Wednesday, June 24, 2009

IRON MAN WEEK #4--Look Back In Armor, Part 3

When last we passed this way, we'd just finished an accounting of John Byrne's "run" (such as it was) on Iron Man and how sorry a state he'd left things in. By the time he left, the book was meandering without any real vision, save the fairly obvious plot point that, due to his neural degradation, Tony Stark was going to die. Dead dead dead. Couldn't un-ring that bell, couldn't pretend it had never happened--he'd pursued a cure on several occasions and it was proverbial elephant in the room--how do you do a book with Iron Man wherein the titular Iron Man is fated to die?

Len Kaminski, the new writer, was faced with this as he began his run and decided to finesse it into a virtue. But first, he inadvertently extended the franchise. As Tony Stark battled his last opponents he created the War Machine armour, which, bristling with guns as it does, is derided as some of the worst excesses of the 1990s as relates to comics--grim hyper-violent versions of existing characters (or characters mutant into ultra-grim parodies of same) and guns guns guns.

Yet War Machine works well in Iron Man's milieu. It makes for a much more visceral connection to Tony Stark's past as an arms dealer, and in certain elements of its design presages an occasionally seen (if not particularly interesting) evil future version of Iron Man. Having such a visceral connection to Stark's past and future makes him a much more tangible "evil opposite" character than . . .well, most of Iron Man's rogue's gallery is replete with evil opposite characters. . .

But War Machine wasn't a baddie (well, not yet) Jim Rhodes once again took over as Iron man while Stark "died"--in actuality he was rebuilding his neural system and rewriting the "code" for his brain, and man, explaining this kind of pseudo-science only plays up how silly it is--suffice it to say it was just plausible enough to get on with it, and that's really all it needed to be.

Stark returned as Iron Man a few issues later (death being as easy to shake off as a stomach virus) and generally, the book was at a much higher standard of quality than it had been under the Byrne run, if I'm honest, it wasn't all it needed to be to fully right the ship. Too often the book was stunt-casting and using guest stars to boost sales (believe it or not guys, there was a time when Omega Red guest-starring in a book would actually do that) or hijacking it to tie into the latest crossover, OR--and this, as it turned out, was the worst, building its own franchise.

See, sometime in the early 90's Marvel decided to subdivide a lot of their related titles into what amounted, more or less, to self-contained group. The ones that immediately spring to mind now are the Avengers, Iron Man/Force Works, X-Men, Spider-Man and the Ghost Rider books. They all had their own trade dress and they all crossed over with one another in an effort to get you to buy three middling-to-crap books instead of one good one.

Iron Man led the pack, flanked as it was by War Machine (who'd now spun off into his own book and deservedly earned its stripes as a ghastly 90s book) and Force Works, of which I will now give you a two word review of: "shit sandwich." This "line" lasted maybe half a year, ground through a dreadful crossover featuring the Mandarin. You may be getting the idea from reading these epic screeds that I don't like the Mandarin and, in fact am of the opinion in the entire 40-year publication history of Iron Man, there has never been a good Mandarin story, and I am continually exasperated that creators insist on dragging him back into the spotlight. You would be right on all counts--the Mandarin sucks, and trying to position him as a counterpart to Stark/Iron Man never works. Ever.

Kaminski left while the Iron Man "line" was collapsing. Bad as things were at the time, and as bad as things had been. In an effort to shake things up (it's always a danger sign when you hear people talking like this) it was decided that Iron Man and his line would be folded back into the Avengers line just in time for an epic story called "The Crossing."

"The Crossing" has no Wikipedia link. Hasn't for years. In the various links to Avengers publication history it's usually glossed over as quickly as possible. There is an excellent reason for this--"The Crossing" --in addition to being one of the worst things ever made by human hands (It is so terrible it makes Youngblood look like Watchmen in comparison)--is also, despite being written in English, completely and utterly incomprehensible. It reads very much like someone took the script, fed it into Babelish, translated it into Portuguese, translated it back to English, then to German, then back to English, and whatever garbled mess was left at the end of it was what ended up in the books.

Here's a thumbnail sketch for you--Iron Man went nuts and killed a lot of scrub Avengers (that's how you knew this story was IMPORTANT). It turned out that he'd been going nuts for some time, manipulated by longtime Avengers bad guy Kang the Conqueror (for what reason is never made plain) and also the Avengers got their asses kicked for several issue by a naked blue Smurf with a Q-Tip.

(Later this would all be explained away as a deliberate attempt to confuse everyone. In this, they succeeded metatextually in ways Grant Morrison will never approach)

Eventually it was decided to travel back in time and bring back a teenage version of Tony Stark, who would then fight Iron Man and receive some sort of grievous but non-specific heart injury (because the key to good Iron Man stories is, of course, antiquated plot contrivances) Tony Stark the Elder all of a sudden realises "Hey, I know I'm meant to be crazy and homicidal and all, but screw this, this story sucks and I want out." and kills himself in a "redeeming heroic sacrifice," Tony Stark the Younger then becomes Iron Man and takes over the book (which in no way, shape or form had anything to do with the fact that DC had done something similar with the new Green Lantern. Nuh-uh. No connection at all) setting up a run of six issues that are so dreadful, so wrongheaded, so brain-punishingly stupid that even those who never read them (you lucky people, you) would know that a teenage Iron Man was a bitterly stupid idea and no one would ever shove anything so stupid out for public consumption ever again.

Except not.

When the book finally got cancelled after issues involving Tony trying to bang one of his college professors and getting drunk and somehow setting his dorm on fire while building his armour out of a table lamp, it was a mercy killing. Crappy as Onslaught was as a story, it spared us more of this.

