The New Skrullicism

by John Holbo on August 7, 2007

Kip Manley directs us to a very worthwhile discussion of the ‘intentional fallacy’ and ‘bad readers’, Helen Vendler and Plato’s “Euthyphro”. I’ll just dunk you in the middle:

… This brings us, at last, to Topic B: the SPOILERY realm of New Avengers (not New Avengers/Transformers, I’m afraid). There’s one big logical flaw in this issue, which is that the team concludes on the basis of Elektra’s corpse being a Skrull that there’s a full-scale Skrull invasion on. And we know from all the "extratextual" stuff going on – on Newsarama and Wizard Universe and so forth – that there actually is a Skrull "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" scenario happening. (That also makes the "thought balloon" trick in Mighty Avengers make a lot of sense; the only way we can know particular characters aren’t Skrulls is if we can read their minds, which through the magic of comics we can!) Still, it would’ve been just as reasonable for the team to conclude that a Skrull had replaced the dead Elektra half an hour before. That would invalidate this whole story’s premise, of course…

For that matter, the "we can’t go public about the alien invasion because everyone would think it was just a hoax" business doesn’t hold water in the Marvel universe, where everybody knows about the Skrulls already and there’s an alien ship shaped like a big rock hovering over Manhattan in half the comics published this month. But what Bendis is particularly good at is character work, and there’s a lot of it this time. I love Luke and Danny not talking to each other, Peter dealing with his terror by wisecracking and acting on his usual responsibility trip ("I did what I could!" – why having a few pounds of something sticky on the front of the plane would be helpful isn’t clear, but hey), Wolverine pointing the finger at himself along with everyone else.

My biggest reservation about this storyline is that it depends on a deep, deep knowledge of Marvel continuity to make sense, despite all the expository dialogue in the first half of this issue.
(I am fairly sure that the chatter about Jessica not breastfeeding the Nameless Skrull-Baby is somehow related to the Skrulls/milk calculus in this miniseries a mere twelve years ago.) Here’s a question for you, though: should it be a baseline assumption that a New Avengers reader should be willing to do some research on the Internet to make sense of the plot of #32 – not the subtext, but literally what the characters are talking about? If not, does that make her a "bad reader"?

Maybe the Wikipedia entry on Skrulls will help – up to and including a picture of the dead Skrullektra. (As I understand it, the Skrull/milk thing has to do with Reed Richards tricking Skrulls into turning themselves into cows; which, down the road, results in Mad Skrull Disease. Shouldn’t eat ground-up shape-changers.)


Like you, I have significant problems interpreting the conclusion of the story, but, as if we’re reading a fragment of Hamlet, Act II (why is that kid so bitchy?!?), we’re dealing with incomplete information. I presume Spider-Woman’s motivation will become clear in a future issue, but for now, we’re left with the information on the page, and here’s what makes interpretation so difficult …

The truth is … let’s roll tape. If you study 19th Century representations of Shakespearean players you encounter for example, Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of J.P. Kemble, as Hamlet. (Click for larger.)


What is less well-known is that, seconds earlier, another portrait painter snapped a strikingly different image of the famous actor:


I have been doing a great deal of research: into the emergence of Elizabethan drama out of much more recent four-color comic forms; into costume styles for super-powered performers. Suffice it to say that most Shakespearean actors, as recently as the 19th Century, were Skrulls. As players, they were valued for the versatile ease with which they could inhabit and also double roles. In cases of so-called Super-Skrulls, quadrupling of roles was possible, not just serially but simultaneously: one performer as Macbeth (one arm), Hamlet (the other), Othello and Lear (the legs). George Bernard Shaw says something witty and cutting about this once popular practice, but I’ve forgotten the joke.

The question, really, is whether Shakespeare’s characters are Skrulls. To be sure, there is Yorick – the following illustration from the first folio testifies eloquently (click for larger):


The severe, anatomic naturalism – of Hamlet, of course; but also the tell-tale quadricleft jawbone – leaves little room for doubt. But what of Hamlet?  (He looks and dresses normally, but so did Elektra. So does Spider-Woman.)

