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Avengers Infinity War: The Kree-Skrull War

Wrapping up Longbox Graveyard’s run-up to Avengers Infinity War, we take a look at the last time the Avengers fought a big war in outer space — the Kree-Skrull War!

I’m four decades past my own personal comic book Golden Age, so I don’t expect everyone else to attach a lot of importance to many of the books I’ve examined here at Longbox Graveyard. Titles like Ms. Marvel, Micronauts, The Defenders, and Deathlok were obscure in their day — I’ve celebrated them here but I am fully aware few of today’s fans share my enthusiasm for these moldy oldies. But there are some titles from my heyday that I would expect to resonate with “kids these days” — titles with characters that are still active today, with events that form the historic underpinnings of continuing comic book universes.

I thought the AvengersKree/Skrull War was one of those events, but no dice. My twenty-something office pal — who loves comics, and previously borrowed my copy of Avengers #196 to read the origin of Taskmaster — had never heard of the Kree/Skrull War!

What are they teaching in our schools??

Listen up, you whippersnappers! Before Avengers vs. X-Men, before Secret Wars, before Crisis on Infinite Earths, before even the Avengers/Defenders War there was the Kree/Skrull War! This was a mega-crossover in the old school style, the natural evolution of storytelling in a single book — not a mandated summer crossover, not some bloated high concept that poisons an entire comics line for six months of the year, and definitely NOT an imaginary story!

The Kree/Skrull War story arc ran from issues #89-97 of the Avengers (though when Marvel reprinted the saga in 1983, they restricted themselves to just the final five issues of the run). Nearing the end of his iconic six-year stint on Avengers, Roy Thomas — along with artists Neal Adams and Sal & John Buscema — delivered what was up to then arguably the longest and most complex continuing story in superhero comics, as Earth became a battleground between the warring Skrull and Kree star empires. Nowadays, company-wide meta-stories sprawling over dozens (hundreds?) of issues are a recurring summer plague, but in 1971 any story running more than a couple issues was a big deal.

The tale is deeply enmeshed in Marvel continuity but in the style of the day, it’s easy to jump on board as a new reader, thanks to liberal flashbacks and recaps of what has come before. Summarizing the tale makes it seem more complex than it reads, but I’ll give it a go anyways.

The action kicks off with Captain Marvel cracking out of the Negative Zone, then racing off half-cocked (and leaking radiation) on a mission to steal a rocket to return to his Kree homeworld. But no sooner do the Avengers lay him out cold than everyone is attacked by an awakened Kree sentry, acting on the orders of Ronan the Accuser, who has staged a coup against the Kree Supreme Intelligence and is seizing the moment to settle old scores with Mar-Vell and everyone else on Earth. The battle with the Kree sets off a worldwide alien panic, aided by a Skrull agent provocateur masquerading as a Joe McCarthy-style Senate investigator, and suddenly our heroes are facing some classic, shades-of-grey Bronze Age comic book hard choices as they decide whether or not they should turn Mar-Vell over to the authorities.

The public turns against the Avengers while Mar-Vell, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver become hostages of the Skrulls. The series climaxes with the Avengers facing down the Skrull warfleet, while Rick Jones — captured and brought to the Kree homeworld — is empowered by the Kree Supreme Intelligence to end the battle via a (frankly disappointing) deus ex machina. The story ends right when it should be getting started, offering an unfortunate and arbitrary end to what had been a superior run.

Despite this disappointing climax there is a lot to like here. The series is broad and ambitious, and there’s always something impressive about watching the Avengers fight in outer space, as they would later do in memorable issues of Captain Marvel and Warlock. But those later battles were all-hands-on-deck affairs for the fate of the universe. This battle was just a few Avengers in the lonely void of space against an entire Skrull battlefleet, made to feel underplayed and epic at the same time through Roy Thomas’ borderline-purple prose storytelling.

One of the strongest elements of this run is the way Roy Thomas handles the Vision. Introduced by Thomas in the classic issue #57 of Avengers, the Vision would evolve from android assassin to one of the most unique and fascinating members of the team. It’s hard to overstate what a superstar the Vision was during the 1970s (and one of Marvel’s great sins is how they so thoroughly worked over this character for no real gain in their late 1980s-era “Vision Quest” storyline). It is in this arc that we see the Vision’s soul well and truly begin to evolve, first by brooding on his sense of separation from and yearning for human emotions …

… then finding himself prey to all-too-human emotions as the long-simmering romance with the Scarlet Witch come out in the open in issue #91 (which also featured the debut of the Vision’s characteristic “rounded rectangle” word balloons, though they wouldn’t be yellow until issue #93):

What follows is the right kind of comic book soap opera, where the characters spend several issues coming around to what the reader has already accepted — that these two characters are made for each other. Roy Thomas gives us a master class in superhero romance.

The run is also kind of haphazard. Thomas admits he didn’t have a masterplan for the Kree/Skrull War, and the event really is more like a continuing subplot than a world-shattering event. Reading these issues today, you might be disappointed that there is so little waring between Kree and Skrull in the Kree/Skrull war! The event is largely off-stage, and while Earth is threatened with becoming the key battleground in the war between the empires, that event never materializes, as our heroes head off the worst of the war before it can get started. Likewise, issues devoted to the Inhumans and an (admittedly very cool) issue where Ant Man explores the innards of a deactivated Vision distract from the war, but it is important to remember that this was almost an accidental event, and that unlike the top-down editorial events of the present age, the point wasn’t to replace the rhythms of the host book so much as it was to provide context and color to the usual Avengers adventure of the month.

the Kree/Skrull War begins (and also rescues the Avengers from a tight spot in issue #91)

It’s worth noting how Roy Thomas assembled pieces from all over the Marvel Universe to create a story that was greater than the sum-of-its parts. Always a fiend for continuity, Thomas reached all the way back to Fantastic Four #4 to find the Skrull secret agents central to his story, and the Kree — who had been kicking around Marvel stories since 1967, mostly as the heavies in the pages of Captain Marvel — suddenly seemed more interesting, coherent, and purposeful than we’d seen them in earlier books.

