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Stan Lee’s Iron Man – The Invincible Iron Man 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.

Working in collaboration with a stable of fantastic artists, Stan Lee created so many iconic characters and franchises at Marvel Comics that you could easily believe that everything he touched turned to gold. His work on The Fantastic Four, Thor and The Avengers with Jack Kirby so perfectly captured the sci-fi spirit of the sixties, and his creation of The Amazing Spider-Man with Steve Ditko redefined comic books, so it’s hard not to imagine that everything Lee set his mind to worked out perfectly.

Of course, inevitably, there were books that didn’t quite work right out of the gate. While his first reboot of Captain America was so awkward that he had to retroactively re-write the stories to feature a crazed Captain America impersonator, a lot of these titles were given the time and space necessary to try to figure out how to make them work. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Lee was quite sentimental towards some of his creations, with the awkward development history of The Incredible Hulk suggesting that Lee was going to try to figure out any way to make that character gel.

The Invincible Iron Man was never quite that troublesome, but he also never entirely clicked under Lee’s pen. While none of the character’s re-tools and re-workings are as severe as the kind of things that Marvel tried to do with the Hulk, there’s a very clear sense – reading this mammoth collection of Tales of Suspense short stories – that Lee wasn’t entirely sure about how to write Iron Man.

I am Iron Man!

I am Iron Man!

Tony Stark isn’t your typical superhero. Everybody knows that, and the general public probably figured it out when Robert Downey Jr. spent an entire film playing a character who probably shouldn’t be a superhero. Those comic book fans who had a long-term affection for the character had probably suspected Stark was a bit different since his very first appearance in the opening pages of Iron Man is Born!

Stan Lee created a model for crafting iconic comic book characters in the sixties. Recognising that the audience for these books was young kids or teenagers, Lee seemed to realise that people wanted to root for the underdog, that the comic book battles and spectacle could be grounded in real life angst.So we got comic book heroes who were decidedly more grounded, dealing with real-life problems and concerns that a lot of the readers could empathise with.

Suit up!

Suit up!

It was fun to watch Spider-Man battle Doctor Octopus, but the audience got more invested if Peter Parker had to miss a date in order to do that. Ben Grimm could smash Doctor Doom in the face, but he was still trapped inside the body that had undergone (and might still be undergoing) a radical change. Even Thor had to deal with the somewhat difficulties affecting his human alter ego, Donald Blake – something that was admittedly quite problematic and less than politically correct.

Tony Stark represents a massive shift from that particular paradigm. He’s a wealthy man, an industrialist. He’s “rich, handsome, known as a glamorous playboy, constantly in the company of beautiful, adoring women…” To quote a lady from the first issue, “He’s the dreamiest thing this side of Rock Hudson!” While kids might want to be Spider-Man without having to worry about Peter Parker, or to be Thor without the mundanity of Donald Blake, you could understand why children might want to be Tony Stark, even without that fantastic suit of armour.

Blast from the past...

Blast from the past…

Lee himself, in one of the introductory pieces collected here, argues that this was a challenge that he set for himself:

Y’know, if you think about it, all the odds were strongly against Iron Man ever becoming a successful comic-book hero. First of all, he was part of the military/industrial complex that most young people hated in the ’60s. Also, he was filthy rich during a time when millions of hippies were turning their backs on wealth and success. Finally, he was a weapons manufacturer during a decade when war-weary Americans were totally turned off against anything having to do with war.

So why did I decide to write an Iron Man series? Hey, how can a guy who writes about super heroes refuse a challenge?

It’s a convincing argument, on the surface.

Crush for Khrushchev...

Crush for Khrushchev…

However, most of the objections Lee cites towards Iron Man would have come from older readers who were reacting against the Vietnam War, or who had lived through the Second World War. Indeed, Lee would go out of his way to avoid making the stories too political, or to complicate the morality of this comic book weapons dealer. While, on paper, Stark was a character that would be hard to love, the version presented in Tales of Suspense was a fantasy figure. He got to date beautiful women, without any real commitment. He got to drive fast cars. He got to travel the world. He got to invent cool gizmos. Oh, and he also got to be a superhero on top of that.

