The Masked Bookwyrm's Graphic Novel (& TPB) Reviews

Iron Man Graphic Novel and TPB Reviews ~ Page 2

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cover by GranovIron Man: Extremis 2007 (SC TPB) 144 pgs.

Written by Warren Ellis. Art by Adi Granov.
Letters: Randy Gentile. Editor: Tom Brevoort.

Reprinting: Iron Man (3rd or 4th series!) #1-6, 2005-2006 (with covers)

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Extremis collects the first six issues of yet another restart of Iron Man (man, remember when comics could go for hundreds of issues without anyone feeling they needed to re-start it from an issue #1?). I picked this up on a whim, partly after picking up the mini-series, Dr. Strange: The Oath on a similar whim. On-lines reviews had said the Oath was the best Doc Strange story in years and, reading it, I agreed -- it was a well written, cleverly plotted tale. Coming across reviews of Extremis claiming fan favourite Warren Ellis had delivered the best Iron Man story in years, I decided to try two-times-lucky.

Sadly, I guess I was only one-time-lucky.

Extremis has Iron Man becoming involved when an old friend, a lady scientist, of Tony Stark calls for help. A super soldier serum she was working on has been stolen and injected into a crazed right-wing survivalist with a grudge against the government.

So here's the story in a nutshell: Iron Man tackles a super baddy, gets his butt kicked, so needs to revamp his armour to tackle and defeat the baddy in the climax.

So here's the story in detail: Iron Man tackles a super baddy, gets his butt kicked, so needs to revamp his armour to tackle and defeat the baddy in the climax.

Not exactly War and Peace is it? Yet Ellis manages to get six issues out of this. More and more I find myself talking -- and complaining -- about the way too many modern comics writers just stretch out thin plots over multiple issues that, in the old days, would only warrant an issue or two. And they do it by stretching conversations over a bunch of pages, when all that needs to be said could be said in a few lines, and by breaking down extraneous actions over multiple panels (why cut to a character in an office, when you can show the character get out of his car, walk up the steps, etc.), and long, largely wordless action/fight scenes. In one issue, for example, most of the issue is comprised of two scenes, intercut -- a talking head scene of Tony Stark, his lady friend, and a third character basically lecturing them on their character quirks, and a wordless (and rather bloody) sequence of the villain rampaging through an FBI building.

Comic book marketers point to the fact that TPB collections sell better than monthly comics these days as proof TPBs are the future -- but isn't it possible it's because too many modern writers write monthly comics that aren't really worth picking up once a month? So little happens, so little progresses the overall story arc (as reflected in the generic cover images), that a lot of readers wait for the trades simply because the story isn't interesting enough to hold their attention from month to month.

Ellis tries to toss in some weighty themes and ideas, dealing with Tony's ambivalence about his days as a weapon's designer -- but, the thing is, writers have already covered that ground in earlier Iron Man stories. It's not like Ellis is exploring radical territory. And as too often happens with modern, "sophisticated" writers, he more just explains his ideas rather than develops or explores them. We get exposition rather than dialogue. We get character devoid of characterization. For all that this is about Tony Stark -- there's little of Tony Stark in the story, no sub-plots involving romance or personal troubles, and even when he's Iron Man we get very little in the way of internal musings. In fact, he is crippled so badly he's on the point of death -- but he takes it all in unflappable stride!

Ellis wants to explain (not explore) Tony's character, emphasizing him as a "futurist", one who sees his inventions as benefitting humanity...but doesn't really take it anywhere, or entirely make it convincing. In a way, I'd argue a better interpretation of Tony Stark is that the reason he obsessively-compulsively is constantly tinkering with his Iron Man suit is because, ultimately, it's his sanctuary -- a man who lost his parents when he was young, whose relationships have fizzled, who leads a very public life as a CEO, wunderkind, and playboy, who once found solace in booze...Iron Man is his shell, his protection from the world.

