Chiaroscuro Daydreams: Iron Man, Part Two


(as with all images on this or any other post in this blogge, click to enlarge)

Is that a bead of sweat on Tony Stark's cheek in the panel above, or a tear? Is he sad, exhausted, or just in a kind of mindless daze? When he lifts up the face-piece of his mask, is there simply another one underneath?

Looking back on my days as a bright young ten-something comics nerd, I was reading some pretty weird stuff for my age. I don't mean "E.C., the-severed-hand-hanging on the subway handle" weird, or Star Comics weird, but precocious weird: sure, I devoured Spider-Man like all my comics-reading friends in the 80s (Hobgoblin ruled), as well as Avengers, Bryne's Fantastic Four (She-Hulk ruled), Secret Wars, and the Chris Claremont X-Men (I'm pretty sure there was some sort of law in the 1980s that a boy who read comics had to read Uncanny X-Men, although I never got the mutant bug as much as my friends did). But the story that fascinated me the most was about this down-and-out drunk who used to be a superhero. No one else I knew read Iron Man (I remember one friend in middle school even giving me a strange look on our way to the comics shop: "Why are you reading that?" he asked perplexedly), but I was hooked. As Alvy Singer says in Annie Hall, everyone else liked Snow White, but I immediately fell for the wicked queen.

In my previous post on Iron Man, I traced out a bit of the character's history as a way of suggesting how poorly he was being treated by contemporary comics writers. There's a fascinating 44-year history to the character and his alter-ego, billionaire playboy/inventor Tony Stark, and in a run of issues spanning, more or less, 1978-89, a talented series of writer-artist teams really thought through the possibilities and meanings the character might have for the Marvel Universe, and for broader questions of mainstream comics storytelling more generally.

Undoubtedly, the most controversial run of this golden age was writer Denny O'Neil's. O'Neil was following the very popular team of writer/co-plotter David Michelinie and artist/co-plotter Bob Layton, whose run of more than three years on the title had brought it renewed popularity and critical acclaim. Michelinie and Layton were part of a third wave of comics-fans-turned creators, stylish craftsmen whose balance of high adventure and rich character development allowed Iron Man, Tony Stark, and his friends to register in a far more three-dimensional way than they had in previous iterations of the character (in both Tales of Suspense and his own title). Anyone following these guys would have a tough legacy to live up to.

Denny O'Neil was a fascinating choice. He came to Marvel in 1981, after a long tenure at DC, where in the 1970s he'd "Marvelized" several titles, like Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and Green Lantern, and (most famously) Batman. Until he took over writing chores on Iron Man in early 1982, his most notable contribution to the company was as editor and mentor to Frank Miller on Daredevil, a masterful bit of work for which he still doesn't receive enough credit (he has been the editor on nearly all of Frank Miller's best work at the Big Two comics companies, and one can clearly see the influence of O'Neil's early 70s Batman on Miller's Matt Murdock). Oh, and he also apparently came up with the name "Optimus Prime", which has to give him extra geek cred, right?

O'Neil, like Batman, was born in 1939, which makes him nine years older than Michelinie and fourteen years older than Layton. He is part of that earlier wave of comic book artists in the mid-to-late 60s and early 70s (including Steve Englehart, Mike Friedrich, Bill Mantlo, and Neal Adams) who were interested in using genre to say something new and "relevant" about the world around them. Many of them were political liberals who had come from other fields (O'Neil had been a school teacher and journalist, among many other jobs), and had been touched in different ways by the social changes, upheavals and opportunities of the 1960s. Like the "New Hollywood" filmmakers of the same period, they were going to work within the system, but would see just how much the system could be stretched and pushed; to paraphrase another aesthetic radical of the period, they were going to exemplify the difficulties of trying to destroy the wolf while lodging comfortably in its gullet.

Marvel/Charlton/DC

O'Neil grew up Catholic in St. Louis in the 1940s and 50s, and read a lot of comic books. Tellingly, by the time O'Neil turned nine or ten, superheroes were largely being phased out by the major publishers: after a decade or so of dominance, other post-war genres like the romance, the western, the "funny animal," and most dramatically, the horror story, were becoming far more popular. GIs overseas had been voracious comic book readers, and carried the habit with them into civilian life, and publishers adjusted their narratives accordingly. I haven't seen O'Neil say anything about this generic shift (although there are literally hundreds of interviews with him, so I might have just missed it), but I wonder if it didn't affect his later interests as a writer. I know my own peak period of comics collecting obsessiveness came in early adolescence, starting aroung the age of ten or eleven, and many friends and bloggers have similar tales; what would it mean to enter this moment with a kind of bifurcated reading consciousness, surrounded by wartime superheroes, and then thrown into a publishing space that was radically different? In a recent interview, O'Neil spoke of the kinds of stories he enjoyed telling, and his words seem to reflect this shift:

I found out pretty early on that I liked human scaled characters. I never had much fun writing Superman and gave it up after a year and I also walked away from the Justice League and their half dozen god-like entities. Batman was fine: Human scaled, human emotions, human capabilities. In a way, one of the subtexts of Batman is human perfectibility, and making lemonade out of lemons. Again, my interpretation of that character which is not exactly the current one. I had more satisfaction writing The Question than anything else. I liked Batman, obviously. I always liked Green Arrow. His politics bounced all over the line, but there is a kind of correlate that everybody seems to have retained. And the rest of it was just jobs. That sounds almost like a put-down, "It was just my job." It was a great job, often. At its worst, well, every job has its lousy years, but I can't imagine anything I might have done, given my limitations and abilities that would have been a more satisfying and interesting job than the one I did.

