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Fear Itself (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Part of what is so remarkable about Fear Itself is how uncomfortably it fits into the “huge event” role that Marvel cast for it. Matt Fraction’s seven-issues-and-change epic crossover event is really just a Thor story arc that dips its toe in the waters of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America. Instead, Marvel cast it as this gigantic universe-altering mega-important miniseries with over 100 crossovers and tie-ins from all corners of the Marvel Universe.

Positioned to capitalise on the release of both Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Joe Johnson’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Fear Itself seems like a story told in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Brian Bendis’ Secret Invasion would undoubtedly have worked better as an arc of New Avengers than as a full-blown “nothing is ever the same again” epic, Fear Itself would have been a much stronger comic had it been allowed to play out on a smaller stage.

Hammer time!

Hammer time!

Still, despite the problems inherent in large-scale epic crossovers, Fear Itself works surprisingly well. Indeed, it it probably the strongest Marvel “mega-event” of the past decade if only because it is built on a strong ideological premise and develops some of the underlying themes and ideas of Fraction’s other Marvel work. Treated as a seven-issue story arc from Matt Fraction’s The Mighty Thor, it’s a fascinating climax of ideas that bubble away in the background of his run.

The choice to let Fraction craft Fear Itself, with assists from Ed Brubaker on the prologue and epilogue to the event, is inspired. Fraction is not the most consistent of comic book writers, but he is also incredibly wry and self-aware. There’s a sense of charming self-deprecating to Fear Itself, as Fraction allows the characters involved to reflect on the absurdity of it all without ever losing track of their humanity. Fear Itself might be far from perfect, but it is clever, fun and thoughtful. And those are endearing virtues.

Suit up!

Suit up!

Fear Itself is – in many ways – a slave to the demands of the big events. You can see those demands at work throughout the volume, with a lot of significant moments included for a wealth of characters, a lot of plot threads introduced so they can be more thoroughly explored in the various tie-ins, and even the obligatory big character deaths. Not one – but two – of the three most iconic Avengers meet their death in some form or another over the course of the crossover. Still, at least the event is relatively honest with its readers; both deceased characters are alive again (more or less) before the epilogues have wrapped up.

The demands of the big event are most obvious in the final issue of the seven-issue miniseries. Fraction closes off Fear Itself in a way that makes sense within the narrative. He wraps up the story with a short vignette featuring a couple of normal people, offering the insight that life goes on and the best thing that anybody can do in the face of terror and fear is to try to live their lives as much as possible. It’s a nice little closing scene, but it’s immediately undercut by fifteen pages of preludes to various spin-off books coming out of Fear Itself, from Fraction’s Defenders to Aaron’s Incredible Hulk.

Shield yourself!

Shield yourself!

These elements are distracting and frustrating. One of the more endearing aspects of Fear Itself is how resoundingly simple the story is. Fraction’s plotting is never overly complex. Knowing that the point of the event is to see superheroes throwing down with one another, he manages to construct a simplistic justification that doesn’t require the central characters to start brawling for no reason. There’s no real “why aren’t they just talking it out?” moment like in Civil War or Avengers vs. X-Men. There are bad guys doing bad things, and good guys trying to stop them. Adding room for over 100 spin-offs and tie-ins dilutes that.

To be fair, the comic all but acknowledges that this is what it is doing. In particular, Ed Brubaker’s Captain America epilogue draws attention to how manipulative and transparent one of those fake deaths happens to be. “Killing off” Bucky is just an excuse for Marvel to put Steve Rogers back in the suit, in order to properly synergise the multimedia brand. It’s an understandable attempt to make the Captain America titles more accessible to readers who might want to jump on board after the film, and doing it during the annual high-profile event makes a great deal of sense – even if it doesn’t make it any less cynical.

Dropping the hammer...

