2008 was a big year for Marvel Comics' Iron Man. That summer, the world was introduced to the character and his alter ego Tony Stark with the release of "Iron Man" starring Robert Downey Jr. as the armored Avenger. A week later, a new era began for the character's comic book adventures as well when writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larocca launched the ongoing "Invincible Iron Man."
33 issues into their Eisner Award winning run, the series was renumbered to celebrate the 500th issue of Tony Stark's solo adventures. This October, the duo will bring their 61-issue run on the title to a close with "Invincible Iron Man" #527. In honor of the occasion, we spoke with Fraction about his time as the man behind Tony Stark, taking a look back at his protagonist and some of the memorable supporting characters in his run.
When Fraction kicked off "Invincible Iron Man," he had had some elaborate plans for the title character, but his immediate goal was to simply tell interesting stories and give the series it's own feel and identity. "When I got the book, we were the other Iron Man title. We were the movie tie-in book. There was another Iron Man series that was into it's 30s when our book came around. I just wanted to write an Iron Man book that I would want to read," the writer told CBR News. "I wanted to mine as much pathos, carnage and drama out of the character's circumstances and situations as I could. I don't think it's wise to write at an audience; to try and guess what they want. You just have to write the kind of story that you would want to put your own money down for. So really, I just wanted to write what I thought would be a compelling Iron Man comic. Something as much science fiction as a super hero comic, but the science fiction of twenty minutes from now."
Many of Fraction's Iron Man stories have involved a variation on the theme of Tony Stark suffering a great defeat and coming back from it or finding a way to rise above nearly impossible odds. Fraction explained to CBR that he feels these stories give Tony a chance to show off his heroic qualities, but ultimately there's a more obsessive character trait that drives him. "I think he's a workaholic," Fraction said. "I think it's the job. He has a very nebulous, hard to define and hard to grasp job. If he didn't do it, though, he's go insane and start drinking again. I think he constantly sublimates his addictive streak."
Over the course of the first half of Fraction and Larocca's "Invincible Iron Man," Tony Stark lost his wealth and his status as America's top super human law enforcer thanks to the machinations of villains like Ezekiel Stane and Norman Osborn. He even had to turn fugitive in order to keep the identities of America's super humans safe from Osborn and his corrupt espionage agency H.A.M.M.E.R. Later, when Osborn and H.A.M.M.E.R. were brought down, Fraction had Tony Stark return to the things he did best -- protecting the world as Iron Man while trying to change it for the better as the head of a new technology firm, Stark Resilient.
"That was fun. I got to ask myself what would I do if I was the CEO of this kind of company? How would I run it?" Fraction said. "It was a chance to play 'what if?' with these various different possibilities. That was also a big part of the book I grew up reading. Tony had companies. They had different names and they did different stuff. So that chance, to write Tony as a super hero in the board room, was kind of fun, too."
Giving Tony Stark a new company presented fresh opportunities for character interaction in "Invincible Iron Man," and Fraction took full advantage of them. He staffed Stark Resilient with an eclectic and interesting cast of characters, including Tony Stark's long time friend and confidant Pepper Potts, the company's security chief and Stark's ex-flame Bethany Cabe and Splitlip, the recovering alcoholic Dwarf engineer and weaponsmith from the mythical realm of Svartalfheim.
"The staff gives him somebody to talk to. He's always had a company and he's always had employees," Fraction remarked. "It lets him not be the smartest guy in the room all the time He lets his people come up with ideas. It let us flesh things out so it wasn't one guy and 30 faceless secretaries. This gave us the chance to see Tony as the head of a start up company. Lots of moments in the classic runs used a vital and vivid supporting cast."
Having a staff of characters to help out isn't just good for the story, it's good for Tony Stark as well. "I don't think he needs an audience, but he needs to be challenged by other intellects," Fraction said. "He needs a panel of other experts. People who are smart like him in different directions, to keep him firing on all cylinders."
Being challenged and engaging in didactic discussions are extremely important to Tony Stark because he's not one to willingly ask for help or seek advice, even it comes from his most trusted friends. "You see repeatedly that he doesn't listen to people. He doesn't know how to ask for help. This entire series has been about how much better Tony's life would be if he just asked for help," Fraction explained. "When the Spymaster had infiltrated Stark Resilient, [Tony] doesn't tell Bethany the whole story, so she can't do her job and people end up getting really hurt. His pride, his flaw, his damage, stood in the way of him doing the good thing. She wasn't armed with all the facts. So his fundamental character flaw is that he can't ask for help. He's pathologically incapable of it. And people always pay the price."
Tony's inability to turn to others for help has flustered many of his friends and colleagues, but perhaps none more so than Pepper Potts. Of course Pepper hasn't always had time to be upset with Tony. During the course of Fraction and Larocca's run she's become directly involved in many fantastic adventures as early on in the series, she became the super powered heroine known as Rescue when Tony presented her with her own suit of power armor. It was the next stage of the heroic journey that Fraction had set the character on several years earlier.
