Saturday, July 4, 2009

IRON MAN WEEK #7--Wherein We Sock It To Shellhead, One Last Time

It has been argued--not least by the illustrious Diana Kingston-Gabai--that Iron Man Week, while judged a success by any measure for the Prattle, it lacked a proper cap wherein I stopped being a passive observer of Iron Man's vast and mostly dull history and said something about my feelings on the character and how he should ideally be presented.

They also reminded me a week was seven days, so there's that as well. Thus, only a little late, and for your further delectation, I present the final installment of Iron Man Week:

There's a scene in an Iron Man issue (from the first Layton/Michelenie run, round the #150s I want to say) wherein Iron Man's trussed up in front of a laser cannon by the Living Laser. He finds out in short order that his hands are bundled up in aviation tape, and thus firing his repulsors would only blow his own hands off. If he tried to yank the cables restraining his arms, the cannon behind him would fire and probably vaporize him.

He seems utterly trapped.

Fortunately, he gets the Laser monologuing, and as anyone who saw The Incredibles can tell you (when they're not spinning a line of bullshit about an alleged Ayn Rand subtext in the movie) monologuing will get you in trouble every time. Iron Man burns through the tape on his hands, repulsors the cables, and tucks and rolls just before the cannon fires.

This, to me, is Iron man's Crowning Moment of Awesome. The subsequent fight afterwards isn't bad either, as Iron Man breaks out his jet-powered roller skates which are basically his version of Kuribo's Shoe.

Now, why this moment?

Because it plays to Iron Man's strengths as a character--he's physically able to go toe to toe with an enemy, but he also has the added advantage of being able to out-think them. And it's the way that he out-thinks people that sets him apart from Marvel's other scientist heroes.

Tony Stark isn't Reed Richards. He will never build a portal to the Negative Zone or invent cloth that never tears or looks like stuff from Dave Cockrum's old sketchbooks, he works in a more practical arena.

Moreover, his gift is more reactive science than proactive science. Richards comes up with wacky Grant Morrison-style inventions because he's an explorer. Stark developed the Iron Man suit (as I said in my post about the movie) to provide a means to keep himself alive and to escape.

So Tony Stark's gift is that he can innovate under pressure and, once he's got the bit in his teeth (so to speak) he won't stop improving something until it's perfect. Layton has mentioned in interviews that Stark suffers from a kind of obsessive-compulsion, and there's certainly something to that--witness the constant evolution of the Iron Man armour as only the most obvious example.

More than that--and this is a flaw only hinted at and largely ignored because it's easier to write stories about a bad heart or falling off the wagon--there's an element of being Iron Man that for Stark is an escape. As Iron Man, he's no longer Tony Stark, multimillionaire industrialist, or ladies' man, or what have you, but at the same time he is. One of the things seldom explored (and now that it's been written in stone that Secret Identities Are Bullshit, sadly lost) was the idea that in a way, as Iron Man, Tony Stark went incognito at his own company as just another employee, and thus Iron Man became in it's own way, another secret identity. No one ever did anything with it to any great extent, but the potential was certainly there.

Moreover, since we seem to be on a somewhat psychological kick here, as O'Neil elucidated in his Iron Man run, the armour was initially a means of escape for Stark, a way to escape inner pain. The exact nature of that inner pain's never really fully explored, but it's easy enough to draw a line through the character's history and connect some dots. Stark loses his parents at an early age, but is a child prodigy and finds early success in innovating existing technology. He grows up a child of privilege, but lacks a family and thus is further isolated by the demands of running a company, maintaining his family fortune, and the constant pressure in the technology line to forever innovate and never stand still. It leaves little time for friends, even less for a social life of any consequence. If he's connected to the rest of humanity at all, it's through a wall of money and isolation.

Ironic, then, that locking himself in a suit of armour is itself an escape from a very locked-in life.

On the technical end of things, as we've mentioned before, Stark has a tremendous sense of responsibility when it comes to his inventions. The idea that he things he builds may be used to kill people is ultimately not something that sits well with him. The Armor Wars is an concrete example of that--the Iron Man armor is a deadly weapon on the order of a loose nuke, should its secrets get out. There's plenty of stories that can be told there that reflect our own feelings about the advance of technology and is it moving too fast and can you really ever keep it out of the "wrong hands" in a world where information runs around the globe at the speed of light and can be accessed almost anywhere at any time?

