Each month(ish) I'm revisiting one of the big comic book crossovers of the last few decades. For my broad rules on what counts for consideration, see here.
The late noughties was a turbulent time in the Marvel Universe. The Avengers had been disassembled then brought back New, the mutant population had been decimated in House of M, and the Civil War had split the heroes down the middle into pro-registration/authority and outlawed anti-registration factions (I’ll cover Civil War down the line). Most particularly, the flagship franchise, the Avengers, were seriously at odds. Tony Stark, now Director of SHIELD, was leading the officially sanctioned team, and Luke Cage’s underground New Avengers were still reeling from the death of Captain America in the aftermath of Civil War.
In the middle of this ongoing conflict, the New Avengers, engaged in a mission in Japan, encountered the assassin Elektra in a fight which apparently cost her life. Except that it wasn’t her. On her death she reverted to her natural form as one of the shapeshifting race of Skrulls, but a Skrull impervious to detection by any means; physical, mystical or technological. This immediately set the heroes on edge, aware that such infiltrators could be anywhere. Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) arguing that they had a responsibility to tell Stark and the authorities about the threat, took the opportunity to betray her team and take the Skrull to Stark - joining his team in the process. All this set the scene for Secret Invasion.
Published by Marvel Comics in eight monthly issues from June 2008 to January 2009. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, with art by Lenil Francis Yu and Mark Morales and colours by Laura Martin.
Unable to work out how the Skrulls have made an undetectable substitution, Tony Stark shares the problem with Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four and Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man/Giant Man. The sudden approach to Earth of a Skrull ship forces Tony to leave them to investigate while he assembles his Avengers to investigate. At Avengers Tower, Jessica Drew informs her former New Avenger teammates of the situation and the two teams race to the ship’s crash site - The Savage Land.
Even as they fight over the situation, a series of related events are triggered. A Skrull disguised as the Avengers’ butler Jarvis uploads a virus to the Stark mainframe which affects every piece of Stark technology - Iron Man is crippled, SHIELD is knocked out, and their helicarrier falls out of the sky. On the SWORD satellite, a visiting SHIELD officer (another disguised Skrull) triggers an explosion which wrecks the installation. At the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building headquarters, a Skrull Invisible Woman breaks open a Negative Zone portal and destroys the building and all Reed Richards’ technology.
In the Savage Land, the Skrull ship opens to reveal dozens of Earth’s superheroes. As the mixed Avengers line up to meet them, they're stunned to see many earlier versions of themselves departing the ship. At the same time, based on his study of the Elektra Skrull’s corpse, Reed Richards announces that he knows how the Skrulls did it. And is promptly shot in the head by Hank Pym, yet another Skrull.
Brian Bendis started sowing the seeds of Secret Invasion as early as his first New Avengers story. The hints continued in the background - even as two other crossovers ran their course - until he finally pulled the trigger with the reveal of ‘Elektra’. The idea of a stealthy opponent infiltrating its operatives into positions of power and trust was nothing new of course - there’s a reason I’ve covered Secret Invasion and Millennium back to back - but the goal here was to present a full-scale invasion that was effectively over before anyone even realised it had begun. At the same time, the invasion crippled any possible resistance by creating absolute distrust.
If Secret Invasion has a problem (and it has more than one) it’s that, based on the idea of the Skrull plan, there’s no way they can lose - it's the execution presented that becomes the stumbling block. They should be in a position to keep growing their influence to a point where, eventually, they just tell the world that they’re now part of the empire. Under the circumstances, there’s really no reason for the Skrulls to launch a full scale military invasion (even if the reveal of the Elektra Skrull was unplanned and caused an element of panic... which isn’t at all suggested). The plan is long term and has been proceeding without a problem; the Skrulls have infiltrated all the world’s security agencies and the primary superhero groups, and, for a species which has consistently been shown as devious and most comfortable behaving covertly (for obvious reasons), suddenly sending a massive invasion force feels contrived. There’s a suggestion that the devastation of their empire (in Annihilation) has sent them all a bit mad, and the whole plan has a religious component which could be used to explain away a lack of sound military tactics, but again, they’ve been executing it forever…
The outcome of this model is that the whole series, from its name onwards, really isn’t what it’s been set up to be. There’s nothing secret about this invasion. It could have been more like the old Invaders TV series, where the heroes, aware of the infiltration, work to reveal it by identifying the enemy agents. That would even work in the standard crossover model with tie-ins showing the individual heroes uncovering their own moles (much in the way Marvel has worked this summer’s crossover Original Sin, where the tie-ins are almost separate parallel stories). Instead, what we largely get is issue after issue of super-powered fighting with a relatively minimal acknowledgement of the paranoia element. Indeed, a couple of scenes aside, most of the claims for this paranoid destruction of trust happen in discussions between the Skrull leadership.
This isn’t to say that Secret Invasion is bad - quite a lot of it is actually pretty compelling, and as a story of a well-planned and suddenly executed blitzkrieg attack it’s quite powerful. The double page spread at the end of issue two when the super-powered Skull army attacks Manhattan is awesome, and the domino effect scenes in issue one showing one devastating attack after another reinforces the impression that the Skrulls have basically won before the war starts. But that’s just a variation on a story we’ve all seen over and over.
