In his classic 1900 novel "Lord Jim" Joseph Conrad wrote, "You shall Judge a man by his foes as well as his friends." In the latest "The Invincible Iron Man" story arc by writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca readers can use that same criteria to judge the title character. As of #510, Tony Stark finds himself embroiled in a story which pits him against an army of his deadliest foes and the only way he'll survive is with a little help from his friends. CBR News spoke with Fraction about his plans for the Marvel Comics series in the wake of "Fear Itself."
"We're sort of in the third act now. All the chickens that have been introduced since my first issue are now coming home to roost," Fraction told CBR News. "Over the next few months we'll get to see how vast a conspiracy Tony is up against, how big a plan his foes have, and how war-ready and insane their leader is."
The villainous general leading the charge against Tony Stark is his long time foe, the Mandarin, a character Fraction sees as Iron Man's opposite number. "The Mandarin really is the yin to Tony Stark's yang. Their stories echo one another. They both had transformative experiences insides caves, but Tony was born rich and lost everything to find his soul and Mandarin was born poor and grew into a wealthy monster. Tony uses technology to try and better mankind. The Mandarin uses it to conquer," Fraction stated. "The Mandarin is Tony's equal opposite. His true nemesis. He's his shadow. He's his ultimate test."
In his current scheme the Mandarin plans to test Tony Stark by pitting him against an army of his most dangerous foes. Not surprisingly, the Mandarin is the general of that army and in "Invincible Iron Man" #510 readers saw his second in command revealed as his daughter Sasha's boyfriend, Ezekiel Stane.
"Zeke certainly has, to quote the bard, 'An Appetite for Destruction,'" Fraction said with a laugh. "So there's a part of him that instantly delights in doing his job. Over the next months you'll see his relationship with the Mandarin complicate and get twisted around. It's not quite as smiley and shiny and happy as it appears at first blush. Ultimately what it comes down to is you have two alphas that are inevitably going to come to a head in terms of who is dominant.
"Plus Zeke is a shitty employee who hates bosses, which should come as a surprise to no one. When he gets to start blowing things up again he gets excited, but when it comes time to take orders or execute his job on a budget and a schedule it becomes a different situation entirely," Fraction continued. "So we get to see the kind of raw, pure chaos of Stane collide with the precision and discipline of someone like the Mandarin."
The villains in the Mandarin and Ezekiel Stane's army are all members of Tony Stark's rogues' gallery, but each villain has been tweaked and polished to maximize their threat potential. For instance, Tony Stark's old foe Blizzard used a new version of his suit to destroy several aquifers in Abu Dhabi in the pages of #510.
"I've always loved Iron Man's rogues' gallery, so I wanted to bring them all back and amp them up and crank them up before setting them free into the world again," Fraction explained. "I made a very big list and then refined it several times. I ended up with about a baker's dozen of my favorites and I think Iron Man fan-favorites that we've wanted to see and have been waiting to see. All of them are going to be coming back one after the next and they're all going to be extremely dangerous and capable in their own way. All of them pile more and more pressure on Stark.
Fraction is looking to expand the cast, and plenty of familiar faces will show up
"In issue #510 Blizzard destroys the plant that holds most of Abu Dhabi's drinking water, which is going to cause the country some real problems. So the idea was to not just make him a geopolitical player, but somebody who is amped up and more powerful. At one point he says, 'You didn't tell me how good this feels,'" Fraction continued. "We're not interested in changing these characters or their powers. We want to represent them in a way someone like Mandarin is being represented. Or someone like Norman Osborn was represented. They don't need to be reinvented from the ground up. They need to be dusted off a bit and recalibrated in the same way that comics have been recalibrated with the times."
Iron Man's foes are being recalibrated at the worst possible time for Tony Stark. To help turn the tide in the recently concluded "Fear Itself" event Tony Stark had to sacrifice something important to him. He chose his sobriety, and in #510 he was still reeling from the effects of that sacrifice.
"I didn't want to do a story about Tony drinking or being drunk again. We got that. He was drunk for a day or two in 'Fear Itself.' He went on a bender. Then he immediately got a hold of himself and tried to get treatment and help, but as we see he's struggling with that," Fraction explained. "He's struggling to get his mind back on the right track. The 'demon' is out of the bottle and that's the type of story I want to tell. I want to tell a story about recovery and relapse rather than, 'You're drunk again!' which has already been done and therefore is not really interesting to me."
Tony's struggles with alcohol are well known by both the general public and, unfortunately for him, his foes as well. In "Invincible Iron Man" #510 the Mandarin kicked off a plan to exploit Tony's recent relapse and use it against him.
"In dealing with the consequences of this Tony plays right into the hands of the forces conspiring against him. He is as always his own worst enemy," Fraction said with a laugh. "Going into issue #511 Tony is emotionally fragile and pretty distraught. He's waking up to how big this stuff is. He's coming to terms with a lot of things at once."
