By Matt Fraction (writer), Salvador Larroca (artist), Frank D’Armata (colorist)

On the run, depowered, and dethroned from the seat of power he built in Civil War and held through Secret Invasion, Tony Stark is now the world’s most wanted man; compliments of his usurper, Norman Osborn.  Through a complex series of lies, executions, and skillful manipulations, Osborn has assumed control of all the trophies of Stark’s once formidable power and corrupted them in his own image.  S.H.I.E.L.D. has now become H.A.M.M.E.R., Stark’s Mighty Avengers have become Osborn’s Dark Avengers, and even Stark’s Iron Man costume has been cruelly transfigured into Osborn’s Iron Patriot armor. But such symbols are just that, and Osborn is hungry for something more meaningful; namely, the superhuman registration database Stark compiled following the events of Civil War. The same database Osborn is enraged to discover is residing in Stark’s brain! The stage is set and the hunt is on as Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca take us on the first half of their greatest epic to date in “World’s Most Wanted”.

And that’s right, I said this graphic novel only represents the first half of the story.  When the dust settles and all is said and done, this epic will clock in at a massive twelve issues, practically unheard of anymore.  Because this is such a deliberately paced story, this volume has the tendency to feel slow at times. The emphasis here is primarily on Stark, his girls Pepper Potts, and Maria Hill, and their attempts at evading the relentless Osborn and his vast, newly-hijacked empire. In Osborn, Stark has found his most formidable and compelling villain since the Mandarin, and he seems much more appropriate here in the pages of Iron Man than he ever did in Amazing Spider-Man. Osborn is truly a dark personification of Stark and a corruption of everything we admire about Tony; and one of those central themes to the story has been to remind us why the man inside the Iron Man armor remains one of Marvel’s greatest heroes.

Of course, a hero is only as effective as his teammates, and Stark is graced here to have Potts and Hill as allies. Fraction skillfully writes these two as fiercely intelligent, strong women who are both committed to keeping Stark safe at all costs.

Fraction has never been better as a writer than he is on this title, (except when he was writing Casanova, which sadly seems to have fallen to the wayside) one of the few under Marvel that has maintained consistent quality month after month. Even more surprising is how Fraction has taken the utter mediocrity of “Dark Reign”, filtered it through this title, and inexplicably made the event storyline far better than it has any right to be.

On all levels, this is stellar entertainment and a beautifully-produced book. The pencils of Salvador Larroca and colors of Frank D’Armata are incredibly gorgeous to behold, and I’m tempted to follow these two wherever their next projects may take them. Slick and polished lines pop off these glossy graphic novel pages, which in turn are sumptuously wrapped in computer rendered colors. I know, sounds sexy doesn’t it?  But it’s like I said, this is one hell of a quality production!

On a final note, I’m happy to report that the length of “World’s Most Wanted” is what finally motivated me to stop collecting this title as a monthly comic and only as a graphic novel instead. I’m glad I made this decision, as the overall reading experience on this title is smoother and more enjoyable than ever. If you aren’t reading this book, do yourself a favor and go buy this and its precursor, “The Five Nightmares.”  You won’t be disappointed.

Grade:  A

-Tony Rakittke