Re-reading 'Invincible Iron Man,' Part 4: 'Unfixable' and 'Fear Itself'

Ready for the penultimate installment of our re-reading of writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca's impressive five-year, 60-ish issue run on The Invincible Iron Man? Well, if not, you can always come back later when you are; it will be right here waiting.

Today we look at one official part of the run, and two more collections worth of Fraction-written Iron Man comics, which aren't necessarily labeled as part of The Invincible Iron Man, because Marvel moves in mysterious ways.

Vol. 8 Unfixable (#501-503, Free Comic Book Day 2010 Iron Man/Thor, Rescue #1): With this volume, the drifting of the narrative glimpsed in the previous volume becomes more pronounced, with the bulk of the collection devoted to the next chapter of the Invincible Iron Man storyline and ending, mid-book, with a "Continued In FEAR ITSELF!" tag, and a pair of one-shots that sorta distract from the ongoing story (but certainly needed to be collected somewhere, if only for us wait-for-the-trade types) filling up the rest of the book.

In the title story, Stark is busily pitching his repulsor technology's consumer applications, when he's interrupted by "the post-life crisis " of Spider-Man's villain Otto "Doctor Octopus" Octavius, who, in the Spider-Man books of the time, had developed a terminal, degenerative disease and turned himself into a barely recognizable cyborg of sorts, his arms folded and legs tugged up like some sort of mummy awaiting burial, while a mass of mechanical arms did all his moving for him.

While Doc Ock is working on plans for going out in a blaze of glory against Spider-Man and the world, he apparently wants to get a little special vengeance on Tony Stark, based on an overlapping history Fraction teases out of the characters (what with them both being Marvels who have devoted their scientific genius to creating mechanical wearable super-weapons).

So Doc Ock invites Iron Man to a secret headquarters, where he has a nuclear bomb, and poses a challenge for our hero: Use his considerable genius to "fix" the broken and failing Octavius (just a few volumes ago Stark essentially brought himself back from brain-death, after all), or to humbly admit there's a problem he can't solve.

For extra insurance, Doc Ock sends fellow Spidey villains Electro (Good God, where did that new "design" come from?) and Sandman to kidnap a Stark employee, although little does this half of a Sinister Six realize that Pepper Potts is now a genuine super-powered superhero, and she's there to battle Ocatvius' henchmen while Stark matches wits with Octavius.

The scene repeatedly shifts to Octavius and Stark's past, where they had met before, and Larroca is thus able to use his superior "flashback" style a lot in this storyline. Fraction rather deftly constructs a little cul-de-sac detour of a storyline for Octavius, a mini-sized, side tragedy for the dying supervillain, whose tale naturally must end elsewhere (although as it turned out, it is, of course, still ongoing in Superior Spider-Man). He also manages to continue the sub-plots of the title simultaneously, with Stark using the time he spends in close contact with a super-villain to ask for tips on ferreting out the mole in his operation. (Can I use "ferret" and "mole" in the same sentence, or is that too many small-mammal metaphors in too short a space?)

It's interesting to note that at one point Stark dismisses Octavius' entire criminal career as small potatoes, beneath the notice of Stark and Iron Man: In the Marvel Universe, Stark implies, Octavius was a local villain, only suited to antagonizing Spider-Man. In the real world, of course, the opposite is true: Even Stark's greatest and best-known villains are nobodies compared to Doc Ock (and most of Spidey's villains this side of the Rhino, come to think of it), and Doctor Octopus even beat Stark into a live-action film by a good four years.

It ends, as it must, with both men kind of winning and kind of losing, and then a few pages of first Octavius and then Potts and the Resilient guys seeing some mysterious objects falling out of the sky and exploding, setting up the plot of Fear Itself ...which the rest of this book is unconcerned with.

The 2010 Free Comic Book Day special stars Iron Man, whose second movie came out that year, and Thor, whose first movie was due the following year. It's a perfectly good, old-school team-up between the two characters featuring excellent artwork by John Romita Jr. (inked by Klaus Janson and colored by Dean White, a nice, bright refreshing change of pace from Frank D'Armata's darker, moodier colors), one that involves a pretty generic plot by the unscrupulous super-rich that can best be thwarted by a super-rich, tech-savvy good guy and a weather-controlling superman who can smash stuff easily.

