So after nearly a year of drawing Tony Stark based on Josh Holloway photo reference, Sal Larroca abandons that look in “Invincible Iron Man” #11, and it’s a really strange choice to do that now, because Stark has shaved his moustache — he’s on the run from Norman Osborn — and he’s now unrecognizable. Apparently Tony Stark only looked like Josh-Holloway-with-a-moustache when he actually had facial hair. Once he shaves it, he looks like a completely different guy with a different facial structure and less-prominent jaw. And his Norman Osborn looks completely different than any other version in the Marvel Universe. I wouldn’t have known either character based on appearance, but Matt Fraction provides handy-dandy identifications in the dialogue.
Even though the characters don’t visually match the previous issues with much fidelity, Larroca’s work here actually looks better than it has on any “Invincible Iron Man” issue so far. By abandoning the heavy photo reference (or making his use of it less obvious), his work becomes more dynamic, more fluid. This issue cuts between the past and present, and also between War Machine vs. Iron Man action and Maria Hill investigative mysteries. Frank D’Armata uses a different approach to coloring this comic than he does on “Captain America,” and it looks good here. The sepia-toned flashbacks are well distinguished from the present-day action, and when Larroca gives us men and women in sleek suits of armor (for even Pepper Potts has her own super-suit now), D’Armata’s coloring gives a glossy sheen that looks great. Larroca and D’Armata really are at their best with the mechanical aspects of this series, and this issues shows off their talents well. But this is a series about the men and women in those armored costumes, and that’s where Matt Fraction comes in.
Fraction’s Tony Stark has been one of the most well-defined portrayals of the character ever. His Stark is the man with the plan, even if nearly everything he has built has been taken away from him. In this issue we find out that Stark has set up — with his inner circle of Henry Hellrung, Maria Hill, Pepper Potts, and James Rhodes — an admittedly low-tech secret messaging system. It’s a 21st century version of leaving a slip of paper under a rock in Central Park, and the details of the system are pretty silly (it brings to mind absurd images of the Deathlok-enhanced Rhodey popping into the local library to check his e-mail), but it’s an innovative solution to the problem of “how does Stark get help without putting his friends at risk?”
That’s what this issue is all about: Stark on the run, trying to keep his friends from getting caught up in Norman Osborn’s H.A.M.M.E.R. rampage. The fight between War Machine and Iron Man relates to that problem, and Fraction handles the interaction with his typical flair. It’s all gamesmanship for Tony Stark, but it’s a game of life and death, and the best thing that could have happened to this series is the ending of “Secret Invasion.” Stark is no longer the world’s top super-cop. He’s no longer in control. And seeing him struggle with true adversity is a lot more interesting that seeing him polish his badges.
“Invincible Iron Man” #11 also brings back a classic Iron Man villain — someone longtime readers will immediately recognize, even if Maria Hill has no idea who he is. But Fraction and Larroca just give us a taste of that subplot, setting the stage for something still to come.
This is just a middle-of-the-arc issue, but it’s a good one, and if Larroca has truly abandoned his celebrity photo reference approach to the visuals, its look will finally start to match the quality of its writing.