...or rather, last week. But new comics don't ship till Thursday this week, so these are still the freshest batch!
First up, that Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Annual (Marvel) that writer Christos Gage had teased as taking its queue from Sixties Bond films and Steranko’s Nick Fury comics hit the shelves. The Iron Man Annual proves just how difficult it is to mix the spy and superhero genres, even for a writer who managed to successfully pull off this blend once before, in his enjoyable Union Jack miniseries. The problem inherent in the mixture is that superheroes are (generally speaking) invincible and spies are (theoretically) not. In Ian Fleming’s books, 007 is prone to all sorts of nasty bodily harm. In the movies, certainly less so, but all of their suspense depends on the knowledge that Bond is human, and could, in theory, be killed. (The movies work the least when they get too far away from this concept, as in Moonraker, and present 007 as completely invulnerable.)
On his mission to effect regime change in the fictional country of Madripoor, Tony Stark is stripped of the armor that makes him Iron Man. Good set-up! Stark, the current director of global espionage network S.H.I.E.L.D. is going on a dangerous mission himself, with only his guts and a few gadgets to rely on! Just like those Steranko Fury stories. Unfortunately, that promising concept is immediately abandoned. It’s made clear from the outset that Stark’s Iron Man armor is hovering in low orbit, just a cell phone call away if he needs it. And as soon as he gets into trouble, he’s immediately tempted to summon it rather than thinking (or even fighting) his way out of the situation. Furthermore, apparently Stark now has an "undersheath" of armor that he can "extrude at will" from within "the hollows of [his] bones." He does so every time he gets into a scrap in this comic, thus completely taking him out of potential peril and wrecking the whole "spy genre" idea. I love spy gadgets, but I hate when they go too far. It’s a really fine line, and the producers of the Bond films haven’t always walked it very well. (Eurospies are often even worse!) Comics are slightly more forgiving (an invisible car is OK for Nick Fury, but not for 007), but full metal body armor summoned psychically from within one’s bone marrow is going too far.
Stark may have the accoutrements of a secret agent (courtesy of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Q-like armorer, named "Boothroyd" by Steranko in a nod then subtle enough to be an homage, but now probably actionable enough to necessitate a re-Christening as "Gaffer") and the requisite pulchritudinous entourage (three very lovely S.H.I.E.L.D. bodyguards), but he’s too much of a superhero to ever be in peril. On top of that, the basic storyline is pretty slight anyway, a hodgepodge of underdeveloped ideas like a superweapon introduced in the final pages that may be sentient. (Granted, it’s difficult to develop too much plot in a single issue.) Harvey Tolibao’s artwork is certainly pleasing enough (though I don’t quite understand why the frequently shirtless Stark is drawn with the musculature one generally associates with the Incredible Hulk, seeing as his superpowers come from armor, not physical might!), but ultimately this Iron Man Annual is a cautionary example of what not to do when mixing spies and superheroes. Let’s hope Guillermo del Toro pulls off a better balance with his Champions movie!
Meanwhile, for better espionage comics, one need look no further than the slightly belated but wholly satisfying climax to Boom! Studios’ Left On Mission. Issue 5 brings this enthralling, real- world-grounded spy yarn to its (in some ways) inevitable conclusion, and does so in style. Artist Francesco Francavilla, who’s been a star here since Issue 1, gets to really show his stuff in an appropriately flashy 7-page "silent" segment. Like Steranko, who pioneered the silent comic book sequence in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1, writer Chip Mosher knows when to use words and when to ease up on the verbiage and let his story unfold purely in pictures. Steranko did it to highlight the action (and demonstrate the stealthiness of Fury’s infiltration of a secret fortress); Mosher does it to build suspense and highlight the emotional resonance. Steranko had the advantage in that he was drawing his comic himself; Mosher bravely entrusts his artist with conveying his lead character’s emotional climax. Fortunately, Francavilla is more than up to the task, once more aided immeasurably by the very impressive coloring of Martin Thomas. Left On Mission has been a damn good-looking book from the start, so it seems appropriate that its key moments rest on the shoulders of Francavilla. The one thing this issue doesn’t offer that all the others have is a fabulous new spy location for Francavilla and Thomas to bring to vivid life (retaining the last issue’s Moroccan setting), but at this point a new location would have probably detracted from the important story beats.
Left On Mission has been a joy to read in individual installments (though I still don’t understand that title!), but will probably play out even better when collected as a trade paperback this winter. The storyline, involving murky loyalties, doomed romance and serious ethical questions about the business of spying, is reminiscent of Le Carre or even Fleming at his more maudlin (people act surprised when I group those two together, but read Casino Royale! It’s a grim look at espionage!), but the action is more in keeping with Bourne or Bond (at his more down-to-earth), making an appropriate combination for the medium. It seems like just about every indie comic gets optioned for a movie these days; I certainly hope there’s an ambitious producer out there flipping through Left On Mission. Furthermore, I hope this creative team plans to revisit the spy genre soon.