Comic book mythology is periodically reinvented to suit each new generation of readers and the times in which they live. Origins are retold and paraphernalia updated, often with mixed results. Paul Jenkins and Paolo Rivera’s Mythos one-offs revisited the origin of the Hulk and the first appearance of the X-Men, balancing fidelity and affection with a postmodern adult sensibility. Mark Millar’s ‘event’ series, Civil War, has by turns excited and annoyed its legion of readers, most notably with the sight of Spider-Man unmasking himself on prime time television – a plot device that sold an avalanche of comics, but which strips away a key dramatic avenue for the character.
Fortunately, the task of revamping Marvel’s armoured avenger – for what seems the umpteenth time - was given to Warren Ellis and Adi Granov, who combine visual imagination and narrative pacing with political allusion and more than a little brutality.
In Iron Man: Extremis, a distinctly contemporary tone prevails as munitions genius Tony Stark find himself attracting the attentions of anti-war protestors and the leftwing journalist John Pilger – here renamed Pillinger, but otherwise eerily identical: "Do you think an Afghan kid with his arms blown off by a landmine is remotely impressed by an Iron Man suit?" In one of the book’s more pointed and amusing moments, angry protestors picket one of Stark’s plants, chanting their denunciation of his “warmongering” and high-tech weaponry. Looking up, they witness Iron Man – the ultimate product of that technology – launching himself skywards to do heroic deeds, at which point hostile chants are replaced by childlike awe.
Stark’s own, more thoughtful, ambivalence towards his military projects runs throughout the book, along with a surprisingly nuanced take on the character’s conservative politics. Fans of a certain age will remember the strident anti-Communist tone of the comic’s early issues – one which softened only when the growing anti-war stance of Marvel’s student readers became apparent.
Iron Man’s origin story remains essentially the same as the 1963 version, and is scarcely more plausible, though the Vietnam setting is transposed to post-9/11 Afghanistan. This updating is bold and certainly resonant, with various allusions to our own war on terror and its associated concerns. And, depending on one’s politics, readers may feel a tingle of glee as the prototype Iron Man dispatches his Taliban captors with unequivocal force. Naturally, Stark’s inner demons are paralleled by more immediate problems, this time in the form of a stolen biological weapon and the homicidal redneck who now has it running through his veins. As the story unfolds, an eternal and pertinent question comes to the fore: In order to defeat an unforgiving enemy, how much like him must we become?
Granov’s artwork is typically painstaking and impressive, combining digitised neo-realism with an eye for ballistic set pieces and grim visceral detail. This approach allows for extended periods of purely visual storytelling, most effectively during the action scenes, where a dozen pages can pass with barely half as many words. Again, older readers may remember Marvel titles in which heroes were improbably chatty, to the extent that they appeared to have behavioural disorders or possibly a cocaine habit as well as the customary superpowers. These garrulous heroes inhabited a world where everything but the spoken word seemed to move in slow motion, allowing characters to comment at length on practically everything in sight in any given panel, squeezing entire conversations into the time it took a bullet to leave a gun. Ellis’ decision to strip away such gratuitous speech heightens the physicality of the brawling and its genuinely disturbing details.
As an adult reboot of one of Marvel’s flagship characters, Iron Man: Extremis is hard to fault. Though readers may be left wishing that Ellis and Granov had chosen to stay with the series beyond its six-chapter format and pursued the themes and sensibilities they so ably established.
© David Thompson 2007
Warren Ellis & Adi Granov
Iron Man: Extremis
Marvel, £9.99, hardcover, 160pp
Published on Bookmunch, January 2007