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Signifying Nothing



Garth Ennis, Darick Robertson

Max Comics/Marvel, 2002

Rating: 3.5



Posted: May 10, 2002

By The Gentleman (exclusive to Shaking Through)

It's a sad state of affairs when writers fall into ruts. It's an understandable occurrence, certainly, especially in the comics medium, which is much more prone to formula and repetition than other media. But it's sad nonetheless, especially when it befalls a maverick writer, one whose new and inventive takes on tried-and-true characters and concepts initially sets him apart as, if not a visionary, then certainly the clichéd "breath of fresh air."

With Fury, unfortunately, this malady has officially infected the celebrated Garth Ennis, whose penchant for over-the-top violence and sexual tomfoolery has been a highlight of his work on such titles as Vertigo's Hellblazer and, of course, his own wickedly funny and disturbing Preacher. You'd think, wouldn't you, that those credentials would make Ennis a perfect fit for Max, Marvel's new "mature readers" line? You'd also think, given Ennis' love of stories involving war and soldiers, that he'd be the no-question choice to shepherd a title starring Colonel Nick Fury, Marvel's veteran warhorse soldier and spy.

That's undoubtedly what the powers at be at Marvel thought, as well, since the first six issues of just such a series have been recently collected into trade paperback format. But as it turns out, those powers that be have made a bum call. Because Fury, for all the potential of its creators and even its borderline-trite premise, is as formulaic an endeavor as the most generic assembly-line superhero comic.

The story, such as it is, is simple enough: Fury, a former World War II hero (don't ask), has over the years risen through the ranks of the United Nations military/espionage organization Shield, serving as its head for quite some time. But with the coming of the 21st century, corporatization has come knocking on Shield's hallowed doors. Long forced to loan himself out to other agencies like the DEA to get his adrenaline fix, Fury finds a slick new bureaucracy has slithered into place, moving Shield's day-to-day operations out of its fantastic floating helicarrier and into a sleek high-rise building and relegating Fury himself into a meaningless job title -- and thus, irrelevance.

That this doesn't sit well with the aging action junkie is a given, but Fury isn't driven into action until Rudi Gagarin, a drinking buddy and Russian contemporary of Nick's, commandeers Napoleon Island, a sliver of land with strategic value to the U.S. that's in the midst of some political upheaval. With only the most grudging support from his new boss Li and the nameless superiors above him, Fury assembles a team and heads to Napoleon Island to prevent Gagarin from exploiting the situation to his own twisted ends.

To Ennis' credit, he seems to be trying to make a point here. The twist here is that Gagarin isn't your usual power-hungry, James Bond-ian megalomaniac bent on ruling the world. Like Fury, he's a relic from another era who's just looking to extend the good old days of countless glorious battles. He's an action junkie hooked on gunplay and political manipulation, chasing the elusive dragon of a time when his kind, and the things he's good at, were considered important. And Fury, for all his noisemaking about being different from Gagarin, realizes with some shame and poignancy that at heart, he's not so different at all.

But whatever larger political or social statement Ennis seeks to make is sabotaged by a gleefully sophomoric approach to storytelling that he's frankly pursued with better results in the past. As in every Ennis tale, there's a significant amount of sudden and gratuitous violence, with characters exploding in a hail of gunfire and an off-panel account of male rape. And in the climactic face-off between Fury and Gagarin, teeth are graphically displaced and part of Fury's cheek is bitten off, revealing the row of his teeth beneath.

Such indulgent gore is to be expected, and indeed is a part of Ennis' now-familiar style. But Fury also finds him blatantly re-cycling ideas he's used before: There's a disturbingly deformed mercenary known only as "Fuckface," and an annoyingly peppy boy -- Fury's ward Wendell -- who exists for no purpose other than to suffer physical indignities (he suffers a massive hernia, and the resulting operation doesn't go well) and make Fury seem unsympathetic in his resigned annoyance. Both characters vividly (too vividly, actually) recall Preacher's Arseface, suggesting that Ennis has reached the bottom of his bag of tricks, or is simply cashing his checks and churning out sub-par regurgitations of past glories.

Darick Robertson's artwork, while sketchier and less-defined than on DC/Vertigo's Transmetropolitan, retains an appropriate clarity and spare, photographic feel that serves both the action and expository scenes with a workmanlike functionality not entirely dissimilar to that of Ennis' preferred partner Steve Dillon (Hellblazer , Preacher, The Punisher). Robertson truly finds his stride here toward the end of tale, as Gagarin and Fury slug it out in explicit detail.

Ennis deserves points, one supposes, for attempting to flesh out a heretofore two-dimensional character who's seen more action than even the venerable Captain America. While he does succeed in expanding Fury's emotional palate (especially at the end), a knee-jerk reliance on empty shock value and misanthropic violence stunts any impact or resonance he might have achieved.

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 Ratings Key:
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