When Captain Marvel hits the big screen this week, she will be at the center of the seemingly endless Kree-Skrull War. The conflict between the militaristic Kree — who we glimpsed in Guardians of the Galaxy — and the shapeshifting, world-collecting Skrulls is sure to have lasting effects on the MCU. The event goes back eons in the comic books, but it truly began when prolific Marvel Comics scribe Roy Thomas pitched it to Stan Lee in 1970.
"My pitch to Stan was simple," Thomas told SYFY WIRE this week via his business manager John Cimino. "It seems to me that, with those two warlike races careening about in space, they are likely to clash, so I'd like to do a story in which they do (or are already doing so), with the Earth caught in the middle, not unlike some Pacific island caught between Americans and Japanese during WWII. [Earth would] hardly able to understand the battle that is raging on a vaster plane. Stan said fine by him."
By that time, Thomas had penned dozens of Marvel issues, covering everything from Dr. Strange to X-Men and the Avengers. For Thomas it simply made sense that the Skrulls, a race of aliens bent on infiltrating and colonizing the galaxy, would but heads with the Kree, a "noble, warrior" race hellbent on protecting itself by any means necessary.
By 1971, Stan Lee had already started to move away from writing many of the titles he'd co-created alongside Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, allowing Thomas newfound freedom. At the time, superhero comic books were still mainly one-off stories, with the occasional story arc lasting for two or three issues. In Avengers #89 through #97, Thomas spun a tale that shed light on the fact that the Earth was unknowingly at the center of a universe-spanning conflict between the Kree and the Skrulls. Thomas pitted Ronan the Accuser and the Super Skrull against an enormous cast of heroes including Nick Fury, the Inhumans, Captain Marvel, the Avengers, Rick Jones and (spoiler) a stable of Golden Age supers.
At the center though, was a war between the Skrulls and Kree that had been fought for eons. What Thomas started in Avengers #89, others including Steve Englehart (Avengers #133) and Jonathan Hickman (Fantastic Four #6) have filled in through the years, fleshing out the ongoing conflict. According to Marvel lore, the Skrulls were a peaceful race of aliens, only interested in education and trade when they first happened upon the Kree's world of Hala. On that world, there was another race of beings called the Cotati.
As part of their plan to "educate," the Skrulls propose a test in which members of the plant-like Catoti and warrior Kree are left on a planetoid to build for a year. In that time, the Kree build a "gargantuan, gleaming city" whereas the Cotati build a lush, beautiful garden. Furious upon learning the Skrulls favor of the Cotati garden, the Kree kill their brethren, murder the Skrulls and steal their spaceship. From that point, the Kree became the sworn enemies of the Skrulls.
By that point though, the Kree had only been introduced four years prior in the pages of the Fantastic Four #65 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. The Skrulls (Lee and Kirby again) had been around much longer, wreaking havoc in the pages of Marvel comics for more than a decade starting in Fantastic Four #2.
"[The Skrulls] were never allowed to have particularly individual personalities, except perhaps for the Super-Skrull," Thomas says. "They seemed a race in which the individual is nearly subsumed in the whole, so I never differentiated them as much as I did the Kree, perhaps."
Teaming up with Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, and John Buscema, Thomas churned out the story with the blessing of Stan Lee. While Buscema and Thomas worked in a traditional fashion — Thomas would write out a several page synopsis and send it to the artist who would return finished pages — Adams and Thomas preferred to talk out each of the stories as they had on previous collaborations, including The X-Men and The Inhumans.
According to Adams, during his time working for Marvel, he had committed to the "Marvel Method." Invented by Stan Lee, the writer would meet with one of his artists and give them an overall summary of what he wanted to happen in the comic. The artist would then take the draw the story and leave little notes to let Lee know what exactly was happening in each panel. In the end, Lee would write out dialogue based on the art and the artist's notes.
"Since I was working at DC Comics on a full schedule, I made it clear to Stan that the only interest I had in working for Marvel was if I could write the stories a la the Marvel Method," Adams said. "Stan agreed wholeheartedly and told me that was in fact his preference as well because he had so many books to dialogue and he didn't have time to plot them all and was grateful to work with artists who could write their own stories.
"As it turns out," Adams continued, "Stan was too busy to dialogue the X-Men that I was going to do and since he was going to cancel it in two issues he would pass on the dialoguing chores to Roy Thomas."
Thomas said Adams contributed major setpieces to the storyline, such as Ant-Man's journey inside the Vision which "was wonderful visuals but had almost zero to do with the actual war." The inclusion of the Inhumans, he said, tied up storylines the pair had begun in that discontinued series and which Adams was more interested in.
"Neal and I would talk over the story, sometimes over lunch, and then he would draw," Thomas said.
Adams said he remembers a different dynamic.
"I never went to lunch with Roy. At the very beginning on the X-Men I had a cup of coffee with Roy in a luncheonette," he said. "The conversation was brief and about the X-men. He told me he was doing this Egyptian-themed story but that I could take the story any place I chose to and that would be fine with him. I basically did what I did without consulting with Roy but merely informing him at certain points."
