Friday, 20 March 2009

Secret Invasion graphic novel review

First impressions first. As that’s usually the order it’s done in. This is a beast of a book. I got the Panini UK edition (ISBN: 978-1-84653-405-8). This contains the entire Secret Invasion (issues #1-8) and a whole bunch more. And while this 280+ page monster has a respectable RRP of £14.99, I got it far less from a leading online bookstore. As always with Panini, the production values are top notch. But let’s move on to review the story itself.

“He loves you.” And I love comic books. But I’ve really fallen behind with reading them. My preference has shifted to graphic novels. Why? You get the entire story in one go, so you can read it at your own pace. My analogy is that graphic novels are like getting a TV show on DVD: you get it all at once and in one compact, convenient place, and often with a bunch of extras. Unlike a monthly comic, there are no delays between instalments or sold out issues. And let’s be honest, comics aren’t cheap nowadays, whereas graphic novels tend to be real value for money - collected editions such as this work out far cheaper than individually buying the comics.

What has this got to do with my review? It means I come into this graphic novel fresh, with no grounding to the Secret Invasion event, having stopped getting Marvel monthlies some time ago.

“He loves you” is a line repeated throughout this story, by the way. It means God loves you. And this book’s writer, Brian Michael Bendis, is akin to a much-loved God in comics. I therefore am very aware that anything other than a glowing review will ruffle feathers on the wings of his many apostles.

But this story highlights exactly what grates on me about current comic books. For want of a better phrase, let’s call it the absence of the “fun factor”.

Recently, comics have become grittier and grittier, to the point of no return. So much so, that the obvious and natural progression has been to anchor the Marvel Universe in real-life reality. Civil War was perhaps this turning point. Yes, it’s an incredibly audacious and brave move, but once you’ve done it, where does it end? Hulk killing people through radiation sickness instead of his rampages? Doctor Strange forced to cure all disease (he is a doctor after all, isn’t he)? Captain America held accountable for not stopping the Holocaust? You get my point. My other point, is just how serious, dramatic and dark should … or can … you be with guys who get bitten by radioactive spiders or wear yellow costumes or fly surfboards through space?

A scene in Secret Invasion perfectly encapsulates this sea of change – and I suspect, but could be wrong – it does so almost by pure accident: a bunch of heroes come face to face with what appear to be previous incarnations of themselves. And for a very brief scene, that “fun factor” reappears. Previous-incarnation-Captain America calls previous-incarnation-Iron Man “shellhead” (see picture below). And that’s all it takes to remind us of the stories and crossovers of yesteryear with the “fun factor”. Stories that could be serious and weighty but wouldn’t always take themselves too seriously.

But as quickly as this fun factor appears, it disappears. And we’re back into the current gritty, über-real Marvel world. Me, personally, if I’d captured that lightning in a bottle, I would have worked with it. It would probably have been a far more entertaining premise than the one actually in use.

While I’m on the subject of über-real, seeing these heroes swearing on a regular basis not only jolts you out of the story, but it feels like the “fun factor” really has gone for good. Or the mission is to force a mature, edgy veil over proceedings. I just think it’s out of place in super hero land (see my previous point about yellow costumes and surfboards).

And yet, paradoxically, the feeling I also get is that writer Bendis is trying very hard to play this story a lot like crossover events of yesteryear, namely Secret Wars. (Quick history lesson: Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars was a comic series released in 1984 which was the first major crossover of many Marvel heroes and villains.)

Heck, even the titles are almost identical: secret = secret, war = invasion. Secret Invasion however feels a far more jumbled affair and certainly lacks the flair and originality of Secret Wars. Many crossover events since have tried to outdo Secret Wars, but it remains the undisputed champ. That one series alone had such iconic moments as Cap America's shield getting smashed; Wolverine nonchalantly slicing off Absorbing Man’s arm; Spidey getting his black suit; Hulk holding up an entire mountain range; the list goes on.

Images that resonate in my mind from Secret Invasion? Iron Man puking. Nice.

Going back to Secret Invasion being a “jumbled affair”, writer Bendis – perhaps not entirely by his own choosing – has been given many, many plates to spin, as plot lines from monthly comics, by other creative teams, spill and converge into this story. In his defence, Bendis manages to keep most spinning from start to finish. But not all. Two of the most important plot developments were left unanswered (cover your eyes, here come spoilers):

1). How did Mr. Fantastic figure out how to expose the Skrulls?

2). How did the Skrulls evade detection for so long in the first place?

Oh, and how has Norman Osborn’s return affected all Marvel continuity? As a result, have classic storylines, like the ones this tries to emulate (and owes its very existence to), been completely wiped out of continuity?

It would appear that you need to follow the Marvel monthlies which tie into this story to find out the answers to all the above.

Such continuity clean ups, for want of a better phrase, make me a nervous Marvel reader. Right now, Secret Invasion is part of canon, as it’ll no doubt be deemed hip and cool … but who’s to say that in fifteen or twenty years, it’s seen differently and it too is “retconned” (a term meaning to be removed from continuity)? Making it a waste of time ever having read it and bought it. (Remaining on the subject of Secret Wars, I believe that its sequel, Secret Wars II, has recently been retconned, which is a shame.)

And as with most huge of these Marvel crossover events, the main premise is always intrinsically floored. Acts of Vengeance? I remember a famous comic writer saying how could the villain have any superior tactical advantage over the hero, because as neither knew the other, both were at a similar disadvantage. Civil War? Heroes and villains alike had spent years finding way to hide and disappear and evade capture, but now all of a sudden they can be rounded up like cattle. They’re very lifestyle has been a perfect training ground in case such a day ever came. As for Secret Invasion? Well, it’s a bit of a muddle, but the heroes take out the Skrull leader and the alien’s master plan falls flat. The years of detailed planning for this invasion, right down to what appears to be engineering Civil War itself by the Skrulls, and once they’re leaderless … and a prerequisite hero sacrifice is thrown into the mix (just the one, but of course not a major player, which feels like a cop out) … they fall to pieces and the day is won.

So, for me, Secret Invasion can’t stand up against Secret Wars. Hulk’s missing presence is felt, as is the original Captain America’s. Luke Cage is often the star of Secret Invasion, which often feels like replacing a DeNiro with a LeBlanc. Both watchable under the right circumstances, but only one is a convincing leading man. And when it’s not Cage in the limelight, it’s Iron Man/Tony Stark, a guy who’s so hard to root for, and been made to look so darn despicable, that you actually end up wishing that he is a Skrull.

Moving on to Leinil Francis Yu’s art, while it’s great at capturing the splash pages and big action scenes, it lacks the clean lines of Secret Wars’ artist Mike Zeck. Indeed, the repeated frustration here is the lack of attention to the plethora of Marvel characters who appear. Time and time again you can’t help wondering how this would look under the painstaking pencils of George Perez. Yu, while accomplished, doesn’t feel the right fit for an event like this. And he is a grittier, darker style artist, again helping to further dampen the “fun factor”. The impression is there’s an opportunity missed.

That’s not to say that Secret Invasion has no merit. It does have its moments and some successes. Bendis and/or Yu fans will probably dig it – and maybe it’s simply in tune enough with what comics have become, and fans now want, to be deemed a modern classic. And the ending is highly intriguing. Even if this ending is, ironically given my thoughts above, very Acts of Vengeance-esque.

But for all that, the old storytelling rule that somehow the status quo is changed at the end of the story doesn’t seem to apply here. Was Secret Invasion put in motion simply to set up this tasty ending? That in itself would make it almost as irritating as any retcon.

At the end of the day, no matter how well crafted this story may or may not be, I for one (perhaps literally) simply can’t help missing the fun factor.

To sum up the Secret Invasion graphic novel in as few words as possible: best left undiscovered.