It would be another generation, after Shakespeare, before Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Skrull brought the aliens ‘out of the closet’, albeit not into full cultural acceptance. Yet recent scholarly work suggest audiences in Shakespeare’s day would have recognized, in Gertrude’s lament concerning "my too much changed son," a clear reference to the protagonist’s shape-changing abilities. In the 19th Century, in The Skrullhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines, Mary Cowden Clarke expanded the range of possibilities: was Ophelia a skrull? (Tom Stoppard’s Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Skrulls is but the most recent, admittedly speculative entry in this line.) Possibly Dryden bears the responsibility for amnesia that sets in during the Restoration period and after, from which we have not recovered today. In the famous preface to his Troilus and Cressida we read: "The chief persons, who give name to the tragedy, are left alive: Cressida is a Skrull, and is not punished. Yet, after all, because the play was Shakespear’s, and that there appear in some places of it the admirable genius of the author. I undertook to remove the heap of rubbish under which many excellent thoughts lay wholly buried."

What of other authors? Now that the New Historicism is waning in prestige, the New Skrullicism is making impressive advances. (I think it would be difficult to be hired out of an English department today without some familiarity.) The French have Proust. Americanists seem to have settled on the figure of Twain. In Was Huck A Skrull?: Mark Twain and Skrull-American Voices [amazon], Shelley Fisher Fishkin argues that Twain may have been drawing on his childhood friendship with a ‘signifying’ Skrull named Jerry. Of course in a sense this is not new: in 1948, Leslie Fiedler published "Come Back to the Rift Agin’, Huck Honey," in Partisan Review. If Huck and Jim aren’t Skrulls, how did they build that Cosmic Cube? Fielder is, of course a polarizing figure – one of the first to touch on sexual and extraterrestrial issues in American letters, in the 20th Century. (See his, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Skrull; also, The Last Skrull in America.) Skrulls are, the New Skrullicists argue, ‘resonant figments’, and so they would seem to be.

What is the take-away moral? In a recent Brainiac blog entry, Josh Glenn twits Anthony Lane for his SF illiteracy. I know Glenn would agree with me this is just the tip of a huge iceberg of cultural illiteracy, on which a Titanic of ‘the best that has been thought and said’ is bearing down, with critics arranging the deckchairs and just a few prescient fanboys so much as noticing what looms up out of the fog. Turning back to our starting point, New Avengers #32:

In many ways, to be an ideal reader of a Marvel comic book is to be totally aware of every comic book story ever, while simultaneously being able to forget about any individual issue that doesn’t correspond to the current direction of the Grand Marvel Narrative. What a weird way to tell a story!

Yet all stories work that way. Very little literature (great or otherwise) is intelligible, outside the framework provided by the Marvel Universe. Most great literature is based on, drawn from – inhabited by, if not written by – inhabitants of that universe.

If you are interested in doing research on this sort of thing, Bendis’ best work is on Powers, which I have recommended before. But his run on Daredevil is likewise top-notch stuff. For some strange reason, Bendis seems to write better when he isn’t cranking out, like, four books a month. If you are just looking to improve yourself without spending a lot of money, sadly that Simpsons sale is over. But Amazon is having another, a ‘Ginormous Animation Sale’. Plus superheroes. Bunch of stuff 50% off – Cowboy Bebop; all the X-Men films; Ghost in the Shell; Adult Swim. There’s also a 60% off sale with a couple things – unrated version Orgazmo; Eternal Sunshine (surely we own it already); the first season of Kojak. Eh. Hey! Animal House (double secret probation edition). Plus the Ingmar Bergman Collection – six films! – marked down to only 50 bucks! That’s value, even if it doesn’t include Wild Skrullberries.

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08.09.07 at 3:56 am



sanbikinoraion 08.07.07 at 3:46 pm

what the hell just happened?


Dan 08.07.07 at 4:00 pm

Congratulations Holbo, now I can never read comics again.


Bruce Baugh 08.07.07 at 4:09 pm

1: John’s dealer just got in a new shipment from the Interzone, I think.

