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Isn’t It Iron-ic?

Editor’s Note: The following piece was first published in 2003, long before Iron Man became the biggest box-office movie star in the world. Rather than update it, I thought it would be more interesting to look back at what I thought most people thought of Iron Man back before RDJ made him a household name. Enjoy.

The best superhero origins are the ones that are timeless. You can pick them up and the story and concepts are as fresh as they were the day they were created.

“A shy teenager is bitten by a radioactive spider, and learns a tragic lesson about responsibility.”

“Rocketed to Earth from a dying world, a newborn child is raised by Midwestern farmers and grows up to be humanity’s greatest champion.”

“Having witnessed the murder of his parents by a common criminal, a young boy swears an oath to spend his life protecting the innocent, to prevent others from suffering as he did.”

Then there’s Iron Man.

Although the basic origin itself can be tinkered with to fit a more current time frame, the original story is, shall we say, problematic, involving as it does the Vietnam War. As we take a stroll through the history of Marvel Comics’ armored avenger, let’s bear in mind that things probably seemed a lot more black and white in 1963, and things that look a little simpleminded and even a touch racist in retrospect, most likely didn’t seem quite so obvious at the time. And if you look past the extremely dated trappings, there’s a concept at the core of it that still works quite well, and is as relevant today as ever.

Back in ’63, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee was once again looking to expand the ranks of his increasingly popular superheroes, and as usual, he was looking for something different. Stan had a notion to do a series about a superhero who was really a successful businessman, a jetsetting Howard Hughes type. But Stan’s rich protagonist would need a reason to go out in a costume and risk his life fighting bad guys. Once more, Lee put it all together, as he recounted in SON OF ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS:

What if our hero had an injured heart — a heart that required him to wear some sort of metal device to keep it beating? The metal device could be the basic element in an entire suit of armor which could both power him and conceal his identity. I loved it. It had the right ring to it. I knew it would work.

Dubbing his new creation “Iron Man,” Stan turned over the plot to his brother Larry Lieber, who provided the script. As for the art, Don Heck provided the pencils, as he would for many of the succeeding IRON MAN adventures. Compared to the power of Jack Kirby’s work, or the sleek dynamicism of Steve Ditko’s style, some have called Don Heck’s work boring or staid, a position with which I heartily disagree. Heck provided a sophistication to the series that very much fit the “High Society” feel of the Tony Stark character, and the streamlined look of Iron Man’s armor, as opposed to the overly muscled superheroes in Marvel’s other books, very much played to Heck’s strengths as a draftsman. Lee, Lieber and Heck presented their new creation to the world in TALES OF SUSPENSE #39, in “Iron Man Is Born!”

As the story opens, we meet Tony Stark, millionaire industrialist who’s demonstrating the power of his newfangled “transistors” to the U.S. Army. While in Vietnam to ground-test his new “transistor-powered” mortar cannons, Stark accidentally triggers an explosive booby-trap, and is mortally wounded and captured by Wong-Chu, “the red guerrilla tyrant” of South Vietnam. No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you — Wong-Chu was actually colored yellow.

So anyway, Wong-Chu’s Commie doctors get a hold of Tony Stark, who conveniently has papers identifying him as “famous Yankee weapons inventor,” and determine that shrapnel from the explosion is traveling ever closer to his heart, and will kill him within a week. Wong-Chu lies to the injured prisoner, telling Stark that if he builds a new weapon for them, Wong-Chu will have his surgeons save his life. Stark sees through Wong-Chu’s ruse, and sets to work creating a chestplate that will keep his damaged heart beating, while also powering a suit of armor that will liberate him from the Red prison.

Stark is assisted by Professor Yinsen, another of Wong-Chu’s prisoners, who turns out to be, in the words of Stark himself, “once the greatest physicist of them all.” How extremely convenient.

With Yinsen’s assistance, Stark completes the armored suit, and just in time, as the shrapnel is just about to reach his heart. Unfortunately, while the armor is charging and Stark lies helpless, Wong-Chu and his men approach. To prevent them from capturing Stark, Yinsen charges into the hallway, distracting the guards at the cost of his own life.

