Ewing's "Ultimates" Stand Guard Against Alien Empires & Cosmic Entities
Boy, that doesn’t sound appealing, does it? Maybe you should skip this post, as I can’t imagine someone like me writing about a 44-page comic in brief. Can you?
I’ve been wanting to write a post like this for a while, breaking down the writing and art and even other aspects of comic book creation in a single post, but I decided to wait to do it on a comic that a lot of people would buy. As I don’t buy a lot of comics that a lot of people buy, I had to wait until the big event book came along. But I want to consider what works, what doesn’t, and why certain things are in a comic book. I almost titled this “How to read a comic,” but that sounds like I know something you don’t. As is often clear with my posts, I know far less than most of you, so I wouldn’t want to give the wrong idea! But I did think it would be fun to dissect a comic, especially one that a lot of people might have read. So – SPOILERS below, although there aren’t a lot of big-time revelations in Fear Itself #1. I imagine they will come later in the series.
When we are reading comics set in a shared universe, there must be a baseline of knowledge that readers are expected to know. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it allows the writers some wiggle room with setting the stage and with characterization – they can rely on readers knowing a bit about the characters in the comic, so they can take shortcuts – but it also makes comics a bit more impenetrable to the layperson. This impenetrability isn’t a deal-breaker – everyone was a new reader at some point – but it does mean that new readers will have to work a bit harder to understand a mainstream superhero comic book. So what is our baseline with regard to Fear Itself? Matt Fraction can reasonably assume we know the major players in the Marvel Universe. We shall see that this is a Thor-centric event, so Fraction can assume we know who Thor is. Other major players in the Marvel U. are Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and several mutants. If we are going to pick up an event book like this, we should not expect much in the way of introduction to those characters. Even more minor characters may or may not be introduced properly in this comic series, because we ought to know who they are.
What about the status quo of the Marvel Universe? This is where it gets a bit trickier. The status quo of the Marvel U., even more than the DC Universe, is rather fluid – Marvel does “illusion of change” or “dynamic statis” better than DC ever did, so that even though, looked at through a long lens, nothing much seems to change, within a certain time frame things can change dramatically. So Captain America is no longer Captain America these days, and Tony Stark has gone through some business changes, too. Meanwhile, Asgard was transplanted to Oklahoma and then crashed, which is how it stands at the beginning of this series. These are the major changes that aren’t necessarily explained within the series, because they’re fairly major plot points in the Marvel Universe these days. In issue #1, those are the things you really need to know. Perhaps others will present themselves as the series moves along.
Finally, there’s the premise of the series itself. If you’re going to pick up an event comic, you should at least know the premise. Marvel has been touting this as something to do with the Red Skull’s daughter and the population of the world getting the bejeesus scared out of them. We may need to know about “The Worthy,” but as it’s a major plot point, I think we can assume it will be explained in future issues. The baseline of knowledge is that everyone’s peeing in their pants with fear. Why? We don’t really know, do we?
So that’s that. I want to look at the writing and art separately, even though the two aspects are uniquely linked in comics. First up: THE WRITING! What does Matt Fraction do right and wrong in this comic, and how does he do it? Let’s begin!
Page 2-3 (I’m skipping page 1 but I’ll get back to it – it has no words on it, so what’s the point, amirite?): We’re in lower Manhattan, at what might be a construction site but looks much more like a parcel of dirt with a slight depression in it. On all sides are people holding signs, while inside the barrier surrounding the dirt stand police and, almost in the middle, two superheroes: Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter (okay, technically Sharon isn’t a superhero, but work with me!). Fraction’s script tells us that someone is trying to build something on the dirt, but some people don’t want them to while others think it’s no big deal. One protestor says the permits are signed and it’s legally zoned, while another says that the site is “tragic” and “sacred” and building anything there discredits the memory of those who died there, while yet a third thinks nothing should be built on the site – “not a church, not a store, not another condo” – because the place should mean something other than … but then he’s cut off. Sharon tells Steve that the people are going to kill each other in the chaos, but Steve points out that it’s not chaos, it’s “democracy.”
Page 4-7: Steve tells Sharon that the right of the people to assemble doesn’t say anything about being quiet, but Sharon says it still feels like a riot. This is, of course, prescient, as this is a comic book, and people don’t just assemble without something bad happening. In the next panel, the riot begins. This part of the story is told mostly through the art, so I’ll hold off on it until I get to that, but basically, it’s people being mean to each other. Fraction does feel the need to add a completely superfluous newscaster on the bottom of page 5 who tells us exactly what we’re seeing, but perhaps that’s for the people who need television shows to constantly update us on who characters are – you know the ones, the characters say stuff like “You mean Jim, your brother?” even though Jim was introduced as the brother 15 minutes before. The newscaster is only meant as a transition to the reporter on the street, Jamie, who on the top of page 6 also tells us things we already know. She does manage to stick her microphone into the face of Steve and ask him, as the original Captain America (giving us a nice piece of information we might not have had coming into the issue), what side of the issue he’s on. She asks him this while he’s trying to separate two fighting protestors. Steve, naturally, asks if she’s kidding, but we’re not sure if he’s asking whether she’s kidding about asking him a stupid question like that or whether she’s kidding about asking him a stupid question like that while he’s actually trying to stop the riot. Probably both. He says he’s “anti-riot” and tells her to get out of there, but then he gets bonked on the noggin by a stray brick. He gets up easily enough as Sharon returns to his side, but when she asks how they’re going to stop the riot, he’s flummoxed. Oh dear.
