Saturday, December 01, 2012

Review: Fear Itself

Odin's evil twin—an ancient, forgotten god who feeds on human fear the way other gods might feed on human worship—has awoken, and he drops a bunch of Thor-like hammers to earth. There, they fall into the hands of various Marvel heroes and villains, mostly of the big, strong guy-capable-of-lifting-heavy-objects variety (The Hulk, The Thing, Juggernaut, Attuma, etc), and the hammers proceed to possess and redesign them, and the characters set about wreaking as much havoc as possible, in order to create more fear, in order to make their boss, who is known as The Serpent, stronger.

Odin's plan for stopping the Serpent is burning the village in order to save it, destroying all life on earth to cut off the Anti-Odin's source of power. Thor would prefer to team up with his pals Captain America and Iron Man, rally the Avengers and all the heroes of Earth. Everyone fights, the tide ultimately turning when Thor and company give a select group of good guys Thor-like weapons, temporarily redesigning them and powering them up from superheroes to ultra-superheroes capable of taking down the Serpent's powered-up guys.
The plot of the Matt Fraction-written, Stuart Immonen-penciled Fear Itself is as simple and straightforward as that of Greg Pak and John Romita Jr.'s 2007 World War Hulk, the Marvel event/crossover series which it most closely resembles. Just as Pak did with World War Hulk, Fraction chooses a pretty small core cast of characters, tightly focuses attention on them, tells the entirety of the story within the series itself (rather than leaving important bits to be covered in one of the sundry tie-ins) and is able to maintain a level of accelerating spectacle—big, dumb action scene followed by bigger, dumber action scene—without breaking any of the characters or the "rules" of their Marvel Universe setting.

In other words, like Pak, Fraction doesn't really need to cheat in order to get his story over, and that is likely one of the reasons this reads like the best of these types of stories since Marvel started publishing them in 2005.

Of the others, Mark Millar wrote just one, 2006's Civil War, in which the writer used the characters like toys, and had them behaving randomly in order to force whatever story beats he wanted to occur, leaving it for the rest of the publisher's writer and editors to make sense of it over the course of the next year (a period in which much of Marvel's output consisted of little more than their editorial staff and freelancers publishing attempts at No-Prizes).

Brian Michael Bendis wrote the remainder, 2005's House of M, 2008's Secret Invasion and 2010's Siege, the last of which I'm still not convinced even qualified as a story, and while the popular writer has his strengths, beginning and ending stories are not among them, nor is pacing, or giving any of the often quite-talented artists he works with anything interesting to draw.

In other words: Fear Itself is one of the good ones of this type of story (I haven't read the one that followed it yet, this year's Avengers Vs. X-Men, which tried a new strategy of having different writers script different sections of the book, so although one of those writers was Bendis, I suppose it's possible that that particular story will read better than some of the previous ones written by the guy who has written 50% of all of Marvel's modern event/crossover stories).

The collection I read includes a prologue that appeared in Fear Itself: Book of the Skull, written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Scot Eaton and Mark Morales. It's not terribly interesting, and involves the Red Skull's daughter, also called The Red Skull, seeking one of those evil Thor hammers The Serpent sent to Earth, and a flashback to Captain America, Bucky and Namor in World War II. Eaton's drawings are nice, but the panel-to-panel continuity isn't perfect (consecutive panels in action scenes occur in a setting that morphs, characters the dialogue said had the skin of their backs removed are shown with the skin on their backs not removed, etc). The plot isn't essential, but it does tie the event more directly to Captain America (Actually, the Captains America, as at the time this was published, Bucky Barnes was Captain America, and Steve Rogers was going by "Commander Rogers," and was Marvel's then-current Boss Of All Superheroes, a roll previously filled by Norman Osborn, Tony Stark, Maria Hill and Nick Fury).

The rest of the collection is simply the seven issues of the Fear Itself miniseries, and it barrels ahead in a straight line, no zigging and no zagging. Mention is made of various big events that happen off-panel, like the entire city of Paris dying, for example, events that were probably covered in the many, many tie-in series, but all of the important story beats occur here; Fear Itself the event may be the same big, sprawling maze that all of these sorts of stories are, but Fear Itself #1-7 is a corridor, and one can have a pleasant walk through it without exploring any of the twisting hallways it opens into if one doesn't want to.

Wisely, and, one imagines, market-savvily, the story's main protagonists are the stars of Marvel Studios' big three franchises, and the ones that featured prominently in The Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. Thor's part in the story especially echoes his part in his movie, dealing with his conflict with his father regarding the worth of humanity, and his friendship with particular Asgardian warriors. Fraction distills Iron Man/Tony Stark down to a core trait in one of the series' biggest, crowd-pleasing attempt moments (see below).
Among the changes (or illusions of change) that occur in the series, the "The Marvel Universe Will Never Be The Same!" and the "long-term repercussions" bits, are the deaths of Bucky Barnes (which leads to Rogers resuming his old costume and codename) and of Thor, neither of which must have stuck very long, as they are both hale and hearty and starring in their own comics as I type this.

