February 7, 2011

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Invincible Iron Man Volume 1

Written by Matt Fraction
Illustrated by Salvador Larroca
Marvel

I know I've been reading more superhero comics this year so far, but believe it or not I'm actually being more selective about what I'm choosing to read. I don't actually want to stop reading stories about characters I grew up with. I just want to stop reading *bad* stories about characters I grew up with.

That brings us to Matt Fraction, the writer given the mighty task of making Tony Stark likable after Mark Millar and company put him squarely in the "jerk" category during the events of Civil War. No pressure, there's only a big movie coming out at the same time. With most Iron Man material showing him in less than a stellar light, Fraction had quite a bit of work to do.

So how does he manage it? Quite well, actually. Fraction deftly decides not to spend too much time arguing over who was right and wrong, and instead focuses on the idea of Tony Stark's sense of responsibility for the well-being of the world, from close friends like Pepper to the victims of international terrorism. He's continuing to operate on an expanded version of Peter Parker's notion of responsibility, with his guilt based on his weapons manufacturing past, padded by the death of Steve Rogers.

The trouble, however, is one of scale. When you try to become responsible for the world, you set yourself up for all kinds of failure. We start to see the signs of that here, and also see that Fraction can create long-term arcs as well as immediate problems, a skill necessary for writing good serial comics that's often lost these days. Stark must also deal with the problem of letting the technological genie out of the bottle, a story we've seen before (Armor Wars) but is given a new, darker twist.

Oh, and after a lot of serious storytelling, we also get a spot-on, in character Spider-Man, arriving just in time to give the book a little levity.

That's the thing that makes Fraction such a good writer. He's fully able to write a serious situation that mixes real world problems and superheroes but also have two characters banter about their looks even as a crisis looms. While I'm not fond of going to that well in the first place, as I've said a time or three, if you're going to do it, do it right. Fraction does here. The idea is plausible, the impact realistic, and Tony Stark's reaction is right in touch with his character, both in the short term and looking back to the years when Bob Layton was co-plotting and illustrating the book, which I still consider to be the best Iron Man stories. This trade can hold its own against the Layton years, and that's really saying something given the mess that Civil War placed Stark's character in.

The story itself is pretty typical modern Marvel fare. The stakes are raised as the practical application of the powers available in the Marvel U are blended with the issues of our earth, leading to heroes questioning what they do and why they do it. My feelings on this are mixed, because the more realistic you try to be, the less magic these stories contain. When characters as asking why Tony Stark doesn't allow others to use his magical magnets for healing, the answer "it's too expensive" is lame, given that Stark will turn around and spend billions rebuilding his businesses by the end of the trade. There's no need to go there, guys--I don't read these stories to think of real-life problems. It throws me out of the story, never something you want.

Fortunately, Fraction doesn't spend too long on these ideas, keeping the action flowing from one battle scene to the next and using his ability to create fake but plausible technology to make Iron Man even more ahead of the curve than he was the first day he put on the suit. I'm willing to forgive the real-life digressions because Fraction's plot is strong and his dialog--including Tony's inner monologue where he worries about his legacy throughout this trade--is amazing. Plus, like Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak, Fraction uses instead of abuses continuity. There are references to older Iron Man stories here, but they aren't shunted aside or radically altered. They instead serve as context, and possibly exploration points for new readers who just saw the Iron Man movie. All in all, the scripting here is great.

What's not so great is Salvador Larroca's "art." I was tempted to put quotes around illustrated above, because what he's doing here is not art, it's tracing. And it's not even good tracing, either. When I go from one page that's got David Duchovny as a jihadist and Danny DeVito as a rich man with a costume fetish on the next, I'm laughing--but not for the right reasons. The art job here is abysmal and the praise Larroca gets on the back cover flap for being timely is an insult to people like Sal Buscema, who often pencilled (and sometimes inked!) five comics or more in a given month. Actual pencils. not Photoshopped tracings. If this story hadn't been so good, I'd have given up reading it. Marvel has an awesome stable of great writers, but they need to work on finding actual talent for the art chores. Klaus Jansen might not be my favorite artist, but at least he actually uses his own compositions.

Or maybe I'm just behind the times and this is what fans want now. I certainly hope not.

Invincible Iron Man is a really good story that can be read without a lot of background knowledge. Those who know Fraction from other, indie works will be happy to see he's just as good when writing for a major publisher. If you're looking for a good superhero story, this isn't a bad place to look. I'm definitely in for a few more volumes of this.