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Iron Man: Extremis

The first chapter of Iron Man: Extremis contains a conversation between industrialist/superhero Tony Stark and a tissue thinly veiled version of John Pilger, where documentarian/journalist "John Pilllinger" confronts Stark with the human cost of his arms sales to the military. Warren Ellis is, I read on wikipedia, well-known for his social commentary, so this wouldn't be an unexpected device for him, and it's one that works. I've never been an Iron Man reader, but do know that Tony Stark is the most high profile conservative, capitalist hero in the Marvel universe. To use the demons that attend this success to drive the personal story in Extremis is clever because it's so specific to the character. And it makes a change from using Stark's alcoholism, which I gather has always been the defining negative trait of the character.

Iron Man is also shown in this story to be quite willing - and able - to kill, again something I wouldn't expect from one of Marvel's classic characters, a contemporary of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, as opposed to Wolverine or the Punisher. It was disconcerting, but made sense within the context of the story.

Extremis features one of the best comic book fight scenes I've read - there's an almost visceral tension in chapter three when everything goes wrong as Iron Man takes on the bad guy, the survivor of a Waco-like massacre called Mallen, who has been injected with a nano-biotechnology "super soldier" solution that gives the arc its name. That Mallen is an anti-government isolationist/terrorist (and likely white supremacist) not only fits in with the political themes of the story but also provides an ironic, unstated contrast to Marvel's best known "super soldier", Captain America (who doesn't appear). The action sequence takes up about half the issue with minimal dialogue, just clear visual storytelling, aided by the internal readouts and displays from the Iron Man armour. Both the big scenes, and the quiet moments, like a memorable two page meeting between Mallen and a girl from a small-minded town, work very well.

The art by Adi Granov is powerful and stunning, painted in true-to-life textures, but with a near-CGI sheen: it's a mix I don't recall seeing anywhere else, except perhaps the more recent photo-referenced work by John Bolton ... but with an extra Photoshop varnish.

The story comes apart a bit in the second half of the six issue run, when Ellis tries to tie in the Extremis solution with Stark's origin story (now retconned from Vietnam to an Al Queda terrorist camp after the Gulf War). The ability of the nanotechnobabble to fuse Stark's brain and armour so that he can increase his reaction times seems more than a tad convenient, especially since it appears this can be done with almost no modification as Stark lies on the brink of death. Stark also deliberately decides not to inform his superhero colleagues that Mallen is on the loose, despite being incapacited himself for a day.

Both the miracle super cure and the "this is something I have to on my own" mantra by the hero are comic book staples, but neither meshes well with the hyper-realistic artwork and otherwise intelligent, grounded concerns to the story. There's also a twist at the end which I don't think was really set up, though I'd have to re-read the story to make sure.

I've only known Ellis's work from the Planetary and Global Frequency and found his stories punchy, but ultimately not engrossing. Based on Iron Man: Extremis, I think I'll give his acclaimed Transmetropolitan a go.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 29, 2006 8:42 AM.

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