that Jews “pass” as white and pulling the strings behind the scenes in order to enrich themselves and enslave everyone else is one of the oldest, grossest anti-Semitic tropes there is. And a story about a rootless religious culture claiming a region already occupied by other people and claiming it as their religious heritage sounds a lot like the formation of Israel.
You also have Ronin here directly quoting an IDF recruitment advert.
That’s not to say that Marvel released a weakly coded anti-Semitic screed (although they’re not above that sort of thing) or was looking to make any kind of statement about the moral shakiness of Israel’s position in the world. For one thing, Brian Bendis is Jewish, and if his Spider-Man dialogue is any indication, pretty proud of it. For another, structuring a massive event that’s supposed to boost the sales of a dozen other books and usher in massive changes to the status quo around an unofficial remake of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is just bad for business. Like I said, in the first decade of the century all the money was in demonizing Muslims. It’s just interesting as an insight into how poorly thought the metaphor was and how dangerous it is to just thoughtlessly shove in some topical sounding buzzwords to make your story seem relevant. No, this book isn’t about anything, it’s just a drawn out fight written by someone who was in a house where CNN was on in the other room.
Man, remember when Colbert tweaking the electoral process was still funny and relevant instead of him crying on TV and calling Trump a homo?
And what makes it so maddening is how inessential the whole religious angle is. You don’t need a reason for Evil Green Aliens to invade the Earth, that’s what Evil Green Aliens do! That’s what they’re there for! They were specifically created to give writers bodies for their heroes to batter without any guilt or consequence. Sure, a good writer could use that cliche to say something about the way we have a habit of flattening and othering people who oppose us in order to make it easier for us to kill them, but Bendis isn’t a good writer, and he isn’t actually interested in doing any of that. The entire religious angle exists so the Skrulls have a reason to invade and them saying “he loves you” before killing people because Bendis thought it sounded cool. That’s. It. Any nuance about the efficacy of their plans or the morality of wiping out an entire civilization in order to take their land or interrogation of how Skrulls who aren’t religious feel about the invasion or even an explanation of who “He” is are sub-contracted out to other books. Let them deal with those boring details, Bendis is busy having Spidey crack wise about how Skrull-Spidey still has the webbing armpits and Hawkeye is promising to kill ‘em all!
From “Avengers don’t kill” to “whatever, try not murdering all of them, I need some prisoners to throw in Space Gitmo”
But I think my favorite bit of Bendis bullshit (Bendis Bullshit was the working title for this series of articles, by the way) is how he tries to create some ambiguity about the Skrulls in that a minority of people greet these aliens as liberators. They see the alien invasion as an incoming utopia. Look, man, this came out at the tail end of the Bush Administration and it was an understatement to say a lot of shit was fucked up, but I still don’t think alien invaders are our salvation. More importantly, who are these broadly defined hippies meant to represent? Actual hippies? The fifth column of liberals who want a Caliphate installed and for the US to have Sharia Law instituted upon it? These suckers don’t come to anything, they don’t have an impact on the story, but it nonetheless boggles the mind what Bendis was going for. A sincere version of Kent Brockman’s “HAIL ANTS”? Analyzing these comics often doesn’t bring the reader to a truth, it merely leaves them frustrated and annoyed. The most likely explanation is a dog stepped on the remote and changed the channel on that TV in the other room from CNN to Independence Day on TBS and so Bendis was inspired.
“That green ninja’s gonna have modesty, goddamnit!” – Joe Quesada
I said I’d get to my breaking point and here we are. In the first few issues the heroes are at their lowest ebb; with the Avengers trapped in the Savage Land, New York is defended by the Young Avengers and some members of the Initiative. Lo and behold, Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos show up, the payoff to Fury going underground for several years. Then a familiar crack of lightning immobilizes some Skrulls and a closeup of Captain America is seen. This is the final page of #4 and the characters are nowhere to be found in #5. Presumably it’s momentous that the new Captain America meets the resurrected Thor, yet it’s played off as something minor. Their scene basically goes “you the new Captain America? I knew the old one.” “Yeah I did too.” “Cool.” “Cool.” The two don’t change the tide of battle either. Adding more characters (Marvel Boy, eventually the Avengers) does nothing to change the substance. All Bendis is is cheap signifiers absent a meaning; scenes like Ronin picking up a bow and arrow are meant to be important but what do they matter, really? That’s the problem with the back half of the series being one big battle in Central Park that doesn’t have any ebb or flow. It’s just an excuse for Lenuil Yu to draw the worst double splashes of his career, as fans try to figure out what all the Skrulls are supposed to be impersonating. That’s fun, right?
