Gillen Embarks on a Space Odyssey in "Iron Man"

Tony Stark's activities as a business man, inventor and the armored superhero known as Iron Man are all performed with one ultimate goal: insuring and building a better tomorrow. Tony's pursuit of that goal has taken him all over the world, bringing him face to face with a variety of people, cultures and technologies -- but even the great Tony Stark hasn't seen all the Marvel Universe has to offer.

At the end of Marvel Comics' "Iron Man" #5 by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Greg Land, Stark sets out to explore an even more diverse realm -- the space ways and endless cosmos. CBR News spoke with Gillen about the events leading Tony into space and the character's initial intergalactic adventure kicking off in "Iron Man" #6, the first chapter of a new arc titled "GodKiller." Plus, exclusive artwork by Land!

Gillen launched this latest volume of "Iron Man" last year as part of the Marvel NOW! initiative with five done in one interconnected stories, where Tony dealt with different applications of a techno organic virus known as Extremis. This virus can reprogram the human body to make it capable of a number of superhuman feats, and these confrontations left Stark feeling inadequate challenging status quos and his ability to make a better future for mankind.

"The second issue was about how Tony sees himself as a pilot -- the man within the iron and the limitations there," Gillen told CBR News. "Issue three is about two things: family and what money can actually buy you. There are limits to what money can buy and for a guy who has as much faith in capitalism as Tony, that's an interesting fact to run up against. The fourth issue focuses on the supernatural, an area Tony doesn't quite understand and hasn't done a good job trying to understand. That chapter was also about Tony and his relationship with women. Finally, the fifth issue is where futurism and capitalism collide -- it raises the question of what happens when capitalism refuses to pay for the future. Those were the central ideas for our first stories.

"I don't think any one of them, except perhaps the latter, is enough to make Tony change his direction in life. However, they are enough to give him a little nudge," Gillen continued. "I'll come back to these subjects as we go through the run, raising an idea in one issue and then go back and expand upon it later on.

"Tony thinks, 'I can do more,' and when you're as smart as Stark you tend to arrogantly say, 'You can do brilliant things. So why haven't you done more brilliant things?' He thinks he has to step outside of everything. Travel broadens the mind and he's looking to do some mind broadening."

The ideas and arguments Tony faced in "Iron Man" #5 were especially compelling -- they came from an old friend named Eli, who was hoping to use Extremis to realize his dreams about mankind's future in outer space and other planets. Confronting Eli and the flaws in his plan made Stark realize space travel and colonization can -- and should -- be part of humanity's future.

"Eli is a new character and he's my tribute to Warren Ellis who created Extremis -- the character is heavily inspired by him. Warren is comics' great futurist, and if he had gotten together with a gang of criminals and scientists in an attempt to develop the future, he would have been like Eli. There's something about this which appeals to Tony. If this all took place before he became Iron Man and had that moment of responsibility, I could definitely see Tony looking at what they're doing and think, 'Why not?'"

Gillen added, "The future is coming whether we want it to or not and the question now is what do we do to survive the future? If you go back to our first issue, AIM agent Colin 41 says the future is only there if we survive to see it. The idea here is we have to redefine what humanity means and we have to be there to do it. That's what this is, and it leads to Tony going into space and once again bumping up against his preconceptions."

Iron Man's adventures in issues #1-5 of his new series present reasons why Tony Stark has decided to venture into space, but Gillen's idea for Stark's intergalactic adventures sprang from discussions about Brian Michael Bendis and Steve McNiven's new "Guardians of the Galaxy" series, which features Stark in its lineup.

"My original idea for 'Iron Man' was to do more of a hard science fiction style story. Then the idea came up in the room of 'How about Tony joins the Guardians?' I thought it made a lot of sense and meant I had the opportunity to work with a lot of cool elements. The only problem with the idea was I couldn't do a hard science fiction Tony Stark story because if you're doing cosmic adventures there's a complete tonal clash. So I had to throw out almost everything I had for 'Iron Man.' That was a fun day," Gillen said with a laugh. "This element is a part of working with these characters, though -- you have to be flexible and that's kind of the point. It's definitely the best thing for the Marvel Universe. After that restart I thought, 'Okay Tony goes into space in issue #6.' Extremis came up in conversation as a useful device for a variety of reasons, allowing me to do the five different stories before going cosmic."

The discussions about Tony's membership in the "Guardians" and his cosmic adventures in his solo "Iron Man" series led to a new space armor designed by artist Steve McNiven. Tony wears the armor with its specialized propulsion and life support systems in both titles.

