The Salvador Larroca cover has no resemblance to anything that actually occurs in this issue. Maybe it’s a metaphor. It’s Ezekiel Stane figuratively shocking Tony Stark with his devious tactics. But that cover clearly shows some kind of mano y mano showdown between two armored dudes, and that certainly doesn’t happen anywhere in “Invincible Iron Man” #4. That’s fine, because this issue does a nice job developing the characters and setting up the heart of the conflict between Stane and Stark. It’s one of those middle-of-the-arc issues that shows us what’s at stake, and although we might be close to some final showdown, we’re not quite there yet. No matter what the cover might lead you to believe.
The real draw here is Matt Fraction’s script. He’s brought Tony Stark to life far more successfully than anyone other than Robert Downey, Jr. Fraction gives us the same kind of vibrant Tony Stark that we saw in the film, and there’s far more energy in this comic than in the “Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.” series. One might think an Iron Man as an intelligent sexy superspy comic would be the one to read, but it’s not. That one’s neither intelligent or sexy, it turns out. I don’t want to spend too much time here discussing another comic, but while “Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has all the fun of an administrative bureaucracy, “Invincible Iron Man” is about the potent intersection between technology and superheroics. It’s a bit about technology fetishism too, but most of all it’s about characters at odds with one another, using the world as their game board.
Issue #4 begins with a literal chess match between Tony Stark and Reed Richards, and Fraction uses the scene to establish the difference between the two premier super-geniuses in the Marvel Universe. While Richards dreams of leaving it all behind and living the life of a chess grandmaster in Washington Square Park, Stark plays chess because he wanted to learn how to win. Fraction also uses the scene to provide handy-dandy exposition about Ezekiel Stane’s plans for using Stark-tech, but the expository stuff flows naturally with the character bits. It’s nice when it works like that, and it does throughout this issue.
Fraction gives us plenty of other nice moments in “Invincible Iron Man” #4: Stark and Maria Hill squabbling with bad jokes; Pepper Potts concern with her recent “upgrade,” the legacy of the Triumph Division; the ingenious method of tracking Stane through a sleazy memorabilia collector and the black market; a gag about his old nemesis, the Melter. It’s a series of meaningful character moments that propel the plot forward. It’s mixed with humor, but not irreverence. Fraction’s Stark is a playboy and an egotist, but he’s also a guy who buys a multi-billion dollar soda empire so he can distribute vaccines to the third world. Those are not character inconsistencies. They are layers Fraction spends time to uncover.
Unfortunately Larroca’s art, as colored by Frank D’Armata, doesn’t serve the story as well as it should. Larroca’s style works well with sleek metals, and he draws a sleek and beautiful Iron Man. But this issue is about the people, not the armor. And D’Armata’s over-rendered colors make everyone look unnaturally bronze and shiny while Larroca’s facial expressions fail to convey the necessary emotions. His photo-referencing doesn’t help either, especially when a single page gives us both Danny DeVito and Paris Hilton.
The problems with the art aren’t enough to sink the issue, though. Fraction’s Tony Stark is still an exciting character, always thinking five steps ahead of everyone else and his relationship with Pepper Potts is believably human. This is the best Iron Man comic on the shelves, without a doubt — maybe the best version of Iron Man ever — and I’ll certainly keep reading every month.