Re-reading 'Invincible Iron Man,' Part 1: What's so great about 'Invincible Iron Man'?

With regular old prose books, it’s easy: If you want to read the books that inspired big-budget summer movies like The Great Gatsby or World War Z, you need only pick up the novels with the same name.

Comic-book superhero movies, on the other hand, are a bit more tricky, as they rarely adapt a single, standalone story, but rather cherry-pick characters, plotlines, designs and images from several different comic books by various creators and published in various decades, all blended together in a rebooted, remixed mélange of an adaptation.

So if you walked out of a theater in the early '00s wanting to read the comics that Blade or X-Men or Spider-Man or Daredevil were based on, well, you’d have to do some research first, and you’d end up with a whole stack of comics for each, none of which really replicated the same tone, world or experience of watching the films starring those heroes.

Cognizant of that, Marvel gradually got better at producing new comics to sell to fans of its movies. Some of these attempts to align comic books more closely with their cinematic versions have been better than others, of course.

The best of these was probably The Invincible Iron Man by writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca, the 60-issue series that debuted in summer 2008, around the time the original Iron Man movie  was in theaters, and concluded in fall 2012, just six months ahead of Iron Man 3, which, depending on contract negotiations, could end up being the final Iron Man film (it was certainly constructed as the end of a trilogy of films).

I remembered trying the then-new series in 2008, but dropped it before the third issue — I didn’t like Larroca’s art style, which not only relied heavily on computer effects and over-obvious photo-referencing, but even often dropped actual, unaltered photos directly into the panels to serve as backgrounds (and, on occasion, elements of the foreground).

I told myself that maybe I’d wait a few months and then start reading the book in trade instead, but, like most books I tell myself I’ll trade-wait, I never really got around to reading the series in that format either (I read the first two trades shortly after their release, I think, and then got distracted by all of the other great comics constantly competing for my attention and money).

After seeing Iron Man 3 a few weeks ago, however, I was naturally thinking about Iron Man comics, and found myself with the vague desire for more of what I had just experienced on the big screen, only in comics form.

My thoughts quickly drifted to Fraction and Larroca’s series.

This was in part because that was the title Marvel released during the same period that Marvel’s The Avengers and the last two Iron Man movies were being produced, and was therefore the Iron Man comic the publisher most obviously intended to answer that vague desire for more of the same, only in comics (an even closer experience was promised by the 2008 four-issue miniseries Iron Man: Viva Las Vegas, written by Iron Man writer/director Jon Favreau and drawn by Iron Man designer Adi Granov, although Marvel never published the third and fourth issues of that abandoned project).

It was also because my esteem for Fraction has grown so much in the past year or so, thanks to his runs on the critically acclaimed Hawkeye and FF, two of my favorite ongoing super-comics of the moment.

So when I got home from the theater, I plopped down in front of my computer, took out my library card, and started searching for and reserving collections of The Invincible Iron Man.

In the past few weeks, I read all 12 volumes of the series (and the Fraction-written, Iron Man-starring Fear Itself), which added up to a 1,200 pages or so, a truly epic superhero narrative that held together remarkably well, often despite market forces and Marvel mega-story demands that threatened the integrity of the intended storyline.

The Iron Man character was, after all, the axis around which much of the Marvel Universe’s story revolved during the time Fraction was writing the series. Stark was the bad guy in Civil War, becoming the boss of all the official superheroes and the foil of all the rebellious ones during the “The Initiative” status quo that followed Civil War.

In the post-Secret Invasion “Dark Reign," he was replaced by Norman Osborn, who took his role as Boss of the Superheroes and leader of the Avengers ... as well as taking over his home in Avengers Tower and painting one of his suits of armor red, white and blue to become the Iron Patriot.

Stark and Iron Man then got a new lease on life in post-Siege “The Heroic Age” status quo, and the character was one of the three main heroes of the Fear Itself event/series.

Despite all the tugs of new directions, some dictated beyond Fraction’s control, the writer managed to construct a complete story that, while it meandered here and there, ended with a climax and resolution that built on almost everything that came before. Read all at once, it seems deserving of the “novel” part of the “graphic novel” tag we so casually throw around, save for the fact that “novel” is actually kind of small for a story this big.

Viewed now, in retrospect, the series looks even more important (or at least instructive) in 2013 than it might have during the five years it was ongoing. Not simply because it was such a successful comic book attempt to find some synergy with the tone and take of a film franchise. And not only because of how it kept a high degree of creative integrity amid half-a-decade of line-wide, top-down storytelling choices suggested at editorial/creative summits (although those alone are things that mainstream publishers, editors and creators probably want to pay attention to).

No, it's also a series worth examining and analyzing, maybe even dissecting, because it was a very good comic book run, one that proved incredibly readable, remarkably new reader-friendly, consistently entertaining and, most importantly, relevant. It was a comic that was about something other than other comic books, and would inject zeitgeisty, torn-from-the-headlines themes in the big, obvious, sometimes even a little stupid, but also bold, incisive and powerful way that the symbol-characters of the superhero genre uniquely allow for — or, hell, specialize in.

The overall quality of the series comes down to more than simply Fraction being a good writer and Larocca a good artist (despite my personal distaste for his art style and some of his techniques), but, I'd argue, because they stuck around on the title for five whole years, each of them delivering every single page of their series (In these 12 volumes, there are only a few stories that Larroca did not illustrate, and these came during related one-shots like an annual, and only one story that Fraction didn’t write, a one-shot featuring Pepper Potts in her armored Rescue identity, written by Fraction’s wife Kelly Sue DeConnick).

I can certainly think of other runs on Big Two super-comics that were just as good or better that lasted around that many pages and around that long of a time-span, but I’m hard-pressed to think of any in this era of trans-media that also dealt with especially pressing pressures of living up to a popular film version (Ed Brubaker’s run on the Captain America title was winding down by the time the first Cap movie was in theaters, and the same goes for Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers comics, and both writers burned through artists) and  complying with the ins and outs of month-to-month shared-setting continuity (Bendis and artist Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man had the benefit of its own imprint and universe).

The Invincible Iron Man makes a pretty good argument then for a publisher finding a dedicated creative team passionate about a particular character and/or title, and letting them do their thing for a really long time. Because Marvel hired and trusted these guys and let them do their thing for that long, the publisher ended up with a great comic it has been able to see in multiple formats (the serial comics, hardcover collections, trade collections, omnibuses) and will remain fairly evergreen as a library of Iron Man comics for a generation or so, until technology has changed so much that the contents of these comics seem as passe as the 1960s Iron Man comics seem today.

In the meantime, with Marvel's "Marvel Now!" initiative inaugurating what increasingly looks like a new era for the publisher and an entire trilogy of Iron Man movies now completed, this seems like a pretty perfect time to revisit Fraction and Larroca's work see just what they did and how they did it.

Hence a series of posts on the subject, which you've just completed reading the first installment of. (Congratulations!) Starting Wednesday, I'll be reviewing my way through the twelve volumes of the series a handful of collections at a time.

Aw come on, Tony. It won't be that bad ...

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