Captain America recently took over as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and now pretty much the world), which had me thinking–how many heroes have held the same position? True, Nick Fury has maintained that role valiantly and only recently lost the title so there haven’t been many opportunities for others to take it on. There was the time Iron Man took over after Cap was killed after Civil War. It’s easy to forget, but Tony Stark was put in charge of everything back in 2015 as Marvel turned his book into a globe trotting, international threat beating hero. A complete collection of this story was recently released, which focuses in on his time heading the organization.
Writer: Daniel Knauf, Charles Knauf, Christos Gage, Stuart Moore
Artist: Roberto De La Torre, Jackson Guice, Carlo Pagulayan, Steve Kurth
Publisher: Marvel Comics
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
Tony Stark takes on the Marvel Universe’s hardest job: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.! And he’s just the futurist to bring the peacekeeping intelligence organization up to date! But with Tony in the hot seat, what will that mean for Iron Man? He’ll face techno-zombies, an old hero with a grudge, a traitor in the Initiative and regime change in the nation of Madripoor! Will Tony Stark crack under the pressure of being the world’s top cop?
Why does this book matter?
Collecting Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. #15 through #32 and Iron Man Annual #1, this collection is a robust 472 pages focusing on Iron Man attempting to thwart the use of Extremis for terrorist purposes. Along the way there’s a brief World War Hulk tie-in and then a four issue story arc about a S.H.I.E.L.D. weapon developing an AI and an old friend of Tony’s utilizing nano-nuclear devices to get back at him. Two major story arcs, an annual, and some World War Hulk tie-in issues? Sounds like a lot of entertainment!
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
If you were a fan of the Extremis storyline buckle up, because this story takes that creative element and turns it into a weapon not even Tony Stark can stop. If you’re unfamiliar, the Extremis was introduced by Warren Ellis as a new start for the character as it redefined his powers and abilities. Long story short, Tony can control technology with his very thoughts and said upgrades can also heal him and even makes him stronger. Writers Daniel and Charles Knauf take the Extremis and, with the help of ex-con and girlfriend Maya, have it become a weapon Iron Man’s enemies want to exploit. It’s utilized in a slow burn sort of way in this collection, taking up 12 or so issues in a variety of ways. At first the Extremis is used to power up zombie-like soldiers–which evolves into a bigger monstrous threat–to its eventual use as a bomb. It’s used well in this collection and adds a science fiction element to a story that would have otherwise been a spy thriller with international proclivities.
And boy does it go all over the globe. This story sends Tony and S.H.I.E.L.D. off to China, into North Korean airspace, and other strange and foreign places like… Nebraska! All kidding aside, the story feels huge due to the location changes and wide scope Daniel and Charles Knauf take the series. Being the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. basically makes Tony Stark a cop of the entire globe as his main enemies are terrorists. That gives the story a real world vibe that’s easy to relate to.
There’s a long game story afoot here too, which is a rarity in these days of five to six issue story arcs ending and new creators jumping on and resetting everything. They don’t stick to one obvious threat either, with the story feeling like a scary horror tale and then shifting towards a 24 like thriller with time always running out. The slow burn is obvious even in how they use the supervillain. Mandarin is introduced relatively early and yet Tony doesn’t actually face off against him until 12 or so issues later. You’d think without a villain to fight against the story might be boring, but the writers keep the drama high by delving into the guilt Tony feels after losing friends and close allies. He actually sees ghosts and thinks he’s losing his mind. The fact that this folds well into the Extremis abilities even he is still attempting to understand adds a layer of character work that builds the character well.
Roberto De La Torre pencils much of the main story and his style has a darker tone that fits the detective angle well. There are certainly some noir sensibilities in his portion of the book, which allows the slower, exposition-heavier moments to have some dramatic weight. De La Torre also draws the characters in a human way that feels relatable and realistic. More than once I felt like the story had a 24 vibe due to the time spent on backgrounds to lift it up and make it feel realistic. He’s joined by Butch Guice, Carlo Pagulayan and Jeffrey Huet who all keep the style relatively close.
The last four issue arc written by Stuart Moore departs from Daniel and Charles Knauf’s story, but only because they were done telling it. This story weaves in an old friend that Tony let down, the concept of micro technology and mini nuclear warheads. This story carries two main threats, the old friend and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who doesn’t like Tony Stark and wants him stopped. As is the case, the threat levels dial up to 11 as Nanobots and a singularity like threat end up pushing Tony to his limits. This story also utilizes the Extremis powers well, reminding us Tony’s more advanced abilities keep pushing the character to new places.
Carlo Pagulayan is the main penciler on this portion with aid by Roberto De La Torre and Steve Kurth. This section has a brighter and more conventional superhero comics feel. They nail the nano-bot brain which is a tricky thing to pull off considering it’s a floating metal brain with tentacle-like arms. In other hands it’d look silly, but they put enough detail in to make it cool looking.
The second story has a more superhero vibe.
It can’t be perfect can it?
The two World War Hulk issues stick out like a sore thumb, having nothing to do with the main story and feeling more like a diversion. They aren’t bad per se, but if you don’t pick up the collection of that event you’re probably going to be a bit lost. There is a summary of sorts to clue the reader in, but that doesn’t avoid the fact that these two issues have nothing to do with the larger story. Like a commercial that interrupts a good movie, they feel like a distraction from the main event.
Though an Annual issue, this issue also feels like a departure from the main story too which is slightly distracting. It’s a done in one story written by Christos N. Gage with art by Harvey Tolibao. The story actually fits in well with the theme of Tony Stark leading S.H.I.E.L.D. as he must enter a foreign nation as a tourist and do some James Bond like covert action. That said, Tolibao’s art is the epitome of exploitive comic book art with women bending over, huge breasts on every page, and a focus on the rounder things in life (hell, even Tony gets a close up butt shot). This style of art certainly doesn’t go with the rest of the volume either and might even offend some folks.
With a lack of action in long stretches it can be easy to forget he’s Iron Man. Less talking, more punching!
Generally, Daniel and Charles Knauf draw you into their story as it mixes horror and detective storytelling well, but it does lack action for long portions. In these sections the story can feel bogged down and can make the page turning seem impossibly slow. The detective element may be part of the reason as it takes up many of the pages which involves a lot of talking and exposition-heavy scenes. A mix of more action or at the very least a change of scenery could have opened things up and made it feel more interesting. Instead, prepare for long scenes of Duggan and Tony never leaving a single room as they discuss the ramifications of their actions now that Tony has a priority to follow international laws.
Is It Good?
Though the cover seems to suggest this series is going to be Tony Stark, international spy and action hero, the volume is more of a slow boil detective yarn with horror and science fiction elements throughout. That isn’t to say it’s bad, because ultimately this is a great story that sustains interest, pushes Tony to the brink, and adds to the larger Extremis story.