…the only thing we have to fear… is… fear itself.”
These words were spoken to a terrified nation almost seventy years ago by President Roosevelt and have remained part of our collective memories ever since. Most recently they have become the inspiration for Marvel Comics’ newest crossover event, aptly named “Fear Itself.”
Former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada has said that Fear Itself would explore the greatest fears of Marvel’s heroes, some of them displayed in early visual teases before the series came out. Examples included Captain America with his indestructible shield shattered. Quesada also said that the series was based on real world concerns like global terrorism, the war, the economy, the environment, and American politics – things that we all fear in everyday life. Hmmm…
Writer Matt Fraction and artist Stuart Immonen are the master planners of this year’s big event, two of Marvel’s best creators, forging a continuity-changing epic in the finest tradition of such events. Heroes will die, we promise, but don’t worry, they’ll be back in 2012. I’m kidding. Maybe. I’ve been reading comics for well over forty years, and no, I’m not that old, I just learned to read on the darn things at an early age of four. I’ve seen comics and I’ve seen all the clichés. These days all I really want from a comic is a good story, and if one wants to go for extra credit, show me something I haven’t seen before. However, the track record has been so bad of late, I usually approach crossovers with the caution of a man poking roadkill with a long stick.
First I question the reason for it to be a separate event. Other than greed, is there any reason that Civil War or Secret Invasion could not have been told within the Avengers franchise of books, hell, within one Avengers title for that matter? Following that thinking, Fear Itself could similarly have been just an epic Avengers story, rather than an output for readers of a couple hundred dollars. As part of an ongoing series, such stories would have even more impact in my opinion. But again, I’m just being a curmudgeon. Hey, you, get off my lawn.
Fear Itself has been a pleasant surprise for the most part. It’s very pretty, and gritty, in other words – beautifully rendered. I’m a fan of Immonen and have no complaints in that area. The series has been visually stunning, and in some cases, the words the images are built upon are pretty good too. Props to Fraction in this case, but I’ll get back to him later.
The story of Fear Itself is one of family and deceit, and yes, fear. Apparently Thor’s dad, Odin has a brother, one that he has denied and hidden away for some time. He’s called The Serpent, and he claims he’s the All-Father, not Odin. The Serpent is something of a bad ass, when he finally shows up in fighting form, and as usual, he displays power that makes the other gods look helpless in comparison. I’m sorry, but this is a pet peeve of mine, but aren’t they all gods? Shouldn’t they all have these omnipotent powers? If one gets uppity, shouldn’t two or three of the others be able to put him down? Well, apparently not. The Norse gods flee Earth back to Asgard, leaving the Earth defenseless in the face of The Serpent’s threat.
Sin, the daughter of the Red Skull, is the other power player in Fear Itself. She tracks down an ancient hammer, currently held by Neo-Nazis in Antarctica, and once she touches it, she becomes the reincarnation of Skaldi, the god of fear, herald of The Serpent. Along with her master, whom she awakens, they summon other such enchanted hammers to Earth. The seven hammers find their way into the hands of the Juggernaut, the Hulk, Titania, Attuma, the Absorbing Man, the Grey Gargoyle, and the Thing – all of them, under the sway of The Serpent. Add to this, the high tech Nazi armies of Sin are unleashed upon the world, and now that the Asgardians have left the planet, they have decided the only way to stop The Serpent is to burn the planet.
As you might imagine, this is one big long seven issue long slugfest with the world at stake. Fight after fight after fight can get boring, even if, and there is that phrase again, beautifully rendered by artist Stuart Immonen. This is where Matt Fraction gets his credit. This could be fight after fight, but he’s linked it through epic moments, and a constant sense of impending doom. It’s hard to do that for one issue, let alone seven, and dozens of ancillary books.
Fraction’s greatest skill with Fear Itself is that each issue has amazing landmark moments in it. One powerful blow, memorable dialogue and stunning visuals, appears throughout. Among these moments are the murder of Bucky/Captain America by Sin, Thor vs. the Thing and the Hulk, Iron Man diving into boiling Uru, the shattering of Captain America’s shield, Thor vs. Odin, Captain America vs. Sin/Skaldi, Cap with Thor’s hammer leading the charge, and yes, the final battle between The Serpent and Thor – and the death of the god of thunder. But we all know how long death lasts in comic books…
Wonderful lines that remain with me include when Cap says they need to evacuate the Earth, and when he says the gods have left them. Even stronger when Thor dispatches the Thing, and turns to the Hulk, noting, “and him I liked. But you? You were always a giant pain in the ass.” And while we’re at it, much has been made of Fraction’s way of speaking when it comes to Thor. Bah. He’s been here in Midgard for a long time, there’s no reason the thunder god wouldn’t pick up our colloquialisms.
These moments were not restricted to the main series either. Giant-Man vs. the Absorbing Man, the Hulk vs. Dracula, and Daredevil earning a place among the Avengers were also highlights. I’ll get to the side books later, but as far as I’m concerned the real story and the real thrills were in the main series itself.
There were bad moments too however. In the midst of the multiple battles, unfortunately timed for the anniversary of 9/11, we have skyscrapers falling in New York City. Yes, it’s been ten years, but that doesn’t mean I can take such images lightly. It did not have to be done, and it did not have to be done that week, especially with tributes to 9/11 in the back of all the Marvel comics that month. Frankly, I was shocked. And that’s without even pointing out that this is not even the first time Avengers Tower has fallen. It’s a visual that should be used sparingly, and with respect to those who lived through it, and didn’t, if it is used at all. Shame on you, Marvel, shame.
