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Matt Fraction’s Run on The Invincible Iron Man – Vol. 2 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” Today, I’m focusing on one in particular, Iron Man.

Read our review of The Avengers here.

In many ways, Matt Fractions’ Invincible Iron Man run feels like a spiritual counterpart to Ed Brubaker’s celebrated Captain America tenure. Of course, there’s similar thematic ground covered by the character arcs, with both leads dealing with the fallout from Marvel’s crossover-driven continuity, but there’s something more fundamental in the style and goals of the works. Indeed, both read better in big chunks, with each of the “acts” in Brubaker’s Captain America saga conveniently broken down and released in their own omnibus collections (his opening Captain America run, The Death of Captain America and Captain America Lives!). I can’t help up feel like perhaps Matt Fraction drew the short straw when it comes to collected editions, with the release of his material dictated by Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2 and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, as the two hardcovers seem strangely structured, creating a second volume which seems to contain the end of one act and the start of another.

It's got a lot of heart...

This hardcover collection contains two story arcs. The first is Stark Disassembled and the second is Hammer Girls. The five issue Stark Disassembled feels like the closing chapter in Fraction’s opening “act”, finally tidying away the last of the baggage that the character had when Fraction took over the title. Hammer Girls could be seen as the opening salvo of the next big chunk of Fraction’s story, introducing character motivations, giving us additional details, and setting up plot points that will undoubtedly be developed down the road. It’s strange to see both collected here, lending the hardcover a somewhat disjointed feel.

Indeed, it’s hard not to get the sense that Fraction’s work might have been better collected by extending the first hardcover into a bigger omnibus collection, including the five-issue story arc Stark Disassembled. This would have given the first hardcover a more complete sense of story, and a logical endpoint, just like Brubaker’s first omnibus. Then Hammer Girls would have been collected with the work that followed, which will undoubtedly continue to bring together various pieces of Tony Stark’s life building to an epic climax.

Steel yourself...

The only reason that this was not possible was because Marvel tied the release of the hardcovers to the release of their big budget films – so the first hardcover had to be published in time for Jon Favreau’s sequel to Iron Man and the second had to be read for Robert Downey Jr.’s superhero team-up. It feels like a bit of a shame, because I get the sense that Fraction’s long-form story would actually read much better had it been collected differently. I know I certainly would have enjoyed World’s Most Wanted much better if Stark Disassembled had been included to wrap up the threads.

Still, there’s a lot to like here. Fraction still has a strong grasp of Stark, and it looks like he might have broken free of Marvel’s tangled superhero continuity. Like Brubaker’s Captain America, the first collection was left feeling somewhat disjointed as Fraction was forced to keep the pace with ever-shifting role of Tony Stark in the Marvel Universe. While Brubaker found his status quo shifted by Mark Millar’s Civil War, Fraction had to contend with the rapid-succession fallout of Civil War, Secret Invasion and Dark Reign. It compounded the first collection’s disjointed feeling, as Tony’s situation would rapidly shift from one issue to the next.


It finally looks like Fraction is free of that web of continuity, one that threatens to suffocate individual titles, and the series is the better for it. Even if the title would be forced to tie into the later Fear Itself miniseries, at least Fraction himself was writing both – so he wasn’t entirely in service to another writer’s concepts and ideas. Finally, it looks like Fraction has a bit of space in which to develop his impressive characterisation of Tony, and the freedom to tell his own stories without subscribing to the dreaded “big event.” And I think, based both on Ed Brubaker’s work on Captain America and what we see here, that is a good thing.

Stark Disassembled effectively wraps up the writer’s first chapter on the book. Since Fraction took the book, it’s been about damage control for the lead character. After all, despite Mark Millar’s assertions to the contrary, he was very much the bad guy of the Civil War era, turning on his friends, designing “cape killers”, running an internment camp in another dimension. What’s remarkable about Fraction’s portrayal of Stark, as opposed to many of the writers and readers acknowledging that Stark’s position as a hero had been seriously damaged by the storyline, is that Fraction at least acknowledges that this sort of self-righteousness was perfectly in-character for Tony.

