Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: Iron Man 2.0 Vol. 2: Asymmetry

"It didn't have to be like this."

That's the thought that kept running through my head as I made my way through Iron Man 2.0: Asymmetry, the trade paperback collection of the last five issues of the short-lived 2011 series Iron Man 2.0 (plus the oddly-numbered, special "jumping-on point" issue #7.1 grafted on to the beginning of the story arc).

While the title obscures the fact, as does the logo and, to a certain extent, the cover of this trade collection, the book didn't star Iron Man Tony Stark (although he appears prominently in this particular chunk of it), but James "Rhodey" Rhodes, whose superhero codename is War Marchine (and who was played in the the Iron Man films by first Terrence Howard and then Don Cheadle). Launched in the spring of that year, it followed the cancellation of the twelve-issue War Machine by just a few months. Apparently Marvel thought the problem with the book was simply that "War Machine" lacked the q-rating of "Iron Man," and by putting Iron Man's name on the marquee, more fans might show up, a little like re-titling Nightwing as Batman 2.0, with the fact that the iron guys' super-powers being derived from technology kinda sorta justifying the "2.0".

I agree with whoever at Marvel thought to green-light a Rhodey book, whatever they decided to call it, so soon after the last one was canceled (in Marvel Universe terms, the character had a book that was cancelled with a "Dark Reign" tie-in, sat out Siege, but was back in time for Fear Itself). The character suffers the same fate as a lot of the lieutenant versions of the established characters, be they female, or in Rhodey's case, black. Like Steel or The Falcon, War Machine is almost always in Iron Man's shadow, and it's difficult to find the proper proportion of original hero to put in the spin-off title.

Iron Man, like Superman or Captain America, inevitably suck up all the oxygen in their lieutenants' stories, and when they are present, they inevitably become the star; even when writers take great pains not to portray the spin-off heroes as subordinate, if not done deftly, it can come off as patronizing and artificial. (Batman and Wolverine seem immune to this phenomenon; I don't think I've ever seen too much Batman or Wolverine in a Robin or Nightwing or Batgirl or X-22 or Daken or solo X-person title).

That certainly happens here. Although Iron Man becomes something of an antagonist at the end of the book when he becomes possessed by the agency of the true villain, and he is the end-level boss that Rhodey must fight and ultimately best, he still seems like the star, perhaps because his armor's shinier or that it's his name on Rhodey's book. But James Rhodes is a guest-star in his own book, much less interesting than Stark, the various smart-mouthed non-super supporting characters or the evil genius whose plan is the most inspired part of the story.

It's a little surprising that a character with as much transmedia exposure as War Machine isn't popular enough to support his own monthly Marvel comic (and by "popular enough" I simply mean able to), especially when one considers his traditional portrayal as the tougher, meaner, more hardcore version of Iron Man. Marvel's had pretty great success with "black-ops" versions of their popular teams (Secret Avengers, Uncanny X-Force), so one might expect the black-ops Iron Man to do okay.

I suppose the fact that the comic book is pretty terrible-looking, but, before we discuss the specific contents of the book, let's examine a few obvious factors as to why Iron Man 2.0 only lasted 13 issues (Or 12.1...or 13.1...I'm fuzzy on how we're supposed to treat ".1" issues when it comes to adding up issue numbers).

Hot up-and-coming writer Nick Spencer was the only mainstay on the creative team, although he received help from co-writer Joshua Fialkov on one issue in this book, and help from co-writer Will Pfeifer on two more issues. There was no artist associated with the book long enough to give it a unique look. The first three issues had three different pencilers: Kano, Barry Kitson and Carmine Di Giandomenico. Ariel Olivetti, whose work looks nothing like that of those guys (who don't have all that much in common when it comes to their respective styles, either), came on with #4, which he drew solo, and he drew the next two issues with Di Giandomenico (those three issues, by the way, were a Fear Itself tie-in; about one-third of this book's run was a tie-in to the not-well-liked event series), and then, after sitting out #7.1, during which Kano returned, he drew #8-#11, and part of the four-artist final issue.

