This post contains spoilers for Fear Itself #4.

A review of the Fear Itself crossover, as of Fear Itself #4

Marvel's 2006 crossover Civil War was very successful, to the extent that something written for this little niche market can be successful. There were over a hundred tie-ins from all corners of the Marvel Universe, and altogether there must have been several hundred characters involved, but at its core the story was really simple. It was about Iron Man and Captain America -two pillars of the superhero community- fighting over a vaguely-defined political issue. I say "vaguely defined" because the details changed from writer to writer, but in general it was about the government trying to get more power over its superpowered citizens. Iron Man pushed this forward, Captain America opposed it, and all the other heroes rallied behind them. Like the House of M crossover before it, Civil War's little grain of an idea was flexible enough to fit in with lots of different kinds of stories, while providing a handy excuse for lots of random battles. In practice the stories tended to involve Iron Man showing up and glaring at people, who then ran away while yelling platitudes about freedom. And while Black Panther tried to give a more global scale to the proceedings, most of the story (as usual) took place in New York. So despite the flexible concept and the large number of tie-ins, the whole thing probably seemed smaller and simpler than it should have.

What made Civil War as successful as it was was two things. First of all, it seemed like a commentary on modern politics, even though the details were so far removed from reality that it couldn't cause any controversy. Secondly, it promised and delivered huge shake-ups to the Marvel status quo. There have been a bunch of Marvel crossovers modeled after Civil War since, but none have caught the lightning in a bottle that that story did. World War Hulk, with its premise of the Hulk fighting everyone, was relevant neither to society nor to the Marvel Universe. (Avengers Tower was destroyed in the first issue, but in the next issue of The New Avengers it had already been rebuilt.) Secret Invasion pretended to be about religious terrorism at first, but the event didn't matter to the comics. (The villains never seemed a credible threat, and the changes to the status quo all seemed arbitrary.) And Siege resolved a lot of loose ends lying around, but the story didn't even pretend to be about anything. The enthusiasm for crossovers had died down a bit by that point, and Marvel's philosophy is that if something isn't working you take it away and wait for people to miss it, so after Siege they had a bunch of smaller-scale crossovers for a year and now they're back with Fear Itself.

Fear Itself is taking every trick it can out of Civil War's playbook. Most of Marvel's output is tying in in some way or other. There are two simple concepts here: scared civilians driven to violence, and superheroes hitting each other with magic hammers. I can't say I care for the sorts of stories about being beaten up that they suggest, but there's what to do with that. The story is ultimately about three characters: Captain America, Thor and Iron Man. (The first two because they have movies out this year, and Iron Man because in Avengers Prime Bendis established the three as an indivisible team.) There seems to be a political angle, though it only becomes clear what it is in this issue, when Odin says:
The Serpent is malevolence given form; he is terror given shape. He spreads like a psychic cancer, inflicting and infecting the feeble mind of man. ... His avatars carry with them weapons more mighty than any found on Earth. And they are driven by dire purposes we cannot fathom beyond the most simple: Spread fear! Spread terror! The serpent has no interest in war -- his only strategy is slaughter. And slaughter he shall, again and again. And the minds of men will warp and break. Their very faiths will shatter, and their icons will fall...
So essentially it's terrorism, again. And there have been changes that might stick: Captain America has died again, Iron Man has given in to alcohol again, supervillains have broken out of the Raft again, Avengers Tower has been demolished again, Atlantis has been destroyed again.... Everything which Civil War had, this crossover has too, except for the novelty. As Luke Cage acknowledges in dialogue, we've seen all this before.
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I feel like this story would have worked better nine years ago. Bin Laden, America's boogeyman for the last decade, is dead now. Marvel couldn't have known that would happen when they were planning this story out, but they could have used a more current idea. With the global symbol of terrorism dead, a story about a guy spreading terror for ineffable reasons doesn't resonate much. It's time to move on to new archetypes, like Ahmadinejad's inspired cameo in X-Men: Schism #1. But maybe I'm just cold to what Fear Itself is doing because terrorism doesn't really speak to me as a story concept. I know it's always a possibility here in Israel, but the Palestinians seem to have calmed down a little bit as they build more of a society for themselves. I don't know, that's just my impression. But even as they were attacking willy-nilly, it never affected me personally. I know, that's a terrible thing to say. I should care about the things that are politically and socially relevant. But I've never been that attached to reality. This is why I spend my free time reading superhero comics, rather than news. I can't say I haven't ever sat on a bus and wondered what if someone could blow it up, but for the most part the idea of terrorism does not take up much room in my brain.

Anyway, the fear of bombs was tapped into in the first issue of Civil War, where the whole political hailstorm got started because a supervillain set off an explosion by a school. That might have hit close to home, in a way that a bunch of mind-controlled monsters throwing hammers around does not. This is just goofy, and the art's being done by Stuart Immonen who's using a style almost as cartoony as his superhero parody Nextwave. We're not seeing ordinary people whose lives are suddenly destroyed (It's not the property damage that has people scared of terrorism!), we're seeing a bunch of superheroes fighting them. If the idea is to show how helpless they are, it's not working. The powered-up Juggernaut has passed through four comics already (Thunderbolts, Home Front, Youth in Revolt and Uncanny X-Men), which has gotten really tedious, and in each one they somehow manage to fend him off for a while. (The only casualty so far is a character who didn't have a regular book. Funny how that works out.) Invincible Iron Man was legitimately disturbing, set as it was in a country the writers don't mind destroying (France), but the image that made that work was the pile of body parts, not the guy holding a big hammer. So I've gotta say, the whole Worthy concept is just not working for me. Not to mention the whole mind control angle which means it's not really about the characters we know.

Compared to Civil War, whose first-issue explosion is still shaping plots in Home Front, or compared to Schism which looks like it'll change the group dynamic in the X-Men for years, I don't think this story is going to matter much in the long term. And the problem is that they're relying on cliché rather than taking the story as seriously as they should. Nazi mecha in Washington D.C.? Soooo cliché. The Hulk is smashing, the Juggernaut can't be stopped, Titania and the Absorbing Man are simple villains, the Red Skull is trying to kill Captain America... what else is new? These are threats we've seen a hundred times before, and the only reason the Future Foundation and Hank Pym and Iron Man and all those other geniuses haven't come up with ways to deal with them yet is that it wouldn't be convenient for the plot. And to add to the air of overfamiliarity we now have a prophecy, as dorky as prophecies always are and apparently coming out of nowhere. Seriously, I've reread the Fear Itself issues and the Journey Into Mystery tie-ins focusing on Asgard, and I can't figure out where Thor could possibly have heard that prophecy from. He's never heard of the Serpent before, as the plot emphasizes. But suddenly in the middle of the story he mentions that by the way he knows this neat little prophecy about himself and the Serpent needing to kill each other? I don't understand how with all the talented writers and editors involved in this thing, no one pointed out how stupid a plot point that is.

And when someone finally confronts the Serpent, rather than getting any drama we get a build-up to yet another generic fistfight. Ho hum.

2011, July 15th

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