50 years ago in the pages of Marvel Comics’ “Tales of Suspense” #39, legendary creators Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby introduced readers to Tony Stark, the armored hero known as Iron Man. The character’s intelligence, unique suits of armor and personality flaws earned him countless fans, but these traits also proved to be a successful formula for a franchise of Iron Man feature films, the latest being “Iron Man 3.”
In the current volume of “Iron Man” by writer Kieron Gillen, Stark’s adventures have led him into outer space, but in issue #9 the writer kicked off a new story with artist Dale Eaglesham titled “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark.” CBR News spoke with Gillen about the arc, celebrating the leading man’s 50th anniversary by having the off-world Iron Man uncover an adventure his parents embarked upon when he was still in utero. Plus, exclusive art by Eaglesham!
In “Iron Man” #9, the prologue to “Secret Origin,” Gillen continued the story from his previous arc, “GodKiller,” which ended when a neurotic and treacherous robot named 451 conducted a theft leading to the annihilation of an ancient alien race known as the Voldi. Long time fans of Gillen’s work may find the deceptively dangerous machine to be similar to Unit, an amicable automaton designed to pacify and wipe out the populations of entire planets, first appearing in the writer’s 2010 “S.W.O.R.D.” miniseries.
“I was originally planning to use Unit in ‘Iron Man.’ He appeared in my original outlines and scripts. We ended up changing it for a few reasons, the biggest being if I introduced Unit, it would be very obvious from the first panel he appeared in that he was a bad guy. Maybe not to ‘Iron Man’ readers, but definitely to anyone who has followed my ‘Uncanny X-Men’ run. I wanted an ounce of doubt in that first arc, and that was one of the reasons why I went a different way,” Gillen told CBR News. “Since the plot was built around a Unit archetype, I thought about doing a slightly different take. My usual way of describing the differences between Unit and 451 is that Unit is basically Darkseid while 451 is Thanos. They’re two similar characters of a similar archetype, but Darkseid is cold. The classic pose is him with his hands behind his back. So he’s quite literally not hands on, whereas Thanos is a creature of pure passion.
“So in this case, Unit is designed to do what he does. His job was to basically be a bomb that took over planets. He knows what he does is evil, but it’s for a necessary good. He isn’t about doubt or anything like that, as at his core programming he’s built to do this,” Gillen continued. “451 is the complete opposite. He’s not created to do anything like this. His job is to watch, but eventually he’s able to overcome his programming. This means he’s fundamentally neurotic and full of doubts, but he can’t turn back. There’s a bit of HAL 9000 there, but the twitchiness of the character is one of those things that’s hard to get across in a still medium. You can occasionally see it when he talks to himself, allowing the doubts to come through.”
Gillen hopes to bring Unit and 451 face to face some day, and the desire to write that confrontation is part of a larger fascination for the writer with characters who believe the ends justify their means — no matter how violent they may be. “Any ‘ends justify the means’ character is interesting because apart from the first conception, superheroes are about the ends justifying the means. Superheroes are usually vigilantes, and they’ve all decided somehow they have to go outside the law to do what is good,” Gillen said. “Once you’ve made that step you’re on a slippery slope. On one end you have people like Unit and 451 who have said, ‘Yeah. Let’s kill some planets.’ In the case of Unit, his goal is the universe which justifies any means. Then you’ve got characters who are only a little ways down that slope, like Agent Brand or Cyclops. That’s why Unit was useful for them — as a compare and contrast. I like villains who are heroes taken a little further; it’s an interesting way to dramatize things. Hell, even if you don’t agree with Unit and 451’s methods you still agree with their ends — it would be better if the world was a better place.
“Unit and 451 are fundamentally and awesomely misguided, but they are also sincere,” Gillen continued. “I find those types of characters more interesting. On a really bad day if you gave me a button and said, ‘This kills half the people in the galaxy, but there will be a paradise forever for the survivors,” would I push it? No, I don’t think so. If I was in the half of the galaxy that lived, I suspect I would be thankful to the guy who pressed the button… equally if I was in the half that didn’t — I’d have a considerably different opinion.”
At the end of “Iron Man” #9 Tony Stark’s confronted with shocking evidence that may change his opinion on both his father and 451. He had been trying to bring the robot to justice for the part it played in the destruction of the Voldi, but then he sees the evidence — a film that Tony’s father, Howard Stark made when his son was just a boy and standing next to him in the film is 451.
