Thursday, August 28, 2008

The New Avengers #44 Review

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciller: Billy Tan

This is an interesting comic book, because it promises to be about one thing but then ends up being about something else. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; Hitchcock did the same thing in Psycho. While this book is overall not successful, the transition here is also effective. The story begins putatively to be another story of the Illuminati, a collection of especially clever or powerful superheroes who caused the Skrull invasion in the first place by detonating a bomb in the Skrull capital. However, half way through, we realise that it is all a ruse, and after they are all slaughtered, we learn that they were only clones. At that point, the story becomes about how the Skrulls tricked a Reed Richards clone into providing them with the means of becoming human while remaining completely undetectable.

The transition is actually quite a shocking and interesting moment. The Illuminati are sitting around, talking about the possible ramifications of their attack on the Skrull homeworld. Bendis uses this conversation for exposition for anyone who may not have read the Illuminati series. However, as they discuss ways of detecting Skrulls, they realise they have no powers. Realising that they have no memory of ever escaping from the Skrulls, they come to the conclusion that they never escaped, and they stare at each other in silence until a sweating Doctor Strange says, "I -- I think we're still -- I think we're still here". Having the characters and the readers come to the realisation that all is not as it seems at exactly the same moment is very powerful, and this section of the book is very well written. At that point, Xavier reveals himself to be a Skrull and the rest of the Illuminati are massacred, when we realise that they were all clones.

At this point, the book turns to its less successful second half. The Skrulls realise that their clones of Reed Richards will understand how they can appear undetectable, so they stage ruses to fool his clones into revealing how. In one first ruse, the Skrulls murder a clone of Reed's wife, Susan, and then threaten to murder either a clone of or a Skrull disguised as his son, Franklin. Why, exactly, does Bendis think we want to see this story? It is a pointlessly nasty and violent ruse, and not remotely entertaining. In order to tell stories of people watching their families get murdered, one needs to have some sort of dramatic justification or message. So far, Secret Invasion has been all hype and back story with virtually no payoff, and this reads like Bendis trying to hammer home what meanies the Skrulls are when we already know that their invasion is a flop. If you're going to pull out the big guns of having a character (or even the clone of a character) watch his family die, you'd better have a good reason.

There is some oddness to how the Skrulls are portrayed here. For one thing, are their two races of Skrulls, one really short race and one really tall race? I don't remember ever reading about that. However, there are a number of Skrulls here that are literally half of the height of the other Skrulls, making them look like deformed midgets or maybe green Harry Potter elves. One has the sense that Tan is trying here to capture the feeling of Frankenstein and Igor, in which creepy experiments are performed by their creepy henchmen, whom we know to be creepy because they are so misshapen. It would be an interesting idea if Skrull culture required Skrulls to take on the height of their station, which they could do as shapeshifters, but as it stands, having characters of such completely different heights leaves me scratching my head.

Another unfortunate aspect of this story is that it is trying to flesh out what we meant by "using Reed's brain" in Secret Invasion #5. I had hoped that somehow they were literally using his body in some creepy way in order to make their plans work or maybe one of his inventions. It seemed to imply that Reed was somehow responsible for the Skrull technology. Instead, all it meant was that they got the idea from one of Reed's clones. That's unfortunate, because it takes away from some of the dramatic promise that Reed was somehow responsible for the invasion above and beyond his role in the Illuminati. Reed Richards has a tendency to incredible arrogance, as we've seen before in the Authoritative Action or Civil War story lines, and the possibility that one of his grand schemes or inventions was used in the Skrull invasion was very interesting. Instead, all that was meant was that they got the idea from a clone - hardly something that might follow from one of the character's weaknesses.

As such, this is an interesting comic, with a great moment of transition. However, the comic is ultimately bleak and includes a pointless scene in which a man watches his family die. Moreover, the plot point of the Secret Invasion story the book is supposed to develop is suprisingly uninteresting. This book doesn't work, though it does deserve some credit for what it was trying to do.

C+

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