For decades the Marvel Universe’s success as a storytelling environment lay in its grounding of the fantastic in the recognisable. The otherworldly explorers whose reality centred on the familiar concept of family; the confident wisecracking super-hero grandstanding to escape from a mundane life of financial woes and social insecurity; or the powerful champions of the oppressed marked out as pariahs outside of their adventuring. Somewhere along the line though the MU became more about trumping the last world-shattering, reality-changing, cosmic crossover as that essential narrative foundation was slowly eroded.
Books like The Vision or Ms. Marvel remind us that Marvel is at its best when promoting character-led stories rather than story-led characters. Meet the Skrulls, a new 5-issue Marvel miniseries, similarly emphasises the human as much as the extraordinary; an obviously ironic statement given that its protagonists are aliens working covertly to aid a potential extraterrestrial invasion…
Meet the Skrulls #1 introduces us to the Warner family, in reality a small cell of Skrull agents embedded into terran society, as they work towards insinuating themselves into the lives of those involved with Project Blossom – a governmental initiative to create a means to identifying skrulls regardless of their shapeshifting powers. No doubt the book exists as a potential marketing tie-in to current developments in Marvel’s cinematic excursions but rather than the action-focused grand superheroics of a series like Secret Invasion this is a far more subtle and nuanced affair; clandestine manipulation and insidious scheming at the forefront of a book where the boundaries between good and evil are blurred and indistinct.
The Warners are all targetting specific individuals related to Project Blossom with the parents working, respectively, directly within the Stark Industries research lab and on a political front. Daughters Jennifer and Alice are focusing on more domestic subjects and attempting to foster friendships with the children of those involved. But having spent her formative years growing up as part of human society Alice is finding her mission a difficult one to fulfil…
Robbie Thompson’s script works on two distinct but interconnected layers. On a surface layer this is a dark thriller – a kind of urban sci-fi noir – and a reminder of the battles being fought outside of the super-hero community in the Marvel Universe. But on another it’s a far more reflective piece, subtle but biting commentary that allows us to see the cruelties and injustices of our social rituals from an outside perspective. The sensitive Alice, trapped somewhere between the unkindnesses of her peers at school and the clinical ruthlessness of her alien heritage, is our point of identification in a scenario wherein amorality is rife within both opposing sides.
There’s a lot in the way of talking heads in this first issue (including a lengthy debriefing sequence) but Niko Henrichon’s shifting perspectives and expressive visual characterisation carry those scenes perfectly and underline that for all their machinations the “Warners” are also a family, complete with all the tensions and complicated relationships that entails. Colour is a vital tool here in enhancing mood and theme with the largely darker hues adding to the prevailing sense of claustrophobic oppression that permeates the issue. (Notably, a scene where Alice finds temporary release by shapechanging into a butterfly very briefly shifts into brighter, lighter colours.) Look out too for the change in word balloons when the family are in Skrull form wherein Travis Lanham’s lettering – including Skrullian swearing – creates a sudden sense of otherness.
Readers can enjoy Meet the Skrulls as either a suburban twist on the theme of alien invasion or as a super-heroic exploration of morality in regards to ages-old questions of nature versus nurture. What is not in doubt is that Thompson and Henrichon have given us a compelling twist on the Skrulls in an intense, bleak drama with an ironically human heart.
Robbie Thompson (W), Niki Henrichon (A), Laurent Grossat (Colour Assistant), VC’s Travis Lanham (L), Marcos Martin (CA) • Marvel Comics, $3.99
Review by Andy Oliver