Marvel recently wrapped their latest installment of the annual BigMegaUltra Superhero Summer Event, Fear Itself, written by Matt Fraction with art by Stuart Immonen. First of all, I want to congratulate those two talented creators with putting out the first big event book that shipped completely on time, a masterful feat in and of itself (if past event comics are to be any barometer). I realize that writing an event comic is a serious challenge for creators — the nature of such a series requires the writer to blow over the smaller individual character moments (usually reserved for the tie-in books) in favor of dictating the major action of the storyline. The supplementary titles are merely ribs; the main title is the spine of the story, and as such, is expected to present the major story beats with gusto, while still remaining completely self-contained. It is in this regard that, in my opinion — and I'm not just saying this with blind fanboy rage, but an objective mind — Fear Itself failed to make the mark. (Some spoilers abound. Just FYI)
Some personal history: I have a very fickle relationship with Matt Fraction. When he first came on the mainstream comics scene with books like The Order and Sensational Spider-Man Annual (quite possibly my single favorite issue of a comic book ever written in the history of mankind, ever), I thought he was an absolute genius, combining the wild imaginations of writers like Morrison and Ellis, without ever losing sight of the heart of his stories. I still think that Casanova (especially the most recent volume) is one of the most brilliant pieces of post-postmodern literature I've ever read. But somewhere along the line, it felt like Fraction became so obsessed with trying to out-clever and out-hip himself that he lost sight of what he was doing (his Uncanny X-Men run in particular was especially uneven). While I had not been reading his run on Thor, I decided I would pick up Fear Itself anyway, almost as a nostalgic notion for the bromance that we once shared.
Some Fear Itself history: [...]
And therein lay my first problem with Fear Itself. There was really no buildup to this story whatsoever (with the exception of Ed Brubaker's Book of the Skull one-shot, itself branded as a Fear Itself prologue). An event such as this should of course be able to exist on its own, but it seemed like Fear Itself in a vacuum by itself. There was no indication within the ongoing story of the overall Marvel universe that any of this was coming, or that it even mattered. All of a sudden and without any prior warning, there was this new character, "The Serpent," who was apparently the long-lost brother of Odin, Lord of Asgard (despite there being no previous reference to Odin ever secretly banishing his evil brother and rightful heir to the throne of the Gods, at least as far as I was aware, nor any pre-established Norse mythology surrounding Odin's usurpation of the throne). And he was evil. That was about where the character development ended. The Serpent was evil, and when teamed up with Sin, the new Red Skull (who, conveniently, was also evil), they together were...(wait for it)...evil.
Whereas House of M, Civil War, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, and Siege all explored some degree of moral ambiguity, the initial threat of Fear Itself was...the bad guys are evil, and they are going to do bad things because they are evil. Granted, moral ambiguity eventually came along in the form of Odin threatening to raze the Earth in order to destroy The Serpent before he was able to let loose and wreak havoc amongst the other Eight Realms, but that felt like a fairly minor and quickly resolved plot point. Meanwhile, the bad guys decide to attack the Earth, because they are evil, and that is what bad guys do, because they are evil. Mystical "evil" hammers are dropped from the heavens with no explanation, and end up possessing those who are "worthy" with the evil spirits of some other long-lost and long-forgotten Asgardian demons. Even this is never quite explained; the possession can be understood through context, as well as their allegiance to The Serpent, but why were these characters deemed "worthy?" While I realize that some of these details were reserved for the tie-in books, I still couldn't help but feel slightly cheated. Were The Hulk and The Thing possessed because of their respective pre-existing rage, or other negative emotions? I mean, I guess that makes sense. But as we eventually learn, "fear" is The Serpent's manipulative emotion of choice, not anger/rage.