What can we learn from the riot pages? Fraction is obviously paralleling the contentious debate over the building of the mosque near the site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, but what’s interesting is that even in the Marvel Universe, where the terrorist attack actually occurred, he references it only obliquely. The main point of this sequence is to show that people’s nerves are on edge and that any little thing will set them off. This ties into the series’ theme of fear lurking beneath the surface at all times – the two sides are afraid of each other, so they react violently. In that regard, the first sequence is successful if somewhat heavy-handed. As Fraction implies and which is baldly stated later, Steve has no idea how to stem the riot because it’s not a super-villain manipulating things. This is stretching our suspension of disbelief a bit – even if Steve slept through the 1960s (which, according to the latest Marvel timeline, he did), the idea that he grew up in the Depression and never realized that occasionally people riot is laughable. That he would be stunned into inaction by it is almost insulting. But let’s move on!
Pages 8-13: The villain of the piece is introduced. We’re in Antarctica at a giant fortress (“Fortress Null,” as we learn in the second panel on the page). In a wonderful comicbooky sentence, the villain says “The men we’re about to encounter have been trapped inside this place since 1942. They have been isolated from the world and kept alive by Nazi superscience perfected by the first Red Skull.” We’ve already seen this in the preceding pages, but “isolated,” “superscience,” and “Red Skull” are not only italicized and bold, they’re actually larger than the other words. In the second panel we learn that this is the Red Skull’s child and that the men inside – the Thule Society – are guarding something and that they are prepared to die protecting it unless Hitler himself walks through the door. So the villain tells her (we don’t know it’s a she yet, but it turns out to be) minions to kill them all. Inside, her minions kill everyone (she mocks her father for “putting librarians” between her and his greatest treasure) and she consults the Skull’s journal to find the “prize.” They find a vault and cut it open, revealing a hammer encased in ice. One of the minions exposits to the Skull’s daughter (this is the first time we find out it’s a woman) that the Red Skull tried to lift it, as did Hitler, and they couldn’t. Why can she? She says she had a dream in which she killed Captain America and was made queen of the world and everyone was afraid. According to the minion, the runes on the handle are translated as “And he who shall be worthy will wield the hammer of Skadi.” She grabs the hammer and is transformed into a Nordic warrior in the Marvel Asgardian vein – armor, some sort of glowing tunic, and long braided hair that she didn’t appear to have before. She says, “Behold. I am … resurrected.” This speech is in black balloons with white letters.
As part of the baseline knowledge about the Marvel Universe, readers ought to know who the Red Skull is. It’s less certain that they should know that the Skull has a daughter named Sin. We learn her name later in the issue, however, so that’s no big deal. What is important about this sequence is that Sin is “worthy” to take up the hammer where the Skull and Hitler were not. Obviously, this has echoes not only in medieval literature and the Arthur legend, but in Marvel history as well, where Donald Blake is worthy to pick up the hammer of Thor and become the god of thunder. What exactly does the hammer of Skadi do for the holder? The implication is that it’s something to do with evil, because Sin is obviously a big meanie, but not necessarily, because if a comic book character is more evil than Hitler, that’s kind of insulting. Perhaps she can engender more fear in people? The problem is with the goddess she becomes – Skadi doesn’t appear to be a particularly nasty deity. According to Wikipedia, she’s the freaking goddess of skiing, for crying out loud. She’s associated with winter, which I guess in Scandinavia can get nasty, but there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly fearful about her. It’s a bit strange that Fraction would use her unless he couldn’t find a better god in the Norse pantheon to fit. Perhaps he should have made someone up? Anyway, much like Donald Blake, Sin is now Skadi. She retains some of her “Sin-ness,” though, which I’m not sure ever happened with Donald Blake/Thor.
Pages 14-15: We’re back in Manhattan, and the Avengers are standing on top of their tower. Steve Rogers says “That’s impossible,” but Tony Stark, Thor, and Sharon all tell him that the riot was a simple riot. Stark says there were no abnormal energy readings or tech in the area, Thor says there were no enchantments, and Sharon says the air, water, and environment were all clean. Steve is disappointed, because he wants to punch a bad guy, man! He says it was chaos and he couldn’t stop it. Stark tells him that “Captain America just doesn’t come with the same caché [sic] it once did,” pointing out that Steve isn’t even Cap anymore. Stark, always the douchebag, continues: “I’m sorry that’s hard to hear, Greatest Generation [yes, he actually calls Steve that], but it’s true. People are mad right now, and broke and they’ve been lied to and ripped off — and when people who’re already mad get scared then all hell kinda breaks loose. So how did you guys get out of it, hmmm? In your day? You built.” Stark tells them that the Asgardians need a new city and Thor has agreed to let him design and build it. Stark wants to hold a press conference and announce it, acknowledging that they can’t “punch a recession” or other abstract things, but at least they can put some people back to work.
