By: Matt Fraction (writer), Salvador Larroca (art), Frank D’Armata (colors), and Joe Caramagna (letters)

The Story:  Hammer makes being Iron Man impossible; Stane finds himself trapped with his back against the wall; the mole within Stark Resilient is revealed.

The Review:  The sudden resurgence of Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man after Fear Itself has been one of the best things to happen at Marvel.  With the book quietly having returned to its position among the very best books Marvel is currently putting out, I’m glad to see that Fraction’s run will be (likely) ending just as strong as it started.

Once again, when in trouble, we see Tony continue to isolate himself, pushing others away.  In other words, Fraction again manages to make Tony act like a dick while simultaneously having us support him and sympathize.  Much like last month, Fraction again makes Stark look truly helpless when Hammer cuts the cord on the Iron Man; his superheroics are cut short with the glory stolen from him (and he himself powerless to do anything about it), while Cap makes him look like a chump.  Fraction manages to give us a Tony Stark that is vulnerable, losing control of his ability to be a superhero.

What really got me, however, was Fraction’s portrayal of series nemesis Ezekiel Stane.  While it’s been slowly moving in that direction, this month we see that in many ways, Stane’s situation mirrors that of Stark.  He too is helpless and vulnerable, having relinquished control of his life to others, unable to get it back.  Like Stark, he’s lost control over what made him “super” and is subject to the whims of another.  Also, like Stark, this arc figures to see Stane struggling to wriggle free from under a thumb.  It’s really great writing from Fraction; while I can’t say that Stane has yet managed to transcend villainy into a more sympathetic realm, you can’t resist the eerie parallel between him and Stark.  Both are helpless to a great extent, both have lost control over their lives (often deluding themselves into thinking otherwise), and both have their backs against the wall…and yet, both are still on opposite sides, working directly against one another.  It’s compelling, elegant stuff.

Meanwhile, Mandarin, slickly ominous up until now, finally shows his ugly side and ends up looking truly frightening this month.  Quite simply, Mandarin flips his shit and shows that, yup, he’s freaking crazy.  That THIS is the guy pulling the strings makes Stane and Stark’s respective plights all the more harrowing.

Finally, we get the reveal as to who the mole at Stark is.  It’s nothing jaw-dropping, but it’s a very interesting character development for the Iron Man villain involved.  It continues the interesting inner conflict most of these souped up old villains are having – they’re more powerful than ever but, in being jacked up and subject to the Mandarin’s whims, some of them are also forced to recognize their own humanity and, thanks to the Mandarin, ignore it.  Ultimately, this makes for an ugly, tragic moment that involves a very undeserved character death.

All of which, of course, leads to one hell of a cliffhanger, or rather, two cliffhangers.  From the big reveal of the mole/conflicted baddie, to the final page of Stark’s surprise announcement to Babbage, this issue REALLY leaves you hanging.  If you’re an Iron Man fan and have been following this series, you will desperately, desperately want the next issue ASAP and really, isn’t that what serial publication should always strive for?

Conclusion: Fraction’s Iron Man continues to be one of the best reads at Marvel.  Witty, emotional, well-balanced, and with twists and turns aplenty, this isn’t one to miss.

Grade: A-

– Alex Evans