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Matt Fraction’s Run on The Invincible Iron Man – Vol. 1 (Hardcover)

Released just in time for you to play catchup before Iron Man 2 hits the cinemas, Marvel have published the first nineteen issues of Matt Fraction’s run on The Invincible Iron Man. It’s a big book. Unfortunately, it only contains two storylines (it looks like the era of decompression isn’t quite over), but despite some storytelling issues it manages to be a fairly entertaining read. Mostly because Fraction seems to have a fairly solid handle on the man inside the suit of armour.

Iron Woman...

Note: I do feel a little bit robbed. I bought this on amazon.com advertised as a Marvel Omnibus. It arrives at my door as a slightly larger than usual hardcover. There are next-to-no extras or commentaries or anything. I was looking forward to shelving this with my cool Omnibus collection – they do just look better. It isn’t any smaller than the Death of Captain America Omnibus or the second Brubaker Daredevil Omnibus. I’m a little bit ticked off. But I’ll get over it.

Matt Fraction gets Tony Stark as a character. In the same way that Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jnr. do for their own big screen adaptation. He grasps the pure and simple concept of the character, as well as his voice. Fraction began work on this relaunched series before a trailer for the original movie had even been released, yet it’s clear that the character here and in the film speaks with the same voice. In fact, looking at the trailers for Iron Man 2 it’s hard not to get a sense that the two are perfectly in-step, at least when it comes to the title character.

What distinguishes Tony Stark from the vast majority of other comic book heroes is fairly straight forward. He’s the very embodiment of market forces, of free enterprise. The Iron Man armour is the product of private research and development and his personal property, but it can be broken down, disassembled and sold. Unlike Spider-Man or Captain America, every single time that Stark looks in the mirror, he has to deal with the possibility that his suit may one day leave his control. That it will be made public. Fraction’s opening arc, The Five Nightmares of Tony Stark, provides this as the bedrock of Tony’s nightmares and Favreau seems keen to explore the idea as well. “You want my property? You can’t have my property!” is used in the film trailer as a response to a Senatorial subcommittee demanding Stark hand over his technology, but it may just as easily be directed at Norman Osborn, the villain of this collection’s second arc – World’s Most Wanted.

When things look Stark...

Stark is a character who loses sleep over the fear that his power may one day drift out of his hands. Stan Lee once suggested that the very concept of the character was a wacky thought experiment. At the height of the Vietnam War, it must have seemed crazy to make a billionaire weapon manufacturer the star of an on-going series. It’s easy to label Tony as a “fascist” or a “tool”, because in many ways he is. He holds on to power rather than sharing it – he’d have been the first to string Prometheus up for bringing fire down from Olympus if he’d had the chance. Therein lies the central tragedy of Tony Stark: in principle his actions are abhorrent and selfish, but they are inherently pragmatic and justifiable. Surely he could do so much good by sharing his technology, but – in the wrong hands – that technology could do so much harm.

Perhaps that’s what makes the character so fascinating. He’s a walking debate on proliferation, particularly nuclear proliferation – which makes him arguably just as politically relevent as Ed Brubaker’s current run on Captain America. Fraction sees this and uses it, making the character seem important again. It’s hard to read some of the scenes involving suicide bombers powered by Stark’s technology, but it gives the character a sense of context. What is the driving technological factor in modern terrorism, if not to use scraps of western ordinance and producing cheaper and deadlier versions of it?

Iron Man: Reborn...

Stark is the embodiment of futurism, the art of divining the future. His particular brand is a careful relationship with technology – the Iron Man armour is a tool, one to be used with care and discretion. For Stark, the key is finding that balance between the human mind and the technology. In contrast, Fraction pits him against Zeke Stane’s uniquely perverse brand of futurism. Stane believes in fusion between man and machine: he has literally made himself into a killing machine – his girlfriend compares his high calorie “goo” to motor oil. Such a relationship between man and machine is not stable – it’s dangerous. At one point, Stark describes Stane as “the future of the Iron Man … true synthesis between man and machine”, but if it is the future it isn’t a stable one, nor a safe one. It isn’t the kind of future that Tony can reconcile, so perhaps the regression that follows is the only way to avoid it.

