Posted by: Abhay Khosla on June 22, 2011
Part 2, in which Questions are asked about FLASHPOINT #1 & FEAR ITSELF #3, lessons are learned, truths are revealed, a bloody revenge is discharged and a bloody discharge has its revenge.
ASKED ON MAY 15, 2011
UPON THE RELEASE OF FLASHPOINT ISSUE #1
ABHAY: After two issues of FEAR ITSELF, I think I enjoyed FLASHPOINT #1 more than I would have otherwise. Here’s my guess why: it had recognizable protagonists. Who is the protagonist for FEAR ITSELF? Does anyone have any guesses? Thor and Captain America are in it but I don’t really know what they want and haven’t seen them do much of anything yet based on what they want– they’ve been purely reactive. For me, like SECRET INVASION, like SIEGE, I don’t know that FEAR ITSELF has a protagonist that I can identify. And so to some extent, I don’t know if I would even call it a “story”– my extremely elementary understanding of story is that stories have protagonists, i.e. characters who WANT things and who do things because of the things that they want. What do any of the heroic characters in FEAR ITSELF want? To defeat the recession…? FEAR ITSELF feels, for me, more like a Powerpoint presentation so far than a “story.” Slide 1– there are hammers falling to the Earth. Slide 2– here are the toyetic new versions of such-and-such characters.
FLASHPOINT, I can tell you who the protagonists are. It’s the Flash– who wants to restore reality back to “normal”, with Batman being set up as either a villain of the piece, as an anti-hero or as a tragic hero in the “I’m not the hero of this story” line. Heck, there’s even a brief scene setting up Cyborg as a secondary protagonist– we know what he wants, as well. I not only know what they want, but we’ve seen them take actions based on what they want.
“I’m not the hero of this story” is a very DC line. I always find it completely bizarre, DC’s ongoing conversation with itself in its books. But by the 4th page of the comic, the comic is engaging the reader in a discussion of its own contents– the FLASHPOINT authors are underlining who the hero of the piece is, as soon as possible. Yes, the premise of FLASHPOINT is one that we’ve seen many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many times before. But it was at least something I could recognize as being a story, and that I understood as being something I could invest in as such.
SHORT CUTS so fucking fundamentally misunderstood Raymond Carver–didn’t understand the importance of the Northern Californian setting, didn’t understand the importance of his characters’ place in the bottom part of the class structure, didn’t understand why the fuck you can’t have every fucking actor just jangle out any fucking thing that comes to mind because Carver’s characters are so very nearly beaten and exhausted and cautious they can barely talk–that I can’t move beyond my frustration and disgust to convey how badly the movie dulled and blunted any of Carver’s story hooks.
You’re not going to mistake Carver for Stan Lee any time soon, but taking the waitress whose husband overhears two guys saying disparaging things about her ass and begins compulsively pressuring her to lose weight, and then making that waitress be the person driving the car that hits the kid whose parents are being bullied by the guy who needs them to pick up the kid’s birthday cake? By taking those individual story moments, each kind of painful and human and understandable, and chewing them up into a beige flavorless paste? (After Gordon Lish put in so much hard work on them, ha-ha?) SHORT CUTS is such a wretched literary adaptation of a work it makes LAWNMOWER MAN look like GONE WITH THE WIND.
All of which is to say–hooray for competence! There are times when its charms can trump those of genius, and FLASHPOINT #1 is certainly one of those times. Interestingly, while I don’t think Johns necessarily makes clear all the connections yet–we assume by the end of the issue we know who’s narrating the story but it could be a fake-out, we only see the villain for a panel, if that–there is such a clear sense of where the story is going, what the hook is, that I’m not pissy about having to infer those connections.
In fact, it feels like Johns is having me make those inferences so he can then fuck with them later….which, I guess, is the difference between what is commonly understood as the difference between a story and a good story: our expectations are set up, then toyed with, then turned upside down, and then are fulfilled in ways beyond our expectation. [Man, I hate how Robert McKeeified and Syd Fieldish our understandings of stories have become, but they also work when it’s time to lay down some fast, quick generalizations about what things work and why.]
In short, Johns seems to have some chops for this sort of thing in a way Fraction which doesn’t. And that isn’t entirely surprising–the guy has written several of DC’s big crossover events and he also wrote and co-wrote a huge number of issues of JSA. He’s comfortable writing books with lots of characters such that everyone in the rooftop gathering of heroes gets a chance to say a line or two and define who they are and what their conflict is with someone else. Sure, it’s a big ol’ exposition dump and it’s done in that very comic booky way of having Character A reprimand Character B by reminding Character B of a conflict neither of them would have forgotten or bothered to mention in real life…but in doing so, Johns also gets to slip in bits of information about the larger situation they’re in, the nature of their world that’s gone wrong.
