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Sunday Slugfest: Fear Itself #1

Posted: Sunday, April 10, 2011
By: Thom Young

Matt Fraction
Stuart Immonen (with Laura Martin, colors)
Marvel Comics
ďThe SerpentĒ

Sin, the daughter of the Red Skull, has made an awesome discovery--a shameful secret that will rock the foundations of the Marvel Universe!

Rafael Gaitan:
Danny Djeljosevic:
Ray Tate:
Thom Young:
Travis Walecka:

Rafael Gaitan:

Crossovers are usually not my cup of comics. While I enjoy super-teaming and the like, the big Marvel events pass me with rather sizable disinterest. It always feels like an excuse to create 46,000 tie-ins with minimal purpose.

However, none of those other events were helmed by Matt Fraction. While he has been involved with several chapters of previous events, this is Fraction's first time at the wheel of a company-wide crossover. Frankly, it's long overdue.

Fractionís rewardingly dense Casanova has proven that he can handle multiple story streams at once, and the ability to balance story lines is crucial to the success of a plot as challenging as the one on Fear Itself. Asgardians, the Red Skull's daughter, and even the common man are integral aspects of Fear Itself, and Fraction forms the first chapters with a great sense of pace and development.

The writerís gift for language also allows him to tell the story with complex visual flair, as he refrains from too much exposition and long-winded speeches--even from the notoriously verbose Asgardians. Stuart Immonen's pencils are an essential complement for Fraction's sharp words, as he maintains characters and poses consistent through the chaos of a riot as easily as he does on a tableaux of the Avengers overlooking the city.

While the script and the pencils are a large part of the success of Fear Itself, colorist Laura Martin deserves her share of praise. She breathes life into the insane visuals that sprang from Fraction's head, and she makes Immonen's already impressive pencils burst off the page. A mass exodus to Asgard arrests attention on its own, but it looks even more incredible with the hazy, layered rainbow swirls that Martin uses; she has a gift for conveying shadow and shade, and she brings life to these two-dimensional characters with a skill like very few.

While Fear Itself relies on having some previous knowledge about Asgard, the All-Father, and such, it remains an accessible story. Anything you really need to know can be pieced together from the visuals or Fraction's carefully sculpted dialogue. The ability to handle so many voices at once is a skill Fraction has exhibited time and again, and his ear for interpersonal dialogue generates some genuine laughs--which help break up the tension of the otherwise heavy drama.

The fact that Volstagg can joke around with Steve Rogers is indicative of a writer who knows how to tell us about characters successfully: by letting them tell us who they are. Fear Itself is one of the more unique premises for a crossover, confronting the planet's mightiest with their deepest flaws. Fraction and Immonen have created a fascinating first chapter into what is looking to be a must-read event.

At the risk of making a Gene Shalit-ism, don't be afraid to get Fear Itself.

Danny Djeljosevic:

Fear Itself reminds me of a Grant Morrison-penned crossover--such as DC One Million or Final Crisis--where all the crazy event mumbo-jumbo is delivered with enough character development to actually make it matter. Even more than Morrisonís, Matt Fractionís script feels entirely character-driven. Itís less about the events than it is about the people creating them--which is an approach that is in contrast to something like Blackest Night, a crossover where, despite the personal nature of the dead coming back to life, itís a whole big series of things happening to the superheroes.

Smartly, Fraction casts the events in real-world trappings similar to what Mark Millar did with Civil War. Political issues divide the masses to violent ends, people are losing their houses, and people in small towns start feeling the need to lock their doors. Itís all very timely and relevant, but itís not tacky thanks to Fractionís sensible lack of details. Here itís all ideas and moods. Aside from superheroes, gods from space, and so on, verisimilitude is Marvelís standard mode, so Fear Itself fits nicely in that universe.

Though itís being set up that this series is going to find the superheroes somewhat ineffectual when it comes to helping people--as Iron Man says, ďWe canít punch a recession or frog March all of Wall Street into the Negative ZoneĒ-- the script also spends a bit of time on the common man in some seriously standout scenes that convincingly set up the ongoing Final Crisis-like hopelessness we should expect from future issues.

All of the above isnít to say that Fear Itself is a sequel to Civil War. No, when the main physical threat seems to be forgotten Norse gods, we can expect a lack of superheroes hiding out in sewers. This series is a decidedly Marvel superhero story, with all the trappings that make them irresistible--weird Nazi occultism, sea serpents, and a quick appearance by the Watcher. What we could have with Fear Itself is the most Marvel Comics crossover in years.

