Corporate Intrigues: Iron Man, Part Three
In November 1986 (issue #215, cover-dated February 1987-- Marvel's cover dates always ran three or four months ahead, so newsstands could keep the issues on the racks a few extra months), writer/co-plotter David Michelinie and artist/co-plotter Bob Layton returned to Iron Man, the title they'd revitalized and made their own nearly a decade before. It was a triumphant return: after almost five years away from the book, fans thrilled to the team's combination of old-school humor and adventure, and intriguing new character development. Editor Mark Gruenwald heralded his casting coup by calling them the "Iron Man dream team supreme" on his letters page (he was right, but it must've been something of a shock to his first writer, Denny O'Neil, with whom he worked on the book for four years; a few months later, the well-liked Gruenwald wrote an appreciation of O'Neil's talents in his monthly "Mark's Remarks" column, perhaps as a mea culpa). Sales and critical response were strong, especially a year or so into their second run, when Michelinie and Layton began the "Armor Wars" arc, an enjoyable mix of action and character development that's often cited as a high point by fans of the book. Squint hard enough, and it almost looked like 1980 all over again.
It wouldn't last.
In the first part of this multi-part look at Marvel's most underrated hero, I suggested the Iron Man and his alter-ego, billionaire inventor/industrialist Tony Stark, had been mistreated in recent years by fans and critics, who failed to see in him the possibilities that a talented team of writers and artists had explored in past years. For me, the high point of the character began in 1978, when M&L took their first whack at the character. Their initial, 42-issue run (#116-157) reimagined the character as someone deeper and emotionally richer than in the past, and laid much of the groundwork that future teams have covered (and destroyed). They were followed by writer Denny O'Neil and a variety of artistic teams, although his longest and best pairing was with penciler Luke McDonnell and inker Steve Mitchell. Part Two of this series of posts thought through the benefits and drawbacks of this run, and how it might be read as emblematic of an entire school of comics work that wanted to use familiar pop genres for more socially-oriented, thesis-driven explorations.
O'Neil's run-- dazzling, controversial, infuriating and haunting-- came to an end in April 1986. The next six months saw fill-in issues, as Michelinie and Layton wrapped up earlier commitments and began plotting what they'd do upon their return. I remember, as a comics-besotted teen, reading that Michelinie would return to Iron Man while paging through a summer issue of the long-defunct, in-house fanzine Marvel Age. For a geeky 13-year old who'd caught up with M&L's first run years after its initial publication (oh, to give praise to Fanfare Comics and their extensive back issue selection!), this was exciting news indeed! Iron Man was my second-favorite hero after Spider-Man, and I thrilled to the notion of reading a new set of stories from his best creative team in "real time" (hey, I was thirteen).
From the lovely cover of their first issue, I knew I wouldn't be disappointed-- its outer space background seemed to shimmer as the two Iron Men flew in front of it, their shining armor a visual correlative to the cover copy's promise of "A New Era of GREATNESS!" O'Neil had demolished much of the narrative architecture-- especially the supporting cast-- that Michelinie and Layton had built up between 1978 and 1982, and had left a few plot threads dangling upon his departure: a new, space-based satellite business Tony Stark and his friends had started a few months before; an international incident in the Caribbean caused by terrorist group AIM, clearly meant by social liberal O'Neil to be a commentary on Reagan's funding of the Contras in Nicaragua; uncertainty about just who would wear the Iron armor (O'Neil had made supporting character James Rhodes Iron Man for much of his run, although Rhodes had been mostly out of the armor since Stark reclaimed his superheroic identity in issue #200); and lingering resentment from another supporting character, scientist/potential love interest Clytemnestra Erwin over the death of her brother Morley (who'd died in an explosion meant for Tony).
