Fear ItselfMatt Fraction (script)Stuart Immonen (art)Avengers: Fear ItselfBrian Michael Bendis (script)John Romita Jr., Chris Bachalo, Mike Deodato (art)Marvel Comics, 2012The question underscoring the Marvel Comics philosophy, as it were, is "What If?" (as opposed to the question that for 70 years underscored DC Comics, "And Then What Happened?") - the company has always thrived on posing great big hypothetical questions ("What if the Fantastic Four fought God?" "What if Earth got caught in an interstellar war?" "What if the super-hero world had a civil war?") and then throwing its characters into the teeth of those questions. It can give rise to some memorable, classic comics, but it's tricky to pull off, because no matter how high the stakes, no matter what seems to be threatened, the very nature of four-color comics (now so expertly dissected by my young friend/Coluan overlord Justin Hickey in his new blog) prohibits long-term substantial change. Bits and pieces can change here and there, but Spider-Man can't get his head chopped off - at least not permanently.One of Marvel's most recent big events was "Fear Itself," a 7-issue mini-series that ran in 2010 and was collected in hardcover earlier this year and now released in paperback. Although Marvel house-ads drummed up anticipation for the series by characterizing it as a heroes-confront-their-fears psych-fest, it turned out to be nothing of the kind: the 'what if' here is "What if our heroes had to fight an evil version of the Norse gods?" That evil version is supplied by writer Matt Fraction (and thrillingly drawn by Stuart Immonen at the peak of his powers) in the person of Skadi, brother to Odin, king of the Norse gods - and therefore the good-for-nothing uncle of Thor, thunder god and resident member of Marvel's now very lucrative super-team, the Avengers. To prepare reality for his coming, Skadi sends several mystical war-hammers to Earth, where they possess a number of good guys and bad guys and give our assembled heroes an almost unbeatable set of shock-troops to fight.Marvel sprawled this story over several months and virtually all its ongoing titles (just as it's currently doing with its "Avengers VS X-Men" mega-event), and some of the best-executed of those spin-off side-stories are also collected in paperback this week in Avengers: Fear Itself, with writing (including the ongoing cheesy-but-effective narrative device of having individual characters talk directly to the audience, reflecting on the mega-event that's unfolding before readers) by hyperactive Brian Michael Bendis and artwork by the unbeatable trio of John Romita Jr, Chris Bachalo, and Mike Deodato. Both Bendis and Fraction have a knack for portraying these very familiar superhero characters when they're under terrific stress - there are plenty of loudly rousing action-sequences scattered throughout these two paperback volumes, but it's the quieter moments readers will likely remember best.