The Comic Book Club: Iron Man and Wilson

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up hanging out afterhours, talking about what we picked up. This week, Douglas Wolk, Mike Williams, Evan Narcisse and Lev Grossman discuss Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca’s Invincible Iron Man #25 and Dan Clowes’ Wilson.

DOUGLAS: I’ve been consistently impressed by what Fraction and Larocca are doing on Iron Man, and I really enjoyed this issue, from the beautiful Rian Hughes-designed cover on back. (A friend pointed out that the only problem with Hughes’ design is that the logo gets lost if Iron Man isn’t racked in front, but who’s going to rack Iron Man anywhere else this month?) It’s a little odd that this is so clearly a post-Siege story–I mean, it’s not like it was ever unclear how Siege was going to end, but still. I’m also not clear on what kind of endgame Fraction’s got in mind: if this is the “Tony tries to get out of the munitions game but realizes that he has to come back to it to keep the world safe” story, I’m going to be very disappointed, but if it’s “Tony gets out of the munitions game and singlehandedly transforms the world,” that’s something Marvel’s going to have to deal with for a long time to come.

Another thing I’d like to point out: how good Larocca’s character-acting is. I’m looking at pg. 13 (where Tony and Pepper are talking about what to do with the company); like everything else here, it’s obviously photo-ref’ed all the way (and that sometimes doesn’t work out so well for Larocca–the fourth panel of the following page looks totally off). But this is basically a Gable/Colbert romantic comedy scene: it has to absolutely crackle with sexual tension, and it does. (Sexual tension between two characters who’ve already hooked up although only one of them remembers it…)

MIKE: I’m still mostly bothered by the new suit. Yeah, repulsors are the new ball bearings, but the whole thing fits inside his body? Even in a world with Pym particles, this seems silly.

Have any of you read the WildC.A.T.s series where Spartan tries to take over the world by being a giant benevolent corporation? He provides free energy via his new Void powers. It’s by far the most interesting thing about the series. This new Iron Man plot has shades of that.

EVAN: I like what this Iron Man issue is doing in terms of dealing with the narrative. I re-read all of the last story arc–Stark: Diassembled–before reading #25. I get the impression Fraction’s threading the needle with regard to continuity. The “Tony working off of an old back-up” retcon comes off kinda brilliantly because it’s not a retcon; all the stuff of the last few years wasn’t wiped away. Tony just doesn’t remember doing it. In that way, it’s also a commentary on shared superhero comics universes and the writing process. When he says what happened happened and he’d do it all over again but hopefully differently, Tony stands in for the writers and editors at Marvel. Tony’s involvement in all the stuff that led up to Civil War and Secret Invasion and Siege was just the character being who he needed to be in those moments, unapologetically so. This new storyline needs him to be something different because both the creators and the character need him to be something different. There’s a nice dovetailing between process and fiction that I like.

As far as the stuff that actually happened in the issue, it’s weird to think that we’ve got a new status quo for Tony Stark where he’ll always have the suit inside him. I grew reading Iron Man comics where one of the risks was other people getting in the suit. That’s off the table now. Other people will don other armors, but Tony’s a breed apart.

Mike, I too was reminded of that WildC.A.T.s run. (By Joe Casey, right?) The altruism-as-weapon gimmick works even better here, because it feels like Tony using a better part of his futurism instincts. Before, in the run-up to Civil War, he saw what was coming, took on an aggressive preparedness and tried to manipulate outcomes. Here, he’s offering the elites a chance to shape a better future together rather than stubbornly trying to do it himself. It’s a nice beat and Tony Stark winds up feeling like a better person for it.

DOUGLAS: …Although I gather Fraction isn’t too keen on “elites” in general–check out the Iron Man/Thor freebie that comes out tomorrow to find him in full-on eat-the-rich mode.

MIKE: I like Tony as a Futurist. I just think that Fraction has opened a real can of worms with this story. Repulsor tech in every home? Replacing America’s (the world’s?) need for traditional fuel sources is a major undertaking, one that will change the Marvel U fundamentally forever. It will effectively take everyone years and years and years into the future. Regardless of how this story arc wraps up, I think just about every other writer will ignore the ramifications.