Another thing I just find...tedious. The story is basically geared to re-inventing Iron Man, augmenting his powers (for a character who, I'd argue, is too powerful as it is). And that might be okay, if Ellis had a vision of where he wanted to take this new improved Iron Man -- but I believe this was his only work on the character. He writes it, then bails out, making it all kind of pointless, dramatically speaking. It seems every time you open a comic these days, some "hot" writer is trying to make his mark by re-inventing aspects of the character...when they'd be better sticking with the existing character and work on telling better plots!

Ironically, there are ways Extremis reminds me of Dr. Strange: The Oath, in that both work in flashbacks that reiterate the characters' origins (though here Iron Man's origin has been up-dated from the Vietnam War to the current War on Terror), and both try to throw in weighty themes. It's just the Oath succeeded, and Extremis really doesn't.

The art by Adi Granov is initially quite impressive, of a realist, three-D style using computer colouring -- but it too quickly is overshadowed by its weaknesses. There's a stiffness to the characters, a blandness to the composition. It's like looking at stills lifted from a really hi-end video game (or the animated movie Final Fantasy) in that initially you can be impressed by the realism...but soon you only notice the stiffness the lack of life, of...soul (the "uncanny valley" I think it's called). As well, Granov isn't that hot at backgrounds, often putting his talking heads against ill-defined settings. And he often uses the same hues and shades, so that whether the characters are in a drab garage, or under a bright summer sky, everything has the same dull grey tone.

Ultimately, Extremis is just a thinly plotted, barely developed riff on familiar Iron Man themes, lacking sub-plots, plot twists, or any real emotion (for a supposed character-based story). It would barely justify an annual, let alone 132 pages!

coverThe Invincible Iron Man: The Five Nightmares  2008 (HC & SC TPB) 144 pgs.

Written by Matt Fraction. Illustrated by Salavador Larroca.
Colours: Frank D'Armata, with Stephane Peru. Letters: Chris Eliopoulos. Editors: Warren Simons, Alejandro Arbona.

Reprinting: The Invincible Iron Man #1-6 (2008)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

I'm not necessarily a big Iron Man fan. I like the character, he's one of those touchstones I grew up on (he's a character I almost appreciate more as part of The Avengers). But I'm not predisposed to love an Iron Man comic -- that is: the story has to win me over.

Which brings us to The Five Nightmares -- the first story from yet another "new"" Iron Man comic...and one sharing shelf space with another on going title: Iron Man: Director of SHIELD. Currently comicdoms most famous billionaire industrialist is also director of Marvel Comic's pre-eminent spy agency, and his secret identity...ain't no secret. This sprang out of Marvel's cross company epic -- Civil War -- in which, in a metaphor for the War onn Terror/post-9/11 world, super heroes were told to register with the government or be outlawed. Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) led the pro-registration movement.

Writer Matt Fraction's opening arc had been getting great reviews, everyone seeming to feel it pulled off the hat trick of being sophisticated drama and old fashioned adventure, while successfully getting away from the moral quagmire raised by the Civil War story.

The idea is that terrorist/suicide bombers are using technology that seems derived from Stark's own Iron Man inventions -- and behind it is one Ezekiel Stane, hitherto unknown son of an old foe, Obidiah Stane. And Ezekiel has augmented himself, to boot.

As a concept it might warrant six issues: international terrorism, personal vendettas, a foe as smart and powerful as Iron Man seeking to destroy him. But in Recently reading some old Stan Lee scripted Spider-Man and Daredevil comics from the '60s/early '70s, I felt that, despite some goofy simplicity, Lee often came up with twists and turns that justified multi-issues.

The Five Nightmares doesn't really offer many twists. The few "revelations" it throws at you are kind of undermined because Fraction himself doesn't think to hold back the info for dramatic surprise.

There are logic and storytelling holes. Even Stane's motivation is unclear. He sort of seems to be trying to avenge his father (though Stane rarely mentions his dad)...and sort of motivated by one-up-manship ("Beat that, dad," he mutters at one point). Stane seems less to exist as a character than as a metaphor for the brutality of international terrorists (as he taunts Iron Man by saying he's out of step with the modern world). Yet even then, it's unclear whether Stane is motivated by ideology (like a terrorist) or is simply a mercenary...or is simply a comic book-y foe out for comic book-y revenge

And some of this has been done before in Iron Man stories, as the characters acknowledge (villains mis-using Stark's tech, etc.)

