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Rant #391
(published July 17, 2008)
Review: Secret Invasion #4 and Captain Britian and MI13 #3
by Morgan Johnson
Secret Invasion is Marvel's big summer crossover. It follows in the wake of Civil War and House of M. Civil War in a nutshell: some heroes decide that all superheroes need to be licensed government agents, others disagree. They fight. Civil War was entirely out-of-character but sold like gangbusters. Arguably it pushed the Marvel comics ahead in new, interesting directions. This is the purpose of the summer crossover: it draws threads to a close, provides splashy violence and sets the stage for what is next to come. Civil War did all of this admirably. The writer of Civil War—Mark Millar—is strong on plot, but horrid on characterization. But as these summer events are very plot heavy with little time for character, so it more or less works.

House of M did it less so. House of M in a nutshell: a crazy witch mutant rewrites history so mutants are in charge. A mysterious girl helps some heroes see through the change. They fight and set the world mostly back in order. House of M resoundingly did not work. Not much happens for the first five issues, and then everything happens. The pacing is awful and the plot is incoherent. The characterization is fairly strong. The whole point of the event is to look at how the world could be different and how it affects individual characters. The plot is whisper-thin and is shoved along in fits and starts. The writer of House of M—Brian Bendis—has proven that he has a deft hand when writing a small number of characters, but when the number goes beyond four he loses it completely. Strong on character, weak on plot.

It all comes down to decompression.

Secret Invasion is an example of the worst sort of decompression. In the course of four issues perhaps twenty minutes have passed in comic time. Every issue has one plot point to hit, padded out by endless fight scenes and blather. The amount of narrative that had been delivered so far would fit on eight pages of a standard compressed comic. Imagine an action movie—say Lethal Weapon—it's a fairly tight 90 minute film. Now imagine that it had been stretched to fill a 22-episode television series, with no additional action or meaningful dialogue. Just, say, driving scenes or Murtaugh buying coffee. Riggs showering. That is what Secret Invasion feels like.

Secret Invasion in a nutshell: Shape-shifting aliens have been infiltrating and manipulating superheroes successfully for years, for some reason they turn this into a ground force invasion of New York and London. Four issues in, and that's it.

Here is what actually happens: The Black Widow saves Iron Man from a Skrull. Agent Brand gets onto a spaceship where Reed Richards is being held.

Don't believe me? Okay, here is a page breakdown:

Page 1: recap. It mentions heroes being executed live on TV, but I haven't seen any of that. It must be happening in a spin-off book.
Page 2: Unnamed bragging Skrull narrator. Shots of Reed Richards in confinement.
Page 3: Ships in space around Earth.
Page 4: The Sentry (America's lamest superhero) leaves Manhattan. Ms. Marvel arrives in Manhattan.
Page 5: Ms. Marvel is zapped.
Pages 6 and 7: Nick Fury and his Secret Warriors (who are an incredibly lame collection of super-children, including the son of the Worst Avenger Ever, Dr. Druid. Seriously, this is the kind of thing people joke about. It's awful.) hit things.
Page 8: Fighting.Page 9: Nick Fury shoots Ms. Marvel. We know she isn't a Skrull, as she defeated her impostor.
Page 10: Skrulls pile on Ms. Marvel, and she develops irises in her eyes. Huh?
Page 11: Meanwhile, in the jungle, the Black Widow watches Iron Man get mindfucked by a Skrull.
Page 12 and 13: The Black Widow shoots two Skrulls dead.
Page 14: The Black Widow talks to Iron Man.
Page 15: The Black Widow talks to Iron Man. (Nothing important is said.)
Page 16: Wolverine shows up, gets shot, gives the password. ("Carrot sticks.")
Page 17: Agent Brand floats in space.
Pages 18 and 19: Agent Brand looks at security footage.
Page 20: Skrulls ask the military to surrender.
Page 21: The Hood, a supervillain whom I like for being more sensible than others, tells his henchmen to go fight aliens.
Page 22: A Skrull is hit by lightning.
Page 23: Thor and Captain America show up.

And that's it. It could easily have fit into 8 pages and still had room for something to fucking happen. But no, with Bendis' cinematic decompression style, that wouldn't work.

I paid four dollars for this comic, and read it in less than four minutes. This makes comic books perhaps the worst value in terms of entertainment value. And based upon the shittiness of this comic I am seriously considering quitting.

Now for the flipside, and for a comic that makes me love the world again, let's look at the bizarrely titled Secret Invasion: Captain Britain and MI13. This is written by newcomer-to-comics, Paul Cornell who you might know from having written some episodes of Dr. Who under Davies, and a great episode of Primeval. In SI:CB&MI13 (I'll be buggered if I'm going to type the whole name again) the British superheroes rally together to defend England from the Skrull invasion. The heroes including amongst them a defector Skrull John Lennon. The Skrulls are particularly interested in England, as it has all the magic and a gateway to the faerie world. In the first two issues the heroes got their asses handed to them—and Captain Britain is murdered. In this third issue they finally rally when they are on the brink of losing. It's an underdog moment, the come form behind to take it all, the mustering of strength that we love so well in our heroes. It's great. I found myself grinning while reading this on the train.

Half of the heroes are stuck in the faerie realm, trying to find a secret weapon while the other half are facing down Skrulls in London proper. The heroes have found Excalibur, but none can draw it. Pete Wisdom, the drunken prick of a leader, sneaks off following a voice in his head and smashes open a magical prison freeing who-knows-what into the world. Wisdom also frees Merlin. The Merlin. Big crazy beard and cryptic speech Merlin who brings Captain Britain back from the dead just as his death ship is about to deliver him to the eternal shores of Albion.

All of the flags in London are snatched from the rooftops and they swirl about, coalescing into an even more power Captain Britain. And just as the Skrulls are about to finish off our heroes, he draws Excalibur and makes a stand. It's a great moment. It's not over by any means, but it is a well set-up and well delivered narrative moment.

Now, both Secret Invasion #4 and SI:CB&MI13 #3 are the mid-points in their respective series, but whereas in Secret Invasion #4 nothing much happens and one gets the feel of boxes being checked off an editorial list in SI:CB&MI13 #3 there is a complete story told. A real arc. The storytelling works and is satisfying. It's deeply ironic that the tiny comic works so well while the blockbuster is such a crap pile. It reeks of both editorial tampering and also of depending on the worst traits of Bendis to pull off.

And still, perhaps only 20 minutes have gone by. When it is all over, how long will this invasion have lasted? Forty-five minutes? An hour? The idea is interesting, but the execution is cowardly and flawed.

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