October 25th, 2011
Botswana Beast: [post-factum editorial note: these were written intermittently on a GoogleDoc, in sections post- the release of Marvel's 2011 event Fear Itself, I think after issues 4, 6 and 7 were released unto the buying public.]
Right, son, I’mo get my fit-to-print pants on:
Where to start, oh, man; I guess you bought Fear Itself, I was surprised you did because you are a grown-up who buys [LOL interjection] grown-up comics, and you bought it because of how I described it to you at Kapow!? (How much punctuations should I put there? Feels like I should put more) Which was – I dunno – it was in April, so I guess just after the first issue? And I described it as “Final Crisis set in the Marvel Universe” which is… it’s not inaccurate, but, basically the lesson is never, ever listen to me.
Because it’s been – and I know some folk don’t think it inarguable that Final Crisis was a good comic, let alone a great one (I think “you are probably wrong” to these people, not necessarily on a permanent basis, just on that matter) – but it’s been a disaster, really, and at this point I kind of wish I’d sold you, or more importantly, myself, on “Age of Apocalypse set in the DC Universe” aka Flashpoint which has been… I don’t know, not good exactly? Momentous? They both have nice art, that is all I’m going to say on art. That is the Art Statement. Mainstream comics are not about art, they’re about commerce. The artists on Fear Itself and Flashpoint really did a good job – but it was the Marvel eds and Johns that built these.
It’s been so bad – whilst also offering glimmers of something that could have been really good, Marvel is my district, really, it always has been in comics, but it’s been so bad that I can feel my Zombie embers burn out as it progresses; I’ve fiended Marvel for a decade, which, whatever, bloggers don’t tend to do (“I’m not you, blogger. I’m not you.”) possibly because they are largely at some level involved in an industry which the company can and has run jackbooted over as it please. And I’m not: you’ll get purely sideline sniping here. So, yeah, I looked at September’s offerings from them and, assuming Mark Waid performs the first-time feat of maintaining my interest in a comic he’s writing past three issues, the art on these is really nice, I’ll get Daredevil, I’ll probably fork out £3.25 for DPMAX2, I’ll definitely get the Elektra:Assassin trade at some indeterminate point and that’s it. (It is necessary to discuss Marvel comics in transactional terms, always). Now, there may be other aspects at play here, I may have taken Alan Moore and his former friend Steve Bissette’s rejoinders to heart, it may be that I am envious of Matt Fraction*, it may be that, given I have a second imminent baby, probably [EDIT: yes] arrived by the time this sees printernet, I’ve decided to rationalise cutting back in all these ways, who knows what my Crowleyan Will hath wrought? But anyway, Fear Itself is coincident with my final days as a Marvel “fan”, it transpires. It’s complicated, I guess; but anyway, anyone who sez: Kirboycotters are all people who weren’t reading Marvel anyway – no, I am yr counterexample. But, you know, do what you like.
I haven’t really talked about the comic yet, have I? Yeah, read these. We’ll get to it. That’s a… composite of my feelings, an emotional aggregate, to begin with. The number one thing I am super fucked-off with it for is killing Bucky with some nonsense (and okay, yes, there is a storied history of Norse myth and Nazism entwining, but it would have been nice to have even the obliquest cursory grounding of that**) exterior to his own story, which I think was a really shitty choice.
*sort of, but also, I think, kind of not really. I find him a very frustrating writer, but I think there’s certainly at least a seam of brilliance in there somewhere? I think there is – hm, have you heard this idea? – maybe an endemic problem with the Western comics industry and he and his peers are entirely likely to fall victim to it, not something I particularly or at all really wish upon them.
**I’m assuming you are solely reading the series, IV? I am reading Fraction’s Iron Man tie-ins which have abominable art, but one of them was sort of good for a novelty item, and I got the Brubaker preface which is, effectively, I suppose, now the last part of the Bucky story he’d written for 5-6 years? It’s not a very good ending, anyway.
