Iron Man 101: Who He Is and Why He’s Awesome

The Summer of 2010 is a good time to be a fan of Marvel’s Armoured Avenger. The movie “Iron Man 2” is currently tearing up the box-office, pleasing critics and viewers alike. On the printed page, Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s Invincible Iron Man is consistently one of Marvel’s best monthly comics, and Iron Man stands front and centre in Marvel’s hottest new title, the relaunched fourth volume of The Avengers. Starkamania is running wild, but what is it about the man in the red and gold armour that so captures fans’ imaginations? In a comic book world of gods, monsters and mutants, radioactive spider bite victims and Hitler-punching patriots, what makes a guy in a souped up tin can stand out?

Iron Man made his debut way back in 1963 in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, a product of the all-star creative team of Stan “The Man” Lee, Jack “King” Kirby, “Dashing” Don Heck and Larry “I’m Stan Lee’s brother” Lieber. You’d have to have been living under a rock not to know Iron Man’s origin by now, but for the spelunkers among us, here’s a quick recap… Billionaire playboy and genius weapons designer Tony Stark was touring the war-torn frontlines in Vietnam when he caught a chest full of shrapnel. Captured by the Warlord Wong Chu, Stark was ordered to use his talents to create weapons for the NVA in the short time he had left alive. Instead, Stark built a suit of armour out of scrap metal, which kept him alive by magnetically holding the shrapnel away from his heart. It also allowed Stark to go all Rambo and bust his way out of Wong Chu’s camp.

By and large, Iron Man’s early stories were based around him putting a polished titanium boot up communism’s collective ass. Besides his trip to Vietnam, Iron Man fought a long parade of Soviet guys in high tech armour, most notably the Crimson Dynamo, the Titanium Man and (I kid you not) the Unicorn. His most persistent foe however was The Mandarin, a Chinese Fu Manchu lookalike with two fists full of wacky alien power rings (who,  in all fairness, was actually an imperialist, not a communist). Still, there was a propagandist undercurrent to Iron Man’s early days, especially since Tony Stark was shown to be a two-fisted champion of capitalism. In fact, as the red scare began to wane, Iron Man spent more and more time dealing with crooked business men and their lackeys. In the late seventies and early eighties, Stark Enterprises was attacked by a parade of filthy rich corporate rat bastards like Obadiah Stane, Edwin Cord, Justin Hammer and Sunset Bain.

It was around then that Iron Man started to become really interesting for the first time. Having been a member of The Avengers since the team’s inception, Iron Man’s role became more clear, providing the bridge between human heroes like Captain America and super-humans like Thor. His personality also became more and more developed. Whereas the Hulk was a tortured monster, Spider-Man was perennially down on his luck, Captain America was a man out of time and the X-Men were hated and feared by John Q. Public, Tony Stark was living the high life. He balanced out his time spent punching Kang the Conqueror in the face with a healthy social life of boozing and womanizing. He was like Batman on antidepressants- someone who realized an incalculable fortune and dead parents could be used to score with sympathetic super models. Iron Man was living the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle- and his drug of choice was none other than sweet lady liquor.

In March of 1979, Iron Man #120 kicked off what remains the character’s best known story to this day, the seminal “Demon in a Bottle“, by long time Iron Man tag team David Michelinie and Bob Layton. While greeting an ambassador from some unnamed foreign country, Iron Man’s army was hacked into by his enemy Justin Hammer. Hammer managed to remotely activate Iron Man’s repulsor beam, blowing a hole through the hapless ambassador. Though Stark professed his innocence, the stress of dealing with the unseen enemies and the ensuing police investigation led Stark to start drinking more and more heavily. Though he would eventually clear his name, Stark’s binge drinking ended up costing him his company, and badly damaging many of his closest friendships.