Pot calling the kettle black, Brian.
Like House of M before it, Secret Invasion really pretty much ends in its seventh issue, as evidenced by the fact that the final issue places the rest of the Secret Invasion as a flashback. In a last ditch “fuck you” to the heroes, Skrull Yellowjacket activated a bomb inside the Wasp that causes her to something something glow purple. It’s up to Thor to mercy kill her. But the death of a founding Avenger—the only female founding Avenger—is glossed over. It’s not that important compared to Norman Osborn shooting Spider-Woman in the head with a BFG. Doing this on national television secures Osborn’s spot as the head of national security, because Barack Obama is an idiot who forgot the guy used to carry around a purse of pumpkin bombs and Marvel writers really want to stick it to the Bush Administration in 2009. Kinda fucked up the status quo for Marvel Comics upon our first black president’s inauguration is called “Dark Reign”, but that’s just me. Anyway, Osborn is in charge and the comic ends on him entering a room containing Dr. Doom, Emma Frost, Namor, Loki and the Hood. That’s how I want event comics to end, with meetings.
I can’t wait to see a motion get tabled!
Here’s the thing, though: Secret Invasion didn’t have to be terrible the way, say, Civil War 2 did. There’s not an inherent flaw underpinning the premise in that respect. Secret Invasion was a carefully built storyline that was grown organically over a period of years and suggested many interesting storytelling avenues. Just off the top of my head there’s covert infiltrations of the highest levels of power, paranoid conspiracies intervening with reality until no one can trust what’s real and what’s madness, friendships shattering, morally grey characters binding together with good guys to fight a common enemy–ethically ambiguous villains with genuine, earned hatred for the protagonists– and invading soldiers who begin to doubt their mission. These are all themes that Secret Invasion touch on, and then drop in favor of extended fights and unearned Dramatic Moments. All the interesting stuff in Secret Invasion is in the tie-ins.
Kinda late in the game to be doing “Not All Skrulls”, isn’t it? Besides, what the fuck does the Skrull Empire stand for? It’s been a baddie in most stories it’s in except occasionally when the Kree are worse baddies. This shit is like when the Lincoln Project talks about the noble legacy of the Republican Party. At least the Skrulls don’t shield as many child predators.
The most interesting story by far is in Avengers: The Initiative, the comic created in the aftermath of Civil War about the various SHIELD funded hero training programs and superteams created as a federalization of the superhero community. The Initiative is run by Hank “I’m a Skrull Now” Pym and becomes the hub of the Skrull forces on Earth, much to the confusion and rage of the human student heroes under his command (some of the kids, of course, are revealed as Skrull invaders themselves). A small group of heroes-in-training manage to form a resistance against the overwhelming Skrull presence, but they’re just kids against trained adults; think Red Dawn but with superheroes. Add to that the revelation that one of the kids, a series regular called Crusader, is a Skrull passing for a human. Crusader is supposed to be a member of the invading force, but when the moment comes, he finds that he actually likes Earth and its culture and has no desire to turn on the friends he’s made during his time there. Crusader decides to pitch in with the Earth resistance but is constantly afraid that he’ll be revealed as a Skrull, either by Earth technology or by a fellow Skrull who recognizes him. There’s a nice moment when he initially makes Hank Pym for one of his kind because he orders a certain food in the cafeteria known for being a facsimile of a Skrull food.
Was originally going to do this scene with Linda Sansour but it was considered too obvious.