Illogical Volume: First of all: YOU BASTARD! It’s entirely your fault that I’m reading Fear Itself, and I’m making you do this piece as a form of cheap rewenge (he says, making excuses for his own poor purchasing decisions.* You want babyman bullshit? Come to comics, we got it for cheap!).
Secondly, no, I’ve not bothered reading any of the tie-ins. I did get a quick chuckle out of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” style promos at the back of the main book, but I looked at my wallet and my wallet said “Not today big man,” and who was I to argue with that?
So, anyway, yeah, it was your description of Fear Itself as a Final Crisis for the Marvel Universe that made me check it out. I don’t consider Final Crisis to be an entirely successful comic – see Marc Singer for the best explanation of why – but I do think that it was an unnecessarily ambitious and personal event comic, and as such an intriguing model for a big summer crossover in the Mighty Marvel Manner. Once the novelty of confirming that your description was right passed, I still found myself picking Fear Itself up every month, probably because of the sheer futile effort involved in the thing. Contra Tucker “The Fucker” Stone, I can see Fraction and Immonen straining away here, which only makes the sheer lack of affect in the finished product even more remarkable.
Time to tell this straight, like a cider made from 100% pear(sssss): no super-serum could cure all the pain I’ve had to endure here because of you Beastie! And yet, watching Fraction throw all those balls in the air, knowing that he probably wasn’t going to be able to catch them all has provided a weird sort of entertainment. ** I mean, it’s the sort of entertainment you normally expect to get watching your boss have a nervous breakdown, but it’s entertainment all the same!
I’ve not managed to stick with one of Fraction’s Marvel Universe comics since The Order finished, but I normally find something to admire in his corporate efforts – he’s got a certain aptitude for, uh, brand management, for writing a version of Iron Man that makes sense in relation to both the movies and, say, Warren Ellis’ take in the comics. Like I said, that’s usually not enough for me (plus, looking at illustrations by Sal Larroca is just above “being force-fed shavings from my own testicles” in the list of things I want to pay for), but I can appreciate it on an abstract level. This talent is on display in Fear Itself, which has a central conflict between Thor and his dad that’s similar to the one that powers the Thor movie without replicating its details, and which also features Steve Rogers vs. Nazis with Asgardian hard-ons, just like the Captain America film! The problem is, even though these conflicts are being drawn by Stuart Immonen, and are thus very elegantly framed indeed, they aren’t really terribly well served by the purposefully clipped storytelling style of Fear Itself. I’m not as impressed by the world-building in those Avengers warm-up movies as Matt Seneca seems to be, but arbitrary as the plot mechanics in those films can be, their design is always clear. Like I’ve already said, you can see plenty of effort in Fear Itself, but the results are less clear. It’s a Final Crisis style attempt to make those Kirby-crackles stand in for broader social and emotional “issues” (kind’ve like they did in the old Jack Kirby comics, except with slightly droopier fight scenes) but it’s never felt to me like there’s been a real integration of the literal and the thematic here. Sure, the book starts off with Steve Rogers at a riot, the first issue worked quite hard to match the tone of post-Moneygeddon life, there’s some chatter about “fear” in every issue, etc, but – what does any of it actually amount to?
(Chad Nevett has a good bit on this in his Random Thoughts on Fear Itself column: “The family leaving Broxton is like the Asgardians leaving Broxton. Economical troubles are to humans what secret All-Father God of Fears are to Asgardians. Now, that‘s social relevancy.” Indeed. )
For a series about lots of nutters with magic hammers going on a rampage, the action scenes have been a bit flat, rarely amounting to more than “I AM SQUIDGEYBAWS, BREAKER OF GLASS JAWS! PREPARE FOR THE CUNTENING!” or “Oh look, it’s some… uh, robot Nazis attacking the White House or something!” Fraction can definitely take some of the blame here for not with situations that more aptly demonstrated the appeal of HOTT HAMMER ON HAMMER ACTION, but I also reckon that Immonen’s art is maybe a bit too graceful for what Fraction’s trying to convey in this story.
