The Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War: A Comic Book Classic Returns

By D. K. Latta

Avengers cover

The Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War collects in trade paperback form, for the first time in its entirety, the comic book saga that was originally serialized in issues #89-97 of The Avengers back in 1971. Chronicling the adventures of a superhero team with no relation to the British TV series, The Avengers has been published by Marvel Comics more or less consistently since 1963. The team comprises a mix of heroes who appear in their own self-titled comics (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor) and characters exclusive to the team (the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and others). "The Kree-Skrull War," detailing how the Avengers and Earth become embroiled in a conflict between two warring alien races, was one of those touchstone sagas that fans continued to refer to in letters pages years after it first appeared.

Long considered a disposable medium, even by those who toiled in the profession, comic books have seen a shift in the last decade and a half toward the belief that stories are worth repackaging and reprinting. The boom in comic book trade paperbacks has become a popular second industry in comics. But just as, for a while, you were more likely to find the latest action movie given a prestigious DVD treatment before you'd find an old film classic, TPBs are often used to collect newer storylines, rather than re-presenting old stories that might be deemed unappealing to the tastes of modern readers. Given that editorial climate, it's unsurprising that Marvel has only recently collected "The Kree-Skrull War," almost thirty years after it first saw print.

The story is a surprisingly convoluted tale, less a consistent narrative than various stories layered one on top of the other, forming a greater whole. The saga hits the ground running with the Avengers seeking to capture superhero Captain Marvel (not the Shazam! character, published by DC, but another character) -- the good Captain being unaware that he poses a public danger thanks to having been recently subjected to a dose of radiation. This segues into a story in which the alien Kree attempt to literally devolve humanity. These three issues are largely unspectacular -- fast-paced to be sure, brimming over with grandiose ideas (the first issue alone would probably be stretched over two or three comics today), with some nice character angst involving Captain Marvel's sidekick, Rick Jones, feeling like a Judas for having aided his capture (even if it was for his own good). But overall, it's colorful action devoid of much depth. Those opening issues can lull you into a sense of complacency. After all, one might ask smugly, what can you expect from 30-year-old comics? They're kid's stuff!

Then writer Roy Thomas hits his stride with the fourth issue, when a corpulent Senator chairs an investigating committee into possible alien infiltration. Captain Marvel, you see, is a Kree himself, and instantly becomes a suspect, as do the Avengers for providing him sanctuary. Suddenly the four-color heroics are stripped brazenly away to reveal a gritty parallel to the 1950s House Un-American Activities Commission. Characters refer critically to Japanese-American relocation centres. Then the android, Vision, remarks, "If first a man of the Kree can be detained for no reason, the detainment of androids will follow -- next mutants -- then giants. . ." To science fiction fans, accustomed to the parables that are the idiom's bread and butter, it's understood that the Vision isn't really talking about mythical alien races or fabricated minorities at all.

Though comic books have long been considered, at best, a minor diversion or fit only for kids, Hollywood movies and TV barely acknowledged there had ever been a HUAC until a few years after this story first saw print. Granted, Thomas is playing in the somewhat protected sandbox of allegory, never referring to the McCarthy hearings by name, but it remains significant.

The characterization and angst become better realized as well, introducing, among other things, the beginnings of the romance between the dispassionate android, the Vision, and the passionate Jewish-Gypsy, the Scarlet Witch, that would be a mainstay of the title for years to come. The characters emerge with quirks and individuality, capable of doubts and fears, pig-headedness and self-sacrifice. The Vision's attraction to the Scarlet Witch, for instance, provides a subtle irony: his awakening to his own (unspoken) emotions seems to isolate him even more from his peers. The writing veers from poetical text pieces, to characters who speak in Elizabethan English, to others bantering in American (1960s) slang, tossing out pop culture references left and right. (Long before Quentin Tarantino, comic book writers realized a character can seem more real if he's seen the same movies the reader has.)

The racism metaphors and character interplay provide genuine depth and grounding to the saga, but first and foremost, this is meant to be entertainment. For those unused to the medium, it might be difficult to quite get into it: to allow one's self to be swept up in the necessarily curt scenes and exclamation points, the thought balloons spelling out motivation or the way characters can deliver entire monologues while throwing a single punch. But comics is a language with its own tools, perhaps best likened to poetry -- another "mannered" medium that requires some adjustments on the part of the reader in order to appreciate. Put another way, even in the Renaissance, it's unlikely anyone spoke as they do in a William Shakespeare play, spontaneously delivering metered speeches utilizing elaborate similes. But one doesn't dismiss the truth of his work because the reality is suspect.