Strange apparitions...

While I might have problems with Civil War, it’s hard to argue that Mark Millar’s take on Tony Stark doesn’t fit with earlier portrayals. He has, after all, a history of alienating other heroes while making morally dubious and self-interested choices, as seen in Armour Wars. Millar’s attempt to create an element of class warfare between Captain America and Iron Man (with shades of Frank Miller’s Batman and Superman antagonism in The Dark Knight Returns) didn’t work quite as well, and the escalation of the conflict didn’t make a lot of sense within the confines of basic storytelling logic, but Stark’s philosophical position and his arrogance weren’t out of character. And Fraction cleverly concedes that, because he understands Stark.

Tony Stark is a jackass. That’s what makes him so enjoyable to watch and to read. Stan Lee invented him as a character the read should reflexively hate, and Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau portrayed him as a man who lacks the characteristics we take for granted in a hero. Even Michelinie and Layton flirted with the idea that Tony Stark’s monopolistic approach to his Iron Man technology might push the character dangerously close to the characterisation of a supervillain. And Matt Fraction acknowledges that, by writing Tony as an arrogant and self-centred jackass.

Holding out for a hero...

“Do you want me back?” he asks Captain America and Thor, in a recorded message as he lies dying. “Can you forgive me? Because, here’s the thing — I’m not apologising — what happened, happened, and it happened because it happened and that’s it.” He effectively emotionally blackmails his old friends into forgiving him, without even conceding he made any mistakes. After all, there’s no way that Captain America and Thor would let him die. “It’s a moral imperative,” Blake concedes, when somebody suggests they have to save Tony. It’s a terrible thing for a character to do, and it’s the type of thing that Captain America or Thor would never pull. In fairness to Tony, his position is consistent. Later on, he repeats his position to Thor, “I’m not sorry and I’d do it all again. Hopefully differently, but I’d do it all again.”

Fraction seems to concede that the character’s arc has damaged him, writing the hero past the point where he’s acceptable as a superhero, but seems to also acknowledge that it’s these attributes that make Tony who he is. Tony can’t pull a sharp u-turn from his actions and beliefs, because they are an essential part of the character’s appeal. All Fraction can do is to pull him back from the edge, by literally rebooting him, and acknowledging his flaws.

Hammer, don't hurt...

Tony seems to know that he went too far. Explaining to Reed Richards why he didn’t take a back-up of his brain after the events of Extremis, he’s almost apologetic. “I couldn’t imagine screwing up as badly as I did and needing it,” he admits. “That I’d run the show as badly as I did. Or that — or maybe I did the best I could, I don’t know, I don’t remember — but I thought I was above… tiny… human… things. Like backing up my data. Or asking for help. Or saying sorry.”

And yet Fraction concedes that recognising these character flaws and overcoming them are two different things. As noted above, Stark still refuses to apologise. At the climax of Hammer Girls, he refuses to ask for help. “Our mess,” he insists. “Our clean-up. No Hill. No Avengers.” As Maria Hill offers to help, he refuses, even with a saw cutting into his arm. “Hill, we have this covered.” And yet Fraction hints that, though those flaws remain, Stark is mitigating them in his own way. He surrounds himself with “Team Iron Man”, including Rhodey and Pepper, who are there to support him. It’s a course-correction, but it’s not a radical paradigm shift.

Hammer 'roids?

Because, much like Brubaker’s Captain America run, Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man feels like a reflection on writing for modern mainstream comics, where you’re dealing with characters who have been in print for almost half a century. (And occasionally longer.) It’s hard to come up with a new angle, or with new takes. Ed Brubaker played with that sort of weight by killing Steve Rogers and replacing him with Bucky Barnes – a character from the original stories that Brubaker had reworked so extensively he was practically a new character. While Brubaker didn’t create Bucky, he did define him. Fraction, on the other hand, works with Tony Stark, but plays with the tragedy of a character who has been through so many remarkable and impossible things, and who can’t really ever change too much.