Now fully charged and operational, and with the chestplate keeping him alive, Tony Stark must quickly learn to function within his gray iron shell. With the help of the many attachments he and Yinsen built into the armor, Stark eludes his captors in the prison, then faces Wong-Chu in one of his impromptu wrestling matches with the local villagers.

Stark lays some capitalist smack down on the Commie warlord, and then chases him around the village. After contending with Wong-Chu’s deadly Filing Cabinet Full of Rocks, Stark puts away Wong for good, blowing up the guerrilla’s ammo dump just as he runs toward it.

By Iron Man’s next appearance, Stark has returned to the United States and his playboy lifestyle, but is now a prisoner of the chestplate that keeps him alive (although it’s never quite clear why Stark doesn’t, oh, I don’t know, go see a surgeon who might be able to help with the whole damaged-heart problem…). Also, Iron Man shows off the first of many armor changes in his second go-round, changing the color from gray to gold.

An interesting wrinkle is added when “Iron Man” is introduced to the public as Tony Stark’s bodyguard and the corporate symbol of Stark’s company, Stark Industries. Also introduced are Tony’s lovestruck secretary, Pepper Potts, and his chauffeur, former boxer “Happy” Hogan, who also carried a torch for Pepper.

Moreso than any of the other Marvel Comics of the era, the IRON MAN series was caught up in the fervor of Cold War America, with Iron Man representing the power of American technology and scientific knowhow that was going to quash those backwards Commies. Let’s take a look at Iron Man’s Silver Age rogues’ gallery to illustrate: The first of many armored doppelgangers to face Iron Man was the Crimson Dynamo, first appearing in TALES OF SUSPENSE #46. The world’s greatest expert on electricity, Soviet scientist Professor Vanko creates the Crimson Dynamo armor to “control electricity in any of its forms.” The Dynamo is sent to America to wreck all of Stark International’s military projects, crippling the U.S. in the arms race, and to kill Iron Man while he’s at it.

Iron Man tricks Vanko into believing his Red masters are about to betray him (which did happen to be true), while his alter ego Tony Stark proves the power of capitalism over Communism by buying off the Russian scientist, giving him a job at Stark International as head of electrical research, no doubt with a fat expense account, a company car and full medical and dental. God bless America. There would be many later versions of the Crimson Dynamo armor to come, and almost as many poor Russian dopes enlisted to wear it.

Next up on Tony Stark’s Iron Curtain dance card was the Mandarin, the true ruler behind Red China, before whom even the Red Chinese Army trembled. The Mandarin first appeared in TALES OF SUSPENSE #50. When Iron Man is sent by the CIA to China to gather information on the mysterious Mandarin (who wears a tunic with a giant letter “M” on it, despite the fact that his native language would logically be Chinese), he’s quickly captured and subject to various traps and weapons, as the Mandarin tests Iron Man’s mettle.

Considering that Iron Man is the one invading the Mandarin’s homeland, he’s awfully belligerent about it, telling him, “I can see now that the world will never be safe as long as a power-mad despot like you remains free!” Uh, Iron Man? You weren’t exactly invited…

The Mandarin soon reveals his true power: 10 rings, one for each finger, each of which possesses a different super-power. Between that and his mastery of the martial arts, the Mandarin has Iron Man on the ropes, until Iron Man uses his on-board calculator to determine the exact angle at which to tilt his body to block the Mandarin’s karate chop, causing the most damage. Yes, Iron Man defeated the Mandarin with algebra. Glad somebody found a use for it…

Later Mandarin appearances would seriously downplay the Communist aspects, and reveal that the rings were actually of alien origin, by the way.

Soviet spy the Black Widow made her debut appearance in TALES OF SUSPENSE #52, sent by the Reds to assassinate Tony Stark, as well as Professor Vanko, the defected former Crimson Dynamo. After the Widow fails in several missions, she’s returned to the Soviet Union and given a new device which allow her to walk along walls and spin webs like her namesake, then sent back to America to act as a more physical threat to Iron Man.

Eventually, the Widow would renounce her former masters and defect to the United States, becoming a trusted ally to Iron Man, as well as something of a super-hero groupie, becoming romantically involved with Hawkeye the Marksman, Olympian demigod Hercules and Daredevil.