According to his official bio, O'Neil graduated from St. Louis University with a degree in English and philosophy (another generational shift: the college-educated comics writer, like the film school-trained movie directors of the same period), and " joined the Navy just in time to participate in the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis." After leaving the Navy, he wrote for a Missouri newspaper, eventually being lured into comics in the mid-sixties by writer Roy Thomas, who had been impressed by his newspaper columns. O'Neil worked at first for Marvel, on titles like Dr. Strange and Daredevil. Because Lee and Thomas were handling a lot of the writing chores on Marvel's books, O'Neil left for the more open pastures of Charlton Comics (the same company artist Steve Ditko had left Marvel for-- the two men's work would often intersect over the following decades), where he wrote for a year or so under the pseudonym "Sergius O'Shaunessy." In 1968, he was hired away by new DC editor Dick Giordano (who had previously worked with him at Charlton) in what O'Neil later found out was a stealth scab hire:

O'Neil: I was so dense that years later I realized there was a kind of pecking order in the comic book business, that the guy who was doing Spider-Man was higher in that order than the guy who was doing Iron-Fist. We didn't really know why DC had hired us. I put this in print 15 years ago and I asked Paul Levitz about it. Basically in our infinite childish ego Steve [Skeates] and the other Steve [Ditko] and I and a couple of other guys thought that those people at DC are seeing the wonderful work we're doing at Charlton and they can't wait to get us into their stable. Well, it was really that they were having a conflict with the old line guys and I'm reasonably certain they wouldn't have known us if they'd run over us and maybe not even recognized our names. I needed the money. The money was triple what we were getting at Charlton and I was working occasionally for Stan [Lee], but irregularly and I had an infant son and an unworking wife. So I didn't know I was a scab and I don't know what I would have done if I had known, but it was years and years and years later before we found out. They had some holes they wanted to fill and they hired Dick [Giordano] and I don't know if they suggested he bring people with him or if it was his idea, I suspect it was his, and off we went. I remember very clearly I would meet with Dick on Thursday morning in an office that Charlton rented on 5th Avenue and one of those Thursday mornings he said, "How would you like to do exactly what you're doing now at three times the money?" I said, "Yeah, sure, talk me into it, you eloquent devil."

It was not, perhaps, an ideal hiring situation (although DC editors would also later say they'd have hired a talent like O'Neil under any circumstances), but the moment-- writing under a pseudonym, hired as a scab-- can be read as emblematic of O'Neil's later work, whose characters are haunted by dual identities and corporate machinations (those two themes are pushed to an extreme on his Iron Man run). In any case, O'Neil certainly hit the ground running: as a young artist steeped in the Marvel tradition of pathos-through-action, he quickly went about revamping several well-known books. This very interesting article recounts some of O'Neil's early experiences at DC: creating new characters like The Creeper and reviving old, odd ones, like the wonderfully named "Bomba the Jungle Boy" (which Talent Pool notes, very deadpan, "does not seem to have survived to the present day." A shame, really).

Having made a go of this initial period, O'Neil was assigned to two big guns: Justice League of America and Wonder Woman. These titles, while mixed in their reception, offer hints of what would become O'Neil narrative tropes: massive revamping of iconic characters (often involving some kind of depowerization); making changes to a larger group identity by replacing several characters; and threading through the political and pop cultural currents of the day. It was Wonder Woman that caused the greater outrage: instead of doing the usual riff on the romance-versus-duty cliches that had accumulated over the previous 25 years, O'Neil and artist Mike Sekowsky (whom O'Neil claims he hardly knew: "I didn't work with him. It was one of those situations where I wrote scripts and they left my hands and X months later there was a comic book") offered radical change by completely stripping Wonder Woman of her powers. She was now just Diana Prince, mortal, but she was still a crime-fighter, modeled on The Avengers' Emma Peel, and guided by a martial arts guru named I Ching. The art looked a little like Jim Steranko in its figuration, and the style and fashions went from military khaki to mod almost overnight.

In retrospect, it's a cool idea, and you can see its influence all over Buffy and Alias, but at the time it caused O'Neil a great deal of trauma, eventually landing Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue of Ms.:

O'Neil: Talk about spectacularly bad ideas, I think [his Wonder Woman] wins the prize. (Chuckle.) We're raking up all my failures. Again, later, Gloria Steinem, bless her, without mentioning my name, wrote an article about that and after the fact I saw her point, absolutely. At the time I thought I was serving the cause of feminism by making this woman self-made and then I immediately undercut that by having her have a male martial arts teacher. Then I compounded that sin by naming the martial arts teacher after one of the five classic books in Chinese culture, thereby kind of making fun of it. I was on a real streak that week. (Laughter.) My heart was pure, but I now see Steinem's point. To take the one really powerful [female] character in the comics pantheon, and take away her powers was really not serving the cause of feminism.

But whether it was the quality of the books or the controversy, they sold well-enough to earn O'Neil the opportunity to work on other major DC figures. Three stand out: Superman, Batman, and Green Arrow/Green Lantern.

Of these three, his run on Superman, starting in 1970, is probably the most underrated. As O'Neil himself notes in the quote above, it wasn't a character he loved. But he did great things on the book, dragging it into the modern world just in time, after years of benign neglect. Again, his solutions involved scaling back the power (a threat from space ends up reducing Superman's power to something closer to the 1940s model, so he can't "toss planets around" anymore; an act of industrial sabotage greatly reduced the writer's crutch of kryptonite, getting rid of almost all of it) and using a wide-angle lens on the character's world, placing him in a more contemporary setting (Clark Kent goes to work for a Metropolis TV station, which has the twin benefits of introducing a new supporting cast and forcing Kent to update his wardrobe for the camera). The book sold well and got good critical attention, but O'Neil didn't stay on the title long. His real interests lay elsewhere.