Tony Stark won't have to deal with all his problems alone though. In upcoming issues several friends will step to the forefront and help him out. Tony's attempt to get right after falling off the wagon during "Fear Itself" will be aided by Splitlip, a dwarf engineer and weapon smith he met during "Fear Itself." In "Invincible Iron Man" #510 Splitlip left the realm of Svartalfheim to take a job with Tony Stark's company, Stark Resilient. The dwarf also accompanied Tony to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where he stood up and admitted he had a problem with alcohol.
"Splitlip became part of the supporting cast really because I love writing foul mouth dwarves and didn't want to lose the opportunity to write someone who swears like Al Swearengen," Fraction remarked. "Henry Hellrung is also going to pop up again. Our upcoming issues will kind of get to the roots of Tony's recovery as he tries to get his hands around the neck of what he's done. It's an error. He blew it. He fumbled at absolutely the worst time. So I think more than anything Tony is going to be punishing himself for awhile."
Splitlip's involvement in "Invincible Iron Man" won't be limited to helping Tony deal with the aftermath of his drinking. The skills the dwarf learned in the forges of Svartalfheim will make him an important part of the Stark Resilient cast. Fraction is enjoying the chance to write a fantasy style character like Splitlip in a science fiction style environment like Stark Resilient.
"It's a weird fit, but I figured Tony's journey in 'Fear Itself' was kind of about that. And if you put a hat on Splitlip he doesn't really look like anything but a short dude. So that chance to have a very grungy mechanic around was something I liked," Fraction said. "As much as I like the supporting cast of Stark Resilient, I think it's really hard to imagine any of them with grease under their fingernails. So I wanted a builder character around. The fact that he can swear like a sailor is a bonus."
Tony Stark's other friends will also be playing key roles in upcoming issues of "Invincible Iron Man." "Rhodey will be around a lot, and Bethany Cabe will have an especially big moment coming up. It took me a long time to be able to bring Bethany into the book. Then I had to put her on the back shelf while we dealt with the 'Fear Itself' stuff," Fraction explained. "So the supporting cast is here and it's a big thing that I always loved historically about the book. It wasn't just Iron Man. He had this great supporting cast surrounding him. He had co-workers and a company of real personalities around him. Everybody had a specific role and I wanted to build all of that back up because it had been stripped away from Tony in modern iterations."
"Invincible Iron Man" #511 is in stores January 21st and continues the current "Demon" story line that began in issue #510. "In a lot of ways this arc is most similar to a lot of the David Michelinie or Denny O' Neil stuff in terms of the velocity of the characters that present themselves and are reproduced. I've accelerated the scope and the scale of things. Tony is now in the middle of a world war," Fraction said. "This story is Tony dealing with his 'demon' being out; dealing with the implications of word getting out that he was drinking again. Living Laser comes back. The Dreadnaughts are back. And right now we're putting the finishing touches on a new Melter. I'm going to try and produce a formidable, ferocious, and absolutely psychotic Melter. It's a fun challenge."
The "Demon" arc won't be a long story, but it will be a significant chapter in the ongoing story that Fraction is telling in "The Invincible Iron Man." "I feel like we're training people to read for trade and I'm not really interested in writing specifically for the trades anymore. So I don't want to say it's part one of x number of issues. That's partially to keep the writing free for myself and partially because when we were kids we never knew how many parts a story was unless they told you in the title. You could be surprised going in. You didn't have expectations about an issue."
Not knowing exactly how long a story arc will be helps keep fans on their toes in terms of what to expect from Fraction's stories, but long time fans of the book know that one thing is for certain; Fraction's artistic collaborator Salvador Larroca will make sure the issues are full of expertly rendered emotional scenes and dynamically depicted action sequences.
"Salva and I are nowhere near the record Bendis and Bagley set on 'Ultimate Spider-Man,' but we are one of the longer running writer-artist collaborations on a Marvel book at the moment. So it's gotten to a point where our relationship is almost telepathic. When I write a page I know what it's going to look like. I know when to get out of Salva's way and I know how he's going to respond to what I put down. So it's a rich and incredibly satisfying professional relationship," Fraction said. "It's nice to know that Salva is a part of this book and it will be me and him for the duration."
In 2012 Fraction and Larroca will continue their epic tale of Iron Man versus the Mandarin and his army of villains with story lines including the ominously titled "Long Way Down." "Mandarin has ties to Hammer Industries and in the New Year we'll see that come into play. So we'll see a new Detroit Steel and we'll deal with the ramifications of the old Detroit Steel still out there running around. Plus we've got all these new villains coming up. Sometimes it's very much Stane and the Mandarin and other times it might be someone like the Melter. All the bad guys in Tony's life have linked arms and have decided to show the world that there is no place for Tony Stark in it," Fraction hinted. "This third act of my Iron Man run is about Tony earning the right to survive; proving that he has a reason to be here and that he is the hero we need him to be."