Either way, those "lunches" (or single coffee) helped flesh out one of the most memorable plot points in the series as fans finally found out what had happened to the original four invading Skrulls from the pages of Fantastic Four #2. In that issue, after defeating the Skrulls, Reed Richards turns the aliens into cows and erases their memories. As a comic book fan, Thomas had picked up on the fact that Jack Kirby had only drawn three cows in that panel, sparking his imagination to wonder what had happened to the fourth Skrull.
As to the Avengers, Adams said he examined the work that Roy and Sal had done and decided they needed to do a full on Kree/Skrull war. Additionally, Adams has contended in past interviews that tapping the Skrulls from Fantastic Four #2 was his idea, while Thomas is insistent that it was his own.
"When I proposed the Kree-Skrull War to Stan, I was not acting as just a Marvel writer, I was associate editor of the entire line, second in editorial hierarchy only to Stan," Thomas said. "I was operating as de facto editor, subject to Stan, on X-MEN, and no decision as to what could be done in a mag I wrote could occur without my blessing."
"One night I called Roy and reminded him of the three cows with one missing that Jack Kirby may have misplaced and I intended to use that accident. Roy indicated that he fully remembered that panel and that he understood my direction," Adams said. "On the very first page of the Avengers that I did and in pencil clearly I wrote my suggestion to Roy for the name of the first chapter. I wrote 'Three Cows Shot Me Down.' Roy apparently did not like this title and he changed the title to 'This Beachhead Earth' which I felt was a very weak title and did not lay the groundwork for the intrigue that would follow which was most clear in my head."
"That's a delusion he has," Thomas says. "I, not he, was aware of the fact that one of the four FF-impersonating Skrulls from FF #2 was not visually accounted for (but only in dialogue, which didn't necessarily mean that what was said was accurate). I told him about that, and remember doing so while we were walking on the streets of Manhattan, probably over to Original Joe's, a pizzeria where we ate on occasion, a few blocks to the east of Marvel."
Thomas said Adams was interested in the idea and later when it was time to work on Avengers #93, Adams pitched the idea to have the Avengers encounter the three Skrull ex-cows. Additionally, Thomas said, Adams pushed for the opening scene in Avengers #93 in which the Vision escapes and staggers off to warn the other Avengers.
"All those pages I handed in had notes on the sides because it was a complicated story," Adams said. "The first and only writing done on any of my stories was written by me on the edges of my pages. The rest is just talk and I do not agree with it in any way. I don't wish anyone any ill will. We all did our jobs. Mine was to write the story and draw it, but not write the dialogue. Stan and Roy wrote the dialogue and a great job they did."
"That led to Neal's strong opening of the story which he wanted me to title "Three Cows Shot Me Down," Thomas said. "I, of course, was already committed in my mind to the titles being paraphrases of well-known sci-fi works, so 'Three Cows' was never a possibility for me... even if I hadn't known that Stan, as editor, would hate that title. I'd gotten enough grief from Stan when I had taken Neal's advice in The X-Men and left on his title 'Do or Die, Baby!'"
Thomas said the missing fourth Kree cow (which he had long since decided would be Senator H. Warren Craddock) was introduced before Neal was even a gleam in Cyclops' eye.
"Indeed many of our conversations were doubtless on the phone or on the fly," he said. "But there are many ways to write, and not all of them are with a pencil or typewriter."
Thomas said he's interested to see what the Captain Marvel movie does with the Kree-Skrull War, but he doesn't expect those actions to make more than a conceptual nod to what he had in mind.
"The basic idea is and always was the main thing to me, inspired as I've always said I was by Raymond Jones' 1950s novel This Island Earth, which I purchased as a teenage member of the Science Fiction Book Club," Thomas said. "Marvel Studios can take it anywhere it wants, just as there were endless possible variations on the war for me in the early 70s. Once I had the idea, exactly how it played out was less important to me. There could be as many variations of the Kree-Skrull War as there were writers and artists to handle it."
Looking back on his Avengers run, Thomas said he's regretful he didn't expand the Kree-Skrull war to encompass even more of the Marvel Universe, something he's always wanted to do in retrospect and suggested to Marvel's editors at various times over the past several decades.
"It does seem to me that I, as conceptualizer of the idea and the only person associated with the entire project ought to get the chance to tell what the other Marvel heroes were doing during that period," Thomas said. "I did a scene in Alter Ego nearly 20 years ago, in which Daredevil detected the alien heartbeat of H. Warren Craddock so that he could later turn out to be the fourth Skrull from FF #2. Marvel usurped that idea slightly for a set of cards, but that's about it."
All in all, Thomas said, he thinks the story turned out well, and perhaps he may have expanded it if Lee hadn't been still writing comics like Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man.
"I was more interested in the Kree-Skrull War as a storyline than I was in trying to do the first big company cross-over, so it was left to the able Steve Englehart to push that through. He had more fervor for that idea at that time than I did," Thomas said.
Adams also said he would have liked to see the intergalactic war continue, adding that he'd roughly planned out at least ten more issues that "would have been epic in nature and real mind-blowers."
"In the end, [Sal, Neal, John and I] did some fine work together and the material would not have been half so rich if either of us hadn't been there," Thomas said.