In some ways I was dreading reading The Fox #5 from Red Circle/Archie Comics, because it meant the end of the arc, and possibly the end of this incarnation of the hero known as the Fox that has been so startling, and inspired me with a great deal of hope about the future of alternative hero comics. Voted one of our best comics of 2013 here at Bleeding Cool, The Fox has outstripped my expectations with its ability to get to the still beating heart of hero stories and tell them anew in a fresh way that hits those key notes for readers: the unwilling hero, the altruistic quest to help others who are suffering, the journey into the unknown, the confrontation with the self.
[*Spoilers for issue #4 and mild spoilers for issue #5 below]
Issue #4 wrapped up some of the elements of the Fox's personal journey to help the Diamond Queen and free her imprisoned king from the wiles of the evil Druid bent on an empire of totalitarian rule, a cult of narcissism erasing personality on a universal scale. But issue #5 picked up on those resonances in the persona of the Druid in stellar ways that I sensed were possible, but really didn't fully see coming. The Druid makes for the perfect archetype of fascist domination, and therefore his placement as something even more sinister—an analogy for the causes and costs of World War II—creates the momentum of issue #5.
The earth's past and future are at stake in this crossover with the multi-person hero known as The Shield. The confrontation with humanity's own dark past raises the whole storyline to a new level, and the entrance on the scene of J.M. DeMatteis, a writer who fully appreciates all this hero journey stuff, strikes deep into the epic and serious potential of these classic heroes reborn to tell us stories we still need to hear, perhaps more now than ever in our era of hate crimes, cultural distrust, and resurgent xenophobia. The three heroes known in their respective cultures of the USA, Germany, and Japan, as their nations' protectors are forced to face down a foe who could annihilate personal freedoms and diversity on an epic scale, and so for themselves, and for each other, they have to create a new kind of Unity.
The Fox's role as a catalyst in this Fox/Shield crossover is particularly interesting. He's always been something of an average Joe, from his slangy speech to his tough, direct criticisms of himself and others. In a way, he's someone with nothing to lose except the chance to fix his home life and apply some of the lessons he's learned in issues #1-4 to try to rebuild himself as a better, wiser man. But in issue #4 he's co-opted away from that goal of returning home and in issue #5 he's caught up in something so big that there's no walking away from it.
What can his personality contribute to saving the world? Each of his typical traits becomes suddenly invaluable. His cynicism and observational humor about human nature makes it possible for him to critique the hate on the rise between the three Shield heroes, point out their stupidity, whether they take or leave his advice. And in a situation where there's little time to lose, he's able to cut to the chase. But it's also interesting that when the heroes need to create a new Unity among themselves (I'm leaving out heavier spoilers here), he is part of that fight for a bigger goal.
For one thing: he knows the Druid fairly well, having battled him on behalf of the Diamond Queen. He knows that on some levels the Druid can be defeated and he knows what is most likely to work: the ridiculous, dogged, even sappy powers of love. And if our Shield heroes are going to battle the Druid, whose main tool is hate, it's not surprising that there really is only one antidote: an even bigger and more universal love in action. The Fox can "see" these things more clearly than the others—perhaps because he's in quest of fixing his own life and has witnessed the essential nature of love—to the point that the Shield heroes narrate: "it was the Fox who saw the truth the rest of us were blind to".
Now, DeMatteis is the writer on this issue, just as Mark Waid was the writer on issues #1-4, but artist Dean Haspiel has a great deal to do with the characterization and concepts behind The Fox. You can see his own thematic signature heavily here on the culmination of issue #4 and the plot movements of issue #5. If you're familiar with Haspiel's other works, and particularly his Billy Dogma comics, you'll see that signature more clearly: the permutations and difficulties of love, its role in essentially saving human beings from their own worst selves, is a frequent theme in his comics, just as it is here. But I'm gratified to see that with The Fox, Haspiel has been given the platform to address not just human nature but human history and address the "hate consuming" a "world in war" through these historically-rooted heroes. Never has the phrase "tough love" been better suited to describe the mood of a particular comic issue. Haspiel's comics reinforce the power of love but do not present love with rose-colored glasses: they suggest that it's a last-ditch essential and sometimes only alternative to complete destruction, the only preserver of the good. The only real future for the characters in these stories.
I mentioned in opening that The Fox inspired me to believe in alternative hero comics. One of the reasons for this is that the artwork as much as the narrative elements shuffles off the tropes that seem to limit hero comics as eras give way to new fashions and styles. We look back on some of the hero artwork of the 90's and cringe, for instance. We find plenty to be amused about in the work of the 70's or even, occasionally, the 60's. But in every era there are those classic artists who produce work so independent and aesthetically confident that it stands the test of time and doesn't have to be filed away like last season's fad. There are plenty of bad habits in hero artwork, traits carried on from previous decades that weigh down the visual appeal of heroes in unnecessary ways, but homage, emulation, and all of the less savory aspects of tradition are at fault.
The remarkable thing about The Fox is that Haspiel goes back to a pulp hero for inspiration, and finds it, in spades. And yet? All that weight of tradition has been somehow stripped away. There few heroes as visually light and mobile as the Fox has been in these five issues. He exemplifies the core elements of a pulp hero in personality and in form, and on both fronts, The Fox shows their remarkable vitality. It's a vitality that few hero comics can boast right now despite many fine creators doing worthy and "classic" work. You just can't keep a good Fox down.
The series has been graced by the flying colors of Allen Passalaqua and its hard to imagine the comic in other hands than his, so consistent are the resonances between the activity and vitality of the characters, the strange journeys they face, and their mental states and his color choices. They are unabashedly vibrant, rich, shifting, and if I didn't know better might be a direct reaction against the "grim and gritty" tradition of hero storytelling. Passalaqua says, through his work, that hero stories don't have to be about that, that even a descent into the dark like the Fox undertakes can be about wonder. He introduces the texture of strangeness in the comic that helps convey what an alien world the Fox must face.
I've been asking around for some time about whether there was any possible return for The Fox in the future, pretty much since the first issue. Yesterday, Newsarama seemed to break a story that The Fox was coming back in a series by J.M. DeMatteis and Dean Haspiel entitled "Fox Hunt", and the teaser does indeed appear in the back of issue #5, but shows Waid's name. Hmmm. As grand as the finale of issue #5 was, and as satisfying, the reaction seeing this page induced in me was even bigger. I just stared. Now that is the kind of finale I can live with. Today, in fact, Archie Comics CONFIRMED to Bleeding Cool that Fox Hunt will bring back The Fox, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Dean Haspiel. Be still my beating heart.
I know I'm not alone in my appreciation of The Fox. You need only look at the roster of creators who have provided variant covers for the comic to see exactly the kind of people who recognize the ingenuity and quality of the series, from Darwyn Cooke to Fiona Staples, Howard Chaykin to Alex Toth. Beyond that, it's also been critically acclaimed on nearly every comic review site as writers struggle for adequate language to describe the kind of highly unusual experience it conveys.
There are only two kinds of readers here: fans of The Fox, and those who haven't discovered it yet. And it is quite a discovery. It's one of those comics you ought to give to other people, brandish at them, praise to them, and assure them that they are in for surprises. We've gotten our five issues, and we can certainly keep them in circulation, but it would be impossible not to more of the Fox in "Fox Hunt" and to hear confirmation of that today, well, it's simply a great day for comics.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter