[EIW] A Retrospective of Invincible Iron Man

If you were to ask me what one of my all time favourite comic book runs, Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s Invincible Iron Man goes on that list immediately.  Summer 2008 was a good time to be an Iron Man fan.  The first Iron Man film had been released in May and then this wonderful comic began weeks later.  At first, it looked like it was going to be just another Iron Man book filled with typical Tony Stark adventures.  After all, he’d just become the new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.  Sure there was another company-wide event coming up but who figured that fifty issues later that Tony would hit another huge low in his life?  He’d just lost his best friend.  Things clearly had to go up from there.

As a writer, Matt Fraction really succeeds at getting inside of Tony Stark’s head and also at fleshing out the supporting cast and really letting some of them grow.  He does a particularly good job with both Pepper Potts and Maria Hill right off the bat and also writes a good Rhodey.  Fraction also shows a respect for the mythos of the character.  He boils down it down to its essence for this 60 issue run but still injects new life into and tells new stories.

One of the best things about this book that really helped it stand out was the consistent creative team.  In the current comic book world, that doesn’t happen very often as artists seem to be switched every arc or so to keep up with a tough publishing schedule.  It helps give the story a sense of continuity and feel like the one long story that it is.

The short version of this retrospective review is that not only did it hold up against my memories of the book but it actually exceeded them.  It was only in retrospect that I fully appreciated all the plotlines and details that Fraction wove into the story right from the beginning.  It is a cohesive story that every Iron Man fan should read and it is the book that I would absolutely recommend to a new reader who wants to know more about the hero.   I’d also recommend the Annual #1 for anyone who wants to read up on The Mandarin before Iron Man 3 comes out in a few weeks.

The long version of this is filled with spoilers about each individual story arc so read at your own risk!

The Five Nightmares #1-7
Like most comics, the first arc sets up the rest of the run but it’s in retrospect that I’m realising how much of the stage that Fraction set in these seven issues.  The arc name gives away some of the story.  This is Tony Stark telling us what his five biggest nightmares are and that number grows to six by the end of the arc.  Over the course of the story, Fraction establishes the working relationship between Tony Stark (Director of SHIELD) and Maria Hill (Second in Command).  With quips between the two about 1982 and Supercuts calling, they clearly don’t get along on a stellar personal level although their professional relationship seems mostly functional.  (Honestly, it’s Tony Stark we’re talking about here.)

Fraction also introduces us to Ezekiel Stane who wants revenge on Tony for killing his father.  Trust me when I say that he will be back.  On top of that, the very capable Pepper Potts had a close brush with death and now has a version of the arc reactor in her chest, keeping her alive.  Spoiler Alert: That’s going to come back later too.  Aside from that, things seem to be going okay for Tony Stark.  This is just your garden variety of typical super hot trouble.  He is Director of SHIELD and hellbent on fixing his company.  What could go wrong?

World’s Most Wanted #8-19
…and then everything goes to hell here.  Well, maybe “here” isn’t the best descriptor.  Around the same time as the first arc, Secret Invasion happened and Tony Stark did not emerge as the world’s saviour… Norman Osborn did.  SHIELD is gone, enter HAMMER and now both Tony and Maria are out of a job.  The last thing that Tony wants is for a (former) villain like Osborn to get his hands on the Superhero Registration List with the identities and real name of all registered heroes.  Tony purges the list from the SHIELD database and keeps only one copy: in his harddrive of a brain.  And now he has get rid of that copy too.

It’s actually a bit of a punch to the stomach to watch a character like Tony Stark just slowly lose it.  He has to keep downgrading his Iron Man armour because it’s too sophisticated for him to use while simultaneously staying on the run.  To top it all off, there is nothing more heartbreaking than Tony asking “Who’s Happy?” as his mind slowly erases.

Of course, the other part of this arc is Pepper Potts and Maria Hill being awesome.  Pepper gets a suit and becomes a superhero, Rescue, in her own right.  I will also always adore the pages where Pepper, Maria, and Natasha team up especially with all of their banter.  It’s incredibly telling that Pepper and Maria are two of the people in the world that Tony trusts the most because without both of their contributions?  His grand plan would’ve failed.  They’re both incredibly smart and capable and really shine here.

On a personal tangent, I just have to say that this is the arc that is responsible for me loving Maria Hill as much as I do.  My entrance into Marvel comics was through the X-men and my very first single-issue comic was Civil War #1.  That was also my first real introduction to the modern day Avengers.  Those of you who are familiar with the comics can already see the problem.  While I did go back and read the New Avengers, my first encounter with Maria Hill didn’t leave me terribly inclined to like her.  That all changed after this arc and she now ranks amongst my favourite Marvel ladies so thank you for that, Matt Fraction.

Stark: Disassembled #20-24
Of course, with an arc title like “Stark Disassembled,” you just know it gets worst than that.  Actually, things are already pretty bad for Tony.  He’s a vegetable right now and all the superfriends have to put Humptey-Tony back together again!  Actually, that’s a pretty accurate way to sum this all up.  Tony left explicit instructions for how to fix him and now everyone has to do their part to help including both Captain Americas, Thor, War Machine, and Dr. Strange.  The good news is that it works.  The bad news is the real kicker.

