Earlier this week, Iron Man #25 ended the third and penultimate chapter of “The Rings of the Mandarin” on a truly fraught note. Tony Stark, Iron Man, is seen enraged by the ongoing violence and misery the Dark Elves have brought to bear on other worlds throughout time. He’s committed to his righteous fury, not so much to bring the Dark Elves and their king Malekith the Accursed to justice, but to end the nature of the threat he presents.
But that’s not the inherent, psychologically dark moment that series regular writer Kieron Gillen ends with. Gillen ends with a flash of Tony Stark’s return to hubris. Wearing a “cold iron” armor (the actual mythical substance that’s the kryptonite for Dark Elves), Tony Stark has infiltrated the Dark Elf homeworld of Svartalfheim to reclaim the stolen rings of the Mandarin. Against overwhelming odds, he’s won an improbable victory by clear and effective planning. He’s got he rings he came for, he’s won the day. The Dark Elves are in disarray and now’s probably the best time to escape Svartalfheim and return home.
But that’s not how the issue ends.
Instead, floating high above the alien landscape (and you cannot ignore the beautiful visual metaphor artist Luke Ross offers here), high above it all, Tony only sees his own blood rage. Malekith needs to be punished, ended even. And with that Tony launches himself downwards into whatever hells and monsters await him in Malekith’s lair. It’s the quintessential Tony Stark hubris—thinking that past victories are sufficient currency for future victories. And it’s finally a glimmer of sorts, of the kind of Kieron Gillen we loved when he wrote Uncanny X-Men.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing reading Gillen on Iron Man, since he took the reins from Eisner-Award winning writer Matt Fraction some two years back now (two years this fall). But it has been engaging to watch it play out. Engaging to see Gillen’s mind at work as he wrestled with Iron Man meant to him and how he would craft a unique vision of the signature Marvel character. Gillen himself mentioned in various interviews (printed on Marvel.com) and Author’s Notes (printed as backmatter to the first issue) that his creative process for Iron Man would be entirely different than the one for Uncanny X-Men. That while Uncanny X-Men was plotted out well in advance, Iron Man would impose a kind of “Knight’s Quest” structure on Iron Man and on Gillen himself, where both would seek out the kind of story that would develop Tony Stark’s place in the world.
“Believe,” Gillen’s opening storyarc read like a kind of a primer. Tony Stark experimented with a modular armor, and Gillen ostensibly experimented with the same kind of storytelling. In “Believe,” Stark faces cultists who master IronTech weaponry in the hopes of ushering in their cyber-messiah, business persons with links to political and criminal underworlds who are intent on harnessing bleeding-edge biotech, and rival visionaries who hope to be the first to “test pilot the future” (to borrow a phrase from fabled erstwhile Iron Man scribe, Warren Ellis) and have no qualms in committing genocide to do so.
Follow-up storyarcs “Godkiller” and “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” seemed to begin with answering corporate objectives of having Tony Stark become a bigger player on Marvel’s cosmic stage, but resulted in Gillen advancing the unique narrative elements of his vision of Tony Stark. A new psychological vision of Tony Stark however, like the one earlier writers like David Michelinie, Bob Layton and more recently Matt Fraction, seemed to continually elude Gillen during these arcs.
“Iron Metropolitan,” the most recent storyarc that completed its run just prior to “The Rings of the Mandarin,” on the other hand rewards longtime readers. We see clearly Gillen’s gift for characterization and thematic weighting make an appearance for the first time in Gillen’s “knight’s quest” creative process.
Gillen’s writing of a story that sees Tony Stark foray into geopolitical minefield by wanting to engineer the City of Tomorrow on the site of his greatest rival’s fictive Chinese SAR meshes well with storyarc-artist Joe Bennett’s art deco-driven visualizations. Almost at once we’re faced Tony Stark’s unfettered hubris. Only Stark would attempt to engineer a city on the very site where he was kidnapped and held hostage for nearly a year in Fraction’s grand finale Invincible Iron Man: The Future. And the real story of course, is even bigger, even seedier. It is Stark wanting to engineer a city that will eventually neutralize the possibility of human extinction (which Stark has calculated at reaching a crisis point in 30 years).
But in typical Stark fashion—the presence of Iron Man on a build-the-future project has drawn a host of villains out from the shadows. Tony Stark’s attempt at rebuilding Mandarin City has seen an unexpected rebirth of the Mandarin. Not the man himself, but the cosmic rings that enslaved his consciousness.
But thematically, what sets “Iron Metropolitan” apart, and what makes it an Iron Man Hall of Fame storyarc, is that highly competent, highly precarious thematic structure. Imagine if you will, the Mandarin’s rings live again, springing to life and seeking out hosts of their own, host whose own lust for power rival even the Mandarin’s. Imagine the recipient of Ring #7, the sun-fire ring, is ultra leftwing journalist Abigail Burns. Imagine she attacks the Mandarin City rebuild site out of a sense of it being a “corporate-fascist colonialist state for neo-consumerism.”