Tony as director of SHIELD doesn't really seem a comfortable fit for the character we used to know. And though running a major corporation and running a major spy organization might seem similar...I'm not sure they are. I realize in his own comic, each super hero gets to be the #1 super hero. But when Tony is described as the smartest guy in the world it seems kind of odd. "Smarts" entails a multitude of disciplines. Tony may be the smartest inventor in the Marvel Universe -- that doesn't make him the smartest, period.

It may seem like an odd thing to quibble about, but a character is as humanized by his short comings as he is glorified by his attributes.

By entrenching Tony in SHIELD, it loses touch with the humanity/reality that was the whole point of the Marvel Age revolution back in the 1960s. Iron Man is a character who can be as interesting out-of-costume as in, but this new direction kind of robs that "civilian" side of things. Even his armour technology has been altered. Whereas once Tony was vulnerable without his suit, his modern armour can wrap around him in an instant so that he's as invulnerable in a tux as he is in his costume.

Even erstwhile secretary, Pepper Potts, has returned to the cast...but now part of the super hero/action, feeding Tony info while in battle, etc. And though it's presumptuous of me to claim any expertise on Pepper -- not having even heard of the character until reading Essential Iron Man 2 -- her personality seems to have been altered to suit the modern sensibility where everyone is a wisecracking member of the "team".

Fraction does try to work in a human drama sub-plot involving Pepper being injured...but it is too rooted in the sci-fi heroism to totally act as a realist anchor to the fantasy.

The art and colour is advanced stuff, particularly the colouring, affecting an almost painted vibe. But though initially impressive, you begin to notice short comings. The characters and expressions are a bit stiff, the backgrounds oddly geometric so that it's sometimes even hard to tell what it is you're supposed to be seeing. And the action scenes can be a bit muddled and confusing, partly because Larroca draws familiar abilities oddly (I think there were a few repulsor blasts here and there) and partly because Iron Man seems to have new tricks that aren't explained in the dialogue. There's a kind of computer-art look to the visuals that may be on purpose, evocative of Crash and Extremis -- but it further means that in the "domestic" scenes, you still don't fully feel like Tony's in the real world.

Still, the art is okay and writer Fraction offers some cute quips and thoughtful observations through Tony's narration. The story is certainly meant to be character driven. The (minor) idea that the Philippines has its own super hero group was interesting and one wouldn't mind seeing more of these characters than their cameo here.

In "Civil War", which pundits viewed as a Republican/Democrat metaphor, a lot of comics reviewers -- seeing themselves as "liberal" -- tended to side with the anti-registration side, therefore seeing Iron Man as the villain of that particular story line. And I sort of got the impression they thought that was Marvel's intention. But the pro-registration side won and Iron Man, the proponent of that side, is starring in two monthly comics...while Captain America, proponent of the anti-registration side...has been killed off! (Heck, Marvel's current regime erased Spider-Man's marriage by introducing a ludicrous reality altering mystical deal with the Devil because they felt it was unacceptable for Spidey and Mary Jane to get a divorce; if that doesn't smack of Republican social-conservatism I don't know what does).

And here we have a story which has echoes of real world terrorism, in which Iron Man leads a raid into Africa based on the erroneous assumption of a connection to the attacks, and which ends with a final message that seems not incompatible with George W. Bush/Republican sentiments.

That doesn't make the story right or wrong. But I do think fans need to be a little more critical in their thinking before blindly assuming today's Marvel is a bastion of liberal sympathies.

The Five Nightmares kind of left me a bit blah. It does tell a story that begins and ends in these pages. But I picked this up hoping for a great Iron Man saga...and didn't get it. The story here is just a tad thin on plot and twists, while often fumbling whatever themes and issues it seems to be trying to address.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the comics.

The Power of Iron ManThe Power of Iron Man 1989 (SC TPB) 160 pgs.

Re-issued as Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle

Reprinting: Iron Man (1st series) #120-128 (1979) without covers

Written by David Michelinie (plotting Michelinie and Bob Layton). Pencils by John Romita, Jr (and Carmine Infantino). Inked by Bob Layton.
Colours/Letters: various. Editor: Roger Stern.

