Is there any greater friend for lovers of rare backlist comic issues than a tie-in movie? When the first movie comes out you get all the universally agreed upon "great" stuff collected because it usually ties in directly with the movie. If you're lucky and you get a second movie, some much less likely stuff comes out, especially if it relates to an ancillary character.
By the third movie, all the good stuff has been put in print, and all the vaguely relevant stuff has been published, so if you're a superhero without a very deep "bench" of classic stories to draw from . . .the pickings get a bit slim.
It is under those circumstances, that I find myself reviewing Iron Man 2020, the damnedest crazy-quit collection of stories put under one trade paperback cover in some time.
Iron Man 2020 (or Arno Stark if you're nasty) is an odd character. Conceived initially in the early 80's as "What if Iron Man were a huge bastard and had a nasty mustache IN THE FUTURE" he's survived as a very minor footnote in Iron Man history largely because he looks really fucking cool, and existed as a sort of cautionary fable for how Iron Man the hero of now could be corrupted later on when it's passed to the younger generation and the world's all gone a bit Blade Runner.
The problem is, is that Iron Man 2020 is pretty much only a cool costume with nothing in it. Given that Iron Man's default characterisation is "raging asshole," the notion that he'll eventually mutate into a bastard seven years from now really isn't that big a deal, and so we're left with a cool suit of armour (that no one save the person who designed it seems overly fussed about getting on-model) and a future Stark whose mustache is 50 percent John Waters, and 50 Percent Salvador Dali, with a little Neil Peart from 1970s Rush in there somewhere.
It's an amazing 'tache, people.
There's no point in talking much about Iron Man 2020's character--he doesn't really have one apart from "Tony Stark, but more of a dick, and also he's a bigot against robots" and he whipsaws from conception to conception and motivation to motivation through the stories in this volume, and seeing as how I've blathered on so much we're half a page down, let's just dive right n.
The book begins with Amazing Spider-Man Annual #20, and if you're all like "whaaat," my response is "exactly." Iron Man 2020 (referred to as 2020 from here on in) returns from the future to find a kid who will blow up everything 30 years hence. Spider-Man shows up and misunderstands, thinking that present-day Iron Man has gone rogue (something 2020 never bothers to correct him about by talking to him and also by cold-bloodily vaporizing the Blizzard. Don't worry, they got another. Several, actually.) 2020 fails spectacularly in this because the whole thing pivots on an ontological paradox (2020 causes the problem he solves by getting the kid injured on account of being a jackass) Oh, and also, 2020 built a doomsday bomb out of used pinball machine parts and y'know, I'm really not sure why Spider-Man was even in this story.
Mark Beachum draws this issue, and as you'd expect, it's full of ass shots. The man knows what he likes and works in in liberally. You may be more surprised to know that most of the ass shots are of Spider-Man, which is frankly more of a twist than the story he's illustrating.
Also: Spidey could apparently crack walnuts between his mighty glutes.
We go from there to 2020's first appearance (no, seriously, that's how the book is laid out) 1984's Machine Man #1-4. Man, what an odd book this is. Machine Man gets rebuilt in the far-flung future of seven years from now, when apparently living in THE FUTURE has made everyone look ri-goddamned-diculous. Sunset Bain, frequent also-ran villainess hires 2020 to fight Machine man and help break up this hacker group that found and rebuilt Machine Man.
It's all a bit thin, story-wise. On the plus side, it looks friggin' great, with the unlikely duo of Herb Trimpe and Barry Windsor-Smith doing something quite far outside their comfort zones. However ropey the whole thing is, at four issues it's sufficiently briskly paced that one has little time to dwell on how little impression it makes before it's over and done with. And yes, BWS is the only one who seems to be able to draw 2020's armour consistently correct.
Slight as it is, though, this is the high point of the collection. Everything after . . .well, it gets weird.
Our next stop is Death's Head #10, featuring the first of quite a few Simon Furman written stories in this book, with art by Bryan Hitch, still in his "Alan Davis understudy" phase. It's a typical story of Death's Head fighting 2020 for a bit and then they team up, but Furman plays it as completely ridiculous, and that really makes this story the most enjoyable in the book, believe it or not.
The next book is an odd duck. The not quite one-shot/not quite graphic novel Iron Man 2020, written by Walt Simonson and drawn by Bob Wiacek and William Rosado was kinda dropped into stories in the early 90's with no fanfare to speak of and . . .yeah, I don't get it at all. It attempts to try to create a kind of redemptive arc for 2020, who, it is revealed over the course of a hostage rescue that turns into a typical early 90's race to stop the most dangerous computer virus in all creation, is being manipulated by a still-alive Tony Stark into being slightly less of a shithead.
It's . . .well, kind of mediocre, really. But not due to the fault of the the creators--it's written clearly enough and drawn well enough, the problem is . . .well, everyone's the same kind of asshole in the story and it's not really possible to find anyone to invest any emotion in, never mind root for. It's a problem comics struggle with today, as so much seems to be bastards fighting assholes, that really, who gives a shit?
Anyways, we again whipsaw through publication dates with a five-part story from Astonishing Tales (which I believe premiered digitally first before being collected as a book ) "The Endless Stolen Sky": which features 2020 (resplendent in a newer version of his armour which has some good bits to it, but seems to be one of those designs that looks good from one angle only) trying to launch another lucrative business venture (apparently helicarrier tech is gonna be huge in the next decade) and someone else is after him for revenge and at the end of it 2020 decides he's gonna put his REAL PLAN into operation . . .yeah. If it feels a bit familiar, that's because THIS SEEMS TO BE THE ONLY STORY ANYONE CAN TELL WITH HIM and after three or four variations on this theme, it starts to feel a bit punishing.
Again--it's OK. It occasionally has some cool wrinkles (Jessica Drew being head of SHIELD, 2020's army of Extremis-enhanced babies in jars) the art's good and the whole thing moves at a pretty fast clip, but after you've read this particular tale THREE TIMES . . .one might be too numb to appreciate it all properly.
Thankfully, the button at the end of this collection is a pretty good one that brings us full-circle and is substantially different than what we've just seen. What If #53 asks the question "What If Iron Man 2020 was stranded in the past?" after the events of the Amazing Spider-Man annual. It's a pretty decent story that tied in with events in Iron Man's book circa issue #290--2020 gets roped in with Morgan Stark (Tony's no-good cousin who occasionally pops up when people remember Tony Stark has a no-good cousin) and they make a power play for Stark's company and kill War Machine, because no What If issue is a proper What If issue without a body count of some sort. It's a thin story and kinda rushes through itself, but it has a decent twist and isn't that bad really.
It's written by Simon Furman and drawn by Manny Galan, and yes, I'm pretty stunned this isn't a Transformers issue myself, actually.
In all, I don't regret buying the book--if anyone's liable to buy 400 pages of Iron Man continuity backwaters it's probably me--but I can't pretend it's for anyone other than the most die-hard completist. Looking over these stories it's plain to see that 2020 was really never meant to be anything more than a one-shot character done as a lark, but was brought back based on having a cool visual hook. The trouble is, I don't think they ever managed to give him much beyond that,