Stark is a man who believes that the future lies with humanity, and that machines should serve as a tool of humanity, not as an enhancement. It’s no coincidence that Fraction strips Stark of his biological and technological enhancements – his extemis armour is destroyed early on and he reboots his technologically-enhanced brain. In essence, assuming he survives this (and he will), Fraction would seem to be making Tony human again. Well, as human as it’s possible for a guy with a mechanical heart to be. Indeed, the magnetic device inserted into Pepper Potts is added of necessity – the benefits that accrue from it are incidental to the fact that it saves her life.

Tony gets all fired up...

More than that, Fraction grasps the concept of Stark the man – the tragedy at the core of the boastful and playful billionaire. “Now you’re making jokes?” Maria Hill asks him at one point, to which he honestly replies: “It’s that or start crying.” Arguably Fraction’s greatest single accomplishment is to make something of the unholy mess that was Civil War and all the damage it did to Tony Stark. Throughout his run he hints at the notion as Stark as an atoner for his misdeeds and mistakes, without ever going for something as blunt and forced as an apology or an admission of fault. This run is very much a path back to redemption for the character of Tony Stark – an attempt to redeem him and reconstruct him.

I honestly believe that Matt Fraction may become the definitive Iron Man writer, much as Brubaker is linked with Captain America or Frank Miller is with Daredevil or Alan Moore is with Swamp Thing(and virtually every character he writes). He certainly appreciates Tony Stark as a character. Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn’t work quite so perfectly.

A smash hit...

Don’t get me wrong. I see what Fraction is trying to do. It’s commentary. The longer of the two arcs – World’s Most Wanted – is a return to the traditional comic book values, through Tony Stark. Stark has been perhaps the most tarnished of the major Marvel heroes by the descent into darkness and edginess that gripped the line over the past decade or so. He been made an anti-hero at best and a flatout villain at worse. And the logic is that this is what comic books should be – they are somehow growing and maturing by being that little bit more violent or morally grey.

If that is progress, Fraction seems to be saying, then give me regression! In World’s Most Wanted, Tony slowly wipes his own mind, draining it of all his knowledge and formidable intellect. He becomes less sophisticated and less graceful. This is clearly a form of masochism from a man looking to repent – Osborn notes that what defines Tony “isn’t that you’re the smartest guy in the room”, but “that you liked it so damn much”. Reducing his intellect to the point where he needs to write memos on how to use a screwdriver must be the most horrible punishment imaginable for Tony Stark.

Let's hope they can iron out their differences...

But it isn’t just about mental regression. Fraction strips Stark down to basics, reversing the Extremis enhancements to his armour and then having him work his way backwards through his power suits. He also has him travel “home”. Back to Afghanistan. Back to the beginning. Back to where the character was born. Fraction is moving the character back to his roots. At one point in Russia, Stark remembers what it must have been like to be a hero in the ‘old days’, before the modern era of anti-heroes and moral ambiguity:

He’s amazed they even try talking first and don’t just open fire. This is what it used to be like. They used to be heroes. They used to be welcome in the skies. They didn’t have to hide.

Fraction crafts the story as a manefesto for a return to oldtime comic book heroes and villains. A trip back to the good old days before this absurd notion of maturity swept the medium. In way it’s a broader appeal to the simplicity of times past – and not just in fiction. At the start of the first issue, Stark is forced to miss the landing of a space shuttle due to a terrorist atrocity. He planned to fly down personally, because “they don’t show it on the news anymore … unless people die”.

Retro chic...

That said, there are more than a few problems with the start of Fraction’s run. World’s Most Wanted is just far too long. It’s stretched out beyond belief. At times – with the introduction of classic Iron Man foes like the Controller or Madame Mask or Shockwave – it feels like Fraction is attempting to produce a ‘guantlet’ style superhero story (a story where a character faces their most formidible rogues in quick succession), but it just feels like padding. With the exception of Madame Masque, all of these villains feel superfluous – and many appear and disappear within a few pages with no introduction. Iron Man arguably doesn’t have an iconic selection of villains that would make this story as easy as it would be for Batman (like The Long Halloween or Hush) or Spider-Man (Marvel Knights or The Gauntlet). Fraction mostly keeps his eye on the central attraction, Norman Osborn versus Tony Stark, but it can’t help but lose a bit of focus over the run of the arc.