In terms of actual scripting, Fraction delivers a packed, eventful script with an amazing handle on characterization and dialogue. Fraction has always written entertaining dialogue, but here he makes leaps and bounds in crafting individual voices for characters he didnít create.

Particularly impressive is his Steve Rogers. Amidst an imminent riot, Rogers remarks that this angry assembly of people counts as democracy--and Fraction writes it in a way that isnít lame or hokey as it sounds in theory. Just as important, he manages to get everything set up, and he gets the plot machinations turning by the end of the issue.

It helps that Fear Itself #1 is a double-sized issue, which is a great idea that every event comic should consider. If this is really supposed to be a big deal like all the marketing and hype promise, the first issue should pack a massive wallop to get readers to come back for the second. Thus, a standard-length #1 would have ended with Sin finding the hammer of Skadi. She would have then freed the Serpent in #2.

Finally, itís all meticulously and impeccably drawn by Stuart Immonen--who, Iíve realized, is a master at drawing people with their mouths agape. Iím thinking a book called Fear Itself is a good arena for that particular talent.

More impressive is Immonenís versatility as an artist who is capable of both silly storytelling (Nextwave) and straight-faced superhero projects (Ultimate Spider-Man). He switches up his flow (to bite from the hip-hop lexicon), but the end product feels like the work of the same artist.

Colorist Laura Martin, thankfully, knows who sheís working with, and she keeps the earth tones to a minimum. She renders some amazing blues and greens, and handles the otherworldly Asgardian colors (previously seen in Fractionís Thor care of Matt Hollingsworth) beautifully. I could just stare at these pages all day. In fact, I just might.

Fear Itself #1 ends with a quick three-panel preview of #2 along with the most amazing title Iíve ever heard of for anything since Hobo with a Shotgun: Blitzkrieg U.S.A.. Why, Matt, thatís all you had to say.

Ray Tate:

For a Big Stupid Event, the debut of Fear Itself is solidly okay. The story opens with a riot that, I suppose, mirrors the Fox News fomented non-story about an Islamist group funding the building of a multi-religious center at Ground Zero in Manhattan. Sharon Carter and Steve Rogers are literally poised in the middle of the antis and pros. I was pretty lukewarm on this scene, and I think it would have played a lot better if Steve were in costume.


He is in costume?

I meant, of course, if Steve were Captain America.

The fact that somebody hits him with a brick indicates that he needed his shield. He does, however, have a bitingly practical answer to the media's annoying question: "Are you kidding me? I'm anti-riot! Now go home."

Still, wouldn't the Avenger who weaves a web be more helpful in such a situation? Spidey actually just stands around for the duration of this first issue without saying anything other than, ďCap, what just happened?Ē--which is stunningly out of character, and this story would have been a good moment for the wall-crawler.

Readers soon find out what all the hubbub is about. Tony Stark's company has been contracted to rebuild Asgard. I like the idea of Stark and Thor coming together to create jobs for a society that needs them, but I'm really just not keen on all this reflection.

I'm not sure the recession would have hit the Marvel Universe as hard as it did here. Stark International and the result of Reed Richards's "minor" patent revenue should have created a stabilizing influence on the stock market that would have cushioned the blow dealt by greedy bankers and fat-cat investors humping toxic assets.

Fraction tries to seriously focus on the ramifications of recession by turning the spotlight on an average guy who lost his job and intends to move out of Broxton, Okalahoma, where the Asgardians used to nest. When my position was eliminated, it took me three years to find a new job, but I still didn't appreciate this preachy glimpse into the hardship of the American people. I didn't sympathize with average guy. I just wondered why this sequence was in a book about the Avengers fighting the ultimate evil of Skadi, Odin's "evil twin brother."

I know some people like their comics to be a looking glass held against our world, but it really doesn't work very well when you think about it for a few seconds. I'm not suggesting that there be no problems similar to our own, but this magnifying glass to Marvel's economic strife seems artificial. It appears to exist merely to create a false sense of importance. "Hi, see that poor man? He lost his job. I'm relevant. Fly me."