One, of course, was Batman. This is the character with whom O'Neil is most associated, first as a writer and then, for almost 20 years, starting in 1986, as the editor in charge of all "Batman family" stories at DC. It is the character he's been interviewed about the most, and it is his Batman stories that are the most collected in TPB form of anything in his oeuvre. ""We gave the book psychological underpinnings," O'Neil said in an interview with "Mr. Media." "They were always implied in the whole idea of Batman, but what we did was bring it to the foreground and put emphasis on them." After three years of the campy TV show (and the spread of this version into the comics, on top of the juvenilization of the character in the previous decade), O'Neil's version of Batman (in collaboration with the brilliant art of Neal Adams) was a welcome shock, a true Dark Knight detective: moody, brilliant, and utterly creepy (but still a hero). Between his writing and editing, it's safe to say that any version of Batman in the last forty years (comic or film) has at least a bit of Denny O'Neil in it (Batman Begins has a lot, which might be why the producers hired O'Neil to do that film's novelization).

His vision of Batman is at once in line with the revamps he was doing on other characters, but also the most traditional take on a character he would ever do: his Batman is, at heart, Kane and Finger's original conception, updated and even more adult in its graphicness, but less a revisioning than a clearing-away of deadwood. In that sense, the character that would seem to have the most in common with Tony Stark-- the wealthy playboy with a dark ego complex-- ends up being the character whose O'Neil stories give us the least insight into his Iron Man run, which was all about rewriting and restructuring a character.

Not so the Green Lantern/Green Arrow tales, which are almost a skeleton key to understanding O'Neil's vision of Stark. These were the among the most acclaimed works of the O'Neil/Adams works in the early 70s; they also have aged the worst. Like many a totem of the countercultural period, one can see the good intentions and offbeat narrative angles the artists were shooting for, but it doesn't stop the work from being cringeworthy in its heavy-handedness and straining for "relevance," as in this famous panel sequence:



O'Neil's fascination with dualism, urban landscapes and visions of America would find its clearest expression here: Green Lantern (stolid, often naive defender of the system) and Green Arrow (radicalized millionaire-turned-hippie-ponitificator) gave him two archetypes through which to explore every conventional wisdom and cliche of the superhero to that point, and he sent them off on a cross-country journey that allowed them to encounter many social problems of the day (including, eventually, drug abuse). It sounds grand-- I remember it was one of those "lost texts" that sounded so tantalizing when it would be referenced in fan magazines or letters pages columns in the 80s; but when I finally got a TPB of part of the run in 2004, I was shocked at how bald-faced the writing was, less dialogue than speechifying. To make an analogy to another superhero of the period, this was less the John Lennon of the Beatles or Imagine than the John Lennon of Some Time In New York City, foregoing his poetic gifts to sing tripe like "Attica" and "John Sinclair," and hang out with Jerry Rubin. O'Neil could and would do better, but for all my dislike of the book, I still recommend it (it's available on Amazon). Its ambitions are fascinating, and it looks great: Neal Adams is a genius of panel form and kinetic layout, and his work is expressive where O'Neil's is didactic. While a tremendous critical success, Green Lantern/Green Arrow failed commercially. But O'Neil's fascination with what we might call the thesis-driven comic story-- putting character and narrative at the service of a theme, idea, or social cause-- would continue to develop and find its full expression on Iron Man a decade later-- for better and for worse.


Dream of the Red-and-Gold Chamber

Two breaks, two cracks in the armor:

1) There are many ways to read what O'Neil and his contemporaries are trying to do in mainstream comics, different ways to judge its success or failure. One, of course, is auteurism-- the notion that comics organize themselves around artists (in the broadest sense, under which I'd also list writers, editors, colorists, etc.-- the various "names" through which we could read a comic). But of course, that very diversity of names suggests the limits of this approach: that mainstream comics, at least at the "Big Two' (Marvel and DC) in this period of the 70s and 80s are collaborative enterprises, akin to the studio systems of Hollywood in the 1930s (and as Kim Cooper and David Smay remind us, "There's genius to be had on the assembly line.") Another is through genre: what are O'Neil, et. al., doing to a form, that of the superhero/adventure tale?

In the late 60s, just as O'Neil and his cohorts are planning their revolution within the wolf's gullet, an unsigned essay appears in the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema. Responding to the aesthetic and political change in the air in the wake of May 1968, this essay, called "Cinema/Ideology/Criticism," and later credited to critics Jean-Louis Camolli and Jean Narboni, lays out the need for a more "Althusserian," quasi-Marxist form of critique, and categorizes a wide range of films according to letters (each letter acting as a point along a political line from right to left). Category "A" contains those films "In which the ideology talks to itself": sheer representations and reproductions of the dominant ideology. Category "B" challenged that ideology on the level of form and content, Category "C" on the level of form but not content, Category "D" on the level of content but not form. Most maddening and intriguing-- like a horizon we can't quite reach-- is Category "E": "Film which at first sight seem to belong firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but which turn out to be so only in an ambiguous manner," capable of "an internal criticism, which cracks the film apart at the seams," and therefore capable of being read against the grains to crack the film open even further.

