Achilles Heel: Iron Man, Part One

All the publicity around the upcoming Iron Man movie has caused me, over the last several months, to re-read much of my Iron Man collection. Iron Man and his alter ego, millionaire/billionaire (depending on which period you're reading) playboy/inventor/political figure Tony Stark, have gotten a bad rap from fans, writers, and even Marvel Comics in recent years; as one comics blogger put it, "Why can't anyone write Iron Man anymore?" Recent stories have seen Tony develop an "extremis" power that transforms him into a kind of cyborg; have expanded his always-present egomania to absurd, anvilicious lengths; and worst of all, for some fans, have thrust him into the middle of a heavy-handed political allegory called "Civil War," in which a "superhero registration" bill (Marvel's version of the Patriot Act) divides the costumed community into pro- and anti-registration forces, with Iron Man leading the former group against old friend Captain America. Warren Ellis wrote some interesting IM tales for awhile, but scheduling snafus and deadline troubles lead to his departure from the book, and no one since has quite been able to get a handle on this most difficult of Marvel heroes.

And that's a shame, because Tony Stark is arguably the most fascinating character in the Marvel Universe, precisely because he seems so outside of it, and because his complex combination of power, wealth, political savvy, arrogance, addiction, and emotional flaws make him a strikingly contemporary figure. As a student of mine put it, he's difficult to sympathize with in the way that we easily sympathize with outcast Peter Parker: with his billions of dollars and Establishment credentials, he's much more a figure out of DC's universe than Marvel's, distant and unfamiliar, and unrelateable for much of the comics audience. But that's just it: Spider-Man, when written well, is the perfect allegorical embodiment of what it means to be a teenager: confused, angry, torn between selfishness and responsibility, full of power but uncertain of how to use it, wanting to improve the world, but lacking the emotional maturity to pull it off. Iron Man, on the other hand, is the perfect allegory for what it means to be an adult: no longer young, weighted by pressures and accepting responsibilities, trying to do good without creating more problems in the process, negotiating compromises and realizing that being a hero means transcending your own (often selfish) desires and ego complexes for the good of the group, and the long-term future. In this moment, Marvel doesn't seem interested in this sort of figure, preferring the easy (if psychotic, when you think about it) libertarianism of Captain America, the reliable badassness of Wolverine, the brooding vigilantism of Daredevil, and eternal adolescence (whatever their actual ages) of Spider-Man and the X-groups. But it wasn't always this way: for a brief period (roughly 1978-1989), a series of talented writer-artist teams found a way to tell intelligent, ambitious Iron Man stories that placed him at the center of that fictional universe's events.

Origin Stories
But before we get to that, perhaps a bit of background might be helpful...Introduced in 1963 as a Cold War industrialist/inventor, Anthony Stark travels to Vietnam to personally test a new weapon he's designed for the U.S. forces fighting there. Moving through the jungle with a platoon, he steps on a landmine which knocks him unconscious, and leaves several bits of life-threatening shrapnel in his body. He discovers this while a prisoner in a Communist military camp, and with the help of a fellow scientist imprisoned there, designs a suit of armor that keeps him alive through a chestplate, which prevents the shrapnel pieces from reaching his heart. Since this is a superhero comic, the armor also has various weapons that allow Tony to free himself from his Communist captors (the elderly scientist who helped him dies in the melee).

Taking up roughly half of Tales of Suspense #39, Iron Man's origin story is a classic example of writer Stan Lee's ironic pathos: the handsome, wealthy playboy beloved by millions, trapped in a suit of armor that has transformed him into a monster, and that he's encased in because of the wars his own weapons help to propogate. Wandering into the jungle, the tale might have ended there, a kind of superheroic Twilight Zone story. But this was, of course, the Mighty Marvel Age (The Amazing Spider-Man also debuted that year, and so did The Avengers, both following on the heels of previous hits like The Fantastic Four and The Hulk) and no good character could go to waste as a one-shot. Iron Man would run for another sixty issues in Tales of Suspense, eventually sharing the book with fellow Avenger Captain America, in those great sixties two-for-one books whose half-book narratives tied them to a long tradition of cliffhanging, serialized adventure tales.

