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Archie Goodwin’s (& George Tuska’s) Run on The Invincible 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 Archie Goodwin’s Iron Man.

Archie Goodwin is one of the best editors to work in comic books. During his time working at DC, the editor was responsible for The Long Halloween and also James Robinson’s long-running Starman. While Goodwin was an exceptional editor, he was arguably a weaker writer. As his run on The Invincible Iron Man demonstrates, Goodwin has a very clear idea of what concepts work and won’t work with the character, and how to start “fixing” some of the more obvious flaws present in the character from his inception during Stan Lee’s Tales of Suspense run. However, Goodwin isn’t quite as deft when it comes to story construction or plot mechanics. He lacks Lee’s flair for soap opera angst and interpersonal drama.

However, his run on The Invincible Iron Man remains quite impressive, and just as influential and formative as anything written by Stan Lee. I’d argue that Goodwin’s conceptual model of the character is a lot closer to the modern version of Iron Man, and that his version of Tony Stark bleeds through the work of later writers and also into the massive billion-dollar film franchise as well. So Goodwin’s work on The Invincible Iron Man is quite iconic. It’s just some of the nuts-and-bolts scripting that seems to catch him, from time to time.

That's why they call him the Invincible Iron Man...

That’s why they call him the Invincible Iron Man…

I should also pause to acknowledge Goodwin’s collaborator, George Tuska. With the exception of a few issues at the start of Goodwin’s run, and the occasional fill-in, Tuska provides most of the art for this early extended run of The Invincible Iron Man. The omnibus collection includes scans of the letter pages for these comic books, and it’s interesting to see just how often Tuska would come under fire for failing to measure up to Gene Colan in the eyes of the fans.

I am a pretty big Gene Colan fan, but I actually think Tuska’s artwork is more suited to the Golden Avenger. I enjoy Colan’s Iron Man work, but I always found that Colan worked best with gothic works that allowed him to illustrate faces. His work on Tomb of Dracula is probably the artist’s best work in the medium, but I’d rank his Daredevil or his Batman above his Tales of Suspense work on Iron Man. That’s not to say that it was bad, just that Iron Man – as a character was less suited to Colan’s particular talents.

At least he's got body armour...

At least he’s got body armour…

Tuska’s style, on the other hand, fits the character and his world quite well. There’s a very block-y vibe to it, almost calling to mind a blend of Bruce Timm and Jack Kirby. It looks like his artwork is really just dying to come to life as an action cartoon, and it’s a look that suits Iron Man particularly well. Tuska also has a gift for comic book pacing. He structures his stories very well. In his early comics, the panels seem to fracture dynamically across the page, as if shattered by the force of the images they contain.

In the later issues, Tuska demonstrates a wonderful gift for portraying movement and for managing time. Smaller images structured closer together flow quicker, creating an immediacy to the images portrayed. I think that Tuska is one of the most underrated comic book artists of the late sixties, and that his work on The Invincible Iron Man is often overlooked. Then again, I think the same is largely true of his collaborator, Archie Goodwin.

Note that the Mandarin in the only member of Iron Man's rogues gallery to actually appear there...

Note that the Mandarin in the only member of Iron Man’s rogues gallery to actually appear there…

It’s quite clear, reading Stan Lee’s early work on the character in Tales of Suspense, that Tony Stark was a troublesome character to write for. There were all sorts of political implications about an arms manufacturer turned arch-capitalist superhero (Iron Man was his employee!) that Lee was afraid to touch. So Stark would battle communist baddies, but never engage in American politics. When Stark was eventually called before a Senate Committee to explain who Iron Man was, he conveniently fainted and the matter was forgotten.

Lee compensated by writing soap opera melodrama, the kind of comic book stuff that he could do effortlessly at this point. However, books like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four got the premium Lee melodrama, with many other books suffering a bit because they felt like knock-offs or pale imitations. Still, Lee’s decision to create a love triangle between Stark and his secretary and his bodyguard did help give some personality to the book, even if it wasn’t enough to make it compelling reading.

He can't escape himself...