"We're taking a page from what Brian and Steve have been doing, so I have been thinking about the various aspects of the armor. The weird thing to me about this particular space saga is he doesn't particularly look like Iron Man in that suit," Gillen stated. "I set up the idea earlier that he was a knight errant and the classical version of that is he's a knight who takes his helmet off, revealing that he was secretly someone else all along. That's a very archetypal Arthurian kind of set up and Tony has a lot of enemies. He's going to be a long way from home, too, so not looking like Iron Man is one of the things he's considered -- he's thinking he better travel incommunicado. In the first issue of the story we see that, unsurprisingly, he hasn't changed by being in space because he's flirting with an alien woman who thinks he's some kind of spaceknight."

The anonymity of Tony's space armor affords him some protection, but the cosmos of the Marvel Universe are a dangerous place and Stark has made sure his new battle suit is equipped to handle those dangers. "He has a mobile armory within the armor. You saw this in the second issue and he's taken something similar to that with him into space. There's a lot of the modular tech that he can use to modify his suit if he needs to."

In the beginning of "Iron Man" #6, the first part of the "GodKiller" arc, Stark is clad in his new space armor on his way to join the Guardians, whom he agreed to adventure with back in "Avengers Assemble" #8. "Our first scene is Tony in a space battle and then he goes to a bar where he's flirting with girls -- that's pretty much how we started the first issue of our initial arc," Gillen said. "Some of the dialogue in issue #6 even harkens back to it. It's our way of saying, 'Yes Tony has gone into space but he's still Tony.' You take the boy out of the Earth, but you can't take the Earth out of the boy."

The bar Tony visits is located on the world of a new alien race created by Gillen and artist Greg Land known as the Voldi. "With the Voldi, there are a lot of soft nods towards the other alien races of the Marvel Universe. Conceptually Tony describes them as Greece and everybody else as Rome -- they're Greece circa 50 B.C. In other words, they have no real power but they were once very influential," Gillen said. "They have the fashion taste of the Shi'ar and a lot of the Kree legal system. It's not like one for one or anything. They influenced all these other cultures, but now the Voldi are pretty much a vestigial race. They live on a single artificial world called The Voldi Tear, which now travels the galaxy in its decayed elegance.

"The first arc is very much like a Conan arc in that the Voldi are a civilized and cultured race. It's, 'Oh my god Earth has super heroes? How cute!' So they're slightly patronizing, but also quite charmed by Tony who's not even trying to get past his prejudices. He thinks he's going into space and he's going to make out with an alien and it's going to be brilliant," Gillen continued. "So one of the themes in the story is the culture clash between these two sets of people who don't necessarily understand each other yet."

The culture clash between Tony and the Voldi will have legal repercussions, partly because of their perception of the destructive cosmic entity known as the Phoenix and the actions Tony took against it during the recent "Avengers vs X-Men" event. "There are other influences the Phoenix has had on the universe, which Tony might not have known about. There's a lot about unforeseen effects; plans that seem to be completely reasonable having an utterly catastrophic effect further down the line. So the question then becomes: is this your fault? Or is this not your fault? And if it wasn't your fault, does that stop you from feeling guilty about it? This is some of the stuff we're chewing over."

The misunderstanding over the Phoenix Force makes Tony deal with both law enforcement figures and the religious aspects of Voldi culture. These concepts are embodied in some new and familiar characters.

"Death's Head plays a role in the 'GodKiller' arc, and this is the Death's Head I used in 'S.W.O.R.D.' so he's 30 feet tall. You can play Death's Head in many ways and if you're doing a space opera he's the Boba Fett -- the big, enormous robot over in the corner glaring. He's taciturn and he's the best bounty hunter in the galaxy. It's that simple. I use him throughout the story since he's part of the large supporting cast for all the ongoing space opera stuff," Gillen stated. "The idea was, 'Why not?' That's why I used him in 'S.W.O.R.D.' I needed a bounty hunter. I could have made it someone new if I wanted, but I was already making up a lot of new stuff, so I thought, 'Let's use Death's Head. He's a lot of fun.'

"We also meet a member of the Voldi called the Infinite Justicar," Gillen continued. "She's like the superhero judicial protector of the planet. She's part immensely powerful superhero, part Judge Dredd and part priest. She's one of the major antagonists in our first arc."

