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Trouble with Comics, The Invincible Iron Man -- from the big screen to a comic collection near you!

The Invincible Iron Man — from the big screen to a comic collection near you!

I confess to having a large zone of ignorance when it comes to some superhero comic books.  I have, if you will, a Phantom Zone of knowledge but a Negative Zone of ignorance.

Oh I know who Jason Blood, Kent Nelson and Chuck Taine are (they are The Demon, Doctor Fate and Bouncing Boy).

But like a Democrat (or Republican) who only looks at one party and does not care what the other side has to say, I have very little knowledge of the heroics of the Marvel Universe.  So when I say that I love comic books, I’m mostly a DC Comics kind of guy. 

Which is like saying I love ice cream when I really only eat Mint Chocolate Chip.

Or I love chocolate bars, but it’s really only Snickers or Kit Kats that I nibble upon.

Or I watch movies, but only comedies, and only if they’re comedies starring former cast members of Saturday Night Live.

Years ago I read Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil and Thor, but I dropped the latter two books when Frank Miller and Walt Simonson left, and I gave up on the X-Men once the spin-offs and multiple crossovers became overwhelming, overly complicated and over expensive.

So while I know that Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel tied the knot in Superboy #200 and their un-intentional offspring was The New X-Men, I am usually just a passing visitor in the Marvel Universe, a mere tourist in the land of Lee, Kirby and Ditko.

But just like a steak-lover might hear that some vegetables are quite tasty (I especially enjoy garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed mushrooms) I am not completely resistant to Marvel books.

Ed Brubaker’s Captain America and Daredevil have caught my interest.  And I had also heard that the work Brubaker did with Matt Fraction on Iron Fist was a lot of fun.  So with all of those books I took a deep, deep plunge and bought the big-ass doorstopper Omnibus Editions.  All I ask in exchange for my hard-earned money is that the book be self-contained and not make me feel as if I’m missing something because of my refusal to buy every Marvel comic book on the stands.

Which brings me to the nineteen issue, not quite Omnibus-length Invincible Iron Man Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca.

As I said in my review of “Iron Man 2”, it’s the movies that have served as my main introduction to the characters.  I’ve never read the original Jack Kirby illustrated tales and, while I know of Tony Stark’s battle with alcohol, I don’t know any of the villains, supporting characters or their stories outside of what I learned from the films.

So, from the perspective of someone with slightly more Marvel knowledge than a tabula rasa-esque customer who wanders into a bookstore, how well does Fraction & Larroca’s Invincible Iron Man work?

To the series’ (and collection’s) credit, the first storyline in the book, “The Five Nightmares” does a fantastic job of dropping us into the middle of Tony’s world without forcing a lot of complicated exposition upon the reader.

The story opens as an unknown narrator describes how technology is now so prevalent and commonplace that people in an African city own more cell phones than they do landlines.  And after that fact is established we are then shown a new, horrific technology as terrorists destroy that same city.

The story then jumps to Tony Stark who is rich, good-looking and likes the ladies (and therefore very familiar to readers who only know him from the movies).  Stark is revealed to be the narrator of the story.

But he’s not just Tony Stark: rich industrialist and part-time superhero who makes all the girls swoon.  He is also the current director of a well-funded superspy government agency.

In one brilliant caption, Fraction tells the reader everything they need to know about the story: “My day job as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. plays hell on my sex life.”

And it’s within the first six pages of the story that all of the relevant information is delivered:  technology, terrorism, high-tech government agents and a narrator who fears his own flaws and the tools of destruction that he has given to the world.  Fraction manages to deliver everything a new reader might need in order to be up to speed, but does it in such a quick and efficient manner that regular readers would probably just brush over it without noticing that the creators are every so slightly pandering to the newbies. 

And, as I said, he does it all in the first six pages.

Fraction is more than ably assisted by artist Salvador Larroca.  His artwork is perfect for the book’s mechanical majesty.  The technological elements of the story are beautiful like an iPod:  smooth, sleek and coupled with a friendly sci-fi feel.  From the depiction of the world as Tony sees it while he’s wearing his armor to the malevolence of the terrorists, Larroca gives it a futuristic look that puts most movies to shame. 

Major credit for the artwork in the book also has to go the colorists, Stephane Peru (who passed away after doing work on the first two issues) and Frank D’Armata. The aerial views as Tony flies, the various battle scenes and even the Iron Man armor itself are vivid and spectacular.  If it’s Larroca’s visuals that give it the look of a science fiction film, it’s the colorist’s work that makes it all come to life.

