Real Talk: Fear Agent Library Volume 1A comic review article by: Nick Hanover, Jamil Scalese
Some comics are too big, hypeworthy or insane for one reviewer to cover. Which is why we have Real Talk, an outlet for a group of reviewers to tackle a comic together and either come to a consensus or verbally arm wrestle until there's nothing left to say.
But first, some mood music:
Warning: This review features some possible spoilers.
Nick Hanover: Somewhere around 2006, I began a tentative return to comics after a hiatus of several years. I had given up on comics because I discovered music in a big way and while both obsessions require spending stupid amounts of money on things the general populace often couldn't give less of a shit about, one at least involved more frequent performance aspects allowing for the possibility of somewhat healthy social interaction. By 2007, I had wound up working a horrific and ridiculously stressful job which had exactly one positive side effect: it paid me more than I had ever made in my life and now I could go to both Easy Street Records AND Zanadu Comics and blow horrifying portions of my income on my pop culture obsessions. And when that change happened, I started buying comics that stood out to me, even if I knew nothing about the creators or the characters. This is exactly how I wound up a Rick Remender devotee.
Walking through Zanadu one day, the first Dark Horse Fear Agent trade caught my eye. It looked like what would happen if John Carpenter and The Cramps made a sci-fi outlaw movie together, with that pulpy logo and the rockabilly looks of Heath Huston and Tony Moore's fabulously gonzo creature feature designs. This was a title I could get behind. This was an experience I needed in my life, that no Fall 7" or Pop Group LP could hope to compete with. Now Jamil, you've come to Fear Agent in the reverse of me, knowing Remender as REMENDER, the guy who turned the Punisher into a Frankenstein's monster and secretly put together the best X title in years. So I want to know what your first reaction was like, given all that future knowledge you have that my past self lacked.
Jamil Scalese: Funny how my trek is only a few footsteps behind you. My hiatus was at its peak in 2007, with a college-aged Jamil following obsessions far less noble than music. I started digging back into comics in late 2009 and after mucking around in my comfort zone of superhero books I've reached out to more indie works in the last couple years.
Even in my initial foray back into the comics I had heard some rumblings about this Remender guy. I remember the whole Franken-Castle thing, especially how people either loved it or hated it, and if I'm not mistaken there was a Brother Voodoo ongoing Marvel tried to get off the ground a couple years back [There was, it was called Doctor Voodoo -ed.]. Then Uncanny X-Force happened. On a whim I read the first issue, came back after #5.1, and I haven't looked back since. My familiarity with that series is important in giving you my first reaction, Nick, because I was pretty prepared for Remender's style of constant action laid over skillful plotting. The dark undertones were also expected, as everything I've read from this dude has had a panel or two that made me squirm in my seat.
I guess what surprises me most about Fear Agent is the depth of Heath Huston, and the complexity of the world around him, both built in less than a dozen or so issues. Our hero is severally flawed, an addict and near misanthrope (if that term can be applied to all living beings), but is undoubtedly good-natured. His situation feels hopeless, but somehow he appears to be the key to the whole damn universe. What's amazing is that if you pay attention to Heath and his woes for too long, you might miss that the status quo of the comic changes like every four fucking seconds.
Nick: The Uncanny X-Force comparison is especially important to bring up here because Fear Agent displays a lot of the themes and concepts Remender would bring to that series. Even though X-Force is a team title featuring some of the most popular superheroes in comics history and Fear Agent is essentially a lone wolf tale, they both feature heavily conflicted anti-heroes who often make the wrong choices and suffer greatly for it.
Remender's foreword for this omnibus collection of the series lays out his initial plan to rejuvenate pulp space fiction and that seems like a simple enough goal that is pretty much perfectly accomplished in the first issue, which he and Moore configure as a standalone story. But that first issue also shows just how far past pulp storytelling Remender and his collaborators went with the series.
We get our introduction to Heath Huston, who is a loner anti-hero in the vein of Kurt Russell's legendary roles for John Carpenter. Huston has just completely fucked up what should have been a simple extermination mission and he's in need of supplies (re: whiskey) and fuel, so he agrees to scope out a space truck stop, only to discover it fell victim to a Dead Space-like infestation by some creatures called Feeders.
Simple enough, right? Except that first issue displays strands of literally every single concept Remender will explore in the first arc and he does it without you even noticing. Part of that magician's trick of subterfuge is because of Moore's artwork, which I honestly feel is his masterpiece. Moore and Remender are a perfect team who feed off of each other's idiosyncratic visions without missing a beat and they would later go on to do the Franken-Castle storyline together. But here Moore is like a horse finally let out of the stables and into the wild, getting off on all the newfound freedom of getting to draw a space epic with a sprawling cast of aliens and people and robots after being stuck in the comparatively sparse, uninspired world of Walking Dead. Since you were reading this for the first time, Jamil, I'm curious if you suspected Fear Agent would go in such an epic direction after that first issue.
Jamil: The ability to balance a compelling short-term story while laying groundwork for huge ideas is where this writer blows me away. Remender does things with comics that literally make me angry at other creators. He shines in a capacity the rest of comics seems to have completely forgotten about when writing fiction: start the story as late as possible. Too much time is spent catering to the new fan, when we all know that a great plot is running full speed by the time we meet the main cast.
