One aspect of fan fiction that appeals to readers (myself included) is the ability to see their favorite characters transplanted into different settings where they can interact without the necessity of plot. The high school and coffee shop AU are popular with the former often featuring the characters being aged down and engaging in various romantic entanglements. You like Iron Man but aren’t really interested in all the armor and superhero fights? Go back in time, throw him into college, and write about his dating life if that’s what you’re into. That seems to be what Brian Michael Bendis is interested in.
International Iron Man #1 reads like fan fiction. It is fan fiction. Brian Michael Bendis is a fan of Iron Man who is now writing two Iron Man comic books. The first one is a straight-up superhero comic. It’s drawn by David Marquez who is very good at drawing superhero comics and has spent most of his career at Marvel Comics working with Bendis. If you’re an artist Bendis likes working with, you’ll never want for a steady gig at the company. So you’ve got David Marquez, Mark Bagley, and… Alex Maleev. Bendis and Maleev began a celebrated, multi-year run of Daredevil in 2001 and have since collaborated on Spider-Woman, Moon Knight, and the creator-owned Scarlet. These are two creators who seem to like working together and know how to work with each other which is what makes this such an enjoyable fan fiction reading experience.
Bendis is wordy. That’s his deal, that’s the joke; it’s as much a feature as it is a flaw. His style of dialoguing bears the self-aware influence of Tarantino, overlapping and circular rhythms of Robert Altman, and armchair philosophizing of Richard Linklater; it’s no coincidence that those creative influences/likenesses live in film, either. It can be cloying if he hits one of these too hard or tries to do all of them at once. Like any writer, Bendis needs to be reined in. Working with Maleev seems to do the trick here. I was surprised to read a page with no more than two words on it. That might as well be a Brian Bendis love scene; writing a page where his collaborator’s storytelling ability gets to shine without burying panel space in balloons. Maleev draws a sequence near the end, a decidedly violent one that does not read as an action scene, where everything rests on his ability to create a sense of confusion and terror for the characters while still rendering it perfectly readable to the audience. Tight close-ups, a general lack of long/wide shots, and the drawing of characters at angles with a sometimes skewed perspective sells the chaos of the moment. I was turning the pages with bated breath.
The story of this issue, give or take three awfully dreadful pages that serve as a framing device, follows Tony Stark’s budding relationship with a fellow student at Cambridge 20 years ago. The Iron Man armor is in this comic, appearing on a two-page splash and the final page that constitutes that aforementioned framing device, but never throws a punch or does any superheroing; that’s what happens in Invincible Iron Man. If Iron Man is a superhero in that comic then he has to at least appear to be something else in this one so as not to make one of the books totally redundant. Bendis seems to understand that. The press attached to this book paints it as a globetrotting spy comic but reads here in this first issue as more of an homage to Linklater’s Before trilogy with an American man and a European woman meeting in a country neither of them call home. There’s a little bit of running at the start and some gunfire near the end but the issue lives and dies by how interesting or entertaining the readers find the conversations between Tony and the newly introduced Cassandra. Mileage will vary.
The advantage to setting this story in Tony’s college days (where the character can be assumed to be in his late teens or early twenties) is that Bendis has a way with teenagers. He may not know that Google didn’t exist 20 years ago (and we won’t entirely blame him for that gaffe because his editor missed that, too) but his years writing Ultimate Spider-Man have demonstrated a notable authenticity when it comes to presenting young people earnestly. There’s a crackle to the early exchanges between Tony and Cassandra, playfully keeping each other at arm’s length before running off together on a lark, that works for characters so young and so bored when it would strain credibility if done with more grown adults. Aside from a frankly confusing panel where Alex Maleev demonstrates a fatal inability to recognizably depict a man kissing a woman on the cheek, the physical chemistry matches the dialogue; the two move from guiding each other around by the wrist to adopting a measured distance coupled with suspiciously considered posture before finally coming to lean on each other.
It’s worth mentioning how different the artwork appears in this issue when compared to the work the two were doing together in Daredevil, their first long-term collaboration. There, Maleev was colored by Matt Hollingsworth who took the “Daredevil as a gritty crime book” ball and ran with it by using a dark, muted palette that combined with the texture would occasionally rob an image of depth or life. It was perfectly suited for the book, a creative choice that worked more often than it didn’t. It’s a different story here with the colors by Paul Mounts. The texturing is left more to the inking as different tones are used to clearly distinguish depth in the crowded bar scene at the top where the patrons blend together in different layers. The spotlight use of yellow in that same scene does wonders for establishing character statuses and relationships over a couple pages. Overall, it’s a cleaner look that still allows Maleev to remain recognizable even if he draws a few panels eerily similar to a Rafael Albuquerque composition.
The ways this comic doesn’t work come from, of course, it’s obligations to be an Iron Man comic. That’s the advantage of most fan fiction; it doesn’t have to be anything. Corporate comics come with their own expectations, though, that Bendis clings to. We get that superhero framing sequence that ends with a reveal so poorly developed and dialogue so terribly written it feels like it was cut out of another comic and stapled in here by a sadist. It’s incredibly hack in the world of superhero comics to end an issue with a villain reveal but it really takes on a whole new level of self-parody when that villain drops a line about never “finding about who your real father is.” It kills the entire mood of what had been a fun romantic drama that spiraled into unforeseen terror (which is itself somewhat undercut by the inclusion of those ridiculous old school Hydra uniforms and intrusive sound effects design).
A small aside: there has got to be a better way to handle sound effects than shown in this issue. The font choices, the coloring of them, and even the mere presence of them disrupts the realism-leaning artwork of Alex Maleev and Paul Mounts rather than enhancing it. It’s garish and cartoony, a disappointment after some otherwise solid lettering choices from Clayton Cowles.
Hands down, this is the best comic Brian Michael Bendis has written since he began his run over on the X-Men titles which, depending on who you are, is either a backhanded compliment or genuine praise considering how those books started. There’s a sense that Bendis really values his partnership with Maleev on the page and is doing his best to write towards his collaborator’s strengths. This right here is an enjoyable comic book that makes more good choices than bad. So why do those bad choices leave such a sour taste? Perhaps it’s the fact that Bendis does have that tendency to go off the rails, failing to pay off what initially appeared to be long term plotting but more resembles a garden planted in the dark upon completion. Projection of future disappointment based on past performance is acceptable when it comes to deciding when and where to spend your money. Whatever shape this ends up taking, it’s hard to say that it won’t in some way be peak Bendis.