Friday, 30 January 2015

Essential Iron Man volume 3

Essential Iron Man volume 3 contains issues #12 to #38 plus a crossover in Daredevil #73. Most of the writing is by Archie Goodwin with later runs by Allyn Brodsky and Gerry Conway, who also writes the Daredevil issue, and one issue by Mimi Gold. The art is by a mixture of George Tuska, Johnny Craig and Don Heck with the Daredevil issue drawn by Gene Colan.

As stretches go, this is a fairly straightforward run which sees the series enter the 1970s and make some attempts to move with the times. The most significant long-term development appears to be Tony's heart operation. By now heart transplant surgery was established in the real world, making Tony's reliance on his chest plate an anomaly, though the surgeon doesn't replace his damaged heart with another but instead uses "synthetically-developed tissue" to rebuild the damaged organ, thus retaining an element of advanced technology. However it's not all plain sailing for Tony as his new heart is at risk of rejection and weakness if he over strains it. This happens near the end of the volume and Tony is forced to once more rely on wearing a chest plate all the time in order to survive. Annoyingly the operation is partially tied in to a crossover with the Avengers but the issue isn't included here even though Iron Man #19 presents it as the answer to readers' confusion.

We get a brief replacement for Tony as Iron Man in the form of Eddie March, a boxer who wears an imitation set of armour in the ring. Tony fears he has been holding back because of his recent heart operation and so opts to retire from the role, little realising that Eddie has retired from boxing because of a blood clot that puts his life at risk. Eddie's stint as Iron Man is short lived and he is soon hospitalised, leading to Tony feeling he must resume the role and accept whatever fate his health brings, encouraged by Eddie's bravery. Eddie is black and at the time making such a replacement was a radical approach, predating the John Stewart Green Lantern by over a year.

The other sign of the times are some issues that try to match the contemporary trend for addressing real life social problems but they often fall back upon individual corruption rather than acknowledging that some problems can't simply be fixed by a hero's intervention. Pollution comes up more than once as Iron Man faces attacks of Tony's plants on islands, but it becomes clear that the problem is in staff, with one manager stirring up local hotheads to protest a plant and cover up embezzlement whilst another is cutting costs at the expense of minimum safety standards which leads to conflict with an angry Sub-Mariner. The tales touch upon the problems of pollution but don't really go to the nub of the conflict between technological advancement to sustain the human population versus the need to keep the planet healthy in the long run. Other tales look at issues such as the longstanding hostility between peoples of different countries, here in the form of Japan and the United States as young people in the former remain hostile to the latter a quarter of a century after the Second World War and one attacks uses a giant robotic lizard based on the legendary beast Zoga. Coming from a country where hostility to Germany still persists after seventy years it's an unfortunately all too familiar tale of old national hatreds.

Another tale has a twist on the standard Latin American dictatorship cliché as here the country in question is ruled by the Overseer, a giant computer. But what's more awkward is the way the story shows Tony telling fleeing revolutionaries that raising an army in the States will not be as easy as expected as "there are those who would not bear arms for any cause!", an implicit acknowledgement of the impact of the Vietnam War on popular attitudes to overseas intervention. Yet rather than admit that the world isn't so black and white, Iron Man instead takes at face value the claims of the revolutionaries and charges in to overthrow the dictator, rather than stopping to ask just what the facts of the situation actually are, and whether simply charging in and overthrowing the existing regime will bring enlightened progress to the country as opposed to opening up an era of turbulent chaos. The situation in the story could have made for a strong exploration of the conflict between the traditional black and white values whereby knights in shining armour could go on a simple rampage in response to the first damsel in distress they heard from, against a more nuanced society that had seen the impact of such an approach and was now demanding restraint in solving other countries' problems no matter the suffering. But instead Iron Man carries on in the old fashioned way and it's only after his attack has begun that we get what could have been the turning point in a nuanced exploration when a child is shot down by one of the Overseer's machines. This would not be the last time that Iron Man writers would try to follow the approach of DC's Green Lantern but implement it badly.