Which brings us to a very interesting aspect of Iron Man, as he appears in the early Tales of Suspense stories. He is noticeably out of step with the majority of the Marvel Comics heroes. However, he feels like a conscious attempt to revive a Golden Age hero, which makes the fact that he shared Tales of Suspense with Lee’s second attempt to revive Captain America all the more appropriate. Captain America was a Golden Age hero revived for the Silver Age. Iron Man was a Silver Age hero who harked back to Golden Age values.

He's got a magnetic personality...

He’s got a magnetic personality…

Stark feels like a similar creation to the wealthy adventurers who became costumed heroes during the Golden Age, treating their right to dress up in silly costumes and beat up (or straight-up murder) criminals as something bestowed by their wealth or their privilege. The Golden Age Batman is the most obvious example, with Bruce Wayne seemingly allowed to visit crime scenes with Gordon and given access to on-going police investigations because he’s just that upstanding and rich. However, there are other examples like Carter Hall or Alan Scott.

The notion is that these playboys lived lives of luxury during the day, and got to sneak around at night doing even more cool stuff. And it seemed like you could trust them to wear those costumes because rich people would never do anything immoral. You just have to worry about those crooks trying to become rich. This approach to Tony Stark is most obvious in the early issues, the ones written by Robert Bernstein from Stan Lee’s plots.

Plug and play...

Plug and play…

Indeed, despite the fact that Stark is using a costume and motif more in keeping with the gee-whiz sci-fi heroes of the fifties and sixties, there is something in his character that harks back to a simpler time. Early on, one of his dates suggests Iron Man is “a modern knight in shining armour.” Even later on, after he has updated his suit, we’re told, “Although thin and light in weight, Iron Man’s armour affords such great protection because it is constructed like the chain-mail armour of knights of old!”

The Mad Pharaoh is perhaps the most obvious example of this early old-fashioned approach to the character, the kind of story that could easily have been a lost script from the Golden Age updated to star a modern comic book hero. It even harks back to the Egyptology craze of the twenties, thirties and forties, feeling remarkably dated by the point it was actually published. “I’m flying to Egypt to help an archaeologist friend make the find of his career!” Tony Stark boasts to the press, because that’s totally the kind of thing he can do.

Testing his metal...

Testing his metal…

When a situation emerges that Iron man could help resolve, Stark makes sure he has his priorities straight. “I’ll amuse myself in Cairo tonight… then fly back here tomorrow as Iron Man!” Granted, it’s not a life-and-death situation, but it’s clear that Iron Man is pretty much just a flashy hobby for a spoilt industrialist. When the eponymous Mad Pharaoh poisons the people working at the dig and tries to take Iron Man back in time with him (this being a comic book, after all), Tony really doesn’t seem too bothered by the whole affair.

“He does not know I’d be begging him to take me, even if he didn’t want to!” Iron Man thinks to himself. “A chance to travel to the past!! If he can really do it, it will be the adventure of a lifetime for me — and for Iron Man!” Yep, because there’s no reason you should worry about a time-travelling Egyptian Pharaoh, as long as you get to do some cool stuff. When Iron Man arrives in ancient Egypt, he doesn’t worry about contaminating the time-line or any nonsense like this. Stark wants the full ancient Egypt experience, and he’s going to get it.

Smashing!

Smashing!

So he throws himself into the war between the Romans and the Egyptians, because… well, why not? How does he pick a side? Does he consider the values of each culture? No, he simply decides to go with which ever one would make it more fun for him. “I guess a man has to side with the underdog, even in the past! So I’ll try to help the defending Egyptians!” His logic is flawless. So Iron Man meddles in ancient Egyptian affairs, hooks up with Cleopatra, and then makes sly and subtle boasts to the assembled press upon his return to the present. Because… why not?

The Mad Pharaoh is the most obvious example, but it hints at a theme that plays out throughout these stories, even those written by Stan Lee himself. Quite frankly, Iron Man is a strongly imperialist character this early in his publication history, which probably shouldn’t be too surprising since the book embraced the Cold War very tightly. Again, the introductions and post-scripts hasten to apologise for the brazen and unquestioningly jingoistic attitudes of these Tales of Suspense stories, but they feel remarkably in character for this early Iron Man.

