Friday, 19 September 2014

Essential Iron Man volume 2

Essential Iron Man volume 2 consists of the Iron Man strips from Tales of Suspense #73-99 and Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1 (the one-shot that bridged the transition from shared anthologies to solo titles), then Iron Man #1-11 and also the Sub-Mariner story from Tales to Astonish #82 that forms part of one of the earliest Marvel crossovers if not the very first between separate titles. The first issue is atypical, being a rush job written by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas and using a lot of inkers and/or pencillers. Once back to normal Lee writes every issue until #98 and then Archie Goodwin writes the rest of the volume. The Tales to Astonish story is plotted by Lee and scripted by Roy Thomas. Most of the art is a run by Gene Colan, initially under his pseudonym of Adam Austin but soon under his own name, followed by turns by Johnny Craig and then George Tuska. The Tales to Astonish story is drawn by a combination of Colan and Jack Kirby.

The reproduction quality in this volume is generally good but there are some pages that make me wonder about how the material was sourced given how little original master material from the late 1960s survives. This volume was originally released in 2004, before the Masterworks had got to any of these issues, and the budget for the Essentials at the time generally didn't run to full-scale remastering of entire volumes. Some of the pages have panels of different quality and on occasion panels with colour burnt in as greyscale share a page with straightforward black and white panels. My best guess is that a lot of the material is drawn from later reprints that hacked about with the pages. As far as I can determine the last US reprints of most of these issues prior to this volume coming out had been the reprint titles Marvel Super-Heroes and Marvel Double Feature plus at least one fill-in reprint in Iron Man itself, all in the 1970s at a time when page counts were reduced and reprints sometimes cut pages. However between them those books don't seem to have covered every single issue included here and I don't know if it was the practice at the time to trim out individual panels. I'm also not sure if the holdings for reprint titles from 1970 are substantially better than for original issues from 1968. Details of foreign reprints are much harder to come by on the net but tales of pages being cut up and panels resized or removed would fit some of the results here. It's a mystery to ponder but it doesn't detract from the readability of these issues.

These issues show Iron Man at his best but also his most vulnerable. Several times his power supply runs low and he suffers heart attacks, showing just how close to death he is. Yet it raises the question about how a man who is both a great designer and the owner of a large technological corporation is unable to come up with a rather more effective set of long lasting batteries. Otherwise he continues to face a variety of foes and situations both in the armour and out of it with those around him. At one point he's taken to hospital with an attack and it's revealed he wears a chest plate, leading to public speculation that Tony Stark is Iron Man but he gets by with help from others.

The supporting cast has quite a bit of turnover here. Early on there's a continuation of the Tony-Pepper-Happy romantic triangle but eventually Pepper and Happy elope to get married and largely fade out of the series. However before then Happy is twice transformed into a monster dubbed "the Freak" whom Iron Man has to subdue. Happy has also now learnt Iron Man's secret identity and loyally protects it but unfortunately the moment when he tells Tony this takes place off panel. However Tony and Happy agree for the latter to make some token appearances in the Iron Man armour whilst the former is publicly in hospital, though it leads to Happy's capture by the Mandarin. Given all this and Pepper's dismay at Tony's absences when Happy is injured, it's not too surprising they largely drop away. Tony continues dating a large number of woman who on more than one occasion turn up in the crowds watching trouble at the factory in scenes that reminded me of the Chilean miners of a few years ago. However the women all seem to be aware of each other's existence and tolerate the situation. Later on Tony finds a mutual attraction with Janice Cord, the daughter of a rival inventor and owner who is driven by a jealousy of Tony. Janice is also considering selling her business to be integrated into Stark Industries, but there are hints her lawyer is up to something more. The series also features the first connections between Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D. when the spy organisation places agent Jasper Sitwell at Stark Industries to provide extra protection for the weapons given multiple attacks and Iron Man's frequent absences. At first it seems Sitwell is just a naive kid, spouting all the slogans but seemingly clueless. However he regularly shows a much greater skill and intelligence than anticipated. Even when dating Whitney Frost and seemingly oblivious to the fact the woman is using him to find the factory's weak points he is in fact setting a trap. Meanwhile Senator Byrd has now acquired the first name "Harrington", making obvious the connection to either the-then real life Senator for Virginia Harry Byrd or his predecessor, father and namesake, but I'm not familiar with either's career to say whether the portrayal's similarities go beyond the name. Throughout the early part of the volume Byrd continues his committee's investigations into Stark Industries, even when advisers it could cost him re-election, and his actions briefly lead to Stark Industries being shut down, but Byrd abandons his pursuit after Iron Man saves the day against the Titanium Man in Washington DC and only reluctantly resumes them when Tony is framed as a Communist collaborator.

