Beek's Books - an ongoing collection of comic book reviews
 Iron Man (Marvel)
Then and Now - A look at the two recent "Number One" issues
 Heroes Reborn
Iron Man volume 2, #1
story by Scott Lobdell and Jim Lee
art by Whilce Portacio and Scott Williams

Rating: bad, Content: [super]

 Full disclosure: 1) I've never been a big fan of Marvel. I grew up reading DC books, so my interest in - and familiarity with - Marvel stuff has always been limited. I know who all the major characters are and a little bit about them, but not much about the Marvel Universe in general. 2) I've never been a fan at all of Image Comics "core" studios... lots of "flash" and not nearly enough skill or creativity, in my opinion.

  So when I hard that Marvel was handing creative control of four of its "big name" series over to the studios run by Image founders Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee, I wasn't very optimistic about the results.

 In fact, there was no way I could get myself to pick up Captain America or The Avengers, the two titles under the direction of Rob Liefeld, whose art I find ugly and only marginally competent, and whose attitude I find irritating. But I kind of thought I should be fair and give Jim Lee's studio a chance. So on impulse, mostly, I picked up his first issue of Iron Man.

 The idea was that Lee and Liefeld got to start from scratch with the characters Marvel had hired them to take over, doing what they wished with them (within reason). So this #1 was to feature the origin of an all-new Iron Man. So at least I wouldn't be at a disadvantage from not really knowing the character or his supporting cast. (About all I knew about Iron Man was from the theme song: "Iron Man, Iron Man, does whatever an iron can..." {grin}) The problem is, that by the end of the issue, I didn't really want to know any of them. "Hero" Tony Stark, for example, was an condescending self-important twit.

   The art didn't help at all. It's bad enough that Tony Stark was an unlikeable ass, but he (along with everyone else) also looked like some kind of physical freak. For example, Whilce Portacio seemed to have little idea of what a human head looks like, drawing it as if the cranium and the neck extended back several inches behind the ears. "Gamma scientist" Bruce Banner (who becomes the Hulk) looked, for some reason, like an effete and trendy art school student (not that I can explain how Portacio would know what they look like). And his absurd rendering of the Hulk (apparently needed to distinguish him from the other misshapen monsters) made me want to nominate Liam Sharp (whose work on The Incredible Hulk I disliked) for an art award. Even the women were ugly... despite their well-displayed breasts. Nearly every page was dark, and claustrophobic (even without backgrounds)... ick.

 This was a double-length issue, which would presumably leave enough room to tell a good story. They didn't make good use of it, though. Between shoehorning the origin of the Hulk into the story and the fact that the last several pages were little more than pin-ups (including a double-page pin-up to end it), a lot happened, but very little was told. Nonetheless, I'd read enough.

 Heroes Return
Iron Man volume 3, #1
story by Kurt Busiek
art by Sean Chen and Eric Cannon

Rating: good, Content: [super]

 Full disclosure: 1) I've been quite impressed with Kurt Busiek's writing. Despite my apathy toward the Marvel Universe, he was the second writer (after Peter David, who writes The Incredible Hulk) to get me to buy a Marvel series every month for over two years (Untold Tales of Spider-Man). 2) I felt vindicated to see that "Heroes Reborn" (on which I'd wasted $2.95) was being scrapped.

  So when I hard that Marvel was handing creative control of two of the restored series over Busiek, I was optimistic about the results. I decided immediately that Iron Man would get a second chance with me.

 Tony Stark turned out to be human after all, both in terms of Sean Chen's physical rendering of him (he was even handsome), and Busiek's characterisation of him. Instead of arrogant, he was merely confident; instead of self-important, he was actually charitable. He was disoriented by the events that had taken place during the year he was gone, but had effectively come up with a cover story to explain why Tony Stark was missing for the year that Iron Man was off being abused by Lee's studio.

  Unlike the "Heroes Reborn" #1, this story did not start from scratch; it assumed that pretty much everything that happened in the 300+ issues of Iron Man vol.1 still happened. This put the writer at a distinct disadvantage for telling a story to a relative newbie to Marvel like me. But Busiek managed to introduce the various supporting characters (even without relying on the introductory text in the inside cover). The only place I got leery on this point was the last page, where we saw a bunch of characters in shadow, each vowing to do all sorts of nasty things to Tony Stark. Old fans no doubt recognised them; I of course did not. Mark Waid did the same sort of thing in his Captain America relaunch last month... a nod to the old-timers and a bit of foreshadowing to pique curiosity, I guess.

  Busiek used the extra space in this issue (all hyped #1's get extra pages these days) to good effect. There were "civilian" scenes that not only introduced the cast and established Tony Stark's relationship to other Marvel-Universe notables (Spider-Man's boss, DareDevil's law partners), but helped us get to know Stark a bit. There were some apparent parallels to scenes in the Lobdell/Lee-written #1, and how differently he handled them were telling. And of course there was also some costumed conflict, which showed us the Iron Man side of Stark's character, at something of a disadvantage but prevailing nonetheless... and then disappointed at the costs - and limits - of that success. I felt I had in fact read a complete story (despite the foreshadowing at the end), compared to vol.2 #1, which ended up as just a really long set-up for the vol.2 #2 I never bought.

 I will buy vol.3 #2, however.

 (The Hulk is nowhere to be found in this book, by the way. He's safely over in the hands of Peter David, where he's "really" been this whole time.)

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