Tony Stark, the invincible Iron Man, is trapped in the Ice Age, whisked back in time by an unknown force!
Desperate to both survive and get home, Tony is beset by further confusion when he meets the Avengers One Million B.C.E.!
Badly beaten, Tony retreats to a nearby cave. There, while trying to manage what repairs he can to his armor, he is brought food by some sultry cavewomen - and then beset by some angry cavemen! He resists their offerings and fights off their attacks, but isn't truly alarmed until he is met by a most devilish visitor...
Could it be? Or has Tony Stark finally gone mad, trapped in a time he never made?
Although the extra-sized Avengers #31 wraps up the long-simmering subplot of Iron Man At the Dawn of Time, in its resolution it poses far more questions than it actually answers. Readers are finally provided some light as to how Iron Man wound up back in the Ice Age, but the why remains a mystery. Further complicating matters is the wholesale retcon of Tony’s father Howard Stark, traditionally portrayed as an honorable if emotionally aloof patriarch and industrialist (who sometimes jaunts around as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with Reed Richards’ father), here he is completely rendered as a secret society-leading, mustache-twirling archvillain who sold Tony’s soul to the Devil when he was just nine years old.
No explanation is given for this major shift in Howard Stark’s characterization, and given that so much of this story hinges on Howard’s actions, that creates a truly baffling read. And by extension, this completely rewrites what we know about Iron Man’s origins (already shaken by the revelation a few years back that he was adopted). But to overthink it is for another time, apparently – the real meat of this story hinges on Iron Man’s quest for survival and answers in a world not meant for a man of technology. If readers can separate the two things, Avengers #31 is a quality read.
And that quest is the real meat of this issue. Writer Jason Aaron allows himself the narrative space to really zero in on Tony Stark as a person – who he is, who he isn’t, and what he’s willing to do to survive. That, in and of itself, is something of a minor miracle in a book that’s typically been defined by its sprawling narratives that invite as many characters as possible to the party. That deliberate bit of focus is crucial to how well this issue works. The key to Iron Man as a character is that, despite his many flaws, he’s an honorable man. Being trapped in a cave and attacked by cavemen and the Avengers One Million B.C.E. (definitely a story for another time, though Iron Man’s encounter with them opens up their long-gestating subplot and connects it to modern times) inevitably brings out the best in Tony: his ingenuity, his heart, and his guts.
But then things take an incredibly strange and on-the-nose turn, as a red serpent arrives on the scene to tempt Tony to give into the temptation to give up. (The serpent allegedly already has his soul – that was sold by Howard when Tony was just a boy.) So, is Aaron comparing Iron Man to Christ? It’s hard not to come to that conclusion, but at the same time, it’s also hard to see how it makes any real sense. Maybe Jason Aaron just really likes talking snakes.
The serpent eventually turns out to be Mephisto, who is revealed to have been responsible for having transported Tony back to the Ice Age in the first place for reasons all his own. They fight as the Avengers One Million B.C.E. look on, making ominous pronouncements about how “there must always be an Iron Man” and how this isn’t a fight they can interfere in. Then Mephisto uses the Time Stone to zap Tony back to modern times. Confused yet? I wasn’t kidding when I said this issue raises more questions than it answers.
Ultimately this issue, with is laser-like focus on Iron Man, was enjoyable in its character work for Tony Stark. But once readers begin to really think about it, the more likely they are to not only be confused but also unsatisfied. One frustrating hallmark of Aaron’s Avengers run is that it seems to be endlessly setting up the next story, and the next story, and the next three stories after that, never bringing a sense of proper closure to any particular arcs. It’s just table-setting for the next huge catastrophe. On the one hand, that creates a larger narrative that could theoretically stretch on for years in any number of directions (Aaron recently said in an interview that his run is deliberately setting up years’ worth of stories for multiple Marvel books), and in the strictest terms of long-term writing, that’s a commendable feat of plotting. (Assuming he truly has a plan and isn’t just making it up as he goes.) But on the other hand, it wears readers down and runs the risk of burn-out in interest when it seems there’s no end in sight. During his seven-year Thor run, Aaron was smart enough to shift direction every time editorial mandated he get stuck with a new first issue; this created a sense of change even though the overarching narrative was still gradually working toward its conclusion in War of the Realms and King Thor. Here, though, he’s made no such concessions – a worrying sign for a book that until recently has struggled to feel like it has a cohesive direction.
Artistically, this issue reeks of a desperation to hit a deadline, employing six artists to tell the tale. Granted, there are extra pages to account for, but six? Fortunately, their styles are similar enough that the story still flows pretty smoothly, but six artists on one comic is pretty ridiculous. But they do provide a major contrast from regular series artist Ed McGuinness, whose bouncy, cartoony style is more appropriate for the chest-thumping superheroics that typically fill these pages. The sextet of artists here have scratchier, more desolate styles, perfectly suited to telling the tale of a man lost and desperate and tempted to give up. The final scene, drawn by Mattia De Iulis, is the standout, rendered in a crisp, clean style reminiscent of Iban Coello. There’s a deliberate narrative choice at work here, though – Tony, returned to modern times, is given a sheen foreign to the grime and dirt of the Ice Age. For comparison, it’s not unlike the shift from black and white to Technicolor in Wizard of Oz. Six artists may have been overkill, but it’s hard to argue when the end results look so good.
Avengers #31 may have some serious retcon issues involving Howard Stark that must be addressed at some point, and leaves far too many dangling plot threads to be considered a complete narrative, but there's no denying the powerful character work Jason Aaron puts into Iron Man makes for some seriously compelling reading.
Avengers #31: Iron Man vs. One Million B.C.E.
Writing - 9/109/10
Storyline - 6/106/10
Art - 7.5/107.5/10
Color - 7.5/107.5/10
Cover Art - 7.5/107.5/10
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