Captain Marvel skrulls

Last week, we saw our first look at the Skrulls, the race of shape-shifting aliens set to make their cinematic debut in Captain Marvel. A long-running staple of Marvel comics, they’re best known for The Kree-Skrull War (1971-72), in which the Avengers are caught up in an intergalactic conflict, and the more recent Secret Invasion (2008-09) in which the Skrulls turn out to have been posing as several prominent superheroes for years on end. If you’re looking to read up on how the Skrulls might fit in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, those stories are for you.

However, if you’re game for one of the most bonkers Marvel comics of the ’90s, in which a group of rogue killers hunt down covert Skrulls after being driven mad by Skrull Burgers (yes, you read that correctly), then allow me to tell you about Skrull Kill Krew.

How and why did Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Brendan McCarthy and Steve Yeowell tell a story involving people accidentally ingesting Skrull meat? It sounds like a random story thread conceived after a night of heavy drug use (as Morrison was once wont to do), though as it turns out, this bizarre plot involving a politically outspoken black man teaming up with a white supremacist to kill Skrulls because they ate bad alien beef (yes, you read that correctly too) actually has its roots in the very first Skrull appearance in Marvel comics all the way back in 1961, the very second issue of The Fantastic Four.

Strap in, folks. Things are about to get weird.

“Skrulls From Outer Space!”

The Fantastic Four #2 was published back when you could buy a comic for just 10 cents, though today it’ll run you at least $2,300 plus shipping. First-appearances tend to be landmark issues, even when the debut in question is that of a species rather than a single character. Spoiler alert: the story ends with Reed Richards, AKA Mr. Fantastic, hypnotizing three invading Skrulls into spending the rest of their lives as cows, which is pretty dark all things considered. It was meant to be a one-and-done, though the folks behind Skrull Kill Krew decided to take advantage of the premise more than three decades later in response to the U.K.’s Mad Cow Disease epidemic, because why the hell not?

How did the Fantastic Four come to turn the Skrulls into cows, though? Well, the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby second issue begins with Marvel’s first family behaving very un-first-family-like, committing petty crimes that range from Sue Storm stealing diamonds, to The Thing punching underwater research facilities, to The Human Torch melting a really expensive marble statue that was being unveiled after its sculptor had worked on it for five whole years (“It’s the Human Torch! He’s Going To – Oh No! No!!” the sculptor exclaims). As you might have guessed, per the M.O. the Skrulls continue to employ nearly 50 years later, these weren’t actually the Fantastic Four.

While the Skrulls would eventually go on to replicate the Fantastic Four’s powers in 1963 (The Super Skrull, Kl’rt, has all their powers combined), Lee and Kirby made sure to specify that these particular Skrulls could only shapeshift, and had to devise other ways to turn invisible or fly while set on fire. Their solutions were shrinking and jetpacks respectively; keep in mind, these were the early days of Marvel comics before things got really crazy.

Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery, which would go on to introduce Thor and Doctor Strange in the following years, were still fictional books within the Fantastic Four’s universe. Imagine that. A pre-crossover Marvel. In fact, the Fantastic Four thwart the Skrulls’ invasion by pretending to be the very Skrulls impersonating them in the first place, and by reporting to the Skrull leader with pictures of monsters from Strange Tales and Journey, warning him that Earth is filled with Gods and monsters and is not to be meddled with — a warning that earns Reed a medal of bravery! The ploy was, at the time, a ridiculous ruse, though one that feels prophetic since any Skrull invasion today would, in fact, have to encounter a whole universe of fantastical characters.

Reed and his family return to Earth and confront the remorseful Skrull trio, who are so sorry for doing crimes that they claim to no longer want to be Skrulls to begin with. Reed obliges them and hypnotizes them into becoming cows — it’s worth noting that we never see this hypnosis; for all we know, Reed could’ve had telekinetic powers back then — making the Skrulls forget their identities and leaving them to graze peacefully out in the pasture. That’s pretty disturbing for a children’s comic, especially since the topic wouldn’t resurface until 1995, though when it did, it was hardly taken seriously. Don’t worry. That’s a good thing.

“Buy This book.. Or And We Shoot This Skrull!”

