Monday, December 30, 2013

Beast of 2013: Fury – My War Gone By

I always feel like a bit of a fraud when I try to list the best comics of the year, even though that hasn't stopped me from trying in the past. It can take me years to get to some good stuff, because there is just so much good stuff out there, and the twin tyrannies of geography and economy mean some things take a while.

But it's more than that, because I really only have this problem with comics. I can say with absolute certainty that Doctor Who was my favourite television show in the past year, (although Breaking Bad was clearly the actual best). My favourite album was easily the latest Queens of the Stone Age, my favourite single was a Kanye and Gravity was the only movie I saw twice this year. In the same week. On the same giant screen. I can even name my favourite infographic on 2013 – it's the one in Tim Leong's Super Graphic book that compares the number of people The Punisher has killed in movies to the number he has slaughtered in comics.

But there are so many great comics, I can't really pick a favourite. It was another strong year for Judge Dredd, as chinface struggles on in a city totally broken by the mega-death toll of Chaos Day, with no guarantee it's ever going to recover. Daredevil remains stylish and clever, Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics are achingly beautiful, there are new Sergio Aragones comics coming out regularly and the various Fables comics have been tremendous in the last 12 months. And Love and Rockets is always good.

But some of the best comics I've read this year were published two or three or eight years ago. One of my absolute favourite comics of 2013 was Spain's Cruising With The Hound comic memoir, which came out a couple of years ago and featured comics created decades ago, so can I count that as a best comic of the year? What about the last volume of Joe Colquhoun's Johnny Red comics which I got a couple of months back, which are still as energetic and gritty and powerful as anything being published today?What about the collection of DC's Solo comics, which only came out this year, and features some of the finest comics published seven years ago?

And what about all the mini-comics and web stuff and self-published gems that I have only just started hearing about, that I haven't got to yet? A lot of people are rating Copra as the best comic of the year, but I've never even seen a copy anywhere, and will be lucky to get to it in 2014, let alone the past year.

Or maybe I just think too fucking much.

Because if you put a gun to my head, and said I had to pick one comic that I enjoyed and appreciated more than any other comic in 2013, I wouldn't even hesitate. It would be Fury – My War Gone By.

It was my favourite monthly comic of 2012, but it only finished halfway through the year, and capped off 13 issues of  war, horror and Fury.

Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov have been into this same dark territory before with the Punisher, but they spread the canvas far wider in the latest Fury comic, in both time and geography, while still exploring the very darkest recesses of the modern human soul. It spans decades, as lives flash by in a handful of scenes, and unspoken regrets pile up at a regular pace as the American Dream curdles in a foetid mix of greed and avarice and warmongering.

Fury: My War Gone By – which is named as the slightly less poetic Fury MAX in the small print – is an incredibly efficient and stylish story, and my favourite comic of 2013.

A large part of the appeal is Parlov's excellent artwork, lurking beneath fine Dave Johnson covers. Parlov is particularly good at capturing the chaos and confusion and carnage of combat, showing men staggering around with horrific injuries in unsettling detail, and drawing some appalling horrible scenes – one panel late in the series of a bootprint was easily the most disturbing thing I saw in a comic this year.

But he is also fantastic in showing the weight of years, as the corrupt politician grows more and more pig-like, his aging wife still looking fine as she gets older, while the weight of wars and the horrible guilt that Fury feels start to show on his face. He's an old, old man by the end of the series, and not just because he's at least eighty by the final scene, but because he's seen – and done – terrible things..

It's no wonder the years of conflict etch their pain into Fury's face, especially when he loses all the big battles in this series. Each three-issue arc ends with Fury failing, and another little piece of the real American spirit curls up and dies. Fury engineers war to satisfy his own battle lust, but he is just left with ashes in his mouth. And he is ultimately neutered by the war machine he helped create – he might break every bone in Barracuda's body in the penultimate issues, but he still doesn't get to pay the horror the man has inflicted in kind.

Ellroy's American Tabloid series is obviously a huge influence on this comic, with the same stench of driven men unbalancing the world as they wage secret wars against nebulous enemies, but Ennis has something else to bring to this tale - Nick Fury. Like all the great Marvel heroes, Fury is a brash and charismatic character, always out to do the right thing on the street level, and unwilling to take any crap from anybody who gets in his way.

But that simplistic approach to life smashes into the hard realities of shadow operations in the world's darkest corners, and a lot of My War Gone By's appeal is there in that incompatibility. Even the ultimate warrior and complete spymaster has no real place in a world where American soldiers commit atrocities for money, and his attempts to mitigate the damage accomplish nothing.

It could all be dour and depressing, if the story didn't rock along at a phenomenal pace, with an incredible efficiency unseen in many modern comics as entire story arcs are dealt with in three-issue bursts. Ennis isn't writing for the lowest common denominator with Fury, and if you can't keep up with the historical background, you're going to get left behind.

And that efficiency seeps all the way down to the individual scenes, which are often accomplished with a minimum of fuss.There is a scene involving a young Laotian boy who stumbles across Nick Fury and Frank Castle out on a mission, and they know he will go tell on them, but they don't have in it them to kill a kid, so they let him go, and the whole debate is over with in four panels. (Later, a noble enemy says this act of compassion was the Americans' greatest mistake).

I just read an article last week about Lone Survivor, a movie version of a real-life military mission that went wrong for similar reasons, after the soldiers on a delicate mission let a bunch of innocent sheep herders go, and the filmmakers told the author of the book that even though there was no argument about the decision amongst the real life soldiers, they needed to have more of a debate in the movie, because they said it was dramatically necessary, and that's just total crap. 

There is no need for that bullshit. No need for fake drama and false tension, bot if the story is good enough, not when you can get straight to the fucking point.

There is no bullshit in Fury: My War Gone By. No pointless posturing, no dramatic flab. It's a lean, mean beast of a comic.

And in between the frequent and intense action scenes, there is a profound sense of grief for wasted conflicts over ideology. When Fury meets the noble enemy again, decades after their war ended, the only thing the two men have in common is that they were too tough to die, and are both destined for hell for all the terrible things they had done. They shake hands, and go their separate ways again, with no hatred, and plenty of old man regrets for the way the world turned out.

Fury: My War Gone By would probably have been my favourite book of 2013 even if it was just a stylish, efficient and intense action comic. But it's also an existentially melancholic look at the soul of America, as seen through the eyes of its greatest warrior, and there is a quiet plea for peace, buried in all those explosions. That's more than enough to make it the best comic of the year.

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