Monday, October 7, 2013

The Sentence Is--Death!


In those early, silver-age days of comics, I suppose it was easy to pigeonhole the Skrulls into beings amounting to no more than menacing pests when they first appeared. Frankly, I could have done without their shape-shifting ability, which almost caricatured them into that dreadful science fiction cliché: bug-eyed monsters (B.E.M.s). I don't know how a warrior race bent on conquest could have such an ability and yet fail to capitalize on it, particularly in its dealings with the Kree. On the other hand, the Skrulls have demonstrated their capabilities in the more subtle ways of war such as plotting and spying, and perhaps with a powerful and obviously overwhelming race such as the Kree they've concluded that espionage would suit their purposes far better in staving off such an enemy--a task for which their shape-shifting talent would be perfectly suited.

Other than Secret Invasion and the H. Warren Craddock scenes in The Avengers, we haven't often seen Skrulls employ their shape-shifting abilities to any great degree--which is probably a good thing, since in effect they could all be "super Skrulls," even without the proper weaponry or specialized devices. In addition, there are only so many times you can see a dramatic panel of a revealed Skrull--accompanied by the amazed caption, "It's a Skrull!"--without treading into more cliché territory. To be honest, I've really found their normal appearance and actions far more interesting--particularly when we get glimpses into their society and power structure, as we did during the Kree-Skrull war when two Avengers and Captain Marvel were delivered to their throne world by the Super Skrull. There was no love lost between the Skrull emperor and his powerful augmented soldier. Skrulls may be united in common cause when it comes to war and violence (redundant terms in any other context), but their demeanor is altogether different when their ambition comes into play.

Probably the first time we see that sort of thing--as well as the first time we see the Skrulls taken out of their B.E.M. comfort zone--was in Fantastic Four #37, where the Emperor's ruthless general, Morrat, is gunned down as a traitor. Writer Stan Lee gives us our first extensive exposure to the Skrull war machine and militaristic way of life, when the FF travel to the alien throne world to settle accounts on the murder of Sue and Johnny's father:



As you can see, the Emperor is content with the status quo between the Skrull race and Earth, once things are settled with Morrat. But when the FF ally themselves with Xandar, a world which is under siege by the Skrulls, they once more fall within the enmity of these murderous aliens. And as a result, they eventually fall within the sights of their executioner:




In this story, writer Marv Wolfman takes the opportunity to give us a new look at the Skrull throne world--though with the Skrulls focused on wiping Xandar off the map, we're not likely to see the Skrulls in their best light, if there is such a thing. I can only recall two Skrulls who might have offered a different perspective on their race--Anelle, the Emperor's pacifist daughter, and General Zedrao, a field commander who carried out his orders but with an independent attitude that didn't get swept up in typical Skrull ruthlessness. Both are absent from this story--as is the Human Torch, who decided to take a break from the FF and pursue college studies. He's not going to have an easy time of it, thanks to an old FF villain waiting in the wings, but that's certainly preferable to the treatment the rest of the FF can expect from an incensed Skrull emperor.





Yet the madness Reed refers to has only begun, as the FF endure a mockery of a trial mandated by universal rules that are followed only superficially. The proceedings resemble those of an arena more than a court:



Reed realizes that their "verdict" is a foregone conclusion, and that the FF's number may finally be up--and so he hopes to move the Skrulls with his words to spare at least Xandar. But Reed is dealing with a warlike race, not an enlightened one, and they are unanimous in not only demanding the blood of Xandar, but also that of the Fantastic Four:




To complete the illusion of fairness and justice, the remaining two captives are freed from their restraints--a canny move, since the Skrulls know that the death of Richards will spur the remaining members of the FF to attack. And the Thing complies all too readily, playing right into the hands of the judicator:



Finally, Sue is the last among her group alive. And she's ready to go down fighting, though the technology of the Skrulls cuts her vengeance all too short:



It certainly looks like the FF have been taken out of their own story, doesn't it? But we have to remember that there is a war going on here--and when a messenger delivers news that more Earth beings have destroyed their Skrull pursuit ships, the Emperor becomes even more intent on eliminating Xandar. But just look at the interlude which Wolfman intrudes on the moment with--the introduction of R'klll, wife of Dorrek and, as we'll see down the road, future Empress of the Skrull empire. As you might guess, it's not exactly a match made in heaven:



Once R'klll departs, we see that the Skrulls' war on Xandar is as relentless, as merciless, as ever:



So far, Wolfman has written a compelling story--not only in bringing the FF to their apparent doom, but also in his treatment of the Skrulls and providing an expanded look at their motivations and priorities, a foundation which Roy Thomas's Avengers stories laid over seven years past. In those stories, our attention was split between the workings of Dorrek's mind and the operation of his officers and men in the field--while here, without the chaos of war on a galactic scale, Dorrek's priority is the annihilation of Xandar, with the elimination of Earth's premier super-team and long-standing enemies of the Skrull empire an opportune bonus.

Worthy of mention as well is Keith Pollard's pencilling, which I haven't always been a fan of. Pollard often tends to cram a great deal of action into panels too small for all the things going on in them; on the other hand, I can't begrudge the man his willingness to avoid skimping on both detail and story. And in contrast to his work on Thor, where I don't quite see him as an artist for the grandeur of "gods," he's a decent match for Fantastic Four, not the easiest of worlds for an artist to "get." His characters are recognizable and come across as the team and family we're used to seeing, and the amount of work he injects a story with practically dares the writer to step up and match it.

You're about to see further good examples of the work of both of these men, as this story continues with the Fantastic Four awakening from their assault. Oh, they've been executed, to be sure. They just don't know it yet:



And so, given three days to live, the FF react like the heroes they are, and decide to make their stand on Xandar, where they can at least make the best use of their time and abilities helping a world survive:




We see a little bit of inconsistency in Wolfman's writing at this point. When the FF were fighting on Xandar, Sue remarked that what they really needed to do was to take this fight to the Skrull throne world; yet, when the Skrulls capture them and bring them there, their main concern is getting back to Xandar to fight. It makes it seem like the FF went into this fight with no real game plan, other than thinking that their abilities alone would turn the tide--and that doesn't sound at all like Reed, particularly when he's going into battle with a very powerful one-fourth of his team left behind on Earth.

As the FF make a break for it, we get a very entertaining segue to another conversation between Dorrek and R'klll. Just what Dorrek doesn't need at this moment:



But, what of those Earth beings? As the FF steal a Skrull ship and make for Xandar, we get a look at the ship of the man called Nova, together with his compatriots, approaching Xandar with the intention of rendering assistance. Though as you can see, not all of them are to be trusted:



The other ship, unfortunately, is that of the FF, who are hurtling into the war zone in a stolen Skrull ship just as Nova's ship makes its approach. And the costumed Xandarian called Powerhouse isn't of the mind to let it slip out of firing range:



I suppose we can look at it this way--at least the FF won't be giving the Skrulls the satisfaction of seeing their sentence carried out. But come on, it takes a lot more than an exploding space ship or a Skrull death sentence to put the FF down for the count. I'm afraid the same can't be said for Pollard, who finishes his 14-issue run on Fantastic Four with this issue. Wolfman would be around to see the FF through their geriatric fate, introducing a new herald of Galactus in the process as well as a certain robotic aide to Reed--both of which, I'm afraid, want the FF's survival to be as brief as possible.

Fantastic Four #206

Script: Marv Wolfman
Pencils: Keith Pollard
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: John Costanza

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