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Captain Comics: Meet the shape-shifting, Skrulls

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The pointy-eared, green-skinned Skrulls have finally appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Who are they? Without spoiling “Captain Marvel,” let’s take a look at the shape-shifting aliens’ greatest hits in the comics:

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The Skrulls first appeared in the second issue of "Fantastic Four," by the legendary team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Cover art by Jack Kirby.

“Meet the Skrulls from Outer Space”: The Skrulls’ first appearance was also one of their silliest. In the second issue of “Fantastic Four” in 1962, the Skrulls arrive to conquer our planet but decide, mysteriously, that the FF — who had been around for exactly one issue — was the biggest threat to their plans. So four Skrulls impersonate the cosmic quartet and commit crimes, so that they’d be hunted down by our own police and military.

Needless to say, Marvel’s First Family captured the imposters, and then defeated the invasion fleet. You might wonder how they achieved the latter. I am almost embarrassed to say. Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards, pretending to be his imposter, showed the Skrull boss pages cut out of Marvel’s monster mags of the 1950s and told them Earth was chockablock with huge menaces.

Showing one particularly nasty bunch, Richards said “Those are some of Earth’s most powerful warriors,” while thinking, “I pray he doesn’t suspect that they’re actually clipped from 'Strange Tales' and 'Journey into Mystery!'

Gee, why on Earth would he think pictures drawn by Jack Kirby weren’t real? Anyway, the Skrulls vamoose in a panic, leaving one last problem: What to do with the original imposters?

For some reason, Kirby only drew three of ‘em, so Stan Lee’s dialogue pointedly mentioned that one had left with the invasion forces. The remaining trio were hypnotized into thinking they were cows, and the last we saw of the shapeshifters, they were contentedly chewing their cud.

“Godhood’s End”: A famous storyline in early 1970s “Avengers” pitted the Kree and Skrull empires at each other’s throats, with earth caught in the middle. The Kree Supreme Intelligence — who does not look like Annette Bening, I’m sorry to say — kinda-sorta explained the Kree-Skrull War:

“For untold eons, Skrull and Kree have stalked the cosmic corridors like twin races of malevolent gods — never knowing that each of their star-spanning clans has reached — a dead end. Live a billion, billion years, neither will ever advance one more rung up the ladder of evolution. Now, they can but snarl at each other across the sea of space, hating each other — and the human race — which they subconsciously sense to be their superiors!”

Weirdly, this story contradicted “Fantastic Four” No. 2, with the fourth Skrull from the original invasion masquerading as a U.S. senator. And don’t believe that “evolutionary dead end” business either, as Skrulls began producing mutants in an X-Men story titled “Maximum Security: Dangerous Planet” (2000).

None of which mattered much, since everything went right back to status quo for decades. But who cares, since we had already been treated to several issues of the Avengers kicking alien behind — in spaaaaaace!

“Death of a Hero!”: In 1963 the Skrulls invented a way to copy the powers of the Fantastic Four in a single being: Kl’rt, the Super Skrull. The FF defeated him and locked him in a volcano, as you do.

But the following year the wily shapeshifter escaped and pretended to be a suddenly super-powered and insane Dr. Franklin Storm — the father of Sue and Johnny Storm, one-half of the FF. And then the disguised alien attacked our heroes with their own powers.

Naturally, Richards sniffed out the deception, and the Super Skrull was defeated and sent home in disgrace. In a final fit of rudeness, the Skrulls returned a booby-trapped Dr. Storm to Earth, who gave his life to save the Fantastic Four. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The most amazing thing about this story, though, is that Kl’rt announced the location of the Skrull homeworld, as being in “the fifth quadrant of the Andromeda galaxy.” That’s how you know their science is superior to ours, since on Earth we can only divide areas onto four quadrants. Because, you know, “quadrant” literally means “one quarter”.

“Skull Meat”: Remember those cows we talked about before? Well, in 1984 so did writers Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, who wondered what would happen if somebody ate one of those cows. I mean, that’s what we do with cows, right? Hamburgers, steaks, Texas barbecue, etc.