The other Avengers barely appear—Hawkeye and Luke Cage get a few lines, while some characters, like Red Hulk, literally just stand in the background. Spider-Man has a very weird scene or two. Thing and Hulk appear mostly as antagonists. The X-Men are completely absent, save for Wolverine being one of the heroes who gets powered-up at the climax (and, naturally, he's on the cover of the collection).

I imagine a large part of why this felt so successful to me as a reader was that I waited until now to read it, and did so as a collection, so I didn't have to wait a month between installments to pick things apart, unlcear events in one chapter were resolved in the next, rather than just hanging there, nagging at me for another month, and I wasn't distracted by any of the tie-ins.

I remember reading complaints online about certain plot-points as they occurred. When Bucky is killed (or "killed") in the third issue, for example, it's not at all clear that he is killed (the lay-out of the two pages in which Sin/The Red Skull kill/"kill" him are probably the weakest in the book, as Immonen's lay-outs are otherwise crystal clear), but the fourth issue is, of course, just a page-turn away, and there he is, laying on a slab, a couple of characters declaring him dead.
Similarly, Spider-Man declaring the fight too hard and the odds too much against them and swinging off to see his family before the end of the world (rather than fighting with all his strength against the end of the world) left a lot of readers with a bad taste in their mouths; in the collection, it's followed a few pages later by Aunt May telling Spidey to Spider-Man-up and get back in the fight, so the taste certainly doesn't linger.
Immonen's art is fine. He draws the whole thing (save the aforementioned prologue), and while it's done in a rather tired "widescreen" format and much of the imagery seems a bit tired, following so close on the heels of another Asgard-related Marvel crossover, and while the powered-up looks for many of the characters are rather uninspired (The Thing's evil mode was the only design that really popped out at me), he gets the job done, and in his usual elegant manner.
He might not have been given all that much cool stuff to draw, but what he does drawn is drawn well, and the action is handled much better than that in Siege, which featured many of these same characters and settings in similar fights, with a great deal of motion in the dynamic artwork (Maybe it helped that the characters here were fighting with hammers, while much of the fighting in Siege involved the unexplained Sentry's vague, unexplained powers doing vague things...?). A big strong guy with a hammer hitting another big strong guy with a hammer, or a lightning bolt hitting a guy with a shield and throwing him across a page are just more conducive to cool comic book drawings than, say, an explosion in the distance.
If Marvel is planning to continue doing stories like these, and I see no reason why they would stop based on how well Avengers Vs. X-Men sold, I do hope future ones are more like this and less like most of the others. Having Fraction write 'em instead of Bendis, and Immonen draw 'em instead of, say, Steve McNiven or Olivier Coipel might be a good place to start.


By far the strangest part of the book occurs in the first issue of Fear Itself, when Commander Rogers and an ally are at a protest that turns into a riot in New York City.

I vaguely seem to recall there being some snark and complaints about this scene when it was originally published, and that it was thought to have something to do with the ginned-up, fake controversy of the "Ground Zero Mosque" (or "Islamic center, blocks from Ground Zero," as it might be more accurately described), but, if so, Fraction, Immonen and Marvel are hilariously vague in the scene, with only phrases like "Let them build it" and "tragic site, a sacred site" and "nothing should be built here...this place should mean something" offering clues.

The signs the protesters carry simply say things like "Is Nothing Sacred?" and, my favorite, "YES!" Fraction makes very, very vague allusions to the Tea Party movement at one point, and many more concrete references to the economic downturn in these early parts of the stories, but it makes for a reminder that if you're going to play it safe, you probably shouldn't bother with politics in the first place.

Because the manufactured "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy is so long passed at this point, it's difficult to remember it while reading this story—I honestly only thought of it because I remember online chatter—and because it is quickly followed by Tony Stark's announcement that he is going to rebuild Asgard, it makes it seem as if the protesters were arguing over that.

Additionally, the protests eventually devolve into a riot, with police officers in riot gear shooting mace and tear gas at bottle and brick throwing protesters; obviously at this point, a New York City riot over the "Ground Zero Mosque" seems fanciful, now that we've seen so many images of police using pepper spray and tear gas on demonstrators and protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City, and it's many off-shoots (And damn, did you see those sickening videos of demonstrators at University of California of Berkley being hit with batons? Certainly everyone's seen videos and photos of the cop pepper-spraying the seated, peaceful protesters at the Davis campus).

Anyway: That scene looks as alien and disconnected from reality as any of the stuff set on Asgard or Nazi polar castles or the Serpent's magic underwater prison when read in December 2012, dating the story and simultaneously making the creators and publishers look timid, half-assing an attempt to ground their story in reality.

Otherwise? Pretty good event comic, guys.


Aki Alaraatikka said...

Hm. So not as bad as it was said to be. Still not gonna read it, `cause it seems average instead of awesome.

SallyP said...

I didn't really pick up any of the Fear stuff with the exception of the Thor books, which is where they brought back Loki, and it was GREAT!

Medraut said...

The fact that this was one of the better recent event comics may not be an accident. Before "Fear Itself" started, there was an interview with Matt Fraction (I think on War Rocket Ajax, but I am not sure) where he said he reread a bunch of Marvel and DC event comics prior to writing it and tried to determine what worked and what didn't work in each of them.