I got into monthly comics with Civil War which was a really big deal in terms of grabbing my interest in what was going on within the Marvel Universe and made me fall in love with the sequential storytelling of superhero comics. However, it was what came after Civil War that really cemented me as a forever fan of the genre and the medium and titles like Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting’s Captain America, Dan Slott & Stefano Caselli’s Avengers: The Initiative and Warren Ellis & Mike Deodato’s Thunderbolts are rightfully still remembered as stalwart titles of that post-Civil War era.
As great as those titles were, none of them were my favourite. My favourite title to come out of Civil War is a comic that no-one talks about anymore; Iron Man: Director of SHIELD by Charles Knauf, Daniel Knauf and Roberto De La Torre. This series took the hero who was considered public enemy number one by many comic fans at the time and thrust him into the top cop role within the Marvel Universe and made him face the internal pressures of the bureaucratic nightmare he had wrought alongside the external threat of the return of his greatest enemy.
The Knaufs actually took over Iron Man several months earlier, in the immediate wake of Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s landmark “Extremis” storyline which gave the armored Avenger technokinesis powers and went on to be the basis for another underrated Tony Stark story; Iron Man 3. The first arc after “Extremis” was alright and the two-issue Civil War interlude where Tony grapples with the death of Happy Hogan is great but it isn’t until the series settles into the new status quo that it’s able to take the breaks off and go full steam ahead.
A big part of that change is the artwork of Roberto De La Torre and colourist Dean White who bring an unconventionally grounded and human approach to an Iron Man title that meshes perfectly with what the Knaufs were doing with their story. De La Torre and White could absolutely put together some kick-ass armored action but when the book really shines is in the emotion and the body language as Tony grapples with being the victor of an unpopular war and the fallout that comes along with it.
As a collaborative unit, the Knaufs, De Le Torre and White know exactly when to let the quiet parts resonate but they also know when to let the big moments go boom and it’s this back-and-forth pace between gritty administrative thriller and full on action movie that gave Iron Man: Director of SHIELD its unique identity in the post-Civil War era. At the time, it served as a great sister title to Captain America which was dealing with the fallout from Steve Rogers’ assassination and while that title received more acclaim and is remembered more fondly, it really felt like they were two sides of a coin as both series were coming out.
The main thrust of the Iron Man: Director of SHIELD’s overarching plot builds on what Ellis and Granov established with Extremis while bringing back Tony’s archnemesis, The Mandarin in what I believe to be the greatest Mandarin story ever told. I don’t want to give away everything because it’s really satisfying to see it all play out on the page, but essentially Mandarin is working on a plan to weaponise Extremis in order to cull the population but leave those who survive as supergods, while Tony has to fight with SHIELD and the Department of Defense to even try and convince them that there’s anything going on.
What Iron Man: Director of SHIELD really excels at is building its house of cards right in front of your eyes and laying out everything you need to know about where the story’s going, but in such a clever way that you don’t realise what’s happening or why certain storybeats were important until Tony does. As a reader, you feel as on the back-foot as Iron Man does and when it all comes together there’s a real sense of catharsis because now everything makes sense and the good guy can go beat up the bad guy and save the day.
That sounds a bit childish maybe, but Iron Man: Director of SHIELD really puts Tony through the wringer in some interesting ways. I was kinda Team Tony during Civil War even though it did feel like Mark Millar was writing him as the villain while saying he wasn’t and it’s easy to forget in the wake of Robert Downey Jr making Tony Stark a beloved character around the world, but people hated Iron Man for his role in Civil War. I think that’s part of the reason why Iron Man: Director of SHIELD isn’t as well remembered as it should be; because people didn’t want to read a comic about Civil War’s bad guy and that’s a shame because those people missed out.
It’s also not a particularly jingoistic title either, which could be an easy pit to fall in when writing about SHIELD as the good guys. It does have some flaws — like when Dum Dum Dugan tells Tony the difference between running a company and running a corporation is that people don’t die when you do the latter — but it’s overall critical of the military industrial complex and the pay-to-play links between top level politicians and big pharma. Even the Fifty State Initiative, Tony’s big pet project, comes under fire when lax vetting procedures result in the death of a young recruit
The final death knell for Iron Man: Director of SHIELD was the launch of Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s Invincible Iron Man which was released to coincide with the movie and was instantly the A-List Iron Man book, even though the Knaufs hadn’t wrapped up their story yet. They did get a chance to wrap it up and I don’t know if they left because they told the story they wanted to do or because Marvel wanted to move onto something else.
There was a four-parter that followed the Knauf/De La Torre run by Stuart Moore, De La Torre, Carlo Pagulayan and Steve Kurth and after that, it became War Machine: Weapon of SHIELD for a Secret Invasion tie-in and then it was done. Iron Man wasn’t Director of SHIELD anymore, SHIELD didn’t even exist and more people were buying the Fraction/Larroca title, so the series morphed into a new War Machine ongoing which was actually quite good. The Knaufs followed it up with a run on Eternals that I honestly think is better than the Gaiman/Romita Jr miniseries but again, there wasn’t much reader interest and I don’t think they did much comic work after that.
I think everyone that reads superhero comics has at least one much beloved series that they wish more people talked about — lord knows I have several beyond Iron Man: Director of SHIELD — and I while all comics can’t be all things to all people, every comic is going to be someone’s favourite. Evangalise the comics you love while they’re coming out because they’re not going to be published forever and there are few feelings as satisfying as someone telling you they read and liked something because of how enthused you were about it. If one person reads this and goes back to read Iron Man: Director of SHIELD, then I will be extremely happy.