So, rather than becoming a second-generation iteration of a hero, Fraction literally reboots him, wiping away a tonne of awkward stories featuring the character. It seems like a commentary on the approach taken to continuity, where characters and franchises can be “reset” if an editor disagrees with what they’ve done to the series. Of course, this time it’s only Tony himself who is reset, while the world around him changes and evolves. Brubaker changed Captain America, but Fraction does the opposite, “rolling back” Tony rather than pretending to move him forwards.

Droning on and on?

In Stark Disassembled, we’re treated to the recurring image of Tony and his parents digging in a vast desert, only to get wiped out and for it all to happen again. Perhaps it’s a reflection on the nature of the genre. Writers gets to develop Tony so far before they are pulled from the title and another writer has to start again. How many profound realisations has Tony had during his life, in fifty years of publication? How many times has been unsettled and forced to dig for some deeper truth to find peace, only for the creative team to change and the process starting all over again? Tony Stark is almost frozen in time, unable to truly the change the essence of who he is.

Indeed, even Tony himself seems to recognise the patterns and the tropes of comic book storytelling. He seems almost implicitly aware of the fact that the status quo won’t change too much, because the character must remain marketable. Contemplating his bold new business strategy and his latest move away from weapon’s manufacturing, talking about why his enemies decided to target him despite the fact he’s no longer in the business, Stark concedes that it’s a temporary shift rather than a permanent reimagining. “It’s a song I’ve sung before and they know it,” he confesses. “Hammer bets that I’ll bark up the peacenik tree, get bored, then go back to feasting on fat fifteen-figure government contracts.”

Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

While Brubaker crafted what Stan Lee allegedly described as “the illusion of change” by swapping out his lead character, Fraction adopts the opposite approach. Rather than replacing Tony with a newer model, he instead shifts the world around his lead character. General Babage in fact comments on how old most of the character in this fictional world are, while talking to the daughter and granddaughter of Justin Hammer. “This field you’re trying to con yourselves into has been occupied by the same men — the same businesses — for generations.” It’s interesting how many of Tony’s new foes are second-generation bad guys (bad guys 2.0?). Zeke Stane is the son of Obadiah Stane, the villain played by Jeff Bridges in the film. The eponymous Hammer Girls are the daughter of Justin Hammer, and her own daughter – who is also the daughter of Stark’s arch-foe, the Mandarin. It creates the impression of a bold new world around Tony.

While Fraction seems to be going out of his way to acknowledge the static nature of mainstream comics by drawing attention to how little his world ultimately changes, that’s not to say that his run is “the same old” stuff. In fact, Fraction offers us several clever takes on Tony, several great ideas, drawing the Iron Manmythos into the twenty-first century. In the first book, it was augmented suicide bombers, and here it’s remote-piloted drones controlled through a free-to-download smartphone app.

A superhero crush...

We also see Stark continuing to push with clever industrial ideas – in the first book it was using vending machines to distribute anti-viral drugs, here it’s a fast electric car. We know that Stark will never truly succeed because Marvel needs their fictional universe to at least reflect reality, but it’s nice that Fraction does throw these ideas into the blender. I have to admit, I am quite fond of Fraction’s writing here, and am looking forward to the next volume. Hell, I can’t wait for his Defenders or even his much-derided Uncanny X-Men run to get a proper collection, if only to get a chance to read it myself. I’m also waiting for a solid collection of his Casanova work, as well. And I’m sure his Thor work (outside Ages of Thunder) should be collected.

It’s also interesting to note how gracefully Fraction acknowledges the work done by Favreau and Downey in bringing the character to the big screen, but without anchoring himself to that take on the character. Fraction reportedly worked on the second film, and you can see weird moments of synergy in the work. “I am Iron Man,” Stark repeats like a mantra, echoing the iconic moment from the first film. (It’s notable because, as Dr. Strange notes, Tony traditionally used the “interesting affectation” of “the Iron Man”in comics.)