Michelinie would later admit in an interview that much of this leftover narrative didn't really interest him, but he felt he owed it to fans of the O'Neil years to wrap the plotlines up with respect and panache. He and Layton did this neatly and succinctly in two issues, having AIM fatally contaminate Tony's space satellite (insuring that new company Stark Enterprises would be decidedly earth-bound in its adventures), having Iron Man liberate the Caribbean nation from AIM's rule, and revealing that Cly was in cahoots with the terrorists as a way of getting her revenge against Tony, who she blamed for Morley's death. She died in a spasm of rockets and mad exclamations, thereby killing off the last of the O'Neil-invented characters, and clearing the ground for M&L to rebuild the decimated supporting cast. The only question that remained was about the armor. M&L resolved the "who is Iron Man?" question by damaging Rhodey's "red-and-gold" armor in a space battle with AIM, and then having it overheat upon re-entry to Earth, physically scarring Rhodey's chest. The physical wounds would heal, but the psychological scars that remained offered narrative justification to M&L's strong desire to have only one Iron Man, and to have that Iron Man be Stark. Layton had been the chief designer of Iron Man's "silver-and-red" armor (which debuted in issue #200), but he and Michelinie didn't really like it (Michelinie would call it "Go-Bot armor"), either in appearance or in its James-Bond-gadget quality of too easily getting Tony out of scrapes with a sudden, "new" weapon he could literally pull out of his hat. Within two years, they'd have Tony back in a variant of the old red-and-gold suit, but they laid the seeds for this shift in their first issue back by having a doctor tell Tony that the red-and-silver armor was slowly killing him.
That scene-- which takes up the first two or three pages of issue #215-- immediately announces the return of the Michelinie-Layton style: Michelnie's love of literary, omniscient narration that frames the characters with existential questions or homilies ("When you go to the doctor as a child, they give you a lollipop and a pat on the head. When you're an adult, they give you the truth"); Layton's favoring of a buff, physically handsome Tony (as opposed to the chiarascuro, emotionally wounded body of the O'Neil years); and, in Tony's shirtless apperance, a symbol of what really matters to the writers: character. They may have hated the new armor, but in the end they knew that what mattered was the man who wore it, and their major reconstruction in these early issues is on Tony's ego.
My previous post went into detail about the things I liked and disliked about Denny O'Neil's 50-issue run on the book, but my chief complaint is how his insistence on a certain, rigid definition of alcoholism forced him to twist Stark's rounded character into some square holes. In doing so, he added a great deal of pathos to the character, but lost a great deal in return: gone was the blend of humor, confidence, arrogance and determination that made Tony a hero, since those qualities wouldn't have allowed the epic, tragic arc that O'Neil wanted to pursue. As an irate letter-writer in the O'Neil years observed, David Michelnie could write a whole issue of the book where "Iron Man" never appears, and it's just Tony being a hero in the flesh; "Iron Man" referred, in Michelinie's hands, not so much to the iron suit, but to the core of determination and character that lay at Stark's center. Restoring those qualities was their first, fastest and greatest goal, and it begins almost immediately, as Tony confronts his various problems with wit and humanity.
That felt like a breath of fresh air in 1986, and I'm sure it was a big part of the appeal of the run for many fans. Over the course of the first year on the book, M&L do more surgical reconstruction, scrapping the tiny electronics firm (the absurdly named "Circuits Maximus") that O'Neil had Tony involved with in favor of larger company, Stark Enterprises which we will see rapidly grow over the course of the team's three-year run (we enter this process in medias res, as Tony drives onto the grounds of his new company in issue #215, and Circuits Maximus is never ever mentioned again, almost as if it never existed. It's a subtle way of making a clear break with-- and perhaps a negative comment on-- the previous two years of continuity). The larger company acts as a visual symbol of Tony's returning confidence, and also provides a breeding ground for the large ensemble casts Layton and Michelinie prefer. Some characters are new (PR head Marcy Pearson-- an African-American woman who quickly becomes Rhodey's love interest, businesswoman Rae LaCoste, starlet Brie Daniels), some are old favorites (electronics genius/Ant-Man Scott Lang, lovable office manager Mrs. Arbogast), and it's not quite as tight or well-developed a crew as the cast of M&L's last run, but it's nice to see a large group again after the virtual chamber play of the O'Neil years. We also see the return of villains from M&L's first run: corporate saboteur The Spymaster, corporate rival Edwin Cord, and Peter Cushing lookalike Justin Hammer. These are clearly figures with whom Michelinie and Layton feel comfortable, and they help to facilitate the blend of superheroic action and character-driven corporate intrigue that many of the best Iron Man stories explore.
