Comics: Fear Itself
by Matt Fraction (script)
& Stuart Immonen (art)
Marvel Comics, 2012
The big, heavily-publicized ‘event’ stories in superhero comics – those extravanganzae of high-stakes melodrama now mandated semi-annually by the corporate overseers of both Marvel and DC Comics – require above all things a grand whozitz, a maguffin of sufficient portent to justify the proceedings. A particularly clever bank-heist by the Cluemaster and his gang won’t cut the mustard – what’s needed, as silly as it will sound to non-comics fans, is significance.
It’s a formula that not only always goes astray but must go astray, because the one thing superhero comics abhor most is fundamental, paradigm-change. Instead, the formula calls for that most enviable of chances: an entirely revocable catastrophe. And that catastrophe has to have a few different moving parts, sufficient to keep all the super-participants busy. No good having an interstellar creature who can paralyze Superman – not when interstellar creatures are Green Lantern’s favorite hobby; likewise no use having a master criminal outwit a powerhouse like Superman or Captain Marvel – Batman outwits six master-criminals before Alfred serves him breakfast in bed every morning. What’s needed is an ‘event’ that unfolds on a few different levels.
Marvel Comics, with its smaller, generally more earthbound heroes and its emblematic (though vague) interest in social relevance, goes in for these ‘event’ stories with an almost metronomic gusto, so it needs extra agility to avoid any actual ramifications arising from its own devices.
Marvel’s 2010 7-issue mini-series “Fear Itself,” now collected in one hardcover volume with a prologue and variant covers, is an almost perfect case-in-point. Writer Matt Fraction’s basic premise is thought-provokingly simple: what if the whozitz this time confronted our heroes (many of whom will be rather unfamiliar to the general reader, despite Marvel’s great visibility in the world’s movie theaters)(but then, it’s valid to question whether this thing was ever intended for general readers, rather than for comics fans who decided to skip the monthly issues in anticipation of reading the whole thing at a shot, a squinty practical approach known as “trade waiting”) not with brute force but with their own worst fears – what if our heroes faced a primarily internal battle, against a foe who manipulated their psychologies? What if “Fear Itself” did what Marvel’s own advance-hype suggested and delved into what these heroes fear the most? Such a story might be a writer’s dream, a chance to really dig into these characters.
But such a story also has the potential to change those characters – so Fraction makes only the most fleeting gesture toward it, and then he opts for a very much simpler story about an overwhelming physical evil trying to wipe out all life on Earth. One of the biggest obstacles in any such story is the so-called “Superman dilemma” – how do you muster a physical threat to your good guys if one of them has the power of a god? In the Marvel universe, the problem is literal: one of the charter members of Earth’s premiere super-team, the Avengers, actually is a god: Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Fraction solves this problem by keeping things in the family: Thor’s father Odin, king of the Norse gods, has been hiding from everybody the fact that he has a brother, Skadi the Serpent, who feeds on fear. When Skadi awakens from his millennium-long slumber, he releases half a dozen mystic hammers to various places on Earth, where they’ll be found by particularly susceptible recipients (an ability to lift about 50 tons seems to be a requirement) who then get possessed and turned into living engines of destruction. Odin was worried about just such a turn of events, as you might imagine.
Fraction merrily portrays Odin has a stout, ranting egomaniac given to shouting things like “I am your father. I am the All-Father. I am the god of axe and sword, of shield and wind and wolf.” Neither Fraction nor Odin explains one single thing about this whole contretemps – why Odin waited so long to tell anybody he had a pissed-off brother, why the brother waited so long to start throwing hammers around, why those hammers are needed in the first place if Skadi really has power-levels similar to Odin’s, why Odin would decide to sacrifice Earth as a kind of firewall to protect Asgard, the home of the gods, instead of simply fighting his brother right away before he gets any stronger, etc, etc. Instead, we get Thor’s dysfunctional family trashing the Earth and thereby coming to the attention of the good guys, Earth’s super-heroes (except for the good guys who are hammer-possessed, that is).
Those super-heroes are in the middle of grappling with a disillusioned post-recession populace that seems to care less than ever about heroics. “We can’t punch a recession or frog-march all of Wall Street into the Negative Zone or suddenly make everyone feel safe again,” says Iron Man (the millionaire arms-dealer) at one point, and such comments very briefly point in a direction the mini-series promptly abandons in favor of energy blasts and property-destroying rampages. “People are mad right now, and broke, and they’ve been lied to and ripped off – and when people who are already mad get scared, then all hell kinda breaks loose,” Iron Man elaborates, but this series is mainly concerned with the hell-breaking-loose part.
Fraction is an odd, often frustrating writer, and in addition to his strengths (he has a good ear for dialogue, sometimes, and he has a wonderful feeling for dramatic tempo – this story has highs and lows, and both are handled expertly), all his weaknesses are on display in these pages. He’s joined by the thrillingly talented fan-favorite artist Stuart Immonen, so the whole of Fear Itself looks very good – but a weirdly large percent of the talking these characters – heroes and bad guys – do takes the form of prolonged inarticulate yelling, as if a big group of Method actors suddenly acquired cosmic powers.
Since Skadi is nicknamed ‘the Serpent,’ and since Thor is involved, readers familiar with Norse mythology (as Fraction – or maybe Immonen – in one incredible panel thrillingly shows he is) might guess one of the outcomes of this mini-series, at least in the short run. In the long run the outcomes won’t matter – nothing happens here that can’t be – and won’t be – reversed by Marvel Comics inside a year. But comics fans aren’t coming to this book for permanent change – in fact, it’s a safe bet a great many of them are coming here to watch their favorite characters beat the Nordic runes out of each other. Those fans, at least, will be well satisfied.