Seeing as superhero comics are predicated on the idea of selling you the next issue (or, if you’ve switched to trades, getting you to read the next chapter), I guess the very basic test of this type of story at this stage is, “Sure, I’d like to read more about that.” And there were multiple times during FLASHPOINT #1 where I found myself saying exactly that. You know, that one panel where the Outsider is talking about hunting a kid whose energy “could keep my homeland lit for years” or making Captain Marvel into a kind of Forever People equivalent using real kids instead of New Gods. And, I should point out, I did kinda like Barry’s plight and his very immediate reaction to it, even though I give less than two shits about alternate world time stories, generally, and stories about Wonder Woman and Aquaman tearing apart the world with their coming fight, even less so. [I kinda wish Alan Moore’s TWILIGHT pitch had never been written, in a way: it’s like this weird barrel of toxic waste buried under the comic landscape that polluted it ever since. I feel like I see its influence all over the place, but never more than in big DC crossover events like this and ARMAGEDDON 2001.]
Having hit my “sure, I’d like to read more about that” funny bone gives FLASHPOINT a huge edge over FEAR ITSELF where the ideas seem kinda paltry and/or ill-defined, clumsily tied together, and poorly paced. The fanboy part of me wants to infer larger, more inflammatory statements from that–Competence trumps genius! Craft trounces innovation! Alternate realities edge out ambiguous analogues! Johns is better than Fraction!–but the part that’s been around the block a few times more remembers that, again, Johns did a ton of team books and has done a lot more of these things: I haven’t re-read it recently nor will I probably ever bother, but INFINITE CRISIS was a big ol’ sludgy mess that Johns wasn’t able to make work, either. I kinda think if Fraction really wants to do this kind of thing, he’ll figure out a way to make it work. (And you know, he might be able to pull it out in the next couple of issues, though I really doubt it.)
Which I guess more or less gives you the answer to the question about whether I read one event and compared it to the other: I should confess that I’ve only read both events so as to participate in this symposium and therefore I think it would be utterly disingenuous of me to pretend I wasn’t comparing one book to another. But putting that aside, isn’t that the way we read comic books? For those of us who still buy the single issues, isn’t there a reason why we so rarely walk out of the store with just one? Sitting down with a big stack of comic books is something I still do as an adult, and even though I tell myself there are grown-up reasons to do that–it seems more efficient to read a bunch of books in one 45 minute go, than to read each of them in five to ten minutes bites spread thoughout the day–I think we overlook the hidden value in the act.
Italo Calvino once wrote an essay about the hypothetical bookshelf, in which the placement of disparate books side by side create their own improbable connections, “produce electrical shocks, short circuits.” To a much narrower extent, this same frisson is something we are looking for when we sit down with a stack of comics–they battle it out for which one is the best, and we often pre-sort the pile as to whether we’re going to read our likely favorites first or last or spread out among the others we’re undecided about or buy for our weird political inclinations (favorite character, or title we have always bought, or artist/writer we always support even when we’re not really interested in what they’ve done over the last one-to-twenty years)–and not only can we not help but subconsciously compare and/or merge the books we’re reading all at once, it may be a very important component as to why we read them at all.
The excitement of the stack explains a couple of things about modern comic readers–why we as fans complain about how expensive comic books are (because we don’t buy and read just one, and the people who talk about how few titles they do buy always say so with a very palpable sense of regret), and how we cannot help but ask some endlessly internecine questions: Who’s stronger, Hulk or Thor? Marvel or DC? Johns or Fraction? FLASHPOINT or FEAR ITSELF?
I think we can’t help but compare these things to each other all the time. The Stack demands it of us, and it is something to which we very happily submit. The way in which the event-wide crossover both mirrors (who will be stronger, Hulk with a hammer, or Thor with a hammer?) and alleviates (I can’t afford to buy Cap and Iron Man and Spidey and Hulk, but if I buy INFINITY GAUNTLET, I get one book with all of them!) the (Infinite) Crisis of the (Finite) Stack is one I could go on about for a while, but obviously I’ve written more than enough, here.
JOG: Huh, I dunno Abhay, FEAR ITSELF so far seems like the makings of a traditional enough three-act structure to me. The protagonist would be Captain America, who verbalizes the story’s conflict (as introduced by the opening riot) while up on the roof of Avengers Tower: “It was chaos. People just screaming– at each other’s throats– and I couldn’t stop it.” As a result, Iron Man pitches his ‘rebuild Asgard’ initiative, which frays the relationship of Odin and Thor, the latter of whom is likely the secondary protagonist (naturally Cap ‘n Thor are the two characters who happen to have movies coming out while the series runs, although maybe this presumption of synergy is coloring my reading). All the stuff going with the various antagonists prompts an already-pissed Odin to withdraw the Gods from humankind — establishing Thor’s related personal conflict as a desire to aid the humans, thus thematically conjoining him to Cap — while the big (potential!) end-of-Act I stinger sees everything going REALLY crazy for Earth: nations mobilizing; blood supplies souring – all the news crawl stuff, which aggravates Cap’s initial stated conflict, i.e. preventing everything out on the street from going straight to fucking hell. Indeed, he’s literally seated in the middle of the chaos, in that the news crawl that covers the end of the chapter diegetically originates from inside Cap’s command center.
