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Waiting for the Trade - Fear Itself

Waiting for the Trade

by Bill Miller


Fear Itself
by Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen
collects Fear Itself 1-7 and Fear Itself: Book of the Skull #1.

Why I Bought This: While I tend to avoid the big crossovers, this one caught my interest because it came out the summer of the Captain America and Thor movies and seemed to be built around those two characters in an intriguing way. In my post-Cap movie rush I decided I would buy this eventually. Lo and behold about three months ago, my favorite local comic shop moved all the Fear Itself tie-in trades to the discount bin, so I used that as an excuse to buy this off Amazon (and yes grabbed a few of the tie-ins from the local store too).

The Plot: The Red Skull’s daughter Sinn gets her hand on an Asgardian hammer that she uses to awaken Odin’s long lost brother The Serpent. They then deploy seven more hammers to make super powered minions to fight alongside a Nazi army in an attack on the Earth with an ultimate goal of overthrowing Asgard.

Chapter 0 – In the wake of the latest death of the Red Skull, Sinn and Baron Zemo are unearthing one of his old Nazi fortresses where they find an Atlantis Necrominicon. We get a flashback to 1942 when the Red Skull was sacrificing Atlanteans to try to utilize the book’s magic to summon a weapon. The Invaders stumble across the carnage the next day and Namor is not happy. The mystic mumbo jumbo leads Red Skull to Antarctica where he finds a hammer that he and his Nazis can’t lift. The Invaders arrive and get attacked by a frost giant. Red Skull helps it and although the Invaders kill it, the Skull tricks the Invaders into thinking it was his weapon summoned by the book so they never see the magic hammer, which Skull hides for future study. Back in the present Sinn determines the location of the flashback hammer and teleports away from Zemo so she can retrieve it alone.

Chapter 1 – Cap (Steve Rogers, currently serving commander of SHIELD while Bucky has the Cap identity) and Sharon Carter are monitoring a political protest that breaks out into a riot, during which Steve gets hit in the head with a brick. In Antarctica Sinn retrieves the hammers and transforms into a Thor-like being, and claims to be “resurrected.” Back in NYC Cap talks to the Avengers and is disappointed the riot was entirely man-made (i.e. no mind control, magic spells, etc). In Broxton, Oklahoma people are moving out because of Asgard being there and the constant super villain fights it attracts. Iron Man volunteers the Avengers to rebuild Asgard, which was destroyed during the Siege crossover, as a way of inspiring the common man. Meanwhile Odin is talking to the Watcher about the return of Skaadi and a prophecy that she will kill an Asgardian. Thor shows up and Odin is not happy with this whole Avengers rebuild Asgard plan since he could fix it with a snap of his fingers. At the bottom of the ocean Sinn says she is coming for her father. She kills some dragons and frees an old-man who claims to be the rightful ruler of Asgard instead of the Red Skull giving us our first clue that she is not Sinn anymore. Odin becomes aware of the Serpent’s return. He orders the Asgardians off Earth. Thor asks for an explanation and Odin pummels him, strips him of his hammer and takes him away in chains as the Asgardians cross the Rainbow Bridge. The Serpent summons seven more hammers that land across the Earth. Meanwhile Cap frets that “the gods have abandoned us.”

Chapter 2 – Odin imprisons Thor and tells his warriors how the Serpent feeds on fear and will destroy the Earth growing in power as people feel fear and then attack and destroy Asgard. His plan to stop that is to “raze the Earth” before the Serpent can gain his full fear power and then go to war with him and kill him. In NYC Juggernaut picks up a hammer. These hammers don’t just empower their hosts but also possess them into other Serpent Asgardians. (This explains that Sinn is now the host for Skaadi, mentioned in the last chapter). Steve deploys the Avengers to hammer sites, while Reed takes the FF to a hammer on Yancy Street (Thing’s hometown). In Brazil, Hulk picks up a hammer and transforms leaving Red She Hulk to run away. In South Africa Titania picks up a hammer and tells Absorbing Man he has a hammer waiting for him too. In the Pacific Ocean Attuma grabs a hammer. The Serpent powers up some WWII-era Nazi war machines (think flying Robotech exoskeletons) and the Nazi’s attack and destroy much of Washington DC.

Chapter 3 – Bucky-Cap, Black Widow and Falcon respond to DC and Bucky-Cap engages Sinn in battle. In Asgard, teen-Loki frees Thor from jail. Absorbing Man finds his hammer in Dubai. In Brazil Hulk defeats Red She Hulk and she reverts to Betty in hopes this will snap the spell. Hulk is about to kill her when the Avengers (specifically Spider-Woman, Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel v6.0) arrive for the save. In Yancy Street Thing gets possessed by the hammer Reed was examining and then levels the street. Thor learns of Odin’s plan to sacrifice the Earth to defeat the Serpent and confronts him. Odin allows Thor to go back to fight alongside Earth despite the prophecy that this will lead to his death. Back in DC Sinn kills Bucky by ripping off his cyborg arm and beating him with it before stabbing him through the heart with the hilt of her hammer.

