Comic Book Review: Iron Man: Director of SHIELD #23

Iron Man continues to be a phenomenal read. I constantly praise Brubaker’s efforts on Daredevil and Captain America as being the best writing on any Marvel title. I may have to amend that statement. The level of quality of writing that the Knaufs have brought to Iron Man has been stunning. The Knaufs have continually cranked out some of the strongest writing of any Marvel comic book. There is no doubt that the Knaufs will deliver yet another excellent read with Iron Man #23. Let’s go ahead and do this review.

Creative Team
Writers: Daniel and Charles Knauf
Artist: Butch Guice

Art Rating: 7 Night Girls out of 10.
Story Rating: 9 Night Girls out of 10.
Overall Rating: 8 Night Girls out of 10.

Synopsis: We begin with an enraged Paragon attacking the Mandarin in Prometheus Gentech’s headquarters. Paragon is angry that Mandarin lied when he said he would save Paragon’s mother. Mandarin kicks Paragon’s ass. Mandarin says that he tried everything to cure Paragon’s mother’s sickness. And that in the end it was Graviton who entered her hospital room and killed her. Paragon then blasts off to go exact vengeance on Graviton.

We cut to the SHIELD Helicarrier where Iron Man is alone in his lab. Iron Man is researching the number of missing persons cases in Nebraska between 1996 and 2006 (329) compared to the number of missing persons cases in 2007 (864). Tony takes off his helmet and throws it against the wall. Tony curses himself for missing something like this. Tony slumps onto the ground.

We see Maria Hill watching Tony in his lab via a security camera. Maria thinks how Tony gets worse every day and that he is coming apart at the seams.

We slide over to Graviton’s hospital room on the Helicarrier. Paragon bursts through the wall and blasts Graviton through the floor to the gym underneath the medical facilities. Graviton says that Paragon is broken and that the machine no longer has a use for Paragon. That Paragon has become redundant. Graviton then kills Paragon.

Iron Man then busts onto the scene and is horrified at what Graviton has just done. Iron Man tells Graviton that he just killed the only witness who could have cleared Graviton of the murder of Gadget. Graviton responded that he would never have been permitted to live in order to stand trial. Graviton comments about the things he has seen and the things they have done to him. That he was human once and that he is now so very tired. Graviton then turns his powers on himself and commits suicide.

We cut to Iron Man meeting with the Commission on Superhuman Activities in Washington, D.C. Iron Man reports on Graviton’s suicide. Iron Man then says that he hasn’t concluded SHIELD’s investigation into this matter.

The Commissioner disagrees and says that Iron Man has already dragged out this investigation too long and cost them of the life of the prime suspect and the life of one of their own.

Iron Man responds that he has conclusive evidence that Paragon mislead the Initiative concerning the source of his powers. Norman Osborne retorts that maybe Paragon didn’t know the origin of his powers. But, that doesn’t make Paragon a murder.

Iron Man answers that Paragon did kill Gadget. Norman Osborne says that maybe Paragon was unhinged by Iron Man’s reckless charges and decided to seek revenge on the real killer of Gadget: Graviton.

Iron Man adds that before Gadget was killed, she was investigating the large number of missing persons reports in Nebraska. Iron Man says that Paragon was connected with someone who was threatened by Gadget’s inquiries. That the mystery individual orchestrated Graviton’s escape from prison and chose Graviton in particular since Graviton had the same powers of Paragon that Paragon had kept hidden from everyone.

Norman shouts that Iron Man’s accusations are absurd. Iron Man says he refuses to close his investigation until he uncovers the identity of this mystery person.

We cut to Prometheus Gentech where Maya is meeting with the “Tem” aka the Mandarin. Maya is impressed that “Tem” has pulled off such incredible strides in the testing of the Extremis virus. Maya apologizes for not being on her “A” game with the presence of the SHIELD Helicarrier above Prometheus Gentech’s labs.

We slide over to the Commission of Superhuman Affairs meeting with Secretary of Defense Jack Kooning. Kooning states that he has evidence that Tony Stark has become mentally ill and unstable. Kooning says he has a witness he would like to speak before the Commission. Maria Hill then walks into the room.

We cut to the SHIELD Helicarrier where Dum Dum Dugan is pissed as hell that the Commission of Superhuman Affairs has closed the investigation on Gadget’s death. And that Paragon’s actions were chalked up to a mental breakdown. That the Commission has ruled that Graviton is the killer and that SHIELD is to end any investigation into the matter and return the Helicarrier back to dry dock in New York City.

