Monday, March 21, 2011


Fear Itself: Book of the Skull

I can't shake the notion that the reason we're being blessed with the company of an event book called Fear Itself is very intimately related to the fact that periodical comics sales have cratered fairly spectacularly in the last year or so. Which is to say: Marvel was always going to do another event, but it seems as if this particular event might have been rushed through the incubator with less foresight than might otherwise have been exercised. I have nothing to go on here other than my own multiple decades' experience as a trainspotter for these kinds of publishing events, so take of that what you will, but something seems decidedly perfunctory.

You can make a very good and cogent argument that every event since Avengers: Disassembled back in 2004 has led in a more-or-less coherent fashion to the following event, and that for those readers heavily invested in following the large superhero event cycles there was more than a small amount of foresight attached to the macrostructure of successive events. If the individual stories themselves - Disassembled, House of M, Civil War, Secret Invasion, Siege, as well as the unifying interregnum "Initiative," "Dark Reign," and "Heroic Age" events - were sometimes less than satisfying in and of themselves than as pieces of a larger puzzle, that is only to be expected, since each story carried the responsibility of feeding into the next with clockwork precision. "Event fatigue" is easy to say but hard to prove: how do you decide whether or not fans are sick of events if they still continue to buy the events? Well, here's a way: stop doing events and see if sales stabilize across the line. If they don't, then the data can be interpreted to say that fans really do prefer events despite their hassles for the simple reason that people like big, loud, "important" stories when they've been trained for almost a decade to regard anything that falls outside the imprimatur of an event as small, quiet and "unimportant."

All the events I mentioned earlier "mattered" because they all fed one into the other in a very clear and coherent matter. Any fan - even a casual fan - could read those events in succession and feel as if they were reading single chapters in a much larger story. This is, on the face of it, an extraordinary thing: even the most well-coordinated events of previous years and cycles were confined to their own calendar year. Inferno did not lead into Acts of Vengeance which in turn had absolutely nothing to do with Infinity Gauntlet. (Infinity Gauntlet itself spawned two direct sequels but they were nowhere near as all-encompassing in scope and execution as any of Marvel's 00's crossovers.) The closest thing I can compare this current series to is the state of the X-books in the mid 90s, but even there the feeding mechanism was less conscious structure than institutional momentum. (This momentum ultimately destroyed itself in the form of Onslaught.) Marvel has devoted the last eight years to banking on the long memory of habitual comics fans. "Fear Itself" - at least from the outset - does not appear to have any kind of overt connection to the previous half-dozen events. Whether or not the fans will remain invested - when even Secret Invasion and Siege, which were direct sequels of earlier events, were themselves less successful than Civil War - remains to be seen.

The other way the data can be interpreted is that in the middle of an excruciatingly protracted period of economic uncertainty, $3 or $4 a pop for 5-10 min of leisure reading really is not a very wise transaction. if this is in fact the case, we will see the main Fear Itself series (and Flashpoint too) and its most essential tie-ins sell well while the midlist withers on the vine - because if people only have, say, $30 to spend on comics where they used to have $60 or $90, they'll purchase what they feel they need to purchase and leave the rest behind. Marvel gets the money either way, but I imagine if the end result of Fear Itself is not some kind of line-wide sales bump, they'll be sorely disappointed. If the downturn in sales is the result of larger macroeconomic forces, it is almost certain that any sales bump will be confined to the Top 20 or 30 of the sales chart while the bottom half of the list is decimated due to cannibalized sales. I'm sure Marvel would be happy if those sales were cannibalized from DC (and vice versa), but we shall see. The most likely result is simply a wash, with the end result being more creators losing their jobs because the companies are able to support fewer and fewer mid-list titles.