Also, I’m not entirely convinced about Fraction’s narrative voice. He tends to alternate between first and third person narrations, which can be quite distracting. Of course, talking about a character in the third person does call to mind the ‘good ole days’ that Fraction seems to want to evoke, but it seems oddly out of place – in the old days yellow boxes were for narration and thought bubbles were for internal monologues. It’s a small thing, but it does jar a bit.

Tony is deserted...

It’s a shame, because when Fraction does stay focused the idea really works. One can’t help but get the sense that Norman Osborn – riding around in a remodelled Iron Man suit – may as well be an embodiment of Tony’s most basic fear (his technology appropriated by the wrong hands), but it’s never really explored. We don’t get a sense of Osborn as a character or as the anti-Tony here. It’s a shame, because Fraction does good work with Tony and good work with Pepper Potts, his put-upon secretary. I’m less convinced about Fraction’s take on Maria Hill, which is basically an excuse for a tangential subplot which doesn’t necessarily go anywhere or lead to any character development.

There’s also an annoying tendency by Fraction to effectively lecture through his characters. He introduces his new supervillain in The Five Nightmares by having him kill a boardroom full of tobacco executives, who he identifies as “completely evil”. Which is as heavy-handed as you can imagine. On the other hand, there are some genuinely interesting ideas on show here, like Stark distributing anti-virals through the vending machines owned by a drinks company he just bought. Fraction manages to avoid being too preachy most of the time, but sometimes it shines through a little too much.

The birth of the Iron age...

I could make the same complaints here that I made about the omnibus collecting Brubaker’s Captain America – Marvel’s ‘perpetual, universe-altering event-of-the-year’ interferes with the author’s work on the title. In Captain America we jumped from ‘Cap saves London’ to ‘Cap is a fugitive’ to ‘Cap has been arrested and shot’ with little narrative cohesion. Here we jump from ‘Tony Stark is Director of SHIELD’ to ‘Tony Stark is suddenly not the director of some weird new agency called HAMMER and the Green Goblin from Spider-man wants his brain’. It might be better, but only marginally so. Very simply, it makes the character’s title book seem like the secondary and less important narrative – which is ridiculous, why should a character’s main book serve a crossover and not vice versa? I’m loosely familiar with comic books and I’m a little confused – I can only imagine how somebody picking up the book in anticipation of Iron Man 2 may feel. It’s a shame, because the opening arc collected here, The Five Nightmares of Tony Stark, is far more accessible. It even features a new villain who is tied to the villain from the original Iron Man movie, so there’s some overlap.

Anyway, I digress. I must sound like a broken record on this.

The armour's off the table...

I am not the biggest fan of Salvador Larocca’s art, I must confess. He does the technology aspect ridiculously well – and, as you’d imagine, that’s a big part of an Iron Man book. On the other hand, his people look… odd. They are all coloured strangely and have a weird tendency to bend in ways that aren’t physically possible. Not to mention that he manages to make Tony Stark look like Winston Churchill at certain points. Which is a shame, because he captures some truly great moments and some individual sequences work very well (mostly the ones with Stark in the suit).

All in all, it’s a solid run. It isn’t mindblowingly amazing, but is notable for its solid handling of Tony Stark as a character. Fraction really has a handle on the character. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a story equivalent to Demon in a Bottle or other classics you may be disappointed. If Fraction can get a better handling on superhero storytelling, this could be a truly epic run.

At the moment, it’s just a reasonably good one.

2 Responses

  1. I have to say that I’ve disliked this latest incarnation of Stark (excepting Hill, who obvious the phfwoarr element, seriously kicks ass, especially in siege).

    Can anyone explain the whole Stark-deleting-his-mind thing? It’s nuts (and stupid storylines are the surest way to kill off a comic book’s following).

    • I don’t know – I think the “deleting his mind” thing works with Fraction’s “let’s regress – Marvel’s attempt at complexity sucks!” theme he’s got going on. As with the rest of that particular storyline, I’m not sure the execution is the best way to do it, which is a shame. I think it reads better as basically Stark’s attempt at emo-esque self-mutilation. As the Dynamo suggests, if he wants to destroy the database, he could just jump into a volcano. Even if that’s true, what’s really sad is that this actually seems like a reasonable way to address the damage that Marvel has done to Stark’s character.

      I like Fraction’s take on Stark as a character, though.

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