“Readers shouldn’t assume anything is what it seems in this arc. Hell, Tony doesn’t. The mysteries compound. I can confirm that, yes, Howard did know 451,” Gillen stated. “At some period there were dealings between the two, which impacts upon where Tony finds himself today. The big question is what that was and what happened? That’s what this arc is about.”
In “Iron Man” #10, the first chapter of “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark,” Gillen begins a story that follows Tony and 451 in the present day and his parents, Howard and Maria, in the past. “Tony and 451 are making their way to wherever the robot’s taking them, dealing with the revelations he’s experiencing. Tony doesn’t believe anything 451 tells him — he’s not an idiot. 451 appears to believe all the revelations are completely true,” Gillen explained. “The other story happens around three decades ago. I try to keep it foggy because of Marvel’s sliding time scale, but we’ll see what happened right around the time of Maria’s pregnancy.”
Maria and Howard Stark’s story is a heist tale that lends itself to the knowledge and skills Howard possesses. In Jonathan Hickman’s “S.H.I.E.L.D.” series, Howard worked as an agent of an ancient order of geniuses charged with defending the planet from otherworldly threats alongside Nathaniel Richards, father of Reed who’s the leader of the Fantastic Four and goes by Mr. Fantastic. Fans of the series can expect a soft homage to the book in the form of a brief scene at the order’s secret headquarters, the Eternal City.
“This year is the 50th anniversary and I was trying to do a story that would harken back to the beginnings of Iron Man. It would have a period piece vibe to it, but the problem with the sliding time line is Tony Stark became Iron Man around 2001. So if you’re doing a retro piece it’s pretty much, ‘Oh my good look at my new phone. It connects to the Internet!'” Gillen joked. “So this story has to feel timeless, and I started thinking about that problem, asking myself what place feels timeless? My answer was Las Vegas, especially if you’re talking about films like ‘Ocean’s 11.’ The ‘Ocean’s 11’ from 1960 and the film series that began in 2001 both have the quintessential elements of Vegas — I wanted a story that had that feel to it. Set it in Vegas, have the suits, the glamor and a bit of seediness.
“Then I thought why not combine the two great myths of Nevada together, which of course are Vegas and Area 51? So the elevator pitch for this story would be ‘Ocean’s 11’ meets the ‘X-Files.’ That’s how I brought the space stuff in,” Gillen continued. “This stuff is going on around Howard and Maria’s pregnancy, and I can go as far as saying a deal is struck between Howard, Maria and 451. That becomes clear in #10, then the specifics of the deal become clear by #11. There’s something Howard and Maria need and there’s something 451 needs.”
In order to obtain what everyone’s after, Howard and Maria must assemble a team of specialists, including several established Marvel characters operating at that time. “We have people like Dum Dum Dugan, Jimmy Woo and Thunderbolt Ross. Since this is a heist story where they try to rescue a certain thing, Howard gets a team together,” Gillen explained. “So I started thinking about people who could be useful in that period of time. I considered using a younger Peggy Carter too, but I wanted to introduce some new characters as well.”
One of those new characters is of an alien race that’s been a huge part of popular culture and unexplained phenomenon over the years, the Grey aliens. “I have a very different take on the mythology surrounding the Grey aliens because weirdly, no one has tackled them in the Marvel Universe. It’s a novel take on a classic alien idea. It’s interesting, a little funny and maybe people see a point in it,” Gillen stated. “Their main representative in this story is an alien named Rollo. In the script I basically describe him as Fredo from ‘The Godfather.’
“Our other new characters include Nessa the Kitten who’s a card shark, and The Bear, the lady in the Jackie Onassis costume in the promotional art. Probably the best way to describe The Bear is she’s a variety of things,” Gillen continued. “I smiled at the art they’ve released for the story since I didn’t write the descriptions of the characters on those pieces, and whoever wrote them is playing games with the preconceptions of those words. They called The Bear, “The Bombshell” and that’s not exactly what she is, because she’s a demolitions expert,” Gillen said with a laugh.
