With his prominent role in "Civil War," Marvel at last has made

Tony Stark

(aka

Iron Man

) a prominent player in the Marvel Universe. His role as leader of the Pro-Registration conflict in that series had fans talking about him as much, if not more than,

Spider-Man

and the

X-Men

.

Indeed, after an arc in "Iron Man" Nos. 7-12 by Charles Knauf ("Carnivale") that was good but not great, the Civil War-related issues Nos. 13-14 seem to have Knauf picking up his game a notch. With Stark now named director of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Marvel's premier espionage and intelligence agency - Marvel has created a scenario rich in story possibilities.

We get this right off the bat in issue No. 15, which deals with Stark's leadership of S.H.I.E.L.D. and how his unconventional policies have ruffled feathers. These include a suggestion box outside the cafeteria, closing the officers' club and redesignating its space as a day-care facility while redirecting its budget toward an enlisted men's mess-hall, replacing the cook with his own private executive chef and enacting "casual Fridays" so that uniforms are optional for support staff.

This does not sit well with longtime S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Dum Dum Dugan.

"S.H.I.E.L.D. is a military organization and as such, must maintain the discipline of a clear chain of command," he says to the U.S. defense secretary. "Stark has subverted our entire command structure. He runs S.H.I.E.L.D. like . . . like . . . like one of his damned companies."

What most has Dugan concerened is that Stark is taking a hands-on approach and is increasingly becoming involved in military missions - and usually single-handedly achieving the stated objective, which in his opinion is hurting the readiness of the troops.

"Basic military command principle," Dugan says. "Every man is intrinsic to an operation's success; conversely, no ONE man should be intrinsic to an operation's success."

Dugan also is concerned about Stark's relationship with scientist Maya Hansen, a paroled felon.

The defense secretary responds that while he understands Dugan's concerns, under Stark's leadership, troop morale is up, readiness is up, public approval is through the roof and overall expenses are way down.

Most importantly, he states that there have been 17 "code red" operations in Stark's tenure and they were all successes that resulted in zero casualties.

That changes in No. 16. But what has Stark and Hansen's attention is a "perfect blend of technology and biology." Stark seems determined to crack the mystery and constantly ignores requests to attend a S.H.I.E.L.D. function.

When Stark punches a mirror in frustration, we learn the function is a funeral for three fallen soldiers and Stark is actually having a hard time handling it. Dugan says he knows why.

Stark's corporate-like changes to S.H.I.E.L.D. may have been largely successful, but "in a corporation, men don't die under your command," Dugan says.

"As our commanding officer, you will make life-or-death decisions," he adds. "When you do, you must ask yourself one very important question. Did your decisions today make for a better world tomorrow?"

Stark then struggles to find the words to honor the three soldiers who have fallen under his command in a piece of powerful, emotional storytelling that has helped raise both "Iron Man" 's profile and sales.

With the high quality of writing, growth of the character and tantalizing plot threads that look to be explored in the coming months, "Iron Man" looks to be an ideally entertaining title to examine real-world events.

2008 looking great

This year, movie theaters may have already seen "Ghost Rider" and "300," with "Spider-Man 3," "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," "Transformers," "Harry Potter" and more in the months ahead, but next year also looks great for comic book/fantasy fans.

"Iron Man" leads the summer charge and is set for a May 2 release, quickly followed by "Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," which rolls out two weeks later. That will be quickly followed by the fourth Indiana Jones installment and "Speed Racer."

"The Incredible Hulk" will roar back onto screens on June 27 and "The Dark Knight" will likely be the recipient of box-office fireworks on July 18.

The dog days of August look a little more golden with "Hellboy 2: The Golden Army" opening on Aug. 1. Finally, Trekkers will get a long-awaited Christmas present as "Star Trek XI" opens in December.

Also, "Ant Man," "Sin City 2" and "Watchmen" are aiming for a 2008 release, but production schedules and release dates can move as quickly as the Flash. *