This week: filthy, dirty Skrulls!
Again, written by Stan Lee with Jack Kirby on art duties.
Lots going on in this issue, so let’s jump in!
This issue opens with a pretty astounding sight – Thing going for a swim. I would imagine he’s too heavy to really take a dip anywhere he can’t reach the bottom. But that’s not all that’s wrong!
You find out soon enough, as Ben swims beneath the Texas Tower and demolishes a support post. The structure falls into the sea, much to the chagrin of the crew. Why would our hero do such a thing?
Trivia: I initially assumed that what Ben was headed for was an offshore oil rig, and that “Texas Tower” was slang for that. I was all prepared to write here about how they’d neglected to show the oil spill and ecological disaster that would surely have resulted from Thing’s actions. But it’s totally not! Texas Towers were actually offshore radar stations, built just a few years prior to this book. They actually look way cooler than Kirby’s version of them, but were terribly unstable. The one off Long Island, presumably the one featured here due to its proximity, actually did sink in 1961 with loss of all hands. Officially not because of a rock man, but you never really know.
In a format similar to the first issue, we are introduced to the Four one at a time. Next we have Susan in a jewelry store (and our first coloring flub with her white hair – you see color mistakes like that pretty routinely until the 1990s, when computers started doing the color work – when I was a kid I spotted my first one in an issue of Uncanny X-Men where someone had neglected to color Storm’s skin).
What the what? Say it ain’t so, Sue!
Next, Johnny is being a total dick, destroying a “priceless” marble statue that took 5 years to make. Honestly, after his actions last issue, this was the least suspicious of the four.
And lastly we get Reed’s crime, which quite frankly feels like it’s phoned in.
Couple observations on this sequence:
– “Every comic is someone’s first” mentality is in full force here. Actually, we’ll see it in full force through the whole issue.
– Everyone knows the Fantastic Four. Between issue 1 and issue 2 the FF became massive celebrities, recognizable on sight. I suppose because of their defeat of the Mole Man, though perhaps there were other adventures off panel. That’s one of the things that’s always been a hallmark of the FF – they don’t wear masks, they don’t hide. That definitely sets them apart from the likes of Superman and Batman, and even from a good portion of their (future) fellow Marvel heroes. This protects them from some of the day-to-day hassles of being a masked vigilante, but sets them up for different sets of troubles that they’ll see way down the line (nobody likes being neighbors with the people whose building gets blown up periodically). Come to think of it, in issue 1 their (often destructive) journeys across the city were pretty public, even if people were surprised to see them. I imagine coming out publicly would help prevent the extreme police and military responses they got.
On to the dramatic reveal!
These aren’t the Fantastic Four at all, but shape-shifting aliens! They’ve framed our heroes for these crimes, which are apparently enough to get the entire world prepared to shoot on sight. Somebody really loved that statue.
It’s interesting that the Skrull abilities are pretty well defined here. They can take any shape they please (with no regard for the conservation of mass, apparently, as evidenced by the Sue Skrull), but can’t imitate the powers. The only who’s a stretch is the Johnny Skrull, who somehow avoids a horrific, flaming death when he ignites the “low velocity thermal bomb.” Later Skrull stories will strive to overcome these power limitations.
I’m a big fan of the Skrull design. Green skin is a classic, of course, but beyond that, they’re kind of scrawny, and they all seem to have a
permanent hunched posture, and the big ears. They look devious and kind of cowardly, which totally fits with their general shifty, shape-changing method of invasion. Look at those eyes! These aren’t aliens who just fly in and start blasting – they infiltrate and weaken the defenses first through subterfuge. They are also, however, as we’ll soon see, some of the dumbest creatures in this galaxy or any other.
Anyway, now that the world has been turned against the Fantastic Four, the Skrulls can invade unmolested. Or can they?
Cut to our heroes. This page is both hilarious and chock full of some great character development.
Who knew the FF were such outdoorsmen? Seriously, I’ve never read anything that indicated anything of the sort. I wonder if Johnny has any idea what he’s doing with that rifle. Reed is smoking a pipe, because that’s what scientists do when they want to think.