I’m thinking of the Hulk baring down on Betty in issue #3 here, and I reckon that scene was supposed to have a grubby panic to it that doesn’t come across on the page:
I mean, that looks lovely, it’s well composed – that little inset panel goes some way to making the hulk seem inescapable – but it still reads as just another superhero showdown, so I’m not sure it’s really doing the job, you know?
The big dramatic moments are similarly unimpressive. Issue #5 ends — uh, is it too late for a SPOILERS! warning? –with that “I told him to stand down” spiel which I know it’s supposed to be a massive kick in the dick, like, “Oh my fuck, Captain America’s giving up!” or whatever, but there’s no real build-up or follow up, so it just seems dumb and arbitrary, to me anyway.
Same with Iron Man’s attempts to damage his iron liver in order to get Odin’s attention – maybe that’s more interesting if you’ve been following the main title, but to me it felt like emotional box ticking and little more.
As for the real world relevance… is it possible that the context that the book’s been published in has been more interesting than the on-page content? I think so. I mean, you’ve already talked about the boycott, and being a “grown-up” comic reader, I can’t boycott much (I’m reading Deadpool Max and Daredevil right now, and I guess I was planning to buy the collected editions of New X-Men to replace my floppies at some point), but the Captain America movie still managed to rub me up the wrong way. The first act just felt so very fucking Kirby, with the small guy brawling his way across New York, never knowing when to give up, and when they woke Stan Lee up for his cameo I just found myself thinking “Nah, fuck that!” So… once Fear Itself ends, I think I’ll be avoiding the Kirby-related Marvel stuff for a while, though I’m not sure how much priority to put on that when there are so many other ethical shopping issues I fumble around with (and how fucking middle class do I sound now, eh?******).
In short: if I am a “grown-up”, I’m not very good at it, not even when I’m dealing with comics.
* And Marvel comics must be discussed entirely in such terms, True Believer, oh yes!!!!
** He dropped his balls hrn hrn hrn!!!***
*** His balls dropped hrn hrn hrn!!!
**** As my pal Fergus once commented while talking about high street ethics – “Say what you will about Primark, but at least they pass the discount down to you!”<
Botty Beast: You know, I was going to try and reread through the series, now that #6 has came out and… aw, I just couldn’t be fucked. The Iron Man tie-ins are alright actually, odd and entertaining enough, apart from being $4 22-or-less pages comics illustrated by Salva ‘plastic mannequins’ Larroca, and obviously Fraction’s signatory Casanova came back, and was thoroughly quite good. So it’s not like he am untalented – there are bits… there’s a bit in like #3, where I was quite enjoying it, he has this vignette of the Marvel Universe 2011, so there’s the Future Foundation, not the Fantastic Four, he was able to do superpolice* in different voices – I felt, briefly, immersed which is – I suppose, fundamentally the point of these things: shit is going down here in yr comfy Marvel Universe, come on in. And so, for a moment, yeah. But the threat is so completely abstract to me, whilst also apparently being timely, which to be fair Marvel Comics has a not humiliating record of doing, is much much better at doing than its competitor; tapping the zeitgeist with wrestler outfits and hammers. Like Brubaker had loads of shit about home foreclosures in his original Captain America run, Millar, despite being a piece of shit, maybe it was before he was a living turd, I haven’t decided yet, managed to sort of, terribly, talk about security-versus-freedom issues in Civil War…
Anyway, yeah – Fear, the Serpent – insofar as zeitgeist tapping, this could have really worked, K-Punk had this bit in, I can’t recall if it’s Capitalist Realism or his blog or bobsy’s reportage of an event of Fisher’s he went to, a talk – well, it was definitely the latter but I think it might be one of the former, too – anyway, where he talks about free-market capitalism slipping the bonds of state control, he analogises it to, thereafter, the wolf Fenris eating the sun in the Ragnarok myth, this is – this is a reading of Norse mythology and, you know, the world that I am more sympathetic to. And people aren’t – well, the people with whom I have any sympathy, despite my cosy middle-class existence aren’t fearful, they are in fact bloody furious. It’s the markets that are – or are pretending to be, for doubtless nefarious purpose, the slippery cunts – acting like Miffy the bunnyrabbit. So, you have a bunch of trademarks, stolen from their creator, running around pretending like terrible big shit is going down and… it’s very unconvincing? I guess Marvel Comics are – I’ve only read them for 25 years and realised this like two ago – I guess they are a bit conservative – or of a kind of middleground American viewpoint, to phrase it more nicely? But it should at least be interesting looking at America looking at itself, via action figures?
