Marvel, 38 pages, $ 3.99
You don't need to look very long, or very hard, to find valid points of criticism in the first chapter of "Stark Resilient," the latest multi-part storyline in writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca's Eisner Award-winning Invincible Iron Man.
There's the fact that Mr. Fraction borrows freely and without shame from the plots and the aesthetic of the Iron Man films, certainly; there are the dramatic structure and mechanics of the story, which say "textbook Hollywood blockbuster" more so than any actual Hollywood blockbuster you're liable to encounter at the theater these days, and which push the familiar buttons in familiar ways that work precisely because they are so familiar; there's a disproportionate, sometimes grinding amount of space dedicated to exposition and getting the plot in gear; and there's Mr. Larroca and colorist Frank D'Armata's tendency to grotesquely, annoyingly, distractingly over-render their characters' faces; for starters.
Still, despite all that, Invincible Iron Man remains the most well-oiled mainstream superhero comic book on sale right now. It's unabashedly popcorn and entertaining, in a smart, fast-paced way that's guaranteed to work for pretty much everyone with a remotely favorable inclination, and it's completely free of the nostalgic baggage that strangles the bulk of ongoing superhero titles and makes them impenetrable but for a shrinking number of glassy-eyed hobbyists.
Mr. Fraction's own Casanova, a hyperactive, hypercondensed sci-fi spy bonanza, knows how to keep hitting you over the head with how smart and progressive and awesome it is until you're just punch-drunk enough to realize it's true. Invincible Iron Man, in contrast, is at once utterly, hypnotically conventional and sneakily subversive. It's the kind of thing fellow Marvel writer Ed Brubaker used to do in Captain America, only Mr. Fraction has long surpassed his former writing partner (on The Immortal Iron Fist and Uncanny X-Men) and mentor—partly because Mr. Brubaker hasn't been able to keep up with his own standards, and partly because Mr. Fraction keeps growing by leaps and bounds as a storyteller.
Everybody who's ever seen some overblown, high-pitchedly dramatic piece of Hollywood pomposity or other can tell where every other scene in this issue—or the plot in total—is going. But you don't begrudge it to the story, because it's all smooth and well-done and merely serves as a readymade framework for the good bits.
For the sixth issue straight, Mr. Fraction gets by entirely without putting his character in his high-tech suit and having him punch things. Tony does put on the Iron Man—a new one—in the last two pages, but it's the finely calibrated, effectively delivered character interaction that the creators rely on to orchestrate tension and perpetuate urgency, and that earns back the book's many assembly-line situations and calculated familiarity.
Stark's understated reconciliations with estranged friends like his Girl Friday Pepper Potts, fellow super-egghead Reed Richards and comrade-in-arms Thor aren't quite up there with the delightful interplay created by director Jon Favreau, screenwriter Justin Theroux and the Robert Downey Jr.-led cast in the best moments of the second movie, for instance, but they're close enough to be light-years ahead of any similar comic-book series.
And by the end of the book, you find that even the plot is pointing in a direction that's potentially revolutionary for superhero comics.
It picks up where writer Joe Casey's visionary, aborted Wildcats Version 3.0, in which a group of former superheroes creates a benevolent super-corporation as an alternative to beating up villains and maintaining the status quo, left off six years ago, and it gets Stark back in a place first sketched out by Mr. Casey in the equally forward-thinking miniseries Iron Man: The Inevitable in 2006.
In issue #5 of that series, Stark outlines his view of the world and his frustration with superhero conventions:
"[...] Ask anyone and they've got Iron Man pegged... [...] one side of a 'vs.' marquee that I've come to see as a ridiculous paradigm of pro wrestling clichés and wasted energies. [...]
"They just don't get it. They're fighting against an inevitable future, but they just don't realize that I'm already there... [...] I am the future. [...] We have to evolve. All of us. It's the only way forward."
That's the impetus behind Wildcats Version 3.0 and The Inevitable spelled out, and "Stark Resilient" turns out to be a continuation of those stories and ideas, bringing them full circle in a major way. It's probably not an accident that it expressly refers to "the inevitable" and a "paradigm shift" in reference to Stark's new plans.
With the meticulous All Star Superman and its deeply flawed cousin Final Crisis, there have been a couple of major superhero works lately with enough commercial and creative thrust to push the genre in new directions after decades of stagnation. If this promising opening shot of "Stark Resilient" isn't merely a feint, it would appear Invincible Iron Man is making a bid to join the club.