Iron Man #504-5: Archetypal Bad Crossover Comics
Whatever side you were on before regarding Matt Fraction's brilliant but often deeply frustrating run on Invincible Iron Man, I don't think the last couple of issues have worked all that well. They're little more than the standard crossover stuff, where the hero is reduced to goggling at the unstoppable, poorly-explained villain because Something Bad Is Happening In Another Comic You Should Buy. They certainly don't work if, like me, you're not reading Fear Itself: The Miniseries. Lord knows they do no job at all of providing even the most basic plot information about the main events of the crossover.
Instead, these two issues are representatively bad tie-in comics. Take the antagonist: the Grey Gargoyle, as far as I can tell, has been transformed from a character -- admittedly, a D-list character -- with something resembling a personality into an incomprehensible, therefore seemingly motiveless beast who commits mass murder because, well, that's how "event" comics tell us that things are evil and serious these days. (Surely the now-routine "villain kills an entire city" plot device should be retired soon; if nothing else, we're going to run out of locations for the stories to occur.) Tony is, in turn, dragged away from all of his ongoing plots so that he can become a prop to sell us on the importance of events happening to other characters in another comic.
If you've been reading the book hoping to see Iron Man look superheroic, of course this doesn't work for you. And if you've been reading it for the themes, ideas and character development of Fraction's Tony Stark, this issue also doesn't work very well. The running plots get shoved into the margins for an inconclusive slugfest, and those running plots were already weakened by the fact that the book hasn't bothered developing about half-a-dozen brand-new characters who are meant to be suspects in an infiltration plot.
These issues also don't even seem to mean much for Fear Itself. From what little I can tell, it's a Thor story -- and a rather cliched "everything you know was wrong" Thor story -- promoted to crossover status mostly on the strength of generating toyetic alternate character designs and having some sort of vague plot about paranoia spreading among normal people. Oh, yes, and a stunningly out-of-place death for a major character aimed mostly at resetting the status quo in time for a summer movie; can't have a crossover without one of those!
Not that any of that comes through in this story. We're not shown or told why the Grey Gargoyle has become a rune-spouting monster, or why whoever's behind this is interested in having him kill all of Paris. Nor does the issue show us the waves of paranoia that have loosely united some of the other Fear Itself stories. It's really just two issues of Iron Man being beaten up, then flying off to go join the actual story in the book that's bothering to tell it. It's a sad state of affairs when there's more coherent and susbtantial storytelling going on in the recap page than there is in the rest of the comic.
This is without getting into the fundamental miscalculation made within the story itself, which wants badly to be surreal and horrifying but only manages the first. The idea, such as it is, seems to be that Tony (and later, Detroit Steel) stumbles into a horrifying menace and can't handle it, leading up to a When Tony, appalled at the carnage and the deaths of virtually everyone in Paris, vomits in his helmet, the reader is supposed to viscerally respond as well to the body horror surrounding the protagonist. This is two issues devoted entirely to selling you on the idea that you need to read Fear Itself because Things Are Very Bad Indeed and because that's where Iron Man will start to respond to the menace that overwhelms him here.
Unfortunately, the horror ambitions of the story don't work terribly well. By now the image of mounds of bodies in a major city has become a stale go-to device to establish a threat, one that's been around and been repeated in various forms since (at least) Alan Moore's Miracleman and, more recently, something that's become a central scene in every other big crossover or "villain comeback" story.
Readers don't respond to it anymore because it substitutes a fictional statistic for the sort of character work that might make someone *care* that people are dead. We don't see the people of Slorenia, or Montevideo, or Paris, or wherever before the baddie kills them all in most of these sorts of scenes, so we, as readers, have only a very abstract connection, one that's even further diluted by the fact that the disaster is *fictional* to boot.
it's not just jaded superhero comics readers who have been repeatedly exposed to this sort of fictional spectacle. When the White House explodes in Independence Day, filmgoers gasped; do you still gasp at every summer blockbuster that depicts Monumental Destruction, at the 2012s and the Cloverfields? I'd say it's not likely. Did you actually gasp at this story's destruction of Paris, especially since other members of "the Worthy" are smashing other cities in other tie-ins? Or did you recognize it as a now well-worn device and leap straight to figuring out, rather than feeling, the things the story was communicating?
That's why I argue the device is tired and shopworn from rapid overuse in superhero comics, and similarly in blockbuster films. It's not Fraction's fault, exactly, but his other work made me hope he was more self-aware than to use this dulled narrative point for his bloated summer blockbuster story. At the least, he could have done what the other poor uses of this trope do not -- he could have given us a human entry to the victims' perspective beyond the boilerplate "Hide! Gojira is coming!" stuff he did provide.
Fraction's three choices were to vastly increase the scale of the death, to make the mans of death especially bizarre and oddly goreless, and to avoid giving any characterization other than blank fear to the two bystanders we actually see in the two-part story. Together, those three choices made the horror rather ineffective.
It works as an idea...but only as an idea. When Fraction tries to sell the visceral response Tony has to the reader, he simply fails on every level except the detached, critical one where we pause and spend a lot of words unpacking what the write meant to do. He still hasn't succeeded on the immersive level of the story, and that's the one that matters most when you're trying to get over a character's affect.
