Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Siena Blazeout--Term which describes a character who debuts with a theoretically awesome power (for example--let's say they can blow up the world or something like that.) which, if used, would drastically alter the status quo of the book, which is, of course, never going to change that permanently.
Meaning you have an allegedly badass character whose actually something of a glass cannon.
This fact gets played up more in subsequent appearances, as they continue to fail to do the one thing that would make them badass. Eventually their "blow up the world" power gets permutated into "generic plot-conventient energy power" or . . .
Or they just keep getting brought back after all their heat is gone.
Though this could apply equally to Apocalypse or Mikhail Rasputin, this one's named after the original originator, of course.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
So, ten years into the Ultimate Universe, and all I really know about it is that the writers got to do whatever they wanted, they got to swear more, they're killing the whole thing off under the man who is kryptonite to decent writing, Jeph Loeb, and in the end it all feels like a terrifically long issue of What If where the premise was What If All Superheroes Acted Like Assholes Most Of The Time?"
It seems to be contagious, this consideration of the Ultimate line. Witness Steven Grant's latest column:
Basically, what always goes wrong. Not long ago I read in interview with the late Charles Biro, writer-illustrator-editor at Lev Gleason Comics in the '40s-'50s, architect of their line and creator of the incredibly successful CRIME DOES NOT PAY. In the mid-40s, Gleason Comics were burning up the newsstands and routinely outselling DC, Timely (Marvel), Fawcett etc. on the strength of four comics: DAREDEVIL (recently reincarnated as Death-Defying Devil in Dynamite's new superhero line), BOY COMICS, CRIME DOES NOT PAY and its sister publication, CRIME & PUNISHMENT. They made plenty of money and it was all the work Biro could handle, but Gleason looked at the accounts receivable and figured that if four books made that much money, eight books would bring in twice as much.
Not surprisingly, Gleason was dead wrong, though it's a conclusion most people in his position, especially in comics, tend to jump to."
I gotta be honest, both make quite the strong case.
Friday, June 26, 2009
Like, say, a particular favourite Iron Man issue or something.
Trouble is, they're a bit thin on the ground. Good Iron Man stories, like the defining moments of his canon, aren't as many as you'd think, considering he's been in constant publication for 40 years and all that. And, as DC fans can attest, all too often, one finds that they like their favourite comics characters in any format except the comics they're actually appearing in, which is as sad a commentary on anything as you're likely to find.
That said, today's topic is Iron Man. The movie. Otherwise known as the one time in the last 10 years Iron Man hasn't totally sucked wind. Very much the Goldfinger to The Dark Knight's Casino Royale, Iron Man is a film that exemplifies the best of and revels in the conventions of the superhero movie and treats the whole thing as the coolest thing ever (Compare with Dark Knight, which blew up the superhero movie as we knew it and showed us heretofore unexplored potential)
It didn't always look like it was going to work--It was an origin story, which in most cases (and in Iron Man's case in particular) origin stories are usually the dreariest and least interesting parts of a superhero's makeup--the best ones usually get it over with as soon as possible and get on with the whammo blammo action as well. Moreover, once again we're stuck with Tony Stark=wounded heart trope, but the movie ears some points by justifying it with probably-bullshit-but-gets-the-job-done-science and getting a little metaphorical weight out of it, and Pepper Potts is in the movie as well. Couple that with the fact that the powers that be had been doing everything in their power to make the character obnoxious and unlikeable for so very long . . .well, it didn't look good.
And, if I'm honest, there are parts that don't work. Pepper Potts is a nonentity, Jim Rhodes is annoying and generally useless (Terence Howard's performance doesn't help matters--he's fussy and awfully lacking in gravitas for someone who's supposed to be a military man) Pepper Potts is her usual ciphery self and the whole fight with Stane and the Iron Monger feels a bit . . .perfunctory.
But it also does two things very right, an this helps paper over the less successful bits.
For one thing, Favreau and company have an excellent handle on Tony Stark's character. The slight but very beneficial change to his origin (that one of his own fragmentation bombs is what nearly kills him) adds a certain thematic unity to his story that, surprisingly, no one had really exploited up to now--having been a victim of what he's been selling to everyone opens his eyes and reawakens his conscience.
But more than that, the film posits that Stark is brilliant . . .but lacks a natural focus for his talents. When we first meet him he's successful, but a little rudderless. Everything's come so easy to him that he seems almost bored with his life.
But he soon gets the kick in the pants he needs. To save his life, he miniaturizes the Arc Reactor and creates and artificial heart--a feat so amazing that Stane's people can't replicate it later. He's compelled to be brilliant to save his life, and that structure of action and Stark's reaction to it defines the shape of the movie.