This quickly became the backbone to all great Iron Man stories- Tony Stark would screw something up to an almost incomprehensible degree, and as Iron Man he’d have to try to pick up the pieces. This was never more true than in the “Armor Wars“, which ran through the early part of 1988, starting with Iron Man #225. After making the startling discovery that his technology has been misappropriated and incorporated into the armours of other heroes and villains, Stark went off the deep end and decided to enforce his patents, Rambo style. After hunting down a number of villains and slagging their armours’ technology, Stark’s plan started to go off the rails when he attacked his fellow hero Stingray, only to discover too late that the Stingray wasn’t actually using any Stark technology. With the US government breathing down Stark’s neck, he was forced to publically “fire” Iron Man as his personal bodyguard. Whereas a sane man might have taken this as a hint to scale things back a bit, Stark kicked his one man war on copyright infringement into overdrive, attacking the super spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. and sabotaging their powerful (yet ludicrously named) Mandroid units. Stark followed that brilliant idea up by busting into the supervillain prison known as the Vault, and disabling the armoured Guardsmen, leading to a prison break.

By now, Stark had completely alienated his Avengers teammates, who were understandably unimpressed with Iron Man’s guerrilla campaign against friend and foe alike. Once again, rather than back down Stark kicked things up a notch, creating an international incident by violating Soviet airspace to attack the Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man. When the latter of the two proved to be more than a match for Iron Man, he tried to flee, only to accidentally cause his foe’s death when his boot jets ignited overheated the Titanium Man armour and caused its fuel reserves to ignite. Now on the run for murder, Stark was forced to fake Iron Man’s death, only to immediately return in a new suit of armour to defeat the terrorist Firepower. Stark told the public that he had hired a new pilot for the Iron Man armour, and swore up and down to the Avengers that it wasn’t him in the armour any more, scout’s honour. Naturally, the whole “second degree murder” things was swept under the rug and forgotten about.

Stark’s rough times continued when he was shot through the spine by a loony-toons ex-girlfriend (one of the rare instances in which Stark was only indirectly responsible for his life taking a nosedive, rather than being the direct cause of his misfortunes). Though Stark quickly created a microchip that allowed him to regain his mobility, and designed a new Iron Man armour he could operate remotely, his nervous system began to deteriorate nearly beyond repair. Ultimately, Stark chose to fake his own death…yes, again…and enter a state of suspended animation, during which time he mentally rewired his neural pathways to repair the damage to his body, at the cost of part of his humanity. Stark’s closest friends only learned of his survival when he flew into battle against Ultimo, wearing yet a new suit of armour- because naturally, a quick phone call to say “surprise, I’m not dead!” would be too much to ask.

Of course, it was inevitable that the whole “Tony Stark is an a-hole” theme would eventually be pushed too far, and indeed the creative vacuum of the early 1990s saw unquestionably the worst Iron Man storyline to date, “The Crossing”. In much the same vein as the story arcs that saw Jean-Paul Valley replace Bruce Wayne as Batman and Superman turn into an electric Smurf, “The Crossing” had Tony Stark reveal himself as a sleeper agent for time-travelling tyrant Kang the Conqueror. After Iron Man killed several D-list Avengers supporting characters, the heroes had the brainstorm to travel back in time and pluck a teenage Tony Stark out of the past to confront his much more powerful future self. Why Earth’s Mightiest Heroes decided that child endangerment was a better idea than, say, calling the X-Men or something was never really explained. In any case, “Iron Teen” helped reverse Tony Classic’s heel turn, and the original Iron Man sacrificed his life to help defeat Kang. Thankfully, the angst-ridden teenaged Tony Stark only lasted for a year or so before being wiped from continuity by “Heroes Reborn“, an ill-advised attempt to re-launch several major Marvel titles in new ongoing titles created by the founders of Image Comics. Iron Man vol. 2 was therefore launched with much pomp and ballyhoo, but the less said of that, the better- the mid 1990s were dire days, at least for anyone without a fetish for crosshatching and bandoliers covered in pouches. But that’s a story for another day…