There's also a basic problem in conveying basic plot points. This is a problem endemic to the crossover tie-in, one that becomes especially grating in these two issues given that they're by the crossover's main writer. There's just very little plot or characterization in this story; all of that happens In Another Comic.
The nature of the McGuffin is explained In Another Comic, but not in this one.
The villain in this story possesses a motivation that is given In Another Comic. Here, he is little more than a Giant Space Flea from Nowhere, the sort of thing that makes video game plots go off the rails in the end. The villain-behind-the-villain in this story possesses a clear and not terribly "cosmic" motivation; his identity and motive, indeed, his very existence, are only provided In Another Comic.
While thisissue plays as a monster going nuts and killing a city while speaking in runes that few if any readers will be able to decipher, the plot of Fear Itself is relatively straightforward (not that you'd know it from Iron Man's comic). A villain called the Serpent is turning people into monsters with big fake-Thor hammers in order to spread fear around the world, which he feeds on. (Quite how killing people helps him is unclear; based on IIM, there are only two or three people left in paris to provide emotional nom-noms, which suggests that the Gargoyle is, as ever, lousy at his job.) The Serpent's motivation, a grudge against Odin and the world, is in turn a fairly standard "king vs. usurper" plot with the roles inverted.
And while those explanations are being given In Another Comic, these issues of Iron Man have very anticlimactically resolved one of the more interesting ongoing plotlines in the current series by killing off running villain Detroit Steel in short order. The story then replaces that conflict with an inconclusive battle that will be resolved In Another Comic, and which in any case does not fit well with the tone and storyline carefully (if glacially) established in previous issues of this series.
In short, these two issues have been perfunctory crossover crap of the most odious sort. If this is the best Marvel can do, they deserve to keep slowly bleeding sales. (DC deserves it too for other reasons.)
I've been very adamantly pro-Fraction, and while I don't count these as his strongest issues, I don't see them as detracting from the overall framework.
The general structure of Fear Itself isn't that great, but it's simple enough that it can be adapted to several different books without completely derailing the storylines at hand. Basically, it can be reduced to "Toyetic Monster Invasion". In that sense, it's not a great story (nor does it even have room to be great, as Marvel's return to these big crossover events seems to be out of necessity after the lukewarm reception to the Heroic Age, but I digress), but it's not so pervasive that it fractures creators' abilities to do their own works.
I argued on the IMMB (albeit less politely than I would have liked, given how much that board pisses me off) that the use of the "Giant Space Flea From Nowhere" reinforces the premise at the heart of Fraction's Iron Man, that Tony's trying to see the big picture and improve the world on that scale, and the constraints of the genre are preventing him from doing any important work. In this case, the frustration goes into outright fatalism, as evidenced by the final panel with him taking the bottle of liquor with him. Fighting against Hammer is one thing, as while they're an evil military-industrial entity, their existence doesn't outright destroy the world (even if the super-villains they send after him are a waste of his time), and Tony's convinced he can find a solution to resolve that problem eventually. Against a creature like Mokk the Faith-Breaker, Tony's tactics are far less effective. Without Avengers backup, he couldn't hope to survive; the Giant Space Flea comes from another section of the Marvel Universe, where Earth technology is useless.
In this light, it makes sense not only that Doug Johnson/Detroit Steel was there to try and stop the Faith-Breaker, but that he was rather brutally killed by the creature. Johnson was a jingoistic brute, but he was still a human being, and ultimately had some standards to keep him out of the conventionally evil category. But he was just another casualty of the Giant Space Flea, a creature that doesn't even care about Stark vs. Hammer, green revolution vs. war economics, or even good vs. evil. It just kills.
I would personally prefer that Iron Man remain separate from the fantasy elements of the Marvel Universe, and stay as a self-contained book where the armors ARE the world's super-power. But Fraction hasn't been writing the book that way, nor could he even if he wanted to. I do appreciate that he's been subjecting the MU's other subgenre/shared universe elements with some meta-commentary, in this case showing just how adding those elements to a book about a man of (relatively) grounded super-science makes that character feel completely powerless.
Eh, to me this really only shows that these kind of 'super powers' in a comic really only work in a dislocated from reality reality into some kind of super hero comic reality. The violence just escalates to the point where in reality reality it would be overwhelmingly sad and just mindless butchery.
One point of view I keep thinking in reading super hero comics over the last few years in trying to keep it real and is never really shown is how grim and depressing actually living in the Marvel or DC Universe reality would be for say the average character. Some big guy comes out of the sky and blows away say Soldier Field (no more Bears games for you punk) the government run by a bunch of criminals goes out and fights some 'gods' and stuff goes down. A few months later even more 'gods' fall out of the sky and thousands die here or there. You could do the same thing for a DC comic, it isn't really one or the other.
Sad thing is that these kinds of stories kind of worked in something like The Authority, which put up this facade in that it is not the Spidey Super stories kind of comic textural world, but when you apply it to the classic heroes, it just seems wrong or at least to me it does.
To an extent when you look at stories like this or say all of the replacement heroes or hero DOA kind of thing that have obsessed new super hero comics of the past few years, it does seem like the whole genre is coming to a dead end. It's done. If not done, it's not far from it.