This is a vexing scene for a few reasons. As I wrote above, the idea that Steve Rogers, who grew up in the 1930s, doesn’t believe that people can riot without external manipulation is absolutely ridiculous. So his frustration with the people feels rather forced. I know that Fraction is just making a point that fear is already present in the Marvel Universe and that Sin/Skadi will exploit it somehow, but he doesn’t make it terribly well. This is not the time nor place to get into whether people in today’s society are more or less fearful than they used to be, but here Fraction is implying the former – it’s part of the theme of the book. It seems to me that in the Marvel Universe, people would be a lot more scared of the random supervillain attack or Galactus appearance, but that’s neither here nor there. Fraction is trying to link this to “real-world” events, which is always a dicey proposition in superhero comics. Finally, of all the heroes who could provide historical perspective about fear, Steve Rogers seems like the one. The dude was alive during the Depression, for crying out loud.
Then there’s Stark’s statement that Steve is a bit of a relic. We seem to be treading familiar ground here, as Stark’s statement isn’t quite as dumb as asking Steve whether he’s know what MySpace is, but close enough. I would imagine there are plenty of people in the Marvel U. who would still respect Steve Rogers and what he stands for … but those people rarely show up in superhero comics except as comical straw men. I’m speaking of self-identifying conservatives, who always claim they’re far more patriotic than the rest of America. These people wouldn’t agree with Stark, and there are far more of them than we see in Marvel comics, where the “regular” folk are often hip, liberal youngsters or older, salt-of-the-earth people who accept everyone because they’ve learned the hard way not to judge anyone. There’s nothing wrong with that – superhero comics are far from an accurate representation of reality, after all – but if Fraction wants to address real-world concerns, he should be a bit more nuanced about it. This is only one reason why bringing real-world concerns into a bright and shiny world like superhero comics is tough to do.
Lastly, there’s Stark’s contention that Steve’s generation shook the blues by building. Well, sure, but they really got out of the Depression by declaring war on two different countries and fighting for four years. How about that, Tony? That sounds like a plan!
Pages 16-17: More “real-world” issues, as we switch to Broxton, Oklahoma, which is near where Asgard floated before it crashed to earth. A tour guide is extolling the virtues of Broxton and its association with the Norse gods as a family leaves town. Bill is going because there are no jobs, so he’s moving to Wichita where his wife’s sister can provide a temporary room for them all. His neighbor, Rick, tells him that Stark is starting a big building project and everyone will be able to get a job. As Bill drives away, he says “Tell ‘em they shoulda build me a new damn house first.”
I don’t get this. Bill’s house is still there, he just can’t pay for it. If they built him a new house, would he somehow be able to pay for it? I mean, I get that he’s angry, but that last line makes no sense. A lot of those people who get their house redone on that ABC Extreme Makeover Home Edition show don’t stay in the new places because they can’t afford the property taxes and the utilities, after all, and they often can’t sell them because the houses have no comparables in the neighborhood. It sucks that Bill lost his job, but what’s he going to do in Wichita? Oh well. This is more “real-world” stuff that doesn’t quite fit into this comic book.
Pages 18-19: The page begins with a continuation of the conversation between Rick and Bill (how this happens when the last image we see of them is Bill driving away while Rick stands there is something we just have to deal with – it’s comics!), as Bill tells Rick that he should start locking his doors because people will soon be at each other’s throats. This is just another evocation of an America that no longer exists and hasn’t existed for some time – a time when people didn’t lock their doors – and I can’t believe in the Marvel Universe, where bad stuff happens far more often than in our universe, that people still leave their doors unlocked. Maybe they do because the threats in the Marvel U. are so horrific that locks don’t stop them, so what’s the point of locking them? Anyway, it’s also another reference to the problems of the times in the U.S., which, honestly, don’t seem all that horrible when viewed in context of what other people in the world are enduring and what Americans have had to endure at certain points in the past. But that’s just me.
We see a long shot of Asgard on the ground, which is a bit confusing. Smoke is rising from a few different places. Did Asgard just fall or something? Didn’t it come down during Siege? I know Marvel time works differently than our time, but did the Siege occur less than a week ago? I can’t imagine the ruins would still be smoking after more than a week or two, but there they are. Odd. It’s been a year since that storyline in “our” time. How long does that correspond to in Marvel time?
Tony Stark announces the building project, basically telling everyone that his super-duper company is here to help. He mentions that a “madman” destroyed Asgard, which always kind of cracks me up – I still can’t get over the fact that someone put Norman Osborn in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. (or H.A.M.M.E.R. or whatever we want to call it). Anyway, Steve notices that Thor doesn’t look to happy and he asks him what’s wrong. Thor says that Odin ought to be with them all. That sounds like a cue for a scene shift!