And there’s a couple things become particularly notable during crossover events, of which I read all, because otherwise how will you know what’s happening in the Marvel Universe?!
You will not know.
One is that innate conservatism where, you know, like Secret Invasion featured some people being rewarded with death for not displaying the appropriate amount of xenophobia, Civil War featured a stacked ideological conflict about state regulation that was never, ever going to be won by the goodie, Iron Man, because, oh look, he created the Thunderbolts out of some heinous murderers, as those who’d parlay with the state are wont to do – Zom’s talked about Geoff Johns weird pre-Galilean cosmology, DC is always a bit more abstract…
The other thing is that these writers, the ones handed the thankless, but probably not financially unrewarding, task of “tentpoling” the bastard things, and perhaps it is because everyone else examines them so thoroughly, because of their in-universe import, this freighted ballast -I think in every case, and I could go line-for-line, for example Bendis is utterly abysmal at staging action scenes, Morrison, as much as I love him, does write some sort of confluctive fait accompli-ass finales – in every case, their flaws are made glaring, and in Fraction’s case, as I tweeted, cruelly and naturally reductively that amounts to: “lots of stuff is happening (good), it is very hard to give a damn about any of it (bad.)”
I had a rap song I wanted to put here too, and just to point out one reason why, regardless, Marvel will always be better than DC is that Marvel’s EiC’s favourite band is Clipse. So, but also, yeah, I was listening to The Cold Vein (classic. classic.) again the other day, and yo, we should just have a youtube to illustrate, you know, again, there is nothing wrong with this premise, it has simply been botched.
*and yo, check Steve Rogers’ conduct in the riot, I ain’t see him touch an officer of the law, the badge-worshiping cunt. Rodney King(!), etc.
Illogical Volume: Fuck a Steve Rogers, son should be drop-kicking mounted policemen while quoting Emerson. When he does that, he’s back on the Christmas card list. Until then, nah son… nah.
I’m fascinated by the whole “what’s going down in the Marvel Universe today?” thing. It’s never something I’ve particularly went to comics for, except maybe with Love and Rockets or Finder, and even there I’m checking in with favourite creators as much as anything else. I’d love to take this point further, I’m sure it complicates the reading experience in any number of ways, but I’m vastly unqualified to comment on them. Unless you want pure bullshit instead of my usual diluted-bullshit, in which case, DO YOU WANT BAKED BEANS WITH THAT SIR?!
