Tuesday, June 23, 2009

IRON MAN WEEK #3--Look Back In Armor, Part 2

Yesterday, we waded--quickly--through the morass of Iron Man continuity up to about 1979. By the turn of the decade, the book was pretty much damaged goods, and the powers that be saw no harm in handing creative control of the book to Bob Layton and David Michelenie. Neither had really done anything major up until that point, but that didn't much matter.

Not least because this was the perfect marriage of creator and character. Layton and Michelnie completely rebuilt Iron Man. For one thing, they added some scope to the idea that, y'know, Tony Stark had a multi-national corporation and all that. The supporting cast was greatly expanded, and built on what had been done before, but geared the tropes to better suit a month-in month-out audience. Perennial hostage and Happy Hogan blueballer Pepper Potts had been put on the bus, and was replaces with Mrs. Arbogast, a tough as nails secretary who didn't fancy Stark at all. Cipher, occasional radiation-addled villain, and blueball victim Happy Hogan got put on the bus and was replaced with Jim Rhodes, Stark's old buddy from Vietnam who went from merely filling the role of "pilot" to . . .well, we'll get to that in a moment.

Also, readers finally got a love interest who wasn't a wet blanket. Bethany Cabe exemplified Iron Man's new direction, and that was very much in the James Bond school of action--Stark travelled all over the globe, looking for trouble or being found by trouble, suits up as Iron Man, action ensues. It was all done with a certain balance of tongue-in-cheek and breakneck action that may not have had a lot of substance, but was done with enough energy that you didn't really mind. All of a sudden, the book and the character had some life to it.

And then they made Iron Man a drunk.

Which was fine, and for the most part it still holds up as a self-contained story, but my God in heaven did it ever doom us to story after story that just ploughed over the same damn ground, not because of anything Layton and Michelenie did or didn't do, but more because, as I've said before, comic fans who become creators love freezing time exactly where they started reading and, well, there aren't that many Iron Man stories to reference besides this one. That it took twenty years for there to be one . . .well, that certainly says something, doesn't it?

As the 80s began in earnest, Layton and Michelenie left the book and were replaced by Denny O' Neil. O'Neil had cut his teeth on DC books, primarily Green Lantern/Green Arrow, which had struggled mightily to achieve relevance and was in fact, so relevant that reading it was like being hit by every after-school special ever made, taped to a falling meteor.

Thankfully O'Neil was planning something a bit more subtle to drive his run on the book. O'Neil's focus over most of his thirty-plus issues on the book was addiction--and not just to alcohol this time. Tony Stark faced an enemy who, even as awesome as the Iron Man armour was, easily defeat, as Obadiah Stane came on to the scene and instigated a long-term plan to destroy Tony Stark utterly.

Unlike his past nemeses, Stane wasn't a physical threat, so a direct physical confrontation wasn't a solution. Stane instead broke Stark down bit by bit--freezing his assets, stealing his company, breaking his will, and sending Stark back to the bottle. Ten issues in, Tony Stark is on the streets of New York City, homeless, hopeless, and ready to die.

Whereas the first go-round of this story had been recent enough to make this initially feel a little redundant, O'Neil is more focused on the "why" of Stark's journey into self-destruction (and it's quite a journey--even the jokey "Assistant Editor's Month" story ends on a down note) Stark, it seems has used both alcohol and his career as Iron Man to protect himself from parts of his life and himself he wasn't prepared to deal with. Over the course of about 30 issues (eat it decompression) we follow Stark as he's torn down and rebuilt again.

But the name of the book is Iron Man, and while all of this stuff with Stark is going on, someone's got to wear the tin suit. Jim Rhodes takes over as Iron Man, initially just as a stop-gap replacement for Stark. However, as time goes on, Rhodes begins to resent Stark's improvement, and fears that he will reclaim the armour for himself (Stark has no intention of this, initially) Rhodes' addition to the rush of being Iron Man (and his beleif that being Iron Man elevates him above his origins) parallel's Stark's addiction to alcohol and his need to escape, both through alcohol and being Iron Man.

The tension continues to mount (with brief breaks, including what must be the funniest Mandarin story ever, wherein he unmasks Rhodes and is all like, "Huh. I thought you'd be a white dude.") until finally Stark reluctantly dons another suit of armour to bring down Rhodes, who has become more erratic and unstable. No sooner has that rift been patched, however, when Stane returns, resolved to finish off Stark and leave him a psychological wreck for good.

But Stark is a different man, now. Recognising that so much of what has happened was his refusal to take responsibility. This time, he does, and fully becomes Iron Man once again for the final showdown with Stane.

With stories where the main plot is dragged through so many issues, the real danger is that the moment the writer's built up won't justify the investment of time and energy on the part of the reader when it comes time to pay it off. Thankfully, that's not the case, here--if this had been made as a movie, the audience would have been cheering when Stark and Stane finally throw down. Maybe it's because the initial beatdown of Stark was so depressing and following his slow climb back up gives the reader a certain sympathy with him that by the time this moment has come, we really want him to succeed, because this is an earned triumph.

