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Iron Man by David Michelinie & Bob Layton (& John Romita Jr.) Omnibus, Vol 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To get ready for Iron Man 3, we’ll be taking a look at some Iron Man and Avengers stories, both modern and classic. We hope to do two or three a week throughout the month, so check back regularly for the latest update.

It’s hard to believe, given the high profile the character has attained since Robert Downey Jr. first played Tony Stark in Iron Man back in 2008, but Iron Man used to be one of Marvel’s second-tier characters. Of course, like any other comic book character, Iron Man has had his ups and downs. There have been solid runs by great creative teams, and disappointing stories told by writers and artists unsuited to the character. However, Iron Man never really had one of those iconic comic book runs of the seventies and eighties, the kind of high-profile character-defining run like Walt Simonson’s tenure on Thor or Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil or Chris Clarement’s extended run on the X-Men franchise.

Perhaps the closest to such a run from the Bronze Age is the work by David Michelinie and Bob Layton, who actually enjoyed two extended runs writing for the character at the end of the seventies and into the eighties. This gigantic omnibus collection includes the first of those two runs, which were bisected (mostly) by Denny O’Neil’s extended time on the title. While it’s not as cohesive and solid a run as any of the aforementioned examples, it still demonstrates a solid understanding of Iron Man, and features two of the character’s most iconic stories.

You have to whip it...

You have to whip it…

Iron Man is a character who tends to have iconic stories rather than iconic runs. While it’s hard to separate Born Again from Miller’s earlier Daredevil run, or Walt Simonson’s Surtur arc from his grand Thor saga, or even The Mutant Massacre from Claremont’s body of Uncanny X-Men work, Iron Man tends to be better known for individual stories rather than entire runs. These individual stories can by easily divorced from context and sold almost as stand alone adventures, rather than chapters in larger on-going stories.

For example, Denny O’Neil’s forty-nine issue run is overshadowed by his Iron Monger story, which was a massive influence on Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Michelinie and Layton’s second extended tenure is best known as the home of the character-defining Armour Wars story arc. And their first run, collected here, seems to be defined (and almost bookended) by two well-known and well-loved Iron Man stories: Demon in a Bottle and Doomquest.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

Both stories deserve their status and their influence. It’s clear that both have left a definite mark on the character. For example, current Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis seems to be a huge fan of Doomquest. He used the arc to develop Tony’s motivations during Civil War in some of his New Avengers tie-ins. He also included a rather blatant homage to the arc during his first arc on Mighty Avengers, the author’s first concerted attempt to tell a large-scale “superhero-y” story.

Demon in a Bottle is even more iconic and influential. It informs pretty much every later interpretation of Iron Man. Every subsequent writer who has had Tony fall off the wagon, from Denny O’Neil to Matt Fraction, owes a massive debt to Michelinie and Layton for their work here. It’s also one of the first times that comic books have explicitly recognised alcoholism as an illness, and a disease. As such, it represents a bold attempt to deal with an issue that is still treated as a social stigma.

A shooting start...

A shooting start…

It feels like a rather conscious attempt to embrace real-life social issues within the context of mainstream comic books, much like Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams had been doing on Green Lantern/Green Arrow. It is very hard to over-state how massively influential Demon in a Bottle is, but the fact that the storyline is repeatedly listed as something fans want to see covered by the feature films gives some indication of just how definitive that story is.

However, to focus exclusively on those two wonderful stories feels like it does a disservice to Michelinie and Layton. The rest of the run isn’t anywhere near as sharp and well-constructed as those two stories, but it still features two writers who clearly understand the character they have been tasked with writing. Even outside of the two stories that even casual Iron Man fans can name-drop, the run is one that has had a massive influence in shaping the character.

His country salutes him...

His country salutes him…

The duo introduced a number of important supporting characters, including Jim Rhodes – who Denny O’Neil would allow to temporarily replace Stark as Iron Man during his run, and who would eventually earn his own superhero identity as War Machine. Michelinie and Layton also added Bethany Cabe to Iron Man’s rotating supporting cast, a character developed and expanded over this run, and who would pop up quite frequently in the years ahead.