Additional notes: intro by Stan Lee

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Demon in a Bottle cvrThis collection of nine consecutive Iron Man issues completes what I, semi-facetiously, think of as the substance-abuse trilogy. It began in 1971 when Marvel Comics and Stan Lee decided to buck the Comics Code's ban on drugs with a three issue run of Spider-Man in which a longtime supporting character becomes hooked on pills (reprinted in Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin and reviewed in my Spider-Man section). The storyline was a critical success and led to the Comics Code re-examining its more excessive restrictions. DC Comics immediately tried to go one better by having an actual costumed sidekick in the pages of Green Lantern (co-starring Green Arrow) -- the Arrow's sidekick, the coincidentally-named Speedy -- revealed as a heroin addict (reprinted in Green Lantern/Green Arrow: More Hard Traveling Heroes).

For the next few years comics trundled along, Spidey's pal had a relapse, superheroes tackled drug dealers with more frankness, and troubled heroes were more the norm.

Then, in 1979, the concept was taken one step further. No longer a buddy, no longer a sidekick, what if the actual title character developed a problem? And what if, instead of doing illegal drugs, his vice was perfectly legal, socially acceptable alcohol? What if Iron Man started hitting the sauce?

Perhaps the most effective thing about this storyline is how understated it is. The reader of Iron Man at the time would be largely unaware of where the story's headed. Sure, Iron Man's alter ego, industrialist Tony Stark, is drinking a lot, but it seems a character quirk, nothing more. Instead, the reader's attention is focused on his various high-flying adventures, battling costumed villains or teaming up with the Sub-Mariner, or on the sinister, escalating sub-plot involving Iron Man's mysteriously malfunctioning armor, or Stark's burgeoning romance with Bethany Cabe, or his fears that Stark International will fall to a hostile takeover by the spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Along the way there's a reprise of Iron Man's origin and cameos by the Avengers and Ant Man II, as well as a scuffle with a whole slew of obscure Marvel villains.

Writer David Michelinie avoids the preachy, holier-than-thou route, and instead just tells a story that happens to concern a costumed super-hero getting a little...lost. The downside is that Michelinie is maybe a little too soft. Surely the problem with an addiction is how it affects your life, and what happens if your crutch is taken away. Instead Iron Man can still flatten the opposition, and when deprived of a drink, he takes it all in stride. It's not till the final couple of issues that a genuine problem manifests itself.

Of course, I'm underselling this collection. I praise it for its subtlety, then I spend half this review focusing solely on the alcoholism.

The pleasant surprise was how entertaining these issues are, just as superhero adventures. The action and heroics, the sub-plots, all make this a highly entertaining diversion, regardless of any socially relevant intentions.

Michelinie delivers smart writing and plausible, grown up characters that are a pleasure to read and a rich tapestry of plot threads. In fact, the various sub-plots are sometimes more interesting than the main action-adventure heroics which are fun, but not much more. The problem with Iron Man is that he can be too powerful, with a gadget for every crisis, leading to stories that can be simple and simply resolved. He's probably the only superhero who can be more compelling out of costume than in. After all, you've got to love a guy who has everything and still seems to brood as much as Spider-Man.

And there is something appealing about that suit of armor, of physically putting on a costume that protects you from the world. Of course, the symbolism isn't lost on Michelinie and company, perhaps explaining why, of all Mavel's superheroes, Iron Man was selected as the obvious candidate for a bout with the bottle.

My main quibble with these issues is John Romita Jr.'s art. This, among his earliest professional work, is problematic, with uneven handling of figures and physical dimensions. Bob Layton's inks help a lot, and the art certainly doesn't ruin the saga. Carmine Infantino pencils one issue and I actually preferred his guest stint (also benefitting from Layton's inks).

