Thursday, February 03, 2011

Iron Man 500.1 - A Review

Back in the early 1960’s, Marvel Comics was home to one of the most astonishing bursts of creativity this industry has ever seen. In a relatively compact period of time, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and an array of other talented artists created some of the most interesting and enduring characters of the 20th century.

Of these characters, perhaps the most interesting was Iron Man. Tony Stark was different than the other Marvel heroes. He may have been flawed, but he wasn’t relatable. Tony was rich. He was confident. He drank. He got laid. Unlike Marvel’s other heroes, he didn’t constantly whine and gnash his teeth over his guilt of being a weapons manufacturer, he simply redirected his energy into being a hero. But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects to his character was the revelation that he was an alcoholic.

While giving a hero in power armor a substance abuse problem is a fascinating idea, I feel like it’s rarely been taken advantage of. That’s not to say it’s been underused. Far from it. But most writers’ use of this character trait has been limited to casually utilizing it (like having Tony drink a bottle of water instead of wine at a party) or attacking it with the subtly of a sledge hammer to the teeth (see the Demon in a Bottle storyline that first dealt with it).

One of the biggest strengths of Matt Fraction’s run on the Invincible Iron Man has been his integration of Tony’s alcoholism into the character. He hasn’t taken the lazy road of having him fall off the wagon, but instead has portrayed him as a man with the kind of addictive personality that many alcoholics have. Fraction has often said that he has written Tony as a dry drunk and that’s an inspired take on the character that is consistent with his prior characterization.

His take on the character has never been on better display than in this issue. Marvel’s .1 issues are meant to be super accessible issues that can be a jumping on point for a new reader. Fraction addressed that by retelling Iron Man’s origin and well, basically everything since. While this could be drab and boring, Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca take the innovative approach of Tony explaining it all at an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting as he celebrates the anniversary of his sobriety. Tony’s narration describes what could be the life of any businessman. For example, he refers to the death of the man who helped him build his first set of armor in captivity as a business partner leaving and Fin Fang Foom as “life getting weird.” It’s an interesting strategy and helps keep his completely insane history as a character both relatable and coherent.

Fraction’s narration puts us in Tony’s head and not only helps us understand how his addictive mindset, whether it’s to work, women, or booze, has helped define so much of his life. These twenty pages really do an outstanding job of following up on his work of the past couple years and portraying Tony’s addiction as a real part of his character and not just something that has him crying in the mirror and forgetting to shave.

The book is helped immeasurably by Larocca’s art. Larocca is always a solid professional, but his sort of lightboxing of famous people’s faces (notice how Sawyer from Lost doubles as Tony) always leaves me a bit lukewarm on him. However, he adopts a different style for the book’s flashback panels. Using a thinner line, Larocca’s art looks alot more minimalist. It reminds me of Timothy Green II and I wish he’d utilize this style more often.

The .1 initiative is supposed to provide a jumping on point for Marvel’s titles. Instead of starting a new storyline, Fraction has given us one of the best single issue origins and character studies that we’ve gotten from a main stream superhero comic in a long time. Over the last couple years, this creative team has made this one of the best comic books on the market, and this issue is a perfect example of how they’ve done it. Definitely worth checking out.

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