Friday, 6 September 2013

Essential Iron Man volume 1

Monday sees the release of Iron Man 3 on DVD and Blu-ray. So it's a good time to take a look at his earliest adventures.

Essential Iron Man volume 1 contains the Iron Man strips from Tales of Suspense (another anthology series that later also featured Captain America) #39-72. All but one of the issues are at least plotted by Stan Lee who scripts most of them, with the debut issue scripted by Larry Lieber followed by seven scripted by "R. Burns" (Robert Bernstein) and a couple later on by "N. Korok" (Don Rico). Issue #68 is the Lee-less exception, written by Al Hartley. Most of the art is by Don Heck with three issues by Jack Kirby and two others by Steve Ditko. A bonus feature at the end highlights a couple of earlier versions of covers that were either used on different issues from the ones they seem to have been commissioned for or else which saw the villain's name changed, probably to comply with the Comics Code Authority.

Of all the main early Silver Age Marvel characters, Iron Man has long been one of my least favourites. I only seemed to pick up his series because of various crossovers and the "family" grouping of various titles and it often failed to inspire me. He was also absent from the main Avengers for some years when I started reading it. Perhaps it's because without the tragedy of Tony Stark's heart being kept going by a chestplate - and in those years he'd solved it with a transplant - and with his drinking problems largely conquered, what was left was a successful playboy businessman who had it all but suffered an obnoxious attitude. Now that may be a caricature but we are talking about the era of Force Works and the Crossing (I must have been one of the few readers of that latter saga whose biggest gripe was that Iron Man felt like an intruder on the current Avengers). However there must have been something that made the character popular in the first place and this volume was a revelation in showing what that was.

Who created Iron Man? It seems to be another case of multiple parties involved in coming up with the first issue and cover and most of them having bad memories. Jack Kirby drew the first cover and designed the armour; this seems to have predated the drawing of the actual strip which was entirely by Don Heck. Stan Lee came up with the plot but deadlines prevented him from scripting the issue. But all of that doesn't state for sure where the basic idea came from out of whatever conversations between whichever combination of Heck, Kirby or Lee. However Lee and Heck are the main forces on these early adventures, a rare series from the time without much involvement by Kirby or Steve Ditko. It's common to talk of Kirby and Lee as the Lennon and McCartney of Marvel comics. Does that make Ditko the George Harrison? Martin Goodman the Brian Epstein? (After all both Goodman and Epstein negotiated some terrible deals that paid the artists little.) And if such comparisons hold up, does this make Don Heck the Ringo Starr? Heck's artwork is often overlooked but he brings a clear distinctive style that manages to simultaneously show Iron Man's armour as big and tough but also dynamic enough to move and fight as needs be.

Has any Marvel Silver Age origin dated more than Iron Man's? It's relatively easy to fudge a minor detail in some of the others - the Fantastic Four could have any particular goal in space or the Hulk could be the product of weapons testing for any purpose (although replacing Communist agents with Skrull agents is perhaps not the best solution to one aspect) - whilst others are even more timeless - an arrogant surgeon trying to heal his hands by any means possible or a doctor discovering aliens and a magic weapon whilst on holiday just don't date at all. But Iron Man is different. It's hard to fudge away the jungle war Tony Stark is producing weapons for, or transform the Vietnamese guerrilla leader Wong-Chu into a non-Cold War figure. Later retellings have done what they can, but reading the original story it's much harder to filter out the dated elements. The story itself is straightforward though I do wonder why the North Vietnamese aren't monitoring Tony and Professor Yinsen more closely. It also shows a ruthless side to Iron Man that would be later toned down (give or take certain stories such as the Crossing) when he uses his oil and fire tools to ignite an explosives store and kill Wong-Chu. Now yes there is an armed conflict going on - I'm hesitant to use the term "war" for the United States's role during this period in Vietnam (early 1963) - but here we see the approach of a de facto soldier rather than the more traditional morality of a hero aided by a writer who usually finds some accident to permanently end such a foe.