Although the propaganda has declined from the first volume, there are still some quite overt moments. I was surprised to see Iron Man visiting Vietnam in issues #92-94, originally published in mid 1967. Although the primary focus is on a return appearance by the Titanium Man, the story also contains some rather unsubtle propaganda as we meet Half-Face, a Vietnamese inventor whose work rivals Tony Stark's and whose face was deformed whilst working on weapons. Half-Face's story comes with tragedy as we hear how the Communist authorities forced him to leave his wife and child to work for the state. Later on he and the Titanium Man are under orders to destroy a village, kill the inhabitants and make it look like the work of American bombers. Half-Face turns against his masters when he realises he would have caused the death of his own wife and child but for Iron Man saving them, and so deserts Communism pledging to work for "freedom". This story would have been published just at the point when opinion polls on the war found support dropping below 50% permanently. Whereas the flag wearing side of Tales of Suspense (Captain America) had largely avoided Vietnam altogether, the capitalist and arms manufacturing side was still pushing the message that North Vietnam was run by a bad regime that needed to be removed and the Americans were the ones to do it. And Iron Man has come to the country not out of connection to his origin (which isn't mentioned at this stage despite the obvious potential for comparison with Half-Face's) but apparently to test a new design of shell that Tony Stark has developed. Though this is a cover for the military really wanting him to deal with Half-Face, it does not disguise that Stark is an active player in the conflict. Was this Marvel making a bold political statement about where it stood on the most controversial question of the day? Or was it a victim of timing, with a story prepared months earlier now appearing to miss the prevailing mood? Another story sees a Communist dictator of a Caribbean island, who is all but named as Fidel Castro, have a scientist develop and consume a strength formula and the result is the beast known as the Crusher, but the focus of the story is very much on action rather than on justifying US foreign policy against Cuba.

The Mandarin pops up several times with a variety of schemes and weapons, including both Ultimo, a giant robot buried in a volcano, and later a robot of the Hulk. On more than one occasion the Mandarin finds out Iron Man's identity but is fooled by a variety of impostor methods such as having Happy in the armour or using Life Model Decoy robots to allow Iron Man and Tony Stark to be seen in two places at the same time, as well as a disguise under the helmet. One scheme involves faking photographs to make it look as if Tony is collaborating with the Communists, producing convincing shots decades before PhotoShop. It would have worked too if the Mandarin hadn't blurted out the truth in front of reporters. Other foes come back in an enhanced form such the Titanium Man, the Melter or the Unicorn, or drift in from other titles such as the Black Knight, the Mole Man, the Grey Gargoyle or the Gladiator. There's a trip to a dystopian future where the world is ruled by Cerberus, a super computer that Tony has yet to invent. With the help of an antique set of Iron Man armour he manages to defeat it, helped by the grandfather paradox, but this sort of time travel story always falls down when it doesn't make clear the rules on whether history can be changed or not. The crossover with the Sub-Mariner seems rather inconsequential, with Namor seeking revenge on Iron Man for a distraction at a critical moment with Warlord Krang. It shows Namor to be a hothead lashing out at the wrong target but doesn't really add anything to Iron Man's story. The one-shot Iron Man and Sub-Mariner doesn't actually combine the heroes beyond the cover and seems to just be a fill-in in the schedules, perhaps because of poor planning of the switchover to solo titles.

And there's a major long running storyline featuring the Maggia, now led by the mysterious "Big M" whose identity is hidden for several issues then casually revealed in a thought bubble as Whitney Frost, the woman dating Jasper Sitwell. She is given a back story as a socialite who was engaged to a politician only to discover she was actually the daughter of Count Nefaria, causing her fiancé to abandon her to be sucked into the Maggia's world. There is a strong sense that she doesn't want to be caught up in this but has no choice, adding depth to her character and setting up possibilities for the future. The storyline also makes use of the Gladiator and introduces Whiplash, on of the more physical of Iron Man's recurring foes. A foe of a different kind comes in the form of Morgan Stark, Tony's cousin and nearest relative, who sells out Iron Man to clear his gambling debts. And there's rivalry with A.I.M., with its would be leader the scientist Mordius rapidly coming unstuck.

In general this is a solid but not particularly spectacular volume. It pulls its punches more than once by not showing such a key moment such as Tony learning that Happy knows his secret identity and is willing to help protect it and by casually revealing a major mystery villain in a thought bubble. It also comes close to throwing out most of the supporting cast without adequately replacing them - it's not clear at the end if Jasper will stick around for the long haul leaving only Janice for the time being. And the anti-Communist propaganda is wearing thin at this point. But otherwise the adventures show strong imagination and manage to keep up the vulnerable side of the hero as he struggles to survive.

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