It's a nice introduction to Iron Man (particularly Fraction's take on the character), to Thor and to the work of one of Marvel's best writers and one of the publisher's best artists, but it does seem a little out of place here, both in its story (Stark is, remember, money-poor in The Invincible Iron Man, but here owns his own apartment on an orbiting satellite) and in its look (as much as I love JRJR's work, and prefer it to Larroca's and that of most Marvel artists, it's so different that I can't imagine anyone enticed by it into reading Marvel's ongoing Iron Man or Thor comics would be all that happy with what they got).

Also, as well as it works as a standalone piece, it somewhat diverts from the ongoing Iron Man and Thor plotting from throughout Fraction and Larroca's run; when we initially see the two characters interacting in the first volume, Thor was understandably pissed at Stark (while Thor was temporarily dead, Stark built a murderous cyborg clone of Thor to kill their fellow Avengers who wouldn't sign up for the superhero draft in Civil War, for some reason). Throughout The Invincible Iron Man, Stark has been gradually winning back Thor, and their relationship will reach a sort of climax in the next story arc, as Fear Itself revolves around a threat from Thor's corner of the Marvel Universe.

Finally, there's Rescue #1, the only portion of any of Marvel's Invincible Iron Man collections not written by Fraction himself (it's by his wife, Kelly Sue DeConnick). Part of Marvel's well-intentioned but sometimes clumsily executed aggressive effort to get more inclusive in who they got to make their comics (that is, more women), it was a one-shot in which DeConnick and artist Andrea Mutti have Pepper Potts talk to the imaginary ghost of her dead husband Happy Hogan (ew, Gwyneth Paltrow married Jon Favreau?!) while rescuing people in her Rescue suit (during which she talks to J.A.R.V.I.S.).

If the entire issue involves a female protagonist talking to two different dudes — even if one's an imaginary ghost and the other's an artificial intelligence program — I guess it fails the Bechdel Test, huh?

I have no idea what collection you're supposed to read next, so I'm going to go with ...

Fear Itself (Fear Itself #1-7, Fear Itself: Book of the Skull): After all, the Doc Ock arc ended with a teaser to read Fear Itself.  Technically this is not part of The Invincible Iron Man, but it a) is written by The Invincible Iron Man writer Matt Fraction, b) stars Tony Stark and c) includes a Really Big Huge Deal for the Stark character, in which he falls off the wagon — well, jumps off, actually — which is the only of the big nightmares of his he started discussing back in the very first arc of the series that Ezekiel Stane was unable to make happen.

As to the reason why Stark gets drunk, I'm not sure it makes complete sense to me. He was trying to get the attention of Odin in order to gain an emergency audience with him, and to do so he essentially sacrificed his sobriety to show the god how serious he was.

I reviewed this book at some length on my home blog a while back, so I'll refer the interested there. For our purposes, let me just note that the super-straightforward plot is this: An evil version of Odin, an ancient fear god known as The Serpent, has dropped a bunch of evil Thor hammers down to Earth, and whichever Marvels pick 'em up become unstoppable evil engines of destruction, which helps spread a wave of supernatural fear that in turn further empowers The Serpent. Iron Man, Thor and Captain America (both of 'em) have to rally the rest of the Marvel Universe to fight back the bad guys, which they ultimately do using Stark-designed Thor-like power-up weapons of their own.

As big Marvel event series go, it was probably the best of any between House of M and Fear Itself itself, excepting maybe only World War Hulk. There were some glitches in the storytelling, and the weirdly antiseptic politics-free political part in the first chapter was extremely irritating, but it was head and shoulders above similar books in its weigh-class (I still haven't read Avengers Vs. X-Men, though; I still don't know if the Phoenix Force destroys Earth or if the Avengers and X-Men can set aside their differences to save the day, so don't spoil it for me!).

Stark's part of the story involves fighting the Grey Gargoyle, who is one of the characters who gets powered up by an evil hammer, in Paris, something that is barely touched on in the series and then, later, he convinces Odin to let him into Asgard's workshop to make the weapons that turn the tide. ("I make weapons," Stark tells Odin, "I make really. Great. Weapons.")

I think the next collection of Invincible Iron Man comics, which expands on the two major Iron Man beats of the crossover series, reads well enough without necessarily having to get Fear Itself, but, given the event series' writer and one of its stars, I can't really imagine why a reader of Invincible Iron Man wouldn't also want to pick up Fear Itself anyway.

Fear Itself: Iron Man (Invincible Iron Man #504-509, Fear Itself #7.3: Iron Man): Here is another, and probably the strongest, example of the publisher making strange, seemingly indecipherable decisions that adversely affect the comic book they're publishing, an instance where they seem to be playing defense, coming between potential readers and their comic, rather than helping sell the damn things.