There’s also a wealth of good ideas here. Most notably, Michelinie and Layton seem to accept that Iron Man really doesn’t have the strongest selection of adversaries in comic books. Iron Man’s most iconic foe, the Mandarin, doesn’t even appear in this run of issues – although that may be an acknowledgement that the character’s arch-villain is a tad politically incorrect. Indeed, the villain is only appearing on the big screen (played by Ben Kingsley) in Iron Man 3.

Personal reflections...

Personal reflections…

While Michelinie and Layton do use their fair share of pre-existing Iron Man villains, they don’t seem to think too much of them. They are more mild inconveniences than legitimate threats – and pretty much as thick as two planks. “Fools!” new villain Justin Hammer declares at one point. “No one of you is a match for Iron Man alone! Your only chance is to attack en masse!” The narration assures us, “And so they do. Not even stopping to ask what ‘en masse’ means, they move forward in a multicoloured wave of calculated violence…”

Later on, the villainous Whiplash (er… Backlash) accidentally starts a fire at Stark International that winds up being a bigger problem than he is. The Unicorn is tricked into drowning himself. The biggest role played by a pre-existing Iron Man villain is the role of “the Other”, played by the Titanium Man. The comic even points out that he’s only appearing to wrap up threads started by the creative team’s predecessors. “The return of the plotline that would not die!” the teaser boasts. “Bill Mantlo fans, can you guess the secret of — the Other?”

Creator cameo!

Creator cameo!

In contrast, acknowledging that Iron Man doesn’t have the strongest selection of foes in comic book history, Michelinie and Layton adopt a number of shrewd tactics to play to the character’s strengths. For one thing, they invent a new villain, Justin Hammer, who is designed to play to Stark’s strengths. Hammer is one of the most successful Iron Man villains, and Michelinie and Layton do an excellent job crafting a foil to Stark.

Here, the duo seem to be a great deal ahead of their time. They look at Iron Man’s selection of foes, and ask a fairly simple question: how do those guys keep getting technology/bail? Their answer is to suggest a behind-the-scenes conspiracy directed by Hammer. “Haven’t you ever wondered where some of your foes get the money to develop their weapons, pay their bail, replace broken equipment?” Hammer asks. “It is my pleasure to offer sanctuary and financial aid to those particular gentlemen and ladies… for a mere 50% of their profits.”

Spy(master) smasher!

Spy(master) smasher!

It’s a smart plot point, and one that many other writers have emulated over the years. Brian Michael Bendis would turn a similar query into the root of his Secret War miniseries, while Mark Millar would use that sort of logic in his Marvel Knights: Spider-Man run. It works a little better with Iron Man, because there isn’t too much lost by denying a bunch of second-tier villains their own autonomy or their own agency. (In contracts, Spider-Man’s foes are so strong that tying them all together robs them of some individuality.)

Hammer is a nice counterpart to Stark, and embodies one of the most successful Iron Man villain archetypes. He’s the amoral business man, in contrast to Stark’s more moral business policies. However flawed Stark might be – and Michelinie and Layton acknowledge that he has his demons – he’s still trying to do the right thing. He’s more moral than Hammer or Roxxon or any number of these corrupt corporate executives. “Oh, please, young man, spare me your morbid melodramatics,” Hammer boasts to Iron Man at one point. “You know you’re not going to kill me. For you share your employer’s most debilitating handicap — a sense of morality.”

A heart attack!

A heart attack!

Michelinie and Layton also hit upon an aspect of Iron Man that would pay dividends for his characterisation down the line and – more immediately – offsets the fact that he doesn’t have the strongest selection of foes. The pair focus on Stark’s relationship with other major players within the Marvel Universe, allowing for a variety of team-ups and contrasts. Most obviously, the pair stumble across the inspired idea of pitting Iron Man against Doctor Doom, but the comic also features an arc guest-starring the Incredible Hulk and uses Nick Fury as a recurring guest-star.

