Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cruel Summer: Super-Skrull

The Skrulls, introduced in only the second issue of Fantastic Four way back when, exemplified one thing differentiated FF from so many of the standard super hero series to come and also made it the perfect bridge from the 50’s era of genre fiction to the true Silver Age: they were a science fiction concept that would have been right at home in Strange Tales or Tales to Astonish five years earlier, but they would end up being great foils for the tights and domino mask crowd well into the present. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby weren’t exactly riding a wave of high concept with the Skrulls as they were full-on “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” knock-offs; the types of shape-shifting sinister extraterrestrials you’d find any weekend at the local drive-in.

That, however, is what makes the Super-Skrull so cool.

Kl’rt, the Super-Skrull, made his debut in Fantastic Four #18. He was the Skrulls’ greatest warrior, and as a result, selected to undergo genetic manipulation that gifted him with all the powers of the hated FF in addition to his own natural shape-shifting abilities. In fact, not only could he do all the stuff his foes did, Skrull science made him just that much better than them in each category. This was truly a villain worthy of the World’s Greatest Comic and seemingly an unstoppable ass-kicker.

The FF still won, of course, but only after getting thrashed pretty soundly and Reed Richards basically cheating by figuring out Super-Skrull was getting his powers augmented by a low-orbiting satellite and jamming the frequency; they couldn’t beat him, but they outsmarted him and his dummy superiors.

Super-Skrull has always had a fierce look, courtesy of Kirby. The Skrulls look freakier than your run-of-the-mill bad guy aliens to begin with, but pasting one of those ugly mugs on a body that can do everything the FF does is just a no-brainer when it comes to rad designs. For all the crazy cool neo-Super-Skrull designs that Leinil Francis Yu and other churned out during Secret Invasion—and oh how fun that must have been—I think the original still stands out; there’s something about that rocky Thing arm on fire and/or stretching that’s undeniably neat (I think the biggest challenge any artist faces when drawing Super-Skrull is feeling like they need to somehow incorporate the Invisible Woman’s less visually cool powers in).

Of course after an awesome first appearance, the problem with Super-Skrull became obvious: how can a guy this cool keep losing to everybody? I mean, if the Fantastic Four themselves are one of Marvel’s premiere teams and able to thwart off such tremendous threats from Doctor Doom to Galactus, how come a guy who can do everything they can do better than them and also change shape and also has super hypnosis (by the by) loses to Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel and Iron Fist? Mister Fantastic’s ol’ “block the satellite” trick became a tired deus ex machina and a villain who should have been ferocious dropped sadly into the same category as the Rhino or Abomination in terms of being the dude heroes beat on when they needed to establish bonafides before fighting true big league baddies.

It would take 43 years before somebody came up with e idea that Super-Skrull could actually make a pretty decent hero—or at least anti-hero. Keith Giffen, Andy Schmidt and the other great minds behind the 2006 Annihilation event hit on this notion and tasked Javier Grillo-Marxuach with crafting a four-issue limited series working Kl’rt into the proceedings.

In Annihilation: Super-Skrull, Grillo-Marxuach stays quite faithful to the established characterization of Kl’rt from all his previous appearances, he just casts him on the side of angels in this particular adventure, and in the process demonstrates that he was never so much a villain in the classic sense as a proud and dedicated warrior who happened to be working for the guys fighting our heroes. Super-Skrull remains ornery and arrogant throughout the series—he alienates his key ally, a young Skrull who hero worships him, just by being a jerk, and drives him over to the bad guys’ camp—but he also possesses many qualities we’d number as virtuous, such as his determination and even selflessness when it comes time to make a huge sacrifice in order to stop Annihilus from advancing on the Skrull homeworld. Even Reed Richards himself, whom Kl’rt reluctantly turns to for help in his mission, muses on how it really is the circumstances that shape our opinion of a being like the Super-Skrull.

For his part, Kl’rt of course does not care how he’s ultimately viewed so long as the job gets done. To borrow from pro wrestling, he’s “Stone Cold” Steve Austin: he could care less whether or not the fans cheer him so long as he wins the World title, and in having this attitude, he just becomes more popular.

Annihilation and its sequels have done wonder for Super-Skrull as they have mostly been war stories at their heart, and Kl’rt is a soldier. He did fine as a cackling super villain for a bit, but as I mentioned, it got played out and he was being used more to put other characters over than for his own virtues. His dedication to the Skrull Empire and willingness to do whatever it takes to see it prevail plays way better in a story where they’re part of a coalition battling Annihilus or the Phalanx than it does when he’s trying to conquer Earth through Hollywood or something; it renders him a far more three-dimensional character. Likewise the war-time camaraderie he has formed with guys like Nova and Star-Lord allows him to display a more relaxed side of his persona that makes him more appealing.

For me, aside from the look and the powers and the other stuff Super-Skrull has going for him, I’ve always just enjoyed that he often seems like the sole tough guy in a room full of weasels. The Skrulls are all about subterfuge and these long-form infiltration plans like Secret Invasion; Super-Skrull is their greatest champion, yet he’d prefer to walk right up to you and punch you in the face. He could be disguised as your wife or best friend, and yes, he does use those powers on occasions, but more often than not, he’s content to be an inconspicuous green monster that can still kick your ass because he’s a bad, bad man.

If they made a movie of Annihilation or about the Skrulls, you’d need to get a guy from The Expendables to play Super-Skrull, and there’s not much higher compliment I can offer than that.


Zach said...

Well-spoken, sir. I dig me some Super-Skrull. Paibok the Power Skrull can kiss my ass.

Ben Morse said...

What's the deal with that guy?

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