He can’t escape himself…

It’s immediately clear that Archie Goodwin doesn’t quite have Lee’s gift for melodrama, and The Invincible Iron Man suffers every time that tries to tap into that sort of writing style. He brings back Happy and Pepper Potts briefly at the start of the run, only to shuffle them awkwardly off-stage when it’s clear that they aren’t injecting the requisite amount of drama into the title. He gives Stark a long-term love interest who barely registers as a character in her own right, to the point where her eventual death feels a little shallow. The long-running subplot with Whitney Frost, aka Madame Masque, works fine until we get into the interpersonal dynamics of it all.

Although this does bring us to an interesting aspect of Goodwin’s run. He is very good at long-form storytelling, even if he can’t quite get those plots to emotionally resonate. He is very handy at setting up plot points to pay-off down the line, introducing elements that seem minor and build over time. For example, he develops Whitney Frost over the course of the run. She’s an industrial spy for the first few issues, and then she’s transformed into an out-and-out supervillain. The life-model decoy Stark uses to confuse the Mandarin comes back to bite him. The Controller, who doesn’t appear until later in the run, is rooted in the second issue.

Tony just needs to put his face on...

Tony just needs to put his face on…

There’s a sense of weight and continuity there, a logical progression of events. Goodwin does all that large-scale stuff very well, and I think he works better with the character when he adopts a somewhat broader approach. For example, Goodwin seems to have recognised a number of flaws with the character, and works systematically to fix them. Most obviously, he acknowledges the whole use of “must recharge!” as a plot device to generate suspense has worn out his welcome. So he rectifies that immediately. Stark gets new armour in My Friend, My Foe… The Freak, “thus eliminating most of the power failures that have plagued me in the past!”

Goodwin also seems to note that the recurring use of communists as generic bad guys is a little overly simplistic, and carries with it all sorts of troubling political implications in the Cold War. So he transitions away from those sorts of foes. The Uncanny Unicorn goes into business for himself in Unconquered is the Unicorn. He tells his Soviet handlers, “I no longer need you — I no longer need anyone!” That said, they have tried to brainwash him. “But with the enormous might they’ve placed in my hands I can get anything I desire…” He’s in it for his own self-interest.

Stark's resilient...

Stark’s resilient…

Similarly, the Red Ghost has “ceased serving the communists to work for [his] own benefit”, and Goodwin creates a new version of the Crimson Dynamo, who is decidedly apolitical. There’s still the odd villain who represents a fear of communism. The Crusher turns up again, still working for some ambiguous Latin American country. The Russians did try to brainwash the Unicorn, even if it didn’t work. And the Controller, although he is American and his motivations are decidedly individualistic, represents some small fear of communism. Encountering his victims, Tony observes it is “as if their very wills, their entire beings were merged for a single task…!”

Goodwin even tries to tone down some of the racism surrounding the Mandarin, just a little bit, realising that a yellow peril supervillain is remarkably regressive for the late sixties. So Goodwin suggests that the Mandarin is consciously “playing up” his stereotypical Chinese portrayal to confuse his enemies. Regarding some ceremonial armour, he advises his companion that they are “Mere trappings, my pretty one… as is this shop I had you establish to provide an eventual base of operations…! As is the traditional garb you wear to impress your customers…!”

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

However, Goodwin doesn’t go quite far enough here, still falling back on some unfortunate Asian clichés when using the character. For example, the Mandarin employs clay statue warriors to guard his base. When he challenges Iron Man directly, he does so in the most ridiculous “fortune cookie” manner, getting his colleague to suggest, “… if the invincible one would have the solution to the dilemma plaguing him… you will call soon at the shop of Mei-Ling!” At one point, he even boasts again, “You overlook my matchless mastery of karate!” So Goodin isn’t quite able to redeem a very flawed character, despite his best efforts.

However, Goodwin does more than simply fix past mistakes made with the character. He actively works to find a paradigm that will work for Stark. It’s fair to say that Goodwin helped cement various aspects of the Iron Man mythos, including various archetypal ingredients. Instead of pitting Iron Man against communists, he instead comes up with the idea of setting the hero against arch-capitalists, the kind of bad guys who would become a staple of the Iron Man’s rogues’ gallery.

Iron Men...

Iron Men…

His first extended arc sets Tony against the Maggia, a criminal syndicate obviously intended to evoke the mafia. The mafia are the dark side of the American dream, people who came to America as refugees or exiles, and then built a successful empire for themselves. It just happens to be illegal and immoral. So setting the wealthy industrialist Tony Stark against these sorts of bad guys works remarkably well. The second issue features a jilted capitalist competitor, who is frustrated because he can’t compete with Stark. “It’s Stark’s factories that constantly win important contracts while mine remain idle!”