Over the course of that five-year run, Iron Man-- now officially Stark's "bodyguard"--would change his armor several times (going from gray to gold to various versions of the red-and-gold look that defines him to this day), gain a soap-worthy supporting cast (driver/best friend Happy Hogan, secretary/unrequited love interest Pepper Potts), develop a visually striking (if emotionally underdeveloped) rogues gallery (many of whom-- the Mandarin, the Titanium Man--had Communist affiliations, reminding the reader that Iron Man was one of Marvel's most political heroes), and always be plagued by his achilles heel-- the chest plate he always wore to keep his heart beating, and to keep the shrapnel away. It meant he couldn't have long-term relationships for fear he might die at any second (and of course, could never let anyone know he was Iron Man, meaning he had to be even more frivolous a playboy than before, to keep up appearances). It was an effective riff on the Batman archetype of the fop/hero split personality (itself derived from antecdents like the Scarlet Pimpernel, The Shadow and Superman), and a clever enough way to delay any resolutions to the Tony/Happy/Pepper triangle (although I always wondered-- how can Tony be the legendary lover-man the books made him out to be in the 60s, while also always wearing that damn chest plate?). As long as Iron Man's tales ran only half-a-book (hurtling you from twist to twist) or he appeared surrounded by other heroes (as in the Avengers), it was easy to enjoy his striking appearance and cool powers, without noticing that the character was a bit one-note, less a character in fact than a neat concept (James Bond playboy as the modern Knight in Shining Armor). When Iron Man got his own book in 1968, that became a little harder to overlook.

Seven years of Iron Man stories followed. I will admit I have not read all of these (I like as much as the next collector, but I was born years after these tales were originally published, and I am not as wealthy, after all, as Tony Stark). Those I've read are enjoyable but unspectacular. The narrative model writers Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Archie Goodwin had establshed on Tales-- the mixture of super-action, corporate intrigue, beautiful women and unresolved love-- continues, new characters are introduced,

and Iron Man gains and loses a mask-nose. He also loses some of his supporting cast-- Happy and Pepper eventually get married and leave Tony's employ. Tony falls for Madame Masque, the scarred daughter of a crime syndicate boss, and literally loses his heart-- the old wounded ticker giving way to a new synthetic heart that resolves at least one tired plotline. A lot happens, but there's still the sense of extremely talented writers and artists bumping up against a glass (iron?) door that seemed to surround the characters-- whatever happened to Tony and his friends, and whatever villains Iron Man faced, nothing got through the shell of archetype. Iron Man seemed destined to remain a second-tier figure, fun and visually striking, but lacking the emotional complexity of such landmark heroes as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.

The first sign of a crack in the armor came in 1975, with Iron Man #78, and a story called "Long Time Gone." Written by Bill Mantlo, who would soon take over regular writing chores on the book, and drawn by Geoge Tuska, the issue was an attempt to come to grips with the intertwined legacies of Iron Man and U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam. As this uncredited comics historian notes:

Iron Man, a wealthy patriot with a war injury, might have reminded some readers of John F. Kennedy, whose inauguration in1961 had infused the United States with a feeling of adventurous optimism. Stan Lee has never compared J.F.K. to Iron Man, but he has speculated that the Kennedy era's spirit provided the ideal atmosphere for the introduction of new super heroes. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 ended the era all too quickly, and signaled the advent of the turmoil that would characterize the rest of the decade. Kennedy had encouraged the buildup of American troops in Vietnam, and as the war there became more deadly and more divisive, Iron Man began to look even more like a symbol of The United States: he went halfway around the world to fight for what he thought was right, and he came home with a wound that seemed as if it would never heal.