The whole thing is intertwined with a B story about a couple of Initiative kids who manage to escape and hook up with members of the Skrull Kill Krew, a motley bunch of outlaws who hunt and eat Skrulls. I don’t remember why they eat the Skrulls, maybe something about it maybe giving them the ability to detect them when they’re hidden, but it means we get to see a guy just toss a Skrull head onto a barbecue, and that’s pretty great. The Avengers: The Initiative stories are pulpy and weird and genuinely tense because the characters involved are obscure/new enough that it’s really possible that any of them could die. With Crusader it takes an established character and gives him a real dramatic arc. It’s what these kinds of pulp stories should be, never too serious, but also with a few ideas strung together to make some kind of point about something. You know, like in a story.
Missed opportunity for her to say “he loves me not” as she dies. By the way, if Wolverine succeeded in stabbing her, would Obama let Logan run our national security apparatus? He’s Canadian, sure, but so is David Frum and look at how he got to go hog wild.
Beyond that, most of the tie-in comics (all 79 of them) boil down to “heroes fight Skrulls for enough pages until the Skrulls die”, though some actually cover shit that should be in the main comic. Incredible Hercules tackles the “he loves you” Skrull god refrain that stinks up the Bendis written event, and it seems to me the religious angle ought not to be shunted off to a minor (albeit entertaining) title such as that. Nevertheless, these ancillary issues are almost always superior to the main event because Bendis can’t write fight scenes or intrigue or anything like that. Compare Jason Aaron’s Black Panther arc to the interminable slog of the Savage Land and you’ll see what I mean. I mentioned before these are the worst splashes of Lenuil Yu’s life and while this column is intent on critiquing Bendis primarily, it should be mentioned the artist is by no means Yu’s best. The action scenes specifically devolve into an orgy of stupid ass Skrull designs. Why the hell is there a Galactus Skrull? One, you can’t replicate his powers. Two, Galactus destroyed the Skrull homeworld so that’s like going to Passover dressed up like Hitler.
There’s a lot of “they took the baby!” in Avengers comics subsequent to this event. Also, I know his schtick is unbreakable skin, but it’s pretty funny and undignified for Luke Cage to never be wearing a fucking shirt. I mean, his pants aren’t unbreakable either, so shouldn’t he be hanging dong all over the place?
Speaking of Hitler, handing the keys to America to him might make more sense than giving them to the Green Goblin. If Marvel wanted to make a point about how institutions are only as good as who controls them they could’ve used someone besides the cackling ninny who threw a chick off a bridge. But that’s a sidebar for another time. Let’s get down to brass tacks: Secret Invasion. It’s a failure all right, one indicative of Bendis’ flaws. He can goose you into believing he’s going somewhere with something, that this buildup isn’t just jerking off, but when it comes time to deliver a payoff he flails into whatever the fuck this is supposed to be. I remember when this was coming out the common question was “are they out of the Savage Land yet?”. It’s possible that, had Civil War never happened and Secret Invasion had come out when Bendis originally intended, things would have been different. Maybe he wouldn’t have felt compelled to make the book topical and shoe-horned in a bunch of half-assed “real world analogies” to feel like a piece with that earlier work. And maybe what was intended wouldn’t have felt so stale because it would have been released during the administration it was (you know, possibly) intended to critique. Or maybe none of that would have been included and it would have been a fun, slam-bang action thriller, devoid of any depth or subtext; a lot of the time that’s all you need from a comic. But it wasn’t any of those things, it was what it was. Monthly superhero comics have always been about improvisation, figuring shit out on the fly, and laying the tracks as fast as you can under the shadow of an already moving train. If whatever you had in mind no longer jibes with what’s actually happening in the moment, you have to ditch it and come up with something else that does. It may suck to have to do it, but that’s been the gig since before any of us were even born. Superhero comics, to co-opt an old saying, are like sharks, they have to keep moving or they die. And, as is so often the case with Bendis events, in Secret Invasion, all we’re left with is a dead shark.