The end of O'Niel's run left us with a new status quo for the book, which was promptly squandered by a bunch of lame fill-in issues until Layton and Michelenie returned to the book, introduced a compelling new villain in The Ghost, and launched the Armor Wars, one of the much homaged (and, given the quality of the homages, least understood) Iron Man stories.

After discovering that his Iron Man technology has been stolen and used to power criminals, Iron Man goes on a crusade to destroy all his stolen technology in ways that stupid "Don't copy that floppy" video that made us watch in high school could never conceive of. It nearly costs Stark everything (including his life) but it's a price he's willing to pay, as his conscience won't allow him to live with the idea that his inventions are killing people (again--there is an unspoken but tangible connection to his former career as a weapons manufacturer) Later homages mangle this concept into Stark asserting that "no one should have my cool stuff but me," and totally miss the role that being a man of conscience plays in his decision.

Layton and Micheleine's second run ends with a story that doesn't quite work so well--Stark is shot by an obsessive lover and loses the use of his legs, only to regain them a few issues later in something that would have paid off when Layton returned as writer and inker to series and started something called Armor Wars II.

But Layton instead went to Valiant comics , which was bad for all involved (and Valiant's a whole other article, anyways) Layton was replaced by John Byrne and John Romita Jr.. The former was his usual petulant, backward-looking self, and the latter, formerly a penciler during the first Layton/Micheline run had changed his style to such a degree that he was no longer ideally suited for the book.

And the book became a dreadful, unreadable, mess. Armor Wars II managed to feature nothing of the sort, shoehorning in two of Byrne's characters from another title who were the power behind the throne for Kearson DeWitt, a character so thrown together that the explanation for this story wasn't revealed until an annual that came out a full two years after this story finished.

And because Origin Artifacts never die, they just lie in wait for some fool to dredge them up again, Stark once again needs the armor to live--thanks to DeWitt, his nervous system is consuming his body and even in the armor, he's only a hair's breadth away from inevitable death (Don't ask. Just . . .don't ask) and so it's the 1960s all over again, more or less.

Things go rapidly downhill from here. There's an interminable run of stories where the Mandarin and Fin Fang Foom team up to fight Iron Man in China, and they're the kind of stories where you kind of want to apologise to every Asian and every human being for. Despite the fact that this was now 1990, comics creators still thought the Mandarin could work and totally wasn't a blinged-out Yellow Peril stereotype best left in the bin.

Worse yet, this was followed up by a tense and completely incomprehensible spy thriller thick with Soviet-era intrigue with perennial favourite recurring femme fatale the Black Widow, which would have been fine except the damned Soviet Union collapsed two years before the story saw print. The only consolation prize in this whole parade of creative atrocity was that Byrne left the book, and good riddance. His tenure was deservedly forgotten (and occasionally misremembered as being good, which it wasn't) and if it's remembered at all, it should be as a backwards-looking muddled mess that damaged the character to no great purpose.

Byrne being Byrne, he naturally left things in a unworkable state in terms of moving the book forward. The nerve damage thing hung over the character and the book, and it had been stated so many times that Tony Stark was going to die that to not have him die would have been a sudden, jarring act of Character Derailment, and lord knows we couldn't have that, even if it was a stupid idea that never should have been mooted in the first place.

But stupid or not, it's what happened, so join us tomorrow for a look at the 1990s and the 2000s, where we begin with Iron Man being killed off. Believe it or not, things get worse from there. Very worse.


C. Elam said...

Michelenie during this time was just killing with great stuff. His Avengers novel is a great book, forget that it's a superhero story. He and Layton were really a dream team on that book.

And Denny? He had his own battles with the bottle, commenting that he was once only distinguishable from a bum by personal address. (or something like that) Armed with that bit of knowledge, his run takes on a certain immediacy that it perhaps lacked at the time.

The Ghost always makes me think of the old Captain Atom villain.

Kazekage said...

Which novel is that--"Man Who Stole Tomorrow?"

I've always quite liked Michelenie's stuff, actually--he has peculiar ideas that comics should be "fun" and "exciting" that I happen to share. I really did like his Avengers run (well, except #200, but that was hardly is fault) and he's usually reliably good (though last year's Legacy of Doom was a little lightweight and Iron Man: The End was utter rubbish) though apparently deeply out of fashion.

I don't know--even without that context, Denny's run is pretty visceral stuff that cuts right through you to such an extent that you really feel it. It's very much the Iron Man version of Born Again I think.

There are a couple of similarities. But Iron Man's Ghost looks more badass. :)

C. Elam said...

It is indeed. Someone somewhere must have a copy of it. I should look myself! I do wonder if he's written any others.

Boy, Ditko must have been onto something with the Ghost!

Kazekage said...

I wonder if he has--that series of novels was rather short-lived.

Well, Layton's Ghost was substantially different, and they all flowed from the basic concept so . . .yeah.