Picking Up The Pieces

So, you've just come out of Iron Man jazzed up by Robert Downey, Jr., and you are interested in learning more about Marvel's armored hero. Where to begin?

Iron Man is a character with a 45-year history, starting as a feature in the anthology comic Tales of Suspense-- his ten-page stories shared space with science fiction and horror stories for nearly two years, until Marvel replaced the monster tales with monthly adventures of Iron Man's fellow Avenger, Captain America. By 1968, Marvel's burgeoning popularity and a new distribution deal with Cadence Industries led to the end of the shared Suspense and the start of the metallic hero's own title. Iron Man would run from 1968 to 1996, 332 issues, until Marvel's bankruptcy led to a restructuring of the company, and a series of revamped titles that came to be known as "Heroes Reborn." Written and drawn by then-hot artists from Image and Wildstorm, it consisted of four books-- Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, and The Avengers-- that radically reimagined the characters, their histories and their appearances, "rebooting" their origins and offering adventures that were much darker and more graphic than those of the original books. Designed as a combination stop-gap measure and hopeful commercial boost during Marvel's period of receivership, the books received mixed responses, lasting only a year and eventually being explained as taking place in a Twilight Zone-like alternate universe. In 1998, Marvel came out of bankruptcy, regained the rights to their characters, and re-launched their titles once again. "Vol. 3" of Iron Man would last for 89 issues, until Warren Ellis once again restarted the title in 2005 at issue #1 (that title stands currently stands at #28).

In addition, there have been miniseries, one-shot issues, and guest appearances in numerous Marvel books, to say nothing of Iron Man's adventures in various Avengers titles. All told, even excluding those Avengers and guest appearance issues, Iron Man's adventures in his own books run to around 466 issues, a staggering number that could defeat even the most dedicated and deep-pocketed fan.

Thankfully, some of that material has been collected, although that's a relatively recent phenomenon: compared to big guns like Spider-Man and the X-Men, Iron Man has received a lot less attention from his parent company in terms of repackagings and trade paperbacks (TPBs). With the massive success of the movie, I suspect that's starting to change. Consider what follows to be a consumer guide-cum-review of the most interesting IM material in print. Spoilers might follow.

Iron Man: Beneath The Armor : Published in April to tie in with the film, Andy Mangels' glossy, lavishly illustrated paperback is a suprisingly rich and fascinating history of the character. It's full of detailed character histories, informative (if slightly spoilerish) summaries of important narrative arcs, tongue-in-cheek glances at Iron Man paraphenalia, and wonderful interviews with artists, writers and editors that don't shy away from the frustrations and anxieties some of them felt in dealing with the mighty Marvel machine. While I could quibble about a few errors here and there, or wonder why certain runs didn't get more attention, I'd have to say that overall, this is a great one-stop source of information, which imaginatively places the character within both Marvel and pop cultural history while avoiding self-serious fannishness.

The Invicible Iron Man Omnibus: The most expensive book on this list (although it's heavily discounted on Amazon), this is the place to start if you have some cash to spare. It's a gorgeously designed, dictionary-thick hardback collection of Tales of Suspense #39-83 and Tales to Astonish #82 (thoughtfully included to complete the two-part story in one of the Suspense issues), reprinted in full color and including letters pages and pin-ups; the book also includes essays by IM writers Stan Lee and Bob Layton, and a nice remembrance of IM artist Don Heck. These are very much tales of their time, which is not at all a bad thing-- I get a little exhausted with the trope of "that's so old!" that circulates in far too much hipster cultural critique, and I treasure these stories precisely because they feel so evocative of 1965, with their exaggerated Communist stereotypes, melodramatic plot twists, Harlequin Romance characters, and patented Iron Man boot skates (no, I am not making that up). It's also a lot of fun to see both characters and art develop: Don Heck is a wonderful penciler, but when Gene Colan comes to the book in the mid-sixties, the art takes a quantum leap, as both layouts and figures become far more sophisticated and sensual (Colan's pencils are enhanced by the lush brushwork of inker Gary Michaels, who makes the night scenes look like something out of Connery-era Bond).