If ideas were trees, Roy Thomas could be accused of clear-cutting. He ruthlessly throws in idea after idea, constantly adding new elements and twists as the various schemes of the Skrulls, the Kree, and the xenophobic Senator weave in and out of each other. The saga leaps from New York to Florida's Cape Canaveral, from a prehistoric jungle in the Arctic to a city in the Himalayas, from the inner workings of the Vision's body to alien armadas at the far reaches of a distant galaxy, tossing in other superheroes like the Fantastic Four and the Inhumans as it goes along. Along the way, Thomas evokes classic science fiction ideas, from The Fantastic Voyage (in a memorable, visually eye-popping sequence as a character journeys through the Vision's comatose body), to the paranoia of Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the Skrulls are shape-shifters), to esoteric ideas echoing Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. SF fans will even recognize chapter titles derived from SF classics. Thomas doesn't always fully develop his ideas, often discarding them as quickly as he introduced them. The logic is suspect in spots, and the coherence occasionally tenuous, but the result is a breathlessly-paced epic that never has time to become boring, or remotely predictable. It's written with the spirit of a movie serial, a budget that would break most Hollywood studios, and with socio-political rumination and thoughtful characterization mixing with pulpy adventure and larger-than-life heroics. This, then, is what comics can do best: an unashamed melange of highbrow and lowbrow, a mixing of milieus, that is rarely mimicked in any other medium.

The early issues (or chapters, if you prefer) are illustrated by Sal Buscema, who has a decent eye for composing a scene (a comic book artist having to be co-director, cinematographer, film editor, set designer, all in one) and a solid grasp of anatomy. Yet I've never been that big a fan of his work. Still, it's a perfectly competent job. But then Neal Adams takes over (with Tom Palmer inking Adams' pencils). Adams is an industry legend who was just hitting his stride back then, with a dynamic eye for composing a scene and a softer, more organic approach to figures, etching out sinewy bodies and often eerily realistic faces. Visually, the comic becomes truly enthralling. Adams wasn't the business' fastest drawer, though, so the always effective John Buscema pinch-hit in a few spots, including the epic's conclusion -- John being Sal's older, and arguably more accomplished, brother.

Comics largely pioneered the idea of continuing sub-plots that TV has adopted in the last decade or so. As such, the epic unfortunately ends with one minor plot thread still dangling, and throughout the story it interweaves threads from other comics, though there are enough flashbacks and recaps to help orient novice readers.

Modern comics fans like to believe that comics have become more sophisticated, that current fan-favorites like Alan Moore, Mark Waid, Neil Gaiman, and Kurt Busiek write smarter, more mature stories. Although there is some truth to that, in other ways, and like everything aesthetic, it's in the eye of the beholder.

Roy Thomas' "Kree-Skrull War" is a mishmash of ideas and influences, veering from hokey and goofy to surprisingly thoughtful and audaciously ambitious, never letting the socio-political ambitions trip up the pulpy adventure. Some modern writers in the medium make the mistake of confusing pretension with profundity -- not so Thomas. He's got enough faith in his audience to mix the provocative with the pugilistic and assume we can understand which is which. And while modern critically acclaimed comic book classics like Watchmen, Kingdom Come, and Marvels tend to ask what would a world with superheroes really be like, such an approach has the danger of becoming self-obsessed, excluding any wider relevance. "The Kree-Skrull War" uses superheroes (at least in spots) more as a metaphor for real world dilemmas. Above all, the heroes are people. When Thomas' generation of comic book writers wrote about super-powered people, the emphasis tended to be on the people over the powers. And this re-presentation of this long-ago epic maybe serves as a reminder that that's definitely a distinction with a difference.

Deliriously fun . . . and thought provoking. What more can you ask?

 

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D. K. Latta's stories of speculative fiction have been accepted by Adventures of Sword & Sorcery, On Spec, Aboriginal SF, TransVersions, and many others. He is a co-founder of Pulp & Dagger, a Webzine devoted to modern stories and serials with an old fashioned, pulp-era flavour. He lives in Canada. For more about him, see his Web site. He was last seen in our pages as the author of "Pvt. Parker, Missing in Action."