In the best example of Cold War boosterism, Iron Man faces the Kremlin’s latest armored creation, Titanium Man, in internationally televised combat in TALES OF SUSPENSE #69-71. The Titanium Man armor, being made from — you guessed it — titanium, was so heavy and cumbersome (especially since the Soviets lacked Stark’s trademark miniaturized transistors) that no mere man could wear it. Inside the armor was Boris Bullski, commissar of a Siberian work camp, whose prodigious strength allowed him to move and fight while wearing the weighty suit. After a lengthy fight sequence (put together with suspense and panache by Lee and Heck), Iron Man defeats the Ruskie with the help of his new “reverser ray,” although the Titanium Man armor, like the Crimson Dynamo, would return again and again with new updates and new occupants.

Along the way, Iron Man’s armor had been evolving as well, with the most significant upgrade coming in TALES OF SUSPENSE #48, courtesy of artist Steve Ditko, who put together a sleek and streamlined red and gold ensemble which would prove to be the most influential in the series’ run.

Although there would be many iterations and upgrades to come, the Ditko design would be utilized the most, and most new interpretations to this day fall back on this one as a template. The only significant alteration to the Ditko suit for over twenty years was in the helmet, which would occasionally feature a forked faceplate, visible rivets, and even briefly a nose, thanks to artist George Tuska.

The armor’s abilities stayed fairly consistent throughout the run: increased strength and resistance to harm, boot-jets for flight, “repulsor” beams of concussive force from the gloves, and a “unibeam” laser from the chest. Occasionally special attachments or add-ons would be utilized, from jet boosters for increased speed to roller skates for, well, increased funkitude, I guess.

Also, there would be specialized armor created for specific situations, such as outer space, underwater depths, stealth missions, etc.

As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, the Cold War angle was downplayed, with more emphasis given to Stark’s business interests, and matters of corporate intrigue and sabotage. The matter of Stark’s heart was finally settled, as he was the subject of an experimental operation which gave him a new synthetic heart. This took away a fair amount of the series’ central concept, however, namely “the millionaire playboy with the fatal flaw.” Writer David Michelinie and artist Bob Layton would solve that problem with their landmark run in IRON MAN #120 — #128, in which Tony Stark faces up to his alcoholism. Michelinie builds a tense thriller in which Stark’s company is ever so slowly wrested from his grasp, while competing industrialist Justin Hammer frames Iron Man for the murder of a foreign ambassador, on live TV no less.

Under constant pressure, Stark finds himself increasingly turning to alcohol, and having lost his company and with Iron Man’s reputation in ruins, hits rock bottom until he finds the strength to turn away from the bottle.

The subject was maturely handled, and Layton’s art is clean and appealing. Highly recommended. The story was collected in trade way back in 1984, and recently re-released in trade, as “Demon in a Bottle.”

The alcoholism storyline was brought back in IRON MAN #169, in a lengthy storyline by writer Denny O’Neil (some might say too lengthy) in which Stark completely lost control of his company (which he had regained after his last bout with alcoholism), as well as his personal fortune, to competing businessman Obadiah Stane, and suffers a major relapse, even giving up his Iron Man identity entirely, passing the armor on to his longtime pilot James Rhodes.

Rhodes would remain Iron Man for over three and a half years, even after Stark sobered up and moved to California with Rhodes and two colleagues to start a new company. Eventually, (IRON MAN #200, to be exact) Stark would return to the armor (albeit one of the ugliest armored suits Iron Man had ever worn), and return to his corporate glories with a new company, Stark Industries.

Rhodes would eventually be given his own armor, and sporadically operate as War Machine.

One of the more well-remembered Iron Man storylines from the ’80s was courtesy of the returning David Michelinie, who, along with artist Mark Bright, gave us “The Armor Wars,” in which Stark discovers that nearly every other armored or technologically based character in the Marvel Universe is utilizing his stolen technology and designs. Riddled with guilt at the pain and damage caused by his creations, Stark goes on a one-man vigilante crusade, tracking down and neutralizing every unauthorized use of his technology, be they friend or foe. Running from IRON MAN #225 to #231, “The Armor Wars” pitted Iron Man against some of his worst enemies as well as his closest friends, including fellow Avengers Hawkeye and Captain America.

Starting with an original idea (a rare commodity with characters that have been around for decades) and following through with it with plenty of surprises and more than a little drama, “The Armor Wars” is solid stuff. Check it out.

