Tales of Suspense

From the brilliant, Steranko-derived TPB cover by Adi Granov to the inclusion of tasty extras like reprints of Strange Tales #135 (S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first apppearance) and Iron Man #129 (a classic Michelinie-Layton story which resolves the S.H.I.E.L.D. takeover plotline threaded through their "Demon in a Bottle" storyline), it seems apparent that Marvel is intent on using their new trade paperback collection, Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. as one big mea culpa for the abuses they've put this longstanding character through in the last few years (a feeling further enhanced by the insightful interviews with father-son writing team Charlie and Daniel Knauf, and the detailed "character bios" that are thrown in, as if to say, "No, it's really good to know about this character").

Well, good-- Iron Man could use a little love. As I've been noting at length, Iron Man/Tony Stark is a fascinating figure whose complex mixture of power, wealth and superheroics makes him, potentially, Marvel's best character. Sadly, that potential has seldom been tapped in recent years, but the stories collected in Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. suggest the book is definitely back on track. Indeed, reading it in the Houston airport a couple of weeks ago, I found myself smiling in delight-- this is a top-notch blend of action, character, humor and pathos that returns Stark's humanity to him, and uses that humanity to craft an intriguing political thriller.

Some background: after a year-long, multi-book saga called Civil War-- a massively stupid marketing gimmick that crossed over into every Marvel title, to little real dramatic effect-- Tony Stark finds himself powerful and alone. He's become director of the global anti-terrorist group S.H.I.E.L.D., but he's isolated from the superheroes he once counted as his friends because of his actions during "Civil War." And his new friends at S.H.I.E.L.D. don't necessarily trust him either-- he's running it too much "like one of his damn companies," as one character puts it, and he doesn't understand the group's military ethos. Even longtime friends and associates in the sciences wonder if he knows what he's gotten into. A proud, arrogant and driven man, Stark-- close to falling off the wagon just a few issues before-- is determined to push forward and remap the nation's security in his own way. But there's an old enemy coming to life again in China...

All of this is delivered in an often dazzling way by the Knaufs, who bring to the book a real cinematic sensibility (Daniel had previously created the HBO program Carnivale), full of expert cross-cutting and flashbacks, and a keener sense of character than they've previously displayed. They took over writing chores on the title with issue seven (after Warren Ellis's departure), and I found their first year on the book to be pretty underwhelming; with twelve issues under their belt-- and the dopiness of Civil War out of the way-- they've really hit their stride, and this is the most convincing characterization of Stark I've read since the glory days of Denny O'Neil.

Their writing is beautifully matched by the art of penciler/inker Roberto de la Torre and inkers Jonathan Sibal and Karl Kessel and Cam Smith. There's an immense amount of detail and busywork in the backgrounds, as you'd expect on such a technologically-driven title, but de la Torre, for all his fragmented panels and canted angles, also has a beautiful sense of spacing and pacing: I never got the sense, as I do with some contemporary artists, that the chaos would turn into a visually incomprehensible mismash. Instead, there's a distinct rhythm to his pages, and when they finally break out into one or two page, full-page action spreads, it creates a tremendous sense of visual liberation and excitement. Writers and artists feel in tune here, all parties interested in using their considerable skills to tell good stories about their characters (and de la Torre's figuration is wonderfully expressive, calling to mind such past IM artists as Luke McDonnell and Bob Layton). There are a lot of parallels between the artists and their central character: both are thrown into a hopeless situation and told to fix it, while everything around them seems intent on undercutting their efforts (as the Knaufs note in their interview, every other title in the Marvel universe seems intent on making Tony Stark seem like an asshole, no matter how sophisticated the storylines in his own book). They may yet fall victim to Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada's pointless busybodying, but for now, Iron Man is the most enjoyable read in mainstream superheroing.


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