So, this volume, which contains the six issues of Invincible Iron Man that occur between those collected in Invincible Iron Man Vol .8 and Invincible Iron Man Vol. 9, is left out of the sequential numbering of the collection and, in fact, even has a completely different title (based on the fine print and the spine, if not the cover). That is, this isn't Invincible Iron Man: Fear Itself, it's Fear Itself: Invincible Iron Man.

I suppose the reason Marvel did this was to make it clear that it was a Fear Itself tie-in book, and that book stores, libraries and maybe even comic shops will shelve it with the Fear Itself books (Marvel had great success in the book market with their House of M- and Civil War-branded books, and this seems to be another attempt to create a little library of titles).

The obvious problem is, of course, if you were trying to read the series by simply buying all the collections titled Invincible Iron Man with sequential numbers attached, well, you'd miss a half-dozen issues, and might find yourself wondering why Vol. 9 opens with Stark having to return to AA meetings, now in the company of a foul-mouthed dwarf who swears in Nordic runes.

The book opens with Iron Man suiting up to investigate the strange object that landed in Paris (one of the Serpent's hammers) and, on the way out the door, he sees that Justine and Sasha Hammer have sent him a gift — a bottle of champagne with a card signed "Your friends at Hammer Industries."

While most of the Serpent's hammers (no relation to Justine) fall into the hands of big bruiser-types — The Juggernaut, The Thing, The Hulk — the one that lands in Paris claims the previously mentioned Grey Gargoyle, a minor Thor villain with the power to turn himself into living stone and to turn anyone he touches into a statue.

With the hammer, he gets a drastic redesign, the power to beat the living hell out of Iron Man (and just about anyone else) and his turning-people-to-stone power increases to the point that anyone he makes eye contact with turns, so by the time Iron Man arrives in Paris, most of the city's population has been turned to stone.

These first two issues deal with Stark and then Detroit Steel battling The Gargoyle in a mostly-dead city, at which point Stark seeks out Odin to sacrifice his sobriety and beg him to let him make weapons.

For much of the rest of the Fear Itself tie-in arc, Stark is in the workshops of Svartalfheim, where Thor's magic hammer Mjolnir was forged of Odin-blessed Uru. To assist him, he has a crew of dwarves, lead by the foul-mouthed Splitlip (the dwarves all swear constantly, but instead of the standard "@#$%"-style swearing, they curse in little Nordic-looking runes, of the sort The Grey Gargoyle and the other hammer-possessed "Worthy" speak in exclusively).

All of 'em — dwarves and Stark — work while drunk, and they ultimately forge a bunch of weapons that make the random assortment of Marvel characters who get them look like really silly action figures (Iron Man actually gets one of the better ones; his is merely an Odin/Uru-upgrade armor, which looks like an inside-out iron maiden on him).

Meanwhile, Rescue and Sasha and a squad of Hammer Industries' Detroit Steel mechas go to Paris, where Stark was briefly (and the original Detroit Steel got turned to stone). They end up fighting one another and the Gargoyle, until he gets called away to appear in the climax of Fear Itself.

The final chapter of this collection is the Fear Itself #7.3 issue (again with the decimals, Marvel!). It's basically just another issue of Invincible Iron Man—same creative team and everything—a 20-page epilogue set after the conclusion of Fear Itself and the last half-dozen issues of the series.

It's split into two story strands. In one, Iron Man confronts the now-captive and de-powered (and helpless) Grey Gargoyle, who is apparently being kept prisoner and held accountable for his crimes while The Thing goes free. Stark speechifies at him, and considers executing him for his crime of killing just about everyone in Paris via petrification.

In the other, Odin and Stark have a typical Marvel argument, which involves fighting. It's an argument in which Odin plays God and Stark plays man, and ends with God punishing Stark with a glimpse of the infinite reality, but still grants at least one prayer — he de-petrifies all of those in Paris, undoing the genocide of The Serpent and Grey Gargoyle.

With the intra-company crossover thus out of the way, and a few pieces of sub-plotting moved a few steps forward, Fraction and Larroca are ready to barrel ahead to the climax and conclusion of their run, one massive storyline that will play out over the remaining 18 issues of their run.

Tomorrow: The thrilling conclusion on our re-reading of Invincible Iron Man, covering "Demon" through "The Future."

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