Monday, March 16, 2020

War, Interrupted

Gosh, has anyone heard of this little story?

I jest, of course. Even after nearly fifty years, the early 1972 story of the Kree-Skrull War by Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer continues to resonate on some level in the minds of comics readers, having reached beyond its initial publication to manifest in a number of subsequent plots in print as well as on the big screen. Often described with words like "saga" and "epic," its popularity is astonishing for a "war" which was confined to two issues and didn't play out in the conventional sense (at least not for the reader--more on that in a moment); yet all things considered, this two-part tale leaves a trail which reaches back to stories which took place over nearly a five-year period.

Briefly, the events break down as follows*:

  • July, 1967 - On a remote Pacific island, a Kree Sentry is discovered by two unfortunate explorers and later battles the Fantastic Four, which leads to its (presumed) destruction.
  • August, 1967 - The Kree official known as Ronan the Accuser confronts the FF for their presumption and sentences them to "the extreme penalty" (which in late '67 is probably a dramatic way of indicating a death sentence, but who knows with the Kree), yet fails.
  • December, 1967 - On ancient Earth, the Sentry discovers and takes a meeting with the Inhumans, where the Kree's role in their creation is revealed to them. (The details of which can be found at the conclusion of the Sentry post.)
  • July, 1971 - Ronan returns to Earth to launch "Plan Atavus," designed to devolve all life on Earth to the state it existed 1 million years ago, thus effectively eliminating the potential threat of the human race to the Kree empire. As the plan begins to crumble, the Kree-Skrull War formally breaks out.

    We're not privy to whatever other engagements take place between the Skrulls and the Kree from this point, prior to the Avengers' later involvement.
  • September, 1971 - The Super-Skrull arrives to coordinate with other Skrulls already on the planet to capture Captain Marvel as well as eliminate the Inhumans to prevent their Kree creators from recruiting them for war efforts. Meanwhile, the Kree Supreme Intelligence, forcefully deposed by Ronan, begins to influence minds on Earth (including the Skrulls) to draw the Avengers into the conflict, events which initially lead to the team's disbandment.
  • November, 1971 - The original Avengers convene to investigate what the hell is going on, leading to a conflict at an upstate farm where the Super-Skrull captures Captain Marvel, along with the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.
  • January, 1972 - While attempting to learn more of the Skrulls' activities on Earth, the Avengers are urged by Triton and Black Bolt to accompany them to the Great Refuge, where Maximus is collaborating with the Kree to conscript Inhumans as soldiers in the war. At the battle's conclusion, a Kree soldier (under the influence of the Intelligence) captures Rick Jones.

*Various other storylines from issues of both Fantastic Four and Captain Marvel have been omitted from this rundown.

At that point, the Avengers are poised to intervene in this conflict--for the sake of their captured comrades, and for the Earth.

So as not to once more wind up in the crosshairs of H. Warren Craddock, the zealot who heads the government's Alien Activities Commission and has been turning over every rock in search of potential alien threats, the Avengers covertly board and launch a S.H.I.E.L.D. space cruiser, using the power of Thor's hammer to reach speeds that will allow them to reach the Andromeda galaxy.

If the Avengers have grasped the scope of what they're attempting, you wouldn't know it by their demeanor. We have to assume that their brief inquiry of the Fantastic Four as to the possible plans of the Skrulls has yielded valuable information on the location of their homeworld; but with the Skrulls now at war with the Kree, and both races' hatred and contempt for humans having been demonstrated more than once, the Avengers must know they're bound to face fierce resistance and overwhelming numbers from a canny, technologically advanced species well before they can even approach the planet they seek. And even as they prepare to emerge from hyper-space, they are down a man: Goliath, who has abandoned the growth serum that allowed him to gain great height and strength, has no super-power to bring to bear against their foes. (Not that such power would mean much in the void of space against swarms of enemy ships.)

Regardless, the issue wastes no time in bringing the Avengers to within detection of a Skrull fleet--and from the words exchanged, the team has reasonable if grim expectations of their chances of survival should they fail to overcome the fleet's flagship which breaks off to investigate, carrying a full complement of warriors and weaponry.

What you're seeing is essentially (and regrettably) the full extent of the Avengers' involvement in this war: an offensive confined to a single vessel, in order to ward off what would doubtless be a more focused and overwhelming counter-offensive from the fleet that awaits word of the nature of their enemy. Strange to hear Thor sounding pessimistic about their chances, when normally he's the first to rally with a cry of certain defeat for his foes while leaping into the fray with a burst of fury and power.

