One is a comic steeped in decades of Marvel continuity.
The other is something very new indeed.
Fear Itself is the beginning of the big Marvel crossover. Take all the Marvel characters and shuffle them in a bag and see how many millions you can sell. It’s an overtly commercial proposition, but because of those guaranteed sales, there’s a chance to explore something rather meaningful without fear of polarising the audience and stop them buying the book. Civil War probably did this most successfully, playing on a post 9/11 world where security and liberty were at war in America, literalised into a superhero war. Secret Invasion and Siege less so, the Bush government was on the way out, and then had gone, the books played into a concern that had been played out, and the more intriguing secret aspects of said invasion weren’t that secret when the series started properly. But Fear Itself taps directly into, well, a conversation I’ve just been having on Mike S Miller’s facebook page with another member who sees the US and the UK falling at the hands of the combined forces of “Muslims and unions”, linking to all sorts of fearmongering newspaper articles and presenting an unchallengable face, even when handed big picture statistical trends that proved the opposite of his stance. We are a society that is afraid of aspects of it that do not prove a real threat. And it’s that, that Fear Itself is addressing, and turning it into a big superhero comic event.
Interestingly, as a Marvel event, it seems to have more in common with Brightest Day, and I’m sure I’m not the first to compare the use of variant deity hammers with the different coloured Lantern rings from DC. And what stands out in Fear Itself #1 from Matt Fraction, Stuart Immonen and Laura Martin is the length given to the creative team to set out a variety of protagonists and antagonists, each given room to explore, breath and justify, as well as a few action scenes that lay out the stakes and give the impression that something is very wrong indeed. Reminiscent of Steven Moffat’s working, there an awful lot of structure being built here and an awful lot of guns seen in Act One. Of hammers. Glowing, ring-like hammers.
We start with a scene that is clearly meant to be competing protests over the erroneously nicknamed Ground Zero Mosque. This is very much our world and Captain America and Sharon Carter find themselves at a loss over how to deal with the escalating suggestions. There’s no big bad guy to hit, no villain in particular to target. The superhero rules no longer apply. But don’t worry, she’s along soon and she’s a Nazi. While the Nazi regalia fits the Norse gods stuff, it does rather fight against the greys set up at the beginning. The reason World War II stories remain popular is that the audience is given a clear cut bad guy with no moral wishy washiness. So much so, it’s surprising that the Nazis don’t realise it themselves.
There is one strange anomaly here. We see protests against a mosque being built. But no one seems to have a problem with builsing what is basically a temple to the Norse Gods on the scene of a big battle. Is this intentional, with payoff to come, or just another incongruity in the Marvel Universe? Given the first few pages, I would have thought it might have been addressed.
But what we’re seeing here are the best laid plans of mice and men. The superheroes are doing what they think is the best thing, unaware of a growing threat that they will have to deal with which is continually undermining their very actions. And giving us a great Thor/Odin smackdown as a result.
Becauise, yes this comic is a visual superhero treat. Lots of posing, lots of hitting, beautiful colours illuminating or shadin Immonen’s intricate animated art. But under it all a feeling of dread and desponency set to drag the Heroic Age down with it.
However despite all the A-list talent and production thrown at Fear Itself, it’s not the best looking book on the stands this week. That honour, by a league, goes to Nonplayer from debut comics creator Nate Simpson.
Just as Fear Itself exists on two levels, an above and a below, so Nonplayer literalises that divide, between gameplay and real life. But manages to do so in such a thrilling and disparate fashion that it overwhelms what might be (and usually is) trite.
The game world is portrayed in such utter detail but with thin lines and ample space for the colour to flood in, filling the page and delighting the senses. Wordless panels take a relative age to read, the eye drawn across each blade of grass, each leaf of each perfectly composed image, making up a the full reality of each page. The timing, the panel size, perfectly pulls the reader along, even as they want to stay and linger. This creates a richer experience that leaves the reader wanting more and vowing to return, the kind of effect that made Avatar such a popular repeat visit.
However the storytelling is so much more accomplished than Cameron achieved with his world, so much said without words, with looks, with nods, that could appear totally innocent, but in context is not. The reader is encouraged to draw conclusions with but the barest of evidence, with small panels within a larger landscape used with such precision.
And the player characters in this world tread an equally precise line. We are fully aware they are avatars with other lives, that they reference. But only just enough that the illusion is not broken, and giving added emphasis to lines like “See you when we’re dead”, that could be Norse lines on the battlefield, but gain a new resonance here.
I’m gushing aren’t I?
And then the battle scenes. Set up just like a multiplayer game, then nevertheless feel real, vital, exciting and terrifying. All without resorting to darkness or shadows, keeping the light colours shining through.
And then we’re into the real world, with equal detail and love, but the colours darken, become richer, the line weight varies subtly. but the detail doesn’t Both worlds are equally real, equally portrayed, and equally fantastic.
The second issue will be a long wait. But that;s okay, I’ve got issue one to read again and again and again. Perfection.
Comics courtesy of Orbital Comics, London. Find their most recent podcast with me and Gary Erskine, right here.