Today, Patrick and (guest writer) Pete Pfarr are discussing Iron Man 9, originally released May 1st, 2013.
Patrick: Expectations are a bitch. Sometimes we perceive quality based solely on the similarity a work of art has to what qualities we were expecting it to have. Expectations make us say things like “Fantastic Four is supposed to be fun!” or “Evil Dead is supposed to be campy!” Thanks to the cinematic juggernaut that is the Iron Man film series, there are an awful lot of “supposed to”s for Tony Stark. As Kieron Gillen starts a new story arc for Iron Man, he lays all our precious expectations out on the table and then shakes his finger sternly. Whatever we’re getting here, it ain’t what we expect.
Tony Stark is taking a little time to explore the galaxy and free himself from earthly distractions (like being an Avenger), but his Iron Man armor is nifty enough that he’s recruited by the Guardians of the Galaxy. But I guess he finds that group restricting too, because when he decides to hunt down a genocidal robot named 451, he enlists the help of Death’s Head – a 30-foot tall robot bounty hunter. They track 451 to the ruins of the Voldi Tear – which, from as best I can gather, was some kind of alien space station before it was destroyed. Death’s Head betrays Tony — turns out he was working for 451 the whole time — and the genocidal robot requests a civil conversation with Tony Stark. Sure, Stark would love to resist this, but it looks like 451 has control over the systems of the Iron Man suit. Curious as to how this is possible? 451 has a film strip — yes an actual film strip — that’s going to explain… sort of. The film is of Tony’s father admitting to doing a mysterious something “for the Earth… for the future… for you.” And then 451 steps into frame next to Papa Stark.
This is a strange issue. One that actively sets up expectations that I didn’t have going into my reading and them subverts those expectations over and over again. Writer Kieron Gillen has said that this “Secret Origin of Tony Stark” story arc is going to be one of those things that permeates the mainstream media (like killing Peter Parker, or killing the Human Torch… shit, Tony’s not going to die, is he?), and this world-changing story is obviously timed to tap into Iron-Man -3-related mania. But Tony’s status quo is nothing like his movie-status quo: he’s running around with the Guardians of the Galaxy for fuck sake. Starting the issue on an alien planet, like it’s no big deal, may be in line with what comic readers know about Iron Man, but it’s a definite departure from his earthbound life in the movies.
Then the bulk of the issue is spent in manhunt mode. Tony and Death’s Head end up being this weird ascrupulous buddy-cop team. But the manhunt isn’t really what’s going on, as revealed in twist #1: Death’s Head is working for 451. Then 451, mass-murdering fuck-head though he may be, takes control of the Iron Man suit, but does no harm to Tony (twists #2 and #3). Finally, Tony discovers that 451 knew — and presumably worked with — his father. Twist #4. And even with all that twistiness, we never find out what it is that Howard Stark was about to confess. The whole thing leaves the reader disoriented, but I can’t tell if that’s effective storytelling — like softening us up with little punches before going for the knockout blow — or if it’s desensitizing. If I were to meet Kieron Gillen at a bar and just he shouted “SURPRISE” at me for 20 minutes, I’d stop being startled before I could get my first beer.
Speculation about what comes next — and in particular whether this story pulls Tony back to Earth — is fun and all, but this issue also features a 30-foot tall Russian robot bounty hunter. That’s fun too right? “Russian?” I hear you ask. No, he’s actually some kind of alien robot. But his syntax his written in such a way that I can’t help but read all of his lines like he’s a Cold War era Bond villain.
That’s how artist Deal Eaglesham introduces the character – full page, smoking gun, a vat of bubbling space-mead. There’s a lot of fun moments to be had with a character this size, and Gillen and Eaglesham seem to hit them all. When Tony offers him what we can only assume is an impressive payment for his services, the giant gently pinches the currency between his fingers. And then there’s just the simple pleasure of putting him next to Iron Man – it’s funny when they’re driving DH’s space ship and Tony looks like a novelty toy on the dashboard; it’s funny when Tony’s dwarfed by DH’s drink; and it’s funny when they’re both planning to ambush 451:
That’s Death’s Head’s knee, by the way.
With that, I’d like to pass this along to my oldest and dearest friend: Pete. Pete’s been reading Iron Man since well before the NOW! initiative — in fact, I believe it was Iron Man that got him to start reading comics in the first place. But I also know that Pete’s been none-too-happy with this title since Gillen took over. So I’d like to know: how’s this stack up to the previous issues? To me, it felt like this installment was eager to get to that final page reveal, and didn’t offer much more than an amusing diversion in the meantime. Which isn’t to say that disliked it, but this issue does accurately carry the subtitle: “Prologue.” Y’know, before the shit happens. Let’s get to shit already, amirite?
Pete: Busted! Why do I feel like you just told on me? Kieron Gillen isn’t going to read this, is he?
Patrick, you raise an interesting point about expectations. Perhaps the reason I haven’t been enjoying the series lately is that it’s not what I think Iron Man is “supposed to” be. To be fair, my Iron Man exposure is mostly limited to the films and the previous volume of comics. For all I know, it actually is quite great but my preconceived notions are getting in the way.
That being said, expectations and suspension of disbelief mix in strange ways. The fact that Iron Man has historically been relatively grounded is what drew me in initially. Sure, the tech and Extremis virus are fantastical, but I’ve always appreciated the fact that Tony doesn’t possess superpowers. I enjoy aliens and sentient 30-foot pseudo-Russian robots as much as the next guy, but they feel out of place in the established world of Iron Man (or at least what I want the world of Iron Man to be).
With all of this negativity, I have a confession to make: I actually removed Iron Man from my pull list after issue 008. Anyone familiar with my obsessive-compulsive tendencies can attest to how difficult that was for me, even though I wasn’t enjoying myself anymore. However, I am actually thrilled, Patrick, that you’ve so quickly dragged me back in to Tony’s world, because I’m rather excited about where this is going. I may not care for the setting, but I am already finding the plot and its potential implications quite intriguing. I love speculating on the current ambiguity of 451’s allegiances and intentions. And while your point about their overuse is well taken, I’m a sucker for a good twist and that last one was a doozy. I, too, am excited to “get to shit.”
I must also mention that I found myself enjoying the humor peppered (P.E.P.P.E.R.ed?) throughout the issue. You already mentioned the sight gags related to how Tony sizes up next to Death’s Head, but the discussions about the un-ironically named Hope’s Pustule and how “some of [Tony’s] best friends are robots” also summoned an audible snicker out of me.
Finally, Patrick, I am thankful that you pointed out Death Head’s seemingly Russian accent. I knew it was somehow strangely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Now, every time he ends a sentence with “yes?” (which is often), I find myself wishing it were “da?” instead.
Pete Pfarr is an accountant and skeptic. He likes sleeping, drumming, steering dragon boats, playing video games, and going to minor-league hockey games with his wife, Cortnie. Some of his best friends are robots.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?