Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Iron Man: Haunted

“Haunted” successfully ties plot threads and seeds from Stark’s previous stories while sending him on an emotional journey filled with mystery, political intrigue, and an action-packed finale.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

iron man hauntedWriters: Daniel Knauf, Charles Knauf

Artists: Butch Guice, Roberto De La Torre, Carlo Pagualyan

Issues: Iron Man: Director of SHIELD #21-28

“How do you feel, sir?”
“How do I feel? I saved 97.5% of the human race. Proved everyone who doubted me wrong…and I kicked the living crap out of The Mandarin. I feel great.”

Considering Tony Stark became an even bigger asshole during the whole Civil War event, his solo series during that time has been surprisingly fantastic. As the Director of SHIELD Stark’s resources and reach have never been higher, yet neither has the emotional and psychological toll. In the massive eight part story arc, “Haunted,” the writing father/son team of Daniel and Charles Knauf successfully tie together the story elements and seeds that Warren Ellis planted back in the first arc while giving Tony Stark an emotional journey filled with mystery, political intrigue, and an action-packed finale.

Don’t be fooled by the trade paperback’s terrible decision to use the Iron Man: Director of SHIELD Annual issue as its cover – neither the art nor tone is reflective of the darkened styling and patient pace of the story, and it’s a completely separate, one-shot issue. “Haunted” begins like an episode of a murder-of-the-week TV show, as a pair of registered heroes in Omaha Nebraska are exploring a disturbance in an abandoned building. They stumble upon a minor villain named Gravitron, he says some cryptic stuff, and one of them is killed while the other lands in the hospital. Stark visits the hospitalized hero and villain to try and get some answers, and it’s there that he starts seeing dead people from his past like Happy Hogan, Sal, and Steve Rogers.

iron man #25Stark begins to piece the puzzle together and the comic takes on a forensics and investigative format, which is both familiar and yet a fun way to approach a comic book story. The art also compliments the tone perfectly with a dark, painted look that somehow achieves consistency despite three different artists being used throughout the run. Dialogue scenes and faces look especially fantastic, while the few action scenes suffer somewhat as colors and characters blend together a bit too much.

Stark’s investigations are stymied by his own Superhero Initiative. As he’s been displaying erratic and questionable behavior, including leaving his suit on for days at a time, psychologist and perennial guest-star Doc Samson is called in to treat him. Stark is forced to wear a power-inhibiting ankle bracelet and about to be put under house arrest until he proves to Samson that there is in fact a major cover-up going on. Dr. Maya Henson, the woman from the “Extremis” story line that created the virus (and later administered it to Stark), had faked her suicide and gone to work for a pharmaceutical company to continue Extremis’ research and development.

Unfortunately for everyone, the company is run by The Mandarin, Iron Man’s old nemesis. The Mandarin’s return was teased in Iron Man’s previous story arc, and in a classic comic book clash only Stark believed that he was back. The Mandarin is a fun villain in how he manipulates Dr. Henson, and in the end his desire is to unleash Extremis upon the world, forcing humanity to evolve with it even if ninety-seven point five percent of the world will die in the process.

With a massive eight issues to explore a fairly simple story, “Haunted” really takes its time diving into Stark’s stressful investigation, as well as the political ramifications of being the Director of SHIELD. When they finally discover The Mandarin and his plan, Stark battles him in an older, non Extremis-powered armor and has SHIELD deploy a special self-contained nuke on the entire research facility.

iron man #27

It’s an effective measure (though Mandarin escapes, it’s only issue #26!) but I liked that Stark has to then answer for dropping a nuclear weapon on American soil. The government is not pleased and just as he’s rendered guilty, his SHIELD supporting cast of Maria Hill and Tim Dugan bail him out, letting him escape to hunt down the Mandarin and prove that he’s still out there with a biological weapon.

iron man #26The end wraps up rather quickly in the final two issues as Stark is able to pinpoint Mandarin’s location relatively quickly to the exact company he happens to be at in China, then flies right through the building and begins the final melee showdown that lasts several brutalizing pages. It’s a violent final battle that ends when Iron Man rips Mandarin’s trademark rings that were embedded in his spine right out, and taps into the Extremis-filled missiles to make them harmlessly detonate up in the stratosphere where the cold kills the virus.

Tony Stark saves the day and is vindicated of all charges. For a long story arc containing a minimum of supporting cast, “Haunted,” captured my attention throughout each issue. My only complaint is that Maya Henson is reduced to a manipulated damsel in distress, and in the end is rescued by Stark with a kiss (so she believes it’s really him), which is a cheesy cliché that the comic had otherwise managed to avoid.

