Review: Suits, Space, Secret origins… Kieron Gillen’s Iron Man
By Kieron Gillen, Greg Land, Dale Eaglesham, Carlo Pagulayan
Marvel Comics / Panini UK
As a lover of good superhero comics I’ve long since lost a connection with modern superheroing for the most part, the convolutions of this Universe, that universe, this time-stream, that death/rebirth… it all got a little too much a while back. Hence my long term enjoyment of anything superhero tends to be the standalone series, the slightly left of centre. Currently on a Marvel kick that’s Hawkeye, Ms Marvel, Black Widow, but in the recent past I’ve been a fan of Warren Ellis’ Secret Avengers, Mark Waid’s Daredevil, you know the sort of thing I mean.
Kieron Gillen is another of those writers whose super-work is always worth my looking, something to do with him tending to take on the more sidelined properties and run with them. His first Marvel series SWORD set the tone, intelligently quirky space hi-jinks that were always likely to appeal to me, and were just as likely to fail to find the sort of audience to support it for any length of time. Gillen’s next at Marvel did manage a little longer, critics and fans enamoured with teen Loki and the Journey Into Mystery title, creating something clever, knowing, fantastical, and strangely, unexpectedly cool. The coolness only exceeded when he and artistic collaborator on Phonogram, Jamie McKelvie set about Young Avengers for a so cool it hurts, but brilliantly done, short run on Young Avengers.
Which brings me round to Gillen’s other Marvel thing. Something of a massive step up in terms of visibiity, what with Iron Man being the single most bankable Marvel asset (and who would have thought that all those years ago when his adventures were pretty run of the mill fare?). These first three books contain issues 1-17 of the current Iron Man series.
To do Iron Man, Gillen’s taken the deliberate and sensible decision to distance himself, Tony Stark and the armoured Avenger from some of the more off-putting intricacies of the Marvel Universe, accepting the high-vis armour of many styles and colours, but swiftly sending him off into space on a voyage of self-discovery, exploration, finding what’s missing, or simply to just clear the decks and allow the story to be the thing. This is a very good idea.
(Art by Greg Land)
I have to admit to a real liking of Iron Man. No idea where, but I remember seeing some of the Micheline and Layton stories in some Marvel UK comic or other; it was all Dreadnoughts, Madame Masque, and loads of tech. Seriously cool tech, we’re talking armour that goes in a suitcase.
Well, within the first issue of this new Iron Man series we’re back with the armour in a suit. Sort of. But still, that’s good news. Very good news. Ridiculous amounts of cool, improbable tech is just the flavour of Iron Man I want.
Okay, fair enough, the armour in the suitcase is gone as soon as it appears, and we’re back to the more practical, functional, adaptable modular kit, but that’s okay, just the nod to it here was grand.
So, at least for me, the appeal of Gillen’s Iron Man is two-fold; taking him away from the continuity as much as possible to create good, simple stories and playing into my nostalgic liking for the character generally. The irony here being that, by volume two and ‘The Secret Origin Of Tony Stark’, Gillen writes a huge story, one that immediately drops into established Marvel history and continuity and rips it a new one.
Having sat down and read all three in one big chunk, I’ve got to say it works, even if there are times when the sheer epic scope of the plot gets away from Gillen, and the essential core ideas behind all the plotting, the threat to Earth, all come across as simply too convenient, too fitted. But in the end, this is forgiveable, as the writing apart from this is clever, fun, and well done, a superior superhero sort of thing, just the way I like them. Key to a lot of that is that Gillen believes in Tony Stark, the man inside the suit, believes he can think his way out of any problem rather than always rely on the suit as a big boxing glove, and Gillen lets Stark think, lets him calculate, lets him be the smartest man in the room, the smartest man on Earth, and eventually, the smartest man in deep, deep space.
(Art by Greg Land)
The first arc Believe concerns Stark tracking down rogue Extremis tech, something I was at least familiar with through Warren Ellis’ Extremis storyline. It’s all very familiar, Stark’s banter with Pepper, Stark regretting his tech getting out into the world without his control, and it comes across very much as Gillen feeling his way into the character, working out some ideas in public, setting up for the longer, more important arc to come next. It’s episodic structure is okay, nothing more, Gillen delivering good moments and good dialogue certainly, but when required to slot in the superhero elements, it all feels a tad lightweight, biding our time until the main event came along.
