Human beings are shaped by a number of forces. Some, like genetics, we have no say in, while others, like the choices we make and the people we associate with, are ours to control. What happens when you discover your ability to shape who you are was stolen from you and the choices you made were genetically influenced?
Writer Kieron Gillen and artist Dale Eaglesham began to explore the existential nightmare posed by that very question in “Iron Man” #11, the second chapter of the series current “Secret Origin of Tony Stark” storyline. In the issue Stark discovered his intellect, ability to design weapons and even his character flaws stem from a deal brokered between his parents and the duplicitous alien robot known as 451. Comic Book Resources spoke with Gillen about these revelations, what 451 ultimately wants from Tony Stark and the writer’s plans for the series moving forward.
“The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” is a story that unfolds in two time periods. The present day sequences follow the adventures and conversations Tony and 451 have as they travel across the galaxy to a mysterious location. In flashback sequences readers are shown the adventure that led Tony’s parents, Howard and Maria Stark, to cross paths with 451 and how the alien robot offered to help save their unborn son, but only if he could tinker with the boy’s genetics. Because of 451’s penchant for manipulating the truth some readers might be wondering if what they’re seeing in the flashbacks is genuine or filtered through the robot’s perspective, and they would be right to ask those questions.
“This is a big, epic story that really started in ‘Iron Man’ #6, where we first met 451. It’s a story that will build all the way to issue #17 where you’ll get the denouement and all the final pieces. So it’s safe to say that everything you see is genuine. We’re not showing you anything that didn’t happen,” Gillen told CBR News. “It might not be the whole story. There might be other stuff going on around the edges, and 451 might not being telling Tony all of the things he did. Whatever you do see is real though. You can assume the sincerity of the flashbacks.
“It’s also very clear that 451 believes what happened in the flashbacks to be true,” Gillen continued. “So yes, 451 would totally lie to Tony if he had to, but there’s an implication at least that he believes these things to be true.”
The flashbacks also revealed the reason 451 sought to genetically engineer Tony. He wanted to create an individual that would arm Earth so it could stand up and defend itself against various interstellar empires and the intergalactic great council currently appearing in writer Brian Michael Bendis’ “Guardians of the Galaxy” series.
“When Brian was at one of the big summits and outlining his vision for the space stuff and how it interacts with Earth I thought it was really interesting. So I knew Tony was going to be appearing both in my book and ‘Guardians’ at that point and I thought I could foreshadow that and all the invasions of Earth that would occur later on,” Gillen explained. “So yeah, this very much ties into that whole side of the Marvel Universe. The history of Marvel’s compressed timeline is about 10 years and during that period Earth would have been destroyed multiple times if Tony hadn’t armed groups like S.W.O.R.D. or been a primary force in the Avengers. So this is me playing revisionist historian, essentially. It’s like, here’s an alternative reading of these facts. What do you make of it?
“Also, the interconnectivity of the Marvel Universe adds a certain dramatic power,” Gillen continued. “I thought it would be interesting if the things that 451 is rebelling against were the galactic council and these big space empires. Plus there’s the fact that Earth has so much potential and is so clearly weird. There’s a reason why they declared it a No Man’s Land in ‘Guardians.’ So yes, this is all interesting. In short I think it ties into that whole tonal thrust of what’s going on in Brian’s book.”
It’s currently unclear why 451 believes Earth must be protected and if that belief stems simply from evidence that the planet is strategically important to his long terms goals or if it comes from a genuine feeling of affection for the planet and its people. “He is, in his own perverse way, an idealist. So he definitely has plans for Earth, but does he have any real affection for the planet? Or will he just use it to accomplish his larger goals?” Gillen mused. “Those are questions we’ll delve into a little further down the line. 451 will show more of his cards as we progress, but these are all good questions to be asking.”
451’s ability to feel affection in general and other emotions is also currently a mystery. “451 wasn’t meant to have this amount of experience. His mind was supposed to have been wiped every time he went home to the planet Rigel. So he’s operating beyond his design limits. As a machine, he was built to experience things and learn from them, but those experiences would be wiped every time he went back to Rigel. So the fact that he was never wiped is what basically allows him to break out of his prime directive. At least that’s the origin of 451 that’s been presented,” Gillen remarked. “So he’s neurotic. 451 does his job and is very good at it, but there’s this twitchiness to him where he’s almost talking to himself the entire time.
