Fear Itself

There was an entry I did a while back on that other blog about the undermining of the impact of comic book crossovers and comic book deaths, particularly of notable (and bankable) heroes that are virtually guaranteed to make a return appearance when the money mountain loses a few inches. One of the examples I mentioned was Fear Itself, Marvel’s big crossover event for 2011, and I figured that since I haven’t really reviewed Marvel for a while (and since everyone’s very much wrapped up in the ongoing AvX circus) I’d take a look back at one of the most well-executed and, at the same time, ridiculously concluded crossovers I’ve read in a while.

The story follows Sin, erstwhile daughter of the Red Skull, obtaining a rather large hammer that looks suspiciously like a counterpart to Thor’s own Mjolnir. After then being possessed by someone called Skadi and retrieving an old Keith Richards-looking dude called The Serpent, seven more hammers are summoned to Earth – unknowingly picked up by super-characetrs like the Hulk and the Thing – and bring about the arrival of The Worthy, a bunch of Norse-inspired deities who are experts in wrecking shit up on a global level. It’s up to Steve Rogers and the Avengers to band together and kick some Nordic ass.

I’m going to give the story a bit of analysis before getting to the meat of the issue; at its heart it’s a fast-paced, action-driven storyline with some good character moments and a nice sense of personality amongst the unrelatable superhero elements; it focuses not just on heroes and villains beating the snot out of each other, but also on the people – the real, innocent civilians – whose lives are adversely affected by such battles. There’s a great recurring plot thread of a dude keeping his family safe in Broxton (former site of Asgard) that book ends the story quite nicely, and the first issue in particular deals with public outcry over all the superheroic shenanigans going on. If nothing else, the story does get points for not just being a massive beat-em-up a la Secret Invasion or AvX.

The art is pretty good – Stuart Immonen does get a little stylized at times, but on the whole it’s pretty functional. It’s a bit better than Leinil Yu’s Secret Invasion cartoon-work, but he’s no Jim Lee. I will admit the illustrations of the Uru-infused superheroes towards the end was very badass, and pulled off quite well, so he gets points there too.

The dialogue is moderately decent, but there are a number of times (especially in the beginning) where the “fear” theme gets a bit heavy-handed. I think you could turn Fear Itself into a drinking game with the number of times they drop that particular F word. Aside from that, though, Fraction does a great balance of having action dialogue and drama dialogue that works cooperatively together. A particular highlight for me was Cap’s dialogue in the latter half, which not only paint him as the paragon superhero he is but also give the impression he’s a desperate, broken-but-unbeaten man who will not stop fighting until he stops breathing. There’s a brief scene near the end of issue 6 where he gets loaded down with a shedload of guns and basically taunts The Serpent to bring it the f*%k on. That bit in particular gave me good chills.

So all in all, Fear Itself is pretty decent and does have some good material to it. Where it falls down, however, is in the implementation of the aforementioned issues of character death and undervalue of the crossover event. The tagline on the back of the book reads “IRON BREAKS. SOLDIERS FALL. GODS DIE.”

First of all, any Marvel aficionado will tell you that the last part of that line – combined with the bottom of the front cover – means Thor is obviously gonna kark it by the end. That’s the first mistake. The second is the fact that his death is intended to be the heroic, emotional climax of the story that leaves you teary yet optimistic that his sacrifice to kill The Serpent means greater peacetime – problem there is he’s not really dead, and after a few months he’s literally back up and fighting again. There’s apparently some mental time-screwiness with a bloke called Tanarus masquerading as Thor, but it gets undone and the original Thoreal (because he’s worth it) is back in action.

This would be bad enough on its own, but it’s bolstered by the death of another major A-Lister – Bucky Barnes, also known as Captain America’s replacement..

This is the only death in the entire story that I really gave a lump of donkey snot about; as I’ve previously stated I love what Ed Brubaker did to Bucky, and the arc he gave him, the depth he bestowed upon him, and the way he really evolved as a character after Steve Rogers’ death. The fact that Matt Fraction – brilliant writer though he is – decided to take all that development and shove a hammer shaft in its chest cavity made me quite morose reading the rest of it afterwards. Like, really morose. As if Dick Grayson had just died whilst wearing the mantle of the Bat. If they’d used that as the emotional punch at the end, that would’ve been far greater and carried a much larger impact. The visuals at the end of issue 4 when he’s lying on the ground, like he’s been gored by a Nordic centaur…really sad stuff.

Until you find out in literally the very next story arc that he faked his death and was given some Infinity Formula to prevent dying for realsies. So much for that death too.

I’m not complaining that Bucky is still alive – quite the opposite, I’m really glad he’s not permanently (or semi-permanently) out for the count. I’m complaining that the deep, emotional gut punches of his and Thor’s deaths are what’s meant to sell this as an event, as something memorable. They’re what the reader is expected to mention when someone asks them about Fear Itself”s salient elements.

For example, if someone asks what happens in House of M, one might say “That’s the one where all the mutants lost their powers”. Someone mentioning Crisis on Infinite Earths would say “That’s the one where Barry Allen died”. For this, it seems people who read Fear Itself are expected to say “That’s the one where Thor and Captain America died, but they both came back to life right after”.

As a climactic finale, it all falls flat. I much preferred the stuff about rebuilding in the wake of the Nordic tragedy, of trying to find a way to get the world back on its feet. The final scene with the aforementioned civilian dude and his family was way more effective to me than the funeral for Thor or Steve lamenting over Bucky’s death. The characters’ grief over the deaths is cheapened when the victims return right afterwards, and all it does is leave a bad taste in my mouth – which is then made worse by the fact that this really isn’t a bad book.

I would heartily recommend Fear Itself to readers – I mean hell, you could certainly do a lot worse – but don’t go in expecting a status-quo-changing ending. This isn’t Siege or Avengers Disassembled, this is just a good bit of fun with some well-written conflict and well-drawn battle sequences. If you can ignore the attempted use of character death as a way to strike at the heart of you as a reader and give the narrative emotional weight, then it’s definitely not a bad read.

If you can’t ignore it, though, there’s always Earth One.

STORY: 3.5/5
ARTWORK: 3.5/5

OVERALL: 11/15

BEST QUOTE: “This is the end of the world, fella – and I’m raising a militia to make a stand right here. You can stand with me and die fighting. You can go be with your families. It’s your choice: you won’t be judged. But if you leave, leave your weapons. I’ll need ’em. [aims at The Serpent] Alright you son of a bitch. Let’s see what makes you afraid.”

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