At first I thought, what the fuck is Ben doing out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by his friends, still wearing that disguise getup? He wore it in issue 1 while he was out (at least at first, before he started his rampage across the city, which, not for nothin’ maybe leave the disguise on for that part), but here he has nothing to hide. But it actually does make sense – these may be his friends who all know who he is, but being the Thing is still new to Ben. He’s ashamed, he’s bitter. He has no way of knowing whether this is permanent. I could totally see why he’d want to cover up all the time. This is backed up by the rest of this scene, in which Ben absolutely loses his shit over this frame job.
Ben is understandable angry and a little mentally unstable in the wake of his transformation. The others are outright terrified of him.
(There’s a little flub there in the lettering – it’s Mister Fantastic Ben is responding to, not Torch. )
This whole exchange sets up the Ben – Reed relationship quite well in just a few panels. Reed feels responsible (rightly so) for what’s happened to Ben and wants to give his friend every chance to cope with it and come to terms with his new status. He’s also the only one who can physically restrain Ben and talk him down without risking a sudden case of death. These two need each other, regardless of any potential love triangles involving Sue that the pre-cosmic ray versions of themselves might have worried over. The Storm siblings might have been too worried to stick around otherwise. Reed and Ben just became the glue that holds this team together.
Reed goes on to rehash the origin story for new readers (of note is that here he reports the space flight as intended for Mars, which wasn’t mentioned the previous issue). As the FF have all this conversation, someone is sneaking up to the cabin.
I am incapable of snark right now because this shot is god-damned gorgeous. The mist, the silhouettes, the commanding hand gesture, how the soldiers are loaded to bear for what they know will be a tough fight. Kirby drew a bunch of war comics over his career, especially in the decade or so prior to this, so this was old hat to him by this point. A lot has changed and evolved in comic booking over the decades but this still holds up. Excuse me while I just stare at this for a while. Some other stuff happens who cares this review is over.
Luckily, the FF keep their cool and give up without a fight. While it’s good that the story doesn’t skimp on the consequences of being framed for the Skrulls’ crimes, the next few pages feel very much like they exist for readers to ooh and aah over super powers, as they could easily have cut this out without losing much from the story. The FF are locked in a prison (pending trial I assume). I wonder if this is the first time we’re presented with cells that are specially designed for powered individuals? Probably some Superman comic or something did that previously. The cells fail miserably of course, and in short order the FF manage to escape.
This issue is starting to set up the Johnny – Ben relationship, too. This is the second time they’ve sniped at each other today. There’s no love here, though. Johnny doesn’t trust Ben not to flip out and squash them, and Ben isn’t doing anything to assuage that concern. But, finally, Sue steps in! She’s tired of this bullshit!
Sue Storm has historically gotten a lot of flak for being the invisible girl hostage, with (until they gave her a power upgrade) relatively useless powers, but I’ve been impressed with her so far, at least for the time. In every fight she’s been right there in the middle of the action, holding her own, and she’s been assertive and even a bit sassy even if she hasn’t gotten a ton of lines. She certainly hasn’t fallen victim to what some of the female Avengers will have to put up with a few years hence, constantly mooning over Thor or ogling Captain America’s shoulders. Here she’s stepping up to play the peacemaker. Johnny softens his stance, but Ben reverts to his sullen, borderline suicidal self. Can’t win ’em all, Susan.
Johnny comes up with a plan. He’s going to pretend to attack a rocket site, hoping that the impersonators will be super not paying attention and think him one of their own.
It works, of course, and soon he’s in the clutches of the Skrulls, who somehow take more than a single panel to figure out who he really is (two, it takes two). Listen, neither Johnny nor the Skrulls are the brightest kids in this book.
What better shape for the Skrulls to take while driving around than the people they’ve set the world to hunting? And nice work almost giving up the game as soon as you’re in the car, Johnny.
Before the Skrulls can dispatch our hero, he gets a signal flare off out the window, and by some miraculous coincidence the rest of the team is watching that particular part of the sky, can somehow pinpoint their location, and respond almost simultaneously to rescue him.
(It’s at this point that I realize how much more story I’ve got to get through: this is page 13, roughly half way through the issue. They packed it in for these old comics. Modern comics would have stretched this into 6 issues for a trade.)
Anyway, the team makes short work of the Skrull infiltrators, but is faced with a new quandary: what to do about the invasion fleet in Earth’s orbit?