That is what the first issue is, a man several years into his journey that started on an invasion-torn Earth a decade before. Remender, like all great sci-fi writers, introduces the key elements in passing and without much fanfare. Again, I point to X-Force to say I learned that almost everything in a Remender comic is there for a reason; he's just a very efficient writer.
I'm glad my reaction to Tony Moore isn't uncommon: I also think this is the best work I've seen from him. I like Moore a lot, and he currently draws a title I have on subs, but the work he does in the first portion of Fear Agent represents his best effort-- it's a piece full of energy and ambition that many comics lack. You can tell Moore was an active participant in the maturation of Heath Huston and his backdrop, and the first issue projects indisputable heart.
The way the small elements, like giant brains and plant guns, loop back into the story make this galaxy-spanning epic feel a lot smaller and more intimate. That's always a fear of mine, and I think many, when it comes to sci-fi, fantasy and other mythology driven fiction: will I be able to absorb the setting enough to enjoy the story? Ideally, that should never be the concern, but we in fandom know it's a common one, and it keeps many people out. With Fear Agent that isn't a concern as the creative team puts the reader on a steady track, and never requires you to keep your appendages in the rocket at all times.
Even though the first twenty-something pages really are no disappointment, the book starts operating on another level when Mara enters the story at the intergalactic truck stop. Not only are she and Heath a fun pairing, but their initial interaction made me wonder about the state of humans in the Fear-verse, and how Huston came to be such a far-traveling nomad/exterminator. Through small hints Remender lets the reader know that Heath is a pretty contemporary fellow, and that this whole "Earthers in space" thing is a pretty recent development. He unfolds that bigger story piece by piece at first, like you said, right under our noses.
Nick: Mara is an interesting character for a lot of reasons but I think what truly makes her stand out is that she's a subversion of the typical "damsel in distress" role, which is especially prevalent in pulpy space adventure stories, from Heinlein on back. In Remender's hands, that damsel is actually a badass who doesn't stand for Heath's impulsive self-destructiveness and general messiness and at the same time she has a complicated antagonist role in the adventure, too, though that is presented in small portions that makes it difficult to discern her true motives. But going back to the X-Force similarities for a moment, did you notice how Heath's moment of epic hubris -- in which he attempts to save humanity but winds up a secret genocidal war criminal instead -- has shades of the Apocalypse saga that Remender carved out right at the beginning of his X-Force run?
Jamil: The two comics are remarkably similar, and I'm glad you saw some of the same things I did, because I didn't want to come off across as the guy who only read those two things from Remender.
Huston is a cross between Wolverine and Fantomex -- occasionally flippant, ultimately good-meaning and haunted by a terrible past. When I read Heath's fury driven mass murdering of a trillion or so Dressites, it colored in the gaps of the outline I had for him in my head. The weight of consequence is the common bond between the two works, and it's brilliant how nearly everything in the first eleven issues manages to tie back to Heath Huston's decision to drive a tanker of alien poison through a portal. As I'm writing this I'm reminded that in that scene Mara is randomly on the Dessite homeworld just as Heath skips back to the safety of Earth. WTF is up with that? Holy shit, I really love this comic.
The adventure back in time to the origin of the Tetaldians stands apart as my favorite section of the first volume. Like most comic fans, I eat up universe-jumping and time travel stories, and the best part of this particular time hop is that it means so much more as the story continues. I was initially confused by Heath's excitement to squash the Tetaldians, but on reread it holds a lot more resonance, something most time travel stories aim for. The dimension-shattering narrative is also another shared thread between Fear Agent and Uncanny X-Force, and it seems Remender just loves to toy with the concept because it shows up in his Secret Avengers run too.
Do you have a favourite standalone moment from the first volume? One of the great things about this story is that it's so versatile in the same genre, it's got science, adventure, monsters, heroics, villainy and Mark Twain. "Pulp" is an odd term to me, but somehow it applies here, even if I'm not sure what it means.
Nick: I think the pulp tag has more to do with sensibilities and tone than anything else. Heath is decidedly a "pulp" hero in that he's kind of an asshole, often completely unheroic and yet he constantly aims to do good, particularly in regards to others, even if it costs him everything on a personal level. At first glance he may appear gruff and dickish, but the more you learn about him and what he's been through -- he literally died and went to hell and came back again just for the remote chance that he might be able to save his family -- the more you can understand why he has the attitude he does. So with that in mind, my favorite standalone moment is the revelation of how Heath's father and son died.
I know that seems like a depressing thing to pick, but what I love about that moment is how effectively it conveys everything we need to know about Heath. We instantly see how committed he is to his family, we get a glimpse at the strain his father's health problems are having on his own marriage and when both his father and his son are wiped out in an act of entirely senseless violence, we understand why Heath has been so self-destructive and bitter ever since. Lesser writers would need thousands of pages to get that much depth across and even then they likely wouldn't nail it the way Remender does there, with Moore's brutally efficient pencilling adding even more humanity and emotion to the scene.