The strange thing about Fear Itself is that in the context of the Marvel Universe a still-vibrant Thule Society guarding the Hammer of Skadi has more substance. A young Adolf Hitler in fact did infiltrate the Thule Society, a theosophical organization that believed Germans to be the descendents of the Aryan race described in Isis Unveiled, a religious doctrine fabricated by infamous Victorian charlatan Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. This part of the story, the idea that the Thule Society would be guarding an ancient unknown Nordic hammer, makes sense within the comic book conventions. Oh, and yes, many of the Thule weren't smarties and joined the Nazi Party, so the swastikas they wear also translate perfectly.

I could have tolerated the goofy nods to real-world problems when juxtaposed against Nazi wackiness, but Odin's behavior is the deal-breaker. While I can see Odin, out of fear, leading his children to an Asgard "created at the snap of his fingers," I cannot see him literally spitting at the Avengers or speaking of humans in such alarming racist tones. I'm sorry. That's just not the Odin I know.

Odin testified at the trial of Reed Richards, and he stated under oath that he would have volunteered testimony even if the Silver Surfer not beckoned him. Such behavior also fits with bona fide Norse mythology.

Whereas the Greek Gods treated humans as if they were playthings, the Norse Gods were the stewards of the Vikings. The Aesir were the guardians of humanity. They kept the giants at bay. They intervened in wars. They, in fact, gave us the myths of angels, for Odin would transform slain warrior women into Valkyries, who, in turn, would carry the honorable dead male warriors to Valhalla to sup at Odin's table.

In this respect, Fear Itself, plays like a typical Big Stupid Comic Book Event. At least, it's just one character acting contrary to his history to serve the plot, but I question whether this vitriol was necessary. Odin could have sadly battled his son, for he knew that man's time would come to an end, and he knew that Thor would battle to his last to save Midgard. Might not Fear Itself be more poignant if Odin had shed a single tear for humanity rather than poorly emulate Christopher Eccleston's astonishing spittle rant against the Daleks? Might not this grand deity be more potent if he were to accept the inevitable without resorting to aping the white-robed, dunce-cowl-wearing congenital idiots of humankind?

While the premise of Fear Itself is good, the execution needs work. Rather than centering solely on Cap, Iron Man, and Thor, more words and actions should have been spread throughout the cast. The behavior of Odin should have definitely been rethought. Characterization of this kind works for a first draft, but not a final one.

How will we be able to tell the difference between Odin and Skadi if neither actually behaves like he should? The Red Skull's daughter demonstrates more sympathy toward the Thule than Odin does for humanity, and that's just wrong.

Thom Young:

When I was eight years old, I had a set of silver plastic knights and pale green plastic Vikings. They were my equivalent of plastic toy soldiers, and whenever my next-door neighbor and I would play war with them, I always chose the Vikings. I wasnít even aware at the time of the connection between those warriors and my own Germanic heritage. I just thought they looked cool with the horns jutting out of their helmets.

By the time I was ten years old, I was checking out books about Vikings from the school library, which is when I discovered that Leif Eriksson had discovered North America almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Actually, considering that Greenland is clearly part of the North American continent rather than the European continent, it could be argued that Erikssonís father, Erik the Red, discovered North America about 20 years before his son landed in either Newfoundland or Massachusetts (depending on which archeological site you believe to have been Leifsbuūir).

It was also during those elementary school years that I began to read books on Teutonic mythology, as I found the Viking gods to be much more interesting than their Greco-Roman counterparts. This interest in Vikings from an early age is why, when I later got into football (also around the age of 10), the Minnesota Vikings became my favorite NFL team (as they remain to this day). Thus, when I began collecting comic books at the age of 11, it seems like my favorite character should have been Marvelís Thor rather than DCís Batman.

However, my love of Batman goes back further--to when I was six years old and used to watch the Adam West television series, which is also when my grandma bought me an issue of Detective Comics one day. Still, you would think that Thor would at least be my second favorite comic book character. However, when I started collecting comics, Neal Adams was drawing the occasional Batman story while John Buscema had taken over Thor after Kirby left Marvel for DC.

While I respect Buscemaís artwork, Iíve never been a fan of his style. Thus, I gave Thor a pass back then--primarily because I have always been more interested in DCís characters than I have Marvelís. Nevertheless, over the years, Iíve checked on Thor from time to time. I recall discovering Jack Kirbyís initial stories from Journey into Mystery when I was 16, and I thought they were very cool even though they really had very little in common with the Teutonic mythology that I knew so well.

