Marvel THEN!: Fraction, Larocca and the Little Iron Man That Could

By | October 30th, 2012
Posted in Columns | 7 Comments

Last week saw the close of a majority of runs that had redefined characters or elements of the Marvel Universe. It was a big week for a lot of Marvel fans, as Marvel NOW! edges ever closer and everything we knew becomes different.

So, as a tribute to some of the impressive work that helped shaped the Marvel Universe as we like it, we thought it would be appropriate to take a week and look back at some of those titles, to really try and dissect what it was that made it special. It could be any number of things, and it is obviously different per person, but what you’ll find in this article series is essentially our version of a viking funeral.

Today we keep the good times rolling by looking at Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca’s run on “Invincible Iron Man.”

As a note before we begin, spoilers for the entire run are inevitably discussed.

If it weren’t for Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s run on “Invincible Iron Man,” I would not be reading comics as intensely as I do today.

That’s a rather bold statement to open with, I realize. In fact, even the idea that this article might be objective is theoretically thrown out the window thanks to that doozy of an opener. And yet I never the less felt it was important to note that this comic book was one of a few game changers in my own collecting habits; what made me go from your average reader with a reasonable pull list and a $20 bill that could cover all weekly expenses to a devourer of comics who uses a credit card and has to take a few hours once a month to properly organize everything.

It was 2008 and with a brand new job, my first car and a brand new bank account, I was almost entirely independent from my parents for the first time in my life. For a young adult, that’s quite a step up in the world, even if the idea of budgeting doesn’t quite compute yet. I had been visiting a few comic shops on the regular and had my normal pull, but after seeing the Iron Man film and seeing a (to me) B-List character get such a fantastic film treatment, I actually became the fabled demographic that Marvel and DC seek so adamantly with their marketing. This led me to pick up “Invincible Iron Man” on a whim off the shelf at some shop, and with that an incredibly fervent love affair with the medium began — one that pushed me from trades to monthlies in a way that my bank account couldn’t handle (which is why credit cards exist).

You see, the very first thing that “Invincible Iron Man” did absolutely right was make a comic book that was accessible to the neophyte Iron Man fan. To move this away from myself for a bit, there does exist an audience who look for superhero comics after seeing superhero movies, even if the comics that await them aren’t always entirely accessible. These fantastical movies foster in those already with an interest in comics (and perhaps a few without) a desire to continue the adventure, and the books that inspire the film are decidedly the way to get into that. And wouldn’t you know it, that was the initial modus operandi of the series — to take Tony Stark and A Stane and craft a modernized tale that would entice your new or unacquainted readers in the same way that it would the Iron Scholars. It was a difficult task to manage because it’s almost entirely impossible to create a book that pleases everyone, yet it did so with a charm and gusto that so few comics ever truly reach.

So when a random comic buyer wandered into their local shop to grab an Iron Man comic, they were immediately greeted by something that they could get into. Here was a book that matched the technobabble, the optimism, the charm — everything that made the movie a success in the eyes of the non-fan was present in a book that was high profile and easy to find. You didn’t have to know anything about Iron Man that you couldn’t learn from the film, and this nearly continuity-free idea for the first arc was the best execution of this idea Marvel has ever tried to do, and a major contrast between Marvel’s ideas of re-numbering a series in the middle of a run in order to appeal to new readers. No, Fraction and Larocca were both new to Iron Man, if not his world, and that made the want for new readers a more legitimate option than what was done in time for the Thor and Captain America movies.

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Of course, it didn’t stay like that. The book wasn’t going to just be a New Reader Friendly tale forever, nor should it have been. That’s why it’s important to note the grace through which Fraction and Larocca would inevitably carry Tony Stark from 2008 to 2012. With a single story and a unified vision throughout, this is bar none the single most definitive take on Iron Man for the twentieth century. As something designed for new readers from the beginning, this was able to carry anyone (like me) who used this as a jumping on point for a wider appreciation of the Marvel U. This story had it all: cunning villains of yesteryear re-imagined for today, an expansive and evolving take on Stark’s key source of business, and last but not least a very eloquent blend of high flying superheroics and grounded character work. It’s funny to look back at 2008 and see just how many ringers Iron Man was put through since losing his job as head of SHIELD (part of a story I still haven’t read), but it’s even more interesting to see how much more relevant he inevitably became through this story (and, in part, that big blockbuster film success and Robert Downey Jr’s likability, sure).