Pages 20-23: Odin appears! He’s watching the press conference from high atop the rubble, and when his ravens ask who they are, he replies, “They are the dead. They matter not anymore.” Then he spits. Charming fellow, that Odin! Then he realizes that a big bald dude is standing next to him. This is the Watcher, of course, with whom a Marvel reader would probably have some familiarity. The Watcher is an unbelievably dumb character, because he either does nothing and is therefore pointless or he intervenes and betrays his entire raison d’etre. Oh, I’m sure some Uatu-lovers out there will tell me I’m missing the point, but man! the Watcher is stupid. Odin is scornful of the Watcher – he asks if Uatu has come to witness his “greatest failure.” He knows Skadi has awakened and he fears that the final “prophesy” is at hand. The Watcher turns and walks away, which pisses Odin right off. As he yells after Uatu, Thor shows up and asks him why he’s screaming. Thor wonders why Odin is not standing with the Avengers, and Odin chooses to insult them once again. He says, “We could rebuild the city with the snap of our fingers. As we should — in Asgard-space, not on Earth amongst these children.” He asks Thor why the Asgardians need to participate in this “charade” – why they need to appear “dependent” on man. Thor tells him that the gods are as much as part of their lives as they ever were even if men no longer burn effigies in Odin’s name, which makes Odin a tad grumpy. He throws Thor to the ground and asks him if he’s a god or a man. He continues, “These … ants … can’t even take care of one another.” Thor has invited them to build Asgard when, as he once again points out, a snap of his fingers could restore it. He tells Thor to choose, and of course Thor chooses man. Odin stalks away, disappointed.
These pages introduce another major theme of the book, the conflict between Thor and Odin, which will presumably play out over the course of the series. It’s an odd scene, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Odin speaks of Skadi and the final prophecy, but in a world where Ragnarok has occurred at least three separate times, his fear seems a bit silly. Perhaps we will find out why Skadi is so much more of a threat than Ragnarok, but we haven’t yet. Odin’s animosity toward the humans isn’t explained in this issue, but perhaps it’s one of those things that Fraction assumes is part of our baseline knowledge about Odin. He wasn’t always a dick about humanity, I know that much. The biggest problem with this scene is that he claims he could rebuild Asgard yet he doesn’t. Why? We don’t know. It’s a pretty big plot point, so the fact that Odin doesn’t snap his fingers is somewhat annoying. We’ll explore this tension between Thor and Odin more closely later in the issue.
Pages 24-29: We check in on Skadi, who’s gone swimming in the Marianas Trench. From her white-letter-on-black-background lettering, we learn that she is both Sin and Skadi – Sin is Skadi’s “avatar” and “instrument.” Her father is in the depths, so she goes down. Before she gets there, she has to fight dragons. Yes, in the Marvel Universe, giant dragons live in the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Magic is awesome. She dispatches the dragons and finds a hatch on the ocean bottom inscribed with the three-pronged dragon sigil on the cover of the comic. She magically passed through the barrier and lands in a giant chamber, on the walls of which are etched various runes. Somebody steps from the shadows and says, “My child. You have returned to me.” He calls himself “All-Father” and looks like a worn-down version of Odin. Hmmm.
If we consult Wikipedia once more, Skadi’s father was Þjazi (the first letter is basically a “th”), who was a giant. There’s not a whole lot on Þjazi, apparently, but he was definitely killed in the Norse sagas. He’s not a “serpent” as Odin (metaphorically, I know) calls him – he could turn into birds, I guess. Why he calls Odin a “usurper” (as he will) is unclear so far.
Pages 30-39: Odin stands in Asgard, worried because the “serpent” is back. Once again he talks about how scared he is and that this latest “prophesy” is “most wretched.” Again, we’re not sure why. Meanwhile, in a great hall, the heroes and gods are feasting after a hard day’s work … of standing around watching Tony at a press conference? Volstagg, the voluminous Norse god, tells Steve Rogers he would be a fine addition to the Avengers, but this moment of levity is interrupted by Heimdall, the sentinel of the gods. He shouts that “he” is returning, but before Thor can ask him what he means, Odin shows up and tells the gods that they’re leaving and they should gather at the “world tree” (Yggdrasil, which currently grows from the center of Asgard) – presumably to make sure they have a moving buddy picked out. He stalks off, and of course Thor follows. He puts a hand on Odin’s shoulder, and Odin responds by smacking him so hard that he goes head over heels. While the rest marvel at Odin’s bad-assery, Thor picks himself up and clocks Odin with his hammer and then stands over him, telling Odin that he can “rant” and “pout” all he wants but they don’t need to listen to him when he barks orders. Of course, Odin still has some tricks up his sleeve, and he simply tells Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, to drop to the ground. Odin tells Thor he will return to Asgard in chains if necessary, and when Thor leaps forward, Odin beats him down and orders the others to drag him to the tree. The Avengers don’t intervene because Fandral, another god, tells him that it’s a “family concern.” I’d bet CPS wouldn’t see it that way! Steve asks Fandral if he’s just going to leave, and Fandral says they are – Odin is the All-Father, and when he says jump, the other gods ask how high. They gather at the tree, Odin recreates the rainbow bridge to Asgard, and they all start walking. Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way, Odin!