In 1980, though, Roy Thomas adapted Richard Wagnerís Ring Saga in Thor with the God of Thunder as Sigurd, and I enjoyed that enough to buy all the issues as they were coming out--but once it was finished, I stopped buying Thor. Eventually, though, I began buying Thor regularly in 1986 during Walt Simonsonís incredible run in issues 337-67.

Finally, I checked in with the Thunder God most recently four years ago when J. Michael Straczynski wrote a horrendous first issue of a new ongoing series. Yes, Thor should really be one of my all-time favorite comic book characters, though I rarely have found a run of Thor stories that Iíve cared about. However, I am greatly anticipating the upcoming Thor film, as not only is Natalie Portman my favorite actress (despite her claim several years ago about how much she hated Jack Kerouacís On the Road) but Kenneth Branagh is one of my favorite directors (for his five adaptations of Shakespeare plays).

I also liked the only work by Matt Fraction that I have previously read--his unfortunately short run on Immortal Iron Fist (I should probably check out his run on Thor, but Straczynskiís first issue four years ago left a really bad impression in my brain). Anyway, I decided to give Fear Itself a chance because of Fraction, Thor, and the upcoming movie--and because itís an ďeventĒ series.

Unfortunately, for someone who has not been following the ongoing soap operas of the Marvel Universe (the last ďMarvel Event SeriesĒ I bought was House of M six years ago), there was much in Fear Itself #1 that did not resonate with me. Oh, it was easy enough to figure out what has transpired in the Marvel universe that has led to this issueís story, but any sublime hook that the story possesses seems to require intimate knowledge of recent Marvel history--a rich stock of ideas about these characters that I do not possess.

Still, the writing is competent, as the dialog sounds natural. However, Spider-Manís only line, ďCap, what just happened?Ē makes him seem like a dunce. I mean, I donít read Marvel Comics (let alone live in them like Spider-Man does), and I could figure out what just happened. Was Peter Parker sleeping beneath his webbed hood?

Additionally, Stuart Immonenís illustrations were very good and seemed to blend the best of his own style from his days at DC, Simonsonís style, and Kirbyís dynamic figures (particularly the dragons/sea monsters on pages 24-25).

Most of the story did not interest me enough to keep reading, but there were two aspects I liked enough to make me come back for the second issue. First, even though I did not know that Asgard was recently a city in Oklahoma (though I knew Straczynski had Thor in an Oklahoma motel at the end of Thor #1), I am very pleased to see that Odin, in his infinite wisdom, has decided to re-create the Rainbow Bridge and move his city back to a ďheavenlyĒ dimension.

Second, because of my interest in real Teutonic mythology, I am intrigued to see Skaūi show up in a Marvel comic. I have no idea whether this Teutonic goddess (and frost giant) has previously appeared in the Marvel universe, but Iím guessing sheís a new part of the Marvel mythos. Iím familiar with the figure from mythology.

After the gods killed her father, řjazi (or Thjazi), Skaūi married the god NjŲrūr as compensation for her loss (though she thought she had picked out Baldur to be her husband). However, she refused to have sex with NjŲrūr, and she eventually left him to marry Odin, to whom she bore several sons.

In Fear Itself #1, the Red Skullís daughter, Sin, becomes the host for Skaūi (in the same way that Dr. Donald Blake was originally conceived as the host of Thor). Whatís confusing, though--but also intriguing enough to make me come back for more--is that Skaūi frees an ancient male god from an Aesir prison at the bottom of the Marianas Trench (why it wasnít closer to Scandinavia is something I fail to understand), and she calls this ancient male ďfather.Ē

Thus, it would seem that in the Marvel universe the Aesir (Asgardians) didnít kill Skaūiís father. Instead, they imprisoned him. However, when Skaūi calls him ďfather,Ē this ancient male god corrects her and says, ďAll-Father.Ē Whatís more, he later implies that Odin usurped the title of All-Father from him.

The problem is that in Teutonic mythology, řjazi would never have been considered the All-Father. If Odin usurped that title from anyone in Teutonic mythology, the list of possibilities is fairly short. Before Odin, the title of All-Father could have been bestowed upon:
  • Ymir, who was the founder of the race of frost giants and Odinís grandfather. Ymir was killed by Odin and his brothers, Vili and Vť, who then used his remains to create the universe--which means itís doubtful that Skaūi has released Ymir from imprisonment since his ďprisonĒ is the universe that was made from his body.

