Four Color Marathons: Iron Man

And, we're back with another Four Color Marathons.  Life was forcing me away from doing this thing, but I decided that I would try to crank out at least four more of these before the year ended.

As long as I can remember, Iron Man has always been one of my favorite superheroes in comic books.  And why not?  Tony Stark had it all: women, one of the leading businesses in technology, a genius scientific mind, a membership in the premiere superhero team of the world, and the slickest suit this side of...anywhere.  What WASN'T to like?  Well, hard as it might be to believe, until the movie, Iron Man was nowhere *near* as popular as he is today.  Robert Downey Jr.'s excellent performance as Tony Stark brought a more widespread popularity to character that he just didn't have before.  Which is a shame, because this Four Color Marathon focuses on a little-known run on the character from the late 90's from one of the most profuse writers in the superhero genre, Kurt Busiek. 

Iron Man
Issues: 1-25, '99 Annual, Iron Age 1-2

I tried to come up with a way of explaining the historical factors leading up to Busiek's run on the character, but I couldn't do it without getting lost in figurative mountains of comic book minutae that even I only care so much about.  So instead we'll break it down to this: Periodically, DC and Marvel both make...wrong turns with their characters and essentially "break" their toys.  When that happens, usually some cosmic event comes about that in their universe allows them to reset things to make them not broken.  For Marvel, this entire cycle took roughly two years between the Heroes Reborn/Heroes Return storylines, resulting in a reboot of sorts in 1998.  This allowed the creative team of Kurt Busiek and Sean Chen to come onto the book with a fresh take that the comic was in desperate need of.

The story begins with Tony Stark's quite literal "return from the dead", as everyone thought the billionare scientist to be dead after the aforementioned giant cosmic event where he went missing for over a year.  The excuse for him being gone might be simple (in a callback to his origins, he was supposedly "kidnapped by terrorists to design weapons"), but it works, and it throws both Tony Stark and the reader right back into the thick of things.  

The first issue is a masterwork in telling a good single issue story: Busiek manages to reintroduce Tony Stark and Iron Man to the world, show the book's supporting cast, set up Tony Stark's new status quo as owner of his new consulting company Stark Solutions, introduce an entirely new group of supervillain assassins (the Deathsquad), AND show us some of the threats Tony would have to face in later issues; all of this in a mere 38 pages.  He even has time to work in Tony's origin and a quick recap of the character's life up to that point.  With modern comics designing everything they do around an eventual trade paperback collection, reading something like this was (and still is) an amazingly refreshing change of pace.

What's most interesting about this run is how Busiek manages to make Tony Stark the most interesting part of a book which features a guy in a suit of armor loaded with weapons fighting more supervillains than one could shake a reasonably-sized stick at.  This book pre-dates the Robert Downey Jr. version of the character the comic patterns itself after these days by roughly 10 years, so the cocky, self-assured, arrogant but ever-amusing dick from the movies isn't really present in this 25 issue run.  Instead, the title centers around a character who's fairly introspective, an idealist that's far too selfless for his own good.

One of the key themes of this run is how far Tony is willing to go to help other people--more often than not putting his own life in unnecessary danger to fix someone else's problems.   This is actually the entire purpose of Stark Solutions, the consulting company started at the end of the first issue, a business that not only existed to help anyone that could afford him, but helped fund Tony's charity the Maria Stark Foundation to aid in reconstruction and other philanthropic efforts.  Busiek's Stark was a humanitarian and proof that one could be just as much of a superhero outside the costume as inside.

More interesting than the humanitarian angle though, was having that the run actually had the balls to ask why Stark continued to wear the armor at all.  With his original reason to wear the armor long gone (his heart no longer had any shrapnel in it), the point was raised time and again that the armor itself was causing Tony more trouble than it had ever solved, and in fact might have been a new addiction.  Tony Stark's defining character flaw had been alcoholism for decades, but Busiek carefully inserted the possibility that Tony had traded one addiction for another: the rush and invulnerability that came with being Iron Man over the temptation of alcohol.  With Tony seemingly resorting to the armor over any other solution, knowingly putting his life in danger by going into battle--or even when the armor itself was putting his life in danger--that possibility seemed more and more likely with each new issue.

One of the things that's struck me most with later re-reads is how character-focused the series actually is.  While the book is always about Iron Man and Tony Stark, there's tons of other characters in the series that also get plenty of development.  From the now famous Pepper Potts and her much less well-known ex-husband Happy Hogan, to long-time friend James Rhodes and the infamous Warbird (Carol Danvers, now known as Captain Marvel), the book had an amazing supporting cast that I could spend ages talking about.  Each and every character plays an integral role to Tony's life as well as having separate lives of their own and you miss them when they aren't in the book because of Iron Man's adventures.

Now I'm one of the first people to say that comic book runs are too short these days. Creative musical chairs has left most runs on characters barely worth mentioning; with some creators leaving after only a year on a given title.  But while Busiek's run is just shy of 30 issues (25 issues, a two-part origin mini-series and two annuals), it is without question twenty-five of the most action-packed issues the title has ever seen: in a short two years Iron Man is pitted against nearly every major villain he's ever had, along with a few new ones as well.   So while I've spent most of this article hyping the excellent character work Busiek put into the title, make no mistake--this is a superhero title through and through.   The first ten issues feature some of my favorite long-form plotting in comics (and probably my favorite "mastermind supervillain" story) as Tony is attacked again and again by seemingly disparate villains, only to later learn (unfortunately a little too late) that there's been a method to the madness all along in one of the most shocking reveals in my sixteen years of reading comics.   And there's still another fifteen solid issues to go after that!  While his run on Iron Man is far, far shorter than his classic Avengers run (65 issues and almost six years), Busiek leaves no stone unturned in Tony Stark's life: from dealing with his issues as a recovering alcoholic to making sure every major recurring villain Tony Stark had makes an appearance, by the time someone finishes these 29 issues they easily qualify for being an Iron Man aficionado.

Yet again, this is a run who doesn't have as much of a collection as I would like, but Marvel's a little better about their trade paperback game, so there are two trades for this series that collects about half of Busiek's run: Iron Man: Deadly Genesis and Iron Man: Return of the Mandarin. Deadly Genesis is a mere $15 on Amazon so its at least worth a try, but I'm willing to bet by the last issue you'll want the second volume.

Hopefully next time I can get into something a little more team-oriented.  I've got three more of these to knock out in two momths, so wish me luck!
Okay okay, I know I'm supposed to be done, but one more thing: I would be remiss if I didn't say how much I LOVED the artwork in these issues.  Sean Chen is a genius.  As good as Kurt Busiek's scripts are, they wouldn't have nearly the impact without Chen's amazing character designs.  Always expressive and detailed without looking overdone, each issue was a joy to look at.  And, Chen's Iron Man is hands-down my favorite design even twelve years later.  A close second is the one in Matt Fraction's run (which I'll talk about later), but there was something about the Heroes Return Iron Man armor that was special. Many people have tried to create new armors during their runs in an attempt to make their own mark, but not many succeed.  Sean Chen definitely did though--his reminded you of the classic armor people know so well but it looked like something that a forward-thinking super-scientist like Stark would create.  My only wish is that Chen gets more work somewhere at Marvel or DC, don't care--guy's amazing. 


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