Friday, 10 April 2015

Essential Iron Man volume 4

Essential Iron Man volume 4 consists of issues #39 to #61 including a back-up in issue #44 featuring Ant-Man. The writing sees runs by Gerry Conway and Mike Friedrich plus other issues by Robert Kanigher, Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, Jim Starlin and Steve Gerber. Most of the art is by George Tuska with other contributions by Herb Trimpe, Barry Windsor-Smith and Jim Starlin. The Ant-Man tale is written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Ross Andru.

This volume comes from the early 1970s and sees a slow attempt to update the character at a time when real life events had made arms manufacturers not particularly popular in the States. At the same time it also tries to modernise the portrayal of some of the characters and roles, with the most notable success being Pepper Hogan who returns to her old job position but is now much more a strong executive assistant rather than the simple typist, telephone answerer and diary keeper she had been in earlier years. On multiple occasions the factory is surrounded by protestors, whether students protesting the manufacturing of weapons or the workers out on strike due to devious propaganda, and eventually this leads Tony to start diversifying the output. However it takes a while to assert full control.

The early issues see Tony facing a challenge in the boardroom as Simon Gilbert, the chairperson of the board of Stark Industries, tries to have Tony removed as president of the company, only to be threatened with his own removal as chairperson by Tony. The problem with this kind of corporate drama is that it relies on the reader having a clear knowledge of the basics of corporate governance in order to understand how such power is wielded when Tony holds the majority of shares. Boardroom drama can be exciting when the threat is obvious and the resolution dramatic but here it descends into two men in suits each trying to remove the other through the exercise of some undefined power or other. Eventually Tony succeeds in the boardroom leading to Gilbert hiring the Firebrand to blow up a munitions plant, only to die in the explosion himself. The Firebrand is revealed to be Gilbert's son, adding a new level to his enmity with Iron Man.

There's a protracted storyline involving Tony's engineer and friend Kevin O'Brien who adopts the Guardsman armour to protect Stark Industries but inexperience and paranoia overwhelm him, not helped by his jealousy of Tony over Marianne Rodgers. Partially egged on by Gilbert and other board members, Kevin winds up facing a group of students protesting over arms manufacturing and deploys his repulsors on them, apparently killing four of them. (We're subsequently told they were only injured but as it comes solely via dialogue and captions it feels like emergency editing to tone down the storyline.) This leads to a confrontation between Iron Man and the Guardsman over their respective methods and ends in tragedy when Kevin is caught in a tank explosion. The funeral leads to soul-searching on Tony's part and triggers an issue mainly devoted to recounting the origin, which also supplies the cover, used for the volume as a whole.

Marianne Rodgers is probably the best woman that Tony's yet been involved with. She has a degree of Extra Sensory Perception that leads her to heightened concern for Tony, and also leads her to realise that he and Iron Man are one and the same, but contrary to his long standing fears she doesn't reject them. Instead they grow ever closer, to Kevin's disappointment, and soon get engaged. However her ESP leads her to visions of Iron Man's doom if she stays with him and after a battle with the Super-Adaptoid that leaves Tony desperate for help in recharging his power, Marianne instead deserts him. When the final confrontation comes with the Adaptoid in its new form of the Cyborg Sinister, rebuilt by Tyrr and Jarr from a microworld called Bast, Iron Man ultimately defeats the prophecy by overwhelming it with acid and then destroying it but trust has broken down between Tony and Marianne, leading them to call off the engagement. Marianne goes off to work but finds her ESP wreaks havoc in the workplace and she is subsequently hospitalised. Meanwhile Pepper Hogan returns to Tony's life when she accepts once more the job of his personal secretary but amidst the jet setting it becomes clear Tony still has feelings for her even though she is now married. Meanwhile Happy Hogan is getting more and more jealous of the situation, especially when the newspapers start assuming Tony and Pepper are an item, and soon announces he is leaving by means of a telegram.