However Iron Man's portrayal and personality is much more sympathetic than I was expecting. Tony Stark's life shown here focuses very much on his business and scientific concerns, with the playboy element rather sidelined, and the character is much more likable as a result. He may have his moments where he can appear dismissive or cruel to others, but we're never left in any doubt that this is because of his dedication to doing right as Iron Man and preserving his identity. But I do have to wonder if Stan Lee grew up being cruel to women as his well-meaning way of putting them off, as this is yet another series where the hero tries to discourage a woman's interest in him by pretending to be a nasty piece of works. It is repeatedly emphasised that Tony is trapped by the damage to his heart and reliant on his chest plate which could give out at any moment. When the strip began, the world's first heart transplant operation was over four years away and pacemaker technology was in its early stages. So it was credible that Tony had no real option but to rely on his chestplate to support his damaged heart (ignoring the science fiction and magic that meant the Marvel universe contains many healers who could have fixed it, though none appear here). Though the adventures were published in a time when comics were more chaste than now, the problem facing Tony if he ever wants to be intimate with somebody are all too clear.

After the first several issues feature no real supporting cast at all, issue #45 introduces the first two other significant cast members in the series - "Happy" Hogan and "Pepper" Potts. Happy Hogan is an ex-boxer who saves Tony's life when a racing car crashes, and is given a job as Tony's chauffeur. He rapidly proves quite loyal to Tony and is drawn to Pepper, but at first she has eyes elsewhere. Pepper Potts is another example of the working woman who falls for a man in her office, but is frankly rather cliched. In her first appearance on her first page she tells Happy of her attraction to Tony even though he doesn't know it "but some-day he will ... and then he'll give up all his actresses and debutantes... and I'll become Mrs. Anthony Stark!" By today's standards it's not exactly the best ambition to give the leading female character. It gets silly in one issue when she lies to Tony's date for the evening and pretends he's stood her up, in the hope he will take out Pepper instead. (He doesn't - he instead gives the tickets to Happy to take her.) Issue #50 sees her get a makeover in the hope of getting Tony to notice her. Is the message that a woman is only worth her looks? Pepper is freckled, a trait I share, yet her makeover includes covering them up. Again this is not the best message to send. We get a romance triangle between the three, a not uncommon arrangement, but on this occasion the hero feels he cannot have the woman and does what he can to push her Happy's way, even though it hurts him when he realises how much Happy means to Pepper. The volume ends with the situation reaching a climax when Happy, who has deduced Iron Man's identity, is nearly killed getting a vital weapon to him. Tony's absence and seeming disinterest upset Pepper and it seems she will finally choose Happy. The other main supporting cast member is Senator Byrd, presumably no relation to any real life Senators with that surname. A strong critic of Stark, he feels a playboy is unsuited for essential defence contracts and assumes the sabotage at the plants is the work of Stark himself, who may be a communist spy. A more minor character introduced at the end of the volume is Stephanie, the Countess De La Spiroza, one of Tony's many old flames who is angry at being stood up.

The early issues contain some surprising contradictions from other Marvel titles of the time. We get a character called Dr Strange - but he's a villain and no relation. We discover that Atlantis had sunk into the seabed and become an underground kingdom - rather than existing on the seabed as in the Fantastic Four stories. Maybe Robert Bernstein was Marvel's answer to Bob Haney, never letting continuity get in the way of a good story. Or maybe the concept of the Marvel Universe as an integrated whole didn't come together until a little later, and we're seeing the older pattern, more often associated with DC, of each individual series developing its own continuity and mythology without due regard for the rest of the line. Stan Lee's prolific scripting would have served to limit many of the differences (although he wasn't above forgetting individual points), but other scripters may have not felt bound to match series they weren't writing. The first sign of the wider Marvel Universe comes in issue #49, after Lee has taken over the full scripting, when we get a fight between Iron Man and the Angel of the X-Men with the rest of the team appearing. This is also the fist issue to reference Iron Man's membership of the Avengers. The first villains from another series to appear are the Chameleon and Kraven in the Hunter (both from the Amazing Spider-Man) in issue #58, followed by the Black Knight (from the Giant-Man strip in Tales to Astonish and also the Avengers), Attuma (from the Fantastic Four but also appearing in a number of other titles by now), Count Nefaria (from the Avengers) and the Mad Thinker (from the Fantastic Four).

