Monday, January 6, 2014

Opening Contract - Fury MAX #1

For the first Opening Contract of 2014 I wanted to touch on the opening issue of one of my favourite comics of 2013, Fury MAX (written by Garth Ennis, art by Goran Parlov, colours by Lee Loughridge and letters by Rob Steen).

I’ve covered Ennis before, twice in fact. This time around I wanted to touch upon an idea that speaks to something wider, something that’s evident in a large swath of Ennis’ work, and I think this particular opening panel is well suited to that purpose.

Fury MAX follows Nick Fury through several decades of covert American foreign policy, essentially using one of the oldest Marvel characters to explore America’s place in the world post World War 2. It’s a work of beautiful, brutal honesty.

The opening panel is a full page splash – but rather than go for the simple, implied horror of Dear Billy Ennis instead chooses to go a subtler, darker route. The page is dominated by Fury himself, slumped in an armchair. To the right of Fury is a glass of bourbon, flanked by a lit cigar held in the cold warrior’s hand. To the left of him is a tape recorder and the bottle of bourbon. A wire runs from the tape recorder to a microphone that Fury holds up to his mouth.

Fury’s body language is fantastically rendered by Parlov, somewhere between strength and weary resignation. Then there’s Fury’s dialogue – text that serves as a fantastic summation of the series as a whole:
“My name is Nick Fury. I’ve had a bullet in my head since nineteen forty-four. I can’t seem to die, don’t even age much. I fight and fuck like a goddamn demon. I lick up war like it was sugar. These are the things I’ve done for my country…”
As opening panels go it’s pretty much perfect. We know everything there is to know from that opening page – his addiction to war, his weariness at his own mortality and those final lines imply a life of endless conflict.

How Parlov and Loughridge choose to stage the scene serves to hint at both the character of Fury and the larger themes central to this work and others. The readers eye is drawn to Fury because he’s the central element of the page, but this is accentuated by shade and colour. Parlov and Loughridge put Fury into a box of light in the centre of the page, whilst the borders and edges of the page are cloaked in shadow.

The shadows being thrown up by a window fall behind Fury and with their latticework shapes hint at something prison-like. Fury is no stranger to the blood spilled, the lives taken and the moral grey areas that are traversed in the name of fighting for ‘freedom and democracy’. The man has a lot of demons inside that mind of his – demons that are usually poured into a bottle are now being poured into a tape recorder. The prison-like imagery at play in the opening panel hint at the repression, anger and sorrow that’s clawing away at this mans insides. The darkness around the fringes of the panel evoke the darkness within. But this is also where Fury chooses to operate – the shadows.

Fury is a man working outside of the conventional system, outside of society. He’s a man who has sacrificed any semblance of a normal life in pursuit of something he believes in wholeheartedly (his addiction to war and all it entails is a discussion unto itself). Whether that purpose or direction is morally right is open to debate.

This kind of dedication to traversing a ‘shadow world’ is also something we see in Ennis’ depiction of Frank Castle and the Punisher mythos. Ennis took advantage of these similarities in the MAX series, showing us the mutual respect between the two men as they met from time to time. In addition to this, Ennis also showed us the similarities in the two men. Castle serves as a warning for Fury. Fury internalises his demons, shutting out their cries with booze, sex and war. Castle on the other hand listens to those cries, listens to that voice and attempts to exorcise it with gunfire and violence. The only thing that separates them in this regard is that Fury’s violence is condoned by society and those claiming to protect us.

Fury knows he’s addicted to that violence, addicted to that darkness, and he sometimes pays and reflects on it in the quieter moments of the night. Castle is also an addict to the very same carnage and violence, but uses the ghosts and memories of a long dead family to quell any introspection on whether this is the ‘right’ thing to do. Both are men good at what they do, both are servants of an idea larger than they could ever hope to fully comprehend – country, vengeance, freedom and justice – and both exist outside of a society they are proclaiming to protect because of it.

This idea of the ‘outsider’ is something that reoccurs in Ennis’ body of work. John Constantine is perhaps the perennial outsider of the DCU, always aware of and combating the darkness lurking in the corners of the ordinary world. Jesse Custer of Preacher has his eyes opened to the secret, religious power that collectively rules the country and the world around him before going on a quest to find God himself. Even Ennis’ run on Unknown Soldier is concerned with that characters attempts to find a replacement for himself in a world he wasn’t built for (the closing days of the Cold War).

Whether by accident or design Ennis has regularly chosen to explore characters who exist on the fringes of the real world – characters who operate to keep those in the ‘real world’ safe. They’re privy to horrors and secrets that would drive lesser men insane – the demons that haunt them at night being the price they pay. Fury MAX is a beautiful example and mediation on this. The opening panel of issue #1 sells the idea of the weight and horrors that kind of man is privy to before we begin our journey with him.

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Paul Jellicoe said...

Just want to say thank you for a brilliant post, I have bookmarked the site to read more, I don't think I've read a more in-depth look at a character.

Dan Hill said...

Cheers for the comment, Paul! Hopefully you'll stick around and see what else TWC has to offer.

Ennis is particularly good at summing up a character with minimal amounts of dialogue and visuals.

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