Marvel, 22 pages, $ 3.99
It's debatable whether a new Iron Man monthly, of all things, deserves the Eisner Award for "Best New Series." It may be accurate in a strictly technical sense, but you'd think there are more than enough new new comics series out there in a given year that fit the category less awkwardly than the latest periodical starring a Marvel character who's been in publication more or less consistently since 1963.
The questionable category aside, though, you could find worse superhero comics than Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca's Invincible Iron Man to give an Eisner to. Throughout the last two years, the two creators have told a fast-paced, thoroughly character-driven story that stands on its own at any time.
That's not a backhanded compliment. The creative success of Invincible Iron Man does not come despite its difficult remit, as one might expect. On the contrary: Mr. Fraction has actually used Iron Man's status—the character's been at the center of every major Marvel story since 2006, basically—to his advantage, escalating it into ever more intriguing new conflicts for the title character on a monthly basis.
Invincible Iron Man #20 launches a new storyline titled "Stark: Disassembled." It picks up right after the 12-part arc that concluded in issue #19 and left Tony Stark, Iron Man's alter ego, in "a persistent vegetative state." The story turns on two scenes that are emblematic of the way Mr. Fraction has approached the character.
Maybe a lot of what follows seems obvious or self-evident, but it's amiss from so many works that a moment or two reflecting on one that gets it right seems like time well spent.
The first of the two crucial scenes is a six-page talking-head sequence in which Stark addresses his friends in a holographic message recorded prior to the beginning of the "World's Most Wanted" storyline that brought him where he is right now. It consists of 48 panels, all drawn from the same angle, focusing on Stark's head. Suffice it to say, it's a highly unusual storytelling device for a superhero comic. The conventional wisdom is that it's very hard to keep "talking heads" interesting on the page for any length of time, let alone for six consecutive pages, let alone for 48 consecutive panels, let alone all drawn from the same static perspective.
And there's something to that argument. Mr. Fraction himself has used a similar storytelling device in his short-lived Marvel series The Order, but even there, the circumstances were different. First up, the talking-head sequences in The Order last no more than two pages each. Second, even though the dialogue is kept to the talking-head panels there, the page layout is livened up by horizontal panels that illustrate what's being said in the talking-head panels. And third, the sequences in The Order show characters responding to interview questions, whereas the one in Iron Man is a straight monologue.
The challenge, of course, is to keep this kind of sequence interesting—not just in terms of the text, but also visually. The reason why many pop-comics creators aren't terribly fond of talking heads, plainly, is because writing or drawing characters who are "just talking" doesn't tend to be their forte—and that goes double if the artist doesn't even get the chance to vary the camera angle. The whole appeal of superhero comics, if you subscribe to this school of thought, is that they try to avoid showing regular people in conversation, in favor of dynamic shots of costumed characters, preferably engaged in violent conflict with each other.
Invincible Iron Man #20 does have two or three somewhat dramatic images showing people in costumes, granted, but even so, all they do is talk to each other. Indeed, there's no violence at all in this issue, the Iron Man suit doesn't get a single appearance, and the physical Tony Stark spends the 22 pages flat on his back, not saying or doing a thing. It's a bit of a gamble, in other words, and as a creator, you have to be more inventive than usual to keep this type of thing interesting for an audience that's been trained to react to an entirely different storytelling vernacular.
In terms of staging the scene, this means that Stark (or rather: his holographic projection that's giving the speech) can't just sit on his chair for six pages, 48 panels straight, with the same expression on his face. So what happens is, Stark moves his head, moves his eyes, moves his mouth, fiddles with the camera that's recording him, folds his hands in front of his mouth, starts gesticulating, scratches the back of his head, gets up to leave, sits down again. Visually interesting.
And, naturally, these aren't just random expressions and gestures—their job, beyond just keeping things lively, is to emphasize what's being said. In prose, a writer can describe the look on a character's face or the sound of their voice; in film, an actor gets to color their lines by doing things with their voice, their face, their hands or their body. In comics, the art has to deliver all that. Mr. Larroca—aided by colorist Frank D'Armata—doesn't always nail the expressions and gestures here, but he nails them often enough. There's a greater variety of non-verbal human expression in these 48 panels than in the entirety of Marvel's superhero output up to 1990 or so.