How about you, Jamil?
Jamil: Man, it's tough to choose. Can I say the entirety of Chapter Six? It's got so many elements I love, from the frantic battle to keep Tetaldians out of space, to the clone army of Heath and Mara, and even Mara's sudden, uneventful death. Like I said, there's so much to enjoy about this series because it's a buffet of many different entrees, but how about when jailbird Heath beats the hell out of that giant lobster alien and steals its drugs? Part badass, part pathetic -- that's why tragic antiheroes rock.
We spend a lot of time in Heath's head, by which I mean narrative captions. I personally love caption boxes, I think they serve as a unique tool in sequential storytelling, however they're generally overused. Plastering a page with text boxes can sometimes move the story away from the golden rule of writing: "show, don't tell." But that doesn't happen much here. The stuff we get is some pretty insightful soliloquy, delving into the soul of man who has killed and saved, lived and died, loved and lost. Heath is one the best (new) characters of the aughts, and his specific personality imprints on the reader almost immediately. I think this shows through the numerous backup stories, some in continuity and by Remender, the rest by talents throughout the industry. I love that the creators allowed others to toy with the Fear Agent brand, but I think most of the pieces missed the mark on capturing the essence of the main character. Do you agree? Do backups even matter?
Nick: I'm generally in agreement there, though the back-up stories penned by Remender obviously have more weight. But what those back-up stories do show is how easily Heath as a character fits into that rugged pulp hero archetype and how much freedom he presents for creators. "Twelve Steps in One" is easily my favorite of the bunch, detailing one of Heath's previously only casually mentioned suicide attempts, as he tries to fling himself into a dying star only to have his soft spot for helping troubled outcasts like himself -- in this case, orphans from the war he took part in -- wind up ruining that plan.
You'd think it'd be a simple story, but even as a one and done it's complex, with Eric Nguyen getting to flex some large creative muscles in his pencil heavy depiction of some greedy aliens who buy up entire solar systems just to exploit the solar energy there. In Nguyen's hands, the aliens manage to look like stereotypical fat cat businessmen and Jabba the Hut-like sloths at once. Plus there are some multi-tailed cocktail waitresses/strippers, if you're into that sort of thing.
But I guess what you're really asking there, Jamil, is whether the back-up stories make it worth it to purchase this omnibus rather than the individual trades and I think that's a more difficult question to answer. As someone who owes Rick Remender, Tony Moore and Jerome Opena a thanks for helping push me back into embracing comics completely -- and thus winding up writing this review for this site I now help run -- that is a definite yes. Getting a chance to revisit the world of Fear Agent is worth the cost of admission and I think that once you've picked up the individual trades, you'll have a hard time resisting picking up such a gorgeous and passionate collection of the material and its bonus tracks.
Jamil: I also liked "Twelve Steps in One" a lot, and "Along Came Spider" had me smiling all the way through. Heath puking up spiders left and right is the stuff of nightmares yet so hilarious at the same time. Although I find his Marvel stuff funnier, Remender has such a twisted sense of humor and a lot of the shit he pulls wouldn't work if you didn't suspect he had a smirk on his face while writing it. Of course, Moore and Opena nail the sass at the moments the script demands it. Hell, half of the scenes between Heath and Mara wouldn't carry the same energy if it weren't for the terrific art.
The back ups do add that little something to the omnibus, but it might be worth grabbing just for the foreword alone. It's nothing spectacular, but Rick Remender detailing the origin of Fear Agent added exponentially to my reading experience. As you pointed out, I've come at this from the reverse -- to me, Remender is the guy who just penned a comic that sold 300,000 copies, and these handful of stories represent the first big breakthrough for the previously struggling artist. While I don't think his talent has dwindled since this 2006 release (on the contrary, he's improved), there's an aura of dedication, maybe even desperation, in the pages. It's almost like he's screaming "If not then this, then what?!"
Tony Moore and Jerome Opeña are great talents, and will be around for decades, but I look at Fear Agent and see the maturation of one of the next great comic legends. I do believe Remender is in elite company, holding rank as one of maybe four or five emerging writers that have a golden touch. Truthfully, I've turned into a bit of fanatic. Although I'm sure when I read this review in a few months I'll be like "Pfft, Remender? Dude totally ruined X-Force, and he's an embarrassment to Captain America."
So I got to say even in my newbie status, Fear Agent already holds a firm place in my heart. It's character driven, original, deep and vibrant. Want proof? Last time I dropped by the LCS, I found a small stack of non-consecutive issues for a quarter each. And some of them have numbers beyond 11! Wait, Nick, are you telling me there's MORE FEAR AGENT?! Whoa!
Nick: The desperation is a big part of it, you're exactly right. As Remender even says in that excellent foreword, there's a lot of himself in Heath, as both of them struggled with the feeling that they were lost in space and time, incapable of getting a solid break. That makes it all the sweeter that Remender has not only gotten a few breaks since, but that he's blossomed into one of comics' superstar writers. Now Jamil, you'll just have to find out if Heath runs into a similar string of good luck.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic who has contributed to Spectrum Culture, No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Hanover.
Jamil Scalese is just like you -- an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.