“Whether or not he has feelings of affection and love I don’t know. I certainly think he has an understanding of right and wrong. He knows what he’s doing is wrong — at least that’s what he claims,” Gillen continued. “We’ll discover more information about him as we move forward, and when dealing with him it’s always about more information rather than a direct lie. When we start the next arc in issue #13 Death’s Head [The robotic bounty hunter that’s been a supporting character in “Iron Man” since issue #6] will find out more about his break from Rigel. So the story surrounding him will build rather than over ride itself.”
451’s motivations and larger goals are still mysterious, but the methods he uses to accomplish them are not. Since his first appearance in “Iron Man” #6 the robot has repeatedly distorted the truth by omitting key facts and occasionally lying outright. While crafty with his words, he’s not above physical confrontations either. In “Iron Man” #11 he brutally dispatched a Grey alien attacking Howard Stark’s estate by punching through its chest.
“That’s a cold moment,” Gillen stated. “I wrote it as a neck twist and Dale [Eaglesham] decided to go for the punch because 451 is a robot. He’s physically powerful. Direct physical violence isn’t his first resort, but he’s certainly capable of it. So that for me is part of the character. Look at C3PO. He could probably punch through a dude and there’s a lot of that in his character. 451 is basically C3PO if he went apeshit crazy. There’s an element of that to him.”
In the modern day sequences, 451 doesn’t need to do much fighting because he has the weapon he created, Tony Stark, by his side. In the flashback sequences readers saw the various treatments 451 subjected an unborn Tony to in order to forge him into that weapon. They also saw how some of those treatments affected his personality and led to some of his more prominent character flaws.
“Those treatments and the things he implanted did have an effect on Tony’s personality and if you look at many of the ‘great’ people from history their flaws are much of their drive,” Gillen said. “I was just reading about Churchill. There was an argument among historians about whether he was manic-depressive and how many manic-depressives have had an impact on history. Supposedly what they suffered from was part of how they worked.”
“A lot of time people do stuff despite their flaws, but it’s also part of the grain of who they are. So there are a lot of things going on there. It’s not just, ‘the Leonardo assembly will make him a genius.’ They’re going to make him a very specific genius, one who’s interested in making weapons.” And with that came all these other things,” Gillen continued. “This is the big existential horror of the story to Tony. It would throw me if I discovered that I was engineered by a robot 37 years ago so that I would write a story about a robot designing Tony Stark, and that’s the only reason I was created. What does this do to Tony’s head? That’s the core question to me. I’m primarily a character writer and the challenge of that appeals to me.”
Gillen knows that some Iron Man fans may not like or be comfortable with the information he’s revealing about Tony Stark, but he hopes those readers continue to give “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” a chance” because their feelings are currently echoed by his protagonist. “If you think it’s bullshit, you’re in the same position as Tony,” the writer laughed, “Tony doesn’t believe it, and part of the pleasure of this story is that it’s a big existential threat to Tony. It fundamentally changes his self-image. He’d like to think he’s a self-made man, but what if he’s just something that he’s been made into?
“It’s literally only occurred to me just now, but it’s kind of telling in the present days sections of a story titled “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” Tony is being controlled. He’s being walked around in the suit by 451 and used as a puppet to fight who 451 wants to fight. This story is all about that. Is a man with no alternate means really a man?” Gillen continued. “If you look back in our early issues I had a lot about what is a robot? And what is a human? So all the way through I’ve been foreshadowing these questions and Tony is a bit prejudiced towards robots. This is him realizing, ‘Oh yeah. You’re just like them.'”
There are more realizations and revelations to come in the remaining chapters of “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” storyline. “Iron Man” #12 finishes up the dual past and present stories. Then in “Iron Man” #13 Gillen brings the storyline to a close with a final arc titled, “The Best Offense.”