At the same time, all this restoration, reconstruction and revamping begins to suggest some of the limitations of this second run, and why--despite its overall quality-- it doesn't resonate in quite the same way as Michelnie and Layton's first run. Years later, Michelinie would cheerfully admit the differences in this second time around:
As I remember it, Mark Gruenwald was looking for new personnel to take over Iron Man, and he called Bob and I individually to see if either of us would be interested. I assume that was because he’d liked our previous work on the book, but I guess it could have been because we were simply both available at the time. I’m sure there was some trepidation on my part, as I’d left the book years before because I felt I’d run out of Iron Man stories to tell. But I guess the time since then had allowed the idea well to fill up once more, and the thought of collaborating with Bob again sounded like fun, so I signed on. The collaboration process had changed by then; Bob and I had both grown creatively, Bob had done some writing on his own, and we were no longer living a few blocks away from each other in the same little college town, which meant that we had to plot over the phone instead of face-to-face. So the second run had something of a different tone to it, but I think we were still able to do some interesting stuff.
The material is often very interesting, but for several reasons, it lacks the snap and excitement of the first run. There are several reasons why:
1) The First Cut Is The Deepest: The first time Michelinie and Layton tackled the book, they were young, enthusiastic, and fresh to Marvel. They took over a book that had gone through several ups-and-downs over the previous ten years, and fleshed out all the possibilities the character offered (Bill Mantlo began this process in the mid-1970s, but M&L really made the ideas work). That first run, then, is one of creation and exploration, while this second run often feels more like a process of restoration, attempting to rebuild what O'Neil had recreated or tossed aside. By now, Michelinie and Layton were Marvel eminences (Layton had done two acclaimed Hercules mini-series, and co-created the then-hot book X-Factor the previous year, and Michelinie would soon take over writing chores on Marvel's flagship title The Amazing Spider-Man, where he'd create characters like Venom), and had their style down pat. A lot of good work results, but this reactionary quality, and narrative slickness, makes the stories less exciting than those of 1978-82.
2) Shifting Pencilers: Mark Bright is a talented penciler, the logical "fourth-wave" style (hyper-slick, almost computerized in its symmetry and plasticity) to follow Layton and John Byrne, but he's not nearly the draftsman that John Romita, Jr. was in M&L's first run. Bright's action sequences are dazzling, and he's good at drawing new technologies, but his figuration leaves a lot to be desired, and that human quality is so central to M&L's conception of the character. Facial details are, to pardon the pun, sketchy, the emotional quality of the expressions often veering from too vague to heavy-handed. Layton would later note on his website that Bright's framing of the action was too often done from a "medium shot" position, "which tended to be a little dull at times." Second pencilier Jackson Guice was a big improvement, but his time on the book came under a new editorial regime, one not as amenable to the M&L plans as Mark Gruenwald had been, and this made Guice's time on the book relatively brief (if often spectacular). Layton would also pencil a few issues here and there. All of this Artists' Musical Chairs meant the look of the book was far less coherent than in 1978-82, which sometimes takes the reader out of the adventures portrayed.
3) What Decade Is It, Again?: One of the joys of Michelinie's writing is its eye for detail-- cars are named by make, businesses and homes are placed in specific cities or suburbs, characters see specific movies or TV shows, or eat specific foods. I mentioned in my first Iron Man post that Michelinie and Layton approach the character almost like Method actors, thinking through character, backstory and motivation, and such details seem of a piece with that process, by grounding the characters in a placeable reality.