The need to escape his captors without building weapons for them leads to the creation of the Iron Man armour. And it's his assumption of the responsibility for the weapons he's built that leads him to refine and improve the Iron Man armour. Now that his eyes are opened, and the weapons that he though were making the world safer are having the opposite effect, he is resolved to take responsibility (we're back in Armour Wars territory again) whatever the cost to his life.
"I shouldn't be alive," Stark says in a justification for what he's doing. "Unless it was for a reason."
The other success the movie pulls off is by picking the right guy to play Stark. I made the comparison to Goldfinger above (basically because it's universally considered to be the "perfect" Bond movie for how it hits every detail of the formula) and surely as Sean Connery holds that movie together with a relaxed sense of cool, so too does Downey as Stark. That he makes such a compelling hero without the obvious "badass" tics we've grown so used to (and actually, in several moments plays the fool) without losing the audience's sympathy is actually quite an amazing trick, when you think about it. The tone he sets, actually, keeps the movie fun without degenerating into Batman & Robin-esque camp.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the film score (I'm kind of a soundtrack geek) I'm a sucker for the whole motif of "have various tracks foreshadow the main theme here and there and when the time comes for the Crowning Moment of Awesome, bang in the full theme in as loud and triumphant as possible," which works to great effect here when Iron Man takes off in the Mark II the first time & again when he takes out the terrorists in Gulmira in the Mark III.
The film managed to be more than the sum of its parts, and if it ultimately doesn't measure up to Dark Knight it's because it's a bit conventional by comparison isn't it. But, when weighed against the fact that getting an even passable Iron Man story in the comics in which he originated takes something on the order of a Herculean labour, it's quite an achievement on its own.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Matt Fraction is a writer with quite the high pedigree. Coming off collaborating with Ed Brubaker on Immortal Iron Fist, and having cut his teeth on the little read but highly regarded book The Order, he seemed to be due for high-visibility assignments.
And so, it was announced in 2008 that he would not only be taking over the writing on Uncanny X-Men and, perhaps more prestigious in light of the movie, Invincible Iron Man.
And didn't Iron Man need some help, at least in comics. Bad as the Extremis nonsense had damaged his character, being hijacked as the public face (and, if you're to believe the people who wrote Civil War) of government-run superheroing. This set the seal on Iron Man as manque for Bush-era politics, or, to put it another way, made him come off as a right prick.
So, Iron Man was ripe for a new start, preferably one that actually got him in the business of being Iron Man again and doing superhero things rather than furrowing his brow at monitors and acting prickish and Fraction, it seemed, was the right guy to do it. Added to that, Marvel had retained the services of Salvador Larocca, a talented artist used to doing good work under less than idea circumstances, so it was widely felt that even if the book was shite, it'd look good.
Alas, this was not to be. It took less than 5 issues for the whole thing to be revealed as an incredibly half-baked, ill-conceived mess, and Fraction became much less "promising new writer" and more "disappointment delivery system."
Initially, by soft-pedaling the Civil War nonsense and focusing Iron Man not being a jackass kind of worked. The first few issues take up Star's conflict with Ezekiel Stane, son of Obadiah Stane, who had been taking and modifying Stark's technology to create suicide bombers. Moreover, Stane the Younger has modified his own body to generate powers comparable to Iron Man's.
The stage was set for an interesting conflict and the concretising of the metaphor--was Iron Man obsolete? Both in terms of his technology and worldview? Was Stane--and people like him--part of a new generation of super-criminals who, if not play rougher (there's that pesky realism, again) play a different and more involved game than the traditional "Spy vs. Spy" style shenanigans of of hero and villain.
That would have been an interesting story, but that's not what we got.
What we got was Stane shouting a bunch of cool sounding buzzwords at Stark and never really making much of an impression as a villain. Meanwhile, Iron Man behaved completely passively for most of the storyline until he twigged it all out in the last issue (the comic equivalent of Five Minutes to the End Syndrome) and set up a fistfight between himself and Stane that he won, and which I'm sure was supposed to be positively dripping with symbolic weight, but came off more as perfunctory and more than a little stupid.
Oh yes, and Pepper Potts got a cool glowy heart thing because . . .uh . . .well, that's what happened in the movie. More on that later.
Worse yet, it wasn't even visually impressive, as Larocca had changed his style to some uninspired attempt a photo realism that, when combined by the absolutely ugly colouring made everyone's face look ruddy and burnished as though they'd all been shellacked. Reading it is like a brutally ugly journey into the Uncanny Valley and the worst kind of Greg Land inspired crap art I have ever seen, doubly so because Larocca can do so much better than this and, for some reason, chooses not to.
But the proverbial "fix" is in--time and again in Invincible, Fraction raises interesting questions and fails to do anything with them. Or resolve his plots with anything like the appropriate cathartic moment. Or write Tony Stark as anything like a compelling characters. Or very little good at all, actually.