Essential Iron Man, Vols. 1-3 TPBs : If you can't afford the Omnibus, the obvious place to start is with these highly affordable TPBs-- you lose the neat extras and higher paper stock, and you also lose the color, which is something of a bummer given the character's status as the "Golden Avenger," but you gain in sheer number of tales. These three books take you through all the Tales of Suspense material and up through Iron Man #38 (my hope is that the success of the film will spur Marvel to release these Essential volumes at a quicker, more regular rate, the way the success of the Spider-Man films did for that character's repackagings). Iron Man would hit some rough times in the early seventies-- a drop in popularity caused the title to move to bi-monthly status, and this up-and-down era also saw the introduction of dubious girlfriends and the short-lived mask nose. But it also saw the development of key supporting character Whitney Frost, the resolution of the Tony-Happy-Pepper triangle, the introduction of important new foes, and the ramping up of the kinds of corporate intrigue that would become Iron Man's trademark in the late 70s and early 80s. Whatever their flaws, there's a free-wheeling quality to these late sixties and early seventies stories that remains appealing.

The Many Armors of Iron Man TPB:For those fans who lust for technology more than character, this is the TPB to get, as it documents the many specialty armors and changes to the more standard IM armor that have occured over the years, by collecting seven issues published between 1963 and 1987 (although, oddly enough, not issue #174, which provides the book's dramatic cover image). It's a lot of fun to see the imaginations of various artists running amuck here (especially that of techno-whiz Bob Layton, whose stories with David Michelinie account for six of the eight issues reprinted), although the leaps in time between some stories means that you are often coming into a larger arc somewhere in the middle, or near the end, which undercuts their dramatic impact. If you can tolerate the narrative vertigo, though, it's an enjoyable ride.

Demon In A Bottle TPB: Without question, David Michelinie and Bob Layton are the most important creative team in Iron Man's history, and this paperback collects nine issues from their first run in the late seventies. The disco fashions are dated, and Michelinie's poetic narration boxes might feel a bit old school in this age of dialogue-sparse, decompressed action, but these tales have aged extremely well. Micheline and Layton's most famous innovation was introducing Tony Stark's alcoholism to the book (in the issues covered in this TPB), but his addiction was only one example of their greatest achievement: making Stark a three-dimensional hero instead of just the mannequin in the armored suit. By emphasizing their hero's flaws, they paradoxically made him more heroic than ever, offering a witty protagonist whose grace under pressure and desire to do right is tested as much by his own obsessive-compulsive behavior as it is by corporate rivals or superpowered villains. Michelinie and Layton would stay on the book for nearly four years, introduce several important plot threads and supporting characters, and then walk away, haunting every team that followed them. Given the influence of the changes on display here, this trade paperback is as much an "origin story" for Tony Stark as Tales of Suspense #39.

Armor Wars TPB: Following the first Michelnie-Layton run, writer Denny O'Neil would take over the book for four years, offering an epic run whose sweeping changes would make it both beloved and controversial. Oddly, very little of that run has been collected, despite its importance to the new film (the movie's villain, Obadiah Stane, first appears in these issues in a slightly different form, and the James Rhodes of the movie is also shaped by O'Neil's innovations). I like O'Neil's run a lot (collect it, Marvel, collect it!), but was also happy to see Michelinie and Layton return for another three-year run in the late 1980s. The most famous eight-issue arc of that run has been collected in this TPB, and is often pointed to by hardcore fans as a high point in the character's history.

I'm not sure it's as good as its reputation would suggest: penciler Mark Bright's figuration leaves a lot to be desired, and the action scenes can feel slightly repetitious after awhile. Still, I love the way Stark's obsessions get carried to their logical extreme here, and how that facet of his personality is fully explored without falling back yet again on his alcoholism. Initially called "Stark Wars" in the single-issue floppies, "Armor Wars" reveals that Tony's armor and weapon designs have been stolen in an act of corporate sabotage, and used by villains througout the Marvel Universe. Guilt-ridden and angry, Tony finds his legal options closed off, so he goes on a one-man spree as Iron Man to reclaim the various armors. The result is fractured friendships, strained alliances, loads of action, and a brand-new armor in the end. Not as emotionally rich as some of the other TPBs on this list, but if you're looking for one single book to summarize mainstream superheroic battle in the late 80s, this is the one to get: Michelnie's sense of pacing, and Layton's sure hand as an inker make this a smooth, state-of-the-art ride.

