Friday, April 8, 2011

Fear Itself #1 - How to appear relevant while saying absolutely nothing

Fear Itself #1
"The Serpent"
Written by Matt Fraction; Art by Stuart Immonen (and others? There's a bunch of people credited - with different names on the cover and inside the book - but it doesn't say who did what, so I'm confused); Marvel

Last week I wrote a post about my decision to completely ignore Fear Itself. And yet, here I am, reviewing issue number one. Why? Well, for one thing, it was kind of a slow week. But mostly I just got really curious. The advanced reviews were quite positive (hey, I guess that worked) and after flipping through the book at the store, Stuart Immonen's art was pretty enough to convince me to pick this up and give it a shot.

To be honest, it's better than I expected it to be. As someone who had very little interest in this event, I was surprised at how quickly the story drew me in. By now, everybody knows that Fear Itself is going to be about a bunch of people wielding powerful mythical hammers similar to Thor's Mjolnir. While this premise sounded a bit silly to me, Fraction and Immonen do a good job of establishing the villains who are behind all this as a credible threat. It sounds like a Big Deal, which is what events are about (and on a smaller scale, all super-hero comics, I guess). And by the time I'd reach the last page, I was itching to find out what happens next. Which is the best you can hope for, considering I went into it expecting not to buy the rest of the mini-series.

So, job well done, guys.

There is, however, one aspect of this comic that I found quite irritating, and if it continues to be a problem in future chapters then it could eventually be enough to make me regret bothering with this and dropping the whole thing. I'm talking about the "real world relevance" of the story.

As some of you may have noticed, my blog is called "Irrelevant Comics." Not a lot of people seem to get that joke. I've had publishers express concern about sending me review copies because they weren't sure they wanted to be reviewed on a site that claims right in the title that the material it covers is "irrelevant." I can see their point, but the title was initially an ironic play on the notion of "relevance" in comics that was introduced in the 1970s, when writers and publishers felt it was necessary to inject the medium with serious issues and social commentary, the most famous example of which was the issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow where Speedy was turned into a junkie. These days, we recognize these early attempts at "relevance" to be somewhat clumsy though well-intentioned. The title of this blog wasn't meant as a big ideological statement against that, but simply as a playful reversal of it. My feeling is that comics are a perfectly valid means of telling stories and expressing ideas, just like any other narrative art form. I'm not saying that they can't or shouldn't deal with serious issues. But I think we've reached a point in the evolution of the medium that worrying about it is kind of unnecessary. Comics don't need to be socially relevant in order to be a legitimate art form. Sometimes telling a good story is enough. And if artists and writers do have something to say about the world we live in, then they should just say it. The "relevance" comes from having something to say and saying it, not the other way around. You don't start by asking yourself, "Hmm, how can we make this comic relevant? Oh, I know, let's do an issue about drug abuse."

How does this relate to Fear Itself? It should be pretty obvious. I mean, it's right there in the title of the book, the political reference which betrays that concern over saying something relevant about the world we live in. And when the event was announced way back in December, before we were told anything about what the story would involve, it's that relevance that was emphasized. Here's Joe Quesada at the press conference:

I know you're dying to know what it is, but before that, you know, I just want to get a little serious here and I want to say a few words. Look, times are tough. Unemployment is at an all-time high, families are losing their homes and worldwide economies are on the brink, and there's dissent and division basically everywhere you look. All you need to do really is turn on the TV, computer or radio, and you're sure to find a pundit, a politician, a prophet who's out there ready to tell you what you should be afraid of, who's responsible and why you should be afraid of it. It's a world divided, and at the end of the day you gotta ask yourself, who should you trust? Who do you trust? 24-hour news cycles, weather change, Wikileaks, depression, recession, bailouts, bankers. If you're anything like me, heck, it's a great time to be fearful. If you're anything like the people out there who are feeding fear and elect to gain from fear, well, heck, it's just a good time, right? And let's face it, Fritz, the world has gotten smaller and today more than ever fear above all else seems to be the great motivator. And there's no shortage of charlatans, tyrants or despots ready to stoke the flames. All they need is a spark. (...)
Marvel Comics have always the real world as the canvas on which we write and draw our stories and on which our characters live. From World War II to Apollo 11 to September 11th, the events that shaped our world have shaped the Marvel Universe. The truth of the matter is the reason Marvel comics have always excelled... Actually when we're at our best is when we've taken stock of the world we live in and which we're a part of and said something about it. Civil War, for example, resonated with fans of yon because it's reminded our heroes that they live in the same world that we all did and that these heroes represent the very best of us. (source)
It goes on for even longer, but you get the idea. That's one hell of a preamble to a comic book about people with super-powers wearing colourful outfits and beating each other up. And here we are, however many months later, and the first issue opens with a scene at Ground Zero in Manhattan where people are angrily protesting... something. "Let them build it! All the permits are signed, it's legally zoned, it's a free country..." says one angry protester. "Nothing should be built here," says another, "not a church, not a store, not another condo." So what are they talking about? Obviously this is a reference to the controversy around the so-called "mosque" (which is actually a Muslim community center). But in the comic, there is no reference to a mosque, community center or any other specific type of building. The word "Muslim" never once appears in the comic. The protest turns into a riot, and Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter attempt to keep things under control. When a reporter asks Rogers what side of the issue he comes down on, he replies, "Are you kidding me? I'm anti-riot."

