Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Quick Review of FEAR ITSELF

Growing up, I was more or less a Marvel Maniac.  DC had the enduring icons, sure, but for Young Me, and yes, to Older Me, the real crux of a comic book character came in how textured they were, how driven they were by internal struggles; not by their flawless archetype, but their flawed humanity. 

So it is that with a character like Superman, very little deviation could be explored unless the writer found a fashion to properly tweak his iconography, usually giving him a mostly external problem to solve in his boy-scout fashion, with varying degrees of difficulty or support.  His humanity all too often proved incidental to his invulnerability, though of course exceptions have and will always continue to be profitable.  Clark Kent is, as fabled movie assassin Bill once said, Kal-El's critique of humanity, the mask behind which the alien hides.

Peter Parker, on the other hand, is driven less by external schematics than internal dynamics, though anyone can easily see that the best stories involving him borrowed elements of both.  His rogues would affect him less as flavor of the week excess, but rather, at their best, needling him through some psychological and often personal consequence.  Writers harped on this to greater or lesser extents, succeeding and failing over the years.  In his best moments, his presence as a human is always at the forefront.  At Marvel's best, they have had this in mind within the framework of the story, and at their worst, they have discarded this for gimmick or trite contrivance (see: Clone Saga, 1994-1996).

Perhaps one more slight degree of personal back-story should be allowed to flavor my review of Fear Itself, Marvel Comic's most recent crossover deluxe.  My very first comic book, that is, the first comic book I ever sat down and read, was New Mutants #37.  Imagine coming to comics at the age of six or so with no concrete idea of any major character and being thrust into a comic where young mutants in yellow spandex are being brutally butchered one by one by a honky of nigh-infinite cosmic power sporting a leisure suit and a Jheri Curl.  This was my entrance into the world of Marvel, as the New Mutants faced off with The Beyonder and failed to the point that they were literally eradicated from existence.  This was an aside to the old Marvel crossover Secret Wars 2, which decades later I would finally find copies of in a thrift store, five for a dollar, good for a laugh.  At the time I was confused and intrigued.  I had no context with which to approach this story, and the brutality was such that it fixed itself strongly in my mind, an indelible imprint giving me the impression that comic book characters could be fragile transitory beings.

With that in mind, before hitting the main event of Fear Itself, I'll try to give a very rough summation of Marvel Universe history as a preface. Once upon a time, crossovers in comic books were an annual or semi-annual event that would coordinate the disparate stories of multiple titles along a specific "event".  Late 1990's through early 2000's saw a dominance of mutants in the M.U., often "crossing over" in fashions that would affect the whole cloth of the universe.  As the X Men sold like nothing else in the stable at that time, and Wolverine made an appearance on every single issue of "Wizard, the guide to comics" for six years running... stories like Onslaught and Age of Apocalypse and Heroes Reborn and Heroes Return would center roughly the nucleus of X-Men on one layer or another.

Then Joe Quesada took over the role of Editor in Chief at the House of Ideas in 2000, and soon thereafter the shop as a whole started to see shifts in what comic books meant.  Gradually, fanboys could come out of the shadows, and the sunlight, it burned so good.  2001 saw the dispersal of the long-outdated Comics Code Authority for Marvel, and the expansion of new ratings systems, opening doors for Marvel MAX (mostly a failure), and the new stable of Marvel movies expanding mainstream appeal.  Certain storylines ebbed and flowed.  The fantastic Grant Morrison came on board with New X Men, committed genocide on the mutant nation of Genosha via Super-sentinel, then oversaw the death of Jean Grey, the Phoenix.  A lot of stories around this time were becoming more conscientious of these characters reaching a larger audience as a whole.  So in the spirit of house-keeping, The House of M (2005) marked the end of mutant dominance in storylines, with a finish in which the Scarlet Witch (Magneto's cray-cray daughter) wiped out most mutants in the M.U. with her reality altering powers. Around that same time, a new team of Avengers formed, with Spider Man and Wolverine incorporated as mainstays, echoing efforts in DC to actually draw people to Justice League of America with heavy hitting popular characters. Also around this time, retconning introduced a Superman-like psychologically-tortured hero known as "Sentry".  Finally, with the storyline Civil War (2006-2007) Marvel attempted to create an "event-to-end-all-events" that would pit heroes against heroes in a contentious debate over the rights of superhumans to act as "licensed heroes" in a country-wide Initiative (2007-2008).  At some point, Captain America was assassinated on orders given by his arch-rival the Red Skull.  Thor had long since vanished, was cloned badly at one point in the Civil War, became ruler of Asgard, died, or something, but basically returned just in time for the crap-fest Secret Invasion (2008), where it turns out shapechanging Skrulls have been sneaking around for a while, but oh wait, it doesn't matter.  Oh, and Bucky, the Robin to Captain America's Batman that died nobly battling Baron Zemo way back in the 40's? At some point during Secret Invasion he takes on the mantle of Captain America. Because nobody stays dead in the Marvel Universe except Uncle Ben, period. The M.U. base of crap heroes expanded along with titles that swelled and shrank with popularity.  Storylines muddled in Dark Reign (2008-2009) where old Spidey villain The Green Goblin managed to gain boss status over the Initiative heroes/villains of the M.U.  Thor showed up in the middle of Oklahoma, of all places, with the floating city (city?) of Asgard, setting the stage for Siege (2010), seeing the overreaching and subsequent toppling of the Green Goblin (as well as the murder of gods Ares and Loki at the hands of Sentry, who also knocked Asgard out of the sky... and was subsequently thrown into the sun), and The Heroic Age (2010), an attempt to recapture the spirit of the "good old days" with a reformatted Avengers.  Oh, and apparently Steve Rogers came back from the dead, but lets Bucky keep his old duds. Ta-da!  Finally, some stability. Finally, a new Status Quo, same as the old one.


