Marvel Comics superheroes have captured the imaginations of millions of comic readers over the years not just because of their fantastic powers, but also because of their flaws. The House of Ideas' most interesting champions are the ones who in their fight for justice have to overcome not only supervillains but their own personal demons as well. By that standard, Marvel's most interesting hero has to be Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man. In the wake of "Civil War," Iron Man has become one of the most important characters in the Marvel Universe, and next year the Armored Avenger is set to assume a similar importance at the box office. In the first part of our in-depth look at Iron Man, CBR News spoke with Editor Tom Brevoort about the major aspects and experiences that make "Shellhead" such a complex and fascinating character.
In most superhero origin stories, the hero is transformed into a physically powerful being, but the opposite happened to Tony Stark. While investigating sabotage at one of his East Asian transistor plants, millionaire industrialist Stark was caught in an explosion that nearly killed him and abducted by the warlord Wong Chu. While in captivity, Stark constructed his first suit of Iron Man armor not just to escape but also to stop the shrapnel in his chest from piercing his heart.
"The fact that Tony Stark was an injured man was one of the defining characteristics of the 'Iron Man' series for its first two decades or so, it's one of the things that separated him from all of the other Marvel characters," Tom Brevoort told CBR News. "And on some level, I think it's the thing that made him relatable--most readers weren't millionaire playboy inventors, but everybody could relate to feeling under the weather. It kind of got repetitive after awhile, Tony keeling over with a heart attack every two issues, which I expect is why later writers repaired his damaged heart and then looked for other ways they could give him maladies-everything from his alcoholism to shooting him in the spine and crippling him."
During his escape from Wong Chu, Tony met a helicopter pilot named James Rhodes; a man who would go onto to become one of his closest friends and even assume the identity of Iron Man for a brief time before becoming the armored hero known as War Machine. "Jim Rhodes and Tony function as war buddies, men who've shared a combat experience that brought them together and united them, despite the differences in their background and social status," Brevoort explained. "When Rhodey met Tony, he had no idea that the man in that hulking grey metal battlesuit was the wealthy and famous Tony Stark, so their friendship was based on who they were, and what they did together. In a very real way, I think Tony counts on Rhodey to keep him grounded, to be able to approach him and speak to him plainly in a way few others are comfortable with doing."
Upon returning to America, Stark established his identity as the Invincible Iron Man. Stark's armored battlesuit and the way he constantly redesigned and refined it over the years made him a unique member of Marvel's superhero community, although the innovations weren't necessarily based on creativity. "At the start, it was just Stan and company trying to make the character more marketable," Brevoort said. "Any time you see them playing with stuff like this during that early '60s period, it's because a particular series wasn't quite taking off like it should. But it was really the David Michelinie/ Bob Layton team in the early '80s who pioneered the idea of the 'specialty armors,' which led to the constant changing and updating of Iron Man's garb. It's true part of the reason this works so well for the character is that his powers are entirely technological in nature--nobody expects our automobiles or our iPods to remain the same, year after year, so why should the armor of a guy who's empowered by technology?"
Stark's original armor was a dull grey color, but over the years the various Iron Man battlesuits have been a variety of hues including red and silver, silver and black, and even all black. But the most common colors of the Iron Man armors have been red and gold. "If nothing else, red and gold are good, strong primary colors," Brevoort stated. "And Iron Man's Stan-derived nickname is the 'Golden Avenger,' which really didn't work when he was wearing the Red-and-Silver armor."
The Iron Man armor and his keen analytical mind protected Tony Stark from the assaults of a number of vile villains, but in 1983 Stark was almost beaten by the most unlikely of enemies: himself. In a storyline by legendary "Iron Man" writers David Michielinie and Bob Layton, Tony Stark's indulgence of alcohol turned into abuse and jeopardized both his civilian and superhero identities.
"Tony grew up with a party lifestyle, in a world where Martini lunches and business cocktails were all part of the package," Brevoort said. "And he was a guy under greater-than-usual stress, with his responsibilities as Iron Man atop his shaky health and his general business concerns. I think it's a mistake to equate being an analytical person with being immune from addiction--given the sheer number of addicted personalities in the world this is a much more prevalent and all-encompassing phenomenon than that."
Another infamous character trait of Tony Stark's is his reputation as a playboy. Iron Man's many dalliances with the opposite sex have made him the Marvel U's #1 ladies' man. "This too was part-and-parcel of the time in which Tony was created, and the expectations and temptations of a big business lifestyle," Brevoort explained. "Certainly it's no secret that wealthy, good-looking, exciting men have little difficulty finding female companionship. And being ever-present, it's no surprise that somebody like Tony might avail himself. Then, once he suffered the injury that made him Iron Man, he was forced to keep people at a distance, and that tended to make his relationships, by necessity, become shallower.
"Plus, Tony's the smartest guy in almost any room he walks into, so it would take a very special woman to be able to effectively keep up with and complement him. Every so often, Tony seems to think he's found the one, but inevitably that proves to not be the case, for one reason or another. Tony may just be the sort of personality who can't manage a stable long-term relationship--in many ways; his first great love is his work."