A few words on what happened next. Late in 1996, Marvel decided to loan out some of its longer-lived characters (Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, and the Avengers) out to Image Comics, who proceeded to unleash Heroes Reborn--12 issues wherein the characters were taken back to basics and given a new take which, it was hoped, would lead to bigger sales and higher visibility.

In practice they ranged from the absolutely ghastly (Captain America) to the inoffensive (Iron Man) Whether it was because the issues previous had been so godawful that competent but fairly stock Iron Man stories, I'm not really sure. Looking back more than a decade later, the best I can say is that they were certainly 12 issues of Iron Man.

When it came time to integrate these character back into the main Marvel Universe, it was decided that Marvel would get top-flight talent to work on the books and get people with a genuine affection for the characters. You know--what they should have been doing in the first place.

Iron Man returned, written by Kurt Busiek, who had an obvious affection for the character. proceeded to turn in 20 issues that were . . .better than what had come before, but never quite as good as they should have been, Maybe it was so much of his run seemed diverted to storyline eddies that never really worked or paid off as well as they should--an ongoing storyline wherein Tony Stark would have been Carol Danvers' AA sponsor basically stuttered through the book to no great payoff, save to remind us that Tony Stark used to drink a lot and he was terribly worried about her.

Also, the Mandarin returned again, to even lesser effect, as he spent two issues pounding Iron Man was a big metal barrel. Whiplash returned in a gimp mask, and now that I remember it, Iron Man seemed to spend a lot of time getting the snot beat out of him by just about everyone.

On the plus side of things, Busiek did make War Machine a bad guy, which was as it always should have been. However, he didn't do very much with him afterwards and it eventually fizzled away and is all but forgotten today.

Some of these problems I had with Busiek's run can apparently be put down to editorial interference, and ill health the writer was in at the time. I don't fault him for his efforts to right the book's ship, especially with all that he had going against him, and while I didn't agree with the direction the book was taking at points, his enthusiasm and affection for the character was obvious, and given the slow chain of disasters that had come before his run, it was better that it had been in some time.

However, it sometimes seems that Iron Man exists in some kind of pendulum--whenever, it swings too far to being "good," it will inevitably swing back to being unbearably stupid, and, as the millennium turned, that's just what it did.

A new writer took over the book, and decided to shake things up. Thanks to the combination of being struck by lightning and the Y2K bug (no, really! They tried to cover their asses later, but it was the y2K bug. Mind you, this story was published in 2000, long after we all found out y2K was bullshit) Tony Stark's armour came to life, and after a couple issues of the usual Star Trek crap, starts killing people and Has To Be Stopped. The sentient armour nearly kills Tony Stark, then says "Hey, I know I was trying to kill you and all, but rather than do that, I'm going to make you an artificial heart, because the retarded chimp who writes this drivel is stuck in the early 1970s and he doesn't have any way to write his way out of this," gives him an artificial heart, and then promptly "dies."

Oh yes, and the chimp who wrote this caca gets to run Marvel comics. People, don't come bitching to me about the damage done--as early as 2000, he was pulling this crap. Too late to complain now.

Tony Stark spends the next few issues creating a new identity for himself and wearing his older armour because he's all technophobic now and the book becomes, both in terms of the writing (which is godawful) and the art (Keron Grant distinguishes himself by doing with a pencil what someone throwing bleach in your eyes will do for your eyesight) and the book becomes so godawful I stop reading.

Meanwhile, the character derailment continues. Stark reveals his identity to save a puppy (no, really! The writer who did this wanted to because it was "unexpected," or as the layman would have it, "extremely stupid.") becomes Secretary of Defense, and gradually moves back to his original conception as a Howard Hughes-esque arms dealer, or, to make this shorter, an insufferable asshole. Pepper Potts comes back and icky, strained romance gets crammed down our throat, written by people who quite possible have never been within 100 yards of a woman in their lives (as per restraining order, I suspect)

Surprisingly, people don't want to read this. So it was decided to shake things up. Again.

Warren Ellis, a writer who is lauded for having big adventurous ideas involving acerbic chain-smoking men in black trench coats, takes over writing Iron Man, and, in collaboration with the artist, proceed to give Iron Man superpowers, thanks to a bit of Whatever Science called Extremis.

Extremis is a handy thing, as it does whatever the plot requires of it, and aparrently allows the user to "see through satellites" and other things Ellis probably cribbed from Phillip K. Dick or William Gibson. The upshot of all of this turgid, dreary, storytelling, parched as it is from anything that might be fun or engaging, is that Tony Stark can store the Iron Man armour in his bone marrow now, rather than, y'know, bone marrow.

The reason for this is, by their own testimony, the writer and the artist found it foolish and "unrealistic" that Iron Man could carry his armour around in a briefcase. Putting aside that the idea of "realism" in comics is a peculiar fallacy anyway (people sticking to walls or having knives pop out of their hands is fine, but carrying a suit of armour in a briefcase is one suspension bridge of disbelief too far? Really?) this is an incredibly destructive notion as applied to this character.

Because Tony Stark as a character works most when his intellect is his superpower. It's his genius that creates the Iron Man suit, his genius that continually improves its design, and his genius and ability to solve problems that make him a compelling character. While physically able to meet a threat, Iron Man offers the perceptive writer a chance to play with a character who can out-fight but also out-think an opponent. Rather than being a limiting character, the best Iron Man writers have been able to see a myriad of story potential in the character and his milieu.

The ones who write him nowadays, however, seem to see him only as a facile manque for Bush-era paranoia politics, a role that the character is neither suited for, nor particularly interesting in.

That concludes our look at Iron Man's history up to now. Join us tomorrow when we look at the newest, best-reviewed, and best-received Iron Man book on the stands today, Matt Fraction's Invincible Iron Man.

No comments: