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.


  1. Okay mate, well I think we at least know that you're a British scribe, given that you list the retail price as £14.99. Additionally I think the explanation and validation of this blog just under the title is a bit long; and many fans quibble that books like Secret Invasion (and likely most of your future review offerings) are technically collected volumes of monthly comics, as opposed to graphic novels which are typically a single self-contained original story...but I view that as unnecessarily anal.

  2. Okay just for the record I hadn't read a mainstream GN in quite a long time until recently, and I still think the best GN's I read last year were the decidedly non-mainstream Las Locas and Dash Shaw's Bottomless Bellybutton, but...recently I've read several mainstream GN's, (most of them with Bendis at the helm) and I‘ve found most pretty entertaining. Thus I actually have read Secret Invasion and will don my geek-goggles long enough to respond to your review.

    You mention 1984's Secret Wars crossover fondly. I remember that event mostly for the outlandish premise (a Jim Shooter concoction to move as many units as possible I believe), and the disco-suited principle character. You may find it interesting that recently Bendis amazingly made some sense of The Beyonder character (and safely stored him away) in another GN (The Illuminati).

    As for mainstream comics getting too "gritty":
    The current wave of creators would probably argue with the semantics and simply suggest the comics they create are more "sophisticated." I'd say the trends are mostly cyclical. Any time the preponderance of mainstream comics get too dark and violent there's simply a backlash where weary fans and creators attempt to reinvigorate "the wonder" and absurdity in comics (a la Alan Moore's ABC line, or Kurt Busiek's Astro City).

    The two Secret Invasion plot points that you find annoyingly unexplained, I would chalk up to poetic license. 1)Reed slapped together some fancy gadget (just as he would've in the Lee/Kirby era) that could expose the Skrulls. 2) Skrull military tech found a way to avoid detection (ditto). Simply put Bendis needed these two plot devices or his whole story unravels immediately on the first one; and becomes far harder to resolve without the convenient second one.

    I take far greater issue (and yes any time one attempts to debate this stuff it inevitably sounds like the sort of hyper-nerdy fanboy obsessives sane people laugh at) with the "Super-Skrulls" themselves. For all the careful work Bendis has put in to set up this crossover and make the incredible seem somewhat credible, he totally capitulates to your "fun factor" in slapping together skrulls with a mishmash of Marvel’s superheroes’ powers. Once again this is sort of in the Lee/Kirby tradition and Bendis makes it clear that the Skrulls have snagged tissue samples from all of the heroes to perfect this technique. And Leinil Francis Yu has fun with the concept. But for all the pseudo-sophistication, when push comes to shove the endless hoards of skrulls fall just as easily as all cut-rate villains en masse when the story needs to be wrapped up. Skrulls supposedly with the exact powers of the Hulk and the X-Men combined crumble like papier mache when Nick Fury shows up with a big gun (somewhere Rob Liefeld smiles).

    And how to explain tissue samples of deities and magicians like Dr. Strange and Thor allowing for easy replication of powers that I thought were less genetic than the result of ages of acquiring mystic knowledge and a magical indestructible hammer? And for that matter when the Skrulls joke about the simplistic technology behind Iron Man's armor, you're left wondering why they wouldn't just outfit a few thousand of their warriors in armor equally simplistic and easily wipe out the entire Marvel Universe. Once again any such quibbles can be explained away as poetic license, or simply taking this all too seriously; and yet the very idea of attempting to tell a wholly unrealistic story with this much realism demands that you cover your ass as regards such obvious silliness.

    All that said, I take Secret Invasion for what it is: Big, goofy, over-the-top spectacle put together by very competent creators. SI is entertaining enough but Bendis and Marvel might want to dial down the crossover spectacles for awhile until they can restock the cupboard.

  3. Like you, I miss the fun that used to be found in most Marvel comics, and now seems to be an endangered species. There seems to be a generation of writers (perhaps artists, as well) who have appeared on the scene in the last few years who believe comics need to be more in line with "real life." My question is, how do you steep a superhero, i.e., a man/woman who flies, lifts vehicles, spins webs, or what have you, in reality? The two simply don't seem to go together.

  4. A couple points - 1) The book you've reviewed isn't actually a graphic novel, it's a collection of comic books. A graphic novel is one that's been conceived and written as a book. Technically speaking, Watchmen isn't a graphic novel, either. There are countless sites devoted to reviewing comics. If you're going to stand out, sticking to graphic novels - per your name - would be smart.

    2) The anonymity thing doesn't work. Since we don't know who you are, and DO know you're an industry professional, it's reasonable to wonder if reviews are being given to work based on external factors, such as whether or not you're the creator of the book, or if you have issues with the creators.

  5. Comments are coming in, and while I can't always guarantee a reply, let me try touch on some of the main points.

    Regarding a couple of people’s statements…

    Secret Invasion clearly has "graphic novel" printed on its cover. To me that classes it as a graphic novel.

