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Stan Lee & Gene Colan’s Iron Man – The Invincible Iron Man Omnibus, Vol. 2 (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.

The second omnibus contains both the tail end of Stan Lee run on Tales of Suspense and the Archie Goodwin run on The Invincible Iron Man. To make matters easier, I’ve split the review in half. This half covers the end of Stan Lee’s Iron Man.

And so we come to the end of Stan Lee’s work on the character of Iron Man as part of the Tales of Suspense magazine. This part of the run is consistently illustrated by the wonderful Gene Colan, who is among my favourite artists of the era, and Colan’s pencils do a lot to give the tail-end of Lee’s work with Tony Stark a bit of weight and gravitas. Because, as we reach the end of the character’s time as one-half of Tales of Suspense, it’s hard to argue that Lee still hasn’t quite figured out what he wants to do with Iron Man as a character. While Tony Stark’s teething problems are nowhere near as severe as those of The Incredible Hulk, it still feels like the character isn’t gelling nearly as well as he should.

If you can't stand the heat...

If you can’t stand the heat…

Part of that is undoubtedly down to the fact that Lee has no idea how to write Tony Stark as weapons manufacturer in the late sixties. The first comic collected here, Tales of Suspense #84, was originally published in December 1966. It was a time when the counter-culture movement was rapidly gaining momentum. Muhammad Ali had just refused to fight as part of the Vietnam War. The first anti-war Mobilisation Committee had been formed, and the same month saw the establishment of the Student Mobilisation Committee.

It was going to be very hard to have a major comic book hero manufacturing weapons for the US military at a time like this, much harder than it had been in the earlier part of the decade. Lee is fond of boasting that Tony Stark was created as the sort of character that readers were intended to hate – the privileged rich establishment figure who sold weapons for a living. However, reading these stories, you can sense that the pressure is building and that balancing the character’s obligations is becoming far more difficult.

Designs for the character...

Designs for the character…

Lee is unwilling to have Tony Stark take a politicised anti-war stance, or to come out against the government. Lee might gently mock the earnest patriotism of characters like Jasper Sitwell (“okay, okay!” Stark protests, “my boy scout days are behind me!”), but he’s unwilling to run the risk of Stark being seen as unpatriotic or even anti-American. So Stark isn’t going to suddenly stop manufacturing weapons for a government engaged in an overseas war with the lives of soldiers at risk.

At the same time, Lee seems to realise that there is a tension here as the United States government perhaps demands too much of its citizens. The Civil Rights movement was at the front of public consciousness, as the government found itself forced to account for the way it had failed to uphold the rights of some of its citizens. The first draft lottery would occur in 1969, with the government sending young men who never wanted a war off to a foreign land to serve and to die.

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

So making Stark – a wealthy and privileged white man with ties to various government agents – a completely unapologetic government stooge was not something Lee would contemplate. This is something that was probably compounded by the spectacular failure Lee made when reviving Captain America in the fifties as the editor of Young Men magazine. He had the character embrace the American establishment so readily that the hero became almost a McCarthy-esque enforcer.

Lee claims to have forgotten about this revival of the character, so – when he wanted Captain America to be part of The Avengers in 1964 – Lee had the group find the character frozen in a chunk of ice. Thus divorcing him from the characterisation of the 1950s version of the character. Whether Lee actually forgot or not, or is simply telling a good story, is a matter of discussion. It’s hard to believe that Lee could forget he’d already revived a particular character, and the decision to keep the 1960s revival relatively apolitical probably suggests he wanted to avoid repeating past mistakes.

It's just a little Crusher...

It’s just a little Crusher…

(With Marvel’s shared universe, Steve Englehart’s Captain America would attempt to resolve the problem. It would turn out that – of course!that 1950s version of Captain America was an imposter. The real Captain America was trapped in a block of ice, waiting to come home, while a deranged fan had been playing dress-up and used a dodgy version of the super-soldier formula. This made him insane, explaining some of the character’s unwaivering McCarthy-ism.)

So there’s a strange conflict with Iron Man’s relationship with the establishment, and it’s obvious from the opening pages of the collection. Tony Stark has been called to testify in front of a congressional committee about Iron Man. He doesn’t want to confess his secret so publicly, but he also doesn’t want to lie to his government. This is a big moment, a crossroads for the character – whatever choice Stark makes here will firmly place him on side of the line or the other. Unquestioning super-patriot member of the military-industrial complex, or proud individualist?

An underground hit?

An underground hit?

“Gentlemen,” he states, and you can hear the dramatic pause, “I am prepared to tell you whatever you wish to know about Iron Man!” It would seem that he has picked a side. (And, again, it’s strange how closely Mark Millar’s Civil War lines up philosophically with Stan Lee’s version.) However, Lee can’t have him go through with that, so dramatic contrivance strikes! Tony faints and has a heart attack! Those people Stark had been testifying against don’t find it convenient. Instead, they praise his patriotism. “Hang the inquiry!!!” Senator Byrd instructs. “I want to go and pray for the life of a very brave man!”

