Matt Fraction might be telling the definitive Tony Stark story here. It’s certainly possible. The first story arc clearly defined what type of guy Stark is, and this current “World’s Most Wanted” arc has broken Stark down and has barely started to build him back up. When Fraction’s “Invincible Iron Man” run is over, which hopefully won’t be for a very long time, he may well have written the Tony Stark story against which all others are based. It does seem to be geared toward complex, long-form storytelling.
Unfortunately, that overarching ambition makes each issue feel a bit thin.
I think part of the problem is right there at the bottom of the title page: “World’s Most Wanted Part 9.” We are so conditioned to expect six-part story arcs, that something that continues far beyond that — and “World’s Most Wanted” seems a long way from completion — seems unnecessarily long. It’s almost as if the title page is daring readers by saying, “you want decompression? We got some decompression for you!”
But here’s the thing: Fraction’s pacing resembles the types of things Ed Brubaker has been doing for years on “Captain America.” And it took forty issues of that comic to resolve the conflict established in the first issue. You’ll note, though, that Brubaker’s story wasn’t labeled “The Red Skull Conspiracy: Part Twenty-Eight” or anything like that. It was a giant, long-form story that was broken up into smaller sub-arcs. Perhaps it’s a psychological effect — and if those same issues had been labeled with a single title, they would have felt decompressed as well. Or perhaps it’s the mode of the story structure, and where Brubaker used one big plot and a dozen tiny ones that started and stopped in a few issues, Fraction has half a dozen interweaving strands that haven’t yet come together completely.
Either way, I get the sense that this “Invincible Iron Man” arc will read much better as a collected edition. But there’s still a lot to like in issue #16. Salvador Larroca has continued to move away from last year’s reliance on celebrity-reference for faces, and his storytelling is particularly effective during the Madame Masque/Tony Stark torture/love scene. Madame Masque has always been an interesting character, visually, but rarely have I seen her portrayed in a way that’s this creepy, and this powerful. Fraction shows her as a delusional maniac, and Larroca sells it. But what’s great about the scene is that she’s not a raving maniac — not until Pepper Potts breaks the spell of faux-intimacy she has with Tony Stark. No, Masque is a overeager, pathetic maniac. It’s tragic and disturbingly effective.
As the Masque/Stark/Potts plot strands weave together, so do the operations of the Black Widow and Maria Hill. Hill, particularly shaken by her encounter with the Controller, is in no shape to help Stark, and the Black Widow isn’t going to sit back and wait for her to snap out of it. In essence, this is a relationship-heavy issue, but with sadism, suspense, and explosions. And Norman Osborn starting to lose some control of things.
So while the issue may feel a bit decompressed, and while it may seem like a long way until this story wraps up, there’s more than enough here to keep me coming back for the next installment. And once it’s collected, I suspect I will enjoy it even more.