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What’s Past Is Prologue: The Best Comics of the Past Decade?

Could Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca have produced six perfect comics pages in the recent "Counting Up from Zero" issue of The Invincible Iron Man?

If not the best, then The Invincible Iron Man's "Counting Up from Zero" is at least among the most important comics of the millennium's first decade.

This single issue forms the opening salvo of the five-part storyarc "Stark: Disassembled", which details not so much the resurrection of the now-catatonic Iron Man Tony Stark, but probes the ethics behind the decision to effect that resurrection.

The storyarc fits in with "Dark Reign" crossover event, which began in the summer of 2009, itself a direct continuation of the Marvel universe-spanning plots established in 2008's mega-event, "Secret Invasion" and 2007's "Civil War".

In "Counting Up from Zero", series regulars writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca, along with series regular colorist Frank D'Armata produce a poignant and above all, disciplined comics to visualize Tony Stark's final address as the disgraced Director of intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D.

It is in these final thoughts that Tony details a failsafe contingency that would see him resurrected, as well as see fences mended with Captain America and Thor (relations between the three having been strained since "Civil War"). Finally Tony addresses the possibility of bringing an end to the "Dark Reign" during which supervillains have posed as heroes and wrest control of the intelligence community and political machinery of the country.

Fraction and Larroca render this address as from the point of view of the gathered heroes. It is this decision to restrict Tony Stark's presence to nothing more than that of a ghost in the machine, that provides a powerful emotional core to "Counting Up from Zero". As much as this issue is about mending fences between the three most powerful superheroes of the Marvel universe (whose relations have been plagued by misunderstanding and animosity since the passing of the Superhero Registration Act in "Civil War"), this remains a story about Tony Stark, and how the world is emptier without him.

Lyrics from Bruce Springsteen's hauntingly vivid "Terry's Song" on his Magic album, 'all I know is I woke up this morning, and something big was gone', provide a critical trajectory for "Counting Up from Zero". Here readers are offered a vision of the humor, humanity and stern intelligence of a man who not only predicts his own demise (and thereby plans his own resurrection) but also has the fortitude to leave the decision of whether he should be resurrected to his gathered friends and allies.

Tony's address is rendered in a highly disciplined and painstakingly expressive comics of 45 single-panel close-ups, spanning six pages. Each page presents an eight-panel grid (four vertically-stacked rows of two panels each). Over the course of this final recording, Tony details the plan for his resurrection but also meditates on what New Noir writer James Ellroy might refer to as the 'victimology' of the situation. How could events have come to this? How could things have gotten so bad that villains parade as heroes after having duped the broader public?

Since 2007's "Civil War" where hero fought hero in a political stand for or against the Superhero Registration Act, Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada and Publisher Dan Buckley have orchestrated the Marvel mainstream universe as an uncertain and subjective but also hugely cathartic mirror for the schisms in American society.

Sentiments that began as pro- and anti-war quickly exposed the deeper vein of liberal and conservative, which spiraled into Democrat and Republican in the face of the 2004 election. "Civil War" detailed that same emotional complex as part of a fictive schism around the Superhero Registration Act.

Senator Obama's 2008 campaign platform of hope and change, and Senator McCain's platform of being Maverick, seemed to reflect on the underlying sentiments hope and fear suggested in 2008's "Secret Invasion" where shape-shifting alien Skrull sleeper agents were discovered to have been posing as superheroes for years.

At first glance, 2009's "Dark Reign" seemed to break with the tradition of society-wide cathartic fiction. What exactly was the underlying message of a "Dark Reign" where villains after having successfully repelled the Skrull invasion, now posed as heroes? Was it that idealism that had run rampant throughout the 2008 presidential election was at an end? Or was there a more understated message that subtle threats to liberty like larger government still needed to be addressed? The social-cathartic message of "Dark Reign" remained slightly more muddled than the crisp clarity of prior years' crossover mega-events.

But it was writer Brian Michael Bendis' characterization of Norman Osborn (erstwhile Spider-Man villain, the Green Goblin) as the Iron Patriot (analog to Tony Stark's Iron Man) in Dark Avengers that painted a human face to the story of the "Dark Reign". "Dark Reign" is about the search for redemption. The most sinister element in Norman Osborn's psychology is his unwavering belief in his redemption at the hands of the office he now holds as Director of the intelligence agency H.A.M.M.E.R. which has come to replace S.H.I.E.L.D.

For Osborn as well other villains, "Dark Reign" is a moral rejuvenation. But this leaves the superheroes themselves to be sidelined in their own ongoing story. Moreover, Osborn's lunatic manipulations of resources, rabid fear- and hatemongering and continued divide-and-conquer policies threaten to stall his anticipated redemption by corrupting the office he now holds.

From the view of Norman Osborn, and his struggle between redemption and corruption, "Dark Reign" becomes a moving and human tale. First-time readers might even find themselves given to doubts as to the position of superheroes in the Marvel mainstream continuity. Could these heroes really be the tyrannical ego-hounds Osborn has painted them as? Could their very existence be deemed oppressive?

Marginalizing their core cast of heroes to tell story of their villains counts as a courageous decision by Marvel. But there remains the possibility of righting this skewed view of the mainstays of Marvel's publishing run. There remains the irreconcilable corrupt and corrupting politics of Norman Osborn. And the necessity to correct that twisted status quo.

With "Counting Up from Zero", Matt Fraction offers a view of the Marvel universe rarely seen during the "Dark Reign" -- the world as seen through the eyes of the heroes themselves.

With Tony's final address, Fraction achieves a concerted and focused character study. Here is a radical reimagining of the Iron Man character and his motivations. Distinct from Bendis' vision of Tony Stark who is unable to understand how ordinary people make themselves exceptional, Fraction offers readers a Tony Stark haunted by failure. The monumental expanse of the Stark Industries financial empire spanning four continents, the driven genius that produced the visionary Iron Tech that powers the Iron Man armor all do little to assuage Tony's fear of failure in Fraction's pinpoint accurate view.

It is this incisive and sustained characterization that fuels Larroca's deeply animated and quietly persuasive visual rendering of Tony Stark. 45 panels of pure characterization, visualized as a hauntingly good-humored mix of arrogance and cynicism in an effort to escape failure, stand as a testament to a radical new direction in mainstream comics. Here, readers are given a first glimpse of the pure drama of well-defined character-driven storytelling.

The subtle shifts in expression, the mock bravado and the genuine bravery, the doubt and the certainty of purpose all point to six pages in "Counting Up from Zero" as being singular, and worth critical attention.

Fraction's own words bear on this possible new direction in mainstream superhero comics, where the severe limitations of sustained and repeated images unfold, rather than subtract a magnificent drama -- What's past is prologue.

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