Again, I really want to emphasize that this is only a possibility, because I’m writing these things after reading each individual issue, and I don’t really expect to understand everything happening in the broader plot as of issue #2 of 7, but that’s how the it looks to be operating for me. Whether it’s a successful operation is something else – in addition to Jeff’s criticisms above in particular, I think the series might be laboring a bit under genre expectations, which is to say: of course a ton of villains attacking the world will give rise to international conflict, that’s not unique enough in this story to register all that much as a unique or compelling conflict for Captain America, especially when the supporting political content in issue #1 isn’t all that strong and the various character cutaways in issue #2 don’t have a ton of impact. Because of that, it seems like parts are ‘missing’ from the story, or Cap is difficult to even identify as a substantive protagonist, let alone care for – I personally didn’t have any trouble discerning the story elements, but I can’t say I’ve found the story itself to be compelling.
Now FLASHPOINT – well, to quote Thierry Groensteen, this here’s a damn superhero-y superhero comic. I was pretty taken with Nina Stone’s reaction, where she expresses this utter bafflement at what’s going on, starting with the somewhat ALL STAR SUPERMAN-styled condensed origin opening page, which doesn’t reward the same confidence of brevity, in that the Flash is lacking the necessary cultural cachet. Although – you wouldn’t know it from paying a lot of attention to superhero comics. That’s it, right? Like, there’s an argument to be made that it’s maybe little more than critical shadowboxing to presume that a down-to-the-bone piece of genre mechanics like a superhero event crossover even should try to appeal to anybody outside of the devout. Or, to (sort of) answer Abhay’s question (for starters), I do think that really intent superhero universe followers care if a traditionally composed “story” is present, definitely — right now I’m flashing back to the WORLD WAR III mini-event in 52, which I don’t recall anyone liking very much despite being diabolically intent on resolving potential shared universe inconsistencies — but I think what’s also important is emphasizing the unique qualities of the genre as incarnated via comic books: the ‘window’ factor, the momentary glimpses into a fictional world that’s bigger and older than you, with none of the heavy-distancing artifice of aging actors or discernible mortality. I think the appeal of that quality can substitute for elegantly primped narrative composition.
The thing is, FLASHPOINT hits a lot harder on this than FEAR ITSELF, to the point where I’m forced in writing about the thing to face down these questions of my engagement with genre particulars, because I think the makeup of the comic forces it. I did like parts of it – Johns has a knack for leaping deep into this visceral appeal of a big superhero universe, so that the opening origin/motivation page immediately gives way to this big heroic costumed image, and then the next page goes fuck that – ALL THE SPEEDSTERS, and then it expands AGAIN to a double page splash of SOOOO MANY SUPERHEROES, all while this insistent narration chokingly builds up the inspirational quality of just what you’re looking at, soul-searing virtue in effect, AND THEN – BOOM, right to a banal police station with men in shirts and ties discussing Miss Alchemy and the Pied Piper and murder and shootings, this self-evidently absurd smashing of semi-realism and superhero fantasy, proudly so, embracing the nonsense of it.
Yet this unabashed affection also extends well past the point where the enthusiasm is transferable to relative outsider me. I’m gonna be blunt now – I’m at an absolute loss as to how anyone could find anything — ANYTHING — in FEAR ITSELF to be more rhythmically clumsy, narratively illogical, or otherwise dubious-on-a-craft-level than that ridiculous eight-page rooftop sequence where one-third of the fucking alternate DCU allusively discusses their interrelationships **among themselves** like some horrible Earth-2 Jim Shooter deal where the purpose of everyone pausing for introductions is not to clarify anything. All because Cyborg, plot-wise, has apparently begun his globally critical cross examination of Thomas Wayne without knowing the answers to his questions, thereby prompting a scene-ending ‘lol no’ and Our Hero bowing his head with his fists clenched in the steaming debris of approximately one quarter of an issue at his feet. And, you know, maybe it’s a lack of imagination on my part for failing to engage in speculation over the potentials of the modified universal scenario, but in terms of on-page execution I’m firmly with Amy Poodle in that the dialogue reads as less credible articulation than script directions indicating how the dialogue should go. Or, y’know, notes from on high re: how the periphery books could operate.
And still! That’s a superhero thing! Totally! I invoked Jim Shooter, because ostensibly story-stalling periphery character background dumps have enough of a tradition of usage in superhero comics that it can register as “comic booky,” to quote Jeff, rather than uniquely troublesome. But to me, this inadvertent-or-otherwise traditionalism comes off as both boring and self-defeating; if this is superhero comics qua superhero comics, it primarily reminds me of how distanced I feel from the genre in terms of engagement, if this much of an introductory showpiece is going to leave me conscious to my own breathing while it presupposes my interest in the delineation of variations to the mega-continuity and how maybe — possibly — characters might deal with each other in some other purchasable forum. Some of them by potentially superior creative teams, yes, but that’s frankly not part of the presumption – that I’ll just care, right there, as part of the crossover event experience, the very reading of a very superhero thing.