The piece linked to was cool, but I think Timothy Callahan’s wrong on one point. Of course I expect a unit of entertainment I purchase to be comprehensible, as a baseline assumption. I expect cans and bottles to open; I expect food with an expiration date to be good until about then; iexpect clothing labeled a particular size to be about that size. (Of course, that’s because I buy men’s clothing. I’m well aware of how much of a joke sizing is for a lot of women’s clothes.) And if someone’s selling me a unit of reading, listening, or viewing, I expect it to be a unit thta I can get something out of. If narrative or other constraints make that not a feasible goal, I expect them to wait and bundle it with others until what I can hold in my hands does make some sense.

One correlary to this is that I buy almost no single issues of comics anymore, of course.


noaman 08.07.07 at 4:14 pm

This post is absolutely brilliant.


belle waring 08.07.07 at 4:42 pm

I just want everyone to know that I love John so much, that I drew him a comic book Hamlet holding a skrull skull, just to make this ridiculous post even more awesome.


John Holbo 08.07.07 at 4:49 pm

“Of course I expect a unit of entertainment I purchase to be comprehensible, as a baseline assumption.”

I hope you are the exception, not the rule, Bruce. Otherwise people are going to be wanting refunds on this post.

I would just like to say that, although I forced my wife to draw Hamlet, I did my own Kemble Photoshopping.


Doctor Slack 08.07.07 at 5:53 pm

Could it be that this is even more fantastically crazy than dsquared’s defense-of-Budweiser post? I believe it is. Well played.


Bruce Baugh 08.07.07 at 6:35 pm

John, I’ll grant that “comprehensible” is onlyo ne of several possible grounds of satisfaction. This post is in one of the others. No demand for refund will be forthcoming.


LK 08.07.07 at 7:39 pm

In 1993, I had to lobby long and hard to get a thesis on comic book adaptations of mythology approved. Why weren’t you publishing this insightful commentary then?


hermes 08.07.07 at 7:44 pm

wait… you ubernerds are ubergeeks, too?!?
next, you’ll be telling me about the obscurata of the cybernetic culture research unit.


Shelby 08.07.07 at 7:56 pm

If you’re going to bring up the Skrulls of Shakespeare, how can you possibly leave out Caliban? Especially in light of Dan Simmons’ duology “Ilium” and “Olympos” developing (albeit masking) his alien origins.


joeo 08.07.07 at 11:56 pm

Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean is aggressively well written.


Ted 08.08.07 at 12:59 am

“why having a few pounds of something sticky on the front of the plane would be helpful isn’t clear, but hey”

I assumed it was to help keep the plane from disintegrating and/or igniting when it hit the ground….


Jon H 08.08.07 at 1:22 am

“Still, it would’ve been just as reasonable for the team to conclude that a Skrull had replaced the dead Elektra half an hour before.”

Oh I don’t know. If Elektra-Skrull was a recent development and a one-off, why would that Skrull have engaged in combat on a team of strangers and against strangers, and not run off to save its own skin?

If the Skrull is risking its own life in melee as Elektra, then it’s a pretty good bet that something big is going on which would make that risk worthwhile.

God I need a life.


John Quiggin 08.08.07 at 2:37 am

This post is even more impressively incomprehensible if you start reading on the assumption that the New Avengers is a remake of the Steed/Peel TV series.


SG 08.08.07 at 2:44 am

15: that`s what I did!

7: I think it is, because I tried Budweiser on Dsquared`s recommendation. Which indicates some basic level of understanding (except, perhaps, of whatever irony Dsquared may have been using). I don`t understand anything in this post.


Timothy Burke 08.08.07 at 4:33 am

You left out the part about Ben Jonson being a Space Phantom.


derek 08.08.07 at 10:04 am

I had forgotten that dsquared was responsible for the defence of Budweiser. Now his defence of pie charts makes more sense.


Joshua Glenn 08.08.07 at 12:56 pm

I spent 10 years of my life and every penny I had (plus all of my New Economy stock options; and I went deeply into credit card debt) publishing Hermenaut for the sole purpose of publishing brilliant essays like this one. Top-notch effort! No stone left unturned.