Other bad guys fit this model. Although the Controller’s absorption of individuals into the larger whole might represent a fear of communism, his motivations are capitalist ambition. Midas is introduced as “a man numbered among the world’s richest.” Whitney Frost was “the girl who has everything!” In Who Serves Lucifer?, a jealous security guard is corrupted by his bitterness over his failure to live the American dream. Recalling his high school days, he laments, “They had me pegged to be All-American!” Feeling the jealousy boiling inside him, he demands, “Stark… Iron Man…! They’ve had their breaks… their chances! When do I get mine?!”

Smooth...

Smooth…

Goodwin also seems to acknowledge something that Lee barely touched on. Stark is an industrialist, and Iron Man is his invention. Lee never dealt with the implications of a billionaire inventor designing a suit that is essentially a super weapon. Iron Man isn’t just a superhero, he is a product. And Goodwin hits on several ideas based off that assumption. “What invention of Stark’s ranks as his greatest?” one foe asks, using Iron Man as a way to strike at Stark’s corporate credibility. “There is only one answer… Iron Man’s hyper-powered armour! Stark’s inflated reputation rises and falls with his metal-clad body guard!”

And here Goodwin hits on an idea that will become increasingly important to the character’s mythology. The Iron Man is essentially a weapon, and it can be mass-produced. That makes it incredibly dangerous, and Stark potentially reckless. It turns out that AIM has some ideas concerning Iron Man, vowing, “All of AIM will become an army of Iron Men — an army that shall enslave the world!” After all, Spider-Man was a fluke, the X-Men are defined by their DNA and Captain America’s serum can’t be replicated. However, Iron Man can be readily manufactured and is essentially intellectual property.

Suits you, sir...

Suits you, sir…

Although Goodwin doesn’t quite follow through on the implications of the idea, you can see the roots of various essential Iron Man ideas taking root. While not quite full-blown deconstruction, Goodwin does dare to ask if Iron Man is really the best way for an industrialist like Stark to help the world. “How many scientific contributions have I failed to make while basking in the armour-clad glory of being the Golden Avenger?” Stark ponders, conceding that there’s some measure of ego in his heroism. Later writers would take those seeds and develop them into a key part of the hero’s psychology.

He never tackles it directly, but Goodwin also concedes that Stark is a weapons manufacturer, and that his designs have consequences. In Frenzy in a Far-Flung Future, Stark creates something which enslaves humanity. Apparently Stark designed Cerebus as a prototype Skynet, “a huge, incredibly sophisticated master computer for use in co-ordinating your country’s defense planning…” In The Beginning of the End, Stark builds a duplicate that winds up replacing him. While Goodwin stops short of blaming Stark directly, it’s clear that his patriotism can have unintended side effects and consequences.

He's always at war with himself...

He’s always at war with himself…

Goodwin also invents two basic plot icons that will prove to become vital to the character over the years that follow. With The Beginning of the End, for example, Goodwin basically sets up a prototype “Stark falls and then rises” story, setting a precedent for all those other extended arcs where the writers would rob Tony of everything he has, only for the hero to build himself back up again. You can see the roots of Demon in a Bottle and Iron Monger and even World’s Most Wanted in these issues, which are probably the best of Goodwin’s run.

The writer seems to realise that taking away everything that Stark has is a great source of drama, but also confirms that Iron Man is more than just a suit of armour. Without the suit, Stark should be helpless. “Alone, robbed of my armour, I lack the power even to break into my factory, let alone go up against the LMD,” he concedes. So it seems all the more heroic when Stark proves that he is strong enough to reclaim everything that belongs to him. That “fall and recovery” template would become the basis of a large number of iconic and memorable Iron Man stories in the years ahead.

Duelling with death...

Duelling with death…

It also confirms that Tony Stark is an essential ingredient of Iron Man. When forced to confront the rogue life model decoy in a suit of outdated armour, Tony explains, “But what always counts most in the long run… is who’s inside!” This thematic element is also a significant part of the second basic Iron Man plot that Goodwin essentially creates here, another plot device that we’ve seen used quite a bit over the following decades (sometimes even in conjunction with the aforementioned “fall and recovery” template).

