By Steve Morris
Spoilers below, of course: we’re talking about the last issue of the run!
I’ve always held the theory that Matt Fraction just wants to be left alone. As a writer, he thrives when he can be quietly in his own corner and calmly construct the strangest occurrences imaginable. When he’s forced to go play with the other kids, told to lead the room, or given an assignment which is important, you lose a lot of what makes him… Matt Fraction. It’s why he thrives with obscure corners of a superhero universe like Jimmy Olsen’s career or Hawkeye’s apartment building, and why Casanova and Sex Criminals came together as fully-realised recognitions of chaos. Don’t pressure Matt Fraction, or you get his Uncanny X-Men run; his Inhumans; his Fear Itself.
That’s something I held to for quite a while, despite consistent flickers across the internet which told me that Fear Itself wasn’t as bad as people would have me believe. The only Marvel event he helmed solo, the seven-part story even starts off with a one-shot prologue written by frequent collaborator Ed Brubaker, as if to say: don’t be worried, Matt, we’ll get you through this.
Leading out of his run on Thor and connecting into his work on Iron Man, the event sees Odin’s long-lost brother “the Serpent” accidentally reawakened by Sin, the daughter of the Red Skull. As the god of Fear, he needs the world to panic in order to regain his powers, and together this unlikely father-daughter dynamic set about doing just that. They drop seven hammers around the world, each of which transform characters like Hulk, Titania and The Thing into supercharged monsters working on behalf of the Serpent. Hence the heroes of the world have to go make their own weapons in order to take the hammer bros down before the world falls to mass terror.
Important things! The sort of things which I didn’t think Matt Fraction would do a particularly good job with, in all honesty. But on re-reading the series, it’s clear I was missing his point.
Rereading Fear Itself, you can see that the Marvel Universe punch-up side of things is transparently a sideshow. The final fight is a moot point, because the victory is earned long before the Avengers start hitting monsters with mystical nunchucks. This isn’t really about Thor fighting a serpent or Iron Man constructing seven heroic weapons to save the day: this is a comic about the general public, and their relationship to superheroes. When things are at their worst and people are struggling to cope with the day-to-day, they look for inspiration and empowerment around them – and Fear Itself is a comic which proudly finds reason for people to be inspired and empowered. It’s a reminder why the superhero fantasy can be so important.
Previous issues were concerned with normal, regular people losing their jobs; having their homes repossessed; and struggling with the things that we as readers can all relate to. As the series escalates and things get worse, the comic keeps showing us news reports of horrific events happening around the world, reported widely by the media, and demoralising everyone. Captain America dies on live TV, his shield is broken, and when Steve Rogers then puts the costume back on and rallies the people behind him for one last stand in issue #6… they run away. And you can’t blame them! We’ve spent the time with them to appreciate their fear, and understand it.
But Captain America doesn’t yield. He holds the line until the rest of the heroes can show up to help turn the tide of battle. And whilst we then get the standard fight scene with shiny Laura Martin heroes fighting superpowered enemies, the issue intersperses every page with shots from the media, reporting on other heroic and important acts happening in symphony with the superheroes. Hawkeye shoots someone with an arrow, and then we see how European relief workers are helping refugees. Steve Rogers punches an enemy, and we see firefighters pulling people safely out of burning buildings. It’s not particularly subtle, but it is rousing.
The Serpent sees humans as fodder for his fear engine, and Asgard as the true enemy he has to fight, and that overestimation is what defeats him. We don’t just see superheroes fighting the literal fight for Earth, but we see aid workers and first responders and civilian heroes lift up the world for them. It’s a relentlessly hopeful message even for a Marvel comics superhero event, and in 2022 (when I wrote this essay) it was hard not to be swept along with that ambition. At the time of Fear Itself, 2011, there were plenty of things to worry about – but in 2022, with a pandemic, unprecedented corruption and pain, and the unswerving understanding that the world wants us to suffer… the message of Fear Itself escapes corniness and becomes a grandstanding, sincere message of motivation.
Mid-battle, Thor tells the Serpent “what you don’t know about them – what you don’t know about what they are capable of doing – will kill you”. He’s talking about the people of Earth, and their capacity to stand up for themselves and protect what matters. While Odin – easily the most powerful character in the series – cowers on Asgard with his army, his formidable military frozen in place, we see a civilian called Rick decide to leave his bomb shelter and head back to the lines of battle. Inspired by Steve’s example, this average man arrives at the fight just in time to see Captain America knocked to the ground.
So he picks Captain America back up. At that moment, justified in his faith in the people, Captain America picks up mjolnir and proves himself worthy. Not Thor, not Odin, and not a single one of the Asgardians who are hiding off-planet from the Serpent – Steve Rogers, essentially just a regular man, shows that he is the person worthy of wielding the mightiest weapon in the Marvel Universe. It’s an incredibly inspiring message, and one which really resonated with me as I looked out the window at the empty streets of a worldwide pandemic.
When the battle is done and Captain America assembles everyone for one last motivational speech to send readers home happy, he says
“Like the rest of the world, we’ll dig deep and find the strength to get out of bed tomorrow morning and start all over again.”
Fear Itself was top class entertainment delivered ten years before I needed it. Although things are always bad and people will always have struggles and disappointments, the fundamental message of the event is that these immortal heroes will always exist in the comics page to give us motivation, hope, and optimism for whatever comes next. It’s a really pro-comics comic, to that extent. It ends with Rick – who survived the battle – meeting a new neighbour in the ruins of their community, scarred by battle. “We gotta take care of each other, right?” he says, and in the present day that message feels more honest and true than ever before. Fear Itself isn’t just better than people would have you think: right now? It’s brilliant.
Fear Itself #7 “Thor’s Day”
Written by Matt Fraction
Drawn by Stuart Immonen
Inked by Wade Von Grawbadger and Dexter Vines
Coloured by Laura Martin, Justin Ponsor and Matt Milla
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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