I love the dramatic shadow over Reed’s face, really emphasizing how dangerous this is going to be. Reminds me of how Star Trek was often shot later, with shadows and highlights dropped over Kirk’s face to ratchet up the tension.
So our heroes swipe the Skrulls’ ship (parked on the roof, disguised as a water tower) and fly to the Skrull mother ship.
This next bit was my favorite part of the issue. And we haven’t even (quite) gotten to the profoundly disturbing end yet.
So our heroes march to the bridge of this Skrull ship and present their case: The Fantastic Four can’t be defeated, but get this, they’re not even the ones you have to worry about.
Reed shows the Skrull leader various clippings from comic books and the guy is scared shitless. Evidently the Skrulls have absolutely terrible eye sight, the worst reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering apparatus in the universe, and fiction is not a thing where they come from. The Skrulls don’t bother fact checking any of this. They even give Reed a medal for warning the fleet away and making a noble sacrifice to stay behind to make sure the humans don’t realize that the Skrulls were even there to begin with.
Finally, we enter our final act. There’s an interesting interlude before we get to the final fate our of villainous Skrull infiltrators, though. As the Fantastic Four descend from the retreating armada, they pass through another cosmic storm similar to the one that gave them their powers to begin with. Something…changes!
There’s no word on whether the others lose their powers, but you have to assume they do. This whole scene introduces a new concept – their powers might be temporary! It’s possible to reverse the effects! I’m not sure when Reed invents his now-famous unstable molecules, but it’s surely this bit that eventually leads to it.
Anyway, the issue wraps up with the Fantastic Four in yet another dilemma. What do they do with the captured Skrulls? Why the Skrulls even stuck around after the FF walked out the door is not explained. Also, in what I have to assume was just a major art flub, one of the four Skrulls has just up and disappeared. Some dialogue from Reed tries to cover for it, explaining that he let that one go back to the fleet, but that makes exactly zero sense. Given the Marvel style, I can easily imagine that Kirby just forgot to draw in the fourth alien, leaving Stan to shoehorn in an explanation. Anyway, that’s kind of the least of the problems that crop up in the last couple pages. This ending is way jacked up.
Debating what to do, the FF point out that no prison on Earth is built to hold them (the aliens could simply change into something small, like a caterpillar, and escape), and Reed all but says the only thing they can do is kill them. By this point the police have left the Skrulls to the tender mercies of the superheroes. The Skrulls have nowhere to turn.
By weird coincidence, I just listened to “Keep Your Shape” on Escape Pod a couple weeks ago. “Keep Your Shape” was written about 1953, almost 10 years before this was comic was made, so I have to wonder if there was some inspiration there. Shape-shifting aliens very similar to the Skrulls land on Earth in preparation for an invasion, with a very similar ending, but there are a few key differences: the aliens choose to go native, not under possible penalty of death, and they get to choose whatever form suits them. Could Reed not have worked with the authorities and develop a special prison cell that might hold them (as the issue demonstrated, someone clearly had that in mind already)? Are these Skrull agents still even a big threat, cut off from their militant brethren? Reed’s solution here seems like a cruel, fascist move against desperate people who have no other choice. There is no justice for these Skrulls.
The Skrull’s insistence that they hate being Skrulls is pretty disturbing, too – that isn’t some political party that they were forced to adhere to, that’s their species. Even if the Skrull armada is made up primarily of conscripts, it seems unlikely that reluctant agents would be sent on such an important mission.
It’s a poor showing for all involved, really. The Skrulls come off as the riffraff of the universe, and the Four come off as rather heartless. Is there some larger lesson to be derived here, perhaps about illegal immigration or the lengths those in power will go to to preserve the status quo?
Whew! So much going on in this issue. There is a ton of character development, and they’re really starting to explore the relationships between these characters and the dynamic of the team. Susan still needs a lot of work in that department; there’s no mention that she and Johnny are related at all in this issue, or that she’s engaged to Reed. Hoping we get to see some more from her in the upcoming issues.
That ending, though. This is the second time in only two issues that I’ve ended up feeling kind of sorry for the villain.
Next time: The Menace of the Miracle Man! The Fantasti-car! Plus, everyone levels up!