DOUGLAS: Moving on to Wilson–I’ve read this book three times now, and I’m still deeply divided about it. Clowes has so much craft and control of his style; he’s a tremendously skillful cartoonist at the top of his game. Still, there’s a lot about the book I find repulsive, even beyond its unbearable jerk of a protagonist. (I suspect that that repulsiveness is part of the point; also, it’s the kind of repulsion that’s driven me to read it three times, not the kind that makes me put it down and read something else, or throw it across the room.) I’m not the only person who sees parallels to Asterios Polyp here–arrogant bastard title character, riff on “comedy of remarriage” themes, shifting drawing style as narrative device and signifier of meaning. But that also reminds me of what bugs me most here, which is that there are big invisible ironic quotation marks around almost every element of Wilson, from its cover (’60s-style lettering! Big-head caricature of main character! Woo!) on in.

Paul Gravett observed that “Wilson” is a partial anagram of Daniel Clowes (like “Enid Coleslaw” from Ghost World)–maybe this is some kind of nastily refracted self-portrait, and in fact the final images we see of Wilson are very close to Clowes’ actual self-portrait a few pages later. Ghost World, though, was a convincing character study in a way this isn’t–even “The Death Ray,” in its way, was a character piece. Wilson’s just a two-dimensional sneering creep, and everyone else is just his two-dimensional victim. Also, the “one-page gag strip–oh, whoops, did I imply that every page was going to end in something funny? Joke’s on you!!” technique gets very old very quickly. That said, I did crack up twice: when we find out what’s really going on with the trip with Claire, and when Wilson’s residence abruptly changes a few pages later. Clowes doesn’t undersell his gags often enough, but when he does, he’s great at it.

EVAN: Wilson makes me feel weird. On one hand, like Douglas, I’m bowled over by Clowes’ skill. Switching from the cartoonier sequences to the more pseudo-realistic ones shocked me at first; I even checked to see if there was another artist. And the one-pager structure threw me, too. I wasn’t sure if this was an anthology masquerading as an original graphic novel. Once I got that he was subverting his narrative into single-page gag strips, the rhythm settled in and I admired the book even more on a technical level. But those characters… even the poor jerks who Wilson was terrorizing felt excessively cranky. The main guy himself seemed to have existential Tourette’s Syndrome, but you can’t trust that the either cynical nastiness or the rarer moments of joyous revelation are actually true. Wilson reminded me of Asterios Polyp because of the huge blind spots both characters have, but there’s none of the poetry or lyrical feel that Mazzuchelli’s book had in Wilson. Part of me feels like this is intentional, like Clowes is trying to push the limits of ironic detachment and effing-with-the-audience-ness. Wilson also reminded me of the characters in Chris Ware’s work, the sad souls in Jimmy Corrigan and the Acme Novelty Library stuff. But Ware’s guys seem a little naive, not obstinately jerky like Wilson. I laughed a lot at Wilson but the humor felt like it cost everybody–me, Clowes and the characters–way too much.

LEV: I have a high tolerance for Clowes. Whatever it costs the reader, I seem to have a lot of it. There are moments, yeah, when it seems like Clowes is playing chicken — how nasty can I make this character and still leave you connected to him by a tiny umbilical of empathy? Still connected? How ’bout now? He holds the pose for longer than you’d think was possible — “Go on, hold it. It’s completely filled with dog shit!” — and then all of a sudden he breaks the other way, and Wilson collapses on the ballfield sobbing “DADDY DADDY DADDY.” You’re so off balance that you collapse right there with him. Or I did anyway.

MIKE: I rather enjoyed the one-page-ishness of it all. There were a handful of times when I read this through (twice) that I couldn’t help but laugh. His insistence that his ex-wife was a streetwalker was in perfect voice. Loved it. I could read a whole book of Wilson asking strangers what they do for a living and berating them before they can finish a sentence. He went back to the well a lot with that gag, but I didn’t mind.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, it’s true–it’s more fun for me if I think of it as an updated version of The Outbursts of Everett True. Except in reverse.

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