Skrull Kill Krew #1 (of 5) was published in 1995, and it epitomizes everything about ’90s comics that people love and hate. It’s a tremendously enjoyable romp, if you can get on board with its bizarre politics, and it makes me wish more of these sort of hyper-violent, hyper-masculine comics had nearly as much self-awareness. The story opens with Ryder, a black man who’s supposed to have dreadlocks but whose hair resembles that of a Super Saiyan a la Dragonball Z, kicking down the door to a classroom alongside his compatriot Moonstomp, a British white supremacist, and gunning down a high-school student.

Gun-violence in fiction sure was a different beast pre-Columbine.

In any case, it turns out the student they gleefully murder was a Skrull in disguise, so it’s all okay. Well, kind of. Ryder and Moonstomp are able to spot Skrulls in disguise, since they’re one of a handful of people infected with a mutant Skrull virus. It’s slowly eating away at their brains and it’s going to kill them soon, so in the meantime, they decide to recruit anyone else who’s been infected and form the Skrull Kill Krew. As the name suggests, they want to kill as many Skrulls as possible before they die, and now that their DNA is fused with that of the Skrulls, they can A) Spot Skrulls in disguise, B) Access the shared memories of the entire Skrull species, and C) shapeshift into Lovecraftian monsters.

How did these Skrull Killers get the virus? Well, the Skrull cows from 1961 ended up being turned into hamburger meat. Seems like the most logical conclusion, doesn’t it? Not so fast. Rather than simply being mistaken for regular cows, the trio of hypnotized Skrulls were actually un-hypnotized for the Kree-Skrull War. Once the Avengers helped defeat the Skrulls, the U.S. government re-captured the original Skrulls, returned them to their cow form, and sent them to the slaughterhouse to see what would happen. It turns out Skrull Kill Krew has a lot on its mind, articulating most of it through Ryder as he confronts Captain America amidst a battle with HYDRA’s Baron Von Strucker, who’s upset after Ryder breaks his cigarette holder autographed by Adolf Hitler. Ryder refuses to even touch Captain America’s shield, reminding him that regardless of what aspect of America he thinks he stands for, Steve Rogers sporting the red, white & blue still makes him a symbol of American government in the process, and of all the war crimes committed by the U.S. military in Vietnam. Damn.

Oh, and the Skrull virus also mutates people’s bodies to resemble their worst fears or what they hate the most. For some of the recruits the Krew picks up along the way, that means turning into a wild animal or an alien — in one case, even a living explosion! But for skinhead Moonstomp, who’s half considering giving up his Skrull-hunting and following HYDRA, it means… slowly transforming into a black man.

“Fuckin ’90s sucked.” — Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson

“Shag off, chocolate drop!” screams Moonstomp, in denial. “I’m white, all right? I’m bloody white and I’ll faggin’ murder any-body who says different!” he continues, to which Ryder responds: “Sure you’re white. White like Spike Lee and Bill Cosby, right? White like Malcolm X.”

Hey, whatever, it was the ’90s, and in true ’90s fashion, the fifth and final issue is a ludicrously violent pièce de résistance. The story culminates in a white suburban American town populated by Skrulls in disguise, only it turns out, none of these Skrulls know they’re actually Skrulls. As far as they’re aware, they’re just regular humans living regular human lives, unknowingly waiting to be activated by a specific phrase spoken by their Skrull leader.

From an ethical standpoint, that makes for a potentially riveting debate on memory, intent and how one ought to approach the potential for crime when it seems like a certainty — are these Skrulls not functionally innocent men, women and children? — but Skrull Kill Krew decides to forego the debate entirely and instead has Ryder, Moonstomp and their compatriots mercilessly slaughter the Skrull-humans while yelling one-liners like “’‘Phone Home’ huh? Your call has been disconnected!”

Holy shit.

Skull Kill Krew preys on white suburban fears in rather direct and un-critical fashion, despite its attempts to contextualize itself through a phantom black perspective on American politics, separate from any actual race or class struggle or commentary on violence; in fact, it revels in bloodshed. It’s most certainly not the kind of story that would be published today, let alone adapted for the big screen, but having come out over 20 years ago, it also exists at enough of a distance to be enjoyable as a depraved artifact of a bygone era, attempting to both exploit and parody the guns-and-muscles comic book fad of the moment. That said, it’s also one of the funniest comics to be published at the time, when most stories were concerned with taking themselves uber-seriously.

Again, the whole story takes place because Skrulls were turned into cows by the Fantastic Four in 1961 and a handful of creators in the ’90s decided to resurrect that minor detail and turn it into a flimsy political backdrop for an alien shoot-em-up. Now that’s a good time.

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