We might ask ourselves, as we would of cinema in this same, self-consciously "radical" period: where do these comics fall? They're aiming for "B", probably, and more often hitting "D", with occasional stops at "C" (and a whole lot of stops, against their will, at "A"). But are they also Category "E", capable of readings they're not even aware of? Cinema studies builds a whole profession off of Category "E"-- might comics criticism do the same thing?

2) Re-reading O"Neil's run on Iron Man this summer, I kept coming across images of the later, bearded Tony Stark:


"What's this reminding me of?," I kept thinking. "There's some picture in the back of my head..." And suddenly, it struck me:


It's Stephen Sondheim!

I don't know if O'Neil's a Sondheim nut or not (although his diverse life experiences and polymath personality prevent me from entirely ruling it out), but I think the likely accident of penciler Luke McDonnell and inker Steve Mitchell's Tony Stark resembling the great composer is a nicely serendipitous one: what O'Neil and his collaborators are trying to do to the comic book form is not dissimilar to what Sondheim's doing with the musical in the same period of the 70s and 80s: honoring certain traditions while leaving everything else open for dissection and recalibration, with results that are often exhilirating and unsettling at the same time.

Which brings us, at last, to O'Neil's run on Iron Man. His first issue on the book is #158, but he takes over for good with #160, the same time as new editor Mark Gruenwald. It's a fortuitous pairing: in Gruenwald, O'Neil has a young, ambitious and empathetic editor, himself a writer interested in exploring some of the same issues of superheroic dualism that fascinate O'Neil (Gruenwald will soon take over the writing chores on Captain America, for a lengthy run that echoes the critical, self-reflexive work Steve Englehart did on the title a decade earlier). O'Neil also benefits from the new editorial structures put in place by editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, which place related titles under the control of a single editor (so, for instance, Gruenwald edits not only Iron Man, but Captain America, Thor and The Avengers). This is useful because it makes coordination of storylines between books (a Marvel Universe hallmark) much easier, and such careful coordination becomes imperative given what O'Neil wants to do on Iron Man.

As you might have noticed, I like cinema analogies, so here's another one:

In their interest in character delineated through action, and in their essentially optimistic spirit (no matter how occasionally things get dark), David Michelinie and Bob Layton were Iron Man's version of Howard Hawks. With his interest in a real-life relevance and contemporaneity, his fascination with crime and systematic repression, his stylistic intertwining of melodrama and moralizing, and his essentially darker spirit (at least as a writer), Denny O'Neil is closer in spirit to someone like Otto Preminger, and his run on Iron Man will be his version of The Man With The Golden Arm. The answer to the question I raised at the beginning-- how do you follow an acclaimed run on the title?-- is answered by O'Neil with more: more action, more angst, more melodrama, more pain, more pushing of artistic boundaries, more injection of (sometimes questionable) theses into the narrative, more divisions, more arguments, and much, much much more drinking.

Right from the first splash page of #160, seen to the left, O'Neil announces his intentions and kicks off a three-year arc that will take Tony Stark and his friends all over New York and to the depths of their souls (and, some have argued, the nadir of the title). I would not agree with that last paranthetical point: I both love and hate what O'Neil and his artists do over the 41 issues that take us to #200, but I would never question the immense talent and love of character on display. O'Neil's Tony Stark is not really like any other version seen in the book before or since -- that's both an asset and a big problem. But the journey he sets him on is certainly an epic one, and startling in these days when the Hulk beating up a new superhero every month is considered an event. As James Rhodes says in that first panel at the top of the post, "I got the feeling you're taking me somewhere I've never been before": that's certainly what O'Neil does in the book, and I'm rather grateful for it.

Speaking of James Rhodes...


Yes, Tony's best friend has some serious problems with our hero, and with good reason. Introduced by Michelinie and Layton in Iron Man #118 as Stark's pilot and best friend, James "Rhodey" Rhodes (don't you love the silliness of comic book nicknames? I mean, whose idea was it to call a figure as pompous as Green Lantern "Hal," anyway? ), a further retconning of Iron Man's origin in isue #144 reveals that Rhodey met Stark in Vietnam when the former was an Army helicopter pilot, helping the then-gray Avenger in his initial escape from the communist forces that had kidnapped him. A grateful Stark offered him a job, which the book helpfully tells us "he didn't take for several years," thus explaining how this character readers had never seen before 1978 could suddenly be so tight with the titular hero. But minor chronological quibbles aside, Rhodey was a great addition to the Iron Man cast-- smoother, funnier and more capable than Happy Hogan, and a much better love interest for Tony than Pepper Potts. Without the heavy-handedness of O'Neil and Adams on those Green Lantern/Green Arrow tales, and without the "he's just a regular joe" begging the question of Lee and Kirby introducing the Black Panther in the 60s, Michelinie and Layton effortlessly integrated the book and gave Marvel an African-American hero whose popularity immediately rivaled Stark's among the book's fans.

And make no mistake: for all the women Stark has bedded and dated over the years, and despite the pathos of his relationships with Madame Masque or Bethany Cabe, his longest and most important love is with Rhodey. It is a homosocial love, to be sure, and only metaphorically becomes sexual (when Rhodey "possesses" Stark's body by donning the armor begnning with issue #170), but it is the deepest relationship in the book, and the arguments between the friends that power the second half of O'Neil's run on the book are the longest and most wrenching "lovers' quarrels" the title will ever see (it is not a girlfriend Tony reveals himself to in the page up-top, after all, but Rhodey-- a confession before a final battle). In many ways, O'Neil's lenghty run is about the nature of this platonic love, and just how far one will go for it.