Chapter 4 – We see glimpses of chaos around the world including Juggernaut vs. the X-men in San Francisco and Grey Gargoyle with a hammer stacking up bodies in Paris while the Nazi war machines arrive in New York. We see heroes mourning Bucky until the Avengers big three reunite and Steve dons the Captain America costume again. The Serpent receives his first mass fear power up and uses it to recreate his palace. The big three separate with Thor taking the battle directly to the Serpent’s palace, Cap leading the New Avengers against the Nazi war machines and Iron Man trying to gain an audience with Odin, which he does by drinking alcohol at the gates of Asgard. Thor gets to the Serpent’s throne and Serpent reveals their kinship and tries to get Thor to turn against Odin. When Thor refuses he is teleported back to NYC to face Hulk and Thing.

Chapter 5 – Thor does okay against Thing but Hulk is getting some big hits on him. Sinn confronts Cap and gloats about killing Bucky. Odin tells Tony he will not risk Asgard to help Earth, to which Tony replies he doesn’t want help, he just wants to use Odin’s workshop to build weapons to counteract the hammers. Thing attempts to kill Thor, which causes Thor to kill Thing in self-defense. Thor then pummels Hulk with his hammer. Cap isn’t doing well against Sinn and then the Serpent arrives to join her. The New Avengers attack him but he casually sweeps them away with an energy wave. Cap throws his shield at Serpent, who catches it and breaks it in half. He follows that up with a massive energy explosion. We cut to the heroes waking back up and Spidey wants to leave the battle to check on his family. Meanwhile Franklin finds Ben’s body and uses his reality warp powers to resurrect him and free of the hammer influence. Thor admits to Hulk that he could never beat him, although this may be a ruse, since when Hulk presses the attack Thor blasts him with full force lightening and hurls him into orbit (causing him to land in Transylvania). Thor then promptly passes out from the effort. Spidey leaves as Cap tells Hawkeye “We’re going to lose.”

Chapter 6 – The Avengers tend to Thor, and Cap splits the teams with the main team taking Thor to Asgard for magic healing and the New Avengers overseeing the evacuation of NYC. In Asgard Odin is addressing his troops when Cap interrupts and orders him to heal Thor. Odin feels disrespected but does it anyway, although he teleports the Avengers away. Cap thinks the Avengers need a plan to evacuate the Earth as the Serpent levels up again. Spidey finds Aunt May and they share a moment before he heads off back to war. Odin gives Thor some magic armor and the Ragnarok Sword for round 2 while Tony and Odin’s dwarves build a bunch of magic weapons. Cap, armed with a shot gun of all things, sets up a last stand in Oklahoma since the Serpent has to destroy the World Tree (which is in Okla. now) for the next phase of his plan.

Chapter 7 – Cap, now armed like the Punisher, is holding back the Serpent’s army by himself. Tony returns and hands out his magic weapons to Spidey, Black Widow, Iron Fist, Ms. Marvel, Wolverine, Hawkeye, Red She-Hulk and Dr. Strange. The Serpent powers up again to what is presumably his full power. The Asgardian-powered Avengers arrive to help Cap, and the citizens of Broxton also vow their support. Thor engages the Serpent, who is now in dragon form. The Serpent deflects Thor’s hammer when it is thrown at him and it hits Cap, but the Ragnarok Sword draws blood. Cap meanwhile struggles to his feet and becomes inspired by the Broxton militia showing up to help. Cap then lifts Thor’s hammer to power up, and we can get an Avengers Assemble moment that turns the tide against Sinn, Juggernaut and the Nazis. Thor continues to stab the Serpent, while Hawkeye enjoys using magic arrows that don’t miss, and Dr. Strange puts down Titania. Cap gets his chance to confront Sinn for killing Bucky. Red She-Hulk defeats Attuma. Thor is still stabbing, while Odin prepares to raze the Earth even the heroes seem to be doing damn well at this point. Wolverine defeats Juggernaut. Odin and his army arrive on Earth just in time to see Thor decapitate the Serpent, and the two fall from the sky together. With the Serpent’s death the remaining evil hammers depart from those villains still standing (Sinn, Absorbing Man and Grey Gargoyle). Odin clears away the rest of the Serpent’s army, only for Thor to stagger forward and die in his arms. The next day Odin takes Serpent’s body to the former extra-dimensional site of Asgard for safe keeping and then seals off the Rainbow Bridge leaving the entire Asgardian population behind in Oklahoma. There is a funeral for Thor.  Odin reclaims and melts down the Asgardian weapon’s Tony made. Odin also repairs Cap’s shield, infusing it with uru so it will be stronger than ever. And we close with Cap giving one of his speeches vowing to rebuild Asgard, NYC and the World.