The supporting cast of the "GodKiller" arc also includes some of the eclectic characters that populate the Voldi home world. "If we're playing the archetypes there's a kind of C-3PO character called 451 who appears in the second issue. He's interesting in that he's a genuinely neurotic robot," Gillen explained. "Plus, there's a character named Veratina who's the major entry point for Tony into this world. We meet her when Tony is flirting with her in a bar -- she's the classic 'Star Trek' purple space lady who's entirely enamored with him because he's this Conan style spaceknight. It's like, 'Oh he's so rough.' They have a fun flirtatiousness. The culture clash happens because Tony comes into space trying to genuinely change, but he's bumping up against his preconceptions."

Rounding out the supporting cast of "GodKiller" is Tony's latest A.I. friend from home. In "Iron Man" #5 readers saw Stark give his space armor an artificial intelligence named Pepper, which was based on his long time friend and confidant Pepper Potts.

"It's a bit creepy isn't it? I said that explicitly in issue #5, but in his head Tony views it like taking a photo on a journey. It's obviously not Pepper, but he needs something reminding him of her and Earth. Tony's feelings about Pepper are complicated -- at the very least she's his best friend and he needs her. The idea of being separated from all of humanity is enough to make you feel like you're losing your humanity," Gillen remarked. "The other part of it is he's going to be in outer space and I want him to have a supporting cast when he's not with the Guardians. This idea of the A.I. being more personable gives Tony someone to bounce off of and an opportunity to really express the sadness of being away from someone. Travel is amazing -- it changes you and challenges your preconceptions, but there is that nagging pang, too. I've tried to capture all of that."

Long time fans of Gillen's Marvel work know the writer is no stranger to sci-fi stories, going back to 2009's "S.W.O.R.D." miniseries. The writer is enjoying the chance to stretch those muscles once more in "Iron Man."

"This arc feels closest to the stories I did in 'S.W.O.R.D,'" Gillen said. "It's much more serious than 'S.W.O.R.D.' was, but in terms of tone there is a lot of humor and space opera style action in the 'Star Wars' vein. I quite explicitly nod towards 'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek' a couple of times, mainly because of Tony's pre-conceptions and cultural reference points. As I was writing 'GodKiller,' it felt like a missing 'S.W.O.R.D.' arc. I wouldn't be surprised if Abigail Brand showed up, but I chose not to use UNIT for a variety of reasons. This is a return to familiar territory for me, especially considering after the 'GodKiller' arc we go through an enormous story that's the biggest I've ever done for a Marvel character. Tony's stay in space is an extended one and 'GodKiller,' and the story that follows, climaxes into an even bigger operatic struggle."

Tony's extended space odyssey involves new and existing characters and cultures -- Gillen has been thrilled by the way artist Greg Land and colorist Guru eFX have brought his words to life. "It's really neat to see how Greg and our colorist work together. Greg is a photo realist and likes things being physical. He uses lots of references, doing the compositions and leaving plenty of room for the colorists to do their stuff," Gillen said. "I throw more ideas out there than what we could possibly use on the page, then Greg picks and chooses what works because he knows about composition.

"At one point Veratina says, 'We are a race of princes and princesses,' implying they're a culture of royalty," Gillen continued. "So you're working with these ridiculously ornate environments, which Greg and I did during the 'Tabula Rasa' arc of 'Uncanny X-Men.' This is a step up from that, however -- when you arrive at Veratina's flat it's three miles high with enormous statues, a sort of cathedral under the heavens. They're not a subtle people, the Voldi," Gillen said with a laugh.

The "GodKiller" arc concludes in March and Gillen follows it up by featuring Tony Stark's "Guardians of the Galaxy" teammates, with the spotlight remaining firmly on the title character.

"This series of stories fits in with the 'Guardians' chronologically, taking it seriously. However, my job is to tell an Iron Man story and the stories I'm setting up primarily pay off in that book," Gillen explained. "The end of 'GodKiller' is the set up for my next arc, with a gap in time between the two. The ending really gives Tony motivation. When we pick up with the next arc he's with the Guardians, but this is Tony with a monkey on his back, wanting everything to be sorted out.

"Our first five issues were a prologue," Gillen concluded. "Those initial issues allowed me to play with various themes and this is where the story kicks into high gear. By issue #10 Tony has completely changed the idea of who he is. These are big stories affecting him personally with a galactic scope, allowing me to introduce new villains and new characters. So I have a lot of space now and a big desire to reach out and explore it all -- these stories are a way for me to tie rockets to my back and do exactly that."

"Iron Man" #6 goes on sale February 6

Superior Hawkman: DC Just Stole Marvel's Most Infamous Spider-Man Plot

More in Comics