All of which is to say, this is the long-awaited prologue to the next year or so of Marvel's mainline publishing initiative. And the result is . . . well, hunh. That's what we're going with, then? The Red Skull found a spell in 1944 that enabled him to summon a mysterious Viking war hammer but he didn't know how to use it, so the weapon (and the spell that summoned it) sat unused for sixty-five years until Sin - the Red Skull's annoying sociopath of a daughter - decided to go leafing through dear old Dad's back pages. On the face of it, and given what else we know so far - that we will see the return of Norse gods who predate Odin and Asgard and whose actions send the world into spiraling chaos - that does not seem so promising. I live to be proven wrong, of course, but if this first chapter was intended to elicit excitement on my part, it rather succeeded in accomplishing the opposite effect. Even though the creative team is quote-unquote "top shelf" - Ed Brubaker and Scott Eaton - the result reads less like an essential chapter in a massive epic than one of those sad one-shots they squirt out at random intervals whenever a character has a movie coming out. This feels perfunctory, as if the people involved were sleepwalking. And do I detect the faint odor of flop sweat?

Captain America" First Vengeance

This, on the other hand, is "one of those sad one-shots they squirt out at random intervals whenever a character has a movie coming out" - or rather, that should read "one of those sad eight-part digital e-comics they squirt out at random intervals whenever a character has a movie coming out." This comic took about two minutes to read - a fact that is made only slightly less damning given that the book is thirteen pages long. I have to wonder whether the paucity of story is a conscious effort to format a story for the iPad - something brisk, without a lot of small word bubbles and story detail to be obscured on a tablet screen. All I can say is that if you own an iPad and this is your first exposure to Captain America, there's not a lot here to bring you back for seconds. That's a shame, van Lente is usually a lot better than this.

Uncanny X-Force 5.1

Seemingly out of nowhere, Uncanny X-Force has surprised a lot of people by being quite good. The reason why this series impressed so many people can be summed up in the very simple observation that Rick Remender knows who his characters are and how they should be written. The cast is small, only five heroes - Wolverine, Deadpool, Fantomex, Psylocke and Angel - and the size allows each team member the room to breathe and speak without being crowded out by the sheer mass of superfluous characters who clog most of the X-books. Sometimes, for long-term readers, it really is something as simple as letting the characters act like themselves.

This is simple, Writing 101: every character in a story should have something to do or he or she should not be in a story. I've been rereading some old Levitz / GIffen Legion lately and its remarkable how well the book reads as a direct result of the creators following this simple rule. It's not as if every character has to appear in every issue, but every time a character shows up on panel he or she should have something to do, something to think, a goal or a purpose. Levitz and GIffen had to work pretty damn hard to keep the book humming with so many characters, and the reason why the main X-Books have failed pretty spectacularly for these past few years is easily diagnosed by anyone with the patience to read back and see how team books like these should be written. The larger the cast, the harder it is to keep narrative focus; when in doubt, pare it down. Uncanny X-Men is an illegible mess because - for all the characters who are supposedly cast members - almost none of them get any significant panel-time and those that do are often reduced to reciting rote catch-phrases, the comics equivalent of "hey, rtemember me? I'm still here, waiting to be killed off-panel at some point." Since that's the direction they've set out for themselves in the flagship, the only room for real development is in satellite titles like this. The small cast and careful mixture of characters - two popular, overexposed heavy-hitters (Wolverine and Deadpool), two long-neglected veterans (Angel and Psylocke) and one fairly recent cipher (Fantomex) - enables the creators a great deal of freedom in crafting stories that actually utilize all the characters at their disposal.

This is another good issue, and a special treat for longtime fans. I've always had a soft-spot for the Reavers - they were the main villains through one of my favorite runs, the mid 250s of Uncanny when Claremont tore the team apart and killed half the cast. They were dangerous then but they haven't really done much of anything since then - I recall that they appeared in Claremont's X-Treme but that's about all. They're good villains of the mustache-twirling variety, and they present a nice tactical challenge for a clever writer like Rick Remender. I have to question one bit of errata towards the end of the book - how exactly is Psylocke able to make herself invisible from detection on Utopia? She's nowhere near as powerful a telepath as Emma Frost, so I'm curious as to how she's able to do what she does. That's a quibble, though, and might have as much to do with confusing Psylocke's powers as anything else. (Does it go back to the Australia-era X-Men being invisible to machines?) Uncanny X-Force isn't going to be winning any Eisners, but for those of us who like the occasional old-school character-driven action book, it can't be beat.

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