The King and I
Moo Do You Trust?
By Desmond Reddick
03 April 2008 — With the infiltration already a success, the question on the lips of the entire Marvel Universe is simple: "Who do you trust?" The real question, however, should be when did this secret invasion begin? Why, January of 1962 of course!
Skrulls have been one of the premier enemy races in the Marvel Universe's... universe. They are the proverbial little green men, only they can look like anyone. Those who read any current Marvel books know that, or soon will. But where did these Skrulls first appear? Are they any different? Does it even matter in today's Skrully world? Read on, true believer!
My name is Desmond Reddick and I am a Kirbyphile. In this column, I'll be breaking things down into three sections: the good, the bad and the Kirby.
Fantastic Four #2 was published in January of 1962 and features the writing of Stan Lee, the art of Jack Kirby, inks by George Klein and letters by John Duffy.
The premise: After scenes of the Fantastic Four committing crimes (Thing topples an offshore drilling platform, Invisible Girl steals a very expensive diamond, Human Torch melts a marble statue at a civic unveiling and Mr. Fantastic — GASP! — switches off New York's power grid... mere feet from a guy who is more than capable of turning the switch back on) they all convene at a meeting place and morph back into Skrulls while they explain how they duplicated the FF's powers. The rest of the issue consists of the real Fantastic Four running from the army and defeating the Skrulls before masquerading as Skrulls in the shape of themselves in order to repel the mother ship hovering in orbit. Three of the Skrulls remain. What happens to them is the coup de grâce in a bizarre standout in Fantastic Four history.
The good: This issue is full of crazy Silver Age logic. But it makes me think about why Stan and Jack went the way they did with the Skrulls. Why do they allow the Skrulls to imitate the characters but not the superpowers? I mean, it makes sense, but it sure helps a lot story-wise to make the villain a threat. Then again, it offers some credible physiology to the characters. Only years later, with science, would the Skrulls be able to give themselves superpowers.
My favorite portrayal of Thing is the early look where he appears to be a mass of shape-shifting rock that never looks exactly the same. It certainly explains why he's able to move. Not until a while later would he begin to form into the character we have today. We also get the "crazy Thing" in this issue. For much of the run, Ben Grimm is essentially a lovable lout with a heart of gold who happens to clobber things a lot. In many issues, however, he is a depressive with bouts of extreme rage. His best friend has transformed him into a monster, his female friend pities him to no end and his only other male friend is a handsome guy who relentlessly picks on him. Ben Grimm is maybe the most complex character ever created by Lee and Kirby. But to add insult to injury, on their way back from the mother ship, the FF pass through another cosmic storm, causing Thing to revert back to Ben Grimm — for a total of two pages. Stellar bit of tragedy added to a story about shape-shifting if I say so myself.
How do they convince the invading Skrulls to leave, you ask? Reed Richards, the smartest man in the world, shows them pictures of monsters he cut out from issues of Strange Tales and Journey into Mystery, beginning a long tradition of the Fantastic Four being placed firmly in the real world. You see, in the pages of Fantastic Four there's a company called Marvel Comics, and they publish the adventures of the Fantastic Four. Plus, members of the Marvel staff, namely Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, make the occasional appearance. Postmodern!
Beyond that, this issue is relatively poor by early standards, but there is one more spectacular aspect of the story; when the army allows Reed to come up with a way to dispose of the aliens, the Skrulls beg to be allowed to live on Earth in peace because they "hate being Skrulls." Hey! Sometimes I hate being human. I buy it.
Reed solves everything by hypnotizing the Skrulls into believing they're cows. Thus, they live peacefully for the rest of their lives. Bizarre, huh?
The bad: I mentioned earlier that this is relatively weak compared to the brilliance of the rest of the run. Besides introducing a Marvel mainstay in the Skrulls, who have remained relevant through varying degrees of hilarity, this issue doesn't offer a lot.
There are some good moments, but they are actually outweighed by the bad. It's bland in story and pretty darn contrived. Lee and Kirby provided a Galactus-sized gut-full of innovation, but this one just seemed to pull from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, science fiction serials and pulp magazines. Usually I'd find something like that enjoyable, but here it just seems kind of bland. Yeah, I know, an issue where a super-scientist hypnotizes three shape-shifting aliens into believing they're cows is bland? Well, besides that, it is.
There's just too much going on with the Skrulls, the spaceships, the superpowers, the army, the Thing smashing shit and then crying about it. It's all a little unfocused. But the worst thing about this is that the movement in the art just isn't as bombastic or realistic as I'm accustomed to.
Art-wise, the quiet moments are so bland that any two or three panels without action or intrigue are a relentlessly boring exercise in mediocrity. The facial expressions and human interaction in the tying sequences between the Fantastic Four and the Skrulls or the army are so lacking that you ache for more action, instead of trying to engage with the story.
On top of all that: Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, uses a flare gun to make the "4" signal to call for help from his teammates. The guy who, only an issue earlier, melted through a car and flew too close to an airplane so that it melted in midair needs a flare gun to signal for help against four green men with the strength of humans? He shouldn't have even needed to call for help!
The Kirby: It's a little sad to say, but this is not the most exciting piece of Kirby's work I've ever seen. There were some rocky issues in those early days and this is most certainly one of them — both in terms of writing and art. However, it is this shortfall that kind of highlights the basics that Kirby is good at; in my eyes, bad for Kirby is still better than most.
The cover of the issue itself is an interesting play on the pulp books of the early 20th century and would have been at home as a Weird Tales cover. It's interesting to really think of Kirby's influences and cements that, before being a superhero comic, the Fantastic Four is science fiction all the way.
There is an amazing sense of panel-to-panel storytelling as far as displays of power are concerned. While the character interaction is kind of flat, the spectacular imagery of the FF using their powers actually makes a stretchy guy squeezing through a rivet hole to escape confinement look cool.
Plus, there's a water tower that's actually a spaceship that manages to look not as ridiculous as it sounds! That is a victory in itself.
But the artistic coup in this issue is the sequence where Ben transforms back into the Thing. The disappointment on his face is a sight to behold and has only gotten more poignant with time. I can see how completely shocking it would have been to introduce the possibility that the team's powerhouse could lose his powers only an issue after getting them. The times were innocent enough to induce some shock within an issue.
Final thoughts: So, the Skrulls have landed. They have been here for quite some time. They are undetectable. And the clue to it all is given in this issue: they are not here for domination, they are here because they find Earth pleasant.
What is essentially a ho-hum issue amongst shining examples of comic storytelling now stands on its own as a real piece of Marvel Universe history. Thankfully Reed Richards is still around. This secret invasion business can't last long. He knows exactly what to do. Let's put 'em to pasture, give them some grass and all live in harmony!