The decision to bring in the Hulk to guest-star for an arc is an inspired touch. For one thing, like the Justin Hammer revelation, it makes a great deal of sense. Not only have Tony and Bruce Banner been linked since the beginning, but you’d have to imagine that Bruce Banner isn’t the only scientist who is worried about the Hulk. “Maybe it’s time I stopped fighting the Hulk,” Stark thinks, “and tried to help him.” About damn time. Coupled with the fact that Ant-Man is working at Stark international, there’s a sense that Stark has sort of set up an Avengers braintrust. It’s not developed as much as it should be, but it’s a great idea. Plus, it foreshadows the bro-mance from The Avengers.

Rattling his shell(head)...

Rattling his shell(head)…

Doctor Doom is probably the best villain in the Marvel Universe, and certain ranks among the top tier of comic book characters ever created. He’s just such a rich character that he plays well as a foil to any number of heroic characters. It’s a shame that the film studios don’t own the rights to Doom, as he’d make a great foe for The Avengers 2. Obviously, he was invented as a foil to Reed Richards, but it’s also possible to construct a great little story where he goes head-to-head with the Punisher.

Pitting him against Iron Man is a wonderful idea, and not just because they are two men who like to wear metal suits. They are both powerful men, rulers in their own right, and both genius inventors. However, there’s also enough contrast to make it work as a foil. Like Reed Richards, Tony Stark is a man of science – so Doom’s mysticism stands in stark opposition to his own scientific theories. And, of course, there’s the fact that Doom wilfully abuses his power instead of using it for the greater good.

The atmosphere is electric...

The atmosphere is electric…

However, Michelinie and Layton hit on another inspired contrast. Tony Stark is a product of the American social system. He’s the kind of person who believes in social mobility, and who respects individual freedom. Doom, on the other hand, is a European monarch and views the world in a manner more defined by social status and class.

In one of Doomquest‘s more inspired touches, Doom (who is unaware that Stark is Iron Man) is clearly offended that Stark would send his “underling” Iron Man to deal with him. “What do you want — errand boy!” he greets Iron Man. Later, he protests, “I do not debate with lackeys.” It’s not the conflict that would immediately have come to mind when I imagined Doom and Iron Man facing off, but it makes perfect sense – like Layton and Michelinie’s Justin Hammer revelation.

An Iron Man alone...

An Iron Man alone…

There’s also the suggestion here that Iron Man doesn’t play well with others. It isn’t fully developed in this first run of issues, but you can see the seeds of Armour Wars in the relationship here between Stark and Nick Fury. Even though At the Mercy of my Friends reveals that extemists within S.H.I.E.L.D. were plotting to assassinate Stark, it’s clear that he can’t entirely trust Nick Fury. Fury notes that Stark’s suitcase is handcuffed to his wrist. “Whatsa matter, afraid S.H.I.E.L.D.’s gonna mug ya?” he jokes.

Of course, it turns out to be dangerously close to the truth. “I’ve just received confidential information that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been buying stock in Stark International,” Stark reveals at one point, “and very nearly holds a controlling interest! What gives?” Fury explains that his own objectives don’t always complement Stark’s. “The manufacture of munitions by Stark International has been determined to be vital to national security! But since we knew you’d never agree to that — we’ve instigated a legal takeover of S.I.!”

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

The relationship between Stark International and S.H.I.E.L.D. is shown to quite chilly over the course of the run, foreshadowing Michelinie and Layton’s second run on The Invincible Iron Man. Even after all of this is cleared up, there’s still a chill in the air, with S.H.I.E.L.D. hijacking one of Stark’s labs to investigate the mysterious death of two hundred people. Later on, Captain America expresses concern about the possibility Iron Man’s interests might conflict with America’s foreign policy objectives.

“Uh, just one question, Iron Man,” Captain America asks, as Iron Man borrows an Avengers jet for an international expedition, “we’re all aware of Tony Stark’s problems in Costa Diablo — so I don’t suppose what you’re planning will do anything to compromise American foreign policy or security?” Iron Man lies to his friend and team mater in order to get what he feels he needs. It’s a nice touch, and it demonstrates a keen political awareness. Stark’s best interests don’t always align with those of the state, and it’s possible for two reasonable positions to come into conflict.

Really building to something...