The wider ramifications of the invasion are largely handled in the various tie-ins - a combination of regular series issues and limited series to cover those parts of the Marvel Universe that couldn’t accommodate the invasion in their ongoing storylines. Notably, Bendis took his Avengers series tie-ins, New and Mighty, to tell the background to the invasion, including the stories of various key substitutions. These also revealed the changes in Skrull society and the technological advance that enabled their heightened infiltration - a story that goes all the way back to the Kree-Skrull War back in the 1960s.
Marvel also launched a new ongoing within the invasion storyline, Captain Britain and MI13, which showed the effect of the Skrull assault on Faerie. Because Britain. Sigh.
One of the many heavily-promoted events Marvel suggested might happen during the invasion was the return of the original Kree Captain Marvel. In fact the Captain was a Skrull imposter who defectively retained his implanted memories and actually believed himself to be the Kree hero. There's a lot that could be done with that, but events in the series happen so fast that it's all lost in the rush.
In the core series, two sequences stand out (at least before the ending). The ongoing interplay between Hawkeye and Mockingbird - the latter having returned from the dead, having been replaced by the Skrulls before her earlier ‘death’ (or is she?) - has real depth and significance to both characters. And the scene in which Spider-Woman/Queen Veranke tries to convince Iron Man that he’s actually a sleeper agent for the Skrulls gives some serious intensity to the situation. It’s also smart for having the Black Widow know that Veranke is only messing with Iron Man because of her own experience running exactly the same kind of psychological game. Bendis had done good work with Spider-Woman (long one of my favourite Marvel characters) since he introduced her to the Avengers at the start of New. He makes her feel like a major character again for the first time in decades. So the reveal that she's been Veranke all along comes as quite a kick.
The ending of the series is disappointing though, and on a few levels:
To begin with, the death of Veranke, and with it the end of the invasion, is achieved by Norman Osborn, at the time the leader of the Thunderbolts Initiative, and star of a brilliant run written by Warren Ellis. He does what most of the assembled heroes would be unwilling to do - kill her. But to have the entire event ended by a single gunshot feels like a cheat.
Then there’s the fact that, as a consequence of the invasion, Tony Stark is removed as head of SHIELD and all his tech (which was fatally compromised by the Skrulls) is decommissioned out of all the security forces it had underpinned. So far that's so more or less logical, but the person chosen to replace him? Norman Osborn. That’s right - they put the security of the world in the hands of a man known not only to be a super-villain, but a legitimately insane one at that.
And then there’s the return of the ‘source’ heroes who had been duplicated by the Skrulls in an epilogue to the main story. It’s all just a bit pat and at odds with the downbeat nature of the final chapter.
Bendis and his collaborators (who turn in mostly good work, though with occasional lapses of clarity in the storytelling) try to do an enormous amount in these eight issues. As well as the main storyline they cover the return of Thor, the activation of the Initiative trainees, the introduction of the ‘new’ Captain America and public debut of Nick Fury's Secret Warriors, the death of the Wasp, the establishment of Norman’s ‘Cabal’ and plenty more. There’s a pace and urgency to the whole thing which keeps it moving - and moving well enough that a lot of the problems in the detail only become apparent with hindsight or if you sit down to pick it apart like I do. Artist Yu makes particularly effective use of double page spreads throughout the series to give a sense of scale and power to the events he's depicting.
Secret Invasion sits at a critical stage in the ongoing meta-story of the MU - the turbulence of Disassembled, House of M and Civil War had led to a divided heroic community and began the rise of Osborn. Invasion positioned everything for the next phase; the ‘Dark Reign’ which would be the theme for the next year as Norman built up his power base. Dark Reign was another bit of Marvel misdirection - the ‘Embrace Change’ house ads they ran during Secret Invasion strongly suggested that the Skrulls were going to win, and knowing that a ‘Dark Reign’ theme loomed seemed to reinforce that. Could the MU have delivered a great set of stories based on a year of life under alien occupation? I think so. But, on paper at least, a year in which the regular bad guys were legitimately in control probably looked more interesting.
I’m fond of Secret Invasion but by no means blind to its flaws. I wish they’d really played up the stealth aspect more. I also think it needs some more depth to some of the key scenes, which are too often glossed over in the frenetic rush to the finish. And, finally, the Osborn takes over thing… But there are far worse ways to handle the ‘bad guys infiltrate and undermine’ scenario - at least it’s not Millennium.
THE SNAPPY ROUND-UP
Best moment: Previously mentioned - Veranke messes with Iron Man's head in the Savage Land. Also, the moment Jessica Jones realises she's handed her baby over to a Skrull, not Jarvis, for safekeeping.
Worst moment: The activation of the Wasp as the Skrulls' hidden WMD - not for the moment, but because in one of the art's occasional failures it's actually not at all clear what exactly is happening.
Key debut: The new Norman Osborn, protector of the free world, and his Cabal; a bad guy equivalent of the previously established 'Illuminati'.
Significant deaths: The Wasp. Veranke, who in a way is almost sympathetic by the time she dies. Skrull Mockingbird.
Best spin-off: Dark Avengers
Best tie-in: Secret Invasion: Runaways/Young Avengers
Best cover: Issue 3 - 'Spider-Woman' seducing Tony Stark
Worst cover: I'm not sure there's a really bad one among them, but at a push, issue 2 is a bit ordinary
On the comic book grading scale: 7.0: Fine/Very Fine (Explanation of the grading scale.)
We step back in time (slightly) to the crossover before this one - everyone's at each other's throats, the authorities want to know all your secrets, but if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. There's a Civil War brewing, and nothing will ever be the same.