Invincible Iron Man #1-4
Matt Fraction, writer
Salvador Larroca, artist
Marvel, May-August 2008
32 pages each
The problem with Iron Man in the wildly popular, not good Marvel event series Civil War wasn’t that he was wrong, but simply that he was written wrong. You may recall that the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America was driven by Iron Man’s desire to see all superheroes register with the government, an eminently sensible approach to human weapons of mass destruction no more outlandish than requiring official sanction for police departments and the Marines (or hell, student drivers and barbers). Unfortunately, it fell to the character to bear the metaphorical weight of warantless wiretapping, the abolition of habeas corpus, secret prisons, torture, and all the other actual excesses of the War on Terror. And so the writers of the event, particularly the main series’ Mark Millar and Amazing Spider-Man‘s J. Michael Straczynski, turned the character into an unlikeable, smarmy fascist bastard.
You’ll hear some people say this is perfectly appropriate for a character whose secret(ish) identity was a munitions expert who built his first suit of armor in order to kill his way out of an NVA prison–that he’s the military-industrial complex personified. Me? While I read Civil War in disbelief I was listening to Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele and thinking “there’s another way, dammit!” The most consistently enjoyable member of the Wu-Tang Clan, you see, adopted the alternate personality of “Tony Starks,” basically the smoothest operator ever–going so far as to call his solo debut Ironman and lace Supreme Clientele with samples from the old Iron Man cartoon (including the “cool exec with the heart of steel” bit from the theme song). For Ghostface, it’s not Stark’s armor that makes him invincible, but his raw swagger and hustle, qualities that beat the shit out of having his defining characteristic be proclaiming “I’m a futurist,” then sending jackbooted SHIELD troops to rough up your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. As for his war-profiteer aspects, I can’t imagine they’re any harder to get away from than, say, the entire Silver Age has been for most heroes. In short, if your Iron Man comic was not made in the spirit of “Nutmeg” or “Apollo Kids,” you failed.
From the moment I heard that Ghostface had a cameo in Jon Favreau’s Robert Downey Jr.-starring Iron Man film I had a hunch that the filmmakers “got it,” and sure enough, they did. The movie showed it was possible to tell the story of a cocky boozed-swilling genius weapons manufacturer-slash-renowned cocksman who dresses up in armor and blows things up and have him be cool and fun. Imagine that! The whole thing was a vindication and I very much hoped that the writers and editors responsible for the character’s direction in the comics over the past few years were roundly shamed.
Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man was clearly created with the same remit as the movie in mind, and so far it succeeds. It does so in large part by simply choosing to ignore elements that get in the way. Character-wise, Fraction jettisons both Iron Man’s recent-vintage neoconservative-bugbear characterization and former writer Warren Ellis’s Web 2.0-triumphalist technophilia. It’s impossible to gloss over the fact that Stark is now Director of SHIELD and therefore Big Brother for the world, but that’s dealt with minimally here, essentially just providing him with another set of toys to play with.
Plotwise the story could, with minimal tweaking, be a direct sequel to the movie, pitting Stark against the nutbag son of his vanquished rival Obadiah Stane. The younger Stane, Ezekiel, is entertainingly sociopathic in the literal sense–a callously murderous guy who’s seemingly incapable of experiencing empathy. The clever bit is giving him these personality traits in the same way your average douchebag Real World contestant has them–making him a sleazy “moral moron” who, instead of cheating on his girlfriend and drinking to violent, misogynistic excess, blows up buildings full of people. Other cinematic strands are also picked up, particularly Stark’s chemistry with his girl friday Pepper Potts. A running subplot in which Stark saves her from wounds incurred during a suicide bombing by implanting one of those magnetic-disc things in her chest and then teaching her how to use it to fly is an intelligent way to keep that wonderfully weird, oddly romantic, freakily Freudian scene from the movie where Gwyneth Paltrow sticks her hand in Downey’s gooey open wound in mind throughout the story’s duration.
Now, it’s not a great comic–some of the nods in the direction of Iron Man As Supercool Cool Guy, like a bit involving a bevy of babes in issue #1, feel a bit pro forma, and nothing we’ve seen so far is wild and transcendent and unpredictable like the best superhero stories, the ones that stick with you, tend to be. (Ones like Fraction’s collaboration with Ed Brubaker, The Immortal Iron Fist, with which Invincible Iron Man has in common a billionaire-crimefighter protagonist and an adjectivally alliterative title.) Larocca’s work is slick and candy coated and avoids his distracting habit of photo-referenced stunt-casting (except for a scene in issue #4 where Stark slips some Iron Man tech onto the black market by giving it to Danny DeVito and Paris Hilton); it’s kind of perfect for the project, but limited in its affect. Zeke Stane lacks the memorable visual design that makes any great villain click. But in terms of making the Iron Man concept readable again. and offering a version of the character who wouldn’t make people who enjoyed his film incarnation run screaming in the opposite direction, so far so good.