So, I guess to (further!) answer your question(s): no, I couldn’t not compare the two series, because I felt they embodied different aspects of contemporary superhero concepts, FEAR ITSELF touched by multimedia possibilities and ominous, ‘big,’ ‘00s-born tone, while FLASHPOINT is superheroes-as-superheroes, “a riot of colourful nothing forever, then Armageddon,” to quote the Poodle. Which might suggest something about why Marvel series of this sort nominally concern themselves with Real Issues while DC events are essentially about, again, Superheroes Themselves. Or, to tie it in with my FEAR ITSELF comments, the highs for me were a little higher with FLASHPOINT, due to Johns’ immersion in superhero stuff, but the lows didn’t just raise concerns of whether the story isn’t laboring under genre expectations, as they did with Fraction – I really questioned, fundamentally, my interest in what’s going on with comics like this.
I don’t think this needs to be a dichotomy, by the way, in case I’m sounding nihilistic!
BRIAN: I’ll tell you why I think people are seeming to like Flashpoint #1 better than Fear Itself #1, and I think that it is as simple as Geoff Johns not having to do the heavy lifting in selling it to you.
There were two things I admired about Flashpoint #1. The first was that it was a Geoff Johns event comic, but that it didn’t have any gore. The closest I can find is that flashback panel showing the Amazon’s subjugating the UK, where the sword in the foreground has some blood on it — but there’s no decapitations or limbs getting hacked off or anything. Oh, sure, it will probably change before issue #5, but for now, it was nearly violence free, and I was surprised by that, and enjoyed it.
But the other thing was maybe the most important one — I felt like I was reading a Grant Morrison comic, with rapid ideas being thrown out just for texture. Like Jeff, I had at least one “Hm, I probably wouldn’t mind reading more about that” moment (S.H.A.Z.A.M. for me, too!) — but I don’t actually WANT to read just any comic on the subject… it would have to be a handpicked one, y’know?
I thought most of the Alts on display felt fairly fleshed out, and I thought that was a pretty neat trick summarizing a bunch of characters down into a single word balloon, in most cases. But that’s the cool part of it: the ideas are cooler because they’re single snapshots, and don’t have to have an entire comic book written about them. It’s like… mm, how about that issue of Animal Man where all of the forgotten and never-were superheros came into Buddy’s existence — one of them never-were’s was a 1960’s counter-cultural Justice League (The “Love Syndicate of America”) with “Magic Lantern” and “Speed Freak” and “Sunshine Superman”. Funny, great idea — but I don’t actually want to see more than that.
So, Johns gets to just have all of the good lines, without having to show you all of the backstory that gets you there, or to tell a compelling story with those characters on their own. That’s for other creative teams to do. Meanwhile, Fraction is the one selling the the spine of story on the Marvel side. Fear Itself’s crossovers appear to be magnifying incident, so it lives and dies on Fraction’s ability to sell the story.
To answer Abhay’s question… yeah, I’m pretty weird as a reader, I think. I’m good at compartmentalizing when I’m in the process of reading the actual story, but I’m otherwise incessantly contrasting and comparing things most normal fans probably aren’t considering, like marketing plans and number of tie ins and so far.
(I only ordered one of the 16 Flashpoint spin-offs in a number high enough to qualify for the pins, and decided not to involve myself in this marketing exercise. Logo pins for alternative reality mini-series is not the same as a rainbow of power rings tying into regular monthly concepts)
My absolute guess is that Fear Itself will sell more tie-ins because of the cover branding and the expansion of incident nature of their crossovers, while Flashpoint is going to be very narrow focused — the only one of the spin-offs I actually see selling is the Batman one, now more than ever, but I see very few readers buying into most of the rest because one presumes that what they’re expanding will be the backstory, not the main story. That is to say, it’s hard to envision a way to split off sixteen threads for the sixteen three-issue mini-series from Flashpoint #2, that won’t have any meaningful weight to them to dovetail back just before the story conclusion in Flashpoint #5 without them being dealt with in #3 & 4. More likely they are to use scenes in #2-4 to either dole out the backstory, or to tell non-Flashpoint related concurrent stories — not the magnifying-the-incident nature of a Fear Itself tie in.
Oh, there, that’s it — Fear Itself is likely to have tie-ins, while Flashpoint will have spin-offs. Those are different things, and they change the nature of the main story by their very existence. Johns is able to do something reasonably breezy, while Fraction necessitates something more dense.