Iron Man gets to remain a patriot, but without having to completely sell out – and it’s a moment that really defines this part of Stan Lee’s run. He’s unwilling to commit to either side of the political debate Iron Man of which has obviously found himself a part. Lee seems to spend most of the rest of the run trying to have his cake and eat it. Stark never pushes so far from the establishment that he might be considered part of the counter-culture, but he also never completely embraces the military-industrial complex, despite the fact he makes weapons.

Things look pretty, Stark...

Things look pretty, Stark…

So Stark makes sure that he doesn’t go off to fight the Mandarin without leaving plans and schematics behind for the United States military. “Now, before embarking on what may be my most deadly mission, there is one more thing I must do,” he remarks, “I’ll make a tape recording for Senator Byrd — detailing all the secrets of my armaments — and leave it in my vault — in case — I don’t return!” He justifies, “My secrets must never be lost to those who fight for freedom!”

This raises obvious questions – like why not just share them  now? After all, if Iron Man trusts the government to use his secret technology after he is dead, why can’t they use it while he’s alive? Surely he would save lives? Conveniently, Senator Byrd winds up a-okay with Stark’s decision not to share. There is a cost, which feels like Lee’s attempt at a compromise. “Our armed forces can get along without that armour — as long as you continue to produce weapons!”

He's melting, oh what a world!

He’s melting, oh what a world!

Again, the logic seems pretty questionable. Stark’s weapons will kill enemy soldiers. However, his armour could protect the lives of American soldiers. And we know that it’s not simply the fact that his armour is difficult to manufacture. In Into the Jaws of Death, Tony takes less than an evening to make himself an exact replica of his costume. It seems like Lee is just trying to reach a balance between the two politically-opposed ideas.

Similarly, when Nick Fury assigns Jasper Sitwell to supervise Tony Stark, there’s only a hint of tension. Having your country’s top spy agency assign a man to work inside a private contractor seems more like the type of oppressive state interference you’d see in foreign countries. Fury is clearly interested in Stark’s intellectual property, something that Michelinie and Layton would develop during their Invincible Iron Man run.

Iron Man in irons!

Iron Man in irons!

Here, Stark is clearly not happy about it, but he seems less concerned about the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. might be undermining his company and more frustrated by the fact that the agent in question is an annoying nerd. Though Stark complains to Jasper about this, he’s quickly silenced when Jasper reminds him, “Sir!!! One does not question an order from S.H.I.E.L.D!!” It sounds like the kind of unquestioning mantra you’d expect in Soviet Russia or China, and not the democratic United States of America. Lee never develops this line of thought, and the script never questions the suggestion that Jasper has been assigned “as an additional protective measure!”

It’s quite noticeable, this time around, that Iron Man spends a lot less time breaking up Communist spy rings or showcasing fancy new weapons to the top brass. When Iron Man finally does a weapons demonstration in Within the Vastness of Viet Nam!, it is to the troops serving on the ground. The arc set in Vietnam feels like a conscious attempt by Lee to humanise the conflict, rather clumsily ending with the Communist bad guy Half-face (“the Commies’ answer to Tony Stark!”) renouncing his villainy to live with his family.

You'd have to be pretty heartless to force him to testify...

You’d have to be pretty heartless to force him to testify…

Apparently even the enemy are human, Lee seems to suggest, which feels like we’ve come a long way from the portrayal of Khrushchev in the first bunch of issues. Still, the issue is hardly a complex exploration of the morality of the complex. In an earnestly and unquestioningly patriotic way, Stan Lee has his villains plot to stage a massacre in order to turn public opinion against the American Army. Read today, Half-face’s boasts sound positively naive.

“You are to leave immediately and totally destroy a peaceful village nearby!” he instructs the Titanium Man. “Striking at night — unseen — you will cause such carnage that the American bombers will be blamed for the attack! The entire world will be stunned and shocked! It will be our greatest propaganda victory!” Lee seems to suggest that the only way civilians might die is if the Viet Cong massacre them to make the Americans look bad.

Making a mountain out of a moloid hill...

Making a mountain out of a moloid hill…

It’s a misguided statement, and one with unfortunate implications that should have been obvious even before knowledge of certain atrocities committed by American forces became common knowledge. Even discounting atrocities consciously committed, it seems to rule out the possibility of accidental destruction or confusion on the part of the American forces, discounting the realities of war for some hyper-patriotic version where everything is carefully managed.

(It doesn’t help that there’s no sincere attempt in Iron Man’s trip to Vietnam to offer readers a glimpse of what life might really be like over there. There’s no sense of the on-going war, or even of the pressures on American troops. When Iron Man encounters Half-face, he does so inside a decidedly European-looking castle, “overshadowing the valley below like some silent monstrous harbinger of doom!”)