It would behoove, however, to do those stories in a way that doesn't make them immediately dated by the next presidential election. Just sayin'.

It's that sense of responsibility that keeps Stark connected to the larger world, in a sense. Rather than being a distant, remote, technocrat, convinced he knows better than anyone how to run the world in an orderly fashion (i.e. "douchebag") Stark should, motivated as he is by his past career as an arms dealer, the responsibiliy for what he's done and what was done in his name should, ideally, motivate him to focus both his corporate and intellectual gifts toward improving the human condition and generally making the world a better place, not unlike how Gilded Age robber barons like Carnegie and Flagler became humanitarians in the twlight of their lives or how Nobel became known more for lauding great acheivement in the humanities and sciences rather than, y'know, "that asshole who invented dynamite." Stark's quest to improve himself (psychologically and, through the Iron Man armour, physically) expands to the macro level of trying to improve the entire world.

To boil it down to the most visceral and basic, level (and I'm borrowing from he damn movie again) Iron Man stories should never forget Rhodes' reaction to seeing the Iron Man suit for the first time: "That's the coolest thing I ever seen."

Iron Man should always--always--be really damn cool.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

That's more like it. :) I like the way you set Stark apart from the other genius-level superheroes in the MU, because you're absolutely right: he's not the sort of hero that can turn a toaster into a Deus ex Machina gadget that will immediately save the day, but (and I think the movie emphasized this very nicely) he can use the materials he's got to whip up an approximation of an effective tool. That keeps him a bit more grounded, I think - the first Iron Man armor is ugly, and clunky, and clearly functional as opposed to ideal.

Kazekage said...

Thanks. :) Well, you kind of have set him apart, don't you? There are a lot of scientists out there, most of whom have their own bit of territory (half of Hank Pym's problem is that he doesn't have a territory as such) I should have also added that Dr. Doom is the inversion of Tony Stark, since rather than his technical knowledge being used to maintain connection with and benefit to humankind, Doom is more down-and-in and isolated from humanity.

He's not, really, is he? Richards, for instance, invents something and its done in one. If it works, it becomes part of the canon, if it doesn't it's never referred to again. To use the Iron Man armour as an example, it starts out purely functional, but with every iteration afterwards (ideally, anyway)it becomes more streamlined and more evolved. Stark is a developer of ideas, rather than an innovator, if that makes sense.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Now that you mention it, Doom and Stark do seem rather compatible as enemies: Doom's European monarchy to Stark's American corporations, their shared tendency to use dupes with similar armor, their improvisational skills, their personal family-related demons (literally, in Doom's case)... if Doom wasn't so obsessed with Reed Richards, he and Stark might've hit it off. :)

That's always been a big turn-off with Reed, the fact that he can instantly whip up a toaster that doubles as a telepathic jammer that can, for no extra cost, turn lead into cottage cheese. Waid worked around that by having people misuse Reed's newest inventions to comic effect, but if you're doing it straight? It's far more entertaining to see Stark continually improve the design (and maybe even suffer the occasional setback).

Kazekage said...

I hadn't even taken it as far as you had, actually--I was just thinking of them as introverted and extroverted versions of the other. It's no accident that the Iron Man/Doom teamups work so well--their characters have a certain sympatico nature that works to the benefit of the stories.

Well, and Stark's constant quest for improvement works also as a externalised metaphor for the man and a way of establishing a commonality with the reader--he's on a perpetual journey of examination and improvement of the self.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Have they teamed up often, then?

Especially since you're allowed to - practically expected to - make the occasional mistake on that kind of journey. It's a lot easier to forgive Stark for taking a wrong step every now and then... though the whole Civil War thing is still horrifically in need of fixing.

Kazekage said...

It used to be a "thing" that coincided with IM's anniversary issues The three I immediately remember is IRON MAN #150 (Doom and Stark travel to Camelot, meet Merlin, fight ensues) and #250 (Doom and Stark end up in the far future, fight Iron Man 2020--sorta, but it's the kinda thing that should have been done ages ago--and most recently in IRON MAN: LEGACY OF DOOM (which . . .uh, has it's moments, but makes little to no sense.) But their chemistry and how they're played off each other covers over the ropier plot bits

You fix the whole Civil War thing by not Doing It In The Fist Place. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I'm surprised more hasn't been made of this, though - in fact, I might've liked Stark's recent fall from grace if Doom had orchestrated it rather than Osborn.

