Thursday, July 28, 2011

Funnybook Battle: Fear Itself vs Final Crisis

Haven't done one of these in a while...

While we gazed ever more deeply into the as-yet-insubstantial navel of the DC Reboot, lots of other stuff was going on in the funnybook world, too. For instance, across the street at Marvel, Matt Fraction has very quietly turned their big event crossover series Fear Itself into something transcendent.

Not transcendent in the way Grant Morrison's Final Crisis was transcendent, understand. That book took the tropes of these big crossover event comics and raised them up, transforming them into something that was at once literary, and mythic on a grand scale. It sent many of its readers into paroxysms of impotent on-line anger in its obstinate insistence on being difficult, and is either the very apex of “event comics” storytelling... or a complete piece of unreadable crap, depending on your point of view.

What Fraction's doing in Fear Itself is neither that ambitious, nor that divisive, in spite of the two series' many surface similarities. He's playing with the same tropes as Morrison, the same end-of-the-world grandeur, and the same mix of myth and literary ambition. He's even using the same exhausting, never-stop-to-take-a-breath “super-compressed” storytelling style (and, frankly, improving upon it by exercising a bit more clarity). But he's doing all that to very different ends.

In spite of Morrison's talent for the perfect character moment, the single panel or line of dialogue that captures a character absolutely, those moments tended to get lost in the chaos of Final Crisis because ultimately, that book had bigger fish to fry. Not so with Fraction's Fear Itself. Here, though the punching and kicking and sheer mythic SCOPE are impressive, it's the character moments that are having the biggest impact thus far. Sure, a Nazi blitzkrieg of Washington is pretty freaking memorable, as is the mass murder of what looks to be the entire population of Paris. But my interest in that stuff pales in comparison to the level of enjoyment I'm taking in the grand Norse soap opera that's unfolding alongside it. I thrilled (THRILLED, I tell you!) to the dysfunctional family dynamics of the gods in the early issues. Odin's surly abandonment of Earth and Thor's violent disagreement was way more exciting to me than, say, the Hulk and the Thing getting evil hammers.

That's not to knock evil hammers, mind you. I'm digging these transformations of Marvel's biggest brutes into mindless shock troops for the Serpent. That's the big dumb super hero fun aspect of the book, and it's neat. The story as a whole centers on Odin's evil older brother, an utterly destructive asshole known only as The Serpent, who fed off the fear of his worshippers. Eons ago, Odin trapped him in one of those unbreakable prisons guys like this are always breaking out of in these types of stories, and re-shaped the universe in his own image. But now his brother's gotten loose, and is dropping these evil hammers around the Earth to possess “worthy” souls with the god-spirits of his ancient followers (much the same way that Odin did to Donald Blake at the start of Marvel's Thor series way back when). The Worthy are spreading fear and destruction across the planet to feed the Serpent, and Odin thinks that there's only one way to save the Nine Worlds: wipe out all life on Earth to cut the Serpent off from his power source, and put him back in the box. But, as cool a story as that is, Fraction's making the character drama just as important, and that's the stuff that's keeping me reading.

His Odin, in particular, is a standout character.

At first, he seems very much the crotchety and disagreeable old king, acting autonomously in reaction to a skeleton leaping unexpectedly from his closet. And he is. But as more of the story's been revealed, we're also seeing greater depth in Odin's actions. While he's not willing to admit that humanity has a chance at defeating the Serpent, he also obviously hopes that they do (something I'll get to in a minute). So he listened to his son's second impassioned plea on mankind's behalf, and sent him back down to Earth to fight. Why didn't he listen the first time, instead of tossing Thor into a cell? Well, for one thing, Thor took a swing at him, and Odin's damn sure gonna make his son understands who's boss. But also, we now know that the Serpent just might figure prominently in the prophesy of Thor's death, and he didn't want to send his son to die. Of course, he's also, as I already pointed out, a crotchety and disagreeable old man, and can't bring himself to actually admit to these secret hopes and fatherly concerns. Far easier to play the cosmic hard-ass and prepare to snuff out all life on Earth. Dysfunctional, complicated, and entertaining as all hell.

Odin is also at the heart of the series' most shocking moment to date: the sacrifice of Tony Stark's sobriety. This is, again, a character moment trumping the more traditional sort of shock and surprise associated with these big crossover series. Because... look. Much as it's the sort of thing that happens in these big event series, I was genuinely surprised to see them kill off Bucky Barnes in issue three. It's hard to put fanboy cynicism aside on that sort of thing, certainly, but that was actually a pretty big freaking deal. Bucky's a character they've put a lot of time and effort into developing in the last few years, and his story has seemed far from over. Even if his time as Captain America was likely coming to an end as the movie drew near, he's been popular enough that he could probably carry his own series if Marvel were to publish it. So I really did find his death shocking, especially the way he died. This wasn't a triumphant, “from Hell's heart I stab at thee” sort of death, after all. He just got taken apart, thoroughly and completely trounced by the transformed Red Skull. All he could manage in death was to croak out a cryptic warning that the Serpent was coming, a warning that didn't even make sense to his fellow good guys until Thor came along a couple of hours later and filled them in anyway. It was an ugly and futile (though dramatically effective) death for a character who'd been groomed for so much more, and as such it shocked the hell out of me.