"About five years ago, I was in Los Angeles for about three weeks. I was living out there researching the book that would become 'The Order. I had never been to the city when I wasn't a business tourist, so I wanted to go and spend some quality time out there and not live in a hotel. I wanted to get as much a feel for the place as I could in three weeks," Fraction said. "We were pregnant at the time, and while I was out there I started to realize that if I had a daughter, there would come a day when I would have to apologize to her for my profession. I would have to apologize for the way it treats and speaks to women readers, and the way it treats its female characters.
"I knew that if we had a daughter, because I know my wife and I know the kind of girl she wants to raise and I know the kind of girl I want to raise, she was going to look at what I did for a living and want to know how the fuck I could stomach it. How could I sell her out like that?" Fraction continued. "That conversation is still coming, and I'm bracing for it in the way that some dads brace for their daughter's first date or boyfriend. I became acutely aware that I had sort of done that thing that lots of privileged hetero cisgendered white dudes do. 'I'm cool with women, and that's enough.' It's not enough. It's embarrassing to say, because we somehow have attached shame to learning and evolving our opinions, culturally, but I became aware that there was a deficiency of and to women in my work, and all I could do at that moment was take care of my side of the street. I was planning 'The Order,' and Pepper Potts was the biggest Marvel star that I was able to use, so I started with her. If that book had continued, she would have become Rescue in 'The Order.'"
The other factor that inspired Pepper Potts new heroic identity was the casting of Gwyneth Paltrow as the character in the Iron Man feature film. "While I was in L.A., they cast Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie. When I saw that bit of casting, it was like, 'So that's the movie they're making.' If you want a Victoria's Secret underwear model, you don't get Gwyneth Paltrow. You can say what you want about her, but Paltrow is a genuine actress and she's not an underwear model reading cue cards," Fraction said. "Besides, I figure if I ever run into Gwyneth Paltrow one day in an elevator, I'd be able to say, 'Hey. I made you a super hero.' And how great would that be?
Pepper Potts' Rescue armor allows her to survive and hold her own in super-powered adventures, but its unique design and purpose stays true to her personality and beliefs. Unlike other Tony Stark-designed armors, Rescue has no offensive capabilities. "I didn't wanted her to be an Iron Man cop or soldier, so to speak. I wanted her to be an Iron Man EMT. If Tony was mass producing the Iron Man suit, this is what it would be used for. It would be used in extraordinary rescue situations, like lifting a house after an earthquake or catching planes that were falling out of the sky" Fraction explained. "Story-wise, it logically made sense. His best friend is a soldier active in hot zones, so he'd make his buddy War Machine. For Pepper, who wouldn't swat a fly, he would give her a gift that would give her free rein to go out into the world and save it if she wanted to try. If there was ever a practical application of the Iron Man, it would look like Rescue."
Outfitting Pepper Potts with her own set of armor has proved useful for Stark because he's faced a fearsome array of foes during the last several years, requiring help from others, whether he's willing to ask for it or not. In Fraction's current and final story, "The Future," Iron Man is up against his opposite number, the villainous Mandarin. It's a confrontation that the writer has been building towards since he began his run on the book.
"I always knew I was working towards a new 'Armor Wars' with Tony and Mandarin at the center of it," Fraction explained. "I wanted to get to him right away, but because of the massive structure in place, there wasn't really room to get to him before now. The Annual was nice. It kind of scratched that itch. It was 60-some pages worth of the character. He also played a big role in issue #500. Those appearances kept me going for a while."
In "The Future," Fraction has been telling a hi-tech story with global stakes that also borrows elements and conventions from prison escape stories. "It's Tony versus the Mandarin in the middle of 'Armor Wars III.' Tony Stark and his rogues are all locked up in one place together, and Mandarin is calling the shots," Fraction stated. "He's inside Tony's head. He can push and manipulate Tony somewhat, and he has a very specific agenda. We've seen that it's been Mandarin directing Tony to design the Titanomechs, which he's been having visions about for three years now. Mandarin has been behind this all along, and there's a very specific reason. It's the first thing I thought of when I read 'Extremis.' If Tony has software [in his head], then Tony could be hacked."
"The Future" comes to a conclusion in just a few weeks with the release of "Invincible Iron Man" #527, Fraction's final issue. The writer has already begun to miss both his protagonist and the chance to work with his collaborator Salvador Larocca.
"It's kind of bummer. Salva and I worked together for over sixty issues, and that kind of collaboration is rare these days. We're almost telepathic at this point," Fraction said. "I'll miss Tony, but that doesn't mean he'll pop up in 'Fantastic Four' or 'FF' whenever I have the chance. I'm going to try and resist that urge.
"If you're a fan of the book, try avoiding reading solicitations," Fraction continued. "We have to do them because it's the nature of the job, but if you've been with us all this time don't spoil it for yourself. I'll tell you this, though: I play a long game, and our last page was set up on our very first."