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

The Story: Mandarin sends out the goons to collect Tony’s parts; Tony performs surgery on Stane; Iron Man vs. Detroit Steel Corps vs. Iron Man rogues in a triple threat mech battle.

The Review: In dealing with this new status quo he’s set up for his cast, Matt Fraction puts a lot on our plates here and, hence, a lot to love.

A fair chunk of the issue is spent in a wild mech battle between Rhodey, Hammer, and Mandarin’s goons.  Larroca’s mechs look great, as always, and the action is solid.  What makes the scene really shine, however, is the continuing dynamic between Pepper and the disguised Rhodey.  It’s a lot of fun and the dialogue is a nice little wink-and-nudge game with the reader.  The battle itself was also interesting in that, unbeknownst to them, Rhodey and Pepper are in many ways working against Tony in preventing the goons from getting the materials he needs to complete the titanomech.  It’s nice, subtle layer to Tony’s working for the bad guys.

Fraction also puts his own twist on Mandarin’s origins this month, delving a bit into the nature of the rings.  It ends up being a pretty cool idea; it’s definitely too early to judge, but thus far, I like the suddenly cosmic, weird twist to a series that has largely been based on comics science.  It adds an entirely different element to a series that has been about repulsors and machinery and the result is a power, and a character, that feels even more ominous and alien.  Great ideas meet big, lingering questions.

Overall, however, I’ll admit that this issue does fall prey to “second issue” syndrome.  It’s clearly a transitional issue and, honestly, there isn’t a huge amount of plot progression.  By itself, as a standalone, it’s not the densest or most meaningful issue.  While it’s always fun hanging out with Fraction’s cast, and while it is a page-turner, the fact is that in itself, this issue doesn’t seem the most eventful.

With that being said, Fraction does continue his trend of ending issues on high notes.  Thus, the one big development that does occur this month comes on the final page, marking a new and exciting dynamic to Tony and Ezekiel’s relationship.  The good guy/bad guy team-up against the greater evil is a trope I’ve always been fond of, and that looks to be no different here; the final lines from Tony this month are awesome.

Meanwhile, on art, Larroca turns in a particularly good issue.  He delivers on the large amount of action, he does that cool thing he does in subtly changing his style when depicting a flashback, and his new design for Sasha Hammer looks like something out of a Japanese videogame.

One final, minor gripe about this issue though:  Fraction introduces a new romance for Pepper that comes completely out of left field.  It seems to have been going on for a while now and we’ve just never known about it.  It’s so, so random, has had zero development, and is will definitely throw you for a loop.

Conclusion: Another very solid outing for one of Marvel’s best series, even if it is a bit guilty of being a chapter in a trade paperback more than an issue in an ongoing series.  Still, lots of cool stuff here.

Grade: B

-Alex Evans