Now right off the bat, I'd have to give credit where credit is due: Matt Fraction is the best thing to happen to Marvel Comics writing stables in a long while.  The real breakthroughs he's accomplished since coming onto the mainstream scene have earned him all sorts of awards, Eisners, Pen Centers, Eagles and No-Prizes.  Rightfully so.  A good comic book writer understands pacing on the macro and micro level.  A good comic book writer is capable of handling nuance of character as well as convolutions of plot.  They understand that you don't accomplish an instant reread (fanboys know what I'm talking about here) of individual serials or the trades as a larger whole without having something substantial on each page for the reader to digest.  As such, Matt Fraction's work with Fear Itself stays true to each and every character while housing elements of the storyline in easily digested and straightforward manner.  Keeps the readers coming back, in other words.  It's a crossover that, unlike every single major crossover of the M.U. since Civil War, needs little preface outside of an understanding of the individual characters and their respective origins (long-since absorbed into the mainstream thanks to the success of certain movies). The ease of entry is partially due to the main villain, The Serpent, an unknown up until this storyline, freed by the Red Skull's daughter Sin at the outset.

Also, the timing of this largely Thor-centric crossover does well, given the recent movie.
So The Serpent, this unheard-of brother of Odin has spent thousands of years imprisoned in the deepest trenches of Earth's oceans, guarded by dragons, awaiting the chosen one that would free him and begin a reign of terror.  Literally.  No other motive than the spreading of fear, at the outset.  Quite simply, his powers feed off of the collective fears of humankind.  To empower himself along these lines, he summons seven more hammers from deep space, each akin in some fashion to Thor's Mjölnir, to seven superhumans of already-great-to-moderate power throughout the M.U. Earth. C-List villain Grey Gargoyle murders all of Paris, waylaying Iron Man, who ends up vomiting in his own suit (ha!).  The Hulk tears through South America and New York.  Juggernaut tramples cities through the Midwest and fights the X Men in San Francisco.  The Fantastic Four's Thing completely destroys his old stomping grounds of Yancy Street.  Attuma, an obscure Atlantean warlord, starts slaughtering schools of Atlanteans off the coasts of Canada. B-List villains Titania and the Absorbing Man open a gate to hell in China.   Sin, who started the whole thing, gathers up hordes of swastika-brandishing mech-suited Nazis (still somehow plentiful) and annihilates Washington D.C.  

As soon as Odin notes the Serpent's awakening, he gathers up Thor and all his people and turns tale for Asgard Space. Odin's plan, at this point, is to prepare his forces to decimate the earth's population and starve The Serpent of their collective fear.  This of course makes sense only in an action movie sort of manner, as many actions taken throughout mainstream comics go.  But hey, why quibble?  As a quick side note, the recently reincarnated Loki plays around with the implications of these events, as well as his own reincarnation in a subplot present in Journey into Mystery coterminous to these events... of all the Fear Itself spin offs, this particular thread is the most intriguing, best illustrated, and ably written. 