The other quibble is that throughout this collection, Stark is fretting over S.H.I.E.L.D trying to take over his company. The final issues has Tony triumphing over the bottle, and vowing optimistically to win back his company. The thing is, Tony Stark the very next issue! If this collection had included even the first five pages from #129 there would've been complete closure. The Powers-that-be may've elected not to include 129 because the solution, after so long a build up, is so ridiculously easy (remember my comments about simple resolutions?) they might've felt it was artistically better to end with a kind of Scarlett O'Hara optimism than to reprint the actual solution.

More likely, and this is a problem with comics in general, there may've been an inability to recognize the nature of storytelling. The collection was intended to highlight the alcoholism, so the reprint editor may have reached the end of that plot and felt that was enough. I've read other collections which, because they're intended to highlight a particular idea or artist, let stories dangle in mid-plot simply because it doesn't fall into the rigid criteria. But how can the non-comic reading world be expected to take comicbook storytelling seriously if comic folks don't take story -- that is, beginnings, middles, and ends -- seriously themselves?

Admittedly, Tony Stark beating the bottle and vowing to win back his company forms a reasonable finish and the other sub-plots are resolved in these issues. But knowing that it could've been completely wrapped up by reprinting just five more pages, well...

For continuity buffs, another storyline a few years later had him fall off the wagon completely and end up a derelict for a time. But that's something for another day (maybe even another collection). As well, Iron Man's origins date back to Stark being an arms manufacturer during the Vietnam war (a story retold in this collection) but, as mores changed with the times, Stark got out of the arms business. Yet, here, Michelinie makes no comment on whether his version of Stark is an arms manufacturer or not.

The Power of Iron Man is an entertaining read on many levels, juggling fun escapism with serious issues and well-rounded characterization -- even if the action-adventure stuff is a little too simplistic at times.

Marvel Masterworks: Iron Man, vol. 12 2019 (HC TPB) 344 pgs.

Written by Bill Mantlo (some story ideas Gerry Conway). Pencils by George Tuska, Keith Pollard, Carmine Infantino. Inks by Mike Esposito, Don Perlin, Fred Kida, others.

Reprinting: Iron Man (1st series) #95-112 (1976)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

cvrNumber of readings: 1

Reviewed: Oct. 2019

The Marvel Masterworks series -- like other chronological collections/omnibuses (and there have been many variations on those!) -- is just meant to re-present a sequential run of comics. But whether by accident or design on the part of the editors, sometimes the story arcs work out so that the volumes can act almost as "graphic novels."

Case in point is this 12th volume in Iron Man Masterwork series. It begins with an obvious enough jumping on point with Bill Mantlo assuming regular writing duties (Mantlo having written Iron Man before, but mostly in a pinch hitting way). Although Mantlo inherits a few plot threads (Stark Industries having been plagued by some sabotage and slanderous accusations triggering a Senate investigation) those are easy enough to pick up on. Meanwhile Mantlo quickly starts putting his pieces on the board and re-organizing the furniture (to mix metaphors) and developing his own plot threads underneath the adventures-of-the-month -- as is often the case when a new writerr slips into the centre seat.

There's an element of nostalgia: within an issue or two he has re-introduced plucky SHIELD agent, Jasper Sitwell, (a character first introduced in the 1960s but not seen in Iron Man for a few years) as well as sees the return of Madam Masque -- a former enemy-turned-lover of Iron Man's. Mantlo is also clearly nostalgic for the days when Tony Stark's heart trouble meant he was always a possible heartbeat away from death -- an element largely written out by previous writers thanks to heart surgery. Mantlo just tosses it back in with little explanation.

The first few issues are mostly issue or two adventures battling various old foes -- including arch nemesis, the Mandarin -- while assorted sub-plots and subterfuge provide intriguing cutaways. Then the series hits its central storyline -- a multi-parter wherein Stark International falls to a hostile takeover (in more ways than one) and Tony has to rally and take it back (with a little help from some friends, Magnificent Seven-style). By this point Mantlo has ratcheted up the brooding and angst (this Tony Stark a far cry from the hedonistic playboy other writers have portrayed, but again in a way that feels like Mantlo wants to recapture some of the flavour of early Iron Man stories -- and I'll admit I tend to prefer to the Libertine version) as well as giving -- seeming sincere -- focus to the romanttic/mushy stuff. Aside from the heart problems making every battle a potential life-or-death struggle, Tony feels so oppressed by his work and responsibilities that losing his company is almost a relief to him (as he remarks at one point: it's the first time in years he can live for himself). But eventually his sense of responsibility guilts him to fight back.