Well... at its core, there's an idea about the superhero community fracturing over an ideological dilemma, and how a government could/would function in a world of superheroes (and supervillains). It's an idea that could lead to some good stories. In the right hands. Not Millar's. :)

Kazekage said...

It would have made more sense, but since Quesada has a hardon for the dude in goblin booties, that's what we're stuck with.

Well, the problem with that is it's a noble idea and worth exploring, but it only works with any kind of power in stuff like Squadron Supreme, which itself only works because it ended definitively (more or less) there's little point of exploring it in a continuing superhero universe because it's nothing that'll last, as it "breaks" the concept to the degree it must be reset.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

And while I hesitate to analyze why Quesada likes what he likes, the question still needs to be asked: Norman Osborn? In 2009? Really?

But even with Squadron Supreme the divide was between superheroes and the people they protected. As for the status quo... I guess it depends on how you define a long-term change. I mean, very few things stick perpetually - at best some concepts survive the duration of a specific administration.

That aside, there's also the issue of the premise itself: plenty of critics have pointed out the X-books' utter failure to follow through with M-Day, and I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that "Wanda cast a magic spell" didn't quite work for writers who typically have a higher standard of storytelling, ie: Whedon, Brubaker, Carey and so on. So... I don't know, if the changes themselves had been executed properly, maybe there wouldn't be so much resistance to exploring the ramifications.

Kazekage said...

I don't understand Quesada at all, sometimes. This may sound unkind and like sour grapes, but I've never regarded him as a great artist (he's like the bastard child of Liefeld and Mignola) and none of his ideas seem at all forward looking. Which is odd since he was right there with Jemas at Marvel's most progressive.

There weren't though. If you read it, very quickly the Squadron, even in doing what's best for people, quickly become hated by them. For instance-- in trying to solve the problem of crime, they disarm everyone, including private citizens, and begin brainwashing criminals, which does curtail crime but in an extremely morally questionable fashion. And I say, if you do the right thing with questionable means, even the best of intentions are irrevocably tainted. So over the course of the story the Squadron actually moves into the position of adversary, I'd say.

Well, I'm not sure actually if the ramifications of the change were actually considered as such. If they didn't want to continue Morrison's sociological-ish approach, fine. Out of sight, out of mind. But forcing them down to -200 doesn't reset it back to default, it cripples the element of them being the next stage of evolution (which, like Claremont's latest angle on X-Men Forever, rather muddies the water somewhat) and reduces the conflicts between mutants to a dwindling population fighting over . . .well, not much, really.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

No, that's a fair assessment: I saw his Daredevil pinup for issue 500, and it was... well, ridiculously bulging muscles, conspitated facial expression, oddly-shaped torso: thoroughly retro, which is exactly the way he thinks. But I'm also having trouble reconciling his behavior now with the things he said during the Jemas years; in fact, I remember someone once confronted him with his own quote a few years back where he stated his disdain for variant covers and cheap gimmicks, and Quesada's response was something along the lines of "What, a guy can't change his mind?" Which misses the point on so many levels...

It's not so much about the adversarial position per se but rather the notion that a cohesive superhero team could be split down the middle over an ideological problem, though.

Probably not; I remember having this discussion with someone at the Critics, that Quesada's myopia tends to result in short-term event fallout that could never be sustained in the long run, ie: depowering mutants. And rather than try to iron out the kinks and figure things out, they just green-light another event, like a hysterical painter slapping on one coat of paint after another. The fact that most of the big characters depowered during M-Day were restored one way or another (Polaris, Xavier, Magneto, Quicksilver, etc.) says it all, really.

Kazekage said...

I think, to paraphrase Sam Peckinpah, Quesada is a good whore and goes where he's kicked. I've noticed a lot of folks, in the light of the Disney buyout, mentioning his cracking wise on DC for being "AOL Comics" and all that, but it's amazing how quickly that brashness vanished when Jemas left, eh?

Actually, while there is some friction within the Squadron, most of the malcontents end up leaving or dying and those who do remain end up forming an anti-Squadron, so while there is dissension within the team, it mostly expresses itself external to the team.

