Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ultimate Iron Man

I wrote this a while ago for my comics column and didn't post it because it looked too much like nepotism. It's a review of Ultimate Iron Man by Orson Scott Card. Before I post it, though, I want to clarify for all the people who have asked that just because I work for the Orson, I don't agree with him on everything. For starters, Iraq, gay marriage, taste in music, and the true purpose of the goatee. (I say it's a sign of secret allegiance to Satan.)

Ultimate Iron Man

Besides the bladder-bursting special scene, Iron Man turned out to be a surprisingly good superhero movie. I put it up with the Spider-Man and X-Men movies, just below the holiness that is Batman Begins. Our good Chris Bellamy has covered the film in glorious style, so check out his review and let me give the nerd history. (There will be an exam later.)
Iron Man the 60s comic began with Tony Stark the weapons designer, trapped by the Viet Cong and forced to build a bomb. Instead, he built a suit of armor that would keep his shrapnel-laced heart alive. A wizened scientist helped him; someone who had gotten on the wrong side of Charlie. In the end, the old scientist did a kamikaze style attack to buy Tony some time before the armor came online, giving him the motivation he needed to continue fighting evil when his buddy died. If you saw the movie, you know it follows this tactic almost exclusively, replacing the Viet Cong with an Al-Qaeda/Taliban type group.
From then on, Tony’s heart is his Kryptonite and his billionaire playboy lifestyle a way to finance the many suits of armor. In the comics, his alcoholism has also dogged him, and recently, his tendency to run the superhero community like a President with unlimited vetoes.
Ultimate Iron Man is a very, very different take on the hero. It’s so different it’s amazing that it ends up in a similar place, but at the same time, it’s more than worth the read for a fan of the movie. In Ultimate Iron Man, Tony is born an Iron Man as the result of an experimental illness that infected his mother, and tries to survive life as a childhood genius on the run from the law. From the beginning, he is trying to take back the company that has been stolen from his father.
The childhood genius angle should come as no surprise, as the comic is written by a certain Orson Scott Card. You may have heard of him. (Yes, this is the hand that feeds me, and it tastes like chocolate.)
Since Scott prefers that his peons refer to him as Mighty Card, I’ll accede to his royal wishes. His Cardness begins the story with Howard Stark, Tony’s father. Howard has invited a rather attractive young geneticist to help with his latest project: liquid armor. Together they watch as the blue liquid is poured all over a test subject, who then gets smacked so hard with a baseball bat that it breaks. The subject is unharmed. Liquid armor, Howard explains later, is obviously useful stuff, but it eats into people’s skin after the first few minutes. The geneticist has come to help build better bodies to wear the armor—bodies that will regrow the skin that has been eaten away.
At the same time, Howard Stark’s ex-wife is scheming with his arch-rival, Zebediah Stane (father of Obidiah, Jeff Bridges the Dude in the film) to take over the company. While they plan their takeover, the now pregnant geneticist, having become Howard’s new wife, gets bitten by a test subject and infected by the virus she designed to regenerate body cells eaten by the armor.
The virus causes her body to regenerate to the point of killing her. All at once, she dies, the child is born, and the company is bought out.
Tony, the child, is freakishly smart due to the effects of the virus on his growing brain, and in constant pain as well. The only way to save the baby from the pain is by covering him in the blue stuff.
Howard, the father, takes his son and his technology and runs, constantly moving away from his company, which has now been turned against him. Eventually he seems to get the upper hand back when Stane is convicted, but a few more twists remain, especially since this series serves only as a prologue. Most twisty of all, Tony decides that his skin is not enough, and begins building himself an iron suit.
Although this is a comic with some convoluted twists and turns, the Card keeps the dialogue minimal, contributing only to the story and barely giving us time to breathe. I was surprised. From someone who makes a living telling stories only with words, the dialogue in Ultimate Iron Man is sparse. Sometimes it’s too sparse, as in the paragraphs where the black characters seem to be carrying on an entirely different conversation with Tony about race from the one they were having moments before. In those moments, I wish I had some of His Orsonness’ exposition about what the characters are thinking. But most of the time it’s a refreshingly quick read in a medium where writers rely heavily on dialogue.
There are some poignant moments that follow Card’s tradition of self-deprecating humor, like when Howard’s wife, just before dying, weeps at his assertation that he will never find another woman like her. “Idiots who get infected with a virus they designed themselves are a dime a dozen.”
The art is also a mixture of bad and good points. Most of the book is drawn by Andy Kubert, who brings a hulking dynamism to the characters, both good and bad, and whose perspectives are always brilliant, like in the scene where the blue-coated man flies toward the camera headfirst, baseball bat shattering in the background. Some of his details are a bit too sketchy or exaggerated, especially with the extreme close-ups he favors. But almost every shot is a risky, forced-perspective lurch, from claustrophobic facial shots to twisting around an expansive fight scene, giving one the feeling that the series is constantly switching between epic to personal.
The art takes a downturn with the change to Mark Bagley, who is traditionally a good artist for light, cartoony books, and good when inked by someone who gets his clean, bright style. Unfortunately, this is not a light cartoony book, and inker Danny Miki makes Bagley’s work look much too dirty. However, they do manage a brilliant moment where Tony takes his first drink and realizes the inborn pain of his physical life can be washed away… with alcohol. And thus begins life as a billionaire playboy boozehound.
His Royal Orsonness has a sequel series running now, with the very talented Pasqual Ferry, and I intend to pick it up.


Th. said...


I wanted to read this, but I really knew nothing of the Iron Man character until the movie this summer (which I liked). But by then I had forgotten about Ultimate Iron Man (and I didn't really like Ultimate X-Men) so there you go. I'll have to check my local library.

Spencer Ellsworth said...