The best moment in this comic is when Odin tells Mjolnir to drop and it does. That’s hard core. This is the last time we see the gods in this comic, and it remains a mystery why Odin didn’t just rebuild Asgard before this and take off, nor why he’s so keen on Thor coming with him. Again, perhaps we’ll have to wait for an explanation.
Page 40: Skadi and her father are walking on water as a dragon trails along next to them like a pet. The old dude says that Odin knows that he has woken up, because he used old and powerful magic to bind him, so undoing it would not go unnoticed. He also speaks of a “prophesy,” but we still don’t know what it is. He calls himself the “true All-Father” and says he will call on the “usurper” in due time, but before that, they will make him and the rest of the world fear them. She asks how, and he says he will summon “the Worthy.” Ooooo, scary!
Pages 41-43: Seven “bogeys” from deep space are tracked by the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado. (This is NORAD, although how on Earth they got NORAD from that is beyond me. Where’s the extra “A”? Shouldn’t it be NORAAD? Or, better yet, NAAD? I guess the government doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. I know, shocking.) Anyway, the supervisor wants to contact Steve Rogers before the president, which seems odd as the president is, after all, Rogers’ boss. Whatever. The “bogeys” land in various places on Earth – in the Pacific, in Brazil, in China, and in Manhattan (God forbid there’s another American city where something happens). One also lands in Broxton, where Rick is putting his son to bed. Portentously, he locks the door.
Page 44: Spider-Man asks Steve what just happened. Steve tells him the gods left, and they’re on their own. Um, wasn’t Peter standing there? Didn’t he see what was going on? Isn’t he some kind of photographer who has at least broken a few major news stories? Good eye there, Peter! Also, who the hell cares if the gods left? The heroes of the Marvel Universe have fought off plenty of threats without the help of the gods, and they’re not really gods anyway, right? This is kind of a false dramatic ending, because it really doesn’t mean anything.
So that’s the words on the page. Let’s consider the art and design of the book!
Cover: Boy, that really is a terrible cover. I thought the Civil War ones were bad because half the page was taken up by that white nothingness, but at least the upper halves were complete drawings. This one has the logo across the center, which means the two images on the top and bottom are truncated even worse than the ones on Civil War. McNiven might not be for everyone, but he does epic fairly well, and the fact that his bland top drawing on Steve Rogers, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Wolverine (Spider-Man has two lines in this issue and doesn’t do anything, while Wolverine appears in four panels and doesn’t speak or do anything) is compacted is somewhat annoying. Meanwhile, the defeat of Thor at the bottom appears to be an Immonen drawing (it’s not McNiven, I know that much), and it also lacks much drama because we don’t see enough of it. Thor is bloody, but he also looks like he’s sleeping. As this is a pretentious comic (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as I’ve stated before), it’s labeled “book one.” Wade von Grawbadger’s name appears on the cover.
Page 1: This is an absolutely pointless page. Four panels show a zoom in on Manhattan, beginning with the world floating in space, then focusing on the United States, then high above Manhattan (the only place of consequence in the Marvel Universe) and finally lower Manhattan. This is a complete waste, because this device is almost always used to show something approaching Earth in a (usually) menacing fashion. Nothing is approaching Earth on this page – it’s just a way to get us to lower Manhattan, where something far less cosmic is going on. As I wrote in my brief review of this comic, this is 44 pages long but several pages are wasted. This is one of them. Wade von Grawbadger’s name is not listed in the credits. I’m sure he did ink the pages, so his omission is annoying. Chris Eliopoulos is listed as letterer, and while lettering is a fairly important part of the comic, isn’t inking a bit more important? Beats me. Lauren Sankovitch and Tom Brevoort are the associate and main editors. As we’ve seen from Brevoort’s comments in my weekly post, he’s responsible for any spelling mistakes. My apologies to Ms. Sankovitch for assuming it was her.
Pages 2-7: Stuart Immonen is a very good artist who doesn’t get to cut loose too much in this comic. Presumably that will come later. What he does get to do is design scenes that spread across two pages, giving them a bit more room to breathe and to feel a bit more epic even though the scenes themselves might be a bit banal. The riot in lower Manhattan begins with pages 2-3, which feature panels that stretch across the staples in order to convey a sense of bigness. Immonen isolates Sharon and Steve in the center of the empty lot, while the protestors surround the scene at a fairly big distance. The riot scenes themselves are confined to one page and smaller panels, so this opening shot of the area is intended to give us a sense of place for later, when we can imagine that entire area filled with angry people. It allows us to imagine the riot as bigger than the smaller panels show us it is. Immonen is careful to show both sides of the protest as multicultural – this isn’t a racial thing, in other words. It may be a Muslim/Christian thing (as Fraction clearly wants to imply), but it’s not a race thing! The protestors’ signs, meanwhile, are not lettered by Immonen as part of the “artwork.” They’re computer-generated fonts by Eliopoulos and therefore look slightly inorganic. They certainly don’t look like the protestors wrote them with magic marker.