But the series also debuts many new villains, though quite a few of them have been largely forgotten. Wong-Chu is generally only recalled for his role in the origin and others include Gargantus, the aforementioned Dr Strange, the Red Barbarian, the Actor, Kala Queen of the Netherworld (well actually an underworld), King Hatap the Mad Pharaoh, Mr Doll, the Phantom and Weasel Wills. But there's also the debut of several of Iron Man's better known foes including Jack Frost (although he would later adopt a different codename), the Crimson Dynamo (no less than two incarnations appear here), the Melter, the Mandarin, the Scarecrow, the Unicorn, Morgan Stark and the Titanium Man. We also get the first appearances of two villains who would soon switch sides. The Black Widow starts off as a femme fatale using her wits and looks to secure her objectives rather than an Emma Peel type female action agent, though after a year's worth of issues she undergoes intense training and becomes much closer to her more familiar modus operandi. Meanwhile Hawkeye begins life as an entertainer who is inspired to put his skills to other uses by seeing Iron Man, an origin detail shared with the Scarecrow, but on his first attempt to foil a crime he is mistake for an accomplice by the police and flees, then gets recruited as an ally by the Black Widow.

Amongst these foes there are a number of stock types seen in many other early Silver Age Marvel stories. Gargantus is a robot used by this series's set of aliens seeking to conquer Earth, and as with so many of their counterparts they decide again after assuming the hero they encounter is a typical example of the planet's inhabitants. The Actor is a master of disguise who can fool anybody, although he has more developed powers than the Chameleon did at the time. Kala is the ruler of a civilisation beneath the Earth's surface. Meanwhile the Mandarin conforms to a stereotype from broader fiction - the tall, specially skilled, evil Oriental criminal mastermind - at one point Iron Man even calls him an "imitation Fu Manchu". And he's not the first Marvel supervillain in this mould though I doubt many of the original audience could remember the Yellow Claw who had a very briefly lived series some seven years earlier. Another influence may be the Bond villain Dr No - both he and the Mandarin have half-Chinese, half-European parentage and, in the Bond novel at least, were raised by aunts. And, this time as in the film, the Mandarin is explicitly stated to be an independent operative with little care for the political conflict around him (though he's not adverse to working for hire for the Chinese Communists) so he has the potential to outlast the Cold War. There are indications that the Mandarin will become Iron Man's archenemy but at this stage he has to outlast a surprising competitor.

The origin story may have dated badly but so too has another aspect of this story. There is a lot of anti-Communism, on a scale far greater than just about any other Marvel series. Both the Soviet Union and China are behind a number of villains and there are many attempts made to neutralise either Tony and/or Iron Man. Maybe it was natural that a hero who is a successful businessman and weapons manufacturer would be the automatic counterpoint, but there's very little actual explanation as to what Communism actually is beyond a banner unifying the Soviets and Chinese. Occasionally the words "freedom" and "democracies" are used to describe the West but otherwise the Communists could frankly be just about any state declared the enemy of the day. Khruschev himself appears in the strip from time to time, although he's not explicitly named when appearing on panel but sometimes referred to or called "Comrade K" or "the 'Mr. Big' of the Iron Curtin". Was this a way of sidestepping legal action? Whatever the reason, the leading Communist is shown personally ordering actions against Stark and/or Iron Man, threatening the Black Widow's parents in order to bring her loyalties back in mind and worrying about any agents growing in popularity. Issue #64 demonstrates one danger of this approach as it appears to have been drawn before Khruschev's fall but was scripted afterwards and has to establish that the Black Widow was given her training and orders before the change in the Soviet leadership. Wisely Brezhnev is never shown after this.

How come almost nobody figures out Iron Man's identity? It isn't until issue #56 that it's established he has the role of Tony Stark's bodyguard. Before then Iron Man is presented as a friend of Tony's but he shows up all too quickly whenever the factory is attacked. Iron Man is very free with first person pronouns when speaking about Tony's property, but nobody picks up on this. Happy eventually guesses why Iron Man and Tony are never seen at the same time, a coincidence that eludes everyone else, but is wounded before he can explain just how he spotted it.

Overall I was surprised at how enjoyable this series is. It may be heavily dated with all the Communists and references to Vietnam, and I'd be fascinated to see how latter day retcons and reimaginings have tackled that problem, but the central character is a much more sympathetic and likeable person than he's been portrayed at times in later years. Nor does he come across like a Batman clone - they may both be rich playboy businessmen but very different aspects are emphasised and so Iron Man feels like a legitimate alternate take on the archetype rather than a knock-off. Don Heck has been unfairly neglected but this volume shows how good his work was and together with the writing the series holds up quite well today.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...