TUCKER: I’m kind of taken with reading everybody else on this subject, so I’ll try to respond to the key points, or what I perceive them to be. I also preferred Flashpoint to Fear Itself, in opposition with my wife, which would have caused any number of problems on the homefront if she wasn’t blessed with the ability to absolutely forget every comic book she disliked almost immediately after disliking them. I still didn’t really like Flashpoint–it’s an info dump comic that seems to propose a fantasy world where very little is different, except for a couple of broad “millions are dead” strokes regarding boring ass Aquaman and even more boring ass Wonder Woman, and for the record, let me make it clear that you’re dealing with a Batman > all other DC characters kind of Comics Critic here, and I have no problem sending a telegram that says “WONDER WOMAN IS BORING FULL STOP”, and in no case is that more true than here, a comic where she actually murders a decent percentage of the world and yet still manages to find the most boring looking helmet in the cabinet of the world’s most famous options for helmets, and that’s worth some kind of prize, even if it’s just me nodding at her and saying “You win again, you boring clown”. Thankfully, this comic features a Batman more driven than my Batman, because my Batman settles for just beating up and incarcerating criminals, whereas FlashpointBatman has worked himself into such a lather that he actually herds them like cattle to a specific location for the “beats them up” part, whereas regular Batman just fights wherevs, which is a lot easier to do. I don’t even understand how FlashBats pulls that off. Like–why do the pursesnatchers and spree-rapers that populate DC Comics end up on the roof so often? How does that factor in to the equation? Or is this like that Nighthawk guy in Supreme Power who only attacked white criminals, and Flashbats only goes after people who can go off the roof near Crime Alley?
Regarding whether or not reading Fear Itself impacted me–I don’t know that it did. I don’t really think they have enough in common for me to compare them while reading them, you know? I could probably extrapolate something–obviously, you cats did–but in the heat of the moment, one’s a fantasy type of Elseworlds thing where Deathstroke is a pirate, and one’s a shitty Thor comic with a Captain America villain. I remember thinking that Flashpoint seemed like something more super-hero fans would like than Fear Itself, but isn’t pretty much true all the time when you’re doing a Fraction/Johns comparison? I know guys like Graeme and Jeff think that Iron Man isn’t a piece of shit, but they’ll come around eventually, to it being a total piece of shit.
Remember that music video from Pret-a-Porter? “Here comes the hotstepper”? I’d argue that video has more in common with super-hero comics than Altman movies.
CHRIS: It looks like I am in the minority of enjoying Fear Itself more than Flashpoint, though that’s damning Fear Itself with faint praise. While Abhay’s right about Flashpoint having more clearly defined protagonists, I don’t think it’s that hard to see the Avengers Holy Trinity of White Guys as the primary protagonists of Fear Itself either.
The thing that made me recoil from Flashpoint is that’s it’s basically a Kitchen Sink Elseworlds. There’s nothing wrong with Elseworlds — there have been some enjoyable ones, even if I’m blanking on them right this second — but the best ones drill down to a handful of characters and explore them in a different light. Doing a story where Barry Allen never got powers and how that affects The Flash and Central City or Keystone City or whatever is a fine idea for a story. Exploring how different Gotham City would look if you had Thomas Wayne as the Punisher instead of Bruce as Batman is a fine idea for a story too. And both of these stories are pretty simple to explain as a writer and grasp as a reader. But the Butterfly Effect of Zoom’s Million Little Retcons leads me as a reader to pick everything apart. It’s simple enough to look at the Planetary-style interference that affects many of the characters — a few bullets shifted in Crime Alley, Hal Jordan never gets a ring, the Kents never find a baby in a rocket ship — but what subtle changes to Wonder Woman and Aquaman’s youth turns them into genocidal monsters? Is Wonder Woman forever *this close* to just slaughtering millions of dudes, if she doesn’t have the Right Friends keeping an eye on her in the Justice League? Why is Captain Marvel turned into Captain Planet, and why is this a dark turn? And why is Cyborg such a Big Player in the dystopia? Is he being held down by a glass ceiling in the “real” DCU, where he’s a meaningless afterthought? And why is America, home of most of the DC heroes, pretty much the same place in Flashpoint, while Europe, Africa and South America are completely decimated by Amazons, Nazis and Gorillas without the proper influence of Barry Allen and friends? Oh, and Alaska has been taken over by zombies if you look at that map they’ve distributed. That’s a shitload of World Building for what’s theoretically a five issue series, and assuming Johns is going to touch on one-tenth of this over the course of five issues, it makes me wonder how much time is going to be wasted on explaining “cool Elseworlds ideas” in place of doing anything with his lead characters, like Zoom, the villain of the piece who doesn’t actually appear in this first issue.
ASKED ON JUNE 5, 2011
UPON THE RELEASE OF FEAR ITSELF ISSUE #3
One of the things I like to do when reading crossovers is to read the simultaneous publicity that goes on. Because the creators always seem to be reading just completely different comics than I am. And hey, to some extent that fact is understandable because … things that look very simple and obvious, I suppose it sometimes takes a considerable amount of thought and labor to make things seem “simple.” It’s all quite understandable.
So, I read the Newsarama FACING FEAR ITSELF group interview, and I really enjoyed that everyone involved seems convinced that they surprised the readers by killing Bucky. And… I was curious about that because I had taken it as a given: FEAR ITSELF, issue #3? Oh, sure sure– that’s the one where Bucky dies. I had thought that was the conventional “wisdom,” in fact. I mean, with OSBORN over, I don’t really read any Marvel comics– I’ll pick up a Bendis thing occasionally just to check what he’s up to, but that’s it. I don’t think I’m too plugged in, though I do listen to Jeff & Graeme’s WAIT STOP podcast. And I’d be surprised– no, deeply shocked– if Graeme didn’t call this a long, long time ago. But, I mean– is it a hard call? There’s a Captain America movie coming out. They’re not going to have two Captain Americas when the movie comes out, so they’re going to kill Bucky. The end. I don’t think it took a lot of detective work from the fans.