The best Iron Man run in recent years came in 1998, with IRON MAN #1, the revival of the series after the less-than-successful HEROES REBORN revamp by Jim Lee.

Writer Kurt Busiek took the series back to basics, reinforcing Tony Stark’s lifestyle as an international jetsetting playboy and reintroducing original supporting cast members Happy and Pepper. Busiek even brought back Stark’s health issues, but with a twist: years of wearing the armor had completely wracked Tony Stark’s immune system (as his doctor put it: “with the level of energy-fields your armor generates, wearing it isn’t like living near power lines, it’s like living inside them.”) A nice reversal: after depending on his armor to live for so long, now wearing it could kill him. The art by Sean Chen was solid, with a hint of a Manga feel to it, and his new design for the armor was sufficiently futuristic while still invoking the nostalgia appeal of the Steve Ditko suit. Busiek stayed on the book for almost two years, and those first 24 issues or so are well worth tracking down.

Iron Man has had pretty limited exposure outside of comics. The “cool exec with a heart of steel,” Iron Man was part of the 1967 MARVEL SUPER-HEROES animation package from Grantray-Lawrence, which featured barely animated cartoons taken straight from the original art of the comics themselves.

As discussed before, these are good for some yuks, and the stories are certainly faithful retellings, but they barely qualify as animation.

Iron Man did get his own action figure in Mego’s 1970s “World’s Greatest Super-Heroes” line.

A little-known fact: the figure was originally designed as a Doctor Doom figure, but to save money on the figure (the Doom would have cost more due to the “metallic” cloth used to simulate armor and the additional cloth for a cloak and hood) it was converted to an Iron Man, which is why the Mego Iron Man sports the George Tuska-style nose on the faceplate that appeared so briefly in the comics. It’s a pretty sweet figure, one of the high points of Mego’s line.

Iron Man returned to television in 1994 as part of the syndicated MARVEL ACTION HOUR. Just like its sister series THE FANTASTIC FOUR, the first season of the MARVEL ACTION HOUR IRON MAN series was truly horrendous. Iron Man is saddled with a second-rate Avengers-knockoff superhero team, featuring War Machine, Spider-Woman, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Century.

The Mandarin schemes up Cobra Commander-like plans nearly every episode, and uses the same goon henchmen week after agonizing week. The scripts were juvenile and unfunny, and the voice acting, with the notable exception of Robert Hays as Tony Stark/Iron Man, was well below par.

Just like FANTASTIC FOUR, however, in a rare move for television, producers noticed and took action, replacing the entire creative team, and recasting the whole show with the exception of Hays. The second season was much, much better, with smarter, less formulaic scripts, better animation and much improved acting, thanks to the talents of folks like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., David Warner, Lisa Zane, Ron Perlman and Matt Frewer. The stories have a much more serious tone, such as a well-done adaptation of the “Armor Wars” storyline from the comics.

Most important, the Mandarin (who for some reason is colored a lovely shade of green in the series) doesn’t appear in every stinking episode. The best thing to come out of the IRON MAN animated series, however, was a fantastic series of action figures from Toy Biz. Not only was nearly every type of armor design created as an action figure (everything from stealth to outer-space to undersea to my personal favorite — “Hulkbuster armor”), but the toy line lasted long enough to offer both supporting characters like War Machine, Hawkeye and Spider-Woman, as well as a whole mess of classic Iron Man villains, including the Mandarin, the Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man, Blizzard, Blacklash and my personal favorite, MODOK (That stands for Mobile Organism Designed Only for Killing, by the way…)

The only flaw in the series was that they never made a figure of the classic Steve Ditko armor, the one most used in the comics.

Toy Biz finally rectified this error in their “Marvel Legends” action-figure series, with this stunning Iron Man action figure, available with and without the original Ditko-style faceplate. It’s pretty much the best Iron Man figure ever made. Pick one up if you’re so inclined.

As it turns out, Iron Man is a pretty consistent seller for the company, as over the next three years, Toy Biz released a whole passel of Iron Man figures, as seen here:

What does the future hold? Well, the big screen beckons, as Shellhead is slated for a big-budget feature film, directed by Jon Favreau, and starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges. Will it be any good? Only time will tell.

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