It’s actually very impressive to look at a beast like “Invincible Iron Man.” It’s almost an anomaly of the modern superhero age, truth be told, and for one single reason: this is Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca’s book from beginning to end. There are so few runs in big superhero comics that are of a singular creative team; the trend these days is usually for a writer to stay on for a few years with a rotating crew of artists (in fact, that’s the case for every other Marvel THEN! article we’re doing). Yet, for all but two issues (an annual and the anniversary issue), Fraction and Larroca are the creative team of “Invincible Iron Man,” and that in and of itself is a stark accomplishment (pun not necessarily intended). If the book was designed to hook in new readers, then to allow the creative team to really do their thing was the smartest way to keep readers around. With an almost creator-owned mentality (minus the one event tie-in, but Fraction did write that so it’s to be expected), “Invincible Iron Man” is arguably the perfect example of how great a series can be when creators are given free reign to collaborate without things like double-shipping having an effect on the book’s process.

So when Fraction and Larocca took over the ongoing adventures of Tony Stark in 2008, they began so by finding him in a pre-“Secret Invasion” world. Marvel’s big event had kicked off a month earlier, and while Tony Stark was a major part of that story, this title strayed from any specific involvement at first. ‘The Five Nightmares,’ which began the book, acted primarily as an Iron Man Primer, introducing people to the world Tony lived in — one of glitz and glamour from riches and the women he attracts, but also one of moral complexity and permanent danger. His enemies weren’t afraid to hit him where it hurt, or the ones he loved the most, and as a few threads from Fraction’s cancelled title “The Order” (which featured Pepper Potts as a main character) were picked up and Ezekial Stane was turned into a technological terrorist to get at Stark in a terrifying reflection of the rapid techno-paranoia that had been sweeping the nation as the advent of the iPhone was upon us, having dropped a year earlier for the first time, and we moved headfirst into the digital age. It was the exact same sort of smart franchise revitalization that made the movie attractive, and its blatant success eventually allowed Fraction and Larocca to continue on to something even bigger.

You see, as ‘Five Nightmares’ ended and ‘World’s Most Wanted’ kicked off, the shape of all that was to come became readily apparent. Fraction and Larocca were going to bring Tony to the lowest of lows before bringing him to the highest of highs, and Osborn’s takeover of the Marvel Universe post-“Secret Invasion” ultimately offered up the perfect opportunity to do so. Tony would be thrown into essentially the polar opposite situation of what had come before when he was in charge of SHIELD and all was right with the world, and now we were given the opportunity to see Stark’s Greatest Hits as Osborn came after Stark, bringing with him quite a cavalcade of familiar  (or not-so) figures from Tony’s past. We began to see Iron Man from a more grounded angle, one that remained accessible in the scope of the first arc and yet played with elements from Iron Man’s past in a way that really brought the two together. ‘World’s Most Wanted’ remains one of the best arcs from the past decade for this reason (that and it being honestly quite great). It was audacious to throw a New Reader Friendly book into such a universe-immersed story, but it paid off incredibly well.

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In turn this led directly to ‘Stark: Disassembled,’ which is where we first got a reasonably clear look at the endgame (at the very least, one of those moments that is great in hindsight). It was a bit hard to understand at the time, but re-reading the arc now shows just how far back Fraction and Larocca’s pay-off sat. This was an arc in which technology had become the enemy of Tony Stark, with his brain having deteriorated in order to be be put through a reboot and allow him to escape the fate Norman Osborn had planned for him. ‘Stark: Disassembled’ was similar to those moments in creator-owned comics where you could look at a book and truly feel like the creators behind it had an affection for the story and a plan through which to carry everything, which is often slightly missing in most superhero comics; a lot of the time it feels like characters are being carried through, rather than properly worked with. Yet the handling of the “death” of Tony Stark was in fact one of the more memorable moments of the run, as it proved just how firm a grasp Fraction and Larocca had on — literally — the mind that Tony Stark lives in.

That’s perhaps one of the key things about this run: this is a book about Tony Stark. It’s often safe to have a superhero book starring Such And Such Man be about Such And Such Man, but often times the other half of the story remains a non-issue. The “secret identity” storylines are a thing of the past, and while Stark and his relation to Iron Man is of public knowledge, often times writers can push Stark’s life aside in favor of doing things with the machine he inhabits. This book honestly could have been called “The Invincible Tony Stark” for all the time it spent simply dealing with Stark as a person inhabiting a fantastic world, and that human element to a character that pushes himself away from being human made the book relatable in a way that few big budget superhero stories can end up being. We care about the well being of Tony, not just that Iron Man is able to save the day, and more importantly we care about his relationships with his friends, with Pepper and Rhodey, with Maria Hill, even with Zeke Stane. ‘Stark: Disassembled’ is not just the close of the first act of Fraction and Larocca’s three act story, but it’s also the one that shows us just how human the book about a guy whose suit of armor lives inside him is.

