Saturday, October 15, 2011

Super-Porn and Other Distractions: Funnybooksinreviewarego!!

Catch-up reviews part two, coming up... now!

Fear Itself #6 (of 7)
by Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen

Most of these big crossover series are, essentially, super hero porn. They're all money shots, big super-fights removed from their normal context of story, of anything with actual emotional resonance. That's why only a few of them in the genre's history really stand up in the long term. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two, in fact: Civil War and Final Crisis. And now, though it's too early to make the call for sure, Fear Itself seems to be shaping up as a third.

Like all super-porn, it's about death and destruction on a grand scale. But unlike most, it's also delivering on the character side. I've discussed the on-going Asgardian family saga before, Odin's grumpy kingly bluster and Thor's noble rage in response. And it's nice to have my reading of Odin confirmed: he's willing to burn a world to the ground just to save his only son from death, but in this issue, Odin's asshole front dissolves in the face of the badly-wounded Thor being brought home for healing. He's still gonna kill us all to stop the Serpent, mind you. But at least he finally explains himself to Thor before the end.

Of course, before that breakdown of kingly resolve happens, we see a chink in the armor. Captain America gets all up in his grill, and Odin (if only for a moment) blinks. Seriously, check this shit out:



In the name of the All-Father, click to embiggen!
THAT, my friends, is one of the all-time great Cap moments. "You're gonna need more guys!" Classic.

It's also a total money shot, the kind of scene that makes all the Captain America fanboys out there cream their funnybook pants. But that's what super-porn is all about, so that's okay.

It's all bravado, of course, Cap blowing off steam because he's recognized that the cause is hopeless. And that's the other thing Fear Itself does better than the vast majority of super-porn: it's actually about something. Rather than simply presenting readers with a threat to be knocked down, it has themes for us to chew on, too. It all revolves around fear, of course. As the Kennedy quote the series takes its title from tells us, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. So how do Our Heroes fare when they're confronted with that very thing: the living, primordial embodiment of fear, older than humanity and suddenly unleashed upon the world after untold ages of imprisonment? Or, to put it more in super-porn terms... God's evil brother is loose, and he's gonna make your worst fears reality! How do you cope?

So far, the answer for Our Heroes has been, "not well." This story's forcing them to grapple with stuff that's usually just subtext for them at best. The Hulk and the Thing have been turned into the monsters they've always feared themselves to be. Spider-Man's bravery in the face of danger doesn't mean a thing if Aunt May gets killed off-camera in the mass destruction he's been unable to prevent. And Cap? Well... He's watched his sidekick die for a second time, and taken back the shield that he's been conflicted over picking up ever again. And now he's got to deal with the thing that hurts his American pride and can-do spirit the most: a fight he simply cannot win. That helplessness in the face of this conflict between gods is the real focus this issue, I think, and that makes this Cap's issue.

That means that it's also about Our Heroes finally coming to grips with their fears, though. That's what Cap does, after all, and here we see the other tested heroes following suit. Spider-Man stood down from the front lines to go and make sure that Aunt May was alright last issue. But what happens once he finds her? She sends him back out there, reminding him that he has a greater responsibility than taking care of her (a moment which, if I may say, choked this old Spidey fan up more than maybe it should have). And Cap himself follows up giving a dressing-down to God with his second money shot of the issue: making his final stand against God's older brother armed with nothing but a freaking shotgun.

Bad. Ass.
Bottom Line: Fear Itself is shaping up to be one of the all-time greats of super-porn. I'm paying four dollars a pop for this thing, and I don't regret a penny.

Grade: A-

Iron Man #508
by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca

Though I don't know how many of them are taking advantage of it, Fear Itself gives the writers of the various Marvel series crossing over with it an opportunity to examine what really makes their characters afraid. It's one of the neat tricks of the core series' mythic trappings, in fact, that the Serpent doesn't have to launch specific attacks on anyone. As his power increases, as he comes closer and closer to ripping the mantle of the All-Father away from Odin, reality reshapes itself in his image and the world conspires to confront people with their worst fears. For most, of course, that's loss. Loss of life, loss of loved ones, loss of security, loss of material possessions.

For Tony Stark, it's loss of sobriety. And that's exactly what he's lost in the last couple of issues of Iron Man. He sacrificed it initially to gain a boon from Odin, but since then he's pretty much stayed drunk, egged on by the profane dwarves of Svartalfheim and their work-hard-play-hard lifestyle. But even that may really be just a side effect of Stark's crisis of faith. Faith in himself (after failing to stop the mass murder of every living thing in Paris), and faith in science (as he turns to the gods for aid). But, as we see in the concurrent issue of Fear Itself, this issue's all about Our Hero dealing with those fears. He gets control of himself, fighting off an oh-so-symbolic mud creature that tries to leech away not only his form but his life itself. After that, he turns down a drink and is even-more-symbolically reborn in Odin's light, diving into a vat of boiling uru to receive the blessing of the All-Father. In spite of Stark's lingering self-doubt, the tide is turning.