Really building to something…

Michelinie and Layton recognise that Tony Stark is the embodiment of American individualism – the spirit of enterprise, the notion that one man can do truly great things. As such, they seem to recognise that putting Stark in conflict with the forces of the establishment (Nick Fury, Captain America) is a shrewd of generating interesting conflict. You can very clearly trace the roots of Civil War back to Michelinie and Layton’s work on the character.

In many ways, one can sense the post-Watergate paranoia in Michelinie and Layton’s Invincible Iron Man, as the series acknowledges that interests of government and of their people might occasionally be at odds, just as the interests of private corporations won’t always synch up with the greater good. Given that this is a comic about a super-powered industrialist, there is a very clear sense of fear about massive global financial interests, in particularly energy providers. It’s a theme that suits Iron Man quite well, and Michelinie and Layton work it into their story at ease.

Something fishy is going on...

Something fishy is going on…

In one story, a massive energy company, Roxxon, are posing as the government so that they can dump toxic waste on an island. The officer in charge of this mission appeals to Iron Man’s patriotic duty to keep this quiet. “If the eco-freaks ever got hold of this, well…” Later on, Senator Mountebank shows up after 200 deaths, asking Tony to help cover up the financial interests involved in the incident. “But there are certain interests there, interests that would be served — if you were to keep, shall we say, a low profile on the Iowa affair.”

Michelinie and Layton also seem to grasp the idea that Stark is himself something of a flawed hero. His alcoholism is really the first chink in the character’s armour, the first acknowledgement that Stark is less than a perfect human being. This collection also hints that Stark doesn’t play well with others. This is a man who could lie to Captain America to serve his own interests. Marvel’s heroic characters were always a bit more nuanced and flawed than their counterparts at DC, and Iron Man owes a huge debt to Michelinie and Layton in developing his feet of clay.

Iron Man's certainly got the bottle...

Iron Man’s certainly got the bottle…

While Demon in a Bottle hasn’t aged perfectly, and occasionally feels a little bit too much like a “very special episode” about the realities of alcoholism, Michelinie and Layton deserve a great deal of credit for the way they handle the hero’s addiction. It’s developed over a number of issue leading up to storyline, in ways that vary from quite subtle (a host of discarded bottles on the flight) to rather blunt (“but it’s only 9.30, sir,” Pithins protests, “isn’t that a bit early…?”).

Both authors do a nice job demonstrating how Stark’s alcoholism is exacerbated by the stresses he finds himself working under. I actually quite like the suggestion that Stark’s troubles were really triggered by Whitney Frost’s betrayal – they somehow suggest a more sincere emotional attraction between Stark and Frost than we normally see, and do a great deal to help Frost seem like more than a bitter and jilter lover.

He's ship-shape...

He’s ship-shape…

That said, Michelinie and Layton’s handling of Madame Masque is still problematic. I like that the pair have Bethany Cabe call her on the narcissism of her preoccupation with her physical appearance. She’s a criminal, not a victim, and she shouldn’t be treated as a special case just because she’s a woman with some facial scars. After all, the Joker doesn’t get that much sympathy because he doesn’t look pretty, and Harvey Dent’s more frustrated by his insanity than the loss of his good looks.

“We’re talking about love… about lives… and all you can think of is your face?” Bethany protests. However, the same comic ends with Bethany letting Madame Masque go, because apparently she’s suffered enough. It completely undermines the rest of the scene, and plays into the sexist portrayal as Madame Masque as a woman who deserves some measure of sympathy because she’s not physically attractive any longer. It, the story seems to suggest, must be so tough for her.

Alas, poor Iron Man...

Alas, poor Iron Man…

However, for all the skill on show here, this isn’t the perfect comic book run. It doesn’t measure up to the best runs from the same time for a number of reasons. Most obviously, and through no fault of Michelinie and Layton, it is very firmly anchored in the late seventies and early eighties. Tony Stark is repeatedly rooted in the Vietnam War. While references to cult phenomenon like Star Trek and Star Wars don’t date the comic, comparisons to Ed Asner do. (Indeed, one story – Siege – seems like a none-too-suble reference to the 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege.)