On page 4, Sharon looks very odd at the top of the page. Her eyes are slits and her mouth hangs open almost as if she’s been drugged. This is when she’s telling Steve that it looks like a riot to her, and I assume Immonen is trying to show her as she’s looking back over her shoulder after facing front, catching her as she surveys the gathering storm, but it’s a really freakish drawing. We don’t actually see what starts the riot. In the third panel of page 4, some protestors fall against the barrier and into a cop, but they have their backs to the cop and are obviously not being aggressive. In the next panel the cops are trying to pick a guy off the ground and another dude throws a water bottle at them. From then on, it’s on! As the theme of the book is that fear infects everyone, it’s very unclear which side starts the riot. It appears from the panel that shows the water bottle hitting a police car that both sides are mingled together, which seems unlikely. On page 7, we see that Sharon’s outfit is unzipped enough to show some cleavage. It’s not terribly egregious, but it seems a bit odd that she would unzip her outfit when she knew going in that she’s on riot control.
Pages 8-13: This is a very nicely illustrated fight scene. Immonen does action very well, and Martin uses good primary colors to contrast the chill of Antarctica with the inside of the fortress, where everything is red (presumably because of the alarms going off) and finally, we return to blue inside the vault holding the hammer. Immonen (deliberately, perhaps) keeps Sin’s gender mysterious for a few pages – when she takes her hood off outside, it’s impossible to tell if she’s a man or a woman. In the prologue to this series, Scot Eaton made Sin’s face distinctly feminine, so this has to be a choice by Immonen. Skadi’s hammer is placed in the foreground of the panel on page 11, with its handle breaking the panel border above it, befitting its importance to Sin and to the story in general. When Sin reaches for the hammer, Eliopoulos fades her words out – she says “It’s time,” but only the top half of “time” is seen, and her word balloon when she grasps the hammer is empty. This is a fairly clichéd trick but it’s effective – one of those neat things that can only be done in comics. It happens in movies all the time, of course, but for some reason, the empty word balloon is more effective than an actor moving his or her mouth and no sound coming out. Immonen blurs Sin’s outline as she grasps the hammer, implying a great force escaping from the hammer and overwhelming her. In a nice touch, when she stands “resurrected” as Skadi, the two minions behind her look a tiny bit scared. Good work by Immonen.
Pages 14-15: The Avengers standing on top of the tower are, from left to right, Spider-Woman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Red Hulk, Iron Man, Steve Rogers, Thor, Sharon Carter, Hawkeye, and … some dude. Beats me, I don’t read Avengers books. Who the hell is that? Anyway, as usual with superheroes, they’re standing on top of a very high skyscraper and there doesn’t seem to be any wind at all. Panel four is a good shot of Steve reacting to Tony’s dickishness – he’s just kind of indulging the douchebaggery of it all. In the fifth panel, we also get a good shot of Tony as he’s going deeper into the dickishness – this is the panel where he calls Steve “Greatest Generation” and Immonen gives him a nice douchey look.
Pages 16-17: There are a lot of nice facial expressions on these two pages, as they’re the “human interest” part of the book. What’s interesting about it is the coloring. Martin doesn’t exactly color it like sunset (not enough reds and oranges) but it’s still not as bright as early afternoon, which is when the scene occurs (based on the shadows). The scene is infused with yellow, and the sky isn’t blue, but yellow, as if there’s no sun but simply a bank of lighting overhead. I’m not sure what the sky looks like in Oklahoma, but what Martin’s coloring does is turn this into a nostalgic kind of scene, an evocation of a simpler America that no longer exists (and never did exist except in the imagination). It’s also interesting that with no discernible bright light source or large source of shade, Bill – the man who’s moving to Wichita – is in deep shadow when he closes the hatchback on his car – at that point, he says “What’s left for us here?” As he sits in the driver’s seat preparing to leave, he’s also in deep shadow. This is tone-setting coloring work and not meant as “realistic” – Martin is not trying to show a scene as it would be lit, but how coloring affects the mood of the scene and our reaction to it. We’re meant to feel nostalgic and sad, and the coloring steers us that way. It’s fairly subtle, too – Martin is a fine colorist, so she knows what she’s doing.
