Comics Primer: Iron Man
Another in our occasional series, detailing potential “first reads” for comic book newbies or lapsed readers whose interest in a certain character have been piqued by a movie or TV show or interesting ad campaign or what have you. The focus is on easily obtained paperback collections that can be purchased for a minimum of fuss through their local comics shop or Amazon, rather than have to dig around back-issue bins at random. And of course, keep in mind these are just opinions – though opinions based on a LOT of comic book reading, so pretty well-founded opinions. OK? Let’s get started!
The Character: Iron Man
Star of a popular movie, a less popular movie, a pretty good cartoon show (as well as a couple of not-so-good cartoon shows), a jazzy theme song, and the most fan-favorite part of a trailer for an upcoming movie that people are hoping like hell is at least okay, Iron Man has been all over pop culture in the last few years – indeed, you could even say SPANNING DECADES (if your thing is boldness, more than accuracy – and if so, hey, you must lead an exciting life, let’s get you some comics!).
Where to Start
There are actually some pretty great places to start reading Iron Man, and get the general idea of what makes the character interesting and fun, as well as flawed and occasionally troubling. It just depends on your ability to ignore some bellbottoms, wide collars and curly hair.
You could start with the pretty famous Demon in a Bottle, as long as you understand that it’s primarily a SUPERHERO comic first. Each issue gives only a hint to Tony’s increasingly problematic drinking, focusing mostly on fights against supervillains tasked by a corporate rival.
So when the actual “Tony versus Alcoholism” issue arrives (with the famous cover), it may feel a bit out of nowhere if you’re just skimming. But – and this is assuming you can get past some truly retro fashion choices and passé drink choices (apparently Tony just preferring whiskey would’ve been too blunt?) – it’s also a compelling, humanizing weakness to give a character who otherwise wants for nothing. And it provides a satisfying ending for the volume.
So you COULD start there.
OR! You could start with Armor Wars, the mid-80’s answer to the question, “What would Iron Man do if bad guys got hold of his technology?” That answer is, “Go pretty apeshit on everyone,” and it does a great job of establishing Tony’s other big problem: He’s a huge control freak.
Again, it’s great, fun superhero comics with an interesting take on the hero’s weaknesses. But again, it does require you to accept that this is a story written in the mid-80’s so there is some stylistic hilarity (Tony’s curly mullet) and before you even ask, yes that means Lionel Ritchie and Michael J. Fox do cameo.
But let’s say you CAN’T ignore the 80’s fashions or dated techno-talk (these are also the reasons we’re not venturing further back to the 60’s and 70’s). Fortunately, Marvel managed to get a pretty impressive re-interpretation of its character’s origin along with a boost in his armor capabilities, and a clarification of his reason for being, as told by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov (who helped do character designs on the first film) in Extremis.
So all in all, some great places to start.*
Where to Continue
If you start with Demon in a Bottle or Armor Wars, you can continue collecting the remainder of David Michelinie’s run, since he basically defined the character as he moved into the 90’s.
If you start with Extremis, the next logical step is Matt Fraction and Sal Larocca’s Invincible Iron Man run, starting with The Five Nightmares. Even considering it falls right after one major company crossover (Civil War), then plows headlong through another one (Dark Reign), it’s still pretty accessible. You only need to know where Tony Stark is at the start (heading up SHIELD) and then, who the hell Norman Osborne is (a psychopath masquerading as a titan of industry, AKA 90% of Iron Man’s villains).
And Fraction’s run follows a general trend of Iron Man stories: Start with Tony on top, then throw everything at him, see how he falls, then how he gets back up and what comes next. It’s been a phenomenal run so far, with no signs of stopping (barring the recent hiccup that was the poorly received Fear Itself crossover).
Where Not To Start
There are plenty of places not to start, but most of them because they’re simply not that good and don’t effectively sell Iron Man as a concept worth following. Dramatically a little dull, don’t add much to Tony’s character or take uneventful detours with it (the book for much of the 2000’s, following Kurt Busiek’s exit, which is itself not bad, but not great).
It’s this not-bad-not-great status that kept Iron Man more of a favorite of mine in concept than in execution for much of his history.
But there’s one particular place not to start that I mention only because it’s so tempting for a newbie: The Iron Monger Saga.
The problem is, this Obediah Stane is about 95% different from Jeff Bridges. He is, in fact, the Marvel equivalent to Lex Luthor, and his master plan isn’t just to take over Stark Industries – it’s to completely cripple Tony Stark psychologically, which means getting him back onto the bottle.
Which means this run (by Batman godfather Dennis O’Neill) is actually a whole lot of drunken Tony wandering alleyways while Jim Rhodes takes over as Iron Man. I mean a whole lot. This story is really about two years long. And while it is often very good, it’s exactly where not to start.
(I’m also not sure just how much of it is reprinted in the collected edition, considering how long it really is.)
I would recommend it if you want to follow Demon in a Bottle chronologically (this fits between that story and Armor Wars), but not as a first taste.
Where Else Not to Start
Heroes Reborn: Iron Man. I know the title makes it sound like that’s a good starting point, but no. This is what happened when Marvel farmed out a bunch of their titles to Image Comics for a year, and it’s just EXACTLY what makes Image synonymous with “Bad 90’s”: the art is terrible, the storytelling’s a mess, and then midway through the art gets even worse and Jeph Loeb becomes the writer and it becomes unbearable.
And while a search around the internet will tell you that Civil War was a really popular crossover series, a longer search of the internet will tell you that Tony Stark – along with almost every single character featured – behaves way out of character, because Mark Millar is a writer who is interested in BIG MOMENTS regardless of whether they make any sense.
(The short version is: If the debate over a Superhero Registration Act actually came up? Iron Man and Captain America wouldn’t immediately begin wailing on each other and forming their own lineups like the world’s most ideological dodgeball game, and Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic PROBABLY wouldn’t build a secret prison and send SHIELD agents in what gets called “capekiller armor,” and they REALLY PROBABLY wouldn’t make a robot-clone-hybrid Thor that would immediately go berserk and kill a guy. Here, go read Chris Sims’ “Civil War in 30 Seconds” if you’re super-curious.)
So there you go, happy reading!
Commenters, any other suggestions? (And remember, if you believe I am off about one of these things, please say so WITHOUT being an asshole about it. I know some people forget that second part of it, so I just wanted to add the reminder.)
Next time: Wolverine. (Maybe. Might need Braak’s help on this one.)
* These stories will probably give you a better appreciation for Iron Man 2, where a lot of people were put off by the idea that Iron Man’s biggest enemy seemed to be Tony Stark, while people with a firm grasp of the character (we here at TQP) responded, “Yep, that’s about right.”