As I mentioned at the beginning of the Neil Gaiman entry of Heroes Week, I had originally planned to write my written word heroes week essay on one Matt Fraction, that crazy wordsmith currently trolling the metaphorical halls of Marvel comics. I decided against it at the end of things, but I still want to get something out there about the man. Not to say I needed inspiration to find a tipping point for an article, but I did read the final chapter of his twelve part Invincible Iron Man epic, “World’s Most Wanted,” and it begs to be examined and praised. This is going to be a pretty continuity heavy review, and there will be spoilers, especially dealing with the wonderful little reveal that caps the story arc. You have been warned.
There was a decent amount of time in the Marvel Universe when Tony Stark was not a well-liked guy. Blame Civil War and the Superhuman Registration Act. Tony was the head of SHIELD, and SHIELD wasn’t very popular. He would show up in books just to attempt to arrest or recruit the main character, which usually wouldn’t go too well (see issue three of JMS’ Thor run for a sterling example). As the Marvel universe moved toward Secret Invasion, Tony was still focused on the Superhuman Registration Act. StarkTech was compromised, which allowed the Skrulls to nearly take over the world until Norman Osborne struck the killing blow to the Skrull Queen and turned the tides. The Cabal took over, Osborne was the new leader of SHIELD (renamed HAMMER), and Tony Stark was suddenly on the run for crimes against the state.
Throughout this period, Invincible Iron Man, the new ongoing series by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca that launched in the wake of the Iron Man film (and by “in the wake” I mean the Wednesday after the film was released), didn’t necessarily feel synced up to the Marvel universe. This is mostly because Tony Stark was not acting like a dick to anyone and everyone the way he had so often in other books previous. And really, this book should be called The Invincible Tony Stark, because you see a hell of a lot more Tony than Shellhead. And I like that. The first arc, “The Five Nightmares” is wonderful, and took us up to issue six, with seven acting as a one and done interstitial issue before the real shit started going down. In that regard, the structure of the ongoing is markedly similar to Fraction and Brubaker’s Immortal Iron Fist. By the time issue eight rolled around, Dark Reign had taken hold, and “World’s Most Wanted” began. This might have been the first real book with the Dark Reign logo on it. It started simple enough. Tony Stark is on the run from the newly formed HAMMER. He’s scared to death of Norman Osborne getting hold of SHIELD’s database of information (and who wouldn’t be? The man’s a nutjob). So Tony did what any sane person would do and uploaded the entire SHIELD database into his brain (it’s been a while, so he might have done this previous to the beginning of the arc. Rest assured, I plan to reread these issues in their entirety very soon). But with the loss of StarkTech, he doesn’t have full access to his Extremis infrastructure. So he has to do something drastic and delete the database systematically from his brain. The only problem, of course, is that he’s also deleting everything else from his brain in the process. This will eventually kill him. This he knows.
There are others along for the ride in this story. Maria Hill and Black Widow work to take down HAMMER from both the outside and the inside. Pepper Potts is another big part of this, and this arc includes her own suit of armor, dubbed Rescue. But Tony’s the undeniable star, as is Fraction’s writing of him. Very quietly (for me, at least, since I don’t pay attention to Previews and never knew if it was announced as such), this became a monster of a twelve issue story arc, giant in scope, powerful in story and heart that feels just like a comic book should. The dumber Tony gets, the less he can control his armor, so he’s forced to go back in time to less complex versions of his armor. He runs into Namor, War Machine, and Crimson Dynamo on his way. Fraction was recently on an episode of the podcast Word Balloon, wherein he described “World’s Most Wanted” as Tony Stark’s This is Your Life. And that’s exactly what it is.
As an aside, this run also had some of my favorite individual issue titles this side of The Umbrella Academy, such as “The High-End Technology of Ultramodern Destruction,” “Kids With Guns vs. The Eternal Angel of Death,” and “Into the White [Einstein on the Beach].” It just adds to the wonder of the story.
The thing that really caught me, and this has happened before, is watching Tony Stark’s mind decay. I have an extreme empathy for the mentally challenged. I think it has something to do with my own pride for and heavy reliance on intelligence. I don’t know what I would do if something happened to my mind. It’s actually such an extreme, gut wrenching response that I feel extraordinarily uncomfortable around such people because I know that whatever I would do, I could not help them in any way that would make me feel better. Perhaps that makes me a bad person, but that part of things isn’t really germane to the task at hand. Four separate examples of such characterization from literature really stand out to me. The first is part one of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the Benjy section. The second is from Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek’s Marvels, which features a note written by a mutant child to the family that has been sheltering her. This isn’t as good an example due to the fact that we’re dealing with a child and not a simpleton, but I got the same reaction. The third is actually another Matt Fraction book, Punisher War Journal, which features a similarly written letter as that from Marvels from the Rhino apologizing for his wantonly destructive ways. Lastly, of course, is “World’s Most Wanted,” specifically an email Tony writes to Maria Hill in issue 17 (might be 18, but I’m almost positive it’s 17). I think this is arguably the most affecting for me, thanks to the fact that Tony used to be such an intellectual giant and is now reduced to such a state that he can’t coherently form sentences. It’s one of those things where you get such a strong emotional reaction, even if it’s a negative one, that you want to experience it again. This is the hallmark of good, nay great writing.
Oh, and that ending? “Who the hell is Dr. Donald Blake??”? Gold. Absolutely perfectly timed comic gold. I foresee good times ahead.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that Invincible Iron Man is my favorite comic book currently being released monthly. It’s very close, but the overall quality and wonder of the Thors and Incredible Hercules’ of the world will usually get the nod. What I can say is that there has been no finer story arc or story line in the entirety of comicdom over the last twelve months than “World’s Most Wanted.” This is what comics are supposed to be. This is why we read them. Escapism and emotion. Vast story expanses where anything seems possible. Epic feel. This book has it in spades. I am now fully convinced that any and everyone who even considers themselves comic book readers, whether it be Marvel or DC, mainstream or independent, superhero or slice of life, should be required to read the first nineteen issues of The Invincible Iron Man. It’s not quite Casanova level work for Fraction, but it’s damned close. And it’s in many ways the best stuff out there right now. People bitch about the Eisners every year. But I have no problems whatsoever that Invincible Iron Man won the Eisner for best new series this year. It deserves it wholeheartedly.
This post was written to the tune of King Crimson’s Larks Tongues in Aspic