Going for gold...

Going for gold…

This is a book which unashamedly tosses around slang and insults like “the reds” and “commies.” Standing up to a guerilla in Viet Nam, Tony declares, “This is Iron Man who opposes you and all you stand for!” An early adventure features Iron Man fighting “the Red Barbarian”, a sinister villain who “controls this vast commie spy network”, and who is introduced eating a leg of meat so large he can knock a lackey unconscious with it. Subtle these stories are not.

Although not directly named, Khrushchev (“the ‘Mr. Big’ of the Iron Curtain!”) pops up repeatedly. In The Crimson Dynamo, he’s a dirty weak-willed coward. Fighting the Crimson Dynamo, Tony notes, “All Commies are chronically suspicious of each other!” Somewhat hypocritically, Iron Man fakes a recording of Khrushchev plotting to assassinate Vanko. Without even a hint of irony, he confesses, “I was certain that he’d believe it… because he knows how treacherous all communists are!”

I believe in angels...

I believe in angels…

It seems like the book actually believes that the Communists were inhuman monsters. When Stark tries to save two of her henchmen, the Black Widow wonders, “What manner of men are these Americans, who risk their lives for their enemies??” When one of the saved goons wonders the same things, Tony replies, “That’s the trouble with you Commies! You just don’t dig us!” Lee seems to suggest that the Russians are actually incapable of understanding heroism and altruism.

Some of these portrayals are problematic. After all, one of the biggest problems with Iron Man as a character is the fact that he really doesn’t have too many strong villains, and that his arch foe is an outdated Fu Manchu knock-off, the Mandarin. (Indeed, the Mandarin even seems to emulate another iconic Fu Manchu knock-off in The Mandarin’s Revenge, toppling American missiles with “an unseen force beam.”) The problems raised by the Mandarin are obvious, as demonstrated by the fact that Tony is only coming face-to-face with his arch-enemy on-screen in Iron Man 3, where he will be played by Sir Ben Kingsley.

Can he manage the Mandarin?

Can he manage the Mandarin?

It’s worth noting that the first Iron Man villain is also a yellow peril bad guy, the Viet Nam terrorist Wong-Chu, who is literally coloured in yellow. We get little development or exploration of character beyond the fact that he is opposed to American interests, so he must be evil. “Hah!” he declares helpfully at one point, just to be sure we understand how evil he is. “I have brought another village to its knees!”

To be fair, the Mandarin gets a bit more development, but he’s still problematic. In their first confrontation, Iron Man describes him as a “weak apology for Genghis Khan”, and we later discover that there is a familial link there. “My father was a direct descendent of Genghis Khan!” he boasts. Unfortunately, the comic decides to make the character mixed-race, bringing all manner of unfortunate implications into it. “He was foolish enough to marry a high born Englishwoman!” the Mandarin declares, as the comic crafts the type of politically-incorrect origin that Ian Fleming might be proud of.

A bird in the hand...

A bird in the hand…

The Mandarin is also, apparently, “the greatest karate master the world has ever known!” Because of course he is. God forbid that another Asian stereotype should be ignored or overlooked. Just in case we didn’t get the rather overt homage to Fu Manchu, Tony Stark himself happily assures us that the Mandarin is “the most brilliant evil genius in the orient!” It’s easy to see how such a significant opponent can be absent from Tony Stark’s comic for so long at a time. Imagine if the Joker or Lex Luther were an unfortunate ethnic stereotype, despite holding such an important position in the comic book canon.

Which brings us to the fact that the Mandarin actually works quite well as a foil to Tony, for reasons that are mostly entirely unrelated to his status as a borderline racist archetype. While Stark is a successful industrialist, the Mandarin lost everything (including, apparently, his name) in the Chinese Revolution. While Tony masters science, the Mandarin doesn’t subscribe to that harsh rational logic. His power provides a weird union of magic and science, a power gifted to him – in that most Silver Age of fashions – by an alien dragon. “Then that was the origin of the dragon legend in China!” he declares after finding mystical alien power sources.