What Gillen achieves with “Iron Metropolitan” is bringing to bear the problems of the Jazz Age—the hubris of building New York skywards, the vast economic discrepancies, the unique cultural visions of movements like art deco and jazz and futurism—on a geopolitical arena that’s already seen the breakup of the Soviet Union, the transition of intelligence apparatuses into a new role of criminal enterprise networks (as Misha Glenny explained in McMafia), and the accepted wisdom of the human impact on the globe being an overwhelming driver of our species’ and others’ mass extinctions.
It’s almost the perfect Iron Man story. And in many ways, it takes us back to the Grand Old Style, the style perfected by David Michelinie in the pitch-perfect Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle, which played out over something like 18 months of real world time, and only offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse in the two concluding issues. This long, slow, grand opera style of storytelling is really something that’s been missed in comics for the longest time. And here it is now, we can hold it in our hands. And it’s infused with all the things that make our generation’s world so much more complex than earlier generations’. It’s finally the Iron Man by Kieron Gillen we deserve.
Except of course, that that is exactly what makes Iron Man feel so eerily out of place in today’s comicbook marketplace.
We saw this model of grand opera style storytelling play out to great effect in the closing decades of the last century and the first decade of this one. Grant Morrison writes New X-Men, and it’s 19 storyarcs but one grand tale about biology’s next evolutionary leap is its struggle with escaping the planetary biosphere. Brian Michael Bendis writes Daredevil and it’s a six-year, 56-issue long saga about Daredevil being hounded by the press after he’s exposed to be criminal defense attorney Matthew Murdock.
The model was so completely infectious, so seductive that by the time superstar writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction collaborate on The Immortal Iron Fist, the book has a strange feel about it—as if the opening storyarc “The Last Iron Fist Story” could be the beginning of a decades-long legacy hero where the perpetual fiction baton is passed from one creative team to the next. And that is a truly strange place indeed, the Iron Fist has always been a second stringer character, and never really worth a protracted engagement. The best Iron Fist stories, have always run on a limited engagement, terminable basis. Creators, editors, someone (who can say who?) knew that these series, like Iron Fist, were ultimately terminable. And drew a kind of strength from know that an end must come.
A cursory look at Marvel now (which is to say Marvel right now at this moment, but also the rebranding of Marvel NOW!) sees the kind of storytelling that has turned its back on grand operatic longevity of a single series bound by and needing to conform to continuity, and an almost wholehearted embrace of the terminable storytelling model. Look at such projects as Ales Kot’s cartoonish sensibility that informs the reboot of Secret Avengers, or Charles Soule’s similarly hyperbolic Thunderbolts or for that matter Kaare Andrews’ magnificent kung fu noir thriller that is Iron Fist, the Living Weapon or Warren Ellis’ Moon Knight which reads like a preternatural reworking of his lead character from Planetary, Elijah Snow, sans the Planetary organization backing him up. Add into the mix Savage Wolverine and Elektra and Black Widow and The Punisher and you begin to see a fairly convincing argument for terminable series that evolve a grander narrative of a fictional universe (like the grander operatic style that’s reserved for Avengers and X-Men books these days) only for a limited engagement.
The model of such terminable series isn’t entirely Marvel’s “fault,” as it were. It’s a technique that rival publisher DC’s been pioneering since the fall of 2011, with the launch of its New 52 universe. Such books as The Grifter and Blackhawks and O.M.A.C. and Mr. Terrific and G.I. Combat have appeared only to disappear a few months on. But at each key phase, and with each of these titles, the ongoing narrative of the New 52 has been evolved.
There’s a “battle” brewing to be sure, between grand operatic storytelling styles and legacy books that hark back as far as two, three generations back, and on the other side, this kind of social media-style storytelling where entire series are more terminable than they ever were, but what endures is the fictive universe. But it’s hard to see from its current state how Marvel will be the publisher where such the future of these storytelling styles and their impact on the future of perpetual fictions are decided.
Given DC’s release of Batman: Eternal and Futures End, two yearlong weekly titles which are competing head-to-head with each other, the two styles of grand operatic and terminable seem to be thrown openly into experimentation. Which model will succeed? The Jeff Lemire, Brian Azzarello directed opus that sees DC’s heroes fight their own future (a future ready to cannibalize even the idea of superheroes) that readily reads as a terminable project? Or the vaster, yearlong canvas for the grand operatic tradition that give lease to Scott Snyder’s capacity to produce a generationally relevant Batman story in the same way that Carmine Infantino produced a generationally relevant Flash story or Geoff Johns produced a generationally relevant Green Lantern story.
Whose will be done? I hope both.