Critical Thoughts: This is a good example of why I skip most of the big event crossovers. This story is riddled with problems. The biggest of which is Cap’s voice is all wrong. In no instance is that worse than Cap saying, “We’re going to lose” at the end of chapter five. Cap is the guy who always believes “Where there’s life there’s hope.” Heck I can think of plenty of crossovers and even regular Avengers stories where the threats are a lot more powerful on a universal scale than a rogue Asgardian and some leftover Nazi tech: The Beyonder, Thanos and the Infinity Gems, Korvac, most of Grandmasters' and Immortal’s plots, Nebula with the Infinity Union, etc. Heck in Infinity Gauntlet Cap witnesses the slaughter of every hero on Earth under his command and still walks up to Thanos to tell him, “As long as one man stands against you, you will never claim victory,” which is a heck of lot more desperate a circumstance than Fear Itself, where the only casualty is Bucky—and yes I get Cap would feel that loss keenly, but I still don’t see him losing hope over it.

Cap’s voice also comes off really wrong in chapter one. His reaction to the Asgardians departing Earth is “the gods have abandoned us.” I don’t buy for a second Cap sees the Asgardians as gods. (I think The Avengers film quote sums that up nicely, “There’s only one God and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”) Does Cap respect Thor as a warrior and friend, absolutely. Does he see him as a “god” after decade or more of working alongside him? Highly doubtful. And no matter how he feels about Thor, does Cap have any reason to give two sh*ts about Odin and the rest of the Asgardians? Not that I’ve seen in decades of stories. Hell for much of continuity Asgard has been in a separate reality from Earth with only Thor and Enchantress have any regular crossings back and forth, so who cares if they go home? Especially since at this point in the story the Serpent/crisis hasn’t even reared up yet? In fact I can’t think of a single story where the Asgardians have defended the Earth. Where were they during the countless Kree/Skrull/alien invasions, Thanos attacks, Red Skull cosmic cube epsidoes, Galactus and Celestial arrivals and other planet-wide crisises the heroes have thwarted on their own? So who cares if they leave now? Especially Cap, who in 90-percent of the above cases has personally led the Avengers/heroes of Earth to victory? I’ll add Cap didn’t show any of this reverence for mythological pantheons during the “Olympus War” when he took on Zeus in physical combat without a moment’s hesitation.

Speaking of things the characters should not care about in this story, Tony drinks to get Odin’s attention. Take everything I said about Batman unmasking to Green Lantern in my New 52 JLA review and multiply that by 50. Sure Tony breaking his sobriety is a big deal to the reader, but give me one logical reason Odin would remotely give a crap. It’s entirely possible given their physiology that Asgardians don’t even have a concept of what alcoholism is. Even if they do, Odin pummels and imprisons his own son for questioning him in this story and then mocks him for caring about frail insignificant mortals. So Tony making an ass of himself and not being able to hold his liquor challenges Odin’s viewpoint on the worthlessness of man how? Odin states several times he is willing to “raze the Earth” thus by inference killing 6-billion people, but one man taking a drink, that he takes seriously?

Also Tony breaks his sobriety and gets drunk but then as soon as Odin shows up he’s like let’s design and build magic weapons despite my long-standing aversion to magic and how it works. It’s amazing how getting drunk not only doesn’t impair Tony’s critical thinking, it actually grants him mastery of skills he’s never had before.

I’ll also add the details of the final battle are very vague, both in details and choreography. We as readers are never told what Tony’s new weapons do. If it’s just a strength power-up how does that put them on even footing with the villains, most of whom lift 100-tons without hammers? Shouldn’t that baseline mean if the villain is enhanced and Black Widow is enhanced then you’re back to square one and she’s still incredibly outclassed.  Wolverine especially makes me say what the hell is going on. Tony seemingly gives him uru claws and spikes that come out of his skin. Just what the hell is Tony supposed to have built for Logan? A new skeleton? Gloves to go over his existing claws? Second, his nails are already fictional super-metal adamantium so how much of upgrade can fictional super-metal uru be? Decades of Ultron stories have shown Thor’s uru hammer doesn’t make so much as a dent in adamantium. Then Wolvie uses his new nails to beat Juggernaut; the details of which occur off-panel because there is no way that can happen. Even if Juggernaut isn’t magic hammer enhanced he’s immune to physical attacks as both scores of X-men stories with Wolverine in them and a couple of Thor vs. Juggernaut stories have shown.

