In a lot of ways, "Secret Invasion" #4 has ended up being the most critical issue of the series. After a really fantastic stage setting in the first issue, the second and third issues ponderously lingered on two large scale and painfully boring fight sequences. While issue #1 was not without widescreen action and excitement, it was made up of a large number of honest to goodness "events." Things happened. Reed Richards was shot. The Baxter Building was sucked into a vortex. A Helicarrier crashed into North America.
And then, for two issues, people punched and wanged power beams at one another. I suppose this might be the sort of thing that people crave in their comics, but that stuff has always been completely mindless and interchangeable. Strong guy punches invulnerable guy. Laser beam knocks down flying guy. Ad infinitum. I had started to worry that this entire series would be made up completely of lots of different fights I had no interest in, with the dance partners changing every month.
As those less than thrilling issues were published, writer Brian Bendis was telling truly interesting side stories in "Mighty Avengers" and "New Avengers." These were comics that were able to tone down the wall-to-wall histrionics and focus on events and explanation; like "Where has Nick Fury been?" There's actually something going on, not because Bendis had found a way to have Dark Phoenix fight Spider-Man in an absolutely dramaless scenario.
One of my favorite installments of those "Avengers" tie-ins introduced Fury's new team of Howling Commandos (sorry, Marvel, there's no way I'm calling them Secret Warriors). They open "Secret Invasion" #4, joining in the large scale battle (wait, don't run away yet) in Times Square. So we're already off to a better start then the last two issues because, honestly, I totally fell for this team just over the span of the single issue containing their recruitment.
Thankfully, all the fighting in this issue is woven together by an extended monologue about exactly what the Skrulls are doing, how they're doing it, and why. And this has always been the most interesting thing about Secret Invasion. Not who can punch who and watching them get tricked into punching someone else, but rather who's been a Skrull this whole time? What have they had access to? What does this mean to the characters?
And this issue really ratchets up the tension in that regard, revealing more Skrulls (I think) and, more dramatically (and kind of heartbreakingly in one scene) revealing more humans. And like that fantastic opening issue, things happen. Fates are revealed, chance offers opportunity for rescue, stages are set. The best superhero comics prove that the most exciting part of the story isn't the fight, it's the stuff that causes them.
Commendations should also be made to penciller Leinil Francis Yu and, almost more so, inker Mark Morales. Their work on this book says more in every panel about the importance of an inker in contemporary comics than I could ever write in a million reviews. While some work benefits from digital inking, Yu's work had steadily began looking simply sloppy and lacking the weight it used to when his style was complemented by the appropriate inker. It's hard to blame him. More and more, publishers are looking to cut down on whatever time or manpower they can and pencils, ran a few times through Brightness/ Contrast in Photoshop, look "good enough." Here, Morales' inks add a density to Yu's work that I had frankly forgotten existed. And it's critical for a story like this.
While this issue might lack stupendous reveals or tons of water cooler moments, it makes up for it by bringing back the drama to this series. Big fights between old and new versions of superheroes might make a great cover or splash page, but they never contain enough drama to sustain an entire issue of anything. Thankfully, Bendis has abandoned all of that nonsense entirely. The fighting is over.
And now the really cool stuff can start.