The War Machine springs to life, opens up its eager eye...

More directly tied to the sequel, Fraction includes a scene of Tony on the race course, and also draws Rhodey back into the title, both elements of the superhero sequel. While he included Stane as the villain in his first arc, possibly as a nod to the use of Obadiah Stane as the villain in the first film, here he uses the daughter of Justin Hammer, who appeared in the second film. None of this feels awkward or forced, instead feeling like a polite homage that fits within the context of the story that Fraction is telling anyway.

I think what’s most interesting about reading Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man is that the author is definitely a long-form storyteller. I think “decompressed storytelling” has been unfairly decried by modern fans of the medium. Of course, stories can be over-extended or padded out well past the point where they should be (I’d even argue that Fraction’s own World’s Most Wantedwas too long), but it’s a storytelling tool that is like any other. In the wrong hands, it can be abused, leading to a pointless and empty tale, but – in the right hands – it adds depth and development to an impressively epic story.

Catching his eye...

That’s not to favour one approach to comic book story-telling over any other. I’ll concede that I loved Paul Dini’s done-in-one’s on Detective Comics and Warren’s Ellis’ compressed approach to Secret Avengers. It’s merely to note that certain types of stories can work well in particular hands. I think Fraction’s real skill is with this sort of long-form story arc technique. The eight-issue Hammer Girls feels like it’s just a prelude for what’s to come, but each chapter in the story feels substantial and important in its own right, giving us additional insight.

“There are battles and there are wars, Hammer,” General Babbage suggests, and there’s a sense that Fraction’s run will be an account of a war, where are only witnessing the battles. The space allows Fraction to cleverly set-up plot points years ahead of the curve – for example, it’s only now we discover that Zeke Stane’s girlfriend is the daughter of the Mandarin. I also like the way that Fraction is alluding to a possible dark point in Stark’s future, with the recurring image of those “Nth-gen Stark Titanomechs” in both Stark Disassembled and Hammer Girls. It looks quite like the things we saw briefly in Captain America: Reborn as well, and I think the suggestion is that they might play into the upcoming Ultron War. I actually quite like that sort of continuity-light foreshadowing, instead of positioning a mess of plot points across multiple books.

He red, white and blew them all away...

There’s no sense that Fraction is losing any momentum, and I suspect that the run will read even better in retrospect, much like Grant Morrison’s New X-Men – which was best read as one long story. It’s a shame that the collection editions couldn’t have been organised just a little bit better. It’s not normally a big deal, but it feels like Fraction’s story is suffering from the way that it is packaged. Still, I suppose needs must. Hopefully, the next release in the series will allow Marvel to collect the end of the “second act”, and then allowing each of the subsequent collections to include a full chapter in Fraction’s gigantic tale.

It’s worth pausing here to note the work of artist Salvador Larroca. Regardless of any minor problems I might have with the artist’s work, it’s worth noting that getting thirty-three consecutive issues of the same title published without changing the artist is quite an accomplishment in today’s industry, and he’s continued the trend since. That’s a commendable work ethic, and I think he deserves acknowledgment for that.

Come with me if you want to live...

I conceded in my review of the first collection that Larroca works best with machinery, drawing an absolutely amazing Iron Man and the various armoured suits and gadgets and gizmos that give the title its own relatively unique visual identity. However, I did find his faces a bit strange in some of the first collection, with characters tending to look off-model from panel to panel. While there are still some minor problems with human characters, I think Larocca’s work has improved dramatically, and it’s clear that he’s in perfect sync with Fraction as a writer. Indeed, it’s almost hard to imagine what the title would like if without him.

Minor issue with the collection itself aside, I am really getting into the swing of Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man. It feels like it’s going be perhaps the defining Tony Stark story once it is finally completed, and that’s quite a compliment to the writer and artist. It’s just a shame I’ll have to wait so long for the next volume in this set.

You might like the rest of our reviews of Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man run:

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