Overall, again, the key to the main story's dramatic tension is on one hand its sense of grandiosity, on the other the sense of helplessness that ordinarily extravagant superheroes have in the face of such power.  Underlying this is the idea that things will be shaken up, and the characters involved are fragile transitory beings, that the Status Quo is at risk of damage.  Fraction reinforces this right off the bat in the third issue, with Sin outright murdering Captain America (the Bucky version of course), after ripping off his bionic arm, and burning a H.E.R.B.I.E. sized hole in his chest.

The following issue sees the return of Thor, the gathering up of Steve Rogers back into his old duds, and a tactical move by Iron Man to prepare for the final battle.  Three clever points of interest: one, Thor is fully aware of a prophecy that fortold his death at the hands of the Serpent should he succeed in felling him, two, Captain America arrives at the location of Sin's latest point of attack, and she can't believe her luck quipping "Do I actually get to kill Captain America twice?" and finally, in a sure and certain implication of characterization that again shows what a clever monkey Fraction is, Iron Man arrives at Fallen Asgard with a bottle of wine and pays tribute to Odin by sacrificing his sobriety (played up as a rather big deal in a recent "A.A. issue" of Iron Man #500.1, again courtesy of Fraction), on the off chance that he can get a crack at the mythic workshops plus Odin's blessing to even out the "evil hammer problem".

The pacing is gorgeous, and again, any Nordic mythology buff knows that this prophecy is in keeping with a descriptive run of Ragnarok, the final battle of the Nordic pantheon. By neccessity the "main" storyline is tightest and usually follows only the heavy hitters, that is, the most recognizable names.  The best "action" is to be had in the "main" storyline. So it should come as little surprise when, for the first time in Marvel history, upon confrontation of the Serpent, when Captain America throws his trademark shield, the Serpent catches it and shatters it like it was made out of peanut brittle. Oldboy Serpent then declares himself God and knocks out all the Marvel heroes in one swing, without killing any of them.  Again,this only makes sense in an action movie kinda way.  But dude. He broke Cap's shield.

Okay, all joking aside, as the storyline unfolded more and more I found myself confronted with "Marvel Architect" ads, shameless self-promotion that features comic book creators like Fraction as the next sexy thing in the world of whatever.  Seeing these, I start to imagine the various meetings in that legendary Marvel Bullpen or whatever sterile office passes for it these days.  At what point was it established that someone, even a god, could shatter Cap's Shield? Who gave the go-ahead on the murder of Bucky Barnes?  Or the murder of all of Paris, for that matter?  As the storyline progresses, and the bodies stack, every now and then the classic "shot from television" springs up, reporting food riots, autism rates skyrocketing, suicide bombers, and other scenes of mass global carnage and chaos.  This is to give the reader a sense of scope, of immensity.  You start to wonder if this is something that will actually impact the Status Quo or if it's just grandstanding for the sake of sales.  Or both.  Certainly it should wake comic book reading people up in much the same fashion that Blackest Night was the metaphorical equivalent of DC Comic's balls dropping.  But, digressions aside, is the term "Marvel Architect" going to stick around a while?  Is that how these guys introduce themselves to people at parties? Does that end up on a resume? Whatever. Anyway.

Onward to the next issue, where Thor, after getting shunted away from the Serpent, right into the rubble that is New York City, face to face with Hammertime Thing and Hulk.  He just about murders Thing (at which point I realize, as Franklin Richards uses his reality altering powers to save him, where's Reed Richards during all this?) and has a knock down drag out brawl with Hulk before shooting him into the stratosphere (not unlike an old "Spider Man as Captain Universe" solution years back).  Also, Iron Man takes a leap of faith into boiling Uru for Odin's blessing on his armor and the weapons he's designed. To this I say big whoop, we all know that in the end, no matter what cool weaponry these folks get, in the end it's gonna get thrown out.  Status Quo must be maintained to keep relevance standardized, so new readers are not alienated and old readers are reasonably satisfied.  To summarize: Iron Man's new mythical weaponry: Big Whoop, Transitory Gimmick.

