Friday, August 29, 2008

Ultimate Iron Man II #5

Ultimate Iron Man II #5

This Wednesday brought a long-awaited conclusion to the second Ultimate Iron Man mini-series, and yet the fandom was strangely silent about the whole thing. Perhaps by now most of us are used to the delays that plague the comics these days, particularly the ones under Marvel’s Ultimate imprint. Or perhaps Marvel is hoping to gather the fans’ attention when they inevitably publish the upcoming trade paperback collection that collects the whole mini in its preferred format.

In any case, it’s impossible to discuss this issue without turning the attention towards the whole project it serves to conclude.

It shouldn’t be hard to understand the way the whole enterprise begun, more than three years ago. Marvel was happy with the way the Ultimate line was doing, carefully managing it in four ongoing titles – Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Spiderman, Ultimates and Ultimate Fantastic Four. Tapping high profile creators to reimagine their key books as accessible, new reader-friendly titles brought a lot of success to Marvel.

Still, they had a major problem with their flagship title, the Ultimates, and the heavy delays it suffered. Not content on leaving money on the table, Marvel decided to have their cake and eat it too, filling in the publishing schedule with Ultimates Annuals and minis. When it came to spotlighting Iron Man, the editorial came up with the idea of pairing the famed SF novelist Orson Scott Card with Andy Kubert, a surefire veteran of the line, who worked on both Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four.

Counting on the publicity brining in a respected author would get them, Marvel had no reason to think there would be any problems with such a foolproof strategy.

And yet, after the deals were made and the project green-lighted, nothing seemed to go the way it was supposed to. The first mini took a long time to be completed, and by then Andy Kubert was already gone to DC, forcing Marvel to hire Ultimate Spiderman’s Mark Bagley to finish the last issue. By then, it was clear that the story will stretch to another mini-series, and Marvel worked to find a replacement for Kubert, whose action-oriented approach always felt a bit miscast with Card’s slow burn story.

And what a story it was. Starting out with the events surrounding Tony’s birth, it was clear from the start that this version of Iron Man had little in common with his older self , as depicted in the Ultimates. Perhaps invited on by Marvel to do another take on the kid genius archetype he spotlighted in his “Ender’s game” series of novels, Card concentrated on telling a coming of age story of teen Tony, that bears more similarity to Harry Potter than Marvel’s infamous Shellhead.

For some reason, even the mainstream Marvel universe toyed with the adolescent depiction of the character, which brought out the controversial “the Crossing” storyline that even replaced Marvel’s icon with his younger counterpart. It’s unclear what exactly motivates Marvel to keep presenting the version of the character that isn’t a playboy or a heavy drinker, character traits most closely associated with Iron Man.

In any case, the first mini ended on a cliffhanger, with adolescent Tony making his first moves towards his superhero destiny. Marvel waited a long time to pick a new artist and started serializing the second mini, despite the fact that such measures undermine the project’s already erratic schedule.

At last, come 2007, with Pasqual Ferry on artistic duties, Marvel was finally able to continue publishing Card’s story. Ferry was a great choice, as his style was open and attractive. He came on the book following a departure from working on Mister Miracle and penciling Ultimate Fantastic Four.

Again the series ran into schedule problems, and was at the last minute resolicited with a bonus issue, designated to tie up the loose ends. By then, the lateness had long scrapped any possibility of tying in with the movie, and the whole idea of a Ultimate Iron Man mini-series was seemingly forgotten by the fans.

And now, after six months of waiting, the fifth issue finally materializes. Peeking through the covers, it turns out that Ferry’s art stops at the middle point, and the rest of the story’s illustrated by Hellblazer’s Leonardo Manco. Perhaps Ferry was brought back to DC comics before finishing the mini, making it a full circle since two years ago, when he abandoned the Mister Miracle mini mid-stream to work at Marvel. Whatever the case, shifting the art to Manco’s grittier style doesn’t do any service to the title.

And yet, that doesn’t number among the book’s biggest problems, considering that most readers will get to sample it in its designated form, that of a trade paperback collection. Concentrating on the project in this way, it makes an uneven picture, making it hard to understand why Marvel saw fit to package it as two separate mini-series.

The latest issue serves as the conclusion to nothing more than the second act of a three part story, one that’s left a lot of threads in the air. At the story’s current point, Tony Stark is still a superhuman with fantastic abilities not mentioned in the Ultimates title, a teenager who has a long way ahead of him to becoming that character.