Meanwhile, it's left to other scenes to present a wider view of this war's players and various skirmishes. For instance, there's the Super-Skrull's return to the Skrull homeworld with his three captives in apparent triumph, for Mar-vell's knowledge of the Omni-Wave projector is especially coveted by the Skrull emperor; yet the Super-Skrull, who has openly defied the Emperor's authority over him, is attacked on sight and dealt with accordingly. Afterward, threatening the lives of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, the Emperor forces Mar-vell to proceed with constructing the Omni-Wave device.

As for the Avengers in space, they only learn of this when they fight their way to the ship's command center and make their demands of the Skrulls--for all the good it does them.

Since Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor were all present when the Vision's origin was investigated and he was subsequently made an Avenger, they recognized in the process that he's more than a mere android in terms of his physical and emotional being--so it seems rather odd that Cap would do a turnaround here and dismiss almost out of hand the notion of the Vision having feelings for Wanda.

At any rate, with the initiation of Plan Delta, the stakes of this war for the Avengers have been raised considerably, with the Earth's very survival hanging on whether Clint Barton, without powers or weaponry, can stop the vessel headed to destroy it. And just what is it about our world that has the Skrulls and the Kree resolving to either possess it or annihilate it? Well, Ronan has already expressed the fear of its inhabitants evolving at a rate at which the human race might one day pose a danger to the security of the Kree--but now we learn that the war has increased its value for both empires.

Sufficiently annoyed with Rick by this point (and who wouldn't be?), Ronan tosses him in with the captive Supreme Intelligence, where he learns the extent of the Intelligence's machinations. Though given the degree to which Rick has become the key to whatever the Intelligence has in minds (heh, get it?), Rick is going to face his share of battle before this war is done--starting with a fiend from a nightmare cosmos who, thanks to the power of the Intelligence, now has him at his mercy, a quality that is utterly lacking in the being known as Annihilus.

A scene which brings us to the climactic Part 2, with the art chores shifting from Adams to John Buscema. While each of these heavyweights has his strengths as a storyteller, Buscema clearly pulls no punches in making his own mark on this story--starting with a double-page spread recapping what has led us to this point, which pivots to quite a surprise for a killer who considered Rick easy prey.

In the Skrull galaxy, however, the blame for Rick's predicament is assumed by another:

Where Rick and the Intelligence are concerned, things seem to be quickly coming to a head; but in a 21-page tale, we're only six pages in, and Thomas has proven adept at stretching things out in order to build anticipation while all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Fortunately, he gets timely assistance from Ronan, whose floating captive, he fears, has been up to no good--but it's the youth he summarily dismissed from his presence who will prove to be a far greater danger to the Kree usurper, as Ronan's greatest fear concerning the human race begins to manifest.

The heroes of old--or, rather, their memories given form--buy precious time for the Intelligence, in order to further guide his human instrument in the use of his nascent power. And the task that Rick is now turned to will see that power directed as the Intelligence had intended--but at what cost to its wielder?

Not that the Avengers battling in space (remember them?) are in a position to prevent whatever fate will befall Rick, still bogged down fighting their one-ship struggle and no closer to saving their comrades, much less finding a way to put an end to this conflict. But only the Avengers and Captain Marvel are fated to witness the startling event which halts both the Kree and the Skrulls in their tracks.

Their path now clear to move ahead, the Avengers board their ship and head again toward the Skrull throneworld. Meanwhile, the Intelligence is finally providing Rick (and ourselves) with answers, and they are as surprising as they are far-reaching. It starts with the revelation of Craddock being a Skrull in disguise, and paying the price--and ends perhaps fatally for the sole human who forced the warring parties back into an uneasy peace.

The closing panels to this story wrap things up well enough for the Avengers, if not Mar-vell. The Avengers are returned to Earth to find the planet safe and sound, though what happened with Plan Delta, and to Goliath, will take another two issues to be revealed; the Intelligence declares that he rules the Kree once more; the Kree and Skrulls are done warring; and as a result, Earth is no longer a prize in their power struggle. Check, check, and check. All admittedly neatly wrapped up.