Putting my nostalgia goggles on...

Putting my nostalgia goggles on…

In short, the Mandarin works as a foil for Tony for the same reason that Doctor Doom would work so well in Bob Layton and David Michelinie’s Doomquest. He can match Iron Man’s technical genius, but he mixes that hard logic with something darker and more unsettling. I suspect that one of the reasons that Doctor Doom has caught on so well as a foil for Tony Stark is because he offers a lot of the appeal of the Mandarin, without any of the unfortunate implications.

And, once you get past the Mandarin, Iron Man really doesn’t have a strong selection of foes. Over the course of Tales of Suspense, most turn out to be Russian agents, like the Crimson Dynamo or the Titanium Man. Even those bad guys who aren’t foreign agents are generally shown to be in league with the Ruskies. The Scarecrow tries to sell secrets. Hawkeye is beguiled by the Black Widow, and used as an unwitting pawn.

His airs and graces...

His airs and graces…

To be fair, this approach would mellow a bit over time, with the first thaw recorded here. For example, the faintest ambiguities or shades of grey begin to creep into these stories. For example, the Black Widow evolves from a sultry spy to a borderline super-villainess Spider-Man knock-off in Hawkeye and the New Black Widow Strike Again!, suggesting the book might be slowly easing away from its portrayal of Russian spies and bad guys.

At the same time, the title introduces Senator Byrd as an adversary for Tony Stark, perhaps the first indication that Stark’s interests might not align with the government. “He’d put me out of business in a minute if he could,” Stark remarks of the official. In My Life For Yours!, Byrd steps up the conflict, and poses a credible threat to Iron Man that easily rivals any bad guy from the other side of the Iron Curtain. “I’m going to force your employer to bring his great golden avenger to us — so that the country can learn the secret of his invulnerable armour!”

A Widow of opportunity...

A Widow of opportunity…

However, it appears like Lee isn’t quite willing to commit to that sort of ambiguity, and is hesitant to suggest that the United States government might not be unambiguously heroic. Byrd isn’t presented as a flawed character. He isn’t a short-sighted bluster bureaucrat. Indeed, Tony repeatedly goes out of his way to concede that he has some sympathy for the man. “Senator Byrd is a good sort!” he concedes. “He’s a dedicated public official who believes what he reads in the gossip columns! I can’t even say I blame him!”

More than that, Lee seems unwilling to concede that the rights of the state and the rights of the individual might come into conflict. That would become the cornerstone of David Michelinie and Bob Layton’s Invincible Iron Man work, but Lee isn’t ready to push it that far yet. “I’m finally convinced that he’s right!” Stark concedes, patriotically. “No one has the right to defy the wishes of his government… not even Iron Man!” he admits near the end of this volume, a position which feels in-character with Iron Man’s portrayal in Civil War, if at odds with his central dilemma in Armour Wars.

Time for a change...

Time for a change…

It’s also worth nothing that the title hasn’t entirely pulled back from its unashamed patriotism at this point. Indeed, the Byrd subplot reaches its crescendo during an extended televised fight between Iron Man and the Titanium Man, an unironically jingoistic duel that is attended by spectators and broadcast around the world. Because that is definitely a way to diffuse Cold War tensions. It all reads very awkwardly today.

Part of this is because Stan Lee seems unwilling to confront the rather obvious dramatic conflicts at the heart of Iron Man. As much as he fights the champions of communist countries, Iron Man embodies the qualities of arch-capitalism. He’s a wealthy industrialist who – at one point in his career, paints his armour gold. As far as the public is concerned, the Iron Man is a well-paid bodyguard who Stark can afford thanks to his wealth and status. Iron Man is a quintessentially capitalist hero, but that isn’t inherently a good thing.

The dangers are Stark...

The dangers are Stark…

There’s next to no criticism of unchecked capitalism here. Despite the fact that many of Stark’s later foes would be corrupt industrialists, only one American executive appears as a recurring villain here. The Melter is a shamed corporate director, but his crimes aren’t necessarily related to crimes against wider society. He is accused of using “inferior materials” for his army contracts, setting him up as just another traitor (albeit in a rather novel form) rather a capitalist gone bad.

