Sunday, June 21, 2009

IRON MAN WEEK #1--Another Twist In My Sobriety

So last week in this podcast here, the estimable Graeme McMillan of the superlative Savage Critics website made the case than Matt Fraction's run on the new Invincible Iron Man title was not unlike Ed Brubaker's run on Captain America, in the sense that both are about "tearing down and rebuilding the character."

And to an extent he's right--both comics are printed by he same company, both are printed on slick paper, but beyond that I don't see many similarities, as I'm not sure "tearing down and rebuilding the character" is the ultimate goal of Brubaker's Captain America, and while I am sure that's what Fraction's aiming for on Invincible Iron Man, well . . .it's not terribly good, nor a terribly new thing for the character.

If I had a nickel for every time Iron Man had been torn down and re-built, I would have many nickels. Arranged in a pile on my desk.

Iron Man has always been a tricky character for writers to get their head around. There are all sorts of sticking points--Making a hero out of an arms dealer, trying to make a rich playboy type relatable to a blue-collar readership, and most of all, getting around what is a commonly heard complaint--that Anyone Can Wear The Suit, So Why This Guy?"

Even John Seavey admits in his article on Iron Man's storytelling engine that once the device of Tony Stark's heart trouble was removed from the character there was no clear idea of what to do with him for long stretches of his history and he's absolutely right. The usual answer to that was to either reinstate the heart injury or create a similar affliction and kind of default back to the standard, because that was easier than trying to push things in a new direction.

However, even in a system so ready to default to the familiar, on occasion, certain creators have found time to innovate and create a workable storytelling engine for Iron Man that doesn't involve artificial jeopardy or complete inversions of everything that makes the character work.

Iron Man is a strange character. Like his contemporaries the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, and the Hulk, he began as a sort of middle ground between the ironic twist-ending SF stuff Marvel was doing before their superhero era began in earnest. The Fantastic Four were monster hunters, Ant-Man had been taken by SCIENCE down an ant hill, the Hulk had been turned into a monster also by SCIENCE and Iron man (explicitly stated, in his first story) is trapped in his armor because of his damaged heart, and is thus saved by SCIENCE but at the cost of his life.

You can see the evolution in Iron Man's early appearances. He's initially a grey armored colossus (and scares the hell out of the people he's trying to save), and then as he begins his career as a superhero proper, paints his armor gold. This armor lasts a few more issues until the familiar red and gold suit first appears. More than finally finding a visual hook that seemed to work, this actually completed Iron Man's evolution from a pre-Marvel character to a Marvel superhero.

While Iron Man may have finally evolved into a superhero, it didn't necessarily make for interesting stories. Despite what nostalgic remembrances tell us about the early Marvel Age, the hit-to-miss ratio on creating memorable villains for these characters wasn't the greatest. Even the more enduring members of Iron Man's rogue's gallery are fairly redolent of the times. By that I mean, they're pretty much all communists. Well, all except for the Mandarin who (in the best traditions of the genteel racism of bygone days) is basically the off-brand Fu Manchu.

But surely the early Bullpen could be forgiven for naff villains--after all, they were making this stuff up as they went along and timeliness of publication probably won out more often than not over pre-planning. But fortunately, built into his storytelling engine was an equalizer:

Iron Man's chestplate, if it lost its charge, would cause a heart attack, and so, not unlike Ultraman (the Japanese hero's, not the Crime Syndicate guy) three-minute power-limit, the artificial cap created a sense of jeopardy that, usually, a sufficiently dangerous villain would create on their own.

There were a couple reasons for this. For one, as stated above, Iron Man's villain's aren't terribly exciting on their own and sometimes the story needed a leg up that only an imminent heart attack could provide. For another, Iron Man only ever had half the book for his stories up until 1968. Tales of Suspense was a split-book for most of Iron Man's tenure, most famously sharing the book with Captain America, but also for "The Saga of the Sneepers" and stories like that. With half the book given over to other stories, the creators tended to get their bang out as quickly as possible.

At least at first. Before the switch to Iron Man's regular title, a new generation of writer (primarily Archie Goodwin) had taken over writing tales of Suspense, and in an effort to escape the rather limiting split-book format, began playing out plot points over multiple issues. In an environment like this, continuity became a larger part of the Marvel Universe (as things had to hold together to plausibly pay off multiple-month plot points) and thus began the new paradigm that, for better or worse, would point the way ahead.

And we'll have a look at that next week, as we cover quite a lot of Iron Man continuity in one go. That's not because I am great at writing these as much as it's possible to leap forward over a lot of Iron Man history owing to the fact that most of it is boring and rather disposable.

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