The bad news comes at the very end when we find out that Tony’s brain backup drive is from BEFORE Civil War.  If that isn’t an “oh boy” moment, then I don’t know what is.

Stark Resilient: #25-33
At a first glance, this arc is the “Tony rebuilding himself and the company” story.  At a second, it’s the “Holy $#!* Fraction is a genius!” moment.  While the first reaction does hold true, it’s the second that’s the true kicker.

Overall, it’s a solid story arc and the logical follow up to the story so far.   Tony’s trying to figure out how to re-establish himself from basically nothing.  He gathers a team together to create a new car that will be the cornerstone of Stark Resilient and also rehires Mrs. Arbogast who is just plain awesome.

But really.  There’s nothing quite like realizing that Zeke Stane has been released out of jail to return to his girlfriend Sasha Hammer… who also happens to be the Mandarin’s daughter.  That is a big flashing sign that says “SHIT SHALL BE GOING DOWN AND LIFE IS GOING TO SUCK FOR TONY STARK”

Enter the Mandarin: Annual #1, #500, #500.1 and Fix Me #501-503
Issue #500 is where everything changes.  While the quality of the story continues to hold strong, there’s a definite shift in the story from here on out.  The Annual is absolutely the book to point someone towards to understand who the Mandarin is as a character.  In the oversized story, he forces a director to film his life story except it’s not actually his life story but rather what he wants the world to think it is.  It’s an origin story without being an origin story.

On the opposite side of that coin is #500.1 which is a sort of rehashing of Tony Stark’s origin story.  It’s Tony’s story as told by Tony at an AA meeting but with far less editing than the Mandarin’s.

A very brief filler story arc follows these.  Doc Ock tries to force Tony Stark to fix him.  This particular arc really only leaves me to ask one question: when will Tony and Octo-Spidey have an encounter that references this arc?  Unless it’s already happened and I missed it by not reading any Spider-man books in which case, ignore me.

Fear Itself #504-509 and Demon #510-515
Given that Matt Fraction was at the helm of the Fear Itself company-wide event, it’s no surprise that his Iron Man book ties quite closely into it.  Unlike some other tie ins, Tony’s story here has lasting ramifications for his character.

Tony goes through the wringer again.  One of his worst nightmares from before resurfaces because he reaches such a low point in his life that he starts drinking again.  The entire city of Paris ends up being turned to stone and it’s an awful sight that really affects him.  He ends up going to Asgard and working with the smiths of the gods.  They are short and angry fellows who curse a lot but make some serious weapons that will then be blessed by Odin.  What does Tony do?  He makes some badass weapons for the rest of the Avengers.  And drinks.  And the Avengers end up winning the day.

Unfortunately, Actions=Consequences even when they are made under horrible conditions.  Someone found out that Tony was drinking and now his enemies are using that against him.  When your enemies are the Hammers, a Stane, and the Mandarin and you’re Tony Stark, you’ve got some serious problems.  The use of “Tony Stark has been sober for x days” on the recap page is super effective and really drives home what a big deal it is for his character.

One of the key elements of the Stark Resilient storyline was the creation of the new company and Fraction doesn’t ignore the company as the story continues.  What happens to the company concerns him just as much as what happens to himself.

Rhodey’s fake-out death makes me nervous every single time.  I’m very glad that they don’t leave us hanging for an entire issue.  It is rather cool to see him don the Iron Man suit again.

Long Way Down #516-520 and The Future #521-527
And then things just kept getting worse.  They remove the Iron Man suit from Tony because he can’t take being controlled with that device by the government and Justine Hammer.  He also knows that he has a spy somewhere within his company/inner circle and has made sure to compartmentalize his plan to fight back even more than usual.  In fact, Tony even has to outwardly give up control of his company which means he’s lost everything.

Oh.  And the Mandarin is inside of Tony’s head and is controlling him.  That is the long way down that the arc title refers to.  There is something distinctly messed up about the last page before an arc titled “The Future” is Tony kneeling and calling the Mandarin Master.  The page left me feeling like maybe Tony really has finally been defeated by his arch nemesis.

Luckily, the next arc is titled the Future but things don’t feel terribly optimistic when we see that Tony is in Mandarin City, a prisoner.  The Mandarin is forcing him to build incredibly machines to house his rings; machines with the power to destroy everything if they choose.

The good news is that Tony Stark has a plan and it involves being a genius.  It also involves recruiting some of his own enemies who are also prisoners of the Mandarin to fight along side him… in suits of Stark armour.  The idea of Tony giving Ezekiel Stane a suit would’ve seemed ludicrous at the start and yet it makes perfect sense here.

Everything ends.  The Mandarin is dead (although not by Tony’s hand) and Tony needs an extended vacation to space to get himself right again.  It’s a mess but it’s an ending and it’s the right sort of ending for this story.

All in all, it’s an amazing run that you should definitely experience for yourself.  Check out your LCS for the first trade or hit up Comixology if digital is more your thing and happy reading!