Iron Man vs. Doctor Doom: Doomquest TPB:The last bit of the Michelinie-Layton runs to be collected, this TPB collects the first two parts of their Iron Man-Doctor Doom trilogy (the final part is currently being published as a monthly miniseries, Iron Man: Legacy of Doom). The Layton-John Romita, Jr. art is detailed and elegant, and Michelinie has a lot of fun with the supervillain's innate snobbery towards Tony Stark's "lackey" (at this point, Iron Man's secret identity has not been revealed). The first half, initially published in Iron Man #149-150, is more assured-- it was the climax of M&L's first run in 1981, and shows a team in full command of their gifts; the second half climaxes their second run, in 1989, and shows the signs of strain and editorial interference that would soon end their run on the title. But both are well worth reading, especially if you like tongue-in-cheek historical adventure.

Iron Man: War Machine TPB: At one point in the new Iron Man movie, James Rhodes looks at a suit of unpainted armor and mutters, "Next time, baby..." For those wondering about the comics backstory to that remark, this volume begins to fill in the pieces. Rhodes initially takes over the Iron Man identity from Stark during Denny O'Neil's run, when Stark's alcoholism overwhelms him and he loses control of every facet of his life. From issues #169-199, Rhodes is Iron Man, but only intermittently puts the suit on after Stark reclaims his superheroic identity in issue #200. It's not until several years later, due to narrative complications too long and convoluted to explain here, that "War Machine" is born, and Rhodes once again becomes an armored Avenger. Writer Lem Kaminski and artist Kevin Hopgood's vision of the two men is much darker and more violent than those of the past, as befit a more Punisher-driven Marvel in the early 90s, but Kaminski also has a firm grasp on character, and his narrative takes the tensions between the two friends to a logical, ruthless conclusion. Brutal but essential.

Civil War and Iron Man: Civil War TPB: Among Marvel comics readers, Iron Man has had a mixed reputation lately, and this ambitious-but-fumbled miniseries/crossover epic is the reason why. Designed as what one friend might called a "sub-tle" allegory for the Patriot Act and post-9//11 America, Civil War begins with a tragic accident caused by a superhero-supervillain melee, which leads to public outcry, which leads to the creation of something called "The Superhero Registration Act"-- any superpowered Marvel U. hero now has to reveal his or her secret identity and register with the government as an agent. Naturally, this divides the superpowered community down the middle, and each side is led by a different icon: Captain America leads the resistance, while Iron Man becomes the spokesman for the pro-registration forces.

It's not a bad idea: it feels like the logical culmination of Tony Stark's political and economic connections, his far-reaching vision as a "futurist" inventor (as he keeps referring to himself), and the constant theme of pragmatism and compromise that has run through his many titles: if this is the situation, what's the best way to deal with it. And as an event to tie the whole Marvel Universe together, it's rich with political possibility and character-driven storylines. Sadly, despite writer Mark Millar's many gifts, its execution feels rushed, heavy-handed, and slanted in some odd directions: I know our sympathies are supposed to be with bad-ass libertarian Cap, but I found his single-minded self-righteousness distinctly Travis Bickle-like, and longed for a more balanced series of confrontations and arguments (for a better example of Millar's abilities with the same characters, pick up his two Ultimates collections). At least the Iron Man: Civil War volume fills in some of those gaps, but overall, this feels like a very empty and disappointing "event." It did do its job of getting people to talk about the characters, though, as the comics blogosphere exploded in arguments for two years (my favorite take on the whole debate is Steven Colbert's):

Ultimate Iron Man TPB: Having had success by bringing in other writers from outside comics (Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, the Knaufs), Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada probably thought it was quite the coup to snag noted novelist Orson Scott Card for this "Ultimate Universe" reimagining of Tony Stark; unfortunately, like one of Tony's inventions, it hasn't quite worked out the way its creator probably intended.

(For those who don't know, Marvel's Ultimate 'verse is a parallel universe to the Marvel U. proper, containing the same characters, with often similar origins, but also allowing a greater degree of leeway in reimagining them. It started as a commercial response to forty years of Marvel history, and concerns that newer readers couldn't get caught up on all that backstory-- why not just give them new titles with the same characters, but without all that baggage?
This has resulted in some great work, like Ultimate Spider-Man, and also in some less-than-great work, like Ultimate Iron Man).