Unfortunately, things only get worse from here. After an utterly pointless detour with Spider-Man, we leap ahead a little and, in the wake of the latest crossover, Tony Stark has Screwed Up Big Time. His technology's been ruined, and the Extremis armour doesn't work anymore (good riddance) oh, and a guy who once tried to sacrifice people to actual goblins is in charge of everything.
This took a bit of work to figure out, as none of it is laid out in the proper detail in the book's recap page, nor is it laid out in any of the book's many enervating dialogue scenes. However, consulting Wikipedia (which costs nothing for me, and therefore sort of negates the need to buy the book at all) leads me to conclude that Tony Stark has some vital information in his brain, and to make sure it's completely lost he's . . .lobotomised himself. Or something. Meanwhile, with the Extremis armour useless, he has to refurbish older Iron Man suits (of which there are a lot, despite the fact that frequently, Iron Man features Stark destroying his old or purloined technology to keep it from falling into the wrong hands) all of which fall apart so he can use another one next issue and somehow, Norman Osborn finds an Iron Man suit (Despite many stories of the past explicitly showing Iron Man's willingness to destroy his technology rather than see it fall into the wrong hands--I mean Armour Wars is basically about that very thing, and it just came out in trade again you could just read the damn thing) and Stark builds Pepper Potts an Iron Man suit of her own, which has no weapons and has boobs (because obviously, giving a complete neophyte something as sophisticated and potentially destructive as Iron Man armour is exactly what the Armour Wars was . . .y'know what? Screw it.)
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is when I quit the book. Got tired of it, got pissed at it, got tired of being pissed at it. Tired of Fraction half-assing his way through things, tired of Larocca's ghastly art, tired of the book constantly reacting to crossover bullshit they couldn't bother to coherently explain, tired of Pepper Potts and the effort to convince me that Pepper Potts is anything but useless, and most of all, unwilling to pay $4 for a book so slapdash that even the paid ads disappointed me on some deeply felt but undefinable level.
In short, I would rather I had not read this book.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
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.
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.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
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.
Monday, June 22, 2009
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?
Sunday, June 21, 2009
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.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Try to guess which one this is, kids!
Hive-Mind Fallacy--Term given to a certain passive-aggressive twitch common among comics fans. It goes a little something like this:
"Comics fans, you disappoint me, Captain Britain and M-13 was absolutely brilliant and you ASSHOLES didn't buy it and now they're canceling it for . . .I don't know, another Wolverine book maybe, and it's All Your Fault. Well done, Team Comics. Well done."
That this fallacy pivots on the idea that 1) everyone who reads comics thinks exactly the same (which would be true if we were all, say, Cybermen) 2) People will buy comics they may not necessarily like because It's Good For Comics (in the age of $4 for one comic this is the kind of profligacy that probably only makes sense if snorting rails of coke off a hooker's crack with a rolled up $50 bill is "making your money work for you") and 3) One ignores what Steven Grant articulated two weeks back, that Captain Britain has historically been rather naff.
So . . .yeah. Kids, say no to peer pressure. Especially if it involved Pete Wisdom. Because really, fuck that guy.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Saturday, June 6, 2009
Publication Inertia--Term to describe a moment in a title's existence when, for lack of anything even remotely like a direction is lacking and yet it continues to be published for faintly little reason that it sells enough above the cancellation line to justify itself.
Notable examples of this would be X-Factor from issue 24 to about 70, which were so inconsequential and so deadly dull that it seemed the only reason that there was a new issue of X-Factor on the stands was because a new issue of X-Factor was on the schedule that month--no more, no less.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Not stupidly, of course. One of my favourite pastimes is to read horrible comic books in the bookstore, and put them back without paying for them. It's a good system, I think--$4 in the name of flagellation-by-comics is ridiculous anyway (as such we as consumers are surely required to try before we buy, I think) and it's something John Byrne once equated to "stealing." That means not only do I save money, not only do I satisfy my need to be disappointed by my formerly favourite things, but I also metaphorically spit in Byrne's eye every time I do it.
That's rather fun.
However, in any system, it is inevitable that in any allegedly "perfect" system, something will come up to perfectly screw it up. Whether by random chance or just general bloodymindedness on Marvel comic's part, they have managed to create a comic that is so awful, so dismal, and so wrong that I even feel bad reading it for free.
That book? Hulk.
Hulk is a curious book in that it doesn't really bother with dealing with the titular character. No, apparently for this series, Marvel have taken the curious step of having the main character barely be in his own title, but when he is in his own title, he's fairly often repeatedly punked out and shown to be fairly ineffectual, and when you consider that for most of his publication history, the Hulk has been portrayed as a super-powered retard, that's quite a feat.
But Hulk is not a title about the Hulk anymore apparently, it's about this guy, who's very name ("Red Hulk") encapsulates the the thick fudgy coating of laziness and idiocy that coats this book like the failure sundae that it is. They couldn't even give the guy a name that didn't scream "distaff version of an existing character."
