The Comic Book Club: Xombi and Fear Itself: Book of the Skull

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DOUGLAS: For the first comic book that’s actually branded with a Fear Itself logo, Book of the Skull is a strangely tepid issue–and it’s left me with relatively little sense of what Marvel’s big 2011 spring/summer event Fear Itself is actually about. There’s some kind of… Thule weapon… a little like Thor’s hammer… but it… and except.. uh, Sub-Mariner, a book bound in the skin of Atlanteans… and, like, Captain America and Bucky… and a big monster that talks in an alien typeface when it’s not saying things like “KAAHRAHH!”… and what, again? Somehow, this issue managed to make me wish an insane skull-faced Nazi with cleavage came off as more of a well-rounded character. (Odd that it’s Ed Brubaker rather than Matt Fraction writing the prologue, since Fraction’s writing the Fear Itself miniseries but I guess Captain America is officially his territory.)

GRAEME: Apparently Fear Itself was conceived as a Cap/Thor-centric event to tie in with this summer’s Marvel movies, but as it got further and further down the planning road, the Cap stuff got shoved more and more into the distance until it became its own little prologue book, with Fraction handling the rest of the plot and Cap characters in the main series.

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DOUGLAS: Tom Brevoort pointed out on Twitter a couple of days ago that this issue, as published, doesn’t identify Captain America by name. That’s not much of a faux pas–it’s hard to imagine anyone who’d pick it up who wouldn’t recognize Captain America–but it points to a bigger problem with this issue: that it assumes its readers will have all kinds of knowledge of its characters, their motivations, and the situation this is leading up to.

GRAEME: This isn’t the first time this has happened. Last year’s Siege made very little sense unless you already knew about Norman Osborn/”Dark Reign” as an event/the current Thor status quo. The way Marvel approaches event comics is very insular, which may be a good idea, businesswise – It rewards the longterm fans for their attention, and also boosts the backlist by promoting the idea of “You don’t know the full story until you’ve read ALL OF THESE BOOKS.”

DOUGLAS: I don’t know: I read more Marvel comics than most people I know who read Marvel comics, and I still wasn’t clear even on what some of the things telegraphed as the big plot beats and emotional moments of this issue were supposed to be. Book of the Skull actually reminded me, in a lot of ways, of that issue of Justice League of America that nominally led into Final Crisis but didn’t actually do anything except bring a couple of long-missing characters back into play.

EVAN: This issue had one job, and one job only: get me excited for an event that I’m only mildly intrigued by.

It didn’t do that job.

This issue felt like a weird bit of plot lying on the fringe of the current Marvel Universe, not a good thing for a lead-in to the Fear Itself event. I’m not up on recent Captain America continuity, but Zemo’s colloquialisms read oddly. And the issue lacked the punch that Brubaker’s Cap has in general had for me. The old Skull didn’t quite have that sadistic, unhinged quality that Brubaker brought to him and, like Douglas said, everything else going on in the issue was too muddy for me to really get excited about. Motivations were rote all around and overall, the work here felt procedural. And, man, I seem to remember much better art coming out of Scot Eaton. I would saw that the inks and colors tamp down his pencils, but there’s too much blocky composition here for me to give him the benefit of the doubt. The figures, layouts and camera angles all feel pedestrian and middle-of-the-road. Part of me wonders if this was one of those prequels that was actually tacked on after the main plotting was done, resulting in a rush job.

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So where this issue leaves me is even more cold on Fear Itself. Don’t get me wrong: Fraction and Immomen are monster talents and I’d gravitate to whatever they do separately, much less together. But what I know of the story has failed to hook me. I know it’s all about generational conflict and psychological baggage, but I wanted a sense of how that’d play out in specifics. Book of the Skull didn’t give me that.

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