Thankfully, Believe is merely a platform to enable a renewed Tony Stark to look heavenward for new horizons, the under-achiever (at least to his mind) looking to stretch himself, a modern day Grail Knight gone questing. Gillen jetting him spaceward is the best thing he could do, allowing writer and character some distance to try something new. Because once he’s there, Gillen crafts something far better, a very long game of a plot playing out slowly against individual moments of solid, well crafted super-space drama, all down to, in one way or another, the devious rogue Rigellian Recorder 451…
(Art by Greg Land)
And here we’re back on our grail quest idea, the quest for knowledge successful, the knowledge sought coming from 451, container of all knowledge, including some very interesting, very old knowledge concerning Stark’s parents, and his birth.
From here it’s full speed into the big, big, life-changing ‘Secret Origin Of Tony Stark’ storyline, where it’s revealed that 451 has been integrally involved with the Starks for a long, long time. Intimately involved. It’s all a bit of a bombshell…..
‘Not a ridiculous plan, Mr. Stark. Just a long one.’
Oh yes, a very, very long plan indeed.
After that, we’re forwards and backwards in time, the far flung now of Stark and Recorder 451 in deep space and back in time on Earth, watching prospective parents Howard and Maria Stark coming to terms with some terrible news, the result of which involves a grab-bag of familiar Marvel 60s names, aliens, a little Ocean’s 11 thrown in for good measure, and a lot of deviousness all round as we genuinely discover just what it is made Tony Stark the man he is today.
Throw in a welcome return to 90s Marvel UK 30-foot tall robot mercenary Deaths’s Head II and The Secret Origin Of Tony Stark ends up being a nicely done, entertaining thing.
(Art by Greg Land)
Artistically there’s three distinct looks here. But I’m going to concentrate on the main two, as final artist Carlo Pagulayan is onboard for the last couple of issues, doing everything neat and well, but not making the impact of the two main series artists.
Greg Land’s glamour work has come under heavy fire from all over (me included) for its flat, static, rather bland everyone is perfect and beautiful and flawless look and whilst there’s still a lot of that here, his very commercial glamour art benefits greatly from those moments in space where the tech/ space environment dominates. Problem is that away from the tech, most of the aliens look like simple humans, recoloured, with extra bits stuck on.
Eaglesham’s art is so much a better fit for Iron Man. For a start Tony looks the same throughout, always a positive. But when asked to deal with outer space or moments from Howrd Stark’s past he’s more than up to it, detailing everything in a very classic superhero style, lacking some of the high gloss Land brought but more than making up for that by losing so much of the baggage Land brings. I’ve got to say some of my favourite parts of Eaglesham’s work comes where he and I get to escape to a cooler, slightly sepia coloured past back in the last century, all Vegas cool, dinner jackets and whisky ….
In the end, this three volume set of Tony Stark’s adventures in space is good, solid, way better than average superhero fare. Not epic, not the genius of a Hawkeye perhaps, but way ahead of the majority of what’s on the shelves of your comic shop week in and week out from the big two.
Gillen went way out to alter Stark’s origin, and the result actually grates slightly, the idea of the genius engineer who saves himself and then saves the world through nothing but his own invention and intellect does rather have its foundations taken out from under it at times. But trust in Gillen, he’s got a way around that one as well. In fact the very final issue of the final volume here does a neat trick, Gillen turning everything on its head for the second time, the surprises thus far, the secret origin gasp moments trumped, and the status quo of Tony Stark and Iron Man changed forever more. It’s clever, it’s audacious, but it’s also just that little mystifying and the one real time when a little reading around the subject became necessary, possibly an indicator that issues to come will need a little more MU knowledge. I hope not.
As a clever, interesting piece of good quality, entertaining super-heroing, Gillen’s Iron Man more than does the job. It’s smart, fast, and gets a lot more right than wrong.
Oh, finally, a note on the edition. I was reading the UK version, as published by Panini UK. I’ve got to say I actually prefer their versions of the graphic novels. For one reason and another I’ve managed to end up with two copies of Young Avengers Volume 1, Marvel US and Panini UK. Both containing the same material and same page count, but the Marvel US version is half the thickness down to the diaphanous nature of the paper stock. It just feels so thin compared to the thicker stock of the Panini UK version. You may think it a minor thing, but I still enjy the tactile nature of whatever I’m reading and all books need some heft to them.