The most highly acclaimed run on Iron Man since the 1980s fortuitously coincided with the release of the first Iron Man film, and the opening nineteen issues of that run are collected in this fine oversize hardback volume. Matt Fraction takes a little while to settle into his groove, but Salvador Larocca’s stunning art is up front and central from the off.

Firstly, in an era when an artist managing to draw half a dozen consecutive issues is considered a notable run, Larroca’s fine layouts were produced on a monthly basis, and that should be recognised. He illustrates everything here, and indeed everything in volume two as well. His storytelling is clear, his technology spectacular, and his attention to character and detail wonderful. The only downsides to his almost photo-realistic art are the occasional static quality to figures, and being unable to keep his characters visually consistent. This is a particular issue with Norman Osborn.

The opening pair of chapters are excellently constructed to display Tony Stark and his world from scratch to anyone who’s never read or seen Iron Man before. They lead, however, into an overly extended tale of an engineering genius with ties to Stark’s past committing atrocities with Stark’s technology. It has its moments, but is really little more than a lead into the meat of the book.

This is ‘World’s Most Wanted’, thirteen compelling pulse-racing, heart-stopping chapters of a chase across the globe. Circumstances have changed. Tony Stark has been ousted as the nation’s protector, and replaced by the vengeful Norman Osborn thanks to a globally televised act of heroism that rectified a problem Stark hadn’t. Being the villain that he is, the first thing Osborn wants is the database noting the identities of superheroes who’ve registered with the government. Stark has anticipated this, and the only remaining copy is stored in his head. It can be wiped, but at a cost, and this is a process that can only be carried out in stages over time. Osborn issues an arrest warrant for Stark.

As Stark journeys across the country, then abroad, Fraction gradually expands the cast, including several people who’ve battled Iron Man in his earliest days, some now friends rather than foes. Adhering to the TV drama maxim of three threads being the standard, the narrative also follows former S.H.I.E.L.D. deputy Maria Hill, tasked with retrieving a remotely stored hard drive, and Pepper Potts, upgraded into the more sardonic and proactive character seen in the films. We also occasionally drop back in on Osborn and his staff.

Fraction supplies at least one great plot twist you won’t see coming, throws in several of the more minor variety, delivers on characterisation, focuses on a female-heavy cast, and drops several allusions in passing that are nice touches for those who pick them up. Halfway through it becomes apparent there’s quite the cost to what Stark is doing, but the clues are there as to how that will be rectified, and everything leads to a fine finale. If only all superhero comics were this good.

Also of note is a single chapter in which Spider-Man appears. On the face of it they’re hunting people who exploit Stark’s technology, but the purpose of the story is to contrast approaches to heroic deeds and life in general. It’s very good.

Those with a limited budget can find the content gathered here as The Five Nightmares and two volumes of World’s Most Wanted.