    “Friendly Neighborhood” Anonymous…

    I won’t run your huge comment for these reasons: I’ve absolutely no idea who you are, and it seems that you’re simply attempting to ride on my coattails. And all of your points seem mute when you claim your approach worked for you. In which case, exactly why wouldn’t anyone else want to try it?

    Finally, you said a certain Marvel EIC told you that reviewing is akin to committing suicide before you’re even born in the industry as a pro? I must take note with this. If he said that, fine, it’s his opinion. Other editors don’t by default share it. But aside from the fact that at this juncture, that statement is only hearsay, most editors like to see that writers can deliver professional content and to tight deadlines. Whatever that content is. And as a writer myself, I believe anything that gets you writing and honing your craft is a good thing. I started out on reviews for a mag, and I believe without question that it helped my fiction writing. So this too, makes me doubt your reasoning, if not your legitimacy.

    Robert Why…

    The review is of the British edition, and only a British currency (£) is listed. Yes, I could be British. Or perhaps I made mention of that to make it seem as though I am.

    'Disco Beyonder' didn't appear until the sequel, Secret Wars II. Thanks for making me say that, as now the geek glass is over me. The first series, Secret Wars, was to partly support the Mattel toy line. As was one of the most imaginative cartoon series ever, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I can't be a snob when it comes to such fiction. If it's good, it's good. And yes, Secret Wars was to sell as many units as possible. As is Secret Invasion. Marvel is a business first and foremost. Anything and everything that it produces is to sell as many units as possible. Fans often don't like to hear that, but it's the harsh reality.

    What is noticeable is that you seem critical about Secret Wars’ writer Jim Shooter, a man you probably have never met. Is this on the basis of negative things you’ve read? A lesson I learnt long ago is always make your own judgement about a person, don't listen to hearsay. Besides which, Shooter – whatever people think of him – is an immensely talented writer. Don't believe me? Read his article, "How to Write Comics". It's a real master class that could even teach other pro writers a thing or two - including how to deal with important plot developments! (I once heard Shooter even got his first pro writing gig at the age of 11!)

    It’s a bit unfair to be dismissive of Shooter on the one hand, but Bendis can do whatever he likes on the other, and chalk the latter’s technical flaws in this story down to "poetic license", which it really isn’t. That’s playing favorites. Both are pro writers, and both owe it to the readers to act as such in their storytelling. After all, we are the ultimate barometer of how good it is. We’re the ones spending our cash on it. Therefore the final say rests with us (did you hear that, Friendly Anonymous?). My feeling is that these plot points were dealt with in detail in monthly titles that tied in to Secret Invasion (and aren’t included in the graphic novel), so Bendis perhaps made a genuine oversight.

    Totally agree with your point of Nick Fury and the big gun: jealous I didn't focus on that! The Doc Strange and Thor point is equally valid, although, like I say in my review, we aren't really told how the Skrulls managed to carry this out, so making assessments is difficult.

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Marvel’s huge crossovers. They bring me up to date with old favorites, and new faces, and help the ever-inspired idea of a shared universe to keep simmering away nicely. But it seems like as every decent heavyweight goes straight after the champ, every crossover tries to usurp Secret Wars. Why? Why can’t they make their own legacy and forge their own trail?

    Mark Allen…

    Someone who shares my thoughts! I don’t believe it, I thought I was alone! It would be nice to see Marvel merry again. I’m not saying that there’s not current writers and titles that still take the more light-hearted approach, but Marvel’s output is so huge, and comics so expensive, it’s not always possible to track these things.

  6. I realize I'm not a professional, but in case you don't mind constructive criticism, you might consider a bit more brevity in your reviews. Not just the soul of wit, being able to communicate needed information in as few words as possible also demonstrates a command of language that is quickly becoming extinct.

  7. Mark, constructive feedback is always welcome.

    Let's look at why many print reviews in the comic book and graphic novel industry are short (including many of the reviews I used to write).

    It's mainly that space is at an absolute premium. Now we come to online reviews. These reviewers have seen these short reviews in print, and feel that they must reflect that form in an attempt to portray professionalism.

    While I agree with you that less is often more, as a result, many online reviews aren't in-depth enough and appear curt. And remember, space isn't at a premium online as it is in print. Movie magazines and newspapers are a good example of an opposing position: these media often feature long reviews (be it books, film, theatre, television etc) and don't suffer for it. It allows for a considered and insightful approach.

    All the above resulted in my decision to put some meat on my first review for Graphic Novel Hovel. I might scale down future reviews, but we'll see. The fact that I can open my wings a little more has opened up possibilities that I've not had before in reviewing, such as an occasional subject hop (ie. Secret Wars). So there's advantages and disadvantages to both reviewing forms (short and long).

  8. Hey,
    I liked this review a lot. I haven't read Secret Invasion. Never been a fan of huge crossovers, so'll skip this as well. I still think the review was thorough, thought provoking and well written. Everybody is talking about all the good blogs the review comics. I have read (and heard) a lot of sucking up to blogs, that praise every boo cause they had it sponsored. That is no use to me. I want intelligent, in depth analysis. More, please.