In his brilliant book-length study, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture In America, Bradford W. Wright notes that this tale was one of many written by a second wave of fans-turned-writers/artists, who'd come out of the tumult of the sixties, and wanted to use genre to say something different and "relevant" about the world around them. The most famous examples were Steve Englehart's "Secret Empire" run on Captain America, where the character confronts a government conspiracy with a thinly-veiled Richard Nixon at the center (the book was published around the time of Watergate) and stops being Captain America for several months, utterly disillusioned with the role of "hero"; and Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' riff on Green Lantern and Green Arrow, which took the characters on an Easy Rider-style journey across America, and confronted issues like racism and drug abuse while questioning the limits of power and justice. I don't make the Easy Rider reference offhandedly-- I think there's a very clear comparison to be made between what was happening in Hollywood in the late sixties and early seventies (as a new generation of film directors entered the business and wanted to use genre to say something new about contemporary life: Altman, Scorcese, Cassavettes, Coppola, Hopper, etc.) and what was happening in comic books at roughly the same period. What are the social, narrative and ideological possibilities and limitations of mainstream, popular genres, and can they speak something new?

Again, Iron Man is a fascinating vehicle for that idea precisely because he's such a counter-intuitive choice (although no more counter-intutitive than Captain America, I suppose): he's wealthy, politically connected, and is part of the very Establishment that the counterculture was fighting against. But that's what gives "Long Time Gone" its poignancy: here's this war profiteer forced into a crisis of conscience about what he's done, and about the split life he's been living as both fighter against, and economic beneficiary of injustice. Here's Wright's thoughtful description:

Iron Man began his superhero crusade as a self-assured champion of Communist containment, but it is a far more reflective and troubled superhero who ponders the meaning of Vietnam in 1975. The poignant story...opens with Iron Man sitting alone in his office, engaged in conversation with himself. He recalls how he "beat the Commies for democracy without ever questioning" the wisdom of his leaders. Now, thinking of Vietnam, he wonders, "what right had we to be there in the first place?" He flashes back to an incident in Vietnam, where he witnessed American weaponry of his own design lay waste to an entire village, killing enemy and innocent alike. Moved to tears by the carnage, Iron had buried the dead in a mass grave and marked it with the searching epitaph, "WHY?"

Heavy-handed? Absolutely, and Mantlo's cause isn't helped by Tuska's art, with its sub-Kirby wide-cheeked faces and page-boy haircuts (for a playboy, Tony isn't much of a fashion icon in this period) and sparse backgrounds. It's safe to say the artists' reach exceeeded their grasps, but the act of reaching itself seemed to free the character: in confronting head-on the emotional stakes of his origins (in the same year that Saigon fell and an incendiary documentary about why we got into Vietnam, Hearts and Minds, was released), Iron Man's creative team had pulled off a fairly effective bit of retconning, which used a revised origin to launch the character into some new places. When Mantlo took over the book full-time a few issues later, he was the first writer in awhile to probe Tony's emotions, as he temporarily loses control of his company, reveals his secret identity to Madame Masque, and recommits himself to being a hero for a more contemporary age (which includes no longer manufacturing weapons for the military). It was a really good start (enhanced by new artist Keith Pollard's slicker, shinier style), but just a sketch for what would come in 1978, when new editor-in-chief Jim Shooter handed the book over to a writer/artist team that consisted of one huge fan, and one guy who'd never really read the book.

Writer/co-plotter David Michelinie (the newbie) and Artist/co-plotter Bob Layton (the huge fan), took over Iron Man with issue #116. In an interview with writer Mike Benson, Layton said, "When David Michelinie and I took over the series in the late 70’s, it was one of Marvel's poorest selling titles. As I recall, there were three books offered to us and Iron Man was one of them. All three books were at the bottom of the sales ladder at the time—including Iron Man. I think that's why they pretty much gave us Carte Blanche to do whatever we wanted with the series."

Both men have stated in numerous interviews that they see themselves as craftsmen at the service of the characters, and that they want readers to become absorbed in the storylines, rather than thinking about the creators behind the scenes. Fine, but their own landmark work on this title belies that modesty. Simply put, what was needed was not a new heart, or new armor, or a big-time supervillain, but two artists alert to the possibilities buried within the title, and especially the title character. Mantlo had sensed those possibilities, but it was Michelinie and Layton who really brought them out. For all intents and purposes, they re-invented Tony Stark/Iron Man, and gave Marvel a whole new hero to play with.