Oh, hey, here’s another angle, another question: where does Fear Itself fit in with recent superhero books? It’s not prismatic (the citations just keep rolling in for that one, don’t they Beastie? Kinda like a big deal!), and if anything it seems like an attempt to step-away from the quasi-realist, military feel of post-Ultimates superhero comics. I’ve already bashed hell out of the Final Crisis comparison like it was my own disease-riddled penis, but is it worth considering both comics as attempts at cosmic horror in the superhero genre? I was amused, when looking back over the relaunched DC books I picked up last month, to realise that all-but-two of them (OMAC and Action Comics, fight fans!) were attempts at horror-superhero hybrids. This is… it’s probably “Axe Happy” Geoff Johns who’s made this DC’s default tone, but it’s a bit of an odd combination of indestructible bodies and mortal peril, isn’t it? So! Is Fear Itself an attempt at doing this in the Marvel Universe, and if so, do you think it’s an effective one? It’s striving for that sense of universal hopelessness, but there’s nothing in Fear Itself as simple and affecting as Dan Turpin’s battle with anti-life in Final Crisis*, which I obviously think has emotional and political resonance to spare, given that I used as the jump-off point for a recent post on anti-life and Capitalist Realism.**
While we’re talking politics, I agree that there’s another version of Fear Itself to be written that would have more resonance with that K-Punk bit, for sure. That comic would definitely be more pleasing to this particular pissy socialist, but I don’t know that Fear Itself is – Steve Rogers’ cop loving grimace aside – particularly conservative in the manner you attribute to the other big Marvel crossovers. Mostly it just seems politically inert to me, in a way that doesn’t overly surprise given the dual requirements of genre and universe “tentpolling.”***
That said, the conceit in the first issue, where Iron Man’s pitching a sort of job creation scheme based on the reconstruction of an Asgardian city on Earth, reminded me of Morrison’s JLA almost, with the superheroes being there to inspire people to do better. Marc Singer has a smart bit about the politics of Mozzer’s JLA in his upcoming book on No Beard’s comics – he does a good job describing how Morrison manages to keep it all progressive by negotiating the path between passivity and violent intervention, which is something I’ve never quite managed to articulate quite so clearly myself, so… it’s a good book, people are going to like it, basically. It occurs to me that this is another road Fear Itself could have taken, though it’s not without its own perils. Things tend to get pretty annoying pretty quickly when you start to introduce practical details into these kinked-out fantasies, and if I see an Avengers trade paperback called QUANTITATIVE EASING, I will not exactly be in a hurry to take it home with me.
* I remember sitting in the pub post-Kapow, listening to bobsy chat about how you could slag Final Crisis all you wanted, but inasmuch as he cared about perfect pulp moments (and this, he pointed out, was pretty much all he fucking cared about) the bit with Darkseid giving the thumbs down was a perfect pulp moment. And you know what? The fucker was right!
** Oops, I think I unknowingly ripped off/paraphrased your line about “tapping the zeitgeist with wrestler outfits and hammers” in that Darkseid piece – the fact that I published my version of this line before yours surfaced should cement my reputation as a right bad bastard.
*** Hrn hrn hrn!!!
Botswana Beast (did you know, there was a wrestler with this name, you can make a wrestler out of anything): Well, so we come to the finale, “Thor’s Day”, the day of my birth as it so happens, oh but I do like that kind of definition in my daft abstract fluff entertainment: the Child… has far to go. Thor died, on a Thursday. And as it also so happens, he did for me, as I read this last Thursday.
And that’s, oh dear, that’s really all I like in the end. I was enjoying this comic until the end of issue 3, which is around standard for the type? And then you buy the rest out of inertia, liking them progressively less. (I really did quite like the first issue, you know, it’s a bit of a distant memory.) By which point:
The thing, speaking of dumb and arbitrary – yes, this really is. There’s no – the Serpent is called Cul? As in Cul-de-Sac? I think that is not in the Eddas, I think it is a not very good addition.
Thor dies? Keen readers of Matt Fraction such as I will have noted when he began writing Thor, a year or so ago, both Loki and Odin were dead, so – it’s not, I don’t really have a big problem with the injection of drama via death, something that franchised, infantilised and cossetted world of mainstream superheroes is spectacularly ill-adjusted to contending with on any level, but knowing that makes it seem all the more transitory and facile. And it was, being done to goose sales, already pretty transitory and facile!
I mean, I want to be absolutely clear, I don’t dislike Matt Fraction, he’s just a guy trying to entertain an audience, I don’t hate anybody except the really bad bastards in the world. I think he has several capable strings to his bow, he can write sci-fi, he has an excellent pop-culture vocabulary (unused here,) he can write – he co-wrote a really enjoyable for the most part Mystical Kung-Fu comic. But I think, and horror’s really a dominant mode presently, horror and fantasy, as evinced in particularly something like the new, very good Azzarello/Chiang Wonder Woman, but also a number, a good percentile of the DC relaunch titles and he seems really quite spectacularly inept at both, someone who learned every wrong lesson – twee allusions to modernity, pat morals – from Neil Gaiman. My idea of horror in comics is pretty much wholly borne off the back of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, which will go back to EC and Ramsey Campbell and so on, you know, the comic’s got ‘Fear’ in the title and there’s nothing beyond shellacking bombast; there’s not one scary, one horrific bit, is there? Maybe the Thing’s baddie costume? Paris being turned to stone? It all feels so utterly affectless to me, worse than the worst Stephen King.
