For some reason, the December archives seem to be stuck in 2013. This time around, it's a December 2013 look at the big Fear Agent Volume 1, a book that desperately wanted to be Wally Wood but ends up being Rick Remender, for better or for worse. I've got Volume 2 of these omniboo but I've actually never read it. It may be a long winter so maybe I'll finally pull that one off the shelf and see if Remender can be as EC Comics as he wanted to be.
Rick Remender’s Fear Agent Volume 1 (first published in 2005) actually mirrors the structure of his recently concluded run on Uncanny X-Force quite a bit. Starting off as a hard edged action/adventure story featuring all kinds of cool explosions and killings, Remender slowly peels back the action to reveal a softer and wounded core to the story and his characters. In Uncanny X-Force, he was exploring the morality of Wolverine’s actions and how it led a number of mutants astray but in Fear Agent, the story of the space exterminator gives way to a story about a self-exiled man who will do anything he can to reverse the actions of his past and try to find the life he lost long ago.
Fear Agent Volume 1, an omnibus book collecting the first 15 issues of the series, introduces us to Heath Houston, a space exterminator of lower level life forms. You have an infestation of the outer space equivalent of mice or rats, you call Houston. That seems to be about all he is good for. Remender along with artists Tony Moore and Jerome Opeña show Houston as a tough man-about-space; he only takes the jobs so he can get more booze and he only drinks so that he can forget about Earth and the life he lost.
All we know at first is that Earth has been attacked by aliens and during the invasion, Houston lost his son and his wife. Through an accidental time travel situation, he finds himself propelled back to the past on the planet of Earth’s invaders. It only seems logical that there he would do everything to change the course of history. But he finds little changes no matter what he does. In the end, he is still alone, having committed atrocities that drive the people he loves and cares for away from him. He still loses no matter how he tries to “correct” history.
Fear Agent starts out of an old Wally Wood-inspired science fiction story but Remender, Moore and Opeña tell a story about the failures of one man. Space just happens to be the setting of it. Moore and Opeña have sprightly styles in this book. Their outer space art pops off of the page, recapturing Wood’s lovely detailed line that just sizzled with adventure. They take glee in depicting Houston’s trials. Opeña’s work is much less detailed than his more current Avengers work but fits in nicely with Moore’s as both artists lines seem more lively than depressed, more action oriented than internally troubled.
Unlike Wally Wood though, there’s no mystery in Moore or Opeña’s artwork. With his rich lines, Wood’s artwork just dripped moodiness, sexiness and the danger of the stories that he was telling. Moore just isn’t able to create that same sense of wonder. Maybe it’s that at this point in his early careers, Moore didn’t know what to put in and what to leave out of a panel. Both Moore and Opeña’s artwork moves the story along but there aren’t that many memorable images, those images that just make you stop and admire the way a certain line just flows on the page as you wonder about the life, the universe and everything as captured in that line. That’s what the best Wally Wood artwork draws out of you that just isn’t present in either Moore or Opeña’s work at this point in their careers.
Remender is writing about a man who just can’t win. This isn’t like losing at love or at work or at the lottery; Houston just flat out loses at life. From the beginning, he is a beaten man who clutches at any hope he has of changing his fortune. Through a flashback which is the final third of Remender’s story in this volume, he shows us everything that Houston once had and how it all slipped out of his life. This last third of the main part of this book loses a lot of the crazy momentum that Remender and his artists built up as they shift the location from outer space to earth and the story from being a mad science fiction adventure to brutal war story (still with aliens though!)
While having fun showing off their genre-bending storytelling chops, the backstory of Heath Houston feels out of place and drawn out. And the worst part is that it comes at the end of this volume so, disregarding the backups for now, the main story slows to a stop as it fills in details but doesn’t advance the fun story of fighting space aliens that Remender and Moore started with. It works better as a pound-the-ground alien invasion/war story but loses the charm and propulsion of Heath having to deal with his life since that first invasion. The backstory is necessary for the story but Remender has trouble blending in Heath's origin with the rest of his adventures.
It’s more of a problem of placement than anything else. The story of Houston’s past, “The Last Goodbye” is the all too necessary origin story that interrupts the story that’s pushing forward by forcing us into the past. The momentum just stops and when you get to the end of this volume, you’ve been stuck in the past for so long that the present story isn’t as fresh and clear as it should be. It’s as much the fault of the presentation of this book as anything else. It’s also that Remender doesn’t give the space much room to just be. Like Moore’s artwork that is mostly just surface level storytelling, Remender’s work on the story is at much of the same level. By giving Houston a backstory, they take the mystery and swagger away from the character. It’s a drunken swagger but there’s a charm to it.
There’s the slam-bang surface element to Fear Agent that makes it a lot of fun and then there’s the woe-is-me backstory of Houston that tries to spell out for you who this character is. By the end of the book, you’re supposed to feel sorry for the character because of the atrocities he’s committed and what he lost because of it. Remender, Moore and Opeña put together a fun story about a broken man that’s obviously trying to build up to be about something more.