Genre fiction tends not to be the place for subtle, complex emotions. With names like comedy, suspense, drama, and horror, genres in their purest form tend to cater to simpler desires, evoking simple yet visceral emotions if done well. This isn't a bad thing, as that's hard to do in practice and should be lauded when done successfully. However, the best works are the ones that augur more complex feelings, put you in emotional places that are all too real but rarely discussed in our fictional fantasies. This is the difference between, say, anger at a designated foe, and pervasive frustration over a lack of personal progress. A dramatic collapse into addiction followed by a heroic triumph of willpower, versus a realization that those compulsions have just been sublimated into other areas. Or even the difference between a triumphantly happy ending, and an ending where the hero left the world slightly better than he found it-- but only slightly.
Matt Fraction has been doing this with artist Salvador Larroca* on the Invincible Iron Man for four and a half years, taking the character into emotional territories seemingly beyond the scope of the superhero genre. As of October 2012, Fraction finished his tenure on the book with a surprisingly downbeat epilogue. After a penultimate issue of all action, where Iron Man teamed up with pretty much every non-Avenger ally available (and even some enemies) to stop the Mandarin, Tony returned to America after months in his arch-enemy's captivity. What Tony concludes, to his dismay, is that the world hasn't changed much in his absence, still stuck in the past.
Actually, that's not quite true; Tony's friends and colleagues were doing okay without him. Resilient, previously Stark Resilient, became fairly successful without its mega-celebrity founder, using the repuslor technology to make superior consumer goods without a single cent of military funding.Pepper Potts moved on with her life, eventually hooking up with dowdy but reliable Carson Wyche (one of Resilient's star inventors, whose career had previously been ruined by Tony during his decadent and petty pre-Iron Man days) and learning to live without the Rescue armor. The civilian works of Tony Stark continued without him or Iron Man-- his real legacy. But that's not something that Tony can really appreciate, so the only person really stuck in the past is him. Tony's company escaped the Marvel Universe's Nietzche-esque eternal recurrence, and are off doing good if rather dull work by making better, cleaned products that are presumably cheaper. But Tony is stuck in the same cycles of heroes and villains and will never escape them, thanks to the fact that his existence as a Marvel comic character is meant to sell merchandise first.**
The main theme of Fraction's run on Iron Man is the explicit question of wether or not the Iron Man is a good thing. Sure, Tony saves the world as Iron Man, but there are plenty of other superheroes who do that without all of Tony's baggage; who don't sponsor their super-powers with military-industrial blood money, who aren't responsible for thousands of civilian deaths at the hands of Stark weapons, and who aren't so wealthy that they can retreat into their addictions while shirking their responsibilities. Some might even say that Tony's decision to atone for his arms dealing sins as Iron Man served him far more than anyone else, giving him the visceral thrill of being a superhero and catering to his death drive impulses, instead of really cleaning up the Stark-branded messes left on battlefields across the world.
This theme was much easier for Fraction to express at the start of his run, when Tony was the Orwellian ruler of the world as Director of SHIELD. When Tony relapsed into the military-industrial complex full force after the events of Civil War, it was much easier to critique the problems in his imperialistic approach. The first twenty-four issues of the Fraction/Larroca Iron Man fired upon all cylinders, especially during Tony's atonement in World's Most Wanted (which kick-started the Handi-Capable blogging, as some of you may remember). After that it was more uneven, since the Heroic Age led to Tony Stark trying for a more pacifistic approach, which really wasn't condusive to serial superhero comics. (The Stark Resilient arc was particularly egregious, with its first half being entirely set-up for Tony's new company.)
Of course, that may have been the point, because a lot of life-- particularly recovery from addiction-- isn't earth-shattering drama. It's living day-by-day, paying your bills, managing your relationships, and trying to do a little better than you did the previous day. And this doesn't really work for Tony Stark, who risks his life on a daily basis and goes through more women than James Bond. In many ways, Tony still lives an addict's life, even if he's kept himself clean of alcohol; he lives a life of consumption, keeps others at arm's length, is frozen at the emotional maturity of a teenager, and doesn't place any value on his personal safety.*** This isn't really the kind of person you want as a responsible leader for a trusted brand, and when Tony fails, his companies tend to fail with him.
The final chapters, however, did have Tony save the day when nobody else could, by ultimately defeating the Mandarin-- who was quite cleverly played as a twisted mirror of Tony's own conspicuous consumption, a Kim Jong Il-style**** hedonist so obsessed with his self-mythology that he became enslaved by it (what with the rings actually controlling him). Just like in real life, weapons are a necessary evil some times, when you need to defend the just and the innocent. But Iron Man is still a weapon, and tying worship of weapons into the public sphere has grave moral consequences, as Eisenhower (correctly) warned. So this makes the ending, with Tony leaving his company and going off to find new adventures in space, an appropriate if bittersweet conclusion.
One of Tony's final lines to his former employees is "I'll do better next time". So much of fiction deals with character development in very broad strokes, either ignoring it or having characters Learn Lessons and Grow Stronger. Tony isn't a completely different person after all of his experiences in Fraction's stories, nor can one expect him to be. Nor is Resilient poised to dramatically change the world, in the broad "curing cancer and making cars fly" strokes too often shown in science fiction "utopias". They make cleaner cars and cleaner phone batteries. They're helping people live life a little better, and they're offering it to the public in a completely voluntary fashion; you don't choose a Stark phone because of a Dr. Doom-like edict sweeping society, you presumably choose it because it's just a better phone. The world is thus a little better, from this small bit of progress-- which is ultimately the best we can hope for in terms of lasting good. Humans and their societies can't change overnight, nor can they become perfect-- they can just move in the right direction, and that's what Tony's done.
It's a complicated message for a superhero comic, but a very powerful one when fully understood. I'm really going to miss Matt Fraction on Iron Man, and despite some misgivings about certain parts of this story, I have nothing but praise for the sum of those parts.
* Larroca's art deserves special mention, as he became better and better with each issue. His tech is always beautiful and inventive, but his characterizations are also superb; though he's often critiqued for relying too much on photo reference, his art uses such economy of line that those faces get life beyond their original inspiration. I'm going to buy the new Cable and X-Force comic just for his art. And Colossus, of course.
** Which isn't really a bad thing, it just is. This is also why creators who do such brilliant things with the franchise characters deserve special applause.
*** Illustrated beautifully in the .1 issue, where Tony recounts his entire history in the context of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. If you buy a single issue of Fraction's run, buy Invincible Iron Man 500.1
**** Which is why for a moment I was disappointed that Ben Kingsley was cast as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, because I would've gone with the Kim Jong Il puppet from Team America World Police :P