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Just in time, Kieron Gillen’s Iron Man soars with a new arc and artist

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Iron Man #9. Written by Kieron Gillen (Young Avengers, Journey Into Mystery) and drawn by Dale Eaglesham (Fantastic Four, Justice Society Of America), the series begins a promising new storyline and boosts quality just in time for Iron Man 3. Warning: spoilers ahead.

After learning its lesson with the first X-Men film, Marvel has made sure to release a slew of tie-in comics in the months leading up to and following its superhero movies. That means new miniseries and one-shots, and recently Marvel has simply relaunched ongoing titles so that there are new #1s for any potential new fans after the films. For Iron Man 3, Marvel started early, releasing a new Iron Man #1 by Kieron Gillen and Greg Land as part of Marvel Now! back in November. It was a smart move, ensuring that there is a new Volume One collection on the stands by the time the movie hits, giving new fans the chance to read the first five issues and reasonably catch up with the remaining four if they like what they see. 

Land’s artwork on the first eight issues of Iron Man has a smooth, commercial quality that appeals to non-comic readers, but after a few issues, Land’s reliance on the same faces and poses becomes clear. The result is static, repetitive artwork that can often distract from the story rather than enhance it; though the last “Godkiller” arc was a step up for Land, as it pushed him out of his comfort zone. Drawing a space adventure rather than a techno-thriller, he had to render less traceable alien environments and characters, although there was still plenty of porn face among his female extraterrestrials. For readers that consider Land a major turn-off, Gillen has made sure that Iron Man #9 is an accessible, satisfying introduction to Tony Stark’s new stellar status as he welcomes artist Dale Eaglesham to the title. 

Serving as a prologue for “The Secret Origin Of Tony Stark,” Iron Man #9 catches readers up on the catastrophic events of the last arc while promising big revelations for Iron Man in the coming months. Taking Tony Stark off-planet has proven a wise decision for the title, giving Gillen the opportunity to tell a sci-fi fantasy story that emphasizes the idea that Tony Stark is a valiant knight in the world’s most advanced suit of armor. Gillen has been doing intensely progressive work in Young Avengers (last week’s #4 had one of the coolest action sequences put on the page), but his Iron Man is a much more traditional superhero comic. The first arc was essentially a Tony Stark-led tour through the Marvel Comics Earth, but once Gillen started exploring the cosmos, his imagination skyrocketed. 

Last arc, Gillen introduced the Voldi, an alien race that worships the various celestial entities of the Marvel universe as it leeches power from them, showing how the writer is able to create something new from ideas established in the past. Stark became a prisoner of the Voldi because he destroyed the Phoenix during last summer’s Avengers Vs. X-Men crossover, but an alliance with a mysterious android named Collector 451 helped Tony escape. Unfortunately, that escape was possible because 451 stole the Voldi’s cloaking device, revealing them to the beings they’ve been stealing power from and bringing down the wrath of the Celestials to annihilate the parasite race. This ninth issue begins with Stark on the hunt for 451, and for help he turns to the series’ most welcome addition: a 30-foot-tall robot bounty hunter who goes by the fantastic name of Death’s Head.

A character created for Marvel’s Transformers comics and who has appeared in Doctor Who Comics, Death’s Head has a connection to two of nerd-dom’s biggest properties. Take the visual aesthetic of a Transformer, add the time-travel aspects of The Doctor, then turn him into a bounty hunter because Boba Fett made those really cool, and you get the geekbait that is Death’s Head. Land drew a solid Death’s Head last arc, but Eaglesham captures the truly massive scope of the character, constantly putting him in environments that aren’t quite large enough to contain his girth. One of the best visual touches is the Kirby crackle rising from Death’s Head’s mug when Tony finds him drinking in a bar, showing that only a beverage infused with cosmic energies could give this big guy a buzz. 

Last issue’s gladiator match between Stark and Death’s Head explored some of the philosophical aspects of the man-vs.-machine debate, and Gillen casting a 30-foot mechanical bounty hunter as a robot civil-rights activist is one of the most delightfully unusual aspects of his run. The relationship between Death’s Head and Stark is a major source of comic relief, like the scene where Stark has to reconsider his dialogue because of its potentially robot-racist connotations. Then there is Stark’s foul-mouthed freakout when he finds out that Death’s Head has been working for 451 the entire time for an even higher fee, in which he calls the robot a “traitorous little #$%& of a #$%& bounty hunter.” He should have known better than to trust the giant killing machine with devil horns. 

Marvel has been hyping big reveals in “The Secret Origin Of Tony Stark,” and while Iron Man #9 doesn’t deliver any specifics, it does end with a bombshell when 451 shows Stark a video made for him by his father. 451 has been portrayed as a character performing horrific actions in the name of a greater good, and apparently this is all part of a plan that began with Howard Stark before his son was ever born. The issue ends with 451 appearing in the video, standing beside Howard as he suggests that Stark grab a drink before he tells him “the truth.” According to previews of the next issue, that truth will include something called the “Stark Seven,” a team made up of Howard and Maria Stark, Dum Dum Dugan, Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, Jimmy Woo, and two unnamed others. Gillen working with Dale Eaglesham on a retro Marvel story with that lineup of characters means that it’s going to be a very good summer for fans of the Armored Avenger. 

While Greg Land has been lackluster on this title, his cover image for #9 is a creepy image that immediately grabs the eye. A photorealistic image of a baby ominously peeking out from behind an Iron Man helmet is a chilling way of teasing what Gillen has in store for the character, even if it’s not an accurate representation of what happens inside the issue. What’s inside is gorgeous Dale Eaglesham artwork in the classic Marvel style, combining explosive superhero spectacle with immersive sci-fi design. Land’s aliens were humans with purple and green skin and other cosmetic changes like feathers instead of hair, but Eaglesham draws streets full of diverse, monstrous creatures. And after months of repeated yet inconsistent Tony Stark facial expressions from Land, it’s a pleasure to have a Stark whose emotions read clearly on a face that always looks like Tony Stark and not five different male models with goatees drawn on.

Eaglesham’s design work is exceptional from the characters to the page layouts, and he adds visual flourishes like circuitry connecting panels to emphasize the technological aspects of the story. He uses unconventional layouts for the majority of the issue, making the strict six-panel grid used for Howard Stark’s video a jarring shift in anticipation of the cliffhanger. The earlier layouts highlight a sense of unpredictable adventure, but the grid for the video adds a structure that lends weight to the words. Stark’s mind explores frantically when he’s in space, but seeing the video of his father forces him to sit down and focus all his brainpower on the man before him. That’s the type of sophisticated manipulation of the medium that isn’t found in Land’s art, and the worst thing about Eaglesham’s art is that it’s only temporary. Land returns after this storyline, but at least readers will get one beautiful “Secret Origin” by the time Eaglesham finishes.