Dropping the hammer…

Justifying the decision to fake Bucky’s death in a scene unfolding between the panels of the main event, the Black Widow rationalises, “Besides, this gets you what you want, doesn’t it?” Nick Fury concedes, agreeing, “And if this doesn’t get Steve back into the uniform… I don’t know what will.” On the subject of faking his death, even Bucky is somewhat cynical. When the Black Widow informs him that he is dead, he responds, “Oh… that again… that trick never works…”

There’s an endearing self-awareness to all this, and it’s to the credit that Fear Itself never oversells those obligatory “big event” moments. Thor also dies, but this is very clearly to advance the plot of Fraction’s own run on The Mighty Thor – it’s a temporary death, with Thor’s eyes opening on the final pages of Fraction’s Thor epilogue to the event itself. There’s a sense that – despite all the fanfare surrounding the event – this is the best prism through which to view Fear Itself. It feels like a chapter of Fraction’s Thor run, in the same way that Secret Invasion felt like a small part of Brian Bendis’ New Avengers work.

Avengers assembled...

Avengers assembled…

Like a lot of Marvel’s output in the twentieth century, Fear Itself is anchored in the post-9/11 zeitgeist. Sure, there are references to the recession and to job losses, but the Serpent is characterised as an explicitly terrorist threat. Laying down the agenda for her father’s campaign, Skadi explains, “All targets are valid. Women — children — property — all of it — kill them all. Everything. This is war. There are no civilians.” The Serpent himself directs, “Go forth and bring my terror to this place.”

“He is terror given shape,” Odin helpfully explains. “And they are driven by dire purposes we cannot fathom beyond the most simple: Spread fear! Spread terror!” The Serpent’s war is defined as holy (indeed, many characters offer the exclamation in response to the scale of the terror), and Fear Itself is presented as a conflict between gods – where gods are simply ideas and philosophies given form. At its purest, the Serpent seeks to “break” mankind by making them witness to horror and terror. It’s the purest form of terrorist campaign possible.

Into the mouth of the beast...

Into the mouth of the beast…

(There is something a little strange about the prevalence of Christian imagery in Fear Itself. The Worthy are hidden in “the veil of tears”, an obvious nod to the Christian philosophy of “the vale of tears.” There are seven Worthy, playing off the importance of the number seven to Christian theology. In Fraction’s Mighty Thor tie-in, Odin lays siege to the Serpent for “forty days and forty nights.” This imagery feels a little strange slotted into a narrative about Norse gods, just like the imagery in the last issue of Captain America leading a gun-totting American militia.)

Fear Itself feels like a companion piece to other post-9/11 events like Secret Invasion or Siege. It’s very much anchored in the iconography of the time. At the same time, Fraction’s event is simultaneously more abstract and more literal than Bendis’ work on the topic. Bendis dealt with themes like liberty and security; while Fraction’s more fascinated with more abstract forms of terror. The Serpent isn’t exploiting terror or fear to give him dominion or authority. Instead, he’s just growing strong from it.

Gunning for the bad guys...

Gunning for the bad guys…

However, many of the big fight scenes are intercut with news snippets expressing more mundane and grounded concerns – child illness statistics, unemployment rates, natural disasters. These little bubbles playing out under the massive superhero throwdowns offer a glimpse of the real-world fears underpinning the spectacle and the horror. It’s easy to understand why people are so susceptible to fear and terror, given the constant tone of the information they receive.

It is enough to shock somebody into apathy. The Watcher, often treated as Marvel shorthand for “something big is about to happen”, comes to bear witness at the start of the event. Odin calls the Watcher to task for his “morbid and cruel curiosity.” In fact, Odin could just as easily by launching a scathing critique of the readers who sit back and seem to feed off the terror and fear that seeps its way into the media they consume. “All those eons staring and watching everything. So sanctimonious in your silence and your judgment. Have you come then at last to witness my greatest failure?”

Don't make a Thing of it...