The fact that the first issue of this clearly thrown-together endeavor cost $4 probably didn't help any either; the price dropped down to $2.99 for the second issue, but if you weren't interested enough to buy the first, would you even pay attention to the cover price of the second? And this was being published during a time that Marvel was suffering from brand over-extension, so maybe so blatantly signaling that this book was not only a second Iron Man one, but the un-important one wasn't the smartest idea in the world.

Readers of this particular trade collection, marked with a "Vol. 2" on the spine and title-page fine print, if not the title itself, will join a story already in-progress. An extremely gifted young scientist named Palmer Addley was once kidnapped by the U.S. government and forced to spend his life inventing dangerous weapons for them. Then one day, he kills himself. Shortly thereafter, a great deal of his terrifyingly destructive technology begins activating itself all over the world, and it's up to War Machine and a small group of witty supporting characters to figure out how exactly Addley pulled this off and put the kibosh on what becomes an increasingly apocalyptic scenario; by the book's climax, Addley has managed to turn most of the world's population into a violent, mindless mob bent on destroying everything in their path, with Iron Man being among the infected and War Machine being among the un-infencted.

Spencer and company write nice, snappy dialogue, and the do a fine job of coming up with a fairly suspenseful, occasionally even thrilling, ever-escalating conflict, a well-conceived unbeatable threat that the superhero must then beat. I giggled at the audacity of that plot, and the way it was occasionally spoken of, and was impressed with the way Spencer managed to write a Marvel Universe story but focus only on the corners of the Marvel Universe relevant to the Iron Man/War Machine corner (That is, there are scores of ways a "villain" could bedevil the hero after dying, but the way Spencer goes is an Iron Man-flavored way).

Weirdly, Rhodey doesn't really save the day. Stark does, at first, and, when Stark succumbs to kill-Rhodey programming, it's Rhodey's friend and The Fantastic Four's Mr. Fantastic who save the day, while Rhodey mainly just stalls the temporarily Evil Iron Man. He lacks agency, which wouldn't be so bad in an ensemble book, but his is already a book in which he's essentially an off-brand Iron Man, and another superhero has his name on the book.

The artwork is, naturally, a mess. Olivetti draws most of it, and, to put it mildly, I'm not a fan of his current style, which looks like computer coloring-applied to sketchy pencils, giving most of his figures the look of rubber, human-shaped balloons decorated to look like human being with air-brushed paint, and then inflated and left to float on photos of sets. I've seen his work a lot in the past at Marvel, and sometimes it works fairly well, but I don't think it does here. The dramatic, out-of-armor stuff looks soft and slightly blurry, like a Vaseline-lens drama, and when War Machine is in his War Machine costume, he barely looks mechanical; there's no sharp edges or heavy lines, no weight to the metal. It looks to be made of the same soft, fuzzy stuff that everything else Olivetti draws is made out of.

The book opens with the Kano-illustrated .1 issue, in which the artist engages in copious photo-referencing, but it's a tolerable sort of photo-referencing, as it nevertheless looks as if it was drawn, the photos being referenced rather than stolen, consumed and integrated.

For the book's final issues, Olivetti becomes increasingly scarce, so that the climax of the book is drawn by another artist entirely. I actually prefer the style of the guy who does most of the book to that of Olivetti's, but it's still weird, akin to recasting the star of a movie to shoot the footage that will make up the last 20 minutes of a blockbuster.

After reading this, it's not hard to see why the book didn't last longer than 12 or 13 issues. In fact, it's harder to see why it wasn't canceled even sooner.


A Hero said...

Poor Rhodey. I first started reading Iron Man comic books shortly after he took over, so James Rhodes was always my Iron Man. Unfortunately, after he stopped wearing the "real" Iron Man armor, no one has really known what to do with him.

David Charles Bitterbaum said...

I submit to the jury bits of a translated interview with Ariel Olivetti about Iron Man 2.0 and how it all went horribly wrong:


I thought it looked promising and then sure enough it went off the rails into really-bad territory. Some light is shed why via that interview.