The early part of the volume sees a string of incredibly forgettable foes, whether introduced here or reused from another series. Those in the former category include the White Dragon, a Chinese scientist and inventor with troops who feels all too like a Mandarin knock off, the Slasher and Demitrius, a pair in silly costumes, Mikas the Soulfather, an android with ESP powers who believes himself to be an all powerful mutant, a robot copy of the Night Phantom, Raga, the "Son of Fire", a cult leader with the ability to control flames, and his teacher, the Black Lama. There's also an encounter with Princess Python, temporarily solo from the Circus of Crime, and her pet snake Precious. All in all it's a very dull set, made worse by several being agents of the mysterious "Mr Kline", who also appears in the contemporary Daredevil. Unfortunately that seems to be the main place for explaining and dealing with him, with the result that in this volume he's just a shadowy figure responsible for some events but ultimately left unexplained.

Towards the end we get two issues that have the biggest impact on long term Marvel continuity although their impact on Iron Man is rather less. Issue #54 sees the introduction of the space travelling Madame MacEvil, later better known as Moondragon, who takes control of Iron Man's armour remotely and pits him against Sub-Mariner as part of scientific investigations into human hybrids. She's the kind of character who appears to have a large unrevealed backstory that explains her actions but all we get here is an amoral scientist who swears vengeance when her plans come to nothing. The following issue is much better known as it sees the introduction of both Thanos and Drax the Destroyer. And also of the Blood Brothers but they don't get talked about so much. The issue debuts a powerful alien conqueror foe with a strong backstory and a pre-existing nemesis, making for a memorable confrontation and it's hard to deny the significance of this issue given that Thanos has been incredibly successful for Marvel in the long run. The tale as a single piece is quite strong and leaves the reader wanting more. But, as is often the case with big cosmic events and particular those involving Thanos, the host title can wind up feeling a rather odd place for the event. Iron Man does not generally get caught up in interplanetary conflict and this story would probably be more at home in Fantastic Four or Thor or Avengers. And when read with the issues around it, it feels like part of a general ream of randomness near the end of this volume as the writers struggle to find a new direction and purpose for the title.

As they search we get an odd confrontation with the "menace" of Rasputin, a magician with poor powers who brings a statue to life. Then we get a strange tale that starts off with the Mandarin in disguise fomenting unrest amongst the Stark Industries workforce but which diverts into a tale of a search for new power rings and sees the Mandarin and Unicorn temporarily swap bodies. There's a return by a vengeance seeking Firebrand and then finally a clash with Daredevil's old foe the Masked Marauder. None of these tales feels in any way spectacular and the result is just a drudge through the end of the volume.

There are some signs of further developments for Tony with the situation of him crawling away from a successful fight in search of a power recharge now starting to get tired (though read in an era of fast draining smartphones it feels even more familiar now than over forty years ago), and towards the end there are signs that he is increasingly able to survive for periods without a functioning chest plate pacemaker, suggesting that his transplanted heart is finally being accepted by his body. I have no idea how scientifically plausible this scenario is, but the signs are encouraging that Tony is finally conquering his main physical weakness and showing hope for the future in spite of the stunted series around him.

One possibility for diversifying things up a bit would have been to introduce a back-up strip featuring a second hero, as happened in a number of other comics at this time, though mainly over at DC. Issues #43 & #44 contain first an Ant-Man reprint and then an original tale respectively at a time when Marvel expanded the size and cost of the comics, only to contract them back after a couple of months. The original tale is included here but it's a rather forgettable piece of a sweet shop owner attempting an insurance scam through arson whilst Hank Pym encounters the intelligent Scarlet Beetle once more, with his foe coming to an extremely undignified end. It doesn't leave the reader desperate for a regular series of Ant-Man back-ups and suggests the subsequent reversion to normal sized issues was wise and Marvel heroes don't generally prosper when hiding in the back of others' titles.

In general this is a rather slight and disappointing volume. In spite of the ongoing threads involving Marianne Rodgers, Simon Gilbert, Kevin O'Brien or Mr Kline, overall the whole thing feels slow and disjointed. The first half or so of the volume does make an effort to find a direction and stick with it even though it's not the most exciting thing, but the latter half shows a series just floundering about and trying all manner of situations and foes in the hope that something will eventually stick. This is not the series at its best.

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