In The Replacement!, Goodwin pitches the first story where Stark considers a mid- to long-term replacement for him as Iron Man. To be fair, Stan Lee already gave us a story where Happy put on the Iron Man armour and wound up facing the Mandarin, but it was very clear that this was only a temporary thing, and a plot device to put Happy in danger so that Tony could save him. Here, the intent is actually to explore just how essential Tony Stark is to Iron Man, and whether somebody else in the armour could plausibly replace him. We’d get many such stories in the years ahead, and Goodwin seems to codify it.

Washed up...

Washed up…

Goodwin also introduces Madame Masque, who continues to serve as one of Tony’s highest profile adversaries, which – admittedly – isn’t that difficult when you are dealing with characters like “the Melter.” In fact, Goodwin seems to acknowledge how shallow Iron Man’s pool of villains is by drafting several baddies over from Lee and Kirby’s X-Men comics, which weren’t exactly brimming with memorable villains. That said, it does feel a little strange that Goodwin never brought over Magneto, instead favouring z-list X-Men baddies like Lucifer or the Uncanny Unicorn.

Anyway, Masque is a solid creation, in theory. It’s nice for Goodwin to write a female character in an Iron Man comic who doesn’t exist as arm candy for our debonair lead. Given how Lee would present Tony Stark’s cynical exploitation of these women (as a means to cover his broken hearted love for Pepper Potts), it feels appropriate that Goodwin should turn the tables. Frost is just as capable of cynically exploiting the interest of the opposite gender for her own interests. Using Jasper Sitwell’s obvious affection for her to strike at Stark is a nice subversion of the way the series used to treat female characters as shallow love interests.

She doesn't Masque her feelings very well...

She doesn’t Masque her feelings very well…

However, Goodwin’s portrayal of Whitney Frost runs into a bit of bother when he casts her as Madame Masque. She is disfigured in a plane crash, and left looking so grotesque that she covers her face. The comic even suggests that she has become a little unbalanced by the experience, latching so firmly on to any hint of affection that Tony can easily turn her against her employer by making out with her a little.

It’s an unfortunately shallow portrayal, and one that feels even worse after the comic worked so hard to establish Frost as a character with her own goals beyond those of the male characters in the comic. Suggesting that losing her good looks immediately turns her into an insecure and swooning love-sick puppy feels like it undoes a lot of what was so charming about Goodwin’s initial depiction of the woman in charge of the Maggia crime syndicate.

Facing up to reality...

Facing up to reality…

I really like Archie Goodwin’s Invincible Iron Man. It is a massive step up from the work done by Stan Lee. The only real problem is that Goodwin has good ideas, but lacks follow-through. A lot of the ideas suggested here are seeds of better work done by later writers. However, that’s not to sell Goodwin short. This run effectively defined modern Iron Man, and you can trace the origins of his most successful stories back to the work of Goodwin and Tuska.

You might like our reviews of other classic Iron Man comics:

3 Responses

  1. Interesting review, I’m considering reading it because of the great things I’ve heard about Archie Goodwin from other writers, and the positive things that Kurt Busiek had to say about this run in particular.

    • It is probably the strongest of the early Iron Man stuff, actually. Archie Goodwin and George Tuska are both underrated generally speaking, and there’s a lot to like here, even if it’s not yet “peak Iron Man.”

  2. Everyone has their own aesthetics but i couldn’t disagree more..especially in the black and white essentials colans work is amazing and stans writing was at peak form…..tuska is solid but no where near colons ability in mood or detail and goodwin’s writing is awful , wordy, wooden silly and ridiculous at best.
    Every time someone speaks its a long speech by the same boring speaker no matter who is talking,,,the plot holes are inane ect. and silly costumes and ridiculous magic plot twists infect the book like he
    was swiping
    from bad fantasy novels every chance he got.

    to be fair he finished with issue 28 and with few exceptions the entire iron man series has always been terrible …a few of goodwins issues were good and he did invent firebrand,(the firebrand stories in iron man
    are
    always awesome) Far more importantly he was known as a great guy and quite well liked , even loved by his peers.

    IRON MAN ESSENTIALS VOL. 2 —READ IT !

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