This brings me to my next problem with Fear Itself: show and tell. Starting towards the end of Issue #3, we are told that The Serpent derives his power from "fear." From that point on, we are simply told that people are "afraid," and that this somehow powers The Serpent. While the soundbytes from news station were a good idea, they felt too distant to me. So much of the press surrounding Fear Itself has discussed how it's a "street-level" story for the "everyman." But having The Serpent, or some newscaster, tell me that "There is fear!" isn't really good dramatic writing; it's telling, not showing, and therefore betraying one of the cardinal rules of writing. So how do you express abstract emotions such fear in a graphic format without simply telling? That was a challenge that Matt Fraction willingly took on, and while I commend him for taking that risk, I can't help but feel that he lost the trial.
Of course, all dramatic writing is built around stakes; if the stakes are high enough, even the smallest story can be justified. In Fear Itself, we were told there were "stakes" — that this was somehow the worst invasion/attack of all time (in the Marvel Universe, no less!) and that mankind was doomed to fail. But at no point was this ever shown or demonstrated (once again, telling and not showing). How or why was The Serpent so much more threatening and destructive than the Skrulls, or the angry Hulk, or the Void? Is it because he was a "God" — once again, one with no back story or previous buildup? Maybe I had trouble understanding why the people were afraid because I was never sure why I was supposed to be afraid. Each and every Marvel event promises mass destruction and a somewhat Pyrrhic victory; why should this be any different?
Most major comic book events utilize the death of some ancillary character in the beginning (or occasionally the end — RIP Janet Van Dyne) of the second act as a way to prove or justify the stakes of the story. In Fear Itself, Bucky, the nü-Captain America, was killed in the third issue*, a Red Shirt Joe Schmoe casualty to prove to the readers, "this shit is real!" While I certainly appreciate the dramatic notion that Sin, the replacement Red Skull, kills Bucky, the replacement Captain America, the act itself could not have felt any more cheap and contrived. BuckyCap (as he is so affectionately known) had never made a single appearance in Fear Itself until Issue #3 when he was killed. For me, this harkened back to Civil War, but at least then, Mark Millar put Black Goliath (Wikipedia link because you had no idea who he was either until he was dead) to some use in the issues leading up to his death in order to add to the weight of his sacrifice. All personal issue with killing off Bucky aside (that Ed Brubaker did an incredible job of bringing back one of the supposed "no-no" dead characters of comic book mythology, and created an incredibly unique and compelling character as result, etc.), his death felt so cheap and forced because it was so clearly a plot device and nothing more.
That brings us to our climactic death scene: Thor, the Norse God of Thunder. In Norse mythology, Thor ultimately slays the serpent Jörmungandr before taking nine steps and falling to his own death; this is one of the many stations of the Norse Ragnarök, the endlessly cyclical death and rebirth of the Gods. So I understand what Matt Fraction was going for, mining a piece of Norse mythology for his story. Unfortunately, we never shown (or dramatically demonstrated) any reason why Thor would die after killing The Serpent. We saw that he was weakened, certainly; but in the final issue of Fear Itself, an outraged Thor certainly seemed to lay the smackdown on his enemy. Why did he have to die, other than to fulfill some ancient prophecy? In most stories involving prophecies (much like those involving time travel), there's some kind of unspoken twist to the prophecy; a character is aware of his own fate, and does what he can to avoid it, but ultimately his actions, however heroic, lead to his demise through some form of dramatic irony. But this was not the case in Fear Itself. Thor defeated The Serpent in what was certainly an exhausting battle and then...he died. Because he had to, because the prophecy said so. Perhaps the stakes, and the emotional gravitas, would have been higher if we had actually seen Thor visibly sacrifice himself to take down The Serpent; instead he just died, because he had to. Which is dramatic, sure, but not dramatic enough.