Pages 18-19: This is another double-page layout, mainly so that Immonen can show the grandeur of Asgard brought low and so we can get a panoramic view of the various heroes who assemble at Tony’s press conference. In the top panel, the tilted stop sign pocked with three bullet holes is a nice touch – it speaks to a decrepitude and lack of respect for law and order without being too obvious. We get a bunch of heroes again: From left to right, we see some bald dude (Jarvis?) a short-haired woman who is probably Maria Hill, Jessica Jones and baby, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Wolverine, Thing, Spider-Man, Sharon Carter, Spider-Woman, Carol Danvers, Iron Man, Thor, Steve, Red Hulk, a woman with red streaks in her hair whose name is on the tip of my goddamned tongue, a blonde woman who’s probably an Avenger, Hawkeye, some dude who could be Reed Richards except he has a moustache (and it can’t be J. Jonah Jameson, because why the hell would he be there?), and that dude from before with the red disc on his chest and a red belt buckle and a blue-and-white costume. Man, I was doing so well there until we got to the end! Oh well – if they’re important someone will identify them in later issues!
Pages 20-23: Much like Skadi’s hammer, the Watcher also breaks through his panel into the one above it – it’s for a different reason, as Uatu cannot be contained in the normal world! Immonen still draws his head too big, but it’s a tiny bit more proportionate with his body than you sometimes see it. As I pointed out before, smoke rises from Asgard, which is odd. On page 22, we get the nice touch of Odin being unable to contain his saliva as he yells at Uatu. The lettering, unfortunately, almost obscures Odin poking his index finger in Thor’s chest, which makes Thor holding Odin’s hand high in the next panel a bit confusing. On page 23, Thor shows an interesting mix of fear and anger on his face when Odin throws him to the ground. Martin’s coloring is still suffused with yellow, but instead of suggesting nostalgia for a lost Americana, this suggests a lost Golden Age of the gods.
Pages 24-29: More double-page spreads, although the layout of the top panel is a bit odd. On the left side, Skadi dives into the Pacific, while on the right side, Immonen gives us a much larger picture of her, apparently already in the water (she’s surrounded by bubbles) but not really part of any panel. Is this to just show how far she’s traveling, as mere panels can’t contain her journey? Dunno. I like how the hammer lights up to guide her way – does Thor’s do that? I also wonder about the fish that she passes – they look awfully big for the types of fish they are, as the deeper one goes, the smaller the fish become. The luminescent one she passes is much larger than she is, which is odd. I know the dragons are magic, but are the fish as well? Again, Immonen gets to draw action, which he’s quite good at, so her battle with the dragons is done well. Martin does a good job making sure the scene is lit well even though she gives a nod to the fact that it would be pitch-black down that deep. Obviously it couldn’t be that dark, but she suggests it nicely. On page 28, Skadi points the hammer like a gun. I wonder how she will use it in future issues.
Pages 30-39: Yggdrasil is computer-generated in some way – I don’t know if Immonen sketched it and then Martin colored it differently than she colored the rest of the book, because I don’t know process as well as I’d like. It appears to exist in a different dimension than Earth, which is a nice touch. There’s also a hint of the Sefirot in the arrangement of the tree – I wonder if that’s a coincidence or if it’s deliberate.
Immonen draws Heimdall with no face, just a night sky pricked with stars. I don’t know if that’s his innovation of if that’s how Heimdall has been drawn recently, but it’s pretty cool. I enjoy the fact that Wolverine is sitting all alone, slumped over a bit, clutching a chicken/turkey/falcon leg. It’s as if no one wants to hang out with him because he might start having acid flashbacks to his time in the Weapon X program. You know he’s ruined more than one X-Men/Avengers Thanksgiving dinner that way! I also like that Tony Stark is sitting at the table, presumably eating dinner, yet his mask is still on. How does he get food through that thing? (Spider-Man has his mask on, too, but he can easily lift it up to eat.) Martin does a nice job contrasting the deep red of the banquet hall with the deep blues of the night outside. Odin striking Thor is interesting – the arc of his hand describes a circle of blood, but why would there be blood in the air before he strikes Thor? Dramatic license, I guess. As usual with superpowered beings, Odin is able to lift Thor off his feet and flip him over with a backhanded slap. He’s hella strong!
Pages 34 and 35 form another double-page spread, a nicely-designed one at that. This is the climax of the issue, really, because it’s when Odin deprives Thor of his hammer. Scattered around the central panels are boxes showing the faces and reactions of various participants. On the left side is Thor, beginning the swing of his hammer. Even though it’s at a different point in time, he’s balanced on the page by Odin on the extreme right side of the spread. Thor faces the reader, Odin has his back to the reader. It’s a nice way to visually express their relationship to each other and to us – Thor is generally open and guileless, while Odin is closed off and wily. I’m not sure what it means that the two women watching the scene – Sharon and some Norse tart – look horrified and saddened, while the men looking on betray no emotion whatsoever. The Kirby Krackle in the background of the entire scene is a nice touch by Immonen and Martin.
Pages 36 and 37 are yet another double-page spread, and Immonen (with Fraction’s instruction?) does something clever here. The top row of panels flows into the middle row from the right side straight down to right side of the middle row instead of back to the left side, as we would normally read it. Immonen does this by having Odin’s ravens direct our eyes from the right side of the top row directly down instead of back across. Here, it’s easier just to show it … with red arrows!
