Iron Man 2.0 #5
You gotta give them props for being honest with us: whatever semblance of a story Iron Man 2.0 may have been telling in its first four issues is completely unimportant compared to the possibility of scratching at a small corner of this month's giant crossover. War Machine says as much, "wow, I was fighting someone else and doing something completely different, and then a crossover happened, so here I am with some other guys who've never appeared in my comic before doing something completely unrelated." The problem is that, as uninteresting as Fear Itself has proved to be so far, the hook for this particular crossover is still a billion times more interesting than whatever the hell Iron Man 2.0 has been doing for four issues.
(Don't worry, I know what it's been doing, I've read it. So far it all adds up to a strangely deaf attempt to ape the tone of Fraction's regular Iron Man. And since Fraction's regular Iron Man is already kind of a boring book at its very best, Iron Man 2.0 comes out like a faded photocopy of a VCR manual.)
I was one of the few comics bloggers who was strangely unmoved by the recent Iron Fist reboot - I just don't care that much about martial arts in comics under the very best of circumstances. Given that, you have a pretty steep road to climb to get me to want to pay attention to Iron Fist, and what I read seemed oddly static and talky for a martial arts adventure. But this actually was pretty fun. If in hindsight a surprisingly large percentage of pages in The Immortal Iron Fist was expository set-up, this is where we get the pay-off: some nice, fairly original characters and concepts added to the sandbox for later writers and artists to play with. In this case, Nick Spencer decided to check in and see what was going down in the Seven Cities of Heaven during Fear Itself; which involves getting the Immortal Weapons involved in the hunt for one of the Serpent's giant hammers; which involves Titania and the Absorbing Man; which I'm down with as well; which has fuck all to do with War Machine and is basically pressing the "pause" button on a series that's not yet five issues old. But maybe this is a good thing? Because honestly the way it was heading Iron Man 2.0 was really boring and superfluous. The regular storyline might not suck so bad when they take it off anesthesia in a few months. Maybe it actually gets some blood pumping with this definitively gratuitous crossover action.
I've written a great deal about how boring Matt Fraction's run on Thor has to date been. There is no doubt: he is leaning heavily on talented artists to fill sketchy plots with "epic" scenery, seemingly oblivious to the damning fact that even in hardcover the story will still take less than 20 minutes to read.
I've been on an old comics kick lately - lots of bronze age stuff, some 80s and 90s books as well, maybe some stuff I'll write about, maybe not - and it never ceases to amaze me how long it takes to read any average issue from 1985 or 1995 compared to almost any example from 2011. The change is easily explained: after Quesada and Jemas took over Marvel in 2000, they did away with thought balloons and third-person narrative captions. Not all at once, but slowly and more-or-less permanently. I still don't know, and really have not seen a single compelling reason, why these changes were pushed through so thoroughly, but the more I think about it the more I am fully convinced that this shift was undeniably deleterious to the long-term quality of the line. It's a question of economy: captions and thought balloons were an extremely efficient way of communicating a large amount of information in a surprisingly concise package. Back in 2000 $2.25 for 15 minutes of reading was a good deal. No amount of inflation will make $3 or $4 for 5 minutes a good deal for anyone.
The good news is that, as of this issue, Fraction seems to be getting ever so slightly more comfortable with the character and the format. This issue took more than 5 minutes to read - and there's a fair amount of content in here. We are left with the promise of a truly awesome Thor / Silver Surfer clash, which is something we haven't seen in decades. I already like this new relaunch better than I did the entirety of Fraction's previous storyline. It's fairly obvious that before he was padding for time before Fear Itself hit, laying the groundwork for that crossover with what was essentially an extended prelude. It's nothing short of scandalous that they expect to get off charging so much for so little, but maybe one of these days they'll figure out that people might just be inclined to buy more comics if they thought they were actually getting a reading experience commensurate with the exorbitant price, and not just ten or twelve Roger Dean album covers with some sparse lettering across them. Letting writers write more may have resulted in some talky, ponderous and boring comics back in the day, but it also offered an opportunity for more characters to shine by allowing an insight into every character's thoughts and feelings. Some of what has been lost might conceivably be dismissed as "cheap melodrama" by readers more accustomed to contemporary storytelling, but dramatic irony and purple prose were the grease in the gears of mainstream comics for at least fifty years. Throwing out many of the tools that allow the comic book reading experience to be distinct from any other entertainment medium is extremely short sighted, unless your only goal is to transform your properties into adaptation-friendly forms that can be easily transported into other mediums. Any contemporary issue of Avengers should illustrate this point well, with the writer actually resorting to reality TV debriefing scenes in order to convey exposition and character beats that could have been much more succinctly delivered through captioning.
A book like Fraction's Thor could definitely benefit from increased density. Thor is usually an ensemble book, and its cast can be very large - basically, the entire realm of Asgard, plus anyone else from Earth who happens to be near the action at any given moment (such as, for the moment, the town of Broxton, Oklahoma). There's only so much plot that Fraction can display in any given issue because the widescreen format he's chosen (literally widescreen, filled with long double-page spreads). There's only so much character development he can provide in the context of relentlessly epic action spreads. This issue was a bit more talky than usual, and I take that as a good sign: it actually took a few more minutes to read. Maybe with a bit more density the book might actually live up to some of its perpetually frustrated potential.
Marvel botched this title really badly, and what we're seeing here is some pretty aggressive water-treading in the form of an action-packed crossover tie-in. This was also written by the above-mentioned Nick Spencer, and appears to fit in either directly before or directly after the action in iron Man 2.0. As with that issue, this is a surprisingly good (not "great," but solidly good) and surprisingly focused tie-in story, even if it (again) has fuck-all to do with the stories that immediately preceded it.
(The problem with Fear Itself seems to be that the story itself really is nowhere near as involved as people were led to believe, hence a lot of people continually complaining that they don't "get" what it's really "about." For months we were "treated" to teaser images of all our heroes being faced with images of their greatest, most profound fears. It is reasonable that most people expected that the story would involve many of these heroes being brought face to face with their greatest, most profound fears in some fashion. But no, really, it's just about a bunch of bad shit happening all at once that the heroes are too busy to clean up in an organized fashion. A bunch of really strong people get giant magic hammers that make them even strongerer. So yeah. That's it: they're afraid because shit just got real. Which, eh, isn't really the story they advertised, but whatevs. How this is any real-er than Secret Invasion or Secret Wars II or Maximum fucking Security is not really clear. Giant hammers and Nazi robot? Oh my, the pulse, it throbs with suspense.)
Secret Avengers hasn't worked because the stories being told were nothing like the stories people wanted to read in an Avengers book with this cast of characters. As written, Brubaker's Secret Avengers was essentially a Steve Rogers book, with a loose cast of affiliated Avengers as tertiary characters being called as the mission required. The first arc, with the whole of the team on Mars, was something of a red herring: every subsequent story has gone out of its way to provide as little actual Avengers action as possible. So finally we get to see Avengers Avenging, and while it's better than what preceded it, that's not saying a lot. There's a bit of a ham-fisted conversation between the Beast and someone who is obviously supposed to be a stand in for John Lewis, a former Freedom Rider-turned-Congressman who is also an omega class mutant with the power to turn the Lincoln Memorial into a giant Nazi-killin kaiju. All well and good, and there was some good action bits in there, but obviously "fill in." Kind of sad that the fill-in actually works better than the regular series has up to now. Maybe the Warren Ellis run will be better, but I still don't think it will be anything like what people had in their minds' eyes when the book was announced over a year ago.