So, here's a panel or three from early on in M&L's second run:
Blogger "bitterandrew" notes, "I get what writer David Michelinie and artist Mark Bright were trying to do in this sequence. They were attempting to show the sorts of folks that run in playboy billionaire Tony Stark’s orbit, even if the end result resembled something lifted from an old issue of Cracked magazine." True, the jokes are pretty bad, but my problem is less their cheese factor (a hazard even on M&L's first run, where Layton actually drew a cop to look like Steve Martin, so they could slip in some SNL jokes), than with their datedness. I mean, really-- Michael J. Fox, Lionel Richie and Norm from Cheers, in 1987? This is a recurring problem in their second run, where many of their references feel lifted, not from whatever year the issue was published, but from 1983 or '84-- in other words, the years they were off the book. It's a fascinating, almost subconscious attempt to fold the history of the book through the quotation-- in making their references three or four years out of date, it's almost like they're reclaiming those lost years from the O'Neil regime, trying to place their stamp on them. Still, its effect is to make the book feel dated the minute it comes out, and to rob the character of the contemporeneity that once made him shine. It also feels, as "bitterandew" notes, hopelessly square.
4) Ch-ch-changes: A letter writer to Iron Man in 1980 actually quoted that Bowie song as an introduction, praising Michelinie and Layton for how they rapidly updated the character. What was cutting-edge in 1979, however, was conventional wisdom by 1986, and M&L found themselves returning just as comic books were about to make another movement forward, away from the Hawksian heroics and witty intertextuality they were good at to something darker and more adult: Alan Moore's Watchmen, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, Neil Gaiman's Sandman. None of this is to suggest that M&L's style wouldn't fit into this new landscape, or that they had to shift with the fashions, and the stories they craft have actually aged better than some of the hipper material of the period. But it does mean the space they were entering into was a different one than that of 1978, and by the time of their departure in 1989, would feel even more dislodged.
All of this can be summarized with one example:
Tony Stark's Mullet!
Speaking of fashion mistakes...
Worship the mullet!
Worship it before it destroys you all!
5) Editorial Shake-Ups: More than anything-- changing fashions, dated references, interests in canon-- it was the editorial shake-ups that occured at Marvel in the late '80s that make this second run less sucessful (and considerably shorter) than their first.
The best-known arc of M&L's second run is the eight-issue stretch (#225-232) known as "Armor Wars" (called "Stark Wars" in the initial issues), which has even been collected in trade paperback form. It comes after ten issues in which Michelinie and Layton rebuild Tony Stark's life, his company and his friendships, and even give him a couple of new girlfriends (it's the first time we've seen Stark as a playboy in several years, in fact). In issues 223 and 224, Tony finds himself face-to-face with an old enemy, the armored hitman Force, who wants to turn himself in. He's tired of being a bad guy, and feels guilty about the things he's done. After a lengthy battle between Iron Man and archvillain industrialist Justin Hammer, Stark manages to convince Hammer that Force is dead, and sets up Force's alter-ego, Clay Wilson, with a new identity, and a job in one of his subsidiaries. Everything seems to be going well, until a curious Stark begins to examine the old Force armor Wilson has turned over to him.
There, he discovers a curious thing: some of the circuitry looks like his designs. In fact, he realizes, it is his design: someone planted a bug back in the long-gone, Long Island offices of the old Stark International, and stole the designs from Tony's technology. Worse, that technology's been sold by Justin Hammer to any number of villains across the Marvel Universe-- which means Tony's morally complicit in their wrongdoing.
Naturally, this pre-Civil War Tony is devastated by this discovery, and his rampages have his friends thinking he's fallen off the wagon. He calms down, and tries to go through legal channels. No go-- Stark never patented the technology (ironically, because he didn't want the designs to be known, and possibly fall into the wrong hands), and therefore has no official legal claim on it. He can't turn to government agencies like SHIELD, because they use his technology, too (he's the Bill Gates of the Marvel world), and he might have to take it back from them. Feeling alone, and recognizing the vulnerability of his position, he decides to literally take the technology into his own hands, by turning vigilante. He designs a circuit-breaker that will shut down the various armors and weapons for good once placed on them, and proceeds to hit the road in search of the technology.