And once we see how the final battle unfolds, you have to ask, Why is Odin so scared of the Serpent? He defeated him once before when he imprisoned him. He gives Thor the sword that defeats him this time, so apparently he’s had it in his possession all along. The Serpent’s big move is to morph into a giant snake (which if that is his true form then how are Odin and him brothers?) which is more or less the same thing every major Thor villain does that he and the Warriors of Asgard fight every 50 issues—the Midgard Serpent and Seth are the two most obvious Thor examples, and you can probably throw Set in their too. Yes, it is implied Odin fears Thor’s death more than the destruction of Asgard and Earth based on this prophecy; but both Odin and Thor have died more times than I can count so that’s still a fairly weak motivation.

As a Cap fan this is a real uneven crossover as it is really just a glorified Thor story, and Cap’s involvement is less than secondary, which isn’t what the advertising made it look like. I mean sure one of Cap’s villains in Sinn gets the first hammer, but then she gets possessed by Skaadi so who cares. It could be anyone wielding that hammer, for all the difference it makes. Then he doesn’t even get to take her down and avenge Bucky in the final battle. She’s just someone Odin casually clears away after Thor falls alongside rabble like Attuma. That just fails narrative 101: you have two major heroes and two major villains in this story, and when you pair them off for the grand battle, you don’t let each hero triumph individually over their own villain?  Heck if this crossover was designed to tie-in to the movies of those heroes why not just resurrect the Red Skull for the 42nd time from whatever he died of this week and use Cap’s actual nemesis instead of his daughter. Because the idea of the Red Skull with Thor-like power is a lot more interesting than Sinn gets possessed and teams up with a new character that will likely never be seen again.

I also want to say this story pokes holes in Marvel’s stated crossover policy that a reader can buy just the main title and skip the tie-ins and still get the full story. Because on that level the other hammers do nothing. Absorbing Man and Titania grab a hammer and we never see them again until the last three pages; ditto really everyone but Hulk and Thing who have the fight with Thor.

I could keep going as this story is just cloaked in fail. Who cares if the Avengers rebuild Asgard? I mean I can see how it’s a nice gesture by Tony and Steve for Thor’s sake, but Tony insists this will inspire the public. If am John Q. Public, why does the rebuilding of some mythic city that’s already been floating over bumblefuck Oklahoma for several month inspire me?  There are probably a million other sci-fi things Tony could do to aid the lives of actual human citizens that would be more effective than that. Plus as Odin mentions he could fix the city with a snap of his fingers. So why hasn’t he already? Does he like the scenic qualities of living in rubble?

Then there is the Spider-man subplot. Why is it here? How is it good to have your franchise character leave the fight and be the first hero to accept the so-called inevitable defeat? Is he really the only hero with friends and family to check on? How is he able to find Aunt May by swinging around screaming her name during the evacuation of the 8 million people in New York? How dumb is Aunt May not to realize he’s Peter in that scene? How hackneyed was the dialogue for her to work “responsibility” into that conversation.

Why does Odin melt the weapons Tony built down? Even if he doesn’t want to let the Avengers keep them, doesn’t he think maybe these would be nice to keep in a vault for his own soldiers the next time Surtur or whoever raids Asgard. In fact like most crossovers this story is remarkably consequence free. NYC and Washington DC are destroyed in this story and yet that’s glossed over in a page at the end, of yea we’ll rebuild. Thor and Bucky did a speed record in returning from the dead after this story. The worst offender is when Franklin casually walks up and resurrects the Thing. That’s not just bad for this story; it now means every FF story forever to come has no consequences because they have a get out of jail free card living with them. (Also why the hell aren’t the FF in this story after Thing gets possessed? Reed is with him when it happens and then we never see Reed again, because apparently he doesn’t care enough to call in the rest of the team/family and save his best friend and/or help deal with the destruction of Manhattan—and also apparently they let their 6-year-old son wander the streets of New York alone in the middle of a major disaster).

I’ll end my criticism by noting the story is filled with snippets of conversation about real world issues, which is meant to somehow be pithy and tie in to the mass fear thing but like most of the writing here completely fails.

So do I have any positives? I liked seeing Cap go to town with Thor’s hammer. Tom Defalco showed Cap could lift the hammer over two decades ago, so it seemed like a big story where that comes into play for the finale has been a long time coming, as it is a natural strategic surprise Cap and Thor could pull off in a crisis. Unfortunately this story doesn’t deliver what I’d want from that scene as not only does Cap with the hammer not win the day, he doesn’t even beat the secondary villain Sinn on his own. In a related positive note: the art, particularly the splash pages, look nice—none better than when Cap lifts the hammer. Bucky’s death is also dramatically done. Sinn rips off his arm and beats him with it. That’s something you hear in action movies as a threat all the time but never actually see realized. I also liked the prologue a lot probably because it was written by Ed Brubaker and not Fraction, and thus tonally comes off a lot better than anything that follows.

Grade: E