“The pride of democracy!” the Melter accuses Iron Man. “Guardian of Stark’s weapons works! Defender of the weak and helpless!” We see the middle example quite frequently, but there’s little evidence here that Stark is a champion of democracy, or the weak and helpless. He’s certainly not a social radical. He seems to do little to help the impoverished in the stories told here. His sole contribution to the greater good of democracy seems to be his willingness to engage in conflict in foreign locations for the US military, and arresting spies operating in America.

I'm sure they'll Iron out their differences...

I’m sure they’ll Iron out their differences…

There’s never really a sense that Iron Man is using his gifts for the greater good, or that he is paying something back to society. He’s a man who gets to be a superhero when a poorer man would simply have died. His secret identity is maintained by the fact that he could convincingly boast keeping a superhero on his payroll. His plants and manufacturing hubs might draw more attention due to Iron Man, but it’s hard to deny that Iron Man isn’t a fantastic marketing tool for Stark.

However, since Lee is quite clearly afraid to touch any of this complicated political stuff, the comic runs into a bit of difficulty characterising old Tony Stark. Even with the fact that he has to recharge his heart on a regular basis, the attempts to generate angst for Iron Man wind up feeling rather forced. It seems like every time Stan Lee wants us to feel sorry for Tony, he has the character smash up a lab. Which would be impressive, except he keeps doing it, and he can probably afford to keep refurbishing it.

Be a doll...

Be a doll…

At the start of The Uncanny Unicorn, he has a breakdown. “I’m sick of being Iron Man! Sick of having to wear an electronic chest plate 24 hours a day! Sick of living on borrowed time… never knowing which moment will be my last!” It’s a tough sell. Peter Parker had his life sort of ruined by his super-powers. If he didn’t have them, he’d be a happy teenage kid. If Ben Grimm didn’t go in that rocket, he’d still be a normal guy. If Tony Stark didn’t have the Iron Man suit… oh, wait, he’d be dead. It’s sad that he might suddenly die in the future, but it’s hard to get too bothered when that thing is keeping him alive right now. After all, we could all die at any moment.

The dramatic breakdown at the start of Suspected of Murder feels similarly forced. “What cruel trick of fate is this?? I’m one of the strongest, most powerful, most feared humans on the face of the Earth! There is nothing I cannot accomplish… nothing I would not dare! And yet, I haven’t the courage to remove my iron armour… I don’t dare gamble with my damaged heart! I’m a prisoner of Iron Man… of my own creation!!” Again, while his situation is less than ideal, he’s still much better off than most Marvel heroes, and so it seems like Lee isn’t quite sure how to get us emotionally invested in Iron Man.

Iron Man is Our Man...

Iron Man is Our Man…

So Lee falls back on clumsy soap opera, including a love triangle. Happy loves Pepper, Pepper loves Tony, Tony… doesn’t seem to care, up until the point where he does care. While nowhere near as sexist as the early X-Men or Fantastic Four issues, it’s hard too get too excited about a drama where Pepper is just waiting to sink her hooks into Tony, and get her name on those deeds. “Right! Only he doesn’t know I’m alive, but someday he will… and then he’ll give up all his actresses and débutantes… and I’ll become Mrs. Anthony Stark!”

Maybe it’s the fact that it’s clear that Lee is just loosely grabbing for any compelling hook into Iron Man, or maybe it’s the fact that a recurring cast of three characters feels rather under-developed, but the interpersonal drama of Iron Man never really works. It instead feels like Lee is trying to fall back on a concept that worked quite well in the past, because he knows that Iron Man really needs some emotional hook to grab the audience.

A cool cat...