What follows is a slightly drawn-out, but generally compelling tale about responsibility, loyalty, friendship, and grace under pressure-- all the classic Iron Man themes. I find it less compelling than the two, epic alcohol storylines that were previously the book's major arcs, primarily because the balance of action-to-character seems slightly out of whack (and because, again, Bright is not the world's most compelling penciller).
Still, it's a cool idea, and Michelinie and Layton are such skilled pros that one can take pleasure in their craftsmanship, and the way they expertly weave their themes together. By the time the storyline ends, Iron Man is "dead," the red-and-silver armor destroyed by a government agent called Firepower. Stark creates a new red-and-gold suit, and the conceit that it's a "new man" inside the armor. But while the "Armor War" has ended in Stark's favor, he remains haunted by its psychological costs, which leads us into issue #232, plotted and illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith and scripted by Michelinie, a nightmare of Tony's psyche that justifies the whole arc.
The issue is about a dream, and unfolds like one, with elongated panel shapes, narrative gaps and leaps, fractured diaogue. Windsor-Smith is a master of anatomical form, and uses those gifts exquisitely here, stretching and snapping faces and arms, making sudden changes in size and shape of characters or background details between panels, using shading and cross-hatching to create a twisted landscape through which Tony runs, and runs, and runs...
That landscape is his head, of course-- this is his nightmare, after all. The issue comes a little over four years after "Deliverance" (#182), the brilliant summation/catharsis that sobered Stark up in the middle of O'Neil's run. That issue came just over four years after the similarly themed "Demon In A Bottle" (issue #128), which itself followed a little over four years after "Long Time Gone" (issue #78), the Vietnam meditation that was our first glimpse into Tony's soul. It's good for Stark to have these every-four-years meditations: they are usually artistically innovative high points, and their regularity acts as a cleansing for reader and artists of whatever major issues or problems the character has recently been immersed in, a fine clearing-of-decks. This time, though, the clearing would be outside the narrative as well as inside it.
When Michelinie and Layton returned to the book in 1986, Marvel was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and was at the height of its power and influence. Their work on Iron Man in the late '70s signaled a renaissance at the company, one which Marvel rode for nearly a decade. In August of that year, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the "first" Marvel title, The Fantastic Four, they published a series of special issues and elaborate covers for all their titles, and began publishing something called "The New Universe" line.
"New Universe" would turn out to be Marvel's Magical Mystery Tour-- the moment when a seemingly infalliable group shows its weakness, and the wheels come off the wagon. One of Marvel's many contributions to comic mythology was its setting of stories in "real" cities, like New York or L.A. (as opposed to "Metropolis"), but it was always a heightened reality, where people took Norse gods and flying armor for granted. "New Universe" was designed to be more down-to-earth: only a handful of folks would have powers (caused by a freak eclipse), with stories told in "real time" (one month of publishing time would equal one month of story time, as opposed to the main Marvel line, where several months or years of stories would only equal a few weeks in story time), and with more realistic reactions to the powers and freak accidents that occured. All of this was fascinating, but I remember being underwhelmed when I read the titles. It didn't "feel right," and I wasn't ready to embrace the difference, at 13.
Nor were a lot of other folks: while it continued for three years, it was considered a commercial failure, and that failure would have a ripple effect across the company.
It was the brainchild of editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, a brilliant and controversial figure whose talent, ego, and business acumen helped Marvel reach new creative and commercial heights, and would also lead to his downfall. The commercial failure of the prescient "New Universe" (some have read it as the forerunner to shows like Heroes, and Warren Ellis has recently revived the universe in a new series) was offered as Exhibit A in why Shooter was let go. His story is the Rashomon of 1980s superhero comics, where everyone purports to know exactly what happened and why, and everyone's story is different. I don't doubt that some of everyone's side is at least a little true, and I don't really care that much, except to say this-- after he left, Marvel, at least creatively, quickly took a turn for the worse.
