Friday, April 15, 2011

Panic in the Streets: Fear Itself #1 Review

When FDR (no, it was not Porky the Pig) spoke his famous quote that the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself" he went on to describe said fear as "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror." That is to say, panic. Or maybe more along the lines of a phobia, since panic can often be justified, even if rarely a good way to handle things.

In his speech FDR was referring to the Great Depression, and the destitute, poverty-stricken lives of so many American citizens. Apparently, their fear was palpable and "unreasoning" to him, and he decided to comfort them by expanding Government in greater percentages than ever, attempting to sweep down and take the common man under his wing, altering the infrastructure and practices of the United States forever.

In Marvel's latest Earth-shattering multi-layered Superhero event Fear Itself, Matt Fraction has a similar take on the pulse of America. According to Fraction a lot of us are honest folk who live honest lives and have had their houses taken away from us, and there ain't no superheroes nearby who don't give no nevermind to our petty problems.

Then there's another of group of Americans who live in New York and protest the construction of a mosque at Ground Zero, who aren't content with peacefully debating the issue and instead, scared, angry, ignorant, decide to riot in Lower Manhattan and throw bricks at Captain America's head, knocking him to the ground and bloodying up his skull.

It's a shame he opened the series with that scene, cause believe me, I am a sucker for "event comics". Secret Invasion? Shadowland? X-cutioner's Song? I buy every issue, every tie-in with a remotely interesting character, and I buy them all even if I don't particularly like it. Unfortunately, I'll probably keep buying Fear Itself, but I won't take any enjoyment in Fraction's preachy, melodramatic, brainwashed epic.

Admittedly, Asgardian lore and even Thor stories have never been my favorite part of the Marvel Universe, except unless the X-Men were in Asgard, or Storm had been imbued with the Power of Thor. Generally I only read the God of Thunder in Avengers stories, and the same really goes for Iron Man and Captain America. The Big 3 of the Marvel U and I find them less relatable and more stodgy than any other main character. Among them, Captain America was my favorite, but in recent years the attempts to dramatically "modernize" his character hasn't sat well.

As usual in today's world, when attempting to change, improve or modernize something, the actual process that occurs is destruction. The ripping away of what has come before and rebuilding it in our own image, so long as that image is new. Thus was Captain America shot in the head while handcuffed. Thus was he resurrected, grimmer and with purpose, putting away the Red, White and Blue in favor of Black, and totin' guns. Thus did his replacement come to view the immediate and legitimate threat of "tea baggers" en masse, and set out to stop their rise of violence.

Fear Itself has been promoted as an insightful reflection into and representation of the state of present society, as if that is something crucial that comics are meant to do for us. Where did this phenomenon come from? Since when, with the onslaught of TV news, online news, print news, radio, and opinion pieces, do I need the Avengers to tell me what was going on in the world and how I felt about it?

It's possible the 'Marvel architects' believe Civil War was successful in that it was some commentary on the Patriot Act. Except, no one actually cared about the Patriot Act despite a vocal minority, although it seems Captain America would have disapproved. If listening to my telephone calls after I said the words 'bomb', 'plane', and 'Jew-lover' meant we could avoid another 9/11, and that supremely unfortunate but inevitable Mosque-riot that would follow in its wake, who honestly would object? But Civil War was actually fun to read because it was taken to such a higher level, much like the future scenarios written about rounded-up mutants and the rebelling, dying X-Men.

And it was fun because it was the kind of thing all us fanboys had always talked and thought about: "Who would win in a fight, Cap or Iron Man?" It was the kind of thing made for comics fans who cared little for political commentary, but instead wanted to see their favorite characters, the personalities and powers they loved, go at it against each other. Also, being an event, there was sure to be a character death, which, no matter how overdone and cheap, is still remarkably enticing to read about.

The point being, while it's fun to pick up an old comic every now and then and watch 40s Captain America sock it to Hitler, I don't go to the comic store every Wednesday and shell out money on overpriced books about fit folks in spandex and capes with powers of magic and molecular disruption to get a much-needed dose of reality. Reality is never far away. Post-work Wednesday, reading comics with a beer, is about the complete opposite. The joy of the story. The thrill of the fantastic. The aesthetic pleasure of Batman posing on a gargoyle. A relief from banality and the realization that the responsibility of getting up in the morning and going to work isn't all that much when compared to the constant, vigilant patrol of a city suffused with crime.

So far Fear Itself is mired in mythology, ancient and newly created, the 'Serpent' returning to Earth and causing fear and terror to overcome everyone. (Think Shadow King or Scarecrow, with magic hammers.) Perhaps it will be more interesting when The Worthy show up, old, fairly B-list villains (except for one A-list hero which will be interesting) powered-up and wreaking havoc. That's more in line with fanboy-satisfaction. However a lot of solicits describe things like: Spider-Man, exhausted, fights the grip of fear in NYC. Is he saving us from ourselves? Are there going to be even more riots?

Are we so fragile, that one primal emotion, albeit it stoked to great heights, can completely dissolve our society? Overpower our will? Turn us mindless and violent?

Is this a story about heroism, or about the bleakness of today's world, and how badly we need to be saved? Does Fraction truly think so little of us?

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