Monday, June 22, 2009

IRON MAN WEEK #2--Look Back In Armor, Part 1

Continuing from yesterday, we take a quick trip through Iron Man continuity from its start in the 60s and 70s.

Staring off, Tony Stark was a fairly uncomplicated character--He was based on Howard Hughes and in the early can-do New Frontier days, he was an exemplar of a certain admired breed of man. That he made his money dealing in arms made no difference--Stark made his money defending America and apple pie from the godless communist hordes (and oh lord, weren't there a lot of them) so where was the harm?

So, your average Iron Man story went something like this--Godless Communist/alien challenges Iron Man or screws up the debut of Stark's latest invention, Stark changes into Iron Man, fights Godless Commie/alien, has heart trouble, but just manages to thwart the Godless Commie/alien Before It's Too Late.

It's not a storytelling engine with a lot of meat on its bones--it's a functional action delivery system, but that's pretty much it. It's not helped by the fact that the characters aren't terribly endearing. Tony Stark is, at best a cipher, and comes off as something a jerk who spends a lot of time whining about his heart trouble or being terribly impressed with himself that he can plug himself into the wall "just like your electric shaver," and the threats he faces are more threats to his business than the kind of nemesis that have a personal relationship with the villain.

Worse still, Stark is flanked by an equally colorless supporting cast, featuring Pepper Potts, a drearily unexciting cipher of a character who endures today basically because no one read Iron Man enough to know he had other and more interesting girlfriends later in the run and also because comic fan-creators worship the recursive. She was there in the early days to get held hostage and moon over Stark. Happy Hogan, a stock palooka with a heart of gold from Central Casting, was there to get taken hostage, moon over Pepper, and occasionally get doused with plot-convenient radioactivity and turn into The Freak (who, while having a personal relationship to Stark, was neither interesting or particularly engaging)

So, despite this inauspicious start, things ground on. Reading them now, they're very workmanlike--competent enough, but not very engaging or exciting. The innovations that were happening in other Marvel titles weren't happening here, nor really, was the energy. While Spider-Man was humanising the superhero, Iron Man was fighting the Mafia, who changed their name and wore tights for some weird reason.

As Iron Man moved into his own book, things . . .didn't really improve. They tried a lot of things--Star quit as Iron Man, only for the guy who replaced him to wash out because of a weak organ--his brain instead of his heart this time. Happy and Pepper got married off and put on the bus. Tony got two girlfriends, one of whom was a complete milquetoast who managed not to be interesting even after she was killed (for frighteningly little reason) the second girlfriend went psychic and then went insane. As you do, I guess. Women in Refrigerators: The 1970s Edition.

Oh, and his recurring heart trouble? Cured by a transplant. Oh, wait, no--it didn't take. Wait--he needed an artificial heart. Nope, he needs the pacemaker again. Nope, he doesn't need it any more. Oh, hang on, maybe he does. Seriously--every five issues, it was one or the other of these.

Also, because it was in the air around that time Iron Man grappled with relevancy. With younger creators coming on board, creators more in tune with the counterculture, the old Howard Hughes style paradigm didn't sit well with them, and as such, it was addressed, and as this was the 1970s, it was done in the most anvilicious way possible--by students marching against Stark International, in an obvious Kent State parallel. The upshot of this was to erase the "Stark as weapons-maker" thing from the book and move his business more into something best termed "increase the Flash Gordon noise and put more science stuff around."

Oh, and in-between all that, he fought an evil Gerald Ford from a parallel Earth and added a nosepiece to his armour.

I would never lie to you.

Oh, and there was this one issue Bill Mantlo wrote wherein Iron Man befriends a blind Vietnamese boy who gets killed and angers Iron Man so much he writes "WHY?" in repulsor beams in a book so anvilicious that it could have doubled for an actual anvil.

These things worked so successfully, I should add, that Iron Man became a bi-monthly book and came dangerously close to being cancelled.

It was a pretty bleak time for the book, and the character. Oh, he seemed to be getting on in Avengers, but Avengers, being a team book, had to parcel the focus over many characters, so it wasn't necessary to struggle with one character inasmuch as it was necessary to balance the focus between multiple characters, so character fatigue was less of an issue.

But that didn't help Iron Man any. For the title to endure into the 1980s, it was going to take someone with a fresh take on things, and willing to see what was of value in the original concept and storytelling engine and extrapolate from that starting point into to the innate potential of the character.

Thankfully, that was just around the corner.

And we'll pick up on that tomorrow, wherein we look at the Layton/Micheline run, the O'Neil run, the other Layton/Micheline run and, if there's time, witness John Byrne nearly irrevocably screwing the title and the character up. Join us, won't you?

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