Shooter's departure was not the only reason, of course-- talents like John Byrne and Frank Miller had already departed. But his firing set off a chain of events that would impact Iron Man. Tom De Falco, a talented writer and editor, was made editor-in-chief, a job which ended up overwhelming him. He had been Shooter's executive editor, and with his elevation, Mark Gruenwald was moved into that position. That meant he would no longer edit Iron Man (#232 was his last issue), and he turned the book over to Howard Mackie. Iron Man had just told a story (one generated, Michelinie claimed, by Shooter himself) about how technology and power placed into the wrong hands could have devastating consequences, and its parent company was about to prove it in real life.
Initially, nothing seemed that different, except Jackson Guice came on as penciler. M&L, after all, were pros, and still had good stories (and one major twist I wouldn't dare reveal to you) up their sleeves. Little by little, however, the hand of Gruenwald was apparent in its absence. Stories seemed slightly less tight in their plotting-- good, to be sure, but a little blurry, or too generically thought out (like the story involving the Grey Gargoyle, whose denounment feels rushed). Page-by-page edits felt sloppier, the art across panels less consistent (Layton would later complain about editorial interference in assigning extra artists to finish pages). The letters pages-- which, under Gruenwald, were a model of editor-fan respect and interaction-- took on a snide hipster tone, as if the editors couldn't be bothered to answer fans' questions, but instead saw those questions as opportunities to tell insulting jokes.
And even the ads in the book started to feel declasse. Growing up with Marvel in the late '70s and early '80s, I remember the pages as, yes, including ads for sea monkeys and Dingo boots, but also for movies, television shows, and other more popular forms. Those latter ads were a sign of Marvel's success, a signal that advertisers saw their readership as one to reach. Now, those ads disappeared, replaced with cheapo pages for outdated video games (I swear, one was for Buck Rogers, a show that had been off the air for eight years) and passe pasttimes like Dungeons and Dragons. Marvel was no longer cool-- it was a flea market, and having these ads interrupt the stories really did change the way I read them.
None of this should've been surprising-- Marvel itself was under siege. Shooter had an up-and-down reputation with artists and staff, but he was a bulwark against interference from the business side. Now, he was gone, and just in time, as a series of different corporate raiders would devour Marvel over the next decade, eventually landing the company in bakruptcy court. Many of these owners had no use for the creative side of the organization, seeing it as offering a series of marketable characters, but having little sense of how the stories that those characters told were made, or of their value. Much of this is covered in Dan Raviv's wonderful business history Comic Wars, whose title is almost a pun-- there's something bleakly humorous about all the pigheaded decisions that were made.
Iron Man predicted this a decade earlier, through the character of Obadiah Stane, the cheerful corporate raider who devours Stark International and destroys Tony Stark, simply because he can. In many ways, although Spider-Man is Marvel's corporate symbol, Iron Man is its soul. When the company was on the rise in the 1960s, Iron Man represented its go-getting optimism-- the belief that you could be corporately successful and still be human, and do good. When it faced the doldrums in the 1970s, "Long Time Gone" acted as its self-meditation: why are we here? Why do we do what we do? And at what cost? Iron Man's renaissance in the late '70s heralded a company on the rise, a belief in the power to remake yourself that would serve Marvel well for the next decade. Now, with the company on the decline, M&L were the last men standing.
But not for long-- Layton had complained about editorial interference in the art, and Michelinie would soon complain about it in the writing: in issue #244, several pages were cut by the editors without telling him, or giving him a chance to re-write them. They would stay on for six more issues-- including a very fun sequel to their first Iron Man-Dr. Doom saga-- then leave after issue #250. What followed their departure was not nearly as pleasant as Denny O'Neil's run. Gone was the editorial stability that could consitently guide new writers and artists on the book. Gone was the larger corporate/editorial structure that welcomed different visions to the titles, and gave them the room to play. Gone were those second-and-third wave writers and artists who came to the title with both a sense of history and a desire to say something new. It would be a roller-coaster ride for the character that lasted 15 years, until, like Marvel itself, he was dead and buried.
NEXT: Teen Tony! No, really-- Teen Tony! Plus John Byrne, War Machine, the sorta return of Bethany Cabe, and the death and rebirth and, um, death of Tony Stark! (Look, we told you it was a roller-coaster ride...)