So: did anyone not know ahead of time that Bucky was going to die? Was it a surprise for anyone? Does anyone care that character is dead? My favorite thing when a superhero dies used to be that in the letter pages afterwards, someone would always invariably send in a poem, which they’d run, memorializing the dead superhero. I always thought that was … is it funny or sad or both or neither or…? In fact, to help spur things along, here’s my poem for Bucky– feel free to contribute your own:
Ode to Dead Bucky: A Poem
Oh, Bucky, with your metal arm,
How sad it is you bought the farm.
Even though you carried that sweet glock,
You met your end in this boring schlock.
Remember Rodney Dangerfield reciting
“Rage Rage Against the Dying of the Light?”
Like you now, that was out of sight.
How do you like your blue-eyed boy
JOG: I didn’t know Bucky was going to die because I don’t read his comic and his first spoken lines of the FEAR ITSELF miniseries were in this issue. As a result I wasn’t surprised either, but I’ll just chalk that up to something that’s meant to register in different ways to readers with different levels of engagement; to me, it’s just something I’d expect to happen in a big battle – and it did! What’s worrying, however, is that I don’t think the stakes are all that well established in any of the ongoing fight scenarios beyond the broadest “world going crazy” contours, so everything kind of landed with the same weight, no matter what happened, anywhere. The Choose Your Own Adventure advertising denouement directing you to appropriate tie-ins for the rest of such-and-such a plotline didn’t inspire a lot of confidence on that front either.
ABHAY: Maybe it speaks to how oblivious I am, but I didn’t notice until I read CBR’s review of the issue that they’d spent two pages in issue #2 setting up the “Absorbing Man needs to get his hammer” story that was resolved in one panel of issue #3 that shows the Absorbing Man with a hammer which he got in some spin-off. Which is also fun because #2 set up that he had to go from South Africa to Dubai, which from what I can tell is about 4,000 miles away– Dubai to Johannesburg is about an 8 hour flight according to my internet. I don’t know if either of those characters can fly using superpowers, though (do the hammers let these characters fly like Thor? I don’t think they do, right?)(Wait, wait– why don’t the hammers let those characters fly like Thor?? Wouldn’t that have been cooler?). But– it sort of plays into Jeff’s theory that these characters were really very, very badly stuck in traffic, if it took Bucky 8 hours to respond to Washington DC being blown up by Nazi robots. So yeah– spin-offs. Then again, I thought the end of Final Crisis was impenetrable having not read the spin-offs there either, and that didn’t seem to stop people from loving that. So, I don’t know.
JOG: I laughed at the part in FLASHPOINT #1 where Barry Allen was stuck in traffic. Also, I think this fits nicely into Brian’s point above – how FLASHPOINT is differently conceived so that its “spin-offs” needn’t hew to any particular span of time, a la the “tie-ins” of FEAR ITSELF. And, granted, a resourceful enough writer could probably carve out some space to play with in FEAR ITSELF without the tie-in feeling like a total protrusion from the main plot. I’m sure some of the books actually will behave like that, although I haven’t seen any that really caught my eye – although query whether the FLASHPOINT spin-offs don’t have an easier time of catching eyes since you can pretty much glance at, say, DEATHSTROKE AND THE CURSE OF THE RAVAGER and think “oh, Jimmy Palmiotti’s writing a pirate comic,” while the FEAR ITSELF tie-ins don’t really have that luxury of detachment (nor, of course, does every FLASHPOINT tie-in, but I’m talking potentials). I bought the Azzarello/Risso BATMAN – KNIGHT OF VENGEANCE too, and it’s the same thing – a basically straightforward crime comic, by crime comics people, albeit sprinkled with arch-capitalist ultra-aggression pertinent to the Batman concept.
This is the irony of FLASHPOINT – it’s off-puttingly reliant on a reader’s compulsion to fill in the gaps, but the gaps are so big it allows secondary creative teams more leeway to play to their individual strengths. Personally, I’d rather not have to bounce over so many on the main highway — unless Jason Todd’s planning to replace my hubcaps gratis – since I think you can preserve the magnitude of spin-off space without making as big an issue of it in the main series as Johns does. But I’ll take what I can get with the comic I’ve got in a situation like this.
BRIAN: Oh, was Bucky meant to be dead? Huh. Yeah, I guess I see that now.
Shame, though — he’s a generally more interesting character than dull ‘ol Steve Rogers.
If comics like this were honest, Bucky would just be the first of many many dead heroes in a battle against “gods” — at least he has a supposedly unbreakable shield. What good would Falcon do against the Red Skull’s god-avatar? He can’t do anything other than talk to birds (or is it just the one specific bird? Now there’s a power!)