All of that would be an exercise in futility, now, if the text itself didn't deliver. So, let's check what's in the text. Stark begins his address with a joke: "My name is Tony and I'm an alcoholic." He knows it's not funny, of course. He says it's not funny. He is an alcoholic, after all. Before Mr. Fraction got to the character, the addiction to alcohol—dating back to a 1979 run by Bob Layton and David Michelinie—was the last major addition to the character, and, arguably, remained the single most interesting aspect until very recently. With that out of the way—though not forgotten—the rest of the speech is Tony Stark according to Matt Fraction.
What we learn: One, Stark knew exactly what he was doing when he took on Norman Osborn in Invincible Iron Man #8 a year back. He knew where he was going to end up, and he prepared everything so his friends can now "reboot" his brain. He also knew that there would be a small likelihood he might be wrong, and he made precautions for that case, too.
Two, Stark is aware that, after all he's done (Captain America's death plays into this, as well as the death of Stark's friend Happy Hogan; so do the events of the "Civil War," "World War Hulk," "Secret Invasion" and "Dark Reign" crossovers, all of which Stark at least had a hand in bringing about), people—even his friends—might be justified in not necessarily wanting him back alive and with his brain intact. It's important to him to point out that he's not apologizing for anything, and that he had a perfectly good and fulfilled life.
Three, in the event that he doesn't come back for whatever reason, he tells his friends, in very broad strokes, what they have to do to "put things right" and when they have to do it—and that they should "prepare for heavy casualties."
And that's Tony Stark in a nutshell.
No Iron Man armor, no brawls, no playboy antics—just an unimaginably smart, relentlessly—almost insufferably—self-reflected guy, an abstinent alcoholic, who's aware of all his weaknesses and mistakes (or thinks he is, at least), communicating himself to the people he trusts.
These six pages cut right to the essentials of the character: his flaws, the willingness to sacrifice himself that qualifies him as a "hero" despite those flaws, and all the contradictions that make up his appeal. These 48 panels demonstrate why Iron Man, in the hands of Matt Fraction, is an immensely compelling character.
The other crucial major scene in the story that I mentioned is the one which immediately follows Stark's recorded address. In the room: Don Blake, a.k.a. Thor, and the Black Widow, two of Stark's best—though lately estranged—superhero friends; former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, with whom Stark's had an uneasy relationship, as well as, very briefly, a sexual one; the new Captain America, a.k.a. Bucky, whose friend and mentor Steve Rogers arguably died as a result of Stark's actions; and Pepper Potts, Stark's long-term friend, confidante and on-again, off-again, lately on-again romantic interest. You couldn't possibly have assembled a group of characters with more dramatic potential, when it comes to determining Stark's fate.
The character Mr. Fraction picks to challenge the otherwise unanimous decision to go ahead with the "reboot" is the most rewarding among the bunch, but also the one that's the most difficult to pull off, in terms of selling their motivation and making it a credible, organic result of their history with Stark, rather than a shallow ploy for drama. But again, the risk pays off. The creators succeed in establishing a credible conflict that goes right to the core of the characters and provides the context that's required for the reader to be able to gauge Stark and what he does and means to other people.
Everything else in the comic ties in with that and helps to illustrate it, but these seven pages total are the very heart of Matt Fraction's idea of Iron Man and why it works—the fundamentals of the protagonist and the environment in which he operates.
Quite fittingly, after literally devolving and "reverse-engineering"—deconstructing!—Tony Stark, step by step, over the last year's worth of Invincible Iron Man—after stripping away from the character everything that's surplus to requirements—now, in the first chapter of "Stark: Disassembled," Mr. Fraction and Mr. Larroca present the very DNA of the Iron Man concept, laid bare in its purest form yet.
It's a very, very smart comic, deliberate and ambitious and audacious, and with a lot of heart to carry it through the few moments when the creators' reach exceeds their grasp.