Morrison and Millar decided that those three cows ended up in a variety of beef products, and that those who consumed them were infected with an alien virus that slowly ate their brains. But there’s an upside: Infected people could see Skrulls no matter how they were disguised, and gained shape-shifting powers, too. Well, until they died from the brain virus, that is.

So four of these infected decided that if they were gonna go out, they were gonna go out big. They dedicated their lives to finding and killing Skrull infiltrators in the most dramatic and painful ways they could think of. (This being comics, it usually involved comically large firearms.)

Thus was created “Skrull Kill Krew,” a five-issue miniseries involving ultra-violence, aliens and slow brain death. Perfect bed-time reading for the kids, if your kids are Kree.

“The Monster Among Us!” In the late 1980s, Johnny “Human Torch” Storm not only romanced Ben “Thing” Grimm’s girlfriend, the blind sculptress Alicia Masters, he married her. That wasn’t exactly a move designed for unit cohesion, and times were tense. But it all worked out in 1991, sorta, when the FF discovered that “Alicia” was a Skrull infiltrator named Lyla. Yeah, Johnny’s still a snake, but the real Alicia was still in love with Ben, and the two tied the knot recently.

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The biggest Skrull story at Marvel Comics so far is "Secret Invasion," where they very nearly won. Cover art for "Secret Invasion" No. 1 by Steve McNiven.

“Secret Invasion”: Insightful readers might have noticed a trend in Skrull stories: They’re always trying to invade us. One time they very nearly succeeded — and it was in part because of Earth’s heroes making a huge mistake.

While writing the Avengers books in the early oughts, Brian Michael Bendis established that after the Kree-Skrull War, representatives of major groups came together in secret to deal with extra-terrestrial threats. This shadow group, called The Illuminati, included Black Bolt for the Inhumans, Black Panther for Wakanda, Dr. Strange for the world of magic, Iron Man for the Avengers, Mr. Fantastic for the FF, Namor the Sub-Mariner for Atlantis and Professor Charles Xavier for the X-Men.

One of their first acts was to send a small task force to invade the throneworld of the Skrull Empire to tell them to leave Earth alone. It didn’t go well. They were captured, and the Skrulls took the opportunity to study their super-powers and learn how to mimic them. The Illuminati eventually escaped, but the damage had been done. The Skrulls finally had the ability to impersonate superheroes.

Some time later, Elektra Natchios (of Daredevil fame) was killed in battle — and in death, reverted to her native form. All together now: “S-she’s a Skrull!” A Skrull who had been leading the ninja group The Hand for some time, and whose presence was undetected by all the means that Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Strange had set up to detect and deter Skrull infiltration.

In a word: Uh oh. Or is that two words? At any rate, more hidden Skrull agents began to come to light, and the Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. and even some criminals began working in concert to battle this global threat. It all came together in massive crossover called “Secret Invasion” in 2008, where nobody could trust anybody.

Once again, things didn’t go terribly well, given that numerous Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, politicians, law enforcement personnel and so forth had been Skrulls for some time. One of the biggest reveals was that a Skrull had been impersonating Spider-Woman since she joined the Avengers in 2005.

Naturally, the good guys eventually won, and all the impersonated people were found and freed. Spoiler alert! But everyone’s confidence in the institutions involved in the invasion — the Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D., superheroes in general, etc. — had been shattered. And what came to pass because of that — well, that I won’t spoil.

And for the Skrulls, it was another humiliating loss, one of many. In addition to all the failed invasions, the Skrull Empire was shattered by the Annihilation Wave invasion from the Negative Zone in 2006. In the late 1980s the entire race temporarily lost their shape-shifting abilities, leading to wars with the Kree, Shi’Ar and the Badoon. And did I mention Galactus ate the Skrull homeworld in 1983?

So, Kermit was right: It’s not easy being green. But those little green men from outer space have been formidable bad guys in Marvel Comics for a long time, and probably will be for a long time to come.

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"Captain Marvel" gets the look of the Skrulls just right, with Talos (Ben Mendelsohn foreground) sporting green skin, big ears and chin ridges.

Find Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).

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