That's an apt metaphor, really--it does seem like these events just pile one on top of the other, trying to quickly paper over mistakes and move the train along so fast that ideally one doesn't have time to notice, but at the end of the day doesn't really make a great amount of sense, especially since, as you mentioned, none of the rules are all that hard and fast or consistent.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Which ultimately makes him useless, doesn't it? I mean, if he's just some transparent jellyfish floating wherever the currents take him, how can he purport to serve as a long-term showrunner? (The fact that the MU has nothing even remotely resembling a long-term plan probably answers that question.)

And that's why I'd hoped "Civil War" would be about government-backed superheroes deciding to kill their adversaries vs. superheroes actively protecting the bad guys from "unlawful" executions. There's so much you could explore there re: law vs. justice, and how Captain America and Wolverine can exist in the same universe without any inherent confrontation...

What's worse, the damned things are picking up speed, leaving only a few months between events. I have to admit, I'm looking forward to seeing that particular train slide right off the tracks.

Kazekage said...

I've been saying as much for years, sadly no one's listened. :) Yeah, the utter and total lack of a long term plan has at least been evident since. . .when? 2005? "No More Mutants?"

You could, but rather than do that, they decided it would be far better and far more sensible for Iron Man to be right about everything, despite the notable handicap of everything in the damn books up to that point not upholding that thesis at all

I'm just trying to step aside with it as quickly as possible, honestly. I'm finding the things unbearable, harmful to books that try to tie into it (Dark Reign's intrusion into Agents of Atlas is a key point in why the ongoing AoA ended up being an awful idea.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Oh, I know how that feels. Back when they announced the Return to AoA miniseries I started screaming to anyone in earsight that if they went and put down money for that, there'd be an Onslaught revival within five years. Lo and behold...

I know, right? That's one of the (many) things that drove people absolutely insane about "Civil War": there was an unbelievably huge gap between the story Millar et al seemed to have in their heads, where both sides had legitimate points, and what actually saw print, where Iron Man was about two steps away from screaming "DAMN YOU RICHAAAAAARDS!" with lightning crackling in the background.

I suppose I'm lucky my pull list has evaporated to such an extent that the worst I have to deal with is Necrosha... no Dark Reign for me, I bailed out on Fraction's run right before the current crossover started. I figure if there's really anything I need to know, Carey'll mention it sooner or later. Or, you know, recap pages.

Kazekage said...

I'm slightly worried now there may be an Apocalypse: The Twelve revival now. I mean, they DID reprint the damn thing . . .

And really, if it's going to end up that garbled and forced into place, I find myself asking "well, what's the point? The text doesn't support it so . . .what, I have to read an interview after the fact to work out what the hell that blithering nonsense was really all about? Man, screw that."

My pull list's about gone, as well, AoA's going and I'm not following it over when it becomes a backup strip. As to the rest, I can catch up at the newsstand or via Wikipedia. Comics have achieved the amazing station of making themselves mostly obsolete with me.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Well, as the saying goes, "If you buy it, they will come."

"Civil War" is notable in that even the interviews consisted of Epic Fail. Apparently Brevoort was going on and on about how Joss Whedon contributed to the conclusion of the story, except Whedon's scenario wasn't the one that got printed. :)

Webcomics are still going strong, though. So at least I'm still engaging the medium on some level...

Kazekage said...

And it's corollary "There are a lot of fools with money."

Lord I remember that. There seemed to be a lot of damage control in the wake of the end of Civil War, didn't there? Must've had something to do with it being very crap.

Oh yes. Thank heaven for Achewood, at the moment, because if I didn't have that, comics would be pretty much dead to me.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I think that was actually the moment where I started gradually distancing myself from the Marvel Universe. If a dozen editors and writers, and the EIC, can't get their heads together to deliver a post-game summary of whatever the hell happened in a comic they just published...

Order of the Stick doesn't appeal to you?

Kazekage said...

Well, it had lost me long before that point, but yeah, it didn't bode well, and strengthened a trend of allegedly world changing things just kind of pissing away into nothing.

I . . .haven't ever read it, I must say. I guess I should!

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

It starts off as your basic fantasy parody, riffing off D&D rules and the like... but somewhere between the first and second books it turns into so much more. They did a whole "siege" storyline a while ago that could blow Peter Jackson right out of the water. :)

Kazekage said...

Hmm . . .I wouldn't have guessed that, but now I'll definitely have to have a look.