The first seven chapters of the volume comprise the first story.  Tony has to track down a dead villain’s son (not that the father-son relationship is too important to the story) and stop him from using old Iron Man technology for terrorism.  The story is quick-paced and intense and, as Tony says, “Everything down there is changing.  And we’re up here, playing by the same rules.”  

The last section of the book has the storyline entitled “World’s Most Wanted”.  And because I expect a book like this to be at least somewhat self-contained, there a lot of problems with the last two-thirds of this volume.

Far from the sleek ‘gently nudge you into the deep end of the pool’ storytelling of the first story, the reader is given a jarring shove into the new story with a page that states “PREVIOUSLY: The shape-shifting aliens know as Skrulls infiltrated all aspects of human life and planted a destructive virus in Stark technology…”

Excuse me, but what the F&*K is all that about?

Alien invasion, Skrulls, Norman Osborn, Thunderbolts, H.A.M.M.E.R. – what the hell does this have to do with the story I just read?

Imagine reading a sentence about the incredible essential don’t dare miss it significance of !BLANK! and everything changes because of it:  it’s like an old-fashioned record that skips over a section of a song, or like when your cellphone suddenly drops service and you can’t help but wonder if the part you missed was really important or you can just move on without it.

To be brutally blunt, it is insulting to have seven chapters of a book dedicated to one story and then abruptly *tell* the reader that everything has changed but not bother to *show* them how it happened.

Fraction does his best with the abrupt change in storyline (and he may have even had a hand in the new direction of the book and the cosmic crossover that plays havoc with this book’s narrative) but the effect is incredibly jarring.  “The Five Nightmares” does a great job of establishing the world of Stark, S.H.I.E.LD. and the supporting characters, but all of that fine work is flushed away because of some alien crossover story that takes place completely off-stage.

The second story has Stark Industries in ruins and Tony on the run from Norman Osborn and the authority of  H.A.M.M.E.R.  Unlike “The Five Nightmares”, this story is populated with guest-appearances by other Marvel characters such as Madame Masque, The Controller, Captain America, Black Widow, Namor and Doctor Donald Blake (aka Thor).  Unfortunately it all reads as if each issue has to meet a quota in its number of guest stars.  And my biggest problem with all these heroes making an appearance is that if they know Tony is in trouble and that Osborn is a bad guy, why aren’t they helping rather than just standing on the sidelines?  If they’re too busy to help, shouldn’t they be too busy to just drop in?  And where were all these guys when things were getting blown up in “The Five Nightmares”?

The core of the story (with Tony having to erase and regain his memories in the same way that a computer’s hard drive is removed and restored) is a terrific premise, but because the story has Tony, Pepper and Maria Hill traveling all over the world, it lacks focus and intensity.  And after twelve chapters of Tony as a fugitive, getting his memory erased and just trying to stay alive – the whole thing ends with a whimper rather than a bang.  A huge “To Be Continued” banner should be printed on the final page of this collection.

It’s because the two stories in the collection are so disjointed that the entire volume reads like an anthology rather than an on-going saga.  And as satisfying as the first story is, the second story lacks the same intensity. “The Five Nightmares” established Tony’s power and his essential role in world security both as a hero and as a military leader. “World’s Most Wanted” is a total reboot of Stark’s status and it negates the power of the first story.  Mix that with the book’s ‘We need to get this out in time for the movie’ anti-climatic conclusion and the whole package is unsatisfying.

I can’t help but wonder how the book will read for people who enjoy the movie, wander into a store and grab the book because they are fascinated by the incredible first six pages of the story and its artwork. Will they be as tolerant as regular comic book readers?  Or will they read the book and be frustrated by its abrupt shift and the unresolved elements of the story? 

Because comic book readers are at times too tolerant and have a grudging, masochistic acceptance of these superhero events.  We’ve learned to endure comic book crossovers and the havoc they create as a regular book is forced to temporarily transform itself into a square peg that is then forced into the collective, corporately mandated square hole. 

Regular book readers aren’t used to the harsh demands of the superhero industry known as ‘Continuity’ and ‘The Company Wide Crossover’.  They expect a story to be complete and self-contained. And while Fraction and Larroca deliver a good book, it’s not crafted to stand on the shelf alone.

— Kevin Pasquino

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