Yet... we're obviously not meant to linger on exactly how and why the Kree-Skrull War is now over. The Skrulls, after all, began this conflict for reasons which had nothing to do with Earth, leading to the Kree relishing the excuse to put an end to their threat once and for all--so how do Rick's actions result in a sudden cessation of hostilities between them? And speaking of which:  immobilizing both empires, at a stroke? How is it that the military arms of both races are not now alarmed at the potential danger which the the human race represents to them? Are we to believe that the demonstration of Rick's power is what is now keeping both empires in check? And how does the Intelligence propose to stop Ronan from putting him back in that "broom closet," as Rick called it, rallying his forces, and launching that armada of his?

The only alien warrior still animate who might have taken a cold, hard look at the situation and provided everyone with a reality check was Mar-vell, who was abruptly put in a position where he literally had to disappear--a scene which against all logic became the focal point of this conflict's resolution. Peace, however welcome, was never so bewildering.

Have a look at an interesting footnote to this post, courtesy of Alex Ross. 

The Avengers finally learn that war is hell.

The Avengers #s 96-97

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: Neal Adams, John Buscema
Inks: Tom Palmer, Neal Adams, Alan Weiss
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Big Murr said...

I wonder if this story has the acclaim it enjoys because fans fondly admire, perhaps unconsciously, how it was all self-contained within The Avengers? Unlike today, when such epic concepts are spread across every title in a skeezy attempt to have us buy Marvel's entire publishing line.

Even having sneered at such crossover excess, I can't help but note that excluding the Fantastic Four was a tactical hole in the Avengers' thinking. The F.F. were veterans of infiltrating and assaulting the Skrull Empire. Flying their plundered Skrull saucer (whatever became of that?) instead of the SHIELD ship would have been a better move as well.

Comicsfan said...

I don't know, Murray--if I remember correctly, whenever the FF were on the Skrull throneworld they were captives. Nor was Reed all that much help to the Illuminati in that regard, since they were also taken captive. Credit where credit is due, the Skrulls know their business when it comes to taking down super-beings. (At least when it comes to their home turf--too bad their fleet personnel didn't get that memo!)

Big Murr said...

I guess I was only thinking of Fantastic Four #92-93 when the FF rescued the Thing from the arena world. Still, that wasn't the Throneworld, so your assertion still stands.

Still, the miserable green buggers got their comeuppance when a former member of the FF found the Skrull Throneworld and offered it to Galactus as a full meal deal.

Mike Hood said...

I like to refer to it as the Kree-Skrull Non-War. All the action seems to be Avengers vs Kree, or Avengers vs Skrulls, but there's hardly any Kree vs Skrulls action.

Comicsfan said...

I agree that the war was mostly used as window dressing for how things played out for the Avengers (and for Rick and Mar-vell), Mike. Maybe there's a "director's cut" version of this story that Mr. Thomas is hanging onto which has that "Kree vs Skrulls action" in abundance, eh?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this was a high mark for Marvel. Thomas threw everything, almost everybody and the kitchen sink in there.
My only regret is I didn't get to read it until I was an adult (age-wise, anyway), after picking up back issues.
Then again if I had read it when I was a kid, maybe my head woulda exploded. I went completely bananas for anything that was cosmic or had to do with space.

I love how Thomas shoehorned all them Golden Age heroes in there near the end. It had absolutely nothing to do with the plot or anything else, but it sure revved up the third act. Nobody saw that coming.
Great post.


Comicsfan said...

Agreed, M.P., there was plenty here for a *ahem* comics fan to enjoy. :D

Fred W. Hill said...

My comics collecting was hit & miss in '71 & '72 as I didn't really start collecting in earnest until 1973 and as the first issue of the Avengers I purchased was #104, the last of Thomas' run, I entirely missed the Kree-Skrull War but it was something I saw referenced in the first Thanos War in Captain Marvel. Wasn't until the early '80s, when I started collecting some back issues that I got any part of the epic, and wound up spending $25 for issue #93, the most I've ever spent on any one comic (the issues drawn by Sal Buscema were, needless to say, much cheaper; sorry Sal). Eventually I did get the whole shebang. It wasn't quite what I'd imagined over the decade or so when it was only something I'd heard about rather than actually read, and in that respect it was a bit disappointing. On the other hand, those issues drawn by Adams were pretty spectacular and the John Buscema drawn conclusion wasn't too shabby either, although I'll always wonder how different it might have been if Adams had done it -- according to Thomas, Adams was too tardy getting in the artwork; according to Adams, Thomas didn't like the conclusion as depicted by Adams. But it still holds up as the first grand cosmic epic of the Bronze Age, with Starlin's Captain Marvel /Thanos & Warlock/Magus/Thanos epics being the 2nd & 3rd in my estimation.