Don’t make a Thing of it…

This could easily become pretentious or overblown, and it’s a testament to Fraction’s skill that Fear Itself never becomes over-inflated. Fraction’s script is always quick to draw attention to its own excesses and heavy-handedness. It often feels like Fraction is winking out at the audience from within the comic. There’s a cheeky streak that runs through Fear Itself that prevents the book from ever feeling too awkward.

In the opening issue, following a very grounded real-world scene of protests rioting that is defined as “a no-villains-behind-it riot, pure and simple”, Tony Stark goes out of his way to justify Fear Itself as a gigantic comic book crossover, “Let’s make it an event, I’m saying, because we can’t punch a recession or frog march all of Wall Street into the Negative Zone or suddenly make everyone feel safe again.”

Of course there are Nazis...

Of course there are Nazis…

In the same scene, Stark pretty much explains why Steve Rogers has to revert back to Captain America at some point, despite Marvel’s best efforts to allow Ed Brubaker to develop Bucky-as-Captain-America. “Well, ‘Captain America’ doesn’t come with the same cache it once did,” Stark states, matter-of-factly. “And you’re not even that anymore.” As such, there’s an endearing self-awareness to Fear Itself.

And Fraction isn’t afraid to call out the comic on its own excesses. Opening with a riot over what is to be done with the remains of the World Trade Centre, the comic quickly transitions to the ruins of Asgard for a similar debate – just in case the readers don’t grasp the allegory. However, at the press conference discussing the decision to rebuild Asgard, Stark acknowledges, “When things were at their most dire, a madman brought a city built for gods crashing to Earth. As far as metaphors go, it’s right on the nose.” He is perfectly correct. The metaphor is a bit obvious. But acknowledging the obviousness of the set-up helps make it palatable.

A family disagreement...

A family disagreement…

Similarly, there’s something quite a bit cheeky in the way that Fraction slips several familiar pop culture refrains into the Serpent’s war speech. We’re told that “the Asgardian war machine springs to life”, even if it hasn’t yet opened up one eager eye. While advising his troops on how to deal with their enemies, he suggests his troops “see them driven before you.” He does not suggest waiting to hear the lamentations of the women.

There’s something playful in the way Fraction incorporates these in-jokes into moments of dark seriousness. When Steve asks Luke Cage for a status update, Luke nonchalantly replies, “End of the world. Samo-samo.” All of this is routine at this point. The end-of-the-world stakes, the deaths of iconic characters, the bombast and the drama. Fear Itself just pushes things a tiny bit further, featuring the “deaths” of two of the iconic big three Avengers and the shattering of Captain America’s shield. And yet, in the midst of all that, the crossover never quite gets carried away with itself. Never loses perspective.

A break from the norm...

A break from the norm…

Then again, that would seem to be the entire point. Fear Itself is a fundamentally optimistic piece about how things are never quite so bad that they cannot be fixed. The response to unholy terror is to decide that you will not be afraid. The real hero of Fear Itself is Broxton resident Rick, who decides to stand with Captain America and who still finds it in him to be a decent neighbour even after everything has fallen apart. The Serpent may break Captain America’s iconic shield, but it can be put back together.

There is something that might seem a little patronising in that idea – the sense that all everybody needs to do to make the world a better place is to think happy thoughts – but there’s a sense that Fraction is entirely sincere in this. After all, Ben Grimm is cured of his evil and affliction by the wish of young Franklin Richards. A small child can make the world a better place simply by thinking good thoughts and wishing for a happy ending.

A Thor spot...

A Thor spot…

Which brings us to one of the truly beautiful aspects of Fear Itself, and something directly at odds with the comic’s status as the big annual crossover event. Fear Itself is a far more intimate story that it appears to be. This is obvious from the decision to close the comic on Rick, but that also applies to the central conflicts. As Thor and Odin finally lash out at each other, Fandral refuses to let Steve Rogers get involved. “This is… a family concern.” He is more correct than he knows, as the Serpent turns out to be Odin’s brother and Thor’s uncle, and Fear Itself is an extended family dispute.