  • Bķri, who was Ymirís son and Odinís father. I donít know what happened to Bķri in the Teutonic myths. Perhaps Fraction is going to make Bķri the father of both Odin and Skaūi, which would mean that the marriage between them in Teutonic mythology was between brother and sister (though in the actual myth they seem to be second cousins).

  • One of Odinís two brothers, Vili or Vť, which would make Skaūi Odinís niece as well as his wife.
The other possibility, of course, is that Skadi already has an alternative history within the Marvel universe, and that Fraction isnít playing with actual Teutonic mythology at all. Nevertheless, the possibility that Fraction is making Skaūi the daughter of Bķri (and thus Odinís sister) intrigues me--even though it would make them candidates for an appearance on the Jerry Springer Show.

Regardless of who it is exactly that Skadi has released and called ďfather,Ē he has control of the Midgard Serpent, and thus (once again) RagnarŲk looms.

Travis Walecka:

Much like creating a comic book movie, one has to take certain discretions when dealing with the audience during a comic book event. You want to keep ongoing fans interested, but make yourself accessible to noobs. The film version of Watchmen was either loathed or loved based on whether you read the graphic novel. Bryan Singerís first X-Men film left out key characters, uniform stylings, and even made Wolverine a late arriving member, but it all worked wonderfully in the end.

This balance between longtime fans and noobs doesnít mean you have to reintroduce every character to the audience (and, thankfully, Matt Fraction steers away from doing that); as long as the hook is there, the story can be simple, yet effective. Fear Itself #1 is very effective.

Sure, there arenít too many surprises--especially if youíve been following all of the Con stuff, the creator interviews, and, especially, the mainstream news (such as the USA Today preview. Save the shocks for the next few months.

In the meantime, Fear Itself serves more as a reverse-Siege. Before something tragic happens--if it hasnít already with Sinís pair of discoveries--the Avengers are here to prevent it. Odin might be the only character with the info right now (yes, he came back from the ďdeadĒ during Fractionís recent Thor arc), but thereís a reason why Tony Starkís getting the band back together. If you think itís only to show off Resilient with the rebuilding of Asgard, you are deeply mistaken. These are smart men.

While Fraction has his doubters, thereís one thing you canít deny: the man is a continuity beast. Unlike Brian Bendis, Fraction smoothly strings along the titles heís been penning. The only difference is Odinís brash attitude toward his godly son, but with the way the All-Father fought for his life against the World-Eaters, Iím really not appalled by his treatment of Thor.

Buckyís not present as Captain America (look at that, Bendis!), so Brubaker--who wrote the prologue for this event--is obviously paying attention, as he should considering the Red Skullís beautiful daughter serves as the eventís primary antagonist.

What makes Fear Itself, in itself, a comic book movie is the art from Stuart Immonen and Laura Martin. The panels are penciled in a very cinematic, widescreen format with vivid, larger-than-life hues. If Bendis did anything right with this event, it was to lend Fraction the talents of Immonen, who had a standout year with New Avengers. While New Avengers focuses on the secret origins of Nick Fury, now is a no better time to let Immonen flourish in Fear Itself.

Thereís more Asgard--at least a rubbled-up, decimated version--than there was in Siege; at least we get a better feel for the landscape in this issue.

Props also go to Marvel for giving fans a lengthy $3.99 event book. Not including the ďRed Planet HulkĒ preview in the back, Fear Itself #1 is an already lengthy read. There are many true-to-life concerns being dealt with here, all the while exploring the fantastic.

Story elements donít get much crazier than supernatural hammers, malevolent Nordic mysticism, and frozen Nazis. Thus, if you thought this book would merely deal with laid-off and broke citizens taking their resentment out on superheroes, youíre wrong--except for the first scene, which sets the tone for why all these magic hammers striking numerous global locations is critical.

The naysayers will say that Secret Invasion, Siege and other such events had bad-ass debut issues and faltered as they went on. With only a tone set by Fraction for what we shall receive, I just donít see that happening.

Besides, Fraction also gets the voices of these characters (makes you wonder what the hell happened on X-Men!). You donít get the off-quirky, wisecrack vibe of the heroes that Bendis is so renowned for--which, in a serious event such as Fear Itself, where anything can go to shit at any time, is a plus.

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