In other words, let's not say a fucking thing about the actual world we live in. Let's not insert politics into the Marvel Universe. It's fine to use real-world images and locations, but they must first be completely stripped of any political implication or relevance and turned into empty signifiers for generic, unspecified "important issues from the real world." Not only is Steve Rogers' view on the issue conveniently left out, but we don't even know what the issue was to begin with. Something about a building permit, apparently.

And perhaps it's just as well. It seems to me that more you try to insert real-world events and politics into a super-hero universe, the more ridiculous the whole thing becomes. It's one thing to use whatever's happening on the stories as some kind of metaphor for or commentary on the current political climate. But when you get really specific about it, it opens up all kinds of logistical questions like why these incredibly powerful super-heroes don't do anything to fix those real-world issues. You also risk dwarfing the importance of those issues when put in a context where beings like Galactus threaten to devour the planet, or as in this case, when ancient Norse gods awaken and start fucking shit up. Who cares about building permits at Ground Zero when the state of the whole universe it what's being fought over?

But in that case, why even bother? Why choose to go half-assed and bring the real world in, only to shy away from actually saying anything about it? What is the purpose of that opening scene? After Steve and Sharon fail to control the crowds, there's a scene where the avengers are standing at the top of Avengers Tower, contemptuously looking down at Manhattan below, hardly able to believe that what happened wasn't caused by magic or drugs in the water or some other type of super-villain interference. Steve Rogers finds that "disappointing." Which leads to a discussion between Tony and Steve about how people are mad and scared and the solution is to build something. So they're going to make a big announcement about rebuilding Asgard, and that's supposed to cheer everybody up. None of that makes any sense to me!

I know this is only the first issue, and these things haven't yet been given a chance to play themselves out, so I should give Matt Fraction the benefit of the doubt. But all this empty real world context leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. I think if you have nothing to say about the world, or are afraid to say it because you don't want to offend anyone, or whatever Marvel's reason for being so timid might be, then you shouldn't bother pretending to be saying something. You shouldn't hold a press conference and talk for fifteen minutes about unemployment and political unrest in the world and pretend that your big ultra-commercial entertainment event has something meaningful to say about all this. It's all empty posturing and kind of dishonest. This false air of relevance and cultural importance doesn't fool me. It's not why I buy comics. If you want to tell a big story about magic hammers and super-heroes (and, to be clear, that aspect of the story is off to a very good start in this issue), then just do it. Don't pretend that it's anything more (or less) than that.


Derek Brink April 10, 2011 at 1:19 AM  

I recognized the reference to Ground Zero...but at the end of the issue, I was left thinking the "Let them build it" (etc) stuff was in reference to Asgard, which the Avengers were planning to build on Earth. But I may have under-thought it.

Derek Brink April 10, 2011 at 1:22 AM  

The hell? Somehow I lost a sentence in there. That was supposed to end with, "I guess they didn't actually say anything about building Asgard until AFTER the riot, but I thought maybe they'd back-track and reveal that the riot happened as part of humanity's opposition to the Gods or something."

Sorry about that...don't know what happened there...

Yan Basque April 10, 2011 at 12:27 PM  

I could be wrong, but that's definitely not how I read it. During the protest, it seems fairly clear that they are talking about something being built at Ground Zero. Also, the big announcement that they are going to rebuild Asgard is supposed to unite people (or something, it didn't make much sense to me) - if that had been what people were rioting about in the first place, would the announcement be like throwing oil onto the flames?

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