My favorite part, I think, of that sequence is that Bucky yells “Avengers Assemble!” and charges in, and Falcon and Widow are shown running behind him, then, all of a sudden, they disappear for the next few pages. It’s like: “Yeah, go Bucky, go! We’ll…. uh… we’ll wait back over here”
(My second favorite part is how Valkyrie shows up out of the blue in the last few panels [Seriously, she’s not in the rest of the issue!]… but not to escort ol’ Buck to Valhalla or something, but to put her hand to her face and seem shocked. Um, you’re a VALKYRIE, this should be old hat to you, sister!)
JEFF: Not only did I not know Bucky was going to die before reading FEAR ITSELF #3, I didn’t know after reading it, either. I think it was only after reading your question, Abhay, that I looked at it again and went, “Ohhhhhh! Oh, okay.” I mean, there’s a certain sense of mayyyybe he might be dying? I guess? But the idea that I just watched him punch his ticket? I didn’t get that because I was too busy trying to figure out why he was saying a bunch of shit about “the serpent” and how the hell he picked that up by getting punched through the chest.
Remember the days when a comic would have a full page of somebody screaming and there’d be this, like, dramatic montage of the visions appearing in their head? And usually the writer would throw in a bunch of overwritten captions telling you what the fuck was going on? FEAR ITSELF #3 really made me miss hackneyed old storytelling tricks like that. People seem very fond of the new fresh storytelling tricks available to us (giving interviews on Newsarama seems to be a big one!) but I dunno…call me a traditionalist.
Anyway, maybe as a result I’m still disinclined to believe he’s either dead now or will still be dead by, I dunno, the end of the event? I quite like Bucky — which is this amazing accomplishment considering how old school I was in my pre-Brubaker belief he should stay dead — and would like him to hang around. At the very least, I would like him to get a death scene deserving of him.
So much depends
instead of damn
JOG: Huh? C’mon guys, this is a proper cinematographic action comic of 2011. We can tell “he’s supposed to be dead now” because the last page is an overhead shot slowly pulling back toward the heavens, accompanied by a fade to white. I mean, they didn’t throw in anybody falling to their knees and shouting NOOOOOOOO — a subtler dying-character-reaches-up-toward-the-camera-waving-his-arm-as-his-soul’s-POV-retreats-only-for-the-arm-to-dramatically-fall-upon-the-moment-of-death maneuver is duly substituted — but this is about as basic a mortality shot as it gets. Maybe so much that nobody uses it anymore… I attribute any confusion to the lack of a death blip at the end of “gotta save” in panel #3. Like, the little blip sign that concludes a dying character’s final statement? Could have helped. (I’m also partial to the Stan Sakai skull balloon, but that might require an alternate universe to facilitate.)
JEFF: I can’t even begin to tell you how down I would’ve been with a Stan Sakai skull balloon for that last panel (and if it had turned red as it dissipated, so much the better)? But although I understand the technique, I just figured it wasn’t being used correctly. Issue #2 also ended with a pull back shot toward the heavens, remember? And it wasn’t like anyone was dying there–instead the emphasis was supposed to be (I guess) on the serpentine wave wrapping around the planet Earth.
So second issue in a row with a pull back shot and a wave of variable color, but they mean utterly different things and the first one was vague enough that I just wasn’t able to “go” where the storytellers wanted me to go the second time around. Also, the death just felt cheap, as these things go. Not “Private Mellish gets shanked while Cpl. Upham weeps on the stairs and there’s nothing heroic there” cheap, but “that made no fucking sense at all” cheap. What exactly are Sin’s powers, other than whatever Fraction needs them to be? Why does Bucky say, “There’s no tomorrow if we don’t hold the line,” other than that’s what needs to be said to have the fight happen? If I’m trying to answer certain questions like “who the fuck is getting knocked through the air by the robot arm, because it makes no sense if it’s Bucky?” I think the suspension of disbelief breaks down at the most fundamental level and you get those “wait, is he dead?” moments.
Sorry, man. I’m not going to take the fall for this one. I’m certainly not altogether innocent, I’m sure, but an accumulation of unearned and unexplained moments led up to it.
JOG: Oh, I don’t disagree with any of this – it’s what I’m getting at in the very wide umbrella term of “stakes” that haven’t been established. Or even in the final page’s pullback itself — weirdly, now that you’ve brought it up, I notice that every issue attempts to begin and end with some type of continuous movement, back, up, down, something, except for the end of issue #1, which is really odd; the end of issue #2 seems to reverse and bookend the start of issue #1, and I think that maybe subconsciously(!) touched my thinking on issue #2 bringing a distinct end to an Act I – there’s some confusion in that from the cinema techniques chafing against the comics attributes. Like, in panel #3, Bucky’s arm drops, which should be commemorating the mighty moment of finality, since that’s where his arm is ‘leading’ in panels #1 and #2, except a comic panel (obviously) can’t depict continuous movement, it’s a frozen image, so you go from panel #2 to panel #3 ‘filling’ the falling arm movement. Except, there’s also dialogue in panel #3 to additionally mark the moment of death, and the two aspects of the page don’t sync correctly because you’re inevitably reading the words in panel #3 as if Bucky is still moving, even though the drawing in the panel depicts his arm as already fallen (if, admittedly, at enough of a distance it’s possible to maybe not even notice the movement).