(Furthermore, there's the issue that Thor is an Asgardian God, one who has seen this cycle of death and rebirth countless times; despite the fact that he was off-the-board of the Marvel Universe and only recently returned anyway, it is the very nature of his being to return to life, thereby further diminishing the dramatic value of his death. As shocking as it was when Loki was killed at the end of Siege, even he was brought back shortly, simply because that is the nature of an Asgardian God)
Finally, I was disappointed by the "everyman perspective" of the series. We saw in Issue #1 how the current economy had affected those who live in Brockton, Ohio, in the shadow of the Asgardian Gods, and while we were introduced to a point-of-view "everyman" character, we were never given enough to invest in him. Even in the final issue, when Captain America mistakes Rick's aid for that Luke Cage — a touching moment, certainly — we ultimately see the Marvel Superheroes saving the day. "As it should be," you might be saying (in which, I would agree with you). Perhaps my frustration here comes not from the context of the story, but from the media/press/interviews around it. As much as I liked seeing the reactions of the man-on-the-street (although again, there was not nearly as much showing as there was telling), reading about the story was about humans, about the everyman saving the superhero when the superhero fails...I don't buy it. The everyman played a major role in the end of Civil War, as well as Norman Osborn's rise to power during Dark Reign/Siege. So it was a perspective we'd seen. As such, the way it was portrayed in Fear Itself was not much different than the way we'd seen it before, and in the end, it was the superheroes, blessed with Asgardian abilities, that saved the day, not the everyman (as is the nature of any superhero story).
That being said, I will commend Fear Itself for its handful of totally badass moments. The shattering of Captain America's shield, and his subsequent lifting of Thor's hammer? Awesome. Resonant. Great. Giant Nazi Mechs smashing things? Yes please! Iron Man's "sacrifice to the Gods" as he desperately tried to get Odin's attention? Knowing a few alcoholics myself, that genuinely made me shiver. Hell, I didn't even mind an exhausted and frustrated Thor calling the possessed Hulk an "ass," or Spider-Man asking Cap if he could leave the battlefront and be with Aunt May when he thought all hope was lost. But overall, a few great moments could not make up for the larger oversights of this comic book mini-series event. In the end, as someone who doesn't regularly follow the Thor/Journey into Mystery/Asgardian stories, the consequences of the storyline still don't feel so far reaching. Even more insulting was the painfully transparent ending to Issue #7, which consisted consisted entirely of teaser set-ups for other series spinning of the ending. Clearly any major comic book crossover event is going to be a vessel through which to deliver new series to readers, but to make that vessel feel so transparent only serves to further cheapen the experience. The story should still be able to stand on its own, with some kind of satisfactory resolution, while somehow informing or enhancing the ongoing universe from which it was birthed. Valkyrie chasing down the mystical evil hammers of The Worthy? Okay, sure. The Battlescars book, with this mysterious "Marcus Johnson" character? The details are still vague enough that I can't get myself interested (that being said, I will probably be picking up Matt Fraction's The Defenders series, if for no other reason than to read him writing Iron Fist again). It seems to me, the ultimate fallout of Fear Itself suffers from "telling instead of showing," much like the rest of the series: there is damage. That is bad. Thor and Bucky are "dead." People are sad. As far as dramatic writing goes, that's not quite the best place from which to launch your next few years' worth of stories.
I'm not saying "I hate you Marvel Comics you raped my childhood I'm never going to read your books!" again, and I'm not saying "You suck, Matt Fraction!" On the contrary; Matt Fraction and I shall gleefully carry on with our emotionally abusive relationship, and I will continue to read Marvel Comics. I merely felt that, from an objective, critical view of storytelling, Fear Itself was ultimately a letdown. It's like when you're a teenager and you get in trouble with your parents: when they're mad at you, it just serves to further fuel your rage, but when mom or dad says "I'm disappointed in you, son" — well, that's when it really hurts. And quite frankly, I'm disappointed in you, Marvel. But that doesn't mean I love you any less.
*The reversal of Bucky's death in Fear Itself #7.1 was awesome and brilliant and something so clearly planned in advance by the ever-scheming Ed Brubaker that I could not have been more giddy to read it. Although, that being said, while I'm excited about the Winter Soldier's new status quo, at the same point, it also further infuriates me in regards to his poorly-played death in Fear Itself.