But that was nowhere near as shocking as Tony Stark taking a drink. His sobriety has been an important aspect of the character for a long time now, and Fraction has brought it to the forefront in the Iron Man on-going series in recent months, even building the new-reader-friendly “Point One” issue entirely around it. In retrospect, in fact, all of Fraction's recent Iron Man issues have been building toward this moment. His alcoholism was put front-and-center, his romantic attentions toward Pepper Potts were rejected, he was taught a painful lesson in humility by Doctor Octopus (of all people), and then he was shaken to the core by his encounter with the Serpent-transformed Grey Gargoyle in the ruins of Paris. I mean, if waking up after a severe beating covered in the dust of a thousand petrified and crushed human bodies won't drive you to drink... What will?

Well, actually... Though Fraction certainly made it look like Stark was having a relapse when he stole that wine bottle from Pepper's desk in the main Iron Man book a month or so back, that's not what was happening at all. At least not entirely. There are signs that Stark is regressing personally; he followed up Pepper's rejection with a meaningless one night stand of a type he'd only just spent a page denouncing as part of his addictive behavior, then hired an ex-girlfriend (also a redhead) as a bodyguard. And, in the face of the Fear Itself crisis, he's falling back on wisecracks to cope, an old behavioral tic we saw in flashbacks in the Doc Ock story. But really (no, really!) he stole that wine bottle and turned it up for a swill as a sacrifice to Odin. Never mind that he probably really wanted a drink after what he'd been through, or that he enjoyed being drunk, or that he had another drink afterwards to keep the buzz going. He gave up his sobriety (the “only thing [he] has left that's worth a damn”) to get Odin to help him make weapons to use against the Serpent. And Odin (pleased that at least ONE of these worthless human assholes was finally showing him the respect he deserves as the All-Father) did it.

And that is something I find really fascinating. Not just in relation to Odin's character and his afore-mentioned secret hopes that he won't admit to, but also in relation to how Fraction is handling the mythic aspects of his story. Marvel has typically played it a little cagey when dealing with the potentially sticky idea of their mythological heroes' divinity. But people used to sacrifice goats to these guys, and that's something Fraction seems to be really interested in. He's hinted before (over in the main Thor series, which he also writes) that there's more to Thor's “godhood” than just the usual explanation of incredibly powerful beings that primitive man didn't understand. He's played around with the idea of Ragnarok Cycles, a never-ending round of death and rebirth in which the Asgardians live out the same lives and battles over and over again, just slightly different each time. Of course, the earliest parts of these cycles always take place in the distant past, and Odin always has a hand in the creation of everything.

Which takes Asgard and its gods far outside of time as we normal humans understand it, and takes us back to our earlier comparisons to Grant Morrison, and Final Crisis. That book dealt with the schemes of evil gods, as well, and their extra-temporal nature. Morrison being Morrison, of course, he's got the evil god Darkseid falling backwards through time as he dies, sparking a meditation on the nature of evil in a world of infinite good, and Superman stepping outside of time and space to become the progenitor of a new good world that replaces the one Darkseid's fall destroyed, a world all but identical to the one it's replacing, retroactively, back to the beginning of time. Which makes the Superman of Final Crisis very much like the Odin of Fear Itself (except, of course, that nobody ever sacrificed a goat to Superman).

This re-writing of the world is the Serpent's primary bone of contention with his baby brother, in fact. It's a classic “it all should have been mine” sort of thing. The Serpent believes himself the rightful All-Father, and Odin a mere usurper. What the world looked like under his rule is anybody's guess, but the fact that he's using a collection of Nazis, barbarians and brutes to turn things back around to his way of thinking is a pretty good clue, I would think. That transformation also plays back into Fraction's on-going exploration of the Asgardians as divine beings. As Odin says, “The minds of men will warp and break. Their very faiths will shatter. And their icons will fall.”

(That last bit serves as a nice scene transition to our confirmation that Bucky is, indeed, dead, and seals that death's dramatic appeal. The Icons are falling, and even though we all know that we've got a back-up Cap (the true icon, many would say) waiting in the wings, Odin's prediction brings the importance of his death home in a way that the futility of the death itself undercut.)

But, anyway. Asgardians. Divine beings beyond our ken who are nonetheless trapped in a loop of death and rebirth that reshapes our universe even though we remember what happened the last time around. Again like Final Crisis, that sounds like a neat metaphor for comics continuity. The gods of Asgard, like Morrison's super heroes, may inspire us, and may be powerful beyond our understanding, but they're also bound by rules and strictures we're not. So is it just that Odin sees all and knows all, and that Stark stroked his ego in just the right way to get a response, or did Stark's sacrifice itself demand the big man's attention? So far we don't really know, and I kind of hope they never discuss it directly.

Because that, I think, is the biggest difference between Fear Itself and Final Crisis. Morrison's book is a story about cosmology and the nature of reality, with some sterling character moments tossed in for effect. Fraction's, on the other hand, is all about character and plot and deals silently with larger issues, leaving the reader to think about them or not as they see fit. This is not to knock Final Crisis, understand; I'm in the “apex of event comics storytelling” camp on that book. But Fear Itself is also shaping up nicely and, though it deals with the material very differently, is in the running for “best cross-over ever,” too. I mean, I get to chew on philosophical and religious issues, thrill to dysfunctional family bickering, AND the next issue will apparently feature nothing but Thor, the Hulk, and the Thing pounding each other into the dirt! With hammers!


  1. Excellent breakdown of these two events. One thing to note is that mortals not only killed goats in Odin's name, but PEOPLE too. Odin was to be feared more than loved in the viking days. It's strange that about half of the folks who I hear from about Fear Itself don't care for it, which is about the same percentage who disliked Final Crisis. 'Course they're all still reading it... thus is the way of the monthly comic.