Iron Man is pissed about the orders to close the investigation as well. Iron Man stews the entire way back to his office on the Helicarrier. Iron Man enters his personal office and sees Doc Samson sitting in there waiting for him.

Doc Samson plays the video footage of Graviton in the SHIELD medical bay commenting on how Tony also sees the dead. The ones that he has failed. Iron Man dismisses the footage as the ramblings of a madman. Doc Samson counters how Iron Man still believes Graviton’s statement that Paragon killed Gadget.

Samson reveals that he has reviewed the video footage of Tony aboard the Helicarrier. That Tony falls into brief dissociative fugue states at times. (Honestly, who doesn’t from time to time?) Iron Man retorts that he is not hallucinating. Samson then requests that Tony do him a favor and remove his helmet. At first Iron Man refuses, but then acquiesces after Samson pleads for him to do so.

Tony looks like shit. Samson is taken aback. Samson asks Tony what he is doing with himself. Samson asks how long Tony has locked himself in his armor. Tony responds for not that long. Maybe a week. Samson asks Tony who he is trying to protect himself from.

Tony snaps on Samson and yells that he doesn’t need Samson’s self-help crap. Samson replied that Tony leaves him no choice and that Samson is going to recommend that Tony be placed on two weeks personal leave, effective immediately. And during which time Tony will report to Samson for formal psychological assessments.

Tony retorts that Samson doesn’t have that authority. Samson replies that he does have that authority under the Superhuman Registration Act. Samson then hands Tony a psionic resonance dampener and asks Tony to wear it around his leg. That the device was created to curb Tony’s Extremis powers. That while wearing it, Tony will not be able to interface with any digital tech including his new armor.

Tony asks what if he refuses to wear it. Samson answers that if Tony doesn’t wear it then Samson will Section 8 Tony and have him sent to a psych unit for observation.

We cut to Prometheus Gentech as Maya and Tem watch the SHIELD Helicarrier fly away. Maya comments that she can no finally focus on her work. Maya then decides to use inhalers instead of injections to administer the Extremis virus in order to improve survivability rates. That she developed such airborne nano-tech for Stark and that it is Stark Tech patented. Tem responds that it is time for Maya to step out of Tony’s shadow. Maya says that she will begin work on immediately.

We shift to Stark Tower in Manhattan. Tony instructs his assistant to tell anyone who asks for him that he is on an Amazon trek or something like that. His assistant reminds Tony that he is supposed to be relaxing and that Omaha is not a great place for a visit. Tony responds that Omaha is a great place for hunting. End of issue.

The Good: Iron Man #23 was a brilliant read. The Knaufs continue to amaze me with some of the best writing you will find on any Marvel or DC title. Usually, I am summarily unimpressed with the efforts of Hollywood writers when they decide to come off of Mount Olympus and “grace” us with their presence. Most of the time the result is a comic book that has a horrible shipping schedule and is constantly delayed. And the writing is usually never all that impressive. Joss Whedon is the first Hollywood type that impressed me with his writing, but his inability to keep a consistent shipping schedule really dampened my enthusiasm for his story.

That is why despite my love for Daniel Knaufs’ phenomenal show “Carnivale,” I was suspicious about their desire to truly commit themselves to writing a monthly comic book. Well, the Knaufs have exceeded my wildest expectations on Iron Man. Not only do they deliver an incredibly high quality of writing they also are able to meet a monthly shipping schedule.

The Knaufs serve up some incredible dialogue. The Knaufs are crafting arguably some of the finest dialogue that you will find on any Marvel or DC comic book. The dialogue has a wonderful realistic flow to it. The Knaufs continue their commitment to extraordinary character development. All the characters on this title are well rounded and have plenty of depth. And the amount of psychology that the Knaufs engage in with each issue is special and something you don’t see on most comic books. The Knaufs crawl into the minds of the various characters and expose their inner workings to the reader.

I love the Knaufs’ take on Graviton. They take what I have always found to be sort of a cheesy and uninteresting villain and make him thoroughly engaging. The Knaufs make Graviton into a completely creepy and tragic character. The aura of sorrow that surrounds Graviton is palpable to the reader. I found myself becoming completely fascinated with Graviton’s character during this story arc.