“Next issue we basically wrap up the secret. We’ll find out what happened with the Greys and what the parents did to stop them from doing whatever it is they’re going to do. Then in the present, 451 reveals the other thing that he was doing. He’s made Tony who’s going to save the Earth and everything is fine, but there’s more than that. This is kind of the next step of 451’s plan,” Gillen explained. “Plus there’s a suit of armor Tony will use called the Godkiller and it’s basically enormous. It’s an artifact from a war at the beginning of time. Imagine the Deathstar as an Iron Man exoskeleton. Tony would have probably called it a Celestial Buster. And that’s where the next arc is set. It pretty much takes place in and about this robot suit. It’s a fun and fantastic setting for action sequences. Plus, there are all the things you can do with the actual suit.”
Gigantic mecha-style armor is just one of the many fantastic, wondrous, and frightening elements that Gillen’s artistic collaborators have been asked to bring to life during “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” and the writer has been blown away by the work all of three artists that have contributed to the storyline. “This is a story with both modern day elements and style, and a retro period. Dale Eaglesham, who came aboard the book with issue #9, has been showing his versatility by bringing both periods to life. He’s especially good at the period stuff. He’s great with the suits, the glamour, and the glitz of the ‘Eternal Vegas.’ Then we’ve got these very fleshy aliens, which brings this very science fiction conceit down to Earth in a wonderful way,” Gillen stated. ” Greg Land is coming back to do the first two issues of our next arc, “The Best Offense,” but then he’s moving over to ‘Mighty Avengers.’ So Carlo Pagulayan is taking over and his pages are stunning. It’s especially great to have him on the book because he did the original design work for my Iron Man armors. So to have him here to help finish off my first year, my first 17 issues are sort of my first year if you think about it, is really appealing to me.”
In “Iron Man” #17 Gillen and Pagulayan bring “The Best Offense,” “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” storyline, and Iron Man’s space adventures to a close. Then in “Iron Man” #18 Tony Stark returns to Earth a changed man.
“There’s a slight gap in story time between the end of ‘Iron Man’ #17 and his arrival back on Earth in issue #18. The events in ‘Infinity’ will most likely unfold in that gap,” the writer said. “Issue #17 was kind of mellow. We hit the big climax in issue #16 and issue #17 is kind of the emotional heart. ‘Origin’ technically began back in issue #6, the first chapter of our ‘Godkiller’ arc. So that’s 11 issues. It’s the biggest single story I’ve ever done for Marvel and wrapping all that up has been quite nice.”
“I just started writing issue #18 which outlines our vision for year two and it’s really exciting. Space and the cosmos and Earth’s relationship to them remains an important theme while we move to be more terrestrial set,” Gillen continued. “Year two builds out of the fundamental change in status quo that is ‘The Secret Origin of Tony Stark’ and what we learn from that. This is Tony’s direction from here on in. Tony travelled into space to get ideas, and year two is kind of about those ideas.”
Gillen also wants to spend some time exploring Tony Stark’s supporting cast of friends and comrades during the second year of his “Iron Man” run. “This is one of the joys to our second year,” the writer said. “I knew I had to leave Earth by issue #5 of ‘Iron Man.’ So I was reticent to start too many plots on Earth because I knew they would be put on hold for a while. I gave people a taste of things before starting my big direction in issue #6. So now, in addition to all of the madness I brought back from space, I get to write a more traditional Iron Man. I can write a little bit more with Pepper Potts and his friends. There’s a big reintroduction of the cast. So just like Tony has changed while he’s been away things have changed for them as well.”
As he indicated before, Gillen knows some “Iron Man” readers are upset over how much Tony Stark has changed and will change during the “Secret Origin” storyline. He believes that if those readers stick with the tale until its conclusion in “Iron Man” #17,” they will see what he’s doing in a different light. “I think by issue #17 they’ll get it. I don’t mean that they don’t get it now. It’s more that they’ll see what this story is and I’m happy with it,” the writer remarked. “When he comes out the other end of this story, Tony’s understanding of who he is will have been changed forever. I try to avoid saying things like that because they are overplayed, but in this case I think it’s true. I also think that even the people who don’t like those will be talked around by the end.”
“Iron Man” #12 by Kieron Gillen and Dale Eaglesham is on sale July 3.