In Mantlo's interpretation, being millionaire Tony Stark is as much a curse as a blessing.

After this is over, thinks lighten up (emotionally) and there's a complete change of pace sci-fi storyline that sees Iron Man heading to the moon and ending up in a space war in a distant galaxy (involving The Knights of Wundagore, The Colonizers, and a guest appearance by the Soviet Super Soldiers -- all characters from other comics). It's a storyline that wraps up by the final issue in this collection. It allows this collection to work nicely as a fairly stand alone volume.

Along the way Mantlo almost turns the comic into a kind of team affair, with various other (mostly minor/second string) characters dropping by to help out in the longer story arcs (the cutaways allowing for different players/agendas and a soap opera feel). Most notably the Jack of Hearts (a Mantlo creation) becomes a de facto sidekick for a few issues.

And sure, one can quibble about aspects, and the loose way Mantlo sometimes introduces aspects (like the heart troubles) or resolves them. Sitwell starts out like his original 1960s incarnation -- plucky and guileless -- but then seems to be altered to suit Mantlo's brooding tone (and the more "sophisticated" '70s vs. the "innocent" '60s) and goes through an emotional ringer, teetering on having an emotional breakdown during the Stark takeover plot. But once that's done -- he's right back to being plucky as if none of that happened!

But nonetheless it's a surprisingly enjoyable run. Despite a lot of the early issues running towards big fights with recycled villains, Mantlo keeps the focus on the character and the emotion so it doesn't just end up splash pages and generic fights. Iron Man is one of those characters who works best when writers play up his limits, rather than his "invincibility." And Mantlo does that in spades, with the recurring heart trouble, malfunctioning armour, and exhausted power cells, Iron Man spends a lot of time eking out victories by the skin of his teeth rather than blithely swaning through conflicts (at one point fighting a foe while his armour is fissured with cracks!). It makes for some nice emotion and tension. And I just have a fondness for that old school style of sub-plots where we can constantly cutaway from the latest battle to a few panels of this character brooding here, and another character skulking mysteriously there, and a silhouetted figure plotting over there, all with cryptic agendas that unfold over a few issues. In short: giving a soap opera feel to the super heroics.

The lion's share of the art is handled by George Tuska, a long-serving Iron Man artist who was coming to the end of his time on the series. Tuska is arguably one of those unsung figures in comics -- not muscling his way to the top of any "great" comic artist list, even as I (and a few others) have a lot of affection for his style. You could almost define him as a poor man's Gene Colan (which sounds like a put down until you understand what a big Colan fan I am!) -- Colan himself a seminal Iron Man artist in the 1960s. Tuska isn't on the same level, but there is a Colan-esque aspect in the way his bodies flow and move energetically, figures curved and bowed a lot, rather than just having characters stand stiffly about. And as I say: Tuska was a long-serving Iron Man artist so seeing his work on the character feels vaguely iconic. The subsequent art chores switch about a bit, with Carmine Infantino pinch hitting before Keith Pollard comes on board as the new "regular" penciller -- but he doesn't seem to stay more than a few issues (mostly inked by Fred Kida, his best is the final issue here where his pencils are embellished by the brush of Alfred Alcala).

Obviously, by modern standards the art is a product of its time: fairly simple and straightforward. But it tells the tales well enough -- and with the Tuska issues especially enjoying a slight panache.

With its mix of one or two issue adventures, an epic saga of industrial espionage, and a multi-parter involving aliens and deepspace, often interlinked by sub-plots, the issues here run a gamut of tales, and provide a decent jumping on point while tidily resolving without much in the way of unresolved plot threads. There's plenty of high flying action, seat of the pants danger, and enough brooding and angst to make Spider-Man seem happy and well-adjusted.

Maybe this isn't an especially defining creative era, but it's an enjoyable run of issues that can keep you turning pages.

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