When I read Fear Itself, I’m not just reading characters with hammers fighting characters without hammers; I’m also reading Matt Fraction writing Fear Itself as he scripts easily the most technically daunting task in his comics career. Imagine, for the first time, having to juggle multiple characters, ideas and themes while having to deal with a slew of editors and writers whose comics are tied directly into yours, an entire industry of fans and peers’ eyes on you — all while having to come up with a crackerjack story. It must feel like playing piano on a tightrope.
At this point in the saga, we’ve entered the second act, now that the setup’s been set up, the Worthy have been worthied and somebody’s been killed off. This, as that dead guy who wrote Save the Cat! would tell us if he weren’t dead, is where the “fun and games” happens. Where the setup begins to pay off and the basic premise is acted out. This is where the dinosaurs start rampaging through Jurassic Park. In Fear Itself‘s case, this is where Thor comes back down, Steve Rogers puts on his stupid winged mask and the band gets back together. Kiss finally have their makeup again.
This is also where Fraction really hits his stride scripting this series. Issue 4 is the standard 22 pages, but feels packed with choice moments and an amazing sense of grandioseness, whereas Issues 2 and 3 at times felt like they would have fared better in a collected format. But that’s because Fraction works to #4, earning the reunited Avengers with the rising action of the previous two issues. Never forget — this is storytelling, and there needs to be connective tissue to give this stuff meaning. God, I hate reviewing single issues. It’s like judging a film based on a watching a single reel of a movie once every month.
Fear Itself #4 pretty much wins me over at the beginning, where Fraction and Stuart Immonen give us two side-by-side pages with symmetrical images of the Serpent and Odin rallying their troops, accompanied by images of what’s going on around the world with our heroes, villains and even some regular folk. It looks grim — looters in the Midwest, petrified Parisians, Nazi battle mechs storming Manhattan. Cut to Bucky’s corpse, lacking an arm and most of a torso, lying on a slab. Cut to Atlantean corpses floating to the surface of the water in British Columbia like dead goldfish. Cut to the Serpent building a new kingdom on Earth with the swing of his staff. This shit is getting serious.
But with our Big Three all back in play, things don’t seem too bad. In fact, having the gang back together is actually pretty damn exciting, feeling like the first time in a long while. Immonen cleverly draws a glint off of Cap’s shield growing to a shine off of his shoulder to a full-on messianic glow emanating from the back of Steve Roger’s head in the span of three panels. The next time we see him, he’s jumping out of a goddamn plane and it looks like we’re inside the Sun. As Cap parachutes into Nazi-occupied Manhattan — complete with a parachute with the same design as his shield — it feels right in a that pure superhero comics way.
I have a feeling that glory won’t last for long. We’re still in Act 2 and the comic’s called Fear Itself. I can’t wait to see these guys hit rock bottom, though Fraction’s already sending Tony Stark there, both in Fear Itself proper and the Invincible Iron Man tie-in issues. As he makes a shocking sacrifice to get Odin’s attention (this can’t end well), I can’t help but think of Batman in a Grant Morrison superhero epic. Here’s a guy so divorced from magic in his regular vigilante life, who has to deal with anti-sun weapons of the ancient gods and evil New Gods from Apokalips, which he does with a surprising amount of aplomb. But many DC comics are at their best when they don’t deal with reality, and Marvel’s game is all about the sense of groundedness. Batman’s Marvel equivalent, for all intents and purposes, is Iron Man,, both being traumatized, offensively rich guys who have to create their own superpowers. Seeing Iron Man — always the smartest guy in the room, especially with Fraction at the helm — weaken in the face of the supernatural, is startling and maybe the most effective part of Fear Itself thanks to Fraction’s head start on the character in his solo series.
And, my god, Stuart Immonen nails it all in this issue. Capable of sleepy seaside Canadian towns, drunken calls to the gods, superheroes being thrown about in explosions and Captain America jumping out of a plane, Immonen is easily the most versatile artist in comics, who will surely go down as one of the greats with his striking layouts and dynamic, varied panel to panel storytelling. Immonen reminds me of the old-school Marvel Comics artists, who were capable of delivering strong, consistent work every month with little need for fill-ins. The best comics aren’t just great reads but thrilling to look at, and I can’t stop myself from flipping through Fear Itself #4 and just gazing.
Marvelous work all around in this issue, which might be the first that makes me genuinely excited to see where the story goes next. Like its lead villain, Fear Itself grows stronger by the issue. It’s still too early to tell, but if it keeps getting better than Fear Itself could go down as a standout crossover event in an era where “event fatigue” is a thing that people talk about.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book writer, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter as @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his newest comic, “Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men,” over at Champion City Comics.