The strains placed on this relationship begin in issue #162, as a series of mysterious attacks befall Stark International: World War II aircraft swooping down to shoot from the sky (a lovely nod to Stark's munitions-making roots) and employees going crazy and attacking when wearing the bulky headphones crafted as protection by one of Stark's technicians. Even beloved administrative assistant Mrs. Arbogast attacks her boss, which causes Tony to accidentally shoot her (he can't make out the face of his attacker in the dark), the first of many guilt-ridden actions which will haunt him over the course of the coming year. Of course, the headphone-designing technician is a baddie, working for an unseen and unnamed force behind the scenes, who dies before his boss can be named. The next issue introduces a new romantic interest for Stark-- the mysterious Indries Moomji, wounded in the previous issue's attack while visiting Stark's headquarters. Ladies' man that he is, Stark is immediately smitten, paying for her hospital bills and plying her with gifts and flowers. #163 also introduces a bizarre new rogues' gallery for Iron Man: The Chessmen, each modeled after a different piece on the board, which makes for some surreal and inventive action sequences. The surreality of that action is enhanced by new penciler Luke McDonnell, who also joins the book full-time with this issue (he'd previously drawn a fill-in issue during the Michelinie-Layton reign).

McDonnell made a quick splash in Marvel comics in the 1980s, drawing Iron Man and the occasional fill-in issue of Daredevil in the mid-80s, before moving on to titles like Green Lantern (man, that guy is everywhere!) and Suicide Squad, before dropping out of comics altogether to become a children's book illustrator and toy designer (his website is here). Like his collaborator O'Neil, then, he's something of a polymath, and their skills (enhanced by Steve Mitchell's shadowy inking) mesh beautifully: previous issues of O'Neil's run had been drawn by folks like Carmine Infantino and Steve Ditko, well-deserved legends, to be sure, but with talents that didn't seem to fit O'Neil's narrative style. McDonnell, heavily influenced by Frank Miller, was a much better fit(seen in the drawing in the above left, Moomji almost looks like an Elektra knock-off), and with #163, the arc really takes flight.


Battles with the various Chessmen eventually takes Tony, Rhodey and Indries to Scotland, where they've supposedly traced the problem to the "Laird." This is just another cover, however, another mask, and when Rhodey is kinapped and tortured, and Indries disappears, Tony starts to crack. He defeats the Chessmen, and rescues Rhodey and Indries, but it's a pyrrhic victory: laid up in a hospital, Rhodey's 50/50 on living, and Indries is not terribly comforting on the plane ride home.

About that plane ride: of all Denny O'Neil's accomplishments on Iron Man, the single most impressive might be issue #166, an eerie, sad and funny little tale called "One of Those Days..." In it, everything that could go wrong for Tony does: a major control freak, Tony chafes under the knowledge that his money and technical genius might not save a bed-ridden Rhodey, who cannot travel back to the United States; he and Indries repair to a local restaurant, where a thoughtless Indries orders a scotch in front of the recovering alcoholic; trying to rent a private plane home, he discovers his pilot's license has expired; and in the first-class section of the commercial flight, the attendant spills a tray of martinis in his lap.



The upper half of page five is an all-red image, sans border, of Stark in profile, eyes shut, with two panels intersecting/superimposed on him, as if the narrative is cutting into his body. Angry at the smell of "gin fumes filling my nostrils," Stark's anger is responded to by O'Neil's narration text box in the corner, just below his chin: "Later, Tony Stark will remember this moment-- and mark it as the beginning of his defeat."

Imagine being a fan reading along in 1982, and suddenly stumbling across that panel. You've been following the Chessman arc for four months, assuming that at some point, Stark/Iron Man will triumph over increasing odds. After all, he beat alcohol all those years ago, right? And suddenly, O'Neil gives away the ending-- and we know he loses! It's a daring act of narrative vertigo, a peak that's really a valley (or maybe it's the other way around), and suggests how assured the O'Neil/McDonnell/Mitchell team are after only a few issues together. Everything just keeps getting worse for Tony: endless turbulence and re-routing means his plane is several hours late; a costumed kook called The Melter is demanding an audience at Stark International, and a sleepless Stark is forced to face him in an earlier model of armor, as his current armor was melted in battle the previous issue; in doing so, they destroy the structural foundations of Stark's building; and all that Iron Manning means business interests have been neglected, and someone's buying up the company's debts. That someone is Obadiah Stane, the same guy whose been distracting Tony with all those super-chess guys, and we finally meet him, full body, when a still-restless Stark flies out in his Iron gear to Utah, to confront him (a corporate madman in Utah is just one of O'Neil's quirky insights in the arc).

Upon first viewing, he looks a little silly:


In fact, this might be a good time to ask: how seriously should we take all of this? After all, here's this increasingly melodramatic story, piling sadness after sadness on our hero, and it's all being controlled by a bare-chested Patrick Stewart dressed in, well, that. Certainly, the creative team wants us to take it seriously, but it also suggests, again, the limits of O'Neil's project, the uneasy relationship between real-life corporate politics and superhero cliche the arc constantly has to negotiate (which is why it's good that, within six months, Stane is dressed more like this):



Still, there will be a constant stuggle between competing tones in O'Neil's Iron Man, between his journalistic interest in character and politics and his audience's need for costumed action, his attempts to blend superhero with "social problem" stories in a much more explicit way than Michelinie and Layton. Coming onto the book, O'Neil was most interested in doing what Bob Layton once described as a "real-time" restaging of Stark's drinking problem, and far less interested in the genre trappings. In order to think about this problem in a more "realistic" way, he must shove the characters into forms they don't always fit, and make narrative leaps that are often bald-faced in their manipulation.