If Iron Man were an ongoing TV show this story would’ve made a great half-season or mini-series, and the writing sensibilities definitely reflect a television format. I especially enjoy that it integrated Stark’s past characters and stories into a strong culmination that includes his oldest and greatest foe, even if he defeats him a bit too easily.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Iron Man: Director of SHIELD

The new era of the Initiative stems from the world-changing results of the superhero Civil War: namely that Tony Stark is the new Director of SHIELD and pushing forward with his grand plans of a government sanctioned superhero squad in all fifty states.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

iron man director of shield #15 coverWriters: Charlie Knauf, Daniel Knauf

Artist: Robert De La Torre

Issues: Iron Man: Director of Shield #15-18

The primary solo Iron Man series at the time of the mid to late 2000s was a wee bit confusing, changing names from The Invincible Iron Man to Iron Man, then Iron Man: Director of SHIELD until War Machine takes over to end the run and begin a new one. Thus although the volume is titled Iron Man: Director of SHIELD, it uses the same numbering that first started with the excellent Iron Man: Extremis back in late 2004.

I don’t usually write my Final Thoughts after a single short story arc, but seeing as the next two Iron Man issues are World War Hulk tie-ins, I’d better tackle these now. The new era of the Initiative stems from the world-changing results of the superhero Civil War: namely that Tony Stark is the new Director of SHIELD and pushing forward with his grand plans of a government sanctioned superhero squad in all fifty states.

While various Avengers titles have cropped up or changed to suit the still split superhero community at the time, Iron Man’s solo series focuses solely on his dealings with SHIELD, and works as a great continuation of his previous storylines. I actually skipped the story arc after Extremis, then dropped back in for his Civil War tie-ins – which were pretty meh (like most of them). Director of Shield brings back genetic researcher Maya Henson as Stark’s former colleague and ex-lover, and co-creator of the Extremis formula (which now runs through Tony, allowing him to shed and gather his suit at will).

iron man director of shield #16Maya and Tony are concerned about the increased level of attack and sophistication level of various random terrorist cells, just the thing that SHIELD deals with on a fairly constant basis. Former SHIELD director Dugan has concerns about Stark’s ability to run SHIELD, accusing him of running it like a company and micromanaging at every level. Indeed Stark feels the need to jump in and save the day as Iron Man in just about every situation they find themselves in.

Eventually their research and investigation leads to one of Iron Man’s oldest foes – the Mandarin. The Mandarin strikes at Tony and SHIELD by cleverly planting an organic bomb in the body of their lead, and when the dead terrorist is brought up to the helicarrier for autopsy, it explodes in a suitably creepy Alien-style moment, attacking and infecting everyone on board. Meanwhile Iron Man is down at the prison facility fighting off waves of cyber-modified zombie creatures and has to race up the helicarrier to save the day again.

All of issue 18 is one big battle, and it’s pretty damn fun. The tentacled organic thing is an exciting and creepy foe that results in the death of a semi-major character in Tony’s life, his aging hippie friend Sal. There’s a neat moment where Tony briefly flashes to the other recent deaths in his life, namely his bodyguard and friend Happy and of course Steve Rogers. Stark is only able to defeat the creature by learning that Maya’s Extremis virus (which he forbade her from researching further) would be able to cure it. He sheds his suit, gives his best Come at Me Bro line, and lets it infect him.

About a third of the helicarrier is destroyed and Stark and SHIELD have been built a huge blow, but Stark’s plan works and the dangerous creature melts off of him. He correctly surmises that the attack was a simple diversion as they never did find Mandarin, nor I believe even learn of his involvement in the plot. Dr. Maya Henson is shown at the end going to a previously offered research facility so she can further her work – away from Stark – and it’s run by Mandarin! Dun Dun DUNNNN!

iron man director of shield #18

Despite Stark coming off like a complete asshole from Civil War, I really enjoyed his first outing as SHIELD Director. The father and son writers effectively layer in the politics and implication of how SHIELD’s run in this new era under Stark while also providing a fun and decidedly comic book-y villain and climax. The heavily shaded artwork is quite a bit darker than artist Torre’s other work on Ms. Marvel; I really dug the very Earth-y tones of brown and red, interestingly making Iron Man blend in rather than stand out and giving the sci-fi plot and elements a very dark feel. Director of SHIELD isn’t quite yet required reading for what’s going on during the Initiative time frame (aka the year between Civil War and Secret Invasion), but so far it’s a fun romp starring a very driven and conflicted Tony Stark.