After the last volume of this series, Matt Fraction would have to work really hard to come up with something worse. Seeing Tony Stark completely and utterly beaten by Doctor Octopus -- for no good reason -- still stands as the worst thing I’ve read all year. Considering that the latest volume of “Casanova” was so much better than his recent work for Marvel, I’m looking forward to Fraction’s creator-owned work coming up from Image than his take on the Fantastic Four. Now we’re into the tie-in arc to the “Fear Itself” crossover and to the writer’s credit, he and artist Salvador Larroca actually give us an arc that succeeds in crafting a more meaningful story than the event it was spun out of.
While there haven’t been a lot of “timeless” Iron Man stories that every comic book fan should have in their library (Hell, put like that I’m not sure if any actually qualify.) but the most famous one is certainly Tony’s struggle against alcoholism. Aside from dealing with a real-world issue in a fairly credible way for its time, threatening the character’s sobriety has also become a touchstone for any writer who really wants to drive home how dire the threat facing him is. It can be a means for cheap drama, but the threat here happens to be particularly compelling.
The Gray Gargole, a supervillain with the power to turn people to stone, has been made into one of the Serpent’s Worthy and has used his newfound power to turn everyone in Paris to stone. Not only does Tony see the horror firsthand, he gets his ass handed to him by the Worthy Gargoyle and manages to slink on home to think of a new plan of attack. Seeing the normally confident and blithe superhero beaten down again really underlines what makes this a better story than “Unfixable.” Where Tony’s defeat was the end of the story there, it’s only the first third here.
This leads us to the meat, or rather drink, of the book as we see the full ramification of the character’s sacrifice of his sobriety and dignity to Odin in the crossover proper. (Part of me wanted Odin to tell him, “Well, you already gave your dignity to Doctor Octopus, but your Midgar-mead is good enough for this.”) Fully blitzed, he teams up with the elves of Svartalfheim to create the toyetic weapons and armor that will turn the tide of the crossover when they’re deployed in the final issue. While it would’ve been easy to play up the “funny drunk” aspect of the character from the movies, Fraction gives us a much more pitiable take on the character here. Prone to mistakes, fights, general awkwardness, Tony the drunk is a real liability here and it isn’t until a near-death experience snaps him out of it that he starts being a hero again. Not only does his refusal to drink serve as a “kinda-sorta” inspiration to one of his dwarven companions, but he’s even able to hold off a lynch-mob in a fairly obvious yet effective parallel to the core themes of the crossover.
Much as I liked Tony’s character arc throughout this volume, there are some things holding it back. Unfortunately, most of these feel like they’re meant to be key to the ongoing story Fraction has been telling here. Pepper Potts in particular gets the short end of the stick as she winds up being outed as a total amateur in matters both corporate and superheroic. Not helping matters is that the so-damn-smug Sasha and Justine Hammer, show up to menace the woman here. The Hammer Girls are terrible villains because they’re unlikeable to the point where you’re actively rooting for them to fail and any attempt by the protagonist to save them is just going to look stupid. That does not happen here, and I was not amused. However, I will say that Larroca does get some great visuals out of the fighting, as well as the volume’s most striking moment: a full page shot of Pepper, caught by the Worthy Gargoyle trying not to look into his eyes and turn to stone along with the monster’s response.
You’ve also got the epilogue which is half-interesting, half-misguided as it shows Tony conversing with both Odin and the back-to-normal Gray Gargoyle. The dichotomy between the two storylines is interesting at first until the cosmic reset button is hit near the end of the issue and Tony’s actions towards one of these characters comes off as implausibly dickish even by his standards. I can see what Fraction was going for here, and the “cosmic reset button” bit was pretty necessary since there’s no way that they could’ve let that particular plot point stand, but the story is still kneecapped by it.
So it’s a decent volume overall, but it also got me thinking. After nine volumes of Fraction and Larroca, only the first four really stand out as the ones that are really worth reading. Launched in the wake of the first movie’s surprise success, the title then got good mileage out of the “Dark Reign” status quo with Tony on the run from Norman Osborne and then having to put his mind back together once it was all said and done. Those four volumes effectively tell one overarching story while everything that has come after that has been very uneven in terms of quality and lacking focus in terms of having any kind of overall plan. With the end in sight, I feel compelled to stick around to see how it all turns out. However, it’s starting to feel increasingly unlikely that Fraction will be able to get the momentum he once had with this title back.