Back in Paris, though, Pepper Potts and the armored Hammer Corps take on the transformed Grey Gargoyle. And this is a bit of a SPOILER, but the book's been out for a few weeks now, so I don't mind ruining it so much: the fight doesn't go well for Pepper.

click to embiggen
Which is about as chilling a cliffhanger as you're gonna get in a spandex book, I think...

Bottom Line: More fine character work from Matt Fraction makes this book worth the four bucks.

Grade: A-

Thor #6
by Matt Fraction and Olivier Coipel

A slightly disappointing conclusion to the Asgard vs Galactus battle. Don't get me wrong; many of the story's themes play themselves out just fine, and I like the time spent on the aftermath. But the battle itself gets short shrift. I mean, Odin summons the Destroyer and arms it with Mjolnir, which is a pretty awesome moment. Or it would have been, if the moment when Galactus and the Destroyer face off were played for its proper dramatic potential. Those two staring each other down, everybody else on the field of battle shitting their pants... The tension should have been unbearable!

But there's no tension at all, primarily because Coipel's framing of the scene is unclear. In point of fact, he never draws the face-off at all, opting instead for four pages of images that never quite fit together. We get Mjolnir flying off into the hand of a silhouetted figure. We get Galactus staring across the field at something we can't see. And then we get a big forced-perspective shot of the Destroyer... without Mjolnir in his hand. I didn't know what the hell was happening... And then it was over, because Loki's machinations off the field of battle made the fight unnecessary.

Which should have been one of the great bait-and-switch moments in recent funnybook history. Incredible tension as two completely unstoppable forces prepare to go at it... then nothing, because Loki was, as usual, smarter than everyone else involved. But it's all for naught.

The aftermath is better, as Fraction wraps up Reverend Mike's crisis of faith in a way I should have seen coming, but didn't (and also, I suspect, sets something up for his forthcoming Defenders book): [SPOILER] the Silver Surfer remains on Earth, and Reverend Mike replaces him as the Praetor, Herald of Galactus. At first, I thought the move side-stepped the larger issue of how Christians deal with living in a world where pagan deities run around like they created the place. And it kind of does. But then I read Mike's closing monologue again: "I am the Praetor ... destined to explore the mysteries of the gods in all their splendor, and to introduce the gods to the mysteries of all that live in the sheltering shadow they cast." Which... Wow. Mike sacrifices his human life to gain a greater understanding of God (which kind of makes it sound like he's become a convert), but he's also still serving as a priest, not OF his new gods, but TO them. And that's a more complex ending than I feared he'd get when he joined Volstagg in the comedy relief portion of the book. [/SPOILER]

Bottom Line: This is a comic you can read on multiple levels, or just the surface one if you prefer. And in spite of its flaws, I found plenty to like here. I'll happily continue reading.

Grade: B

And... wow. I'd intended to do more quickie reviews on these books, but it hasn't worked out that way so far. Ah well. I'll just have to be super-brief on what's left in the stack...

Sweet Tooth #24&25
by Jeff Lemire

Sweet Tooth continues to deliver weird atmosphere and fascinatingly damaged characters, and absolutely refuses to pull any punches whatsoever. Depressing, creepy funnybooks of a sort you don't often see. Issue 25's dream sequence reminds me why I keep reading.

Grade: A-

The Goon #35
by Evan Dorkin and Eric Powell

Essentially one long homage to the cult movie Freaks, the issue (guest-written by Evan Dorkin) is a tad more cruel than Powell's usual stuff, but it's as gorgeously grotesque as always.

Grade: B+

Cloak & Dagger #1&2 (of 3)
by Nick Spencer and Emma Rios

I bought this, honestly, just to gaze in wonder at the artwork of Emma Rios. But Nick Spencer's script has turned out to be engaging and controlled in a way I wish all his work was. If these two were to do an on-going with these characters... I'd probably have to buy it.

Grade: B+

Wolverine: Debt of Death
by David Lapham and David Aja

Considering the creative team and the story elements involved in this Wolverine one-shot, I expected to be blown away by it. I mean... Nick Fury? Giant robots? Yakuza? Sounds great. But in the end, it's really just a pleasant enough piece of super hero noir. Which isn't bad, don't get me wrong. But, man. I can't shake the feeling that it could have been better. One nice bit: the matter-of-fact 70s setting. They never state the date, but it sinks in once you start to notice the haircuts and d├ęcor. And by the time you realize that you're watching a Japanese teenager use a pay phone, you KNOW you're in the past.

Grade: B

Fear Itself: The Monkey King
by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Juan Doe

So I think this one-shot is a spin-off of a spin-off. This Monkey King character seems to have emerged out of the events of one of the Fear Itself crossover books I didn't read. Not surprising, since that's most of them. Anyway. I bought it because of the creative team. Joshua Hale Fialkov is the writer behind one of my favorite indie comics of last year (Tumor). And Juan Doe is just an artist whose work I've run across and enjoyed on-line in the last few years. So I figured, why not? And though Fear Itself has about as much to do with this book as my dick, it's a nice little kung-fu action super hero story. It's light and pithy, has a few good jokes, and features some very dynamic artwork. Fun, but essentially empty, entertainment.

Grade: B

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