But more about that later. Whatever the problems with the overall arc, Obadiah Stane is a delight, a villain whose evil derives precisely from his go-go ethos and cheerful selfishness. Yes, what he does is terrible, but every time he appears, we know we'll get some good one-liners and ruthless business-speak that might seem "heroic" coming from a protagonist's mouth. Much more so than Green Lantern or Wonder Woman, Stane is a successful vehicle for O'Neil's social critique, a prophetic vision of all the Michael Milkens, all the corporate takeovers that would dominate business pages in the 80s (the very kinds of figures, ironically, who would devour Marvel Comics itself in the late 80s). Why does Stane go after Stark? Because, simply, he can. Survival of the fittest, baby.

Like everything in Tony's life in this period, his confrontations with Stane, and attempts to stop his business machinations, are a failure. He returns from trips to Utah and Europe an exhausted and broken man. As is his wont, he turns to love in time of need, and as is its wont, love fails him: Indries has secretly been working for Stane all along (the "queen" on the chessboard), and dismisses Stark as an empty, shallow suit she couldn't possibly love (I've always thought she expressed some of O"Neil's own ambivalence about the character in this speech). Having hidden away inside the Iron Man armor for the last several issues, Tony now escapes from his life by crawling back into the bottle.

Tony's drinking again-- woo! An analogy might be made here with Joss Whedon's work (which you can see O'Neil's fingerprints all over): alcohol is to Tony as soul-losing is to Angel-- horrific, terrifying, and the premise of a lot of good stories (in fact, Whedon has described Angel's vampirism as a metaphor for alcoholism). The letters columns to the book in this period display a fascinating ambivalence, both worrying about what will happen to the character, and also expressing a slight giddiness at the process of his collapse ("Demon In A Bottle" still fresh in readers' minds as a creative high point). Probably no one could've imagined what would happen next.

Tony drinks. And drinks. And drinks. He goes into battle as Iron Man completely soused, first against Machine Man (#168), and then against a fourth-rate villain named Magma. Again, it's a sign of O'Neil's craftsmanship that Tony's ultimate defeat is at the hands of such a loser-- it really emphasizes the pathos of the situation. His company only days from complete takeover by Stane, he ensconses himself in his penthouse and drinks madly, occasionally taking breaks to fly out as Iron Man and smash wine and beer billboards around Manhattan (leading to lawsuits and even more economic strain on his empire). In a bit of heavy-handedness, he remembers none of it, but has another reason to drink: Rhodey's recovery and return to the U.S. That's when Magma strikes, and a soused Stark can't handle it, making strategic errors and eventually blowing all the fuses on the grounds of his plant, casting the space into darkness (a wonderful space of play for McDonnell and Mitchell's chiaroscuro visions). He takes Rhodey to his secret lab, reveals his secret identity-- and passes out. Chaos all around him, Rhodey realizes he has to do something, so he strips Stark to his undies and puts on the armor himself.

Rhodey defeats Magma, but Tony doesn't want the armor back when he wakes up, or any other responsibility: he just wants to drink. Yes, it's a bit one-note (and as was noted by the occasional irate fan on the otherwise praise-happy letters pages, wildly out of character from the Stark Michelinie and Layton had established), but O'Neil's thesis-driven vision of addiction is very different from his predecessors, and there's a harrowing realism to Tony's monomaniacal obsession, his utter inability to grab control of anything but a bottle. As I noted above, it's very Preminger, very fifties/sixties social problem movie, but O'Neil is a generation older than the previous IM team, and his influences probably included E.C., with their photorealism and cruel twists, as much as Marvel or DC. In any case, from this moment, until issue #199, James Rhodes will be Iron Man, a literal splitting of Iron Man in two. It saves O'Neil the trouble of writing Stark-as-Iron-Man (which he seems to struggle with in these early issues), but is also a brilliant marketing hook for new readers: if you've never read Iron Man, you can pick it up and learn about the armor along with Rhodes and the other characters.


Tony gets arrested, stumbles into a flophouse, finally loses his company to Stane, and disappears, leaving behind him resentful friends and colleagues. Rhodey dumps all the specialty armor (introduced primarily in the Michelinie/Layton years) into the ocean, and blasts it into slag, so Stane can't sell it to the government. It's a striking visual metaphor for O'Neil's demolition act: even as he plumbs the depths of Stark's character, he virtually wipes out the narrative architecture Michelinie and Layton had spent years developing: with the exception of Rhodey (and Bethany Cabe, who returns for a handful of issues a couple of years later), he ignores the rich supporting cast that had made the book more than just advenuture stories. In their place he creates a couple of new characters: Morley and Clytemnestra Erwin, a brother-sister team who start their own company after Stark International goes under, and team up with Rhodey to act as his scientific team, explaining to him this new armor he doesn't quite understand. They're fun, and Cly acts as a brief romantic foil for Tony in future years, but three characters is whole lot less to work with than the big ensemble the book had previously carried (the ripples of the demolition also spread to other Marvel books, as Rhodey/Iron Man quits the Avengers, and Tony makes a few sad cameos in other books as a drunken wreck).


For all that, there's still a sublime thrill to this year-long, post-collapse arc (roughly #170-181): the stories are horrifying and infuriating, but beautifully executed, as O'Neil and his artists expertly interweave Rhodey's steep superheroic learning curve with Tony's degradation (his company is gone, his fortune is frozen through Stane's manipulations, and he's reduced to the level of skid row drunk), all against the backdrop of Stane's machinations. Minor, often silly villains, occur and reoccur, but it fits this new Iron Man, who is "depowered" through his lack of knowledge of the armor.