A cool cat…

Still, there is a bit to like here, even if Iron Man doesn’t start as strong as other Silver Age Marvel characters. The art is pretty good. Don Heck’s work here is fantastic, and I say that as somebody who never really warmed too much to Heck’s style. Iron Man is one of those character who wasn’t created by Kirby, but is perfectly suited to Kirby’s style. There’s a wonderful issue where Kirby fills in for a fight between Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner, and it feels like a lost Golden Age Marvel. Gene Colan also contributes. Colan’s art isn’t ideally suited to Iron Man, as his gift was in rendering atmosphere and faces, but his figure work is graceful.

There’s also a decidedly Silver Age vibe to all this, which is goofily charming. For example, at one point, Iron Man faces Gargantus, a robotic mind-controlling Neanderthal robot controlled by “a flying saucer from outer space.” As mentioned about, there’s also a time-travelling Mad Pharaoh. “I deceived all of them, Stark! I had swallowed a serum that put put me in a state of suspended animation which lasted 2,000 years! Now I shall return to the past, defeat Cleopatra and rule Egypt as I had originally planned!” It’s hardly the stuff or literary masterpieces, but it is fun.

Havin' a blast...

Havin’ a blast…

Lee also makes a point to repeatedly and heavily advertise the Avengers here, which reminds me a bit of my problem with early Avengers stories. At one point, while dealing with a serious problem, Iron Man calls Thor to let Thor know he can’t make the meeting tonight. “Permission requested to be absent from tonight’s meeting!” These are supposed to be Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. You shouldn’t need to call in sick. If you’re not there, let your teammates assume you’re probably doing something important.

It’s touches like that which made the Avengers hard to take seriously, as a superhero team run like a country-club. These are meant to be the most iconic heroes in the world, so I really don’t want to feel like there’s a whole bunch of paperwork involved in watching them hang out. I almost expected Thor to ask for a doctor’s note from Iron Man. If these characters have time to draw up by-laws for electing a chairsman, and need to phone ahead to cancel a meeting, they obviously aren’t doing the “superhero team-up” thing right. Go pay attention to Bob Haney’s The Brave and the Bold, and watch that cat roll.

Oh, Fu-ee...

Oh, Fu-ee…

So, reading this collection, I can see why Iron Man never quite became a top-tier Marvel property, at least until Robert Downey Jr. took the role in 2008. Still, it’s interesting to look at the origins of an iconic character.

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5 Responses

  1. I always thought it was interesting that for such an anticommunist superhero, his nemesis not only isn’t a “Red” but is actually a victim of communism and someone whose family was living high off of the old, pre-revolutionary order. Strip away all the Fu Manchu cliches and the Mandarin is basically a character from Atlas Shrugged – someone who lost everything to a nasty leftie government, retreated into the desert and with his genius became some sort of Ubermensch.

    That’s why I thought he worked fairly well as an Iron Man antagonist, or could have. There’s the potential there for a Xavier/Magneto or Batman/Ra’s al Ghul (movie version) type of relationship, where in a lot of ways they have common concerns and common enemies, but one of them ended up a hero and the other an embittered villain out for blood. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of the Iron Man comics ever went there, and it wouldn’t be nearly as topical if it was done now, years after the end of the Cold War.

    • That’s a very valid point, and one I must concede hadn’t really occurred to me. Being honest, I’m surprised it was never developed like that. Then again, I suspect that – based up my reading of various periods of Iron Man comics – the Mandarin is a character who tends to disappear for long stretches, because some writers are less than comfortable with his ethnic stereotype. So you have this really weird position where he’s Iron Man’s biggest opponent, but he’s also one that quite a few writers are wary about using because of the implications. Your observation would have been a fantastic way to get around that, but I suspect – as you note in your final line – the time for that may have passed.

      • That’s true and it surprises me that so many writers seem to accept him as frozen in time and stay away accordingly, instead of giving him a makeover or reboot as is often done when a character no longer flies with modern audiences. How hard can it be to change him so that he’s no longer an ethnic stereotype? Just don’t give him a Fu Manchu look or make him speak in fortune cookie proverbs; he can still be Chinese, his origin story can survive more or less as is (alien technology can explain his surviving until today… just don’t mention that the alien is also a dragon).

  2. L’ha ribloggato su petrone98e ha commentato:
    Iroman 3 the invincible iroman V.1

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