For all that the Serpent lays siege to Earth and marches towards Asgard, he seeks to avenge himself on his brother. For all that Odin is ready to launch a scorched Earth policy, he is trying to protect his son. “Were you a father… were you ever to become a father… maybe you would understand,” Odin tries to explain. “A world is nothing for your son.” Even the conflict between the Red Skull and Captain America is portrayed as a bitter family feud, inherited by Sin and Bucky.

Flight of fancy...

Flight of fancy…

And there are other ways that Fear Itself seems to sit most comfortably as part of Fraction’s work on The Mighty Thor. The plot is concerned with narrative gaps – with plot holes that essentially develop to threaten the narrative. There are objects that slip themselves into gaps left in stories, and come to threaten the very fabric of existence. Fraction’s opening Thor arc, The World-Eaters was built off the question of what might fill the gap in the nine realms left by Asgard. The arc directly following on from Fear Itself features a malevolent entity that has slotted itself into the vacuum created by Thor’s death.

Here, Odin’s “forgotten brother” arrives to lay claim to Odin’s throne. However, despite contrasting Odin and the Serpent, most obviously with an effective two-page display in the fourth issue, the script is quite clear that the Serpent should not be considered the opposite of Odin. “Is he the true All-Father?” Thor asks his father at one point. Odin skilfully avoids answering the question asked, instead offering, “He isn’t my opposite, Thor. He is my absence.”

Thor. As articulate as ever.

Thor. As articulate as ever.

At the same time, some of the weaknesses at play in Fraction’s Thor work are also obvious here. Although Marvel has steered the character of Thor away from quaint Old-English-sounding dialogue, Fraction has his characters using awkward colloquialisms. “You can’t say your father never gave you anything,” Odin remarks, returning his son’s hammer. Confronting the Hulk, Thor confesses, “You were always a giant pain in the ass.” These don’t really feel like lines that come from god-like being fashioned in the imagery of Norse mythology. (Although one might wonder why Ye Olde Themepark English fits any better.)

Still, Fraction hits on the grand themes of the Thor mythos. The event-drive pattern of epic-brawl-followed-by-epic brawl isn’t merely padding or pointless repetition. Fraction draws attention to it, suggesting that it is simply a myth being retold and re-shaped and re-formed. “This seems to keep happening to you, boy,” Odin muses, “getting beaten down and dragged back to Asgard. You’d think it a pattern.” Thor replies, “Asgardians are nothing without our cycles and refrains…”

Some light relief...

Shocking behaviour…

Similarly, the story is drawn in broad archetypes. It’s important to put Steve Rogers back in the Captain America uniform, because he is iconic there. When Odin fashions armour for the Avengers, each is tailored to recipient, to play up the character’s iconography. So Wolverine gets a suit of armour with claws, while Hawkeye gets a bow and arrow set with one heck of a perk. “Hah. Can’t miss.” Throughout the event, characters are defined as much as archetypes as they are as characters. The Watcher is “the witness”, Captain America is “the leader”, Stark is “the opposite.” The Serpent fancies himself “God.”

As he prepares for the epic finalé, even Stark acknowledges that the plot is driven as much by the rules of narrative and storytelling as by any sort of internal logic. “It’s a leap of faith. Baptism of fire. It’s all that symbolic, poetic %$#! I don’t believe in…” That’s the beauty of comic book characters. They endure, and survive. “They don’t really end because they already began, right?” a rambling patient offers in Fraction’s Thor epilogue. “You, like, you hear a story — even though that story ends, right, it doesn’t really because you know how it starts and you can start it again — stories outlive us all as long as you don’t forget.”

Armoured Avengers...