Joshua Glenn 08.08.07 at 3:12 pm

OK, I’ve attempted to explain The New Skrullicism over at Brainiac. Hope I did justice to the idea.


Joshua Glenn 08.08.07 at 3:20 pm

Here are a few cryptic Shakespeare lines that no longer puzzle me: “OBERON: And, gentle Puck, take this transformed scalp/From off the head of this Athenian swain…” Or: “MARK ANTONY: My good knave Eros, now thy captain is/Even such a body: here I am Antony:/Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.” Or: “FALSTAFF: … I will tell/you: he beat me grievously, in the shape of a/woman; for in the shape of man, Master Brook, I fear/not Goliath…”

Also think of Buck Mulligan’s “shaking gurgling face,” in “Ulysses,” for example; or the way that Joyce has Mulligan “put on a blithe broadly smiling face.” (Why phrase it that way?) And what, pray tell, does Fitzgerald imply when he writes, in “Gatsby,” that “Daisy took her face in her hands, as if feeling its lovely shape…”?


SG 08.08.07 at 4:18 pm

My favourite use of shakespeare, from an Australian Rules Football Commentator (I confess I`ve drunk too much for sensible commenting):

“It`s good to see shakespeare being used in the modern game… I could have sworn that man said ‘puck'”.


SEK 08.08.07 at 5:27 pm

Macbeth makes much more sense now. Rom knew those trees were Dire Wraiths, and would’ve come out fine, had the good Scots not fallen for Macduff’s evil ploy:

Macd. Oh Hell-Kite! In the Tyrant’s graspe, the Deuill’s Sword.

Macb. Listen not to foule Macduff, for ’tis but my Analyzer.

I must admit, the Analyzer is easily the most literary-theoretic weapon in the Marvel Universe.

Finally, Josh mentions Hermenaut but neglects to link to it. Consider his error rectified.


Jon H 08.08.07 at 5:54 pm

joshua glen wrote: “publishing Hermenaut for the sole purpose of publishing brilliant essays like this one. ”

Is that the sequel to Micronauts?


Joshua Glenn 08.08.07 at 7:08 pm

I hate linking to the Hermenaut website, which is a pale shadow of its once-robust self. But thanks! And yes, Hermenaut is the sequel to Micronauts, precisely.

More Skrulls in literature:

In “Of Mice and Men,” the violent Lennie is described as “shapeless of face.”

How about Jake Blount, the itinerant social reformer with a penchant for violence, in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”? Remember how he’s described: “There were many things about the fellow that seemed contrary. His head was very large and well-shaped, but his neck was soft and slender a boy’s. The mustache looked false, as if it had been stuck on for a costume party and would fall off if he talked too fast. It made him seem almost middle-aged, although his face with its high, smooth forehead and wide-open eyes was young…. There was something very funny about the man, yet at the same time another feeling would not let you laugh.” No doubt about this one!


SEK 08.08.07 at 7:45 pm

It’s robust enough I once lost seven hours to it, which is pretty damn robust for a website, if I do say so myself.


Joshua Glenn 08.09.07 at 1:31 am

Thanks, sek — that is very good to hear.


John Holbo 08.09.07 at 3:33 am

Thanks, Josh, but we must be careful not to go overboard – not over-extend, speculatively – lest older, more conservative academics find an excuse to be dismissive of rigorous, cutting-edge work by younger colleagues, whose work they are simply incompetent to assess. We can’t just start seeing Skrulls everywhere. The day that happens, the New Skrullicism might as well hang up its battle thingy alongside that old “Hero With A Thousand and One Faces” Joseph-Campbell-was-right-except-he-forgot-Galactus school. We’ve got to move slowly. I’m sure you appreciate this.


Joshua Glenn 08.09.07 at 9:52 pm

OK, John. But come on — give me Jake Blount. He is a Skrull.


Joshua Glenn 08.10.07 at 11:34 am

My friend Jeff Severs draws attention to J. Alfred Prufrock: “There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”


John Holbo 08.10.07 at 1:11 pm

OK, you can have Jake. (But this makes the whole business so fraught – so complicated.)

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