Invincible Iron Man #503 has me thinking about nerds. Granted, the issue is also a surprising ending to the “Fix Me” story arc, which I foolishly predicted was going to end with punching, repulsor blasts and Stark pointing out just what Doc Ock’s ultimate failing as he stands over the villain in stern victory. Fraction knows better than to give in to those gut genre instincts, and he’s confident enough in his writing that he can deliver the kind of climax that subverts our expectations. You don’t play with form in a mainstream superhero book turned big-budget Hollywood franchise unless you have the confidence not to end a story with an armor-plated superhero kicking an armor-plated villain.
But mostly, I’m thinking about nerds. Nerds and comics, nerds in comics. Geoff Johns puts nerds in his comics, writing digs at whiny fanboys by making them insufferable villains like Superboy Prime. With “Fix Me,” Fraction seems less interested in insulting any potential fans (though you could probably interpret it that way). Rather, he explores a battle between two nerds — which would have made a great sequel to Revenge of the Nerds where the former heroes from the first film run this massive software company where they lord their superiority over their programmer underlings, and so the oppressed have to strike back against there wealthy nerd overlords. But that has nothing to do with Iron Man.
Is Tony Stark a nerd? He’s a genius inventor/engineer, capable of growing sweet facial hair and arguably the smartest guy in the room, provided Reed Richards and Nikola Tesla aren’t hanging around in the same room. He’s also (often) incredibly rich and (always) capable of having sex with lots of women. You could never call this guy a nerd because he’d pay to have the dictionary change the definition of “nerd.” And there’d also be a photo of Stark right next to the definition, grinning smugly. He’s the coolest.
Otto Octavius, on the other hand, is closer to what you think of when you hear the word “nerd.” His hair is uncool. His glasses are uncool. He wears a bow tie and it’s not endearing like Jimmy Olsen’s. His costume? Amazingly shitty, often pajama-like. He’s a fat guy with tentacles. Even in his current sci-fi Matrix Doctor Octopus form, he’s repulsive. The dweebiest guy in Spider-Man’s dweeby rogues gallery, Doctor Octopus probably has more in common with the stereotypical readership of superhero comics (but not you, dear reader).
So, the Stark/Octavius divide in “Fix Me” is nerd versus nerd. Cool nerd versus troll-like nerd. If Octavius were a couple decades younger, he’d be calling Tony Stark a hipster. Octavius is the sort of bitter, angry nerd who challenges his friends to trivia contests to prove his superiority. Which is essentially what he does to Stark: fix Octavius’ brain damage or admit that he can’t do it, but failure to do evil detonates a nuclear device over Manhattan. And those flashbacks where Octavius is landing military contracts at the Technology of the Future Symposium and Stark is a drunken wreck? They might as well be at a comic convention.
What separates the two isn’t quite humbleness, even though that plays a factor. Stan Lee gets nerds, and realizes that power corrupts. The Evil Parker bit in Spider-Man 3 is the good part of the film (shut up shut up shut up), because it’s a pitch-perfect depiction of a nerd out of control. It’s also what the first film was missing after he beats up Macho Man Randy Savage, but that’s beside the point. Either way, Uncle Ben has to die — if not, this happens. That’s also why Tony Stark has the shrapnel in his heart — his own hubris in gleefully contributing to the military-industrial complex comes back irrevocably change his life. Stan Lee has a thing about nerds getting humbled — you can interpret the Fantastic Four’s origin in a similar light.
Doctor Octopus’s origin, on the other hand, involves a lab accident that fuses his mechanical arms to his nervous system — there’s no humbling moment there. The Flash has a similar origin involving chemicals and being struck by lightning, but if Barry Allen existed in the Marvel universe, he would be a villain.
Here’s the key. Tony Stark is a self-aware futurist, aware of what caused him to become Iron Man and aware that the slightest moment of weakness could send him down a bender that he may never come out of. Conversely, Otto Octavius is bitter, stuck in the past, unaware that being punched in the face by Spider-Man is his own damn fault, to quote Jimmy Buffet (um). The flashbacks in this story arc feel like they’re Octavius’ memory — the one time he was a winner and Tony Stark was sad and getting drunk at the beach. He wants to relive that sort of victory.
Besides the alcohol factor, Stark probably barely remembers that Symposium. Octavius is the kind of guy who’s hit rock bottom and complain that he’s worked too hard to deserve this, and then figure out who to blame. Stark has hit rock bottom, and he’s reacted by working himself back to success, as we’ve seen in Fraction’s run alone. Instead of inventing something, Octavius has spent what was probably a considerable amount of time in his last days developing a grand scheme to simply mess with Tony Stark. Imagine if Peter Parker became Spider-Man and came back years later to bully Flash Thompson. What a loser.
It’s in this final chapter that it becomes clear what a great story arc this is. Fraction hits the climax of “Fix Me” 13 pages into #503, but that moment isn’t really as important as the aftermath, where we see who the real winner is. Doctor Octopus watches video of his pathetic little victory over and over, still wallowing in the past, insular and self-satisfied. What’s Tony Stark up to? He’s pitching his newest project — a man-made city for the Norse Gods — with nary a moment’s thought for Octavius’ pathetic little challenge. Guy never stops looking forward, which might be his own fatal flaw.
To those of the opinion that stories that don’t tie into other things don’t “matter,” “Fix Me” seemed like it was going to be a quick “filler” arc to entertain readers before a potentially more weighty Fear Itself tie-in. I’d argue that “Fix Me” matters most — not just because it perfectly just what makes Tony Stark awesome, but because it’s a classic kind of superhero vs. supervillain story that’s given weight without cheap gimmicks. Also we learn that even if the angry nerds win, the cool nerds are still cool.