Friday, 8 May 2015

Essential Iron Man volume 5

Essential Iron Man volume 5 contains issues #62 to #75 & #77 to #87 plus annual #3. Bonus material includes the covers of the reprint issues #76, annuals #1 & #2 and Giant-Size Iron Man #1. Most of the writing is by Mike Friedrich with other issues by Bill Mantlo and Len Wein, with one plot by Barry Alfonso and a couple of scripts by Roger Slifer. The annual is written by Steve Gerber. The main artist is George Tuska with other contributions by P. Craig Russell, Arvell Jones, Keith Pollard, Chic Stone and Herb Trimpe with the annual drawn by Sal Buscema.

This volume sees a couple of changes to the costume, one of which is rather better known than the other, as well as the more general ongoing modifications to the weaponry to meet the latest threat. At one stage Tony replaces the collapsible set in his attaché case with a version that can become an ultra thin form worn beneath his clothing until a wrist gesture triggers it to expand out and cover the remaining portions of his body. There may be some attached technobabble but the whole process feels a little too close to a magic or fantastical costume better suited to less scientific heroes. The introduction of this mechanism is used as an opportunity to remove one of the more notorious changes made. This covers the entire period when Tony adds a nose to the helmet "to allow more expression to show". Although it does allow for the art to show more variety in the portrayal of his face, it does also look a bit silly and it's easy to see why it gets ditched as soon as a spurious explanation (that the new method of donning the costume requires the helmet to be symmetrical).

The major storyline in this volume is the "war of the super-villains" which runs from issue #68 until #81 in which the mysterious Black Llama manipulates a succession of super-villains into battling one another in order to obtain a special golden globe of power as the prize in their contest. The saga kicks off with a battle with Sunfire and the Mandarin, who now escapes the Unicorn's body, before the contest really gets going as the Mandarin battles the Yellow Claw in the first confrontation between Marvel's two biggest oriental masterminds with both deploying robots such as Ultimo. Other foes get drawn in as the saga continues, including Modok, the Mad Thinker, the Man-Bull, Melter and Whiplash but not all villains are attracted to an object that offers inner harmony as a precursor to success and we see a montage of big names like Doctor Doom, the Red Skull and Fu Manchu turn it down whilst others like Magneto are missing in action. There is also a trip to Vietnam as both Tony and Roxanne search for Eddie March's brother Marty, encountering both the Crimson Dynamo and a hidden civilisation. Eventually the final battle sees Iron Man overcome the Claw but then all to Firebrand, whom the Llama declares the victor and takes him to his own dimension with Iron Man in pursuit.

Issue #72 has an unusual setting as Tony finds himself with time to kill in San Diego and so opts to attend Comic-Con, using his own armour as a costume. It may be only 1974 but the fandom portrayed show all the familiar signs of people obsessing over first issues, arguing about who did what, arguing about the merits of certain costume changes, parading in fancy dress (the word "cosplay" wasn't in use back then) and generally having a good time with fellow fans. There are fans of other science fiction and fantasy present as well with some Star Trek fans petitioning for a revival. In addition, there are creators who are behind schedule (Roy Thomas, in his last issue credited as editor, is even handing over a pink slip to Mike Friedrich but saying it's just a formality) but still taking time to meet the fans. All in all it's a good affectionate portrayal of the early years of organised fandom. Amidst all this the clash at the convention with the Man-Bull, Melter and Whiplash, as part of the Black Llama's machinations, is very much of lesser interest.

Just as the war of the super-villains is approaching its ultimate climax, we get one of the worst cases of delays seen in any Marvel title of the era. In the space of four issues (#76 to #79) there are no less than three fill-ins, including a reprint and a flashback adventure that normally could be easily inserted into the ongoing sequence with minimal fuss but here it appears as Iron Man is travelling between dimensions and thus it's impossible to make it a sudden spurious flashback, particularly as it's already structured as a flashback to drive a decision in the present day. The tale sees Tony as both himself and Iron Man in Vietnam during the war, testing a satellite guided canon that inflicts devastation in a village in a clandestine operation that's in violation of international law. The result of the canon and the counter attack result in widespread devastation and very few survivors, leading Iron Man to blast "Why" atop a mass grave. It's a piece questioning the whole basis of the Vietnam War, albeit somewhat late in the day as it arrived on the newstands a couple of months after the Fall of Saigon that ended the war and a couple of years after the US had withdrawn its active troop presence. The other fill-in was more timely, being a classic house of horrors story as Tony rescues a couple whose car has broken down and they take refuge in a creepy isolated house occupied by strange beings including a scientist with a funny name who performs life changing experiments. This would have been on the shelves just as The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released though Doctor Kurakill isn't as memorable a character as Doctor Frank N. Furter. Still her henchman, Quasar the mutated ape, does feel like an appropriate homage to the ape obsession of the 1950s. But in general, even allowing for the fact that issue #76 is only represented by the cover and so not interrupting the flow in this edition, these issues show a massive letdown as the momentum on the main story slams to a halt. It should not be surprising that after all these fill-ins Friedrich writes only two further issues. The end of issue #81 may try to present it as a writer bowing out at the natural end of a good run, and I don't know how the contemporary letterspages presented it, but here it feels like a writer missing one deadline too many and consequently being deliberately let go of.