The pull-quote for this series should be "Red Hulk beats the hell out of the entire Marvel Universe, and the Marvel Universe obligingly jobs like a bitch for him. Also we're supposed to care about this big mystery of who the Red Hulk is."
Needless to say, no one really does. Because this comic is written by Jeph Loeb, and well . . .join me over here in the next paragraph, would you?
Jeph Loeb is an incredibly successful writer in the field of comics, and has been for some time. That he has become a success despite the notable handicap of being an objectively terrible writer, and a writer who makes plot decisions that range from "ill-advised" to "batshit crazy" to "OH COME THE HELL ON, YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME." Not surprisingly, he is responsible for more than many comics reviewers to have curious moments of what can only be described as Sudden Onset Tourette's Syndrome.
But never mind that. Why, you ask, is this man successful?
Well, for two reasons: One, he worked in Hollywood, and due to the peculiar self-loathing that persistently infects the comics industry, that automatically sets him about the stupid unwashed peons who only worked ever worked in comics and is treated as royalty and carried by palanquin everywhere he goes. The logic goes something like this: He can't be terrible because he worked in a real medium. (Whatever that means.)
Second, Loeb has a habit of attaching himself to a "hot" artist's project and basically writing it to suit whatever the artist wants to draw. He then takes credit for the success of the book, despite not doing much of anything save setting 'em up so the artist can knock them down.
Despite the glorious nature of his talent and his magnanimosity in bringing it to the wretched comics industry. Loeb is not a writer of great variety. Here's a short sample of his greatest hits:
1. Hero fights nearly every member of their rogue's gallery. This is his most successful "let's placate the artist" tactic. Issue by issue, whether it makes a great deal of sense, the hero fights every damn member of his rogue's gallery not because it makes a great amount of sense in the larger plotline but because the artist wants to draw the whole rogue's gallery, dammit. See Hush
2. The head-scratching retcon/Origin Occlusion. Whether reducing Shatterstar's origin to nigh-unintelligible gibberish (and when you consider we're talking about a character Rob Liefeld created, that's no mean feat) saying Wolverine is actually from a long-lived race of werewolves, Loeb can always be counted on that if he must tell you that everything you thought you knew was wrong, he will replace it with "everything you know now is stupid."
3. The mystery that isn't a mystery. Let's say Whateverman meets a character that we've never seen but apparently was a longtime childhood friend that we apparently just never got to meet in his 70-year publication history. As this friend hangs around in the background and does very little while a concerted attack from Whateverman's rogues gallery indicates a vast, organised conspiracy against Whateverman. Despite being ruled out several times (and because he's the most obvious suspect and it's an utter cheat) it turns out the Formerly Unknwown Best Friend is the puppet master behind it all. Maybe. Sort of--one of the hallmarks of Loeb's mysteries is that they don't "resolve" as much as slowly collapse like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, possibly because they aren't planned much beyond the next shocking twist. See Hush, and the damn Red Hulk.
4. Madness. See: Superman/Batman's second arc, which started out as what I assume was intended as an attempt to reintroduce Supergirl (as a deeply, intensely unlikeable character that the reader was expected to love) and for the late Michael Turner to draw as many DC characters as possible with some horrific kind of body dysmorphic disorder. It ended up with Superman sounding a lot like a paedophile. Hilarity ensued.
Whoops--not hilarity. Discomfort.
5. This brand-new character who is so damn awesome and will now be shoved down the reader's throat. DC has Hush, who manages to be a brilliant, hyper-competent villain who can take on Batman, manipulate his rogues' gallery, and make beans on toast all without ever being interesting or in any way compelling. Marvel has the Red Hulk, who, despite being "a vicious, cunning, hyper-powerful force of nature" is basically a big dude who has skin like the Kool-Aid Man and takes time out from being a cunning superpowered badass to paint his fingernails and toenails with black nail polish (seriously--what the hell?) Rather than the reader deciding these characters are worthwhile or interesting or cultivating the interest or demand to see them again, we just have issue after issue of them thudding about while people tell us how awesome/dangerous they are in the best Informed Attribute fashion.
Hulk has elements of all of these, but mostly the "shove the character down the reader's throats" and the "mystery that isn't a particularly good/fair/well thought out/thought out at all" Basically in the fifty or however many issues it feels like of this book that have come out the Red Hulk beats up some Marvel big gun so the rest of the cast can get their panties in a wad about how dangerous he is and say "My God, the Red Hulk is the most dangerous foe we've ever faced!" Just in case we missed that the first time.
And it sells through the roof. America has spoken.
Only time will tell whether this or the KFC Famous Bowl is the more dismaying indicator of the direction of civilisation as we know it.