Not only that, but with such a firm grasp on the mentality of Stark, the book kept reinventing itself. Fraction came from the Ellis School of Thought that essentially said a character like Tony Stark would not be sufficient to be stagnant. From the moment that ‘Stark: Disassembled’ ended, we were given a forward-thinking Tony by a forward-thinking creative team, specifically in the realm of Stark’s philanthropy and his own personal vanity. No longer was Extremis the name of the game, but we updated to Extremis 2.0, and that wouldn’t be the last time we saw Tony Stark don a new suit of armor throughout the series, let alone design some new piece of technology. As important as the adventures of Iron Man and the life of Tony Stark were and are, so too is the idea that Stark is a character of invention and reinvention. To not have a book that adopts the mentality of it’s lead character would be folly, and the fact that this book so perfectly captured these various aspects of Stark only goes to show how important it is both to the character but also in general terms of storytelling in mainstream superhero comics.

Of course, that’s not all ‘Disassembled’ gave us. The reboot came with a price (as they always do): Tony Stark’s mind now rested pre-“Civil War.” This was in turn taken as an opportunity for Fraction to carry Tony resiliently through to the twenty-first century and become the man to try and heal the world through technology. In turn this would eventually lead us head-first into everything that came after: Stark’s new company, the mole, the return of the Mandarin and Stane, Stark’s second downfall in the events of “Fear Itself” (and the close of the second act) followed by his eventual triumph against his ultimate villain while arm in arms with the characters who have tried to kill him throughout the years. It’s the ultimate Stark/Iron Man story in many ways, as Fraction and Larocca would go on to draw from every major element of Iron Man and Tony Stark and retool it for the book in some form or fashion. And, truth be told, outside of ‘Fix Me’ and ‘Fear Itself,’ the run never strayed from it’s central singular storyline (and heck, even in those two arcs, Fraction and Larocca found ways to make it work for the bigger story being told), and to see a story executed so well throughout four major events without being sucked too far in is something very few titles have managed to accomplish in the past five years.

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When it all comes down to it, Fraction and Larocca’s incredible run on “Invincible Iron Man” proved that no matter what the “cool” naysayers may say, there are still great runs in Big Two comics that can adopt a creator-owned mentality. For the most part, Fraction and Larocca were afforded a liberty that so few books are afforded: to tell a single focused story over 64 issues that will continue to define Tony Stark for ages to come. And as the book reached its final destination last week, Fraction and Larocca sent Iron Man off into the wild unknown as one story concluded and another sits off in the distance, ready to take its place. From the initial nightmare to the stars his destination, we are given the definitive story for Tony Stark and Iron Man both – the highs of creation, the lows hidden at the bottom of a bottle and the constantly evolving and inventive story of Marvel’s A-List genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.

If there is one thing I will miss with Marvel NOW!, it’s Fraction and Larocca no longer doing an Iron Man comic together. “Invincible Iron Man” was one of the first books I’d read any week it came out, simply because I was always so excited to see what the team had planned next. I’m actually quite looking forward to seeing what Kieron Gillen has planned for Tony Stark, but there will definitely be something missing from the title; a certain je ne sais quoi, if you will. Fraction’s characterization of Tony Stark was, in so many words, perfection — he truly got that character’s strengths, weaknesses and never-ending curiosity in a way that Iron Man had not really seen in the 00’s , and a character that had become somewhat villainous due to the events of “Civil War” were made sympathetic. Add to that Larocca’s beautiful and realistic artwork attached to creative and inventive plays on the evolving technological landscape the book would inhabit and the book became an absolute can’t miss title for the duration of its run.

Well done, messieurs Fraction and Larocca.

Matthew Meylikhov

Once upon a time, Matthew Meylikhov became the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Multiversity Comics, where he was known for his beard and fondness for cats. Then he became only one of those things. Now, if you listen really carefully at night, you may still hear from whispers on the wind a faint voice saying, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not as bad as everyone says it issss."