Iron Man: Virus by Alex Irvine

6/10 A light read with some surprisingly good ideas.

Spin-Off novels from popular comics are a peculiar breed of book. They don’t really offer anything that a graphic novel wouldn’t except allowing writers to get into a characters head more than a comic might allow in this post “thought bubble” world. They are, more often than not, “just a paycheque”; passable but unspectacular reads that don’t really impact on the wider continuity of the comics. And that’s exactly what Iron Man: Virus is.

The narrative revolves around Tony Stark’s desire to create a system that allows him instant control over battle networks, whilst villain Arnim Zola takes over HYDRA. The book makes parallels between the two men and the dangers of obsession and science. It’s hardly ground breaking stuff, but there are some nice ideas which I’ll come to later.

For those for whom this thing makes or breaks their interest in a book like this, Irvine makes fleeting references to the wider Marvel universe - The Hulk and Tony's own Extremis project - but doesn't get bogged down in canon so as not to alienate the more casual reader who might have picked up this book off the back of the films only. Pepper makes a fleeting reference that places this novel within the Invincible Iron Man continuity.

Chapters are alternately headed up either by a Stark Enterprises patent claim or Hydra propaganda speech. The patent claims allow Irvine to deliver exposition about the intricacies of Tony's new suit whilst the Hydra propaganda speeches are (sometimes) used to explain events that are about to happen. So we know a character has collected a sample from which to clone Tony's friend without it being explicitly spoon fed to the reader. More often than not however, these Hydra speeches add nothing but to allow Irvine to flex his muscles as a writer (as does a character who speaks only in railway metaphors). In some instances these expositional elements slow down the pacing of the narrative, especially whenever there is a cliff-hanger. I can't help but think that if used more sparingly these little elements would have been more effective. Also, many of the Iron Man technologies are only fleetingly used at all which makes the technical exposition seem all the more worthless. Also, at least one of the HYDRA speeches is chronologically out of place, as it reveals something a good two chapters before it happens - even though its nothing major this seems like an odd editorial error.

The tone of the dialogue is occasionally inconsistent. When Irvine nails the banter between characters, especially scenes with Pepper Potts, the dialogue zings. Sometimes however dialogue doesn't always sit right and quips can fall flat. There are also moments of very broad "comic book dialogue" and whole chapters are devoted to expositional discussions about plans.

Irvine has thrown lots of ideas at the wall and not everything has stuck. A lot of time is spent developing The Eight Demoiselles, only for most of them to die in a helicopter crash the cause of which is unclear, except, perhaps, that Irvine realised his narrative couldn't sustain that many characters. On the other hand there is a surprising tonal shift in which Tony finds himself trapped in a cyber world. To Irvine's credit he has crafted an interesting and surreal cyber reality if at times it strays dangerously close to being a bit silly.

There are other parts of the narrative that aren't properly explained, at one point Zola seems to jump from body to body to body leaving plot threads hanging until they are briefly written off - it's not clear what happens to one of the clone bodies killed by Nick Fury. It gets up and disappears seemingly inhabited by Zola until it dies - however this transfer is left hanging until a very late, very short paragraph explains what happened. One of the villainous Zola clones, Maheu, disappears completely from the narrative which further confuses the body swapping issue as I thought perhaps he had been killed as a decoy.

In the final chapters of the book Irvine spends more time with the SHIELD operatives and other periphery characters than he does on Tony Stark/Iron Man. This is a great shame when Irvine has held off for so long on using the Iron Man suit to begin with. Tony is only in the suit three times. In fact Irvine sometimes seems to have his priorities all wrong. There are moments which are meant to read as quite shocking but are handled with so quickly that they don't resonate.

It’s also a shame that Tony features so little in the final battle as Irvine has crafted so much of his narrative around Tony. This is much more a Tony Stark novel than it is an Iron Man one, and this may go some way to explain why Irvine spends so little time in the suit. Its also a disappointment because Irvine writes some competent action sequences, especially a fun and nicely realised battle which sees Tony suspended from the roof of a building.

Credit must go to the surprising amount of “hard” science fiction ideas. Irvine raises interesting ideas about cloning and individuality, especially the way Happy Hogan deals with HYDRA basing their clone army on him. Ideas of instant control and artificial realities are also welcome. Zola spends a lot of time debating and musing on cloning and the human body. It’s a shame that Irvine has no real intention of answering any of these questions - and why should he? This isn't the book he's been commissioned to write.

Also, if this sort of thing is an issue for you, there is a surprisingly high body count.

Although this review seems quite negative I did actually enjoy the book. It’s a light, fairly enjoyable adventure with plenty of ideas, even if the execution isn’t perfect. This book certainly doesn’t hold up to Matt Fraction’s excellent run on the comic, but if you’re a fan, or looking for a casual read you could do worse.

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