There are other series involved here in this epic, both ongoings and limiteds, but I think we all know most of them are what I like to call “red sky stories.” Marvel has done this before, and DC as well, but I think the latter is the company that started not only the positive points of the big crossover event, but also the negative ones as well. Such stories had been told before, the search for Zatanna’s father was one of the first – told across several titles over time, and surely Marvel was one of the first to cross directly from title to title in the 1970s – Daredevil and the Avengers vs. Magneto, and the Avengers/Defenders clash spring immediately to mind. But the big granddaddy of what we know today as the crossover event is DC Comics’ Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985.
This Crisis, named after the annual summer meeting of the Justice League of Earth-One and the Justice Society of Earth-Two, was designed with two objectives in mind. One was to clean house on continuity and make things easier for new readers to understand, to eliminate all the baggage picked up after decades of comics. I know, this all sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? Well, it should. After all, the original plan after CoIE was to completely reboot the entire continuity, just like DC is sort of doing now with its New 52 initiative.
The other objective of Crisis was to tell a fantastic story, granted a story that would integrate fifty years of other stories and characters, and celebrate that history – but a story just the same. Storytelling is an advantage that Fear Itself has. The problem is that it also has the faults of the Crisis as well. Line continuity.
The Crisis occurred throughout DC’s shared universe, and so the effects of it were seen in all of its titles. One of the physical manifestations of the Crisis was the sky turning red. DC claimed that the Crisis was happening in all of its titles simultaneously, so collectors and avid readers bought every comic that said “Crisis tie-in” on its cover – but some of those books really only had a red sky, and that’s all they had to do with the main story. That’s why I call them ‘red sky stories,’ and quite honestly all events have them, even Fear Itself.
Among them is The Front Line, an accompaniment that was so important to both Civil War and Secret Invasion, is really unimportant to the main stories, and offered nothing as far as I was concerned. Others made little sense to me, other than to cash in on returning certain characters to the spotlight, however small. The now-alive Alpha Flight, Ghost Rider, Black Widow, the revamped Dracula, Shang Chi, the new Heroes for Hire, and a plethora of teen heroes are thrust before the readers as they fight the Worthy and/or various generic Nazi combatants.
In only two cases did I have the slightest interest. In The Deep we see an ersatz Defenders team along with the subplot of the almost unrelated destruction (again?) of Atlantis. In Fearsome Four we see another highly unlikely teaming of what could be construed as a Defenders team, along with the art stylings of the much-missed Mike Kaluta. I also miss Howard the Duck, but wish he could go pantsless again – hey, seeing as Disney now owns Marvel, couldn’t that be worked out? And I also dug Avengers Academy as well, but then, as mentioned above, I’m a sucker for Hank Pym as Giant-Man.
The Defenders itinerations are noteworthy in that spinning out of Fear Itself is actually a new Defenders series, although not featuring either of the above groups of characters. I find that especially puzzling. It’s been said by the powers-that-be that this event was in the planning stages over a year ago, so one would think one or both of these groups would lead into such a series had it been planned. I think maybe the Defenders series came to be after sales came in of the first couple issues of Fear Itself, but that’s just me. Either way, I love me some Defenders and am looking forward to it.
It is important to note that even though Fear Itself #7 of 7 has come out, it’s still not over. The story continues in Fear Itself: The Mighty, as well as the decimal point numbered epilogues featuring the Avengers big three, and of course most of the Marvel line will now carry the banner “Shattered Heroes” for as long as it’s needed, to demonstrate how damaged our heroes are after this conflict. The least of the changes include yet another reshuffling of the Avengers rosters.
And this is one of the reasons I have grown to dislike crossover events, especially at Marvel in the last decade or so. Disassembled led to Civil War which led to Secret Invasion which led to Dark Reign which led to, well, you get the picture. Events never end, they only lead to the next one. There is no longer a status quo at Marvel. You can’t tell who’s who without a scoreboard. It’s completely inaccessible.
I remember my older sister, who had not seen an X-Men comic since Roy Thomas and Don Heck were doing it, reading the debut of Dazzler, and she picked up on what was what pretty quickly. It was easy. I defy anyone who regularly reads Marvel Comics these days to even give me a coherent explanation what’s going on with the characters these days. It’s easier to just say everyone is an Avenger than to actually try to figure out who’s on which Avengers team. And when the even the simplest comics are shattered by these all-too-frequent crossover events every other month, who can tell?
Not only that, the world the heroes live in has become a casualty itself. Once you’ve killed gods and destroyed New York City and Washington DC, where do you go from there? There’s only so much destruction we can take. It took a decade to rebuild anything where the World Trade Center once stood. As long as Nazis are in the mix, let’s talk about how it took equally long for Japan, France and Belgium, among others to recover after the Second World War. Parts of Germany still remain in ruin. Are we really to believe Marvel-Earth will be a-okay next week, or even next year? And really, who doesn’t believe that Thor, and Bucky, will be back sooner rather than later. Maybe event comics have just gotten too big – and unbelievable.
Actually, multiple epilogues and side books aside, Fear Itself wasn’t bad. If someone were to tell me Matt Fraction would be writing an Avengers comic in the future I would cheer. Great story, great art, but for the most part, just avoid everything but the main seven issues. I was entertained, and exhausted, and hopeful the next event won’t try to one-up it. I’d be happy if things were quiet, and uneventful for a while.
Glenn Walker is a writer with too much time on his hands, or depending on the day, not enough time on his hands. He loves, hates and lives pop culture. He knows too freaking much about pop culture. Find him online at monsura.blogspot.com and on Twitter @twitter.com/monsura
Copyright 2011 Glenn Walker