Add to that the unfortunate choice to have the final word balloon’s lettering ‘fade to white’ by leaving a bunch of blank space, directly below a balloon where there’s plenty of white space left already to indicate weakened speech — there maybe should have been some dissolving effect on the bottoms of those last words, although that admittedly might jar with the blank balloon space motif established elsewhere in the comic, even if its not too much of a pain in the ass to implement, digitally — and yeah, even reading the last page for its intended purpose can cross some wires. I just thought the broad contours of the technique were so blatant it tipped me off anyway.
Seriously though, someone ought to bust out a skull balloon. Like Jae Lee.
ABHAY: Someone bust out Jae Lee. I haven’t seen his comics in forever. But yeah: color me surprised by these answers– I thought people might not have known ahead of time, but not after the fact. I saw people in the comment section for Graeme’s FEAR ITSELF review also express confusion, too, though. But… Stuart Immonen draws Bucky with a hole in his chest. Most people don’t survive that…? Well: maybe Super-Dave.
(I went so long without knowing Super-Dave was Albert Brooks’s brother– imagine my surprise… never put that together until recently…).
JEFF: Well, yeah but…people also don’t get huge holes punched in their chest and then keep talking either, right? I mean, my knowledge of what people do with large holes in their chests is based entirely on pop culture and there’s a wide range of possible responses, I guess but…
As much as I think the art in Fear Itself is mighty pretty, there are a few points in this issue where I think Immonen’s choices might’ve muddied the waters. Like the scene on page four where Sin suddenly surprises Bucky from behind (I think?), or how Falcon and Black Widow rush alongside Bucky on the Avengers Assemble scene and suddenly they’re…nowhere? It certainly confused me as to the Serpent stuff you pointed out — I mean, Black Widow and Falcon are right there when Sin talks about being an avatar of the Serpent, right? Doesn’t Sin say, “The Serpent is coming. Tell them. Tell them all. It won’t help.” to…Black Widow and Falcon? Or was that scene supposed to be just between Sin & Bucky and Immonen borked it? I guess the scene plays differently if it’s supposed to be Bucky straining with his last breath to tell Natasha and Sam something they already know, but all I got from it was: (a) Bucky is hurt really bad; and (b) Immonen doesn’t know who else is in the Secret Avengers apart from Valkyrie and Shang-Chi.
Another fun fact about Albert Brooks and Super-Dave? Their last name is Einstein. I can see why Albert changed his name, but if Bob had performed as Super-Dave Einstein? I would’ve liked that routine a lot more, I think.
TUCKER: The art on this is crazy fucking weird–look for the Shang-Chi panels, tell me what the hell he’s doing? He’s jump-kicking-what? Each issue has had something like that, and while I don’t think you can put it all on Immonen, I think you have to put some, you know? The guy stares at these pages longer than anybody else does, so he has to know that there’s zero dramatic oomph on that first two-page splash where Steve Rogers is going “whoa” to absolutely no one in the first issue while a bunch of cops stand around, and while I get that Fear Itself is ultimately a Matt Fraction comic, Immonen knows this shit too.
Nobody was surprised Bucky died. I think people might have been surprised that the Marvel creators were on twitter and shit talking like this was a big shocker, but other than that….give me a fucking break. The whole “editorial summit” method of comics, where Bendis and Fraction tweet back and forth to one another while sitting in the same room where they’re having Five Guys burgers and talking about there favorite place to buy black t-shirts will forever exist in my mind as the sideways version of a role playing game and not the Aaron Sorkin toungekisses David Mamet writing room that it gets advertised as, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it has some potential for working, theoretically. Right now it just seems to be way more interesting at its initial inception, imagining what sort of argument Brubaker might have made to save Bucky’s life, and what sort of response Bendis might have had, and whether or not Fraction is one of those guys who only talks at the very end, in short, quiet sentences that knocks everyone back for a minute into a period of quiet reflection and rumination that only concludes when Axel Alonso says “gentleman, I think we have some shitty event tie-ins to dole out to whatever wanna-bes are currently sitting in those metal folding chairs outside of the Meat Wheelbarrow’s cheese cavern. Get to it.”
CHRIS: I assumed Bucky was going to die during Fear Itself, though I think it’s more of a Steve Rogers/Bruce Wayne/Guy Whose Return Plan is Established Before He Dies death than a Bill Foster We’re Just Going to Kill This Guy for a Story. I know there’s a movie and everything, and it’s easy to just envision every decision made by comic execs as Dumb and So Goddamned Regressive, but Brubaker appears to still have a big Captain America story he wants to tell, and Marvel seems receptive to letting him tell that story, and even on a mercenary level it seems silly to kill off Bucky again after being so successful at making people accept him as a someone who Came Back from the Dead. But what do I know?
I do think Bucky’s line about “who wants to grow old and retire?” line was a bit of a dick move on his part, since he and Black Widow are super-steroided World War II vets that have lived unnaturally long healthy lives, whereas Falcon is just a dude in his early 30s.
End of Part Two; Part Three concludes on Friday.