Armoured Avengers…

He is correct. As Stark points out in the first issue, this is the second Great Depression that Captain America has lived through. Characters like this tend to endure – and they endure because they are symbols and archetypes, familiar stories that are oft-repeated and well-loved. Fear Itself is at its strongest when it plays off these big ideas and core concepts, but while keeping itself firmly grounded.

The wonderful artwork from Stuart Immonen helps here. Immonen’s style is clear and elegant. It’s easy to follow and always clear – it isn’t heavily stylised and it flows well from panel to panel. Fear Itself is a beautiful-looking crossover, with Immonen equally suited to character expression and large-scale superheroic brawls. It’s never unclear what is going on, and Immonen’s work is perfectly suited to Fraction’s script. Immonen is easily one of the most underrated artists working in the industry today.

Holding on to what he has...

Holding on to what he has…

Fear Itself is a fascinating read. It is witty and clever, even as it is burdened by the demands of the larger Marvel Universe around it. It’s a story that suffers from being so blown out of proportion – instead fitting better as a neat crossover between the three big Avengers characters than as something spanning the entirety of the shared comic book universe. Still, it is an intriguing read.

10 Responses

  1. it’s crazy I was actually going to do a review on Fear Itself, myself. I love this epic event in Marvel history. It basically brings the end of the comic book world to using biblical means-turned-Asgardian. And probably should have been the end, like the Age of Apocalypse. The quick defeat of the Serpent ended the story waaaaay to soon. I feel like they could have dragged it out more. Fear Itself: Iron Man was definitely the best part! (What’s that smell? Oh, I threw up in my suit, Paris was a nightmare!) Loved the event!

    • I really did like the event – perhaps due to lowered expectations going in. Still, I think it’s one of the stronger “big” Marvel events, if only due to its relative simplicity. (But, then again, I think World War Hulk is the best “Avengers” event between Siege and Disassembled, so what do I know?)

      • Yeah World War Hulk was awesome, but it just proved that nobody can beat or kill the Hulk, which sucks because where do you go from there? Then you give him an Asgardian hammer in Fear Itself, and Thor has to knock him out of the planet just to continue the storyline, what are you supposed to do in the future if he loses it again? Wait for “Old Man Logan” to happen after Hulk destroys the world?

      • I don’t know, I just thought it was the most logical excuse for the classic “superheroes fight each other” set-up this side of Avengers Disassembled.

  2. So what did you think of the semi-sequel series ‘Fear Itself: The Fearless’?

    • I hate to admit it, but I haven’t read it. Would you recommend it?

      • I’m afraid I haven’t read ‘The Fearless’ yet myself. Other reviewers seem to think it’s tolerable compared to the mess they think ‘Fear Itself’ is, so I would have liked to see what someone who actually likes it think.

      • Might give it a go. 🙂

  3. I’ve been slowly working my way through your Bendis-era Avengers retrospectives and related events (great insights!), and I’m looking forward to re-reading it soon…for better or worse.

    I stopped reading his run right before Fear Itself — how do the flagship titles and their respective tie-ins hold up relative to the events themselves? I’m especially curious because the prior events (House of M, Civil War, Secret Invasion, Siege) seem tightly connected to Bendis’ narrative, yet — after reading your reviews of Fear Itself and AvX — it seems like subsequent events serve the needs of other titles, i.e. Thor and Uncanny X-Men. The “Heroic Age” seems more directionless, but not sure since I only read the first 2 arcs…

    • Thanks for the kind words.

      Yep. Things get a little unfocused. I read Bendis’ post-Siege Avengers titles recently and… they are weirdly flaccid. All the air has gone out of them. They are no longer driving the Marvel universe, despite tying into Fear Itself or Avengers vs. X-Men.

      That said, Hickman’s Avengers does return to that “backbone” structure a bit, even if Infinity and Inhumanity don’t have quite the same impact on peripheral titles as Civil War or Secret Invasion.

      I was considering doing some Avengers related comic reviews for the release of Age of Ultron, but time got away from me.

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