When the series eventually resumes the war of the super-villains story it takes a decidedly odd turn as the Black Llama, Firebrand and Iron Man arrive in a parallel universe in which the United States is covered by a patchwork of independent states and the Llama is the king of one of them. The Llama's actions are explained away as the consequence of madness brought about by a cosmic imbalance when people cross between dimensions and he's actually the rightful ruler who has returned just in time to face a revolt by his daughter & regent's main advisor and wife, who deploy a mechanical dragon. Although there's some good character work as Iron Man nearly succumbs to the madness of the cosmic imbalance, the whole thing is such a jarring contrast with the earlier issues that it feels like it was conceived for another series altogether. It's a very disappointing end to both a lengthy storyline and Friedrich's run, made worse by the extra delays and fill-ins.

There are other foes who show up over the course of the volume including an inconclusive battle with the villainous Doctor Spectrum, the Marvel homage of Green Lantern. Iron Man has at times been matched with Green Lantern in comparisons of Marvel's Avengers and DC's Justice League of America, but it's never been the easiest fit and feels more like a default of picking the most prominent male heroes after Captain America & Batman and Thor & Superman have been lined up. Consequently such a fight seems a mismatch and this one drags on over several issues, even dragging in Thor to battle Iron Man who's been possessed by the Power Prism that gives Spectrum his powers. The story also sees Tony's friend Eddie March don the armour only to be severely injured. His life is saved but at the cost of his ability to walk and in the process he's temporarily transformed into the monstrous Freak, a fate previously shared by Happy Hogan when undergoing special energy treatment.

One theme that pops up again and again throughout the volume are the different expectations of men and women in relationships. Happy Hogan takes some time to accept that Pepper is now a high flying corporate assistant and is not going to meekly head to the kitchen to play housewife; this causes some strain on their marriage and at one point Pepper turns to Tony. However the marriage is soon restored and they remain friends even after Happy impersonates Iron Man at a party and gets injured by being drawn into action when Tony is kidnapped. Whiplash also has expectations of his fiancée Vicki Snow who is the manager of a Stark Industries plant when the villain is working undercover as head of research. Tony's own attitude to Roxanne Gilbert is more respectful but her relationship with Tony is increasingly forgettable.

The last six issues see a quick succession of writers as the series tries to find its direction. There's a forgettable encounter with the Red Ghost and his super apes in which Happy is injured; the treatment sees him become the Freak once more but this is getting overused. An ongoing subplot involves police officer Michael O'Brien investigating the death of his brother Kevin back in issue #46, convinced that Tony has arranged a cover-up, but it's been so long since the death that it becomes hard to find the subplot that compelling. There's also a move to toughen up and make more serious one of Iron Man's earliest foes as Jack Frost returns but now using the name Blizzard.

The annual follows the formula of teaming up two heroes to fight a villain more usually associated with a third in a sequel to one of the last's stories. Here we get a meeting between Iron Man and the Man-Thing in the Florida swamps that follows up on an early Marvel Two-in-One story as the Molecule Man returns from the dead, along with further social commentary as the people of Citrusville react with suspicion and hostility as Stark International (renamed in the regular issues from Stark Industries in acknowledgement at diversification of holdings) sets about rebuilding Omegaville. However the latter thread doesn't really go anywhere and just feels like a jibe at small towns for the sake of it. The Molecule Man's resurrection may have seemed like exciting fantasy and psychological thriller in 1976, but today this tale of a grown man possessing the body of a nine year old girl feels extremely dodgey even though there's no overt hint of anything sexual in the situation. Beyond that the story suffers the problem that afflicts so many Man-Thing tales in that interaction between the monster and other characters is rather limited, resulting in him stumbling through the story including a needless encounter with Iron Man on the road before turning up at the climax to provide the ultimate containment for Molecule Man. All in all this annual is a fairly typical example of the forgettable tales that were commonplace in original 1970s annuals. It also feels more like a Man-Thing tale than an Iron Man one, with Gerber taking the opportunity to return to the character after his run and the original series had ended.

It's telling that the main thing anyone remembers about this era of Iron Man is the nose, a short-lived modification to the armour that doesn't last very long. Otherwise this is a very average volume with occasional bursts of momentum that get squandered amidst excessive fill-ins and bizarre conclusions. The foes are mainly so so and there's sometimes too much reuse of ideas such as one of Tony's friends donning the Iron Man armour, getting injured and then the treatment accidentally transforms him into the Freak. Little in this volume really stands out.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...