Let's try to get back on track.  Again.  Thor naturally gets properly stomped, and where we can see some aspect of the immensity of the battle is in the fact that, unlike most superhero slugfest brawls in New York (every five minutes, if you're a Spider Man reader), this one seems to have destroyed nearly every single building in sight.  Imagine Ground Zero, everywhere.  It should be noted Stuart Immonen (with whom I first became infatuated in now-defunct Nextwave) carries each scene with an admirable aplomb of pencils, complimented ably by Wade Von Grawbadger.  The heroes carry Thor through a gate to get healed up by Odin, and Captain America smack talks Odin right there on the rainbow bridge.  You can almost hear Sir Anthony Hopkins in Odin's dialogue, again a credit to Fraction's abilities.  The heroes get shunted back to Broxton in the rubble of Fallen Asgard, and prepare to make their last stand.  Meanwhile, the Serpent and his floating island of hell runs straight at them.  A note: Thor's final scene with Odin as he tends to his wounds is masterfully realized. The prophecy holds that in final battle, Thor will die with the Serpent.  "We have our cycles and refrains," as he puts it.  Odin gives him his armor, a sword named Ragnarok (straight out of Final Fantasy Tactics, yo!) and sends him on his way.  "Are you man or god?" Odin asks.  "A man. The man you made me," is Thor's reply.

And of course the much anticipated final issue of Fear Itself plays out precisely as prophecy would hold.  In the midst of battle Captain America takes up Thor's hammer, the "Mighty" are given their respective weapons by a "in-the-knick-of-time" Iron Man and dwarf assistants, and the "Worthy" (minus Hulk, apparently fighting Dracula and legions of monsters elsewhere) are taken down when Thor kills the Serpent, in his "final dragon big bad boss" form.  Somewhere in the midst of all this, the momentum that this months-long debacle seems to lessen.  In the final wash, we have a humanizing element in the form of a chubby bald native to Broxton who stands side by side with the Avengers as trolls and Nazi mech suits and Hammer-wielding megapowers rain down around them.  Of course Thor dies.  It was predestined.  The heroes even prepare a final viking-like pyre for him, Odin teleports all his Asgardian cohorts to Midgard, and takes his brother's body back to Asgard proper, his "brother's keeper" at last.  A two-page splash presents us with the heroes looking at... something off-panel, and Cap declares that they will rebuild the cities, the world, together.  Something about this polished finish seems less well-maneuvered than the build up, though it makes sense in the fact that Marvel Architects seem to leave some aspects open-ended (Hulk in the epilogue seems to discard the "Hulk Family" storyline, Sin reawakens to cyborg Nazis in her service, and other vague allusions to future storylines that pique zero interest to me, personally).

Since we all know that retconning is the rage these days, as ever, let's discard any deaths occurring in this event outright. Where the Marvel Universe is concerned, death is never final.  Thanos once killed half the universe with a snap of his fingers, remember.  If Bucky returns, it'll be cheap and stupid, even worse than some Mephisto-based twist to get Spider Man single without the specter of divorce.  If Thor returns, it will mean the return of the Serpent.  Mark my words, Thor will return in time for the Avengers movie.   The canon never really dies.  By 2040 some clever writer will have addressed this.  The important thing for writers and editors to remember is characterization and evolution that keep readers coming back for more must be maintained, in some form or fashion.  Gimmicks are excusable in superhero comics, but not in excess.  Somewhere in the midst of all crossover, the Speedball subplot of attempted redemption for that incident that kicked off the Civil War came up, and was ably handled.  A few other threads are wrapped up or ignored, leading into what is yet to be.

In the end, what resonated with me concerning Fear Itself is the same thing that resonated with that fateful issue of New Mutants all those years ago.  Mighty heroes falling low, seeming fragile despite their fantastic abilities, overcoming extravagant odds or falling and being appropriately mourned until such time that spectacular contrivances conspire to resurrect them.  This will be reinforced in the months and years and reams of paper yet to come dedicated to Shattered Heroes and the like.  Eventually, if the most notable promo in the final pages is any indication, the much-ballyhooed Phoenix will return.  Even the mutants of Earth will return, with club skank Scarlet Witch hooking up with Victor Von Doom, of all people.  Comics as a medium, specifically this superhero branch, must maintain a delicate sense of what the readers want and what they can handle, two very different things in some instances.  Marvel Architects must maintain respect for the old readers to keep them coming back, and only borderline disgruntled, while keeping these stasis-soaked figures fresh enough for new readers to stumble into.  Maintaining a sensible mythology, especially with a major event such as this, is of primary import.   

So long as they honor that, these Marvel Architects can keep their pretentious title.

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