Some of Card's innovations are interesting, and I'm willing to give him leeway with his wrenchingly different origin story. The main problem is that he doesn't seem to have any feel for, or real interest in, the characters that he's writing: the Ultimate universe works best when its writers work jazzy riffs on canon-- different enough to be interesting and new, but familiar enough so that we know what song we're listening to. Card's Iron songs have nothing to do with the character-- he might as well just invent a wholly new figure and tell his stories through him (and even then, readers would have to struggle through tin-eared dialogue and anvilicious plotting).

You know which science fiction novelist might write a cool Iron Man? William Gibson, whose paranoid technoverse mysteries suggest someone who could write a very eerie, adult Tony Stark. But Orson Scott Card? Meh. Skip it and read Invincible Iron Man instead.

Iron Man: The Inevitable TPB: In the last thirty years of Iron Man adventures, it's fair to say there are two major models for new writer/artist teams: that of David Michelinie and Bob Layton, and that of Denny O'Neil. Both did landmark runs between 1978 and 1990, but their takes on the character were different. While both ultimately read Iron Man/Stark as heroic, M&L were optimists (searching for the chararcter's humor and grace under pressure), while O'Neil was a pessimist (finding the ambivalence, pathos and muddier shades in the tale of an alcohoilc industrialist with a hero complex). Since those runs ended, I think it's fair to say that, whatever lip service is paid to the historical importance of M&L, more teams have followed the O'Neil route, choosing to plumb the character's contradictions and darker impulses, especially in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world (where the intersections of commerce and politics are muddier).

Which is what makes writer Joe Casey-- and this gorgeously painted graphic novel-- so refreshing: Casey is an unreconstructed Michelinie-Layton partisan, and with his sure ear for dialogue, has a tremendous amount of fun rethinking that paradigm for the 21st century. References to both M&L runs abound, and the TPB's narrative-- about corporate espionage, the cost of technological exploration, and the definition of "hero"--does a lot of in-jokes about the occasionally strange places the character's been taken over the last ten years. A lot of folks objected to the Frazer Irving art, but once you get over the shock of a very different-looking Tony, it's pretty easy to groove on his lush background images, expressive action scenes, and Kubrickian eye for sci-fi detail.

Iron Man: Extremis TPB: The most imaginative and important rethinking of Iron Man, his origins and his meaning in recent years has come from writer Warren Ellis, who wrote the first six issues of the rebooted Iron Man title in 2005, and immediately made the character his own. This is not surprising: Ellis is one of the most gifted writers currently working in comics, and Tony Stark's combination of money, power, single-minded obsessiveness, technological know-how and political ambiguity is right in the bailiwick of the creator of the techno-dystopic thriller Transmetropolitan. In a revamped origin (borrowed by the film), Tony Stark's heart is damaged in Afghanistan rather than Vietnam, and Tony is once again an arms manufacturer (something that hadn't been true for decades). He's also a darker figure than we've seen in some time, although that doesn't mean he's not also witty and heroic (anti-heroes are often Ellis's favorite characters). Ellis ratchets up the political context and commentary, and this more adult tale is well-matched by Adi Granov's gorgeously hued, painted art, which immediately became the model for all new IM artists. The most dramatic change, though, was also the most Ellisian: the "Extremis" power that Stark absorbs, that allows him to speak to and control virtually any electronic or electromagnetic source on the planet with just a flick of his brain. This would quickly become a cliche when Iron Man appeared in other books (and it's eerily reminiscent of Brian K. Vaughn's Ex Machina, although the two writers do very different things with it), but in Ellis's hands it's a lovely metaphor for control, paranoia and knowledge in a postmodern age, and it once again made Iron Man what he had been in the 1960s: the avatar of a stranger, more imaginative future.

Scheduling snafus meant that Ellis didn't stay on the book long, and eventually, the Knaufs were brought in as the new writers. I was underwhelmed with their first arc, collected in the TPB Execute Program: it felt rushed and uncertain, and it didn't feel like they could handle the metaphors Ellis left behind. Since then, though, they've made the title their own, by focusing on the politics of the post-Civil War landscape, and Tony's place within them. I wrote a bit about their Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. TPB here, and since then, the title's only gotten better, full of cinematic action, rich character development, and an increasingly sure sense of character. Right now, Iron Man once again feels like the most enjoyable read in the Marvel Universe.


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