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Iron Man

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Tales of Suspense #79 © 1966 Marvel Comics. COVER ART BY GENE COLAN AND JACK ABEL.


Ever since his creation in early 1963 (in Tales of Suspense #39), Iron Man has been one of Marvel Comics' heavy hitters, a consistent seller in his own title and a regular guest in other comics, including The Avengers. In his alter ego of Anthony (Tony) Stark, wealthy playboy inventor, owner of Stark International, and (let's not beat about the bush here) an international arms manufacturer, he was an unlikely figure for young readers to identify with. In Marvel's early days, much was made of the company's creation of heroes with problems, and Stark's was potentially fatal: While demonstrating some new weapons in the jungles of Vietnam, he is injured by a bomb and captured by a Vietcong warlord. With his life ebbing away, Stark is forced to work for his captors, creating new weapons, but unknown to them he secretly builds himself a high-tech suit of armor that will both keep him alive and make him a walking arsenal.


Once in the gray, clanking suit, Stark defeats the warlord and returns to the United States to assume the role of a superhero, but his tragedy is that he can never remove the chest plate that keeps him alive. (Indeed, Stark admits, The name of Iron Man makes strong men tremble! But, what good does it do me?? I can never relax never be without my chest plate—never lead a normal life!) To compound his dilemma, the armor needs constant recharging and has the unfortunate tendency to run out of power at the most inconvenient moments, usually in the middle of a pitched battle. With many of his stories taking place in the vast Stark International complex, readers were soon introduced to Iron Man's rather morose chauffeur, Happy Hogan; perky secretary Pepper Potts; and the inevitable love triangle. Hogan loved Potts but knew that he would never be good enough for her; Potts loved Stark but he was her boss; and Stark loved Potts but was held back by the prospect of his keeling over dead at any moment.


As very much the establishment superhero, it is perhaps no surprise that Iron Man was Marvel's premier red-baiting strip for its first decade, sometimes even showing Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev plotting against Stark. Almost all Iron Man's major villains were communists of some hue or nationality, including Titanium Man, an armor-wearing Soviet giant (later immortalized by singer Paul McCartney in a song on his Venus and Mars album). Notable exceptions were the Melter, the Black Knight (one of many Black Knights in comics), Count Nefaria, the Maggia (an all-purpose crime cartel), and the extraordinary Firebrand, who was a sort of costumed agitator specializing in leading demonstrations. By the late 1960s, Potts had given up pining for Stark and had married the nearest man—who just happened to be Hogan. So Stark embarked on a series of doomed, tragic romances. The first of these, Whitney Frost, turned out to be the mysterious leader of the Maggia, but then became Madame Masque after her face was scarred. Happy Hogan was periodically called in to help Iron Man and invariably managed to turn himself into a bald giant called the Freak. There's no doubt about it: Knowing Tony Stark was dangerous business.


Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Iron Man was a mainstay of Marvel's output—appearing in all sorts of consumer merchandise, featured in the Marvel Superheroes television cartoon show from 1966 to 1968, and taking a bow as the hero in William Rotsler's novel And Call My Killer Modok (1979). The character was one of the charter members of the Avengers and has maintained a regular presence in that superhero group ever since. Stark's millions have come in handy, for instance, for funding the plush Avengers' mansion, and his technical wizardry has enabled him to devise all manner of means for getting the team out of trouble. That same technical brilliance also created an ever-evolving suit of armor, and his hulking gray costume was soon transformed into a sleek, shining red-and-gold number bristling with gadgets and ordnance. For his six-year run in Tales to Astonish, Iron Man was predominantly written by his co-creator, Stan Lee, and drawn by Don Heck or Gene Colan, and when he was given his own title in 1968 George Tuska became his artist for most of the next one hundred issues. With that sort of creative stability, fans generally knew what to expect and, if truth be told, this most middle-aged of heroes was occasionally rather dull.


That all changed in the 1980s, when the young writing team of David Michelinie and Bob Layton, along with artist John Romita Jr., decided to shake up the comic. Under the new regime, things began to go very wrong for Iron Man, as Stark International was hit by industrial espionage. A despairing Stark took to the bottle and had to draft in one of his employees (and best friend), Jim Rhodes, as a stand-in Iron Man. Were the fans ready for an alcoholic superhero? They certainly were, and for the first time in its existence, the feature actually started winning awards. However, once the creative team left for other projects, the awards dried up and the comic entered a period of almost constant change.


Rhodes regularly took over the Iron Man mantle (in response to Stark falling off the wagon) and eventually struck out on his own as War Machine, a sort of ethical world policeman, suited up in Iron Man armor. Stark's company collapsed, and he had to start again from scratch. He was paralyzed by an assassin's bullet (but recovered three issues later), got drunk again, died and came back to life, and got drunk once more. Throughout, readers noticed how Iron Man stories depicted the contrast between Stark's vulnerability in his civilian identity and his invincibility as a superheroic modern knight in shining armor. One well-received interlude in Stark's troubled times was a storyline called Armor Wars, which revealed that various Marvel villains had been ripping off Stark's technology for years for their own weapons.


In the 1990s, Marvel decided to put Stark out of his misery and killed him off (Iron Man #325, 1996). However, one issue later a younger Stark was plucked from an alternate dimension and began where the original left off (although without the alcohol). The second Tony Stark revels in his role as a playboy with the ego to match, and his comic shows all the signs of continuing for years to come. —DAR


Two successful movie adaptations of Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr., were released in 2008 and 2010 by Paramount Studios in partnership with Marvel Studios. Iron Man traces the origins of the metallic hero, while Iron Man 2 concerns Tony Stark's attempts to avoid having his technology used by the government and others without his permission.


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