The series seems to be written as if the Marvel Universe hasn’t quite embraced its sliding timescale – the logic used to explain how Tony Stark can be perenially thirty-something despite being created forty-odd years ago. Marvel would eventually explain that the characters were caught in a perpetual present. Extremis would reactively change Iron Man’s origin to an unspecified Middle Eastern conflict to make it all just a little more contemporary.

A breakout run?

A breakout run?

That logic isn’t in play here, and according to David Michelinie and Bob Layton’s Invincible Iron Man, Tony is still a product of the sixties, “an era that had spawned folk rock, moon walks… and an impressive array of super-powered heroes.” The re-telling of Iron Man’s origin in In the Beginning is firmly established as during the sixties, even though Vietnam did continue into the seventies. That gives these stories a very strange, and very anchored, sense of time and place.

While Layton and Michelinie seem to avoid the Cold War for the most part, it’s hard to divorce Tony Stark from the politics of the time. The pair don’t layer it on too heavily, but references to Eastern Germany and the politics of the Titanium Man do serve to anchor the story in the Cold War era. Admittedly, there’s a kitsch charm to the Titanium Man’s rampage. “Flee, you duped puppets of capitalist government!” he shouts. “For the metropolis of capitalist decadence in which you live is doomed! Soon it shall fall before me as an example, to show the Moscow Directorate where my true loyalties lie!”

As you can see, Iron Man's villains generally aren't up to much...

As you can see, Iron Man’s villains generally aren’t up to much…

There are other weaknesses. It seems like Layton and Michelinie haven’t quite mastered serialised storytelling. The build-up to the reveal of Tony Stark’s alcoholism is cleverly set-up and seeded months in advance, but things seem to take strange detours and strange plotlines return from the past in order to get tied up. For example, in the fourth-last issue collected here, the Unicorn pops up – having last appeared two issues before Layton and Michelinie took over the title.

More than that, though, there’s a sense that the pair aren’t quite sure how to pay-off set-up. Demon in a Bottle features Iron Man murdering an innocent person, when Justin Hammer hijacks his suit. That’s a great hook, but the comic doesn’t seem to play it out right in the short- or the long-term. The police let Iron Man just walk away after he murders the ambassador. “We don’t have much choice, Miss,” they explain. “That guy’s got the power to sink this whole blasted island if we push matters!”

He'll tell you when he's had enough!

He’ll tell you when he’s had enough!

While that plotting logic allows Stark time to prove his innocence, it doesn’t make much sense. If the Green Goblin killed the ambassador, would the cops just stand by and let him walk away if Spider-Man wasn’t there to stop him? Similarly, Stark seems to be able to win back the public incredibly quickly. He defeats the Titanium Man to earn their trust, but that seems a bit easy for a hero filmed murdering a fan in cold blood. Given Spider-Man can’t catch a break, it seems a trifle convenient.

I think that Layton and Michelinie’s Invincible Iron Man run also suffers because it lacks a very clear defining arc. Simonson’s Thor was always moving forwards as an exploration of its lead character, and Miller’s Daredevil had a very clear thematic throughline, even before you get to his second run. While Michelinie and Layton write any number of entertaining issues and arcs, they don’t quite flow together as well as they might. There’s a sense of consequence – “a” leads to “b” leads to “c” – but once you get past Demon in a Bottle, it seems like things are just sort of happening, and that story isn’t flowing to or from on central point.

It isn't up for disc-ussion...

It isn’t up for disc-ussion…

Still, these aren’t fatal flaws. These are what hold this highly enjoyable run back from the status of a genuine classic, while also explaining why Iron Man is probably best defined by individual stories and arcs rather than by runs. Demon in a Bottle and Doomquest would already establish Layton and Michelinie as among the best writers on Invincible Iron Man, and their reunion on Armour Wars would seal the deal. These are two of the best writers to ever work on the character, and the stories are mostly pretty fun, with some great concepts and ideas. The only potential problem is that the run never quite comes together.

It’s a great collection. I have to admit, I’d love to see Marvel release not only a second volume of their run on the title, but also the Denny O’Neil run that sat between their Invincible Iron Man runs.

2 Responses

  1. L’ha ribloggato su petrone98.

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