The rub to Fear Itself is that it’s been sold as a book where the superheroes’ fears become real. There was that one teaser ad of Spider-Man standing in front of a bank of televisions, shoulders slumped as if he had been defeated by the nightly news stories of wars and recessions. That actually may not have been a bad story to read in hindsight. There’s none of that fear or desperation in this book. The opening mob riot scene looks like the story could be moving in that direction, as Fraction echoes the social unrest that Ed Brubaker locked onto during “The Death of Captain America” story, but then the story in this issue becomes about Thor and his daddy issues. Brubaker’s story eerily reflected the financial meltdown of two years ago while Fraction’s story now is set in some nebulous world with nebulous real world issues.
Once you try to separate out the conceit that this is touching on “real world” issues, Odin becomes the most fascinating character in this book. In fact, Fraction nicely parallels Odin’s arrogance with Sin’s, the daughter of the original Red Skull. Here are two characters who look like they truly have something to fear; history and legacy. These two characters provide the best and freshest entertainment and perspectives in this book. In fact, Odin may be the greatest representation of fear in this book. When he looks down, sees the Avengers and calls them “the dead,” is he just boastful or is there something more to his words? Fraction writes a powerful and compelling Odin who eclipses every other character in every scene he is in.
Sin likewise carries every scene that she’s in as she tries to prove that she’s her father’s daughter and so much more. Her drive and motivation to storm an old Nazi stronghold and her transformation into something potentially greater than her father. You can see how she’s embracing the fear while Odin is running from it. It’s the same fear but Fraction has these two characters reacting so differently to it. They are the characters living and breathing the fear. They’re both scared that everyone is right; her father is right about Sin and his son is right about Odin. Their fears lead to actions. Steve Roger, Thor and the other superheroes’ fears leading them to just standing around and doing nothing in this issue.
Even Stuart Immonen doesn’t feel like he’s quite comfortable with this story. It’s beautifully drawn but one of Immonen’s strongest qualities is his ense of timing. On Nextwave, Ultimate Spider-Man and New Avengers, Warren Ellis and Brian Michael Bendis used not only Immonen’s ability to draw anything but also his perfect pacing where he could follow up the quietest moments with the loudest, most surprising bang, knowing just what moments to capture in each panel and each page. In the past, it’s as much fun to watch how Immonen brings the script to life as it is just to pore over the actual images that he draws. From both Fraction and Immonen, the storytelling in this issue is surprisingly pedestrian and obvious. It’s gorgeously drawn but not gorgeously told.
Fear Itself begins with tentative and exploratory steps to feels out an audience’s acceptance of another event comic. That’s fear. It shows a Captain America who is not Captain America and doesn’t know how to inspire people. That’s fear. It shows a Thor, who despite his ability, is still just a little boy waiting to be punished by his dad. That’s fear. It shows a god and a daughter scared of the past and what secrets lie buried there. That’s fear. It shows an America, lost and at war with itself and the world. That’s fear. Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen want us to accept our fears and those of these brightly costumed characters and think both are just as real and as powerful as the other. Hopefully as this story develops, that will happen but this issue misses the mark.