Invincible Iron Man #19
Matt Fraction, writer
Salvador Larroca, artist
Marvel, October 2009
It’s been a long time since I read superhero comic that wasn’t by Grant Morrison more than once out of enthusiasm rather than confusion. But golly, I enjoyed this one, and I enjoyed it just as much the second time around.
Subtitled (somewhat pretentiously) “Into the White (Einstein on the Beach),” this is the conclusion of the year-long “World’s Most Wanted” arc of Fraction and Larroca’s movie-toned Iron Man book, in which the disgraced and deposed Tony Stark runs around the world trying to destroy both his tech and his own mind lest both fall into the hands of new King Shit of Turd Mountain Norman Osborn. In the past I’ve found this set-up very hard to swallow because of how dependent it is on other, lesser comics like Civil War and Secret Invasion. For example, I don’t care what universe you live in, if Bernard Kerik can go from Homeland Security chief nominee to getting his mugshot taken, it strains credulity that a guy who used to dress up as a goblin and throw pumpkin bombs at people is gonna get put in charge of jack shit.
But Fraction compensates for this inherited conceptual sloppiness simply by making the plot mechanics for this story as tight as he possibly can. He cuts relentlessly back and forth between the protagonists and antagonists: the Charlie’s Angels trio of Black Widow, Maria Hill, and Pepper Potts attempting to escape from Osborn’s lair; Osborn’s second-in-command Victoria Hand trying to prevent this and quaking in terror of what will happen if she doesn’t; Osborn himself cockily closing in on his quarry; the intelligence-officer grunt who’s secretly feeding Osborn bad information and the colleague who smells something fishy about him; and Iron Man himself, experiencing an Algernon-like loss of his faculties as he hurls himself in his dilapidated old armor toward his final destination. If you’ve ever tried to write an action sequence, let alone cross-cut between several of them, you know how hard it is to get what needs to happen to happen for any reason other than your need for it to happen, right? Well, never once do the A-B-C sequencings of Fraction’s various plots feel like they’ve skipped a letter just to get to point Z quicker. From the captured spies moving up and down and in an out of an elevator, to the precise interpersonal dynamics between all the personnel involved in Norman’s pursuit of Tony Stark, each moment proceeds directly from the last, whether physically or emotionally.
How many fight scenes have you read lately where a character will get smacked several dozen yards by some giant powerhouse only to be up and about a few pages later? How many times have creators had to go online to clarify the physical fate of a character whose beating they wrote into incomprehensibility? How many times has a climactic battle been undercut completely by glib banter, almost completely disconnected from the circumstances of that place, that moment, those characters? You’re not gonna get any of that shit here. Each scene and sequence feels like it’s taking place in a physical space you and the characters could navigate, with physical maneuvers having readily understandable physical consequences. Each move toward and away from the characters’ goals comes with a sense of the stakes involved–the grand illusion of serialized shared-universe superhero storytelling, that there really can be winners and losers, has rarely been so astutely conveyed.
This is all the result of what feels like a real partnership. This issue’s success is equally due to Fraction’s just-right dialogue and direction and Larroca’s deft work with body language and fight choreography. (His days as a Greg Land-style spot-the-photoref novelty act are loooooong behind him.) Both shine brightest in the climax, making Osborn’s slide from glee to rage to frustration to confusion to defeat snatched from the jaws of victory as clear as day and almost frightening. It’s capped off with a one-liner in which the totality of Tony’s pwnage of Norma is made hilariously clear (provided you’re a Marvel nerd), and a one-page coda that manages to set up the coming mega-crossover without losing a sense of beatific victory and loss.
Did I mention that they managed to rehabilitate Iron Man’s badly damaged character in my head, despite the fact that even now none of his actions during Civil War have turned out to make any kind of practical or moral sense within the world of the story in any way? And that they managed to establish Spider-Man villain the Green Goblin as a for-the-ages Iron Man enemy as surely as Frank Miller made Kingpin the archnemesis for Daredevil? I dunno, man, this is some mightily effective work in this genre. I feel like it should be taken apart and studied at story summits for a long, long time: If this is what you want to do, this is how you want to do it. Aw, hell, I’m gonna read it again.