Corporate fiction-writing is such a weird niche job, I guess writing TV scripts or James Patterson books is the nearest thing, it seems daft trying to intuit meaning or significance to it but this is – you’re right, as evidenced by the book-ends (“We’re all in it together”/”We are the 99%”,) it’s far more of the woolly liberal Stan Lee stream than the more objectionable, jingoistic Millar or Bendis equivalents, which is - okay – it’s a better instantiation of employer’s value system’s than Ike Perlmutter’s, well done… I just wanted there to be something substantive, some amazing twist, and I did think this was still a possibility until I discovered, yet again, there was just more parcel, no prize. Even the parcels (set-ups for future series’) look boring and ill-defined, too, at least you got the Warren Ellis Thunderbolts out of Civil War. I’m sure the idea, my idea, that Marvel’s event series of the year should’ve been a transliteration of Das Kapital through the Eddas is a laughable notion (but it should have, because this would have been more i. topical and ii. righteous). Solidarity.
Illogical Volume (I wish someone would make a wrestler out of me, maybe one day): It’s a ridicuous idea, for sure, but where would comics be without those, eh?
You’re right though, Matt Fraction’s just a nice guy, doing his bit to bring the joys of endless god death to the children. I still keep coming back to his idea that superhero comics are “escape fiction — not escapist fiction”, because reading Fear Itself #7, the question I found myself asking was: where are we supposed to be escaping to here? If you want to talk about arbitrary plot twists and fait accompli endings, fuck, Fear Itself #7 is built on these disappointments! The news feed switches from pessimistic to optimistic, and the narrative tilts with it for no other reason than that’s what’s supposed to happen at the end of this sort of story. Which is always the way it goes with these garish fictions, but there’s an art to making this shit convincing.
For all Fraction’s breathless, earnest hype, it doesn’t feel like there’s any true escape in Fear Itself, nor any cutting commentary on current events. Whatever good intentions might have went into it, it’s just another closed circuit comic in the end, another way for the usual suspects to make more of that dirty money.
Honestly, after reading my way through the various epilogues/sales pitches for other comics that capped Fear Itself #7, I half-expected the final page to feature Captain America breaking the fourth wall to say “REMEMBER KIDS, if we work together to buy all these comics we can save the economy!”
You’ve already mentioned Fraction’s work on Casanova Avarita, which is stylish and funny in all the ways Fear Itself isn’t. Still, reading the two series together I was left with a real sense of “is that all there is?” David Brothers has written convincingly on how Fraction and Bá have folded the emotional into the technical in Avarita, but it was still impossible for me to read Avarita #2 without asking whether the expectations of genre weren’t just going to swallow everything again:
Anyway, this is supposed to be about Fear Itself, so perhaps it’s best to finish by discussing the moment from the series that’s most likely to stay with me.
Early on in the second issue, we were treated to a fairly convincing bit of apocalyptic rhetoric. Here’s Fraction via Odin, talking ’bout The Serpent:
Looking at this sequence again, I’m struck by the fact that I’ve not so far given the art team credit for their scenes of Asgardian splendor, which cast ideal figures and broken worlds swathes of golden hearth-fire, and were pretty much spot on throughout.
Still, the doomy fury of this panel couldn’t possibly prepare the reader for the most exciting page turn of the year, in which all urgency is dashed against a double page spread advertising Thor Slurpee cups:
More than any other scene in the comic, this illustrates the what was truly at stake in Fear Itself. If Our Heroes succeeded then the audience could move on to the lobby of their local movie theatre, where the real adventure would begin! But if Our Heroes failed, then audience might just be able to see far enough past the ruins all around them to realise that it’s slurpee cups all the way down…