Digital comics are the future of comics, so says everyone on the Internet and everyone trying to justify their purchase of an iPad and leveraging that into a desperate attempt to generate content for their blogs and stuff. It is in this spirit that the management at Witless Prattle continues the following new, exciting, weirdly specific and slightly iconoclastic feature.
Iron Man ANNUAL #9
Writer:David Michelinie and Bob Layton
Artists: Mark D. Bright (pencils) Bob Layton (inks)
I knew I had an Annual somewhere on this thing. We begin with Iron Man swooping in to save the day when the Golden Gate Bridge breaks down, only to receive help from an unexpected source, Stratosfire, who helps him out (or to be blunt, upstages him) and is immediately mobbed by the media because she's the hot new thing (er, no pun intended) and Iron Man zooms on back to Stark Enterprises so he can yell at Marcy Pearson for being shown up by the new hero on the block and also because he hates hates hates the Permed Mullet Of DOOM.
Marcy helpfully coughs up some exposition: Stratosfire is Roxxon Oil's answer to Iron Man--a corporate sponsored superhero of their own design. Stark yells at her some more and then goes to brood and exposit some more about Stratosfire, specifically that her powers are alarmingly similar to Sunturion, a guy he fought during the first Michelinie/Layton run (it was the first Space Armour story, #142-144--they also adapted it for the Iron Man cartoon back in the 90's) who apparently died trying to keep a space station from crashing into Florida.
Clearly, Something Is Going On (Given that Roxxon is Marvel's Designated Evil Corporation, this is like saying water is wet and fire is hot) and Stark decides to find out what.
But never mind that shit, here's Stratosfire, or rather Sandy Vincent, political science laureate and her friend, babs. Sandy exposits a little more about how they got here--learning political science in college, getting out and finding out that their degrees were worthless, ending up in Roxxon secretarial pool, and then signing up for the Stratosfire thingy.
More on their relationship a bit later, we got more plot to cover. Jonas Hale (Chief Executive Asshole of Roxxon and minor recurring nemesis from back in the day) gets Sandy to come over--they're sending Stratosfire out to destroy a rival refinery. Sandy balks at this, but eventually acquiesces and she decides to do it. Hale frets over how unstable she's become and threatens to use something called the Zed Control, which will probably send her to Canada or something, I don't know.
Stratosfire attacks the oil refinery by leaping through the phone wires ("control over microwave radiation" apparently is highly plot-convenient while Stark confers with Babs about how worried she is about her friend, and Roxxon, having monitored the conversation with Stark, has her killed off-panel and this naturally sends Stratosfire into "pissed off" and she vows revenge.
Hale is all like "whoa, I didn't think she'd be that mad" and considers using the Zed Control, but decides not to, because "the board" might not like having their expensive custom superhero deactivated, decides to let her run wild for a bit, and idea that immediately seems a little suspect because she goes to deactivate a nuclear plant. Iron Man engages her and she kicks his ass (no, Busiek didn't write this one, calm down) Stratosfire vows that she'll dismantle the war machine and make the world Eden and the crowd just eats it up. Iron Man, feeling like her intentions are noble, but her actions are misguided (echoing his feelings about Sunturion) and he's finding it hard to hate her.
Meanwhile, Roxxon is up to their usual eeevil shit, and still ain't using the Zed Control (because the Annual's only half-over) and sends out a plane on a mysterious mission. Meanwhile, at the commissioning of a new aircraft carrier, Statrosfire attacks and Iron Man's there to stop her. So Straosfire grabs his head and starts boiling him in his own armour.
Things don't look so good, but Iron Man gets an unexpected ally--Sunturion returns (not that it uh, hadn't been telegraphed so blatantly up to now, right?) and engages Stratosfire. Having the edge in experience, he drives her off and suggests Iron Man and he discuss things and blurts out his identity for extra leverage.
We get a little exposition on the whole "why aren't you dead, Sunturion?" question (which raises a question for me in "what the hell--Sunturion was in Daredevil?!") and they try to find out her next move which involves an attack on a shuttle which is carrying part of the "star wars" defence system (because, y'know 1987) while Stratosfire steels herself for the battle to come at the launch site and angsts over Babs dying.
Then we get our fight at the launch site, and frankly, it's worth the price of admission, featuring Stratosfire, Sunturion, and Iron Man fighting under the space shuttle, Stratosfire shuts down the Zed Control like the McGuffin that it is (sorta), and finally Stratosfire readies herself to destroy the shuttle. Iron Man buys some time by asking Sunturion if it's worth it to kill a bunch of astronauts just doing their job in the name of the ends justifying the means, and that buys Sunturion enough time to manually activate the Zed Control. Stratosfire explodes and Sunturion is de-powered and everyone kind of walks off, wondering if Stratosfire had a point, even though she went a bit nuts with it.
There's a couple more pages of backmatter covering the staff and layout of Stark Enterprises, but that's the end of that.
So hey, while most Iron Man Annuals have really weak stories that exist in an odd kind of isolation from the regular book (All apologies to Peter Gillis, but that one where Jim Rhodes is fighting with the Eternals was the most boring damn thing in the world), this one doesn't, at all, which is a refreshing change of pace, as the general rule is that Annuals happen in their own little bubble far from the convolutions of the main book (the Evolutionary War running through next year's Annuals will all but calcify this approach) this one is very much grounded in the current attitude and history of the Iron Man title.
For one thing, we have the return of Sunturion, and a nice echo of the original story wherein a noble goal was undermined by the dodgy means by which it was achieved led to disaster, when Stratosfire, who is very much Sunturion's twin, starting a crusade that is very noble but that nobility may get lost on the way since she's using some rather ruthless means to achieve her ends.
And let's go ahead and get this out there: Uhm, I'm pretty sure that Stratosfire/Sandy and Babs are more than roommates--they're lovers. There's a lot of tap-dancing around it, but they seem to me to be a bit more than good friends. I don't think this is a bad thing (if true--Layton, or Michelinie or anyone else, feel free to correct me) but that scene where Stratosfire is angsting about how she'd stop all this if she could just talk to Babs again really does push the point home. Again, it may be exactly what it is presented there, but reading it now, I dunno.
I should also add here that Iron Man (who is awfully passive in this Annual, but that's not a bad thing) functions as the balance and the link between Sunturion and Stratosfire, respecting their nobility but deploring the means used to achieve them. That the story ends on an ambivalent note really presses the point home that this isn't a victory and there are sometimes when you do things and the question of whether they were "right" or not is something you'll have to grapple with forever, possibly to no satisfactory conclusion.
I should also add here that Bright and Layton were a powerhouse art team, one of my favourites ever on Iron Man. Everything is slick and powerful and bless them for managing to get over the utterly hideous excesses of Flexographic printing. They were just in the groove on this book and stayed in said groove for the length of their run.
It's a great Annual, and well worth picking up.