A large part of the credit must go to McDonell and Mitchell's work. Visually daring, it gives the proper scope for O'Neil's text to rest in (as in the page to the right, where O'Neil's flowery, moralistic descriptions take on resonance against the ugly, windswept emptiness of McDonnell and Mitchell's birds-eye view), and the artists' often jagged panel/page arrangements cut as deeply as O'Neil's dark plot twists. McDonnell's layout owes something to comics great Jim Steranko, and his figures sometimes resemble those of Frank Miller (although less so as his tenure on the book continues), but re-reading it this summer, the guy I kept thinking of oddly, was Harvey Pekar, and the illustrations R. Crumb, Chester Brown and so many other artists contributed to his American Splendor series.
Maybe it's because, like Pekar, Tony spends so much time walking around in a paranoid daze; it might also be because McDonnell favors the wide eyes and stretched faces that so often pop up in Pekar's work. There's a real sense of space and crowds, of the smell of urban landscapes, in McDonnell's Iron Man work, at least in the Tony Stark sections: what's happening at the margins of panels, and with background figures Tony stumbles by, is as interesting as the center of the frame.Even when O'Neil's writing becomes a bit anvilicious, McDonell and Mitchell's art is always expressive, fluid and thoughtful.

Everything comes to a head with issue #182, "Deliverance," a narratively overwrought, visually dazzling resolution to Tony's drunken stupor. I slipped the cover to this issue in up at the top, because it's the single best one-shot distillation of O'Neil's Iron Man saga (and the best Iron Man cover of all time). "In the morning, Tony Stark will be sober...or dead." OK, OK, this is the 80s, and Tony isn't Dark Phoenix-- we all know which it's going to be. Which means it's not the destination but the journey, blah blah, and O'Neil, McDonnell and Mitchell pull out all the stops: after being a supporting player in his book for a year, Tony Stark takes center stage here and "rediscovers" his humanity (or, one might say, O'Neil finally finds the humanity in Tony Stark-- after this issue, he's much more human and well-balanced, much more heroic than he had been in the previous two years of O'Neil's run), helping deliver the baby of an alcoholic friend, and protecting the baby in the raging snowstorm after that woman dies.

Yes, alcoholic comes to Jesus through a child-- there's something very Victorian about the narrative choice, but the look of the book is what matters, the way the story unfolds. This is, in essence, a 22-page meditation on the self, an internal monologue occuring in Tony's head, our first journey into a more sober frame of reference for the character in more than a year.

To really get the impact, McDonnell and Mitchell also make it a meditation on comic design; in one early page, Tony disappears into the blankness of his coat, only his speech ballon present to mark him present.

A few pages later, Tony takes a drink, and O'Neil and McDonnell break down the and stretch the gesture into an epic one.


At times, the images reflect as sixties-style psychedelia in their design, as in the head shot/collage at the lower left, where Tony's brain becomes the very stuff of space and time.


Having experienced such a catharsis on both a narrative and creative level, it was time to explore new ground. O'Neil moved the characters out of New York, and took them to California, to start up a new electronics business in Silicon Valley. It's a logical and timely move (reflecting both a newly sober Tony's desire to escape geographic ghosts and the real-life boom in electronics development in California in the mid-80s), and it's cool to see Marvel heroes outside of Manhattan (still a rarity at the time), but the book does lose a bit of its drive: so much of the emotional force came from seeing McDonnell and Mitchell's style superimposed on the superhero genre, and in tandem with New York as a sort of character in the book. After the emotional and visual darkness of the previous year, it's something of a relief to see Iron Man in the California sun, but its open landscapes don't give the artists as much to play with.



Anyway, by now our real landscape is James Rhodes' head: in the vaguely Manichean schema O'Neil has devised, as one hero rises another must fall, and now that Tony's doing better, we learn that Rhodey's been suffering from killer headaches:


Now the lovers' quarrels begin: who will take Iron Man to the dance? A sober Tony, the "original," and the one who really understands the armor he designed? Or newbie Rhodey, who, after all, took on the burden selflessly while Tony was soaking his brain? Rhodes' jealousy and paranoia grow, and fans began to take sides on the letters pages, a testament to the success of O'Neil's narrative experiment. Tony continually disavows interest in the armor, seeing it as a factor in his addiction, another crutch he no longer wants any part of:



But Tony's still around, offering Rhodey unwanted advice, making calls to SHIELD to save the day, almost a mentor (one letter to the editor called him "Professor X") against his will. Thus, Rhodey's scream of hatred above, especially when he learns that Tony's "working out design problems" on a new suit of armor.




Seen in gray at the left and the right, It's a lovely nod to the original look, and the two heroes' pitched battle is a very superheroic way of working out differences. Convinced, at last, of Stark's sincerity, Rhodey goes to the Shaman, a Marvel Native American mystic, to solve the riddle of his recurring headaches. He realizes it's because of a jealousy of Stark's success, and guilt that he is only a superhero because of Stark's collapse. In issue #195, he leaves the suit of armor behind in the mystical valley he's entered (spoiler alert!: it comes back next issue), and the book bids farewell to Luke McDonnell, O'Neil's partner in crime.

Tony's still a civilian, but the writing's on the wall-- issue #200 is coming up, after all. The final four issues are a mixture of different artists and quickly sketched plot-development-through-action-scenes, sweeping us headlong into the book's bicentennial issue. I wouldn't dream of telling you why, or who wins, but that issue brings Tony's battle with Obadiah Stane to a head (rather literally, as it turns out). It also (it's the 200th issue, people!) introduces a new armor, a red and silver model that would later be mocked as "GoBot armor":

It's a very eighties look (I can almost hear the strains of Jan Hammer when I look at the cover), but a smart and action-packed wrap-up to three years of ambitious storytelling.