M&L's solution to the riddle that had bedeviled even Stan Lee was remarkably simple: what if we really took this guy seriously, and tried to tell some realistic stories about him? What if we made him a real character-- funny, fleshed-out, full of strengths and ego and very deep flaws-- and tested his grace under pressure? What if we surrounded him with a top-notch supporting cast? What if we gave him a real girlfriend, instead of the Harlequin robots that had populated the book in the past? What if we really explored what it meant to be a Cold Warrior, to think about the ethics and unforseen consequences of your actions and inventions? In other words, what if we emphasized the "man" in the title, rather than the "iron"?

What resulted was a run of 42 issues (#116-157, although Layton left after #153) that offered a gripping and very human arc, respecting the genre conventions of the superhero tale (the costumes, the action sequences, the patented marvel hero crossovers) while also asking them to grow up. This wasn't new to Marvel, but it was new to Iron Man, and M&L's run on the title heralded a renaissance at a company that had been in a downward creative spiral for the previous half-decade: in the wake of M&L would come Frank Miller's Daredevil, John Byrne and Chris Claremont's X-Men (and Byrne's even-better five-year run on the Fantastic Four), Walt Simonson's mythic look at Thor, and the classic Hobgoblin arc in The Amazing Spider-Man (it's not a coincidence that these books followed editorial and business-side shake-ups that would lead to better conditions for writers and artists, and draw some of the best talent to the company. After all, treating people like human beings shouldn't only apply to fictional characters).

Of course, the most famous event on Michelinie and Layton's first run on the book (they would return in the mid-1980s) was the revelation of Tony Stark's alcoholism. It was a groundbreaking move, not the first time alcoholism had been seen in comics, but one of the most dramatic uses of addiction done in a superhero comic; Denny O'Neil had done a story about drug addiction in Green Lantern and Green Arrow, but it was a supporting character, not the central characters of the book, who had suffered from the problem. What did it mean to suddenly have a hero-- a wealthy, politically powerful, emotionally mercurial hero, flying around in a suit that can decimate mountains-- with the potential to go on a bender? And where would the character go after the problem had been raised? This was a lot more dramatic than a heart condition, and far more character-driven.

In a 1980 interview with Comics Feature magazine, Michelinie and Layton spoke of the plot thread as one driven by character and logic as much as an kind of melodramatic or pedagogical impulse:

FEATURE: Was that [alcohol] story written from the standpoint of a social responsibility, or...

MICHELINIE: I thought it would be a good story. that's the reason I did it. When I took over the book, Tony Stark's girlfriend had left him, his company was being taken just struck me that that this guy...either put him on ABC at 1:30 in the afternoon in his own soap opera, or what would really happen to this guy? He'd go out and get plowed. He's got all these problems; he's got to escape somehow. It seemd logical these days that the way he would escape would be getting into the bottle...

(Later in the interview)
LAYTON: Iron Man was Tony's release. He sits up in his ivory tower and all these people underneath him are vying for power, and the only release he really had was to become Iron Man. Suddenly, he puts this helmet on and becomes anonymous...He gets his release that way. When [industrial rival] Justin Hammer took away his ability to change into Iron Man, his release was gone. And that's the thing that pushed him over the edge...

MICHELINIE: The villain of the whole thing was Tony Stark.

This suggests the thoughtfulness with which they approached both character and problem, and the ways in which a talented team could use Stark/Iron Man as a prime example of Marvel's storytelling style, its desires for a greater realism, for characters with flaws, for finding the perfect intersection between the melodrama of the romance genre and the high adventure of the superhero tale. They're speaking here, not as hacks or social commentators, but almost as Method actors, probing the character's psychology, giving him a backstory, using that to find the emotional points on a page (in an interview, Denny O'Neil once spoke of an editor's job as being like a director's: "I cast the right people," he said, meaning writers and artists). As prime authors within what's sometimes termed the "Bronze Age" of comics (roughly 1973-the mid-1980s), Michelinie and Layton are the third wave of writer-artists: in Hollywood terms, if Bill Mantlo and Steve Englehart are the late-sixties realists, Michelinie and Layton are more disco-era Steven Spielberg, supreme craftsmen who offer slick and gripping action stories with a human heart.