As the middle row doesn’t show any significant exposition on the left side of the page, we don’t mind being directed like this. It’s a neat trick, and one I’d like to see more artists use – directing the eye the way you want it to go on the page. In odd layouts, artists will occasionally try to force the eye places it normally wouldn’t want to go, but many of them are not successful. Immonen doesn’t do anything too radical here, which is why it works. Meanwhile, Odin is in deep shadow when he stalks off the page at the bottom right. Of course he would have to be.
Finally, on page 39, Odin recreates the rainbow bridge. I assume Immonen simply drew an outline and then Martin came in with electric crayons and scribbled ROY G. BIV all over the place. In this comic, the computer effects are reserved for the gods, so they look out of place by design. Meanwhile, Eliopoulos chooses a not-great font to show Odin shouting “To Asgard!”, as on first glance, it looks like “Ascard.” I mean, we know what he means, but it’s still a tiny blip there. Comic book letters are, unfortunately, not as much fun as they used to be, because of the proliferation of computer fonts (I blame Richard Starkings!!!!), but I’m glad Eliopoulos at least had some fun with those words.
Page 40: There’s not a lot to say about Skadi and the All-Father walking along the water, except I first thought they were standing on the snout of the dragon instead of walking on the surface. That would have been much awesomer.
Pages 41-44: Not much chance for Immonen to show off in this sequence when the “bogeys” land on Earth. I hope the people he shows standing on the Great Wall of China alerted the authorities, because they had to have seen the landing, right? The “bogey” reflected in Rick’s doorknob as he locks the door is a nice touch.
So that’s Fear Itself. I’ve already gotten in trouble for calling out the poor editing, but it really does annoy me. There’s honest misses and then there’s just sloppiness, and too often it seems like comics fall into the latter category. Oh well. Other than that, this is a strange animal. It’s far too padded and slow-moving to feel like the epic first issue of an epic mini-series, which is somewhat odd. Fraction has not given us a clear idea, simply from this issue, what the series is all about. We infer from the title that it’s about fear, and the riot in the beginning implies it’s about mass hysteria infecting everyone, but it’s kind of vague. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s still kind of unusual. My main objection to the issue remains the same – Odin acts like a dick and we don’t know why (as I briefly noted above). When I posted my first pass at the comic, some commenters had some ideas. Ryan Vaughn Morris opined:
Odin is being a dick because that is his way of protecting his people. He’s afraid of what the Red Skull’s daughter unleashed, and he wants to get them as far away from earth as he can. It’s all pretty clear in the book.
Regarding odin: He’s an omni level creature that rules gods, he can’t express fear like someone who has felt it. He doesn’t understand it and the only way he can deal with it is by throwing around his weight and taking it out on his people and stripping his mighty son of his … well … mightyness.
He doesn’t rebuild asgard cause he loves and respects his son and knows it is what’s best for the humans.
Meanwhile, Ed (A Different One) had this to say:
Yeah, it came across to me that Odin was being a dick because he knew this “dire prophecy” was coming true with “possessed Sin” resurrecting “decrepit as hell Odin-looking dude”, and because of this, “Real Odin” was eager to get his Asgardians back to Asgard proper but his stupid son was hanging around with mortals and wasting time with them while the “time of the Wolf” was bearing down on them. I also thought that this was the purpose of the scene with the Watcher early on – the Watcher only shows up when some heavy shit is getting ready to go down, and that was one of the clues as to why Odin was so agitated. I also like the observation that smomancommeth made that Odin, as a badass All-Father type god dude isn’t used to fear, doesn’t carry it gracefully and can only show it in this completely dickish and ungraceful way.
These are interesting points. I don’t know enough about Thor comics to say Odin has never felt fear, but it’s not a bad explanation. I know he was trying to get the gods out of there because of the threat, but he goes about it a weird way. I don’t think I can agree that he doesn’t rebuild Asgard because he knows it’s best for the humans – if he cared so much about humans, why doesn’t he warn them that bad things are a-comin’? And I still don’t understand why he didn’t tell the gods why they were leaving. Again, I haven’t read enough Thor comics to know, but while Odin often seems aloof in those, he doesn’t seem like an out-and-out douchebag, like he does here. I can wait to see if Fraction explains it, and I hope he does.
As for the art – Immonen is marvelous, but he doesn’t have a lot to do. There’s really not much more to say.
I gave this issue 6½ stars out of 10, and I think that’s pretty fair. It lurches in places, and I don’t think Fraction takes advantage of the fact that it’s 44 pages (on the other hand, how refreshing is it to get a “double-sized issue” that is actually double-sized?), but it’s not bad. It’s not as crisp as some Fraction comics have been, unfortunately. I haven’t read an event comic in so long that I don’t know how it compares to the Bendis ones, but it’s definitely slower-paced than Final Crisis, the last big-time event book I read. I won’t break down the rest of the issues as much as this one (unless there’s a great clamor for it, which I can’t believe will happen), but I found it interesting that even in a fairly corporate comic like this, both the writer and the artists do some neat things that you can’t find in any other medium. Comics do, in fact, rule.
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