When Tony Stark learns the full story of what his parents and their team did back when his mother was pregnant with him, he’ll be shocked and left with a number of questions. Most of them surrounding himself and who he is. “By the end of this story Tony’s perception of who he is has changed completely. It was nice to look backwards because there’s been relatively little written about Howard and Maria. So to explore those angles and do them in a meaningful way has been fun,” Gillen said. “I’m sure people will be angry at many points in this story, but I’m also really sure about what I’m doing with it. I know exactly what I’m doing and I think it only adds to Iron Man and Tony.”
Gillen began to lay the groundwork for Tony Stark’s change in how he perceives himself in the debut issue of this volume of “Iron Man” which launched as part of Marvel NOW!, kicking it off with a story that had the title character asking questions about himself, the world and his place in it. “I’ve said I don’t have a long term plan for the book, but that’s not entirely true. I’m being a bit more improvisational, but I do have themes I want to explore. Issue #1 was about opening a pandora’s box of questions. Then in issue #3 we start bringing in the question of family. That’s very much foreshadowing what we’re going to get into in ‘Secret Origin;’ that question of what would you do for your kids?” Gillen remarked. “Then I think if people reread ‘GodKiller’ after the next couple of issues, they’ll see some things subtextually they might have missed the first time around. Three quarters of ‘GodKiller’ is light and frothy, but then the apocalypse comes at the end. That was kind of the point of the story, but there’s lots of quieter stuff going on there.
“I don’t say that to imply I’m some kind of epic genius who should immediately grow an Alan Moore beard,” Gillen continued with a laugh. “But there’s a reason why ‘GodKiller’ is to be collected with the first part of ‘The Secret Origin of Tony Stark.’ Then the second half of ‘Secret Origin’ is collected with the arc that follows it. So the next arc also deals with the ‘Secret Origin of Tony Stark,’ but it’s also about what 451 is trying to do and how it all plays out. All together it’s about 12 issues. It’s my biggest story both in terms of the amount of real estate it occupies and its impact on the Marvel Universe.”
The shocking revelations and retro adventure of “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” is brought to life by artist Dale Eaglesham. “Dale’s work is very modern, but it also has a great classic feel to it. He has strong storytelling and character work, and the fact that this story is a continuity insert that’s supposed to convey a period feel makes him a great fit. He gets that while still keeping the intrinsic modernness. Plus he draws a great mustache and there are a lot of mustaches in this story. It’s almost like a hipster bar in Brooklyn at times,” Gillen joked.
After Eaglesham finishes illustrating the past adventures of Howard and Maria Stark “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” continues with an epic space opera style story titled “The Best Offense.” That story marks the return of regular “Iron Man” artist and frequent Gillen collaborator, Greg Land. Gillen feels Land is getting better and better with each issue of “Iron Man” that he draws.
“There are certainly people who knock Greg, but I don’t think they’ve been paying attention to what he’s been doing,” Gillen stated. “You know the big multi panel images he’s creating? Like The one where the Voldi are destroyed? That was written as a splash page, but he turned it into about an eight to nine panel page because it served the story better. So I’m really excited to see what he does. I’m very much into artists who choose to interpret the work, while serving the story.”
“The Best Offense” is the concluding chapter in the trilogy of space adventure arcs that Gillen kicked off in “Iron Man” #6, revealing what 451 ultimately has planned for Tony Stark. “Plus there’s a new suit of armor in the next arc and it’s unlike any suit of armor Tony has ever worn. Plus for people who like him, Death’s Head is back,” Gillen said. “The sense of scale is huge — space and our relationship with the heavens is a continuing theme in my book, but this is the end of my Tony in space adventures. When he comes out the other end of this story, he’s fundamentally changed.”
“The Best Offense” arc is so big and vital to Tony Stark’s character that the “Iron Man” series won’t tie into the upcoming Marvel event “Infinity.” “This is the first Marvel crossover I’ve ever sat out. All my books have been so tied in it’s actually nice for change,” Gillen remarked, referencing how his recent “Uncanny X-Men” run greatly tied into the “Avengers vs. X-Men” event. “This story is big enough and important enough to Tony that there’s no way we could get distracted from it. Tony is involved with ‘Infinity,’ but it’s not in this book.”
Gillen closed by emphasizing change is on the horizon for Tony Stark and Iron Man. “For good or ill, ‘The Secret Origin of Tony Stark’ is the story people will remember me on ‘Iron Man’ for,” Gillen said. “So these are really big tales, but therein lies the fun.”
“Iron Man” #9 is available now, #10 goes on sale May 15