Blast from the past...

Blast from the past…

Lee tries to counter this problem by avoiding it. As noted above, there are a lot less weapon tests this time around, and Byrd pretty much just goes away in the middle of the run. Although the Titanium Man reappears and Half-face is a communist villain, there’s a shift away from that sort of bad guy. That said, Lee does offer us the Crusher, an enemy from “a lush, tropical isle far south of the border.” Which does gain points for recognising that one of Latin America would become one of the most heated battlegrounds of the Cold War.

Lee even pushes Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan to the background, perhaps suggesting that he recognises that Stark’s ensemble isn’t quite gelling. We get a late addition in the form of Jasper Sitwell, who wouldn’t become a truly indispensable part of the Iron Man supporting cast either. You can see Lee trying to fall back on his familiar tropes and archetypes, trying to present Tony as a victim, but it doesn’t really work. It’s hard to pity a handsome millionaire playboy who has a super-powered armour.

Somebody need to whip the title into shape...

Somebody need to whip the title into shape…

Lee even tries to make Stark’s time with all those beautiful women appear arduous, as if it’s some very weird twist on Spider-Man’s status as a perpetual loser. After all, Lee suggests, Stark is only dating all those beautiful sexy women and driving all those expensive cars because he loves Pepper Potts so much. “If I stay away from Pepper — if I show her she means nothing to me — if I date a million other gals — it’ll make things easier for Happy — it’ll give him a clear track!”

It’s hard to get emotionally invested in this version of Tony Stark, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, the fact that he treats Pepper as an object he can just hand over to Happy. Why can’t he just… y’know… talk to her about the situation? Also, it makes his treatment of all these women seems incredibly creepy. He’s either only using them to replace another idealised woman he loves, or he’s using them as camouflage to distract from his personal issues.

Stone walled!

Stone walled!

It makes Stark look like an unapologetic sexist, who thinks that Pepper is too dumb to talk to about his feelings, and other women exists as props to help him in his pantomime. This is all the more frustrating, because there might be an angle here that would make Stark sympathetic, but Lee seems to be consciously avoiding it. If Stark was unaware of his own use of these women – if it was a subconscious decision, rather than a conscious rationalisation – he’s seem more like a flawed and broken hero and less like a manipulative sociopath.

Unfortunately, Lee isn’t really willing to bend Tony that far, much as he’s unwilling to have the character actually choose between his obligations to the state and his own personal autonomy. So this winds up feeling like window dressing and padding, and yet more evidence that Stan Lee has no concrete ideas about how to make Tony Stark work as a character. It’s especially frustrating, since later writers would mine rich dramatic possibilities by exploring those areas that Lee has consciously closed off.

They'll iron out their differences...

They’ll iron out their differences…

Instead, with all these options rendered out of bounds, Lee seems to try what has worked before, for other Marvel characters. So, for example, in Death Duel for the Life of Happy Hogan!, we get to see Gene Colan offering his variation of the iconic “heavy load breaking” that Steve Ditko used so fantastically in The Amazing Spider-Man. While Colan is a phenomenal artist, it seems like a bit of an awkward reference.

Lee seems to conspire to try to turn Stark into a knock-off of Reed Richards, right down to fighting the Mole Man in Crisis at the Earth’s Core! Consciously downplaying Stark’s manufacture of weapons, Lee emphasises his role as an inventor. “If the test succeeds, my earth-borer will do for under-earth exploration what the deep-sea earthsphere did for under-sea exploration!” Stark boasts. “This means mankind will be able to take another giant step forward in the advancement of human knowledge!” Later on, in The Uncanny Challenge of the Crusher, we’re told that Tony Stark “conducts his experiment for the good of mankind.”

Talk about the weight of expectation...

Talk about the weight of expectation…

Of course, this feels quite out of place as well. I quite like watching heroes fight unfamiliar villains, and Gene Colan’s monster comic is well-suited to illustrating a fight with creepy creatures at the heart of the planet, but there’s really no justification for forcing Stark to confront the Mole Man, beyond a conscious attempt to turn him into a version of Reed Richards. Compare this, for example, to Mark Waid’s use of the Mole Man in his Daredevil run, which makes you wonder why the two don’t face off more often.

It’s worth praising Colan’s art here. I’m a huge fan of the artist, even though I wouldn’t consider his Iron Man to be his best work. His artwork really isn’t suited to drawing a featureless metallic mask. However, some of his compositions are stunning, and I love his depiction of Tony Stark outside the suit, turning him into a genuinely handsome matinee idol figure. I really would love to see more of Colan’s work collected.

Shaking the tree...

Shaking the tree…

Still, it’s quite clear that Stan Lee seems to have no idea what he is doing with Iron Man, which probably means it’s for the bast that he moved away from the character before the launch of The Invincible Iron Man. Still, Iron Man is a character who would search for a credible voice for most his early publishing history, and this run really offers a great deal of insight into why.

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