And Graviton’s suicide comes as no surprise. Graviton cannot handle the demons that haunt him. And Graviton’s suicide should serve as a warning to Tony. Tony is beginning to suffer from the same delusions as Graviton. If Tony keeps relentlessly pushing himself there is a good chance that he may eventually find himself as mad as Graviton.

I dig how the Knaufs begin to unveil to the reader how all the various plotlines fit together as we learn more about what the Mandarin is plotting. It is clear that the Mandarin was behind Graviton’s escape from the Raft. And that the Mandarin manipulated Paragon into killing Gadget and then having it blamed on Graviton. Gadget was getting to close for comfort with her investigation of the sudden spike of missing persons reports in Nebraska. The Mandarin’s accelerated effort to create a new super soldier by testing the Extremis virus on human subjects was the source of the sudden increase of missing persons.

It would be pretty cool if the Mandarin ends up using the Extremis virus to create the new Captain America. How painful would that be for Tony? Imagine Tony’s greatest enemy, the Mandarin, using a virus that is inside of Tony to create the new Captain America who replaces Tony’s best friend Steve! I can’t imagine how sick that would make Tony.

But, given that we are getting a new Captain America in January and he appears to be a normal human without any powers from the Extremis virus I doubt that Mandarin’s testing will yield in the creation of the new Captain America. So that begs the obvious question of just what is the Mandarin up to. Does he want to build an army of super soldiers for the U.S. military or does he want to build an army of super soldiers for his own personal purposes and gains? Secretary of Defense Kooning certainly thinks that Mandarin’s only interest is further developing the government’s Super Soldier program. You know the Mandarin is one of the most cold and calculating villains in the 616 Universe. It should be fun watching the Knaufs slowly reveal what the Mandarin is plotting and planning.

Of course, what truly makes Iron Man such an amazing read is the mind blowing work that the Knaufs have pulled off with Tony Stark’s character. Now, I grew up with the David Michelenie and Bob Layton Iron Man. However, I have a full run of Iron Man all the way back to issue #1 so I appreciate the creative teams that came before my time. And up until now, the Michelenie and Layton Iron Man was always my favorite version of Tony. Like I said, until now. I know this is blasphemy among the Golden Avenger’s fandom but I think the Knaufs are delivering the best version of Tony Stark that I have ever read.

The Knaufs are giving us the most complex and engaging version of Tony Stark. Period. This is the most deep and fascinating take on Tony’s character. I have always loved Iron Man, but I will admit that for the most part, Tony’s character throughout his history has been a bit shallow and one-dimensional. That certainly isn’t the case anymore.

And what makes the Knaufs evolution of Tony’s character even more impressive is that they have pulled it off during the Civil War era where Marvel allowed its fleet of writers to engage in rampant character assassination of Tony in every single one of their titles. The Knaufs said it best in an interview with CBR: “This is not a criticism of other writers at Marvel but I think there’s a tendency to turn Tony into a punching bag in a lot of other books,” Daniel Knauf said. “We see a lot of fans on the message boards saying, ‘If you really want to see Tony portrayed as a hero look to his own books.’ There is some truth to that; some writers are lighter on him and some are very, very hard on him. We just try to build up Tony without making it at the expense of other characters. I think that’s what most of the writers do anyway but lately in the Marvel Universe, it has been open season on Stark.”

Writers like JMS, Bendis and others have used Tony as their outlet for their impotent rage over their own personal political crusades and sermons with a complete and blatant disregard for writing Tony consistent with his character’s history. This makes the Knaufs’ job even harder to write a character that other writers are making a total mockery of and creating hatred for that character with the general fandom that are unaware of Tony’s character as portrayed in his own title throughout his history.

The Knaufs shrugged off the petty actions of other writers and rising hatred of Tony from uneducated comic book fans and proceeded to stick with their commitment to write Tony better than he has ever been written before. “The important thing for us is though we look at other books for continuity we really stick to our own game plan,” Charles Knauff told CBR News. “We don’t hold any vendettas for other characters and we don’t try to get back at certain people. We just stick to what’s important and that’s Tony’s story.”