Structure-wise, perhaps the biggest disadvantage to this approach is that it doesn’t fulfill its premise, that of Iron Man’s early days, repositioned so as to include his clash with Obadiah Stane. This should not be glossed over, considering that Stane is a defining villain for the regular Marvel universe version of the character, and the closest thing Iron Man has to a threat in his cinematic debut. Finishing the story in this way, Marvel cheats out their readers of a showdown they spent two mini-series building up to.

So, how does the editorial compensate for the supervillain presence in the finale of this tale?

Well, the book retraces its steps and brings back a supporting player from the beginning of the story to antagonize the character. This way of doing things actually does bring some closure and does not so much come from the left field as it seemed at the close of the previous issue. In many ways, the last couple of issues benefitted from the long and exposition-heavy set up at the beginning of the second mini, treating the reader to some suspenseful and action-filled sequences.

On the other hand, a couple of supporting characters end up wounded in the process, and another is rushed into an early grave. It all goes to show that this issue should’ve been no more than a chapter break before the concluding mini brings the characters to a logical ending point, some years later in the book’s internal chronology.

Choosing to end things like this, Marvel not only cheats us of a well-deserved throw down with Obadiah, but leaves us with Howard Stark that’s still not fulfilled his character arc, along with his under-utilized female assistant. Even Tony’s drinking problems feels mishandled. Bringing it up at this early point in his life and not going through with it ends up as fanservice, complicating the already cluttered story in the hope of adding more nuances to Tony’s character. With a set up like this, even the pre-superhero Ultimate universe framework feels as somewhat underutilized, in that it mostly consists of using Ultimate Fantastic Four’s Baxter building as a generic top secret lab. It all adds up to the feeling that what Card has shown us is a new version of Iron Man, pretty much divorced from both his Ultimate and Marvel universe counterparts.

Forced to take a microscopic look at the project as its author intended it, Ultimate Iron Man is a science fiction story inspired by the superhero icon. It fails to build up the license friendly take on the character, but serves up a smart, well thought out story that stands up to a closer inspection. The book does not cheat its audience of the elaborate details needed to really immerse in its setting, and presents us with smart and witty characters, seeking out new adolescent readers who would have trouble identifying with the more familiar, corporate version of the character. The book remains political enough to place a major terrorist ploy at its center, regardless of whether it finds its intended audience or not. The premise is carried over from the first mini, and this time around the authors see fit to tie it seamlessly with Iron Man’s debut as a new kind of superhero, bringing all subplots together in the main narrative.

The story still struggles as it brings in the government as an interested party, and keeps repeating the same story points, mostly evidenced by continued and unbelievable peril that threatens Howard Stark’s life while he’s imprisoned as part of the villain’s frame up. The female characters are forced to fight for space as part of the supporting cast that’s already packed too tight, and end up feeling as little more than token smart, racially diverse girls.

The whole mini goes to great lengths to set up the villain’s appearance in this issue, after treating us with the henchmen, such as the ultimate Whiplash and an unfamiliar midget fraud named Dolores. It doesn’t really pay off, primarly because it’s so obvious that the writer has an enormous affection for little Obadiah, who keeps stealing the show in every scene he’s in.

Thus, our attention is continually diverted from the strangely bland and uninspiring Tony Stark with his regenerative abilities and vaguely defined cloud of nano bots. Even War Machine feels not so much shoehorned in but cliched and uninteresting, failing to really catch on as Tony’s sidekick. Eventually in the last issue, James spends most of his time off-panel, in order to provide Tony for face-time with the adversary.

In fact, the whole finale feels rushed, and the villain’s psychotic antics seem familiar and fail to leave an impression. Considering the book feels a lot like a contemporary action movie (especially with the plane sequence in the earlier issues), the villain’s modus operandi unintentionally brings the whole endgame to an unfavorable comparison with the Dark Knight’s chilling Joker sequences.

Taking all this into consideration, Marvel’s years in the making techno thriller reads and feels very uneven. Judging by the recently concluded Ultimate Hulk/Iron Man mini, the editorial is actively avoiding the trouble they went through collaborating with Card and are much more keen to get back to the movie tie-in minis (like they did with Ultimate Daredevil and Ultimate Elektra), as Marvel prepares to reposition the Ultimate Universe and hopefully bring it back to the fans’ attention with the Ultimatum event.

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