Better handled is a tale of racial conflict in the inner cities as Tony finds a community centre project he is sponsoring is fiercely resisted locally, with many objecting to what they feel is just charity to ease white guilt and line the pockets of white owned businesses rather than real measures that would help economic development and enable the community to become self-sufficient. The situation is complication by corruption in local government, with the scheme having been pushed through by a councillor who heads both the estate and construction firms involved, and by the intervention of the aptly named Firebrand, a rabble rousing superpowered would be revolutionary. Though the tale is a little heavy handed it does well in challenging head on the assumption that outsiders can simply impose facilities on a community as a solution to its problems rather than engaging with them to find the best way forward.

In more traditional territory the series continues to add a few long lasting villains, ranging from yet another Crimson Dynamo to the rather more original the Controller, who has developed technology to control other human beings and an exo skeleton to overcome the weaknesses of his body caused by disease and accidents. He makes for a strong counterpart to Iron Man, the type of villain most heroes need. The Night Phantom is an early example of a villain empowered by Voodoo, a man embittered against technology after an accident crippled him. The Cold War also pops up in the form of the Spymaster and his Espionage Elite of five aides, who invade Stark Industries to steal industrial secrets. Elsewhere various aliens send agents to Earth with the most notable being the robot Ramrod. There's also a succession of crimelords who use the title Jonah. A more shocking foe comes in the form of a Life-Model Decoy that takes on a life of its own and ousts Tony not just from his company but from his entire life, armour and all, leading to the memorable cover image. This in turn leads to the oddity of Tony openly wearing the original Iron Man armour in order to take down the impostor but without those around him realising he is the true Iron Man. Another visual conflict between Iron Man and Tony comes as the Mercenary disguises himself as Tony in order to reach and kill his target, only to be shot by Vincent Sandhurst, Janice Cord's attorney now seeking vengeance on Stark. Foes from other series include the Red Ghost from the Fantastic Four, who is now accompanied by a new set of super apes, Lucifer from the X-Men, the Collector from the Avengers, and the Zodiac cartel, also from the Avengers. The latter appear in the crossover with Daredevil which may have been a try-out piece to see if the proposed merger of the two titles would work but it's all too clear that the two don't go together well with the resulting story a confused mess that doesn't really feel at home in either series.

Tony's romantic life has its ups and downs. When kidnapped by businessman Mordecai Midas he falls for Madame Masque whom he discovers is a disfigured Whitney Frost, but this causes tensions with Jasper Sitwell who had also fallen for Whitney. Tony tries to hide the news of her return after she disappears once more, but Jasper's detective skills discover what has happened and track her down to an island where a scientist is trying to turn her into a mate for her son who has been transformed into a modern day Minotaur. In the end she chooses Jasper over Tony but sets out on her own to prove herself first. Tony's main romantic interest is Janice Cord, owner of a rival firm, but he worries that both his heart and his life as Iron Man mean that nothing can ever come of it. Matters are complicated by her firm's inventor Alex Niven who turns out to be both protege and successor to the original Crimson Dynamo. Having a character be a rival to the hero both in and out of costume is a good move but it's short-lived as the Titanium Man shows up to deal with a defector. In the subsequent battle both Iron Man and the Crimson Dynamo misinterpret the other's actions towards Janice and she is killed by blasts from the Titanium Man, leaving Tony in mourning and Alex swearing vengeance on Iron Man. Meanwhile the end of the volume sees the introduction of Marianne Rodgers, an old flame whom Tony dates once more.

The supporting cast is also expanded with the introduction of scientist Kevin O'Brian, who has the dialogue of a dreadfully cliched Irishman but who nevertheless proves an effective and loyal employee to the point that Tony trusts him first with running the company during a leave of absence and then with his identity when he needs someone to reinstall the chestplate pace maker.

Overall this volume tries to update the series both in its approach to real world problems and also in updating Tony's heart condition, but in both cases it soon backs off and returns to the status quo ante of the series, as though the previous developments had been risks too far. Otherwise the main advances come in developing more of the supporting cast and villains and telling the usual mix of tales. There are few really bad stories apart from the awkward one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach to the Overseer tale but otherwise this volume is standard but not spectacular.

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