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‘Fear Itself’ #1: An Advance, Spoiler-Free Review and Preview

This week, Marvel Comics releases the first issue of Fear Itself, their summer event blockbuster for this year from writer Matt Fraction, penciller Stuart Immonen, inker Wade von Grawbadger and colorist Laura Martin.

Released to coincide with this summer’s “Captain America” and “Thor” films, Fear Itself takes inspiration from the creative DNA of both an apocalyptic Captain America comic and the Thor tradition. Can Fraction marry real-world commentary and street-level fear with the world of cosmic existential terror, ancient secrets and gigantic explosions into a cohesive whole? Find out below for our advance, spoiler-free review of the entire first issue, where we have a lot to say about it.More than anything, the first issue of Fear Itself feels like two different comics stuffed into each other, like a narrative turducken. On one hand, you’ve got the elements of an old-school Marvel event or summer crossover: an extinction-level threat, the relationship between god and man, a sense of impending dread. This part of the book is great fun, with a big, whiz-bang, continuity-twisting, mythological engine made of dope fights and “oh SNAP!” moments that are exactly what I want out of this kind of comic.

I’m tempted to classify this aspect of the book as about half Secret Wars and half Final Crisis (a comparison that’ll come up a lot with this book, I think) and it stands out as the most classic-style event they’ve done… probably since the 1990s. Since Fear Itself was built to be a Thor/Captain America showcase, this part of the story is really Thor’s, since it pulls its DNA from his themes and motifs.

The other half of Fear Itself is far more influenced by the Marvel event storytelling mode of the past ten years, where stories like House of M, Civil War and Secret Invasion sold themselves largely based on a subtext infused with real-world relevance. People came to Civil War to watch Steve McNiven draw dudes punching the crap out of each other, but they stuck around because it basically enmeshed the entire mainstream comics reader community in a debate about a personal freedom vs. national security.

And while you can argue about the merits of whether or not turning a room full of fanboys into an awkward family reunion is a good idea forever, it made Marvel Comics a metric ton of money and, maybe even more importantly for them, media coverage.

While Fear Itself certainly draws a on the standard summer event model, it tries just as hard to pull from the successes of the modified Marvel model of the “relevant” summer event. It’s about an atmosphere of fear, and mob mentality, and riots, and the fact that every time you turn on the news these days you last ten minutes before wanting to throw the remote at the television out of pure frustration with the world around you.

This part, as you can probably guess, is the Captain America half — it’s not that these segments only star one of these characters, but this part of the story is like Kirby’s Madbomb arc got into an awkward one-night stand with, well, Straczynski and Romita Jr.’s 9/11 issue of Amazing Spider-Man. There are too many sequences that flirt too close to real-world tragedies and events and working with them as actualities rather than metaphors, and while Fraction certainly doesn’t have anything like a crying Doctor Doom, I’m worried that the treatments of very real issues might, due to the necessities of the medium and genre, start trending towards the facile.

The lofty concepts and whacked-out cosmic nature of the Thor segments are going to have to find a way to feel like the same story as the rioting in the streets and existential terror of the Cap segments, or else neither side is going to be able to dig deep enough into the story’s themes to come off as anything other than a surface-level exploration. However, it’s important to note these are less problems with the first issue itself than fears (heh) that are instigated by reading it.

In terms of visuals, considering the dual-nature street/god-level story that’s being told, Marvel probably got the absolute best-case artist they could have pulled. Stuart Immonen is a storytelling maestro and an insanely versatile chameleon; the Immonen here is not the Immonen of Superman: Secret Identity or even New Avengers. He alternates between the micro and macro-scale perfectly, and is just at home portraying a bunch of angry dragons as a random citizen’s look of fear and sorrow. On top of all that, he’s someone who delivers on time, so I’d be very surprised to see any delays in this book’s schedule at all.

So, what’s the final verdict as an event kick-off? It tantalizes, which is the job of these things. I was certainly entertained; there’s a very real sense of gravitas; it looks fantastic and it reads well. I’m excited for the next issue, and for the Iron Man and Journey Into Mystery tie-ins this month. Did it remind me a little bit too much of Final Crisis, with the dark god coming to subjugate Earth and spread fear and all? Well, yeah, but as far as I’m concerned you could do a lot worse in my eyes, and we’re still only at the opening issue. It really feels like anything could happen from here on out.

While I hope that the more blatantly real-world “relevant” portions become more allegorical as we go on — or at least so over-the-top that they become congruent with the other half — it doesn’t overpower the fact that I really enjoyed this and it’s still fully within the realm of possibility that Fraction pulls off this balancing act. It’s still his first time as the star at mega-event rodeo, and he’s got time to learn, not to mention got Stuart Immonen, Wade von Grawbadger and Laura Martin backing him up. It’ll certainly get people talking. It’s a promising start.

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