The trick of the alcohol storyline M&L introduce (as opposed to some of the later uses of this addiction in the title) is its subtlety. In re-reading the tales, it's clear they are dropping hints-- an early-morning pick-me-up here, a third martini there (before superhero battle, no less)--but they are so good at the more conventional aspects of the superhero tale (the bad guys, the one-liners, the multi-page action sequences), and are so aware that their audience is not expecting anything else, that the "social problems" angle flies under the radar. As with so many past and future Iron Man stories, the metallic heroics intersect with corporate intrigue (a mysterious takeover of Stark International, government interference in Tony's business) and romantic disarray (a new girlfriend, Bethany Cabe, a much more emotionally developed and capable heroine than we've seen in the book before, fully capable of kicking ass as a high-priced bodyguard), but Michelinie and Layton ruthlessly follow it to its logical end, intertwining it with a tale of armor malfunction and tampering that, as a friend of mine noted, nicely dovetails with Tony's loss of control over his drinking.

As you might imagine, Tony does recover: in the end, whatever problems Michelinie and Layton introduce (and they find a lot of fun tight spots to put the character in), they are optimists, and the point is not to have Tony's alcoholism break him, but to use it to illuminate his grace under pressure. By the time the drinking comes to a head, Michelinie and Layton have not only revamped their title character, but introduced a strong supporting cast, the strongest the book would ever have: the aforementioned Bethany Cabe; the firm-but-loveable administrative assistant Mrs. Arbogast; the stuffy PR head, Mr. Pithins; electronics engineer Scott Lang (who is also the superhero Ant-Man); Bethany's friend and partner in bodyguarding, Ling; and James Rhodes, Tony's private pilot and best friend, who will come to be the most important supporting character in the history of the title. In fact, M&L do such a good job re-inventing the series that they haunt every creative team that followed them on the book. By the time they depart in early 1982, they've had Iron Man face off against Dr. Doom; watched him ward off a couple of corporate takeovers; introduced several new armors (Layton was a devoted reader of science journals); and once again made Tony a loser at love, as Bethany Cabe slips out of his life. The stories aren't any busier than those of earlier runs on the title, but they are endowed with richer feeling, a sense that there are actual stakes to the character's actions, and that the point of the action is the character-- that the former is there to tell us more about the latter.

Michelinie leaves after issue #157, "Spores," a dumb story that one comics blogger has declared one of the worst comics ever written (Michelinie didn't plot it, just wrote the dialogue, which seems to spoof and slyly comment on the idiocy of the plot it's working out). Layton departs four issues before his partner in crime, but he continues to do the covers for the book, his final one coming with Iron Man #158:

Like "Spores," the cover is better than the story inside, which wastes an eerie, E.C.-style villain on a twice-told tale about Tony's insecurities. But the quality of the story is less important than the name of the writer: Denny O'Neil, a legendary writer and editor then in the process of guiding Frank Miller's first run on Daredevil. O'Neil was best known for those aforementioned Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories in the early seventies, and for revamping three of DC's biggest heroes-- Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman-- in that same early-seventies period. He helped rediscover Batman's Dark Knight heart after campy 60s TV seemingly lost it forever; he shoved Superman into the modern age after years of benign neglect; and he did a controversial, power-stripping run on Wonder Woman that earned him the ire of Gloria Steinem (even though he'd meant it as a feminist storyline). In short, having dealt with superpowered and non-superpowered heroes, wealthy playboys with dark hearts, and insecure geeks with split identities, he was a fascinating choice for Iron Man. His run would actually last a few months longer than Michelinie and Layton's, and would be the most ambitious and controversial storyline that the title had seen to that point. Even to this day, people either love it or hate it. Except me-- I love it and hate it. Or to put it more precisely, I'm haunted by it.

Next Time: The Stephen Sondheim of comic book writers takes over the adventures of everyone's favorite millionaire superhero, and reminds us of the benefits and drawbacks of a thesis-driven comic book epic.


Bully said…
Whoa! Fantastic, well-covered analysis. Great work on one of my favorite heroes.
Brian Doan said…
Thanks, Bully! I'm hoping to continue it sometime this week with more about the O'Neil years on the book.

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