But out of that quagmire of over-rendered art and underdeveloped plots, Iron Man was reborn like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. Iron Man vol. 3 #1 shipped to stores in February 1998, squarely back in the Core Marvel Universe. Once again, Tony Stark was all jets ablaze, fighting and smiting with repulsor rays, rocking as both his own ongoing title and as a cornerstone of the concurrently launched (and completely awesome) Avengers vol. 3. With the lustre and sheen restored to the Armoured Avenger, writers moved away from his personal problems for the time being. As stark rebuilt his business empire, he faced off against enemies both old and new, ranging from an all new jerk-ass War Machine, to the returning Mandarin and his crazy flying mechano-dragon of death. Stark’s greatest enemy came from even closer to home though in “The Mask in the Iron Man(Iron Man vol. 3 #26-30). While Stark was battling the criminal Whiplash (the original, pre-Mickey Rourke version that is) on New Year’s Eve 1999, Whiplash sent a massive surge of electricity surging through Iron Man’s armour. In one of Marvel Comics’ patented improbably coincidences, the energy burst combined with the residual traces of an artificial intelligence Stark had recently channelled through his armour’s circuits as well as, I kid you not, the Y2K virus and as a result the Iron Man armour somehow gained sentience and free will. Though his first instinct was to unplug the armour, it quickly persuaded Stark that it deserved a chance at life, and that by working together they could prove to be a more efficient force for justice that Stark could have ever been on his own. Alas, the best laid plans of mechs and men often go bat-shit crazy, and the AI showed its limited grasp on the concept of morality when it overrode Stark’s control of the armour and killed Whiplash in cold blood, and dumped his body into the Pacific Ocean.

Though Stark was shocked and appalled by the AI’s actions, Iron Man was now operating without a pilot. With the AI threatening to do what it had to in order to secure Stark’s cooperation, including harming his friends, Stark was forced to play chaperone as the AI worked to improve its understanding of humanity. Stark tried to appeal to the AI by bringing him to Whiplash’s funeral, but the increasingly homicidal armour ordered Stark to return with it to his laboratory, before it decided to kill everyone present. After Stark mounted a failed attempt to fight the AI head on using an older, obsolete armour, the AI dragged him off to a deserted island and dumped him in the wilderness, telling him to learn his place or die alone. Trussing Stark up between a pair of trees, the armour taunted and tortured Stark for over a week, before Stark finally freed himself and fought back, with all the gumption and knowhow of the Swiss Family Robinson. In the end though, the armour had a late epiphany when Stark suffered a heart attack; ripping out its own mechanical heart and implanting it into Stark’s chest, the armour died so that its creator could live.

Much as Iron Man has continued to evolve, the character of Tony Stark has also continued to change over time. In 2005, the Iron Man comic was relaunched once again as Iron Man vol. 4, which the intention of bringing the hero back to the bleeding edge of technology. Under the experienced pen of technophile writer Warren Ellis, Tony Stark was forced to undergo “the Extremis Process”, absorbing into his body a bio-electronic virus that rewrote his genetic code and making Man and Iron Man truly one and the same for the first time. Perhaps it’s appropriate then that as Tony Stark distanced himself from his humanity, he also began to disconnect from readers. In 2006’s massive “Civil War” crossover, Stark threw his support behind the newly ratified Super-Hero Registration Act, a piece of legislation that ordered all superfolk to register with the government, or else be branded fugitives and potential terrorists. He also publically unmasked- not for the first time, but in this case it seems to have stuck. Though writers did their best to make Stark’s position seem as reasonable as that of the anti-registration rebels, fans weren’t buying it. Before you could say “Patriot Act”, Tony Stark was branded a tyrant, a dictator, Adolf Hitler in a tin suit. The fact that Stark’s chief opponent was Captain America- a man who has made Hitler-punching into an art form- didn’t help Stark’s public relations one iota. At the war’s end though, stark stood triumphant, and Captain America surrendered to the authorities (and was killed/sent spiralling through the time stream shortly afterwards).Tony Stark was appointed the new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. (who had long since overlooked that silly Mandroid business from the 80s), and it looked like everything was going his way. Of course, in true Stark style, it wouldn’t be long before everything was falling down around his ears.

