The second of “Fear Itself”‘s two epilogue miniseries, “Battle Scars”, introduces Army Ranger Marcus Johnson, a character that Marvel has insisted will be important across the Marvel Universe in the coming months. Early warning or empty hype? If this issue is anything to go by, it’s simply too early to tell.
The opening issue takes an unusual tack, spending much of its time building up a street-level impression of the Marvel Universe (and, in part, the events of “Fear Itself”) through Marcus Johnson’s eyes. It begins with the character’s deployment in Afghanistan, and ends with an attempt on his life at the hands of the Taskmaster.
While some will undoubtedly enjoy the approach, I found it tough to engage with. Johnson isn’t an everyman by any stretch, and the central conceit — that he’s important for reasons we don’t yet understand — isn’t elaborated on far enough for me to care. It’s probable he’ll turn out to be the relative (or pawn) of a major hero or villain, but right now he’s just an uninteresting individual caught up in a larger, more interesting world.
Yost takes a time-honored approach to the problem by having familiar, respected characters talk about Johnson as if he’s important, but this approach garners no more success than it ever does. The results feel upside down. It’s not convincing enough for Captain America to tell us he’s important. We need to see some evidence of that in who he is or what he does. At present, no-one depends on him, there’s nothing that he appears to want, and aside from the assumption that as a military man he’s capable of great personal sacrifice, we don’t see any quality that makes him stand out above the crowd.
As much of a concern is the uncomfortable juxtaposition of real-life military conflict and superheroics. While there’s a tradition of mixing the two, the more complex storytelling of modern comics doesn’t quite sit as well as Captain America punching Hitler did. Johnson’s role in Afghanistan comes with far more political and social baggage than a solider fighting the Nazis would have, and placing all that alongside the idea of a man dressed in a skull-mask and cape shooting arrows at you just doesn’t work. They’re not ideas that come from the same world.
Eaton’s pencils are strong, but similarly divided in tone. The early, more realistic material has a widescreen, detail-oriented focus. The moment the story becomes about a supervillain attack, the action pulls up close, and the look (and poses) become more recognizably “comic book.” The storytelling is clear, but as with the writing, there’s nothing here that makes Johnson stand out. In a book where he’s supposed to be the star, it’s the likes of Captain America and the Taskmaster who steal the visual spotlight.
It’s clear that the small seeds are intended to grow a mighty oak of a story, but based on this first issue it’s hard to imagine people being interested enough to hang around that long. The central idea of a man thrust into the crazy world of superheroes is well-defined, but the series wasn’t sold on that. It was sold on the strength of its lead character, and at this point he just isn’t interesting enough to carry it. Whatever twist Yost and Co. are working towards should probably have come at the end of this issue, because without it, there’s no hook, and this reader, at least, isn’t going to spend any extra money hoping that one will appear.