In the end, the character O'Neil most resembles is not Tony Stark, James Rhodes, Iron Man or even the nerdy Erwins: it's Obadiah Stane. It's no accident that the full "reveal" of the character (whom we've previously seen only in shadows, a hand here or a half-cheek there) in issue #166 is a riot of color and Steranko-like exploding of panel layout over a two-page spread (matched to O'Neil's gleeful dialogue): it's the self-portrait of the artists themselves. What is a talented comic book writer, working within the system of the Big Two, but a master chess player, moving characters like pieces on a narrative board, finding ways to generate new strategies of movement within very constricted rules, and knowing that someone else will sit at the board after you, and play new and endless variations ? Stane's explanation of why he went after Stark in the first place--"I searched around for a worthy opponent, and in you I found one"-- has been read as the nihilistic gloating of a villain, but it also feels like an honest response to work-for-hire comics jobs: I searched around for something to write, and decided it would be fun to put this character through "fill-in-the-blank." If O'Neil's ambitious run on Iron Man has a flaw it is not, as some have said, that Tony's skid row bender goes on too long, but that O'Neil's board moves are occasionally too obvious, their calculation and meaning too apparent, the thesis too explicit. Like Stane in the Iron Monger armor, he never quite figures out how to merge the action and the armor into his grand design, but in his searching and harrowing exploration of the characters' darker sides, he made a worthy contribution to the humanistic, "Man" side of Iron Man. They are not the best Iron Man stories, but in many ways, they are the most admirable.

Following the wrap-up of his primary storylines in issue #200, O'Neil stuck around for another seven issues, leaving after #208 (writer Danny Fingeroth fills in on #202). It's odd to read those seven issues: after the sturm und drang of the previous three years, O'Neil reverts to a lighter, more standardly "superheroic" tone, full of action, occasionally clunky jokes, and wrap-ups of lingering plot threads: bidding farewell once more to Bethany Cabe, restoring Tony's vast fortune, resolving the question of whether or not Tony would reclaim Stark/Stane International (he wouldn't, instead starting a new, space-based company), and downplaying any questions of continued rivarly between our two Iron Men. The tales are stylish-- O'Neil's gifts as a craftsman are always present-- but it doesn't feel like his heart is in it. He would soon leave Marvel for DC, where he would write an acclaimed run on The Question (just collected in TPB form) and become the editor-in-chief of the "Batman Family" of books, overseeing every Bat-title for the next fifteen years. As he did the first time around at DC, he hit the ground running, editing Frank Miller's landmark The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, and assuring that his signature character would survive and thrive in the years to come.

Once again, Marvel's editors were faced with choosing a team to follow up an acclaimed and popular run on the Golden Avenger, but their job was even harder this time than in 1982. At least David Michelinie and Bob Layton had left a lot of toys for the new folks to play with: a revamped Stark/Iron Man, a strong supporting cast, and lots of cool speciality armor. O'Neil's run was often brilliant, but he'd made so many drastic changes to the book that the only person who could write Iron Man in 1986 was probably Denny O'Neil (a point borne out by the pathetic, six-month stretch of fill-in, stand-alone issues that came in the wake of his departure, which emphasize guest stars, act as promos for then-new Marvel titles like West Coast Avengers, and basically reduce Iron Man to the status of guest star in his own book). But there was a reason Mark Gruenwald was Marvel's best editor, and he had a great idea: bring back Michelinie and Layton. Iron Man's most popular creative team returned to the book with issue #215, and stuck around for three years, but they'd find out the difficulties of going home again.

Next Time: Cognitive Dissonance Rules! Iron Man's dynamic duo return to critical hosannas and strong sales, and even get penciler Mark Bright to draw actual human beings. But changing fashions and behind-the-scenes shakeups make this a less-than-happy homecoming.

Comments

dave said…
Extraordinary post--I unfortunately couldn't even finish it in one sitting and will have to return to it later. But this leads me to wonder, is there a long essay here, if not a book?
Cinephile said…
Yeah, I do ramble, don't I? (: But it's such a long, epic piece of work that it's hard to summarize and think about in a short space (maybe one of Denny O'Neil's aesthetic tricks is that he gets you to write like him). Thanks for the kind words!
patrick said…
great post...I too see a long essay coming...
Cinephile said…
Thanks! Perhaps I will develop it someday. There's a lot of interesting, bizarre (and interesting because it's bizarre) stuff happening in Marvel Comics of this period, especially those that strive to address various social issues and problems.
Professor said…
Greetings -

I see you used several segments from my interview with Denny O'Neil, but unfortunately the links you provided back to The Silver Lantern lead to the current review/interview. Denny's sections are in the archives at the following links:

http://www.wtv-zone.com/silverager/interviews/oneil_1.shtml

http://www.wtv-zone.com/silverager/interviews/oneil_2.shtml
Brian Doan said…
Hi Professor,
I hadn't looked at this post in quite awhile, so I didn't get to see your comments until now. Thanks for the udpates-- I will make the changes. I hope it's ok with you that I linked-- I really enjoyed the informative interviews.
Bob Andelman said…
You might enjoy this interview with former Spider-Man comics group editor Danny Fingeroth. Fingeroth is also the editor of "Disguised as Clark Kent" and "Superman on the Couch," and is editor of "Write Now! magazine.
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