The PR blitz for Marvel’s latest company-wide crossover, “Secret Invasion”, stresses that writer Brian Michael Bendis has been planning this Skrull infiltration of the superhero network for years, dropping easter eggs and setup clues into all the Marvel books he’s been writing. This is positioned as hype, but really it’s an assurance: “Don’t worry, we’re not just pulling this one out of our asses.”
Even if this is true, it doesn’t mean Bendis isn’t flying by the seat of his pants. He may have been carefully setting up a who’s-a-Skrull chessboard, but character and plot development in New Avengers leading up to Secret Invasion #1 has been spotty, inconsistent, and ultimately frustrating.
While the Skrull invasion may be well-planned, development of the New Avengers series has been derailed time and again, mostly during the previous cross-over, Mark Millar’s “Civil War”. Breaking up the team and losing two key characters forced New Avengers to ubruptly switch gears and lose momentum. During “Civil War”, the book became a series of single-issue character studies. They were frequently well-done, but they were side stories, not consequential to anything, and all the work Bendis had done building an unlikely team dynamic was pushed further from memory.
And what of Bendis’s many escalating plot points? What was eventually made of Spiderwoman’s duplicity subplot? Spiderman’s burgeoning relationship with Iron Man helped push “Civil War” along, until the middle of the arc when that too was quickly forgotten.
One thing that has been done correctly since the team got jostled is the contrast between New Avengers (the now “illegal”, anti-superhero registration Avengers) and newer title Mighty Avengers (the government-sanctioned, “official” group). Frank Cho’s Mighty Avenger beefcake pencils were round and brightened by a sunny palate — Ms. Marvel never looked so blonde. Alternately, Leinil Francis Yu scratched the pages of New Avengers and covered everything with lines and shadows. The colours were muddy and muted, and there was no confusion about the new, unsafe reality these heroes were living in.
Bendis used outdated thought-bubbles as a recurring narrative tic in Mighty Avengers, but they never revealed anything of depth about the characters. They were jokes, light fare full of gossip and sexual innuendo, and drove home that this was the “fun” series. Meanwhile, the diagetic dialogue in New Avengers was earnest and angsty. Spiderman still cracked wise, but the levity didn’t feel fun.
As the two titles get wrapped up in “Secret Invasion”, it will be interesting to see what happens yet again to what Bendis has been building. Yes, he’s been building up to the Skrull invasion, but he was also (again) building team dynamics that I assume will be readjusted and perhaps torn-apart by the storyline’s conclusion. Will we ever settle down with a team, tone, or over-arcing storyline that will elevate these “new” Avengers above being merely a temporary diversion between the last stable roster and the next?
I’d be happy if at least the books were focused. Bendis may claim meticulous set-up, but all signs point the opposite way. Plotting is sloppy, as shown in New Avengers #38, where Luke Cage encounters Ms. Marvel and she lets him go instead of arresting him. We’ve seen this before, in several permutations, and we’ve also before ended on a shot of the possible Skrull baby, insinuating either Luke or Jessica is green behind the ears. Why again? In Secret Invasion #1, Iron Man is attacked by someone taking control of his armour. We’ve seen this before as well, only one storyline ago in Mighty Avengers. This is lazy, bad writing.
Bendis’s trademark dialogue isn’t even working. He uses characters not only for exposition, but, perhaps through hypnosis, to convince us that what is happening is cool, scary, exciting, etc. “It’s going to be intense because we won’t know who’s a Skrull and who isn’t,” Bendis would say in interviews. And then the next issue of Avengers would feature 20 characters saying “We don’t know who’s a Skrull and who isn’t. This is intense”, or what have you. Again, lazy and bad.
The most disheartening aspect of “Secret Invasion” was the “Illuminati” series, where we learned that key Marvel characters have been working behind-the-scenes of major storylines for decades. Bendis can lay clues in all his titles, but to lay the truly ominous seeds that he wants to, he nonetheless has to go into past-continuity and retcon the hell out of it.
The end result: “Secret Invasion” may have been planned relatively well in advance, but it is nonetheless being pulled out of Bendis’s ass. This ain’t “The Prestige” and Bendis is not Christian Bale. Let’s hope it’s at least fun, because it most likely won’t be structurally sound.