And that is just what the Knaufs have done and it has been a blueprint for success. The Knaufs are treating us to a Tony Stark who is immensely heroic, always in control and simply one of the most brilliant men of the 616 Universe. And at the same time, the Knaufs show us the other side of Tony. His large ego, his unyielding drive to be perfect and to assume the burden of the entire world on his shoulders. That Tony feels he is the only person qualified to address what ills America.

The Knaufs then add an additional layer to Tony and that is his apparent mental breakdown. The Knaufs are leading Tony down the path of an apparent mental breakdown that we haven’t seen since Tony fell into an alcoholic abyss, lost his company, left Rhodey to assume the role of Iron Man and became a homeless drunk. This time alcohol isn’t to blame. This is something even more disturbing. Tony is hallucinating and is haunted by his failures of the recent past.

The reader is left wondering if Tony truly has lost it. If the constant strain of trying to be perfect and assuming the burden of trying to single handedly deal with the Registration Act, run the Avengers, run SHIELD and take care of his own company. That Tony has overloaded himself in trying to be the perfect hero. That Tony finds himself to be the only person capable of working in the inside of the government to make sure he can prevent any possible governmental abuses via the Super Hero Registration Act. And to top it all off, Tony has to assume all these burdens while at the same time taking all this abuse from myopic characters within the super hero community.

This unyielding effort to assume every burden in the world is evident in the fact that Tony is rarely seen outside of his armor anymore. It seems that Tony is locking himself away from the rest of the world. I’m sure Tony would contend that he is always in his armor because he is so busy and has so much on his plate. Others might think it is a sign that Tony is protecting himself from the unflinching and unending criticism from other characters that lack the vision to see why he is supporting the Registration Act. Or it just might be that the Extremis virus has made Tony less human.

The problem is that Tony is thinking of everyone and their needs rather than himself. And everyone has limits and it appears that the great Tony Stark is clearly beginning to reach his limits. The scene with Doc Samson and Tony was fantastic. The Knaufs peel back layer after layer of Tony’s psyche and make the reader truly wonder if Tony hasn’t gone insane. I am absolutely fascinated with watching a man as powerful and intelligent and Tony struggle so violently with ghosts from his past.

The Knaufs are doing an incredible job taking the one-dimensional Iron Dick Cheney that writers like Bendis and JMS gave us during and after the Civil War and making a total joke out of it. Iron Man was presented as acting like a robot without a soul as he backed the Act and then carried out enforcing the Act. Writers like JMS and Bendis made Tony nothing more than a moustache twisting evil Nazi without any remorse.

The Knaufs employ superior writing to mock those writers. The Knaufs show the reader the pain, the trauma and the emotional scarring that the events of Civil War and the Initiative have taken on Tony. The Knaufs are letting their incredible writing and this intricate and emotional take on Tony’s character to drive home the point of how little effort and talent the other writers used in writing Tony’s character during and after Civil War.

The Knaufs crank out a sweet hook ending. Tony finds himself at the mercy of the Registration Act. He is placed on leave, tagged with a device to neutralize his Extremis powers and is told that SHIELD will end their investigation in Nebraska immediately. But, the Knaufs weren’t done yet. Tony decides to use his mandatory leave to go to Omaha and personal investigate the mystery there. Plus, Tony is going to have to bust out some of his old school armor in order to get the job done.

It is doing to be fun seeing Tony back in his old armor. And it is cool to see the Knaufs emphasizing the Tony is no Iron Dick Cheney. Tony is no government stooge. Tony could care less about the government telling him what he can or can’t do. This little mission should certainly create some serious tension between Tony and the Commission on Super Human Activities as well as with the Secretary of Defense.

Butch Guice provides plenty of solid artwork. Again, his sketchy artsy style isn’t exactly what I prefer for a title like Iron Man. However, Guice’s artwork is a great match for the eerie and gritty mood of the Knaufs’ story.

The Bad: I have no complaints with this issue.

Overall: Iron Man #23 continues to be one of the best reads on the market. The Knaufs show no signs of slowing up on this title. They just keep getting better and better with each issue. If you haven’t given this title a try then you should really do so. Don’t believe the hype that other writers fed you during and after Civil War. The Knaufs have made Tony Stark one of Marvel’s most intriguing characters. And the Knaufs don’t approach this title like a traditional Sci Fi comic book like so many past writers have. Instead, you get a more artistic and strange take on the Golden Avenger than I have ever seen before. If you enjoy strong writing, complex plotlines and well placed action then you will enjoy Iron Man.