The art, too, deserves mention. Even Sal Buscema — whom I’ve damned with faint praise here at Longbox Graveyard — turns in notable work, with clear storytelling and a bit of visual flair.

a nice three-panel sequence from Sal Buscema in Avengers #90

John Buscema is his reliable self here, coming to the end of his legendary Avengers tenure, but it is Neal Adams who is best remembered from this run, and it is easy to understand why. Adams’ realistic approach to composition and anatomy set him apart from most artists of his day, giving the Adams Avengers a kind of rooted and believable quality more akin to film than comic books.

Also deserving accolades is Tom Palmer on inks, who handles the final issues of the series, and smooths the transition between alternating John Buscema and Neal Adams chapters.

So what do you think? Am I living in the past by insisting events like the Kree/Skrull War form an essential part of the Marvel canon? Should I have picked a more recent Avengers event to celebrate here on the eve of the movie’s release? Or is this Avengers run a classic despite my callow twenty-something office mate’s ignorance of these mighty events? Assemble your Avengers reactions in the comments section below!

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on April 26, 2018, in Best Of Longbox Graveyard and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This arc was flawless…except for the ending. Oh well, still an all time classic.

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  2. The event that was not an Event! Avengers had many memorable multi-issue story arcs in the 70s and 80s, long before it became standard practice to write with a TPB collection in mind, and this story is a good example.

    I might be wrong, but maybe a long-form story like this was only possible in 1972 because of changes in the way comics were distributed and purchased. I don’t recall when Marvel started offering monthly subscriptions, but subscriptions would have made it easier for readers to follow a long story without missing an issue. And, ongoing stories incentivize subscription renewals.

    Plus, I read that Marvel obtained a new distributor around the time of this story, and distribution improved as a result. Maybe a more reliable presence in retail outlets gave the company confidence readers could find the book month after month and keep up with longer stories. I get the impression that in the 50s and 60s, it was much harder to get all issues of a series as they came out.

    As long as we’re speculating, maybe distribution and subscription similarly made possible the Avengers’ recent success as films. 19 interwoven movies leading up to a big battle is not a concept that would have worked in the 70s. Back then, it was a big deal when the second Godfather film came out as a sequel that repeated the first film’s title. But now, with global distribution, and movie subscription services that allow fans to catch up on all the related movies, a sprawling cinematic universe is commercially and artistically viable.

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    • Yeah, it is a whole different world, both in comics and on the screen. There was a time when a standing order for Journey Into Mystery #83 was guaranteed to sell better than some crazy book called Thor #1. Now, you half expect EVERY comic to have a #1 on the cover, and it is the big number that are disdained (unless you are resurrecting legacy numbering for something like Action #1000). And now, you are right, a movie with a number in it goes down without batting an eye, and a bit of poking around proves that Godfather was indeed the first big film to try it (though Jaws, Rocky, and Back to the Future quickly followed suit).

      Really can’t give Marvel Studios enough credit for engineering the massive creative and marketing effort that not only delivers record audiences for something like Avengers Infinity War, while also educating that same audience in the kind of Marvel minutiae that used to be so closely held by we Original Geeks. I’m still not quite at peace with all my Secret Knowledge being so Mainstream, but I’m getting there. (Not like I have much choice).

      I quite enjoyed Avengers Infinity War, but shook my head sadly when they didn’t seize the opportunity to have Ant-Man shrink down and go inside the Vision. That’s still the best part of Kree-Skrull War, and if it was ever going to happen it would have been in this picture. Fingers crossed for part 2, I guess. (Or is that Part II?)

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      • Don’t worry. Your secret knowledge is safe. People who have only seen the movies lack the deeply geeky background knowledge we long-time comics readers have enjoyed for so many years. Plus, everything is so simplified for cinema. How many people who saw Captain America: Civil War ever read Civil War by the legendary duo of Millar and McNiven? The now-famous airport scene of the film was nothing compared to the lunacy of the books. And how many of them realize Millar first toyed satirically with the Avengers in his run on The Authority with Frank Quitely? I’m fine with superheroes going global due to movies, but nothing on screen has come close to matching the first 25 issues of the total insanity which was The Authority by Ellis, Millar. Hitch, Quitely, et. al. Movies will always be a different medium than print, and that’s cool. Movies use motion and sound to make heroes come to life, but I prefer print where I can choose my own soundtrack and control the flow of time from panel to panel. Maybe I’ll do a column about that someday. Glad to see the Longbox Graveyard coming back to life after a long hiatus!

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        • Would love to see that column, Mars. It sounds like a springboard from Scott McCloud’s observation that the real magic of comics occurs in that negative space of “the gutters.”

          (And it is good to be back … I think the Marvel ’77 format is sustainable for me, and so long as people are satisfied with sometimes-snarky capsule reviews, I’m happy to write them).

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