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man v. machine
on April 21, 2007
By the time these issues were originally published, Iron Man had been around for nearly 15 years, but for all his popularity-- sharing a book with Captain America in the 1960s, moving to his own title, and playing a major role in the Marvel title The Avengers-- he'd never quite made a mark as a character the way other heroes of the Marvel-verse had. Simply put, he felt more like a concept-- take a James Bond-like playboy named Tony Stark and merge him with the idea of the Knight in Shining Armor-- than a fully-fleshed out idea. It's a neat concept, but one that a long string of very talented writers and artists failed to develop. Even literally giving Iron Man a new heart-- to replace the shrapnel-damaged ticker that had spurred the invention of his life-giving armor in the first place-- failed to pump new blood into the character. He seemed destined to remain a second-tier figure, fun and visually striking, but lacking the pathos of such landmark heroes as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.
In 1978, that all changed. Writer/co-plotter David Michelinie and Artist/co-plotter Bob Layton have stated in numerous interviews that they see themselves as craftsmen at the service of the characters, and that they want readers to become absorbed in the storylines, rather than thinking about the creators behind the scenes. Fine, but their own landmark work on this title belies that modesty. Simply put, what was needed was not a new heart, or new armor, or a big-time supervillain, but two artists alert to the possibilities buried within the title, and especially the title character. For all intents and purposes, they re-invented Tony Stark/Iron Man, and gave Marvel a whole new hero to play with.
M&L's solution to the riddle that had bedeviled even Stan Lee was remarkably simple: what if we really took this guy seriously, and tried to tell some realistic stories about him? What if we made him a real character-- funny, fleshed-out, full of strengths and ego and very deep flaws-- and tested his grace under pressure? What if we surrounded him with a top-notch supporting cast? What if we gave him a real girlfriend, instead of the Harlequin robots that had populated the book in the past? What if we really explored what it meant to be a Cold Warrior, to think about the ethics and unforseen consequences of your actions and inventions? In other words, what if we emphasized the "man" in the title, rather than the "iron"?
What resulted was a run of 40 issues (#116-156, although Layton left after #153) that offered a gripping and very human arc, respecting the genre conventions of the superhero tale (the costumes, the action sequences, the patented marvel hero crossovers) while also asking them to grow up. This wasn't new to Marvel, but it was new to Iron Man, and M&L's run on the title heralded a renaissance at a company that had been in a downward creative spiral for the previous half-decade: in the wake of M&L would come Frank Miller's Daredevil, John Byrne and Chris Claremont's X-Men (and Byrne's even-better five-year run on the Fantastic Four), Walt Simonson's mythic look at Thor, and the classic Hobgoblin arc in Spider-Man (it's not a coincidence that these books followed editorial and business-side shake-ups that would lead to better conditions for writers and artists, and draw some of the best talent to the company. After all, treating people like human beings shouldn't only apply to fictional characters).
I emphasize that whole 40-issue arc because some people have complained that the storylines here are wrapped up too quickly and neatly. That's a fair complaint, but I think it's more an effect of the TPB form (which has to end *somewhere*, and gives a sometime-false impression of closure) than the stories themselves-- the issues and ideas raised here continue to be developed after the stories collected in the book. In fact, M&L do such a good job re-inventing the character that they haunt every creative team that followed them on the book, as new writers and artists either choose to emphasize the extremes of Stark's flaws (Denny O'Neill's often fascinating but misguided restaging of Stark's alcoholism in the early 80s is but one example, althoug it's so grippingly done that, for all its problems, it probably deserves its own TPB, too) or ignore M&L's innovations altogether choosing to revert Stark to his crass playboy persona of the 60s (the recent Civil War series is at least an attempt to do something unique with what M&L wrought). In the end, not even M&L could live up to their own legacy-- their much-anticipated return to the title in the mid-80s (partially collected as an "armor wars" TPB) started strong, but was eventually overwhelmed by its action sequences, which didn't flow in and out of their characters as gracefully as their first run had.
Which is why it's great this first run is now collected and back in print. Is it perfect? No. Is it occasionally nostalgic? Sure (check out those disco-era fashions). But none of that eradicates M&L's achievement-- in a genre that sometimes emphasizes mindless mechanical action and macho cliche, they managed to create a brief, shining moment of humanism. And that, in the end, is what superheroes are all about.