In one whopper of a retcon, readers are told that since his earliest days, Iron Man has been a member a secret society called the Illuminati. Alongside Mister Fantastic, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Doctor Strange, Professor X and the Black Bolt, Iron Man had apparently taken an active hand in guiding the world towards along whatever path the Illuminati deemed the best choice. Unfortunately, the group’s last major move was an ill-advised one. After shooting the Hulk into outer space (something that probably at least seemed like a good better idea at the time), Stark and friends just gave the Green Goliath a good reason to come back a few months later with a mad-on for super-people. In “World War Hulk”, the Hulk and his warbound alien allies decimated New York City, before Iron Man was forced to seemingly kill the Hulk with a massive strike from an orbital defence system. On the heels of that alien incursion came a much larger invasion, one that had been in the works for many years. Using sleeper agents, misdirection and subterfuge, the villainous Skrulls launched a “Secret Invasion” that nearly brought the Earth to its knees. For Stark, this proved to be a double whammy- not only was he caught flatfooted as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., he also came to learn that the invasion was provoked by something the Illuminati had done years before.

Though the Invasion was repulsed, Stark became a scapegoat for the whole ugly affair, and was immediately ousted from his position at S.H.I.E.L.D., replaced by Norman Osborn (better known as Spider-Man’s most hated foe, the Green Goblin). On his way out, Stark took steps to protect the records of registered superheroes that he had been entrusted with; when Osborn inevitably attempted to illegally access the secret identities of registered heroes, a virus implanted by Stark caused the files to erase themselves. With the sole copy of the SHRA records locked inside Stark’s semi-computerized brain, Osborn forged evidence that Stark had collaborated with the Skrulls and leaked it to the media. Overnight, Tony Stark became the most hated and most wanted man on the planet, though he managed to stay one step ahead of Osborn’s sizeable forces just long enough to systematically erase his own brain, leaving Stark in a persistent vegetative state.

Comatose and brain dead, it seemed as though Iron Man had fought his last battle…aw, who am I kidding, he has a three picture deal and an ongoing comic series, there was no way he’d be down for long. And indeed, Stark did return, through help from his former allies, Captain America, Thor and Doctor Strange. Though each of their friendships with Stark had fallen apart in recent years, they were presented with the means to revive him, if they truly wanted to. With their decision to put the past aside, Tony Star was reborn once again- and in a convenient bit of cleverness on writer Matt Fraction’s part, his mind was restored only up to the last time he thought to make a copy of his memories, which was just before he turned into a complete douche bag and started the Civil War.

So why is Iron Man such an enduring and beloved character? There has to be more to it than just seeing a guy in a shiny metal suit punching out Whiplash and the Spymaster. Personally, I’ve always believed that every great character has one defining concept that drives them. In this case, Iron Man is the ultimate redemptive hero. The failures in Tony Stark’s past  motivate him in the present to work towards a greater future. His weaknesses reflect who we are at our worst, but his successes show what we all aspire to be.

Plus, he’s a cool exec with a heart of steel, a billionaire playboy who punched out the Hulk and dated Shannon Elizabeth. What’s not to like?



7 Comments

  1. hearwax wrote:

    Iron Man 101: Who He Is and Why He’s Awesome http://bit.ly/arGHcb
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  2. Nick Gergesha wrote:

    This is great, Karsten! I’ve been looking to get into Iron Man comics, I’ll be sure to start picking up the newest series.

  3. hearwax wrote:

    don’t forget to check out our first #comics article here: http://bit.ly/bPLbPS !
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by lbroger, lbroger. lbroger said: Iron Man 101: Who He Is and Why He’s Awesome http://bit.ly/arGHcb […]

  5. Gabriel Nylund wrote:

    The line “…Captain America- a man who has made Hitler-punching into an art form” had to have been the funniest thing in this entire article. An article in itself, also, that was very nicely done. As an Iron Man fan myself, I appreciate the succinct and understandable history/timeline of his past that you painted.

  6. Gabriel Nylund wrote:

    The line “…Captain America- a man who has made Hitler-punching into an art form” had to have been the funniest thing in this entire article. An article in itself, also, that was very nicely done. As an Iron Man fan myself, I appreciate the succinct and understandable history/timeline of his past that you painted.

  7. Nick Gergesha wrote:

    This is great, Karsten! I’ve been looking to get into Iron Man comics, I’ll be sure to start picking up the newest series.

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