An American in Svartelfheim

Invincible Iron Man #506 will most likely never be that single work that pushes writer Matt Fraction towards consideration for the Nobel Laureate for Literature. Yet, the issue is already richly steeped in the tradition of the award. “The Apostate” (a tie-in to Marvel’s currently-run megaevent “Fear Itself”) sees Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca shape the tale of Tony Stark’s Iron Man sacrifice his sobriety to gain an audience with Odin.

It’s one of the most compact issues to date. In the first act, Tony reels from losing years of sobriety, having sacrificed for an audience with the father of Thor. In the second act, Tony attempts to pull back from the drunken spiral in order to marshal the dwarf engineers of Svartelfheim.

The book ties in with Marvel’s crossover event, “Fear Itself”, but Fraction’s writing is skilled enough that the full story unfolds in the pages of Iron Man #506. The Serpent, an old Norse-mythic threat has reemerged and poisons the world with fear. Odin, who once defeated this rogue god now believes it best to end the threat by destroying the world. Longtime atheist Tony Stark sacrifices his sobriety to Odin in order gain an audience. But in an audacious turnaround barters for the use of Odin’s forge at Svartelfheim, rather than petitioning for divine intercession.

Tony drunk , in Fraction’s hands, (and there’s really no other description) is handled beautifully. This loss of sobriety is something that has been building up since Fraction took the reins as series writer in 2008. The history of this moment is long in the making and Fraction has seeded past issues with incredible skill and incredible subtlety. It’s not just that the first of Tony’s five nightmares (from the opening storyarc “The Five Nightmares”) is getting drunk. It’s that alcoholism has been a specter continually haunting this volume of The Invincible Iron Man.

Earlier this year in the exquisitely crafted “What It Was Like, What Happened, What It’s Like Now” (Invincible Iron Man #500.1), Fraction writes Tony attending an AA meeting. Rather than focus on the fantastical nature of his Iron Man persona, Fraction writes Tony as presenting the issues of his life in a corporate-speak metaphor. He isn’t captured and tortured by terrorists, he just has a mean boss. But what Fraction does is humanize Tony completely. More Man than Iron.

At his most eloquent, and most moving Fraction writes for Tony: “After a few days like that I had a week. After a few days more there was a month. Day by day I started climbing out of it. I was terrified and sad and confused and lost… more so than I had ever been in my entire life. But day after day after day I kept not-drinking and showing up for these little cups of coffee. I started listening and one day woke up and felt strong. Strong enough to fight back again. Strong enough to get my ass kicked and not go crawling back into a bottle again… Gradually I came to realize… if I kept coming for the free coffee and listening… I could handle no matter what weird curveball came my way. I could rebuild, reinvent, redo. Re-everything. Everything I lost I could find again”.

After years of writing Tony as guarding against a return to alcoholic benders, Fraction finds a way for Tony losing his sobriety seem almost heroic. And we still haven’t encountered the post-binge Tony. “The Apostate” is the Tony still buzzing from the high. Tony fearless enough to stare down the Father of Gods, but also struggling to make himself understood through his stupor. This is a deep and careful and above all skilled crafting of a precise emotional response. It is seldom seen in comics, seldom seen in literature.

“The Apostate” is so finely-crafted that it might lure you into reading it as a popular tract on the clash between atheism and religion. This reading severely limits the full scope of Fraction’s project. This is not simply the story of “the good atheist forced into unforgiving religion”, rather it is a broader cultural project that reaches back to before the founding of the US. In short it is the way in which the New World encounters the Old, how traditions of democracy and inherent freedom brush up against aristocracy and ritual.

Memorably it plays out in an exchange of personal letters between Edward Teller and Richard Feynman. Both men physicists, both in their own way fathers of the nuclear bomb. This exchange of letters was occasioned by the happy news of Feynman being awarded the Nobel in 1965.

Teller writes, “I wish I could be there to observe you when you are on your best behavior in your interaction with the King of Sweden. It will be quite a phenomenon”. To which Feynman replies, “The phenomenon you wish to observe with my interaction with the King of Sweden frightens me as much as it interests you. Anything can happen, but I suppose nothing really will”.

And later at his banquet speech, “The work I have done has already been adequately rewarded and recognized… The prize was a signal to permit them to express, and me to learn about, their feelings. Each joy, though transient thrill, repeated in so many places amounts to a considerable sum of human happiness… And so you Swedish people, with your honors and your king–forgive me. For I understand at last–such things provide entrance to the heart. Used by a wise and peaceful people they can generate good feeling, even love, among men, even in lands far beyond your own”.

Feynman’s speech is a clean, compact illustration what Thomas Jefferson referred to as the “natural aristocracy”. A category of person who excels simply by “virtue and talents”, rather than the “bodily power” of the Old World aristoi. What is evident in the banquet speech is Feynman’s mastery of Old World pomp and circumstance, regalia and ritual. It is exactly as Teller predicted.

Equally evident is Fraction’s mastery of the dreaded megaevent tie-in issue. Rather than force his own literary program to the very periphery of the book, Fraction makes Tony’s personality and situation core to the telling of “Fear Itself”.

RATING 10 / 10
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