One of the things Stark loves most about his work as Iron Man is his association with the team he helped found, The Avengers. Over the years, Stark has done more than just serve as an active member of the team; he's helped fund the group and set up a number of its headquarters, one of which was his old boyhood home.
"As we've indicated in the past, in places like the 'Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes' limited series, Tony sees the Avengers as something of a standing legacy, something larger than himself that he can give back to the world, in a way that Stark Enterprises or even the Maria Stark Foundation can't be, because they're too directly tied to him," Brevoort said.
The legacy of the Avengers was almost destroyed in the controversial 2004 storyline "Avengers: Disassembled." In the story, The Scarlet Witch's mind snaps because of the wild and chaotic nature of her reality-warping power, which leads her to launch a vicious assault on her former teammates. The Witch's attack resulted in a number of casualties and left many of the survivors shaken to the core, particularly Iron Man.
"It made Tony have to face up to the places where he and his fellow heroes had fallen short in recognizing and treating Wanda's mental condition," Brevoort explained. "In some ways, this failure and the resolve to do better which grew out of it set the stage for Iron Man's actions in 'Civil War.'"
Iron Man's worst defeat as an Avenger came during "Avengers Disassembled," but his worst defeat as a solo hero came at the hands of a rival industrialist named Obadiah Stane. In a cold and calculating plan of attack, Stane robbed Tony Stark of everything: his company, his home, his identity as Iron Man, and even his own sense of self-worth, which lead to a serious relapse in Stark's alcoholism.
Soon after his eventual triumph over Stane, Stark discovered his armor designs were being abused by a number of individuals. This lead to the outbreak of "Armor Wars," a storyline where Iron Man attacked and disabled the exoskeletons of a number of armored characters both heroes and villains. Stark's decisions in "Armor Wars" put him into conflict with both the U.S. government and his longtime friend and teammate Captain America. The lessons Iron Man learned from "Armor Wars" would go on to color all of his future relationships with his country.
"Tony's always been the sort of motivated self-starter who'll get his hands dirty and do the right thing, even when his actions might not be popular. So, if Tony found evidence of wrongdoing within the Initiative (as he believes he has in the person of the Skrulls) he would not hesitate to act on it."
Many of the problems Stark faced in stories like "Armor Wars" or his battle with Stane could often be solved by simply redesigning or inventing a specialty suit of armor, but in Warren Ellis's 2004 storyline "Extremis," Stark ran headfirst into a problem requiring a new solution. The problem was Mallen, a superpowered terrorist enhanced by the techno-organic Extremis virus who beat Iron Man almost to death. The Golden Avenger responded by using Extremis on himself.
"I think the situation, the extent of his injuries, and the urgency of the situation forced Tony's hand when it came to using the Extremis on himself," Brevoort said. "By that same token, he rewrote much of its code himself, so while he didn't invent it whole cloth, at least the dose he took has his 'fingerprints' all over it."
Stark's exposure to Extremis endowed him with several new abilities, most notably the power to interact with and control external communications systems such as satellites and computers. How access to such a vast amount of information is affecting Stark's mind and body is an ongoing question. "We've begun to see Tony experiencing waking
hallucinations--who's to say that these couldn't be a byproduct of Extremis, or even some manner of projections that he's unconsciously picking up electronically,' Brevoort remarked. "At this point, we have no idea what the long-term ramifications of having a man so directly plugged into the digital world might be--will he become detached? Or will he find a way to process the information overload and to cope, in the same way the rest of the world has learned to deal with technological revolutions like the internet?"
"Extremis" physically transformed Iron Man but the events of "Civil War" transformed the way many comic fans view Tony Stark as a character. As leader of the Pro-Registration side of the conflict, Iron Many employed many morally murky tactics against the outlaw Anti-Registration heroes, causing some readers to see him in a less than altruistic light.
"I think many readers of these stories confuse (or choose to confuse, because it's easier) the messenger with the message,' Brevoort stated. "Tony didn't send armed men to round up fellow comrades; he simply warned Luke Cage that, if he chose not to register, then that's what would inevitably happen. And Tony didn't set the policy that placed unregistered, unlicensed superhumans into the Negative Zone prison for the duration--he simply carried it out.
"That doesn't discount his actions necessarily, but it does place them in the proper context," Brevoort continued. "Tony was doing what he thought was right, and dealing with a volatile situation to the best of his abilities -- while at the same point no doubt being under siege from elements among the government or the populace at large who would rather things be handled in another possibly more severe way."
In the aftermath of "Civil War," Tony Stark was put in charge of an organization he never envisioned himself helming, the U.N. spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Brevoort explained, "Given the way events have transpired (and given the existence of the Skrull conspiracy that Tony even then suspected might be in place--though he didn't know it was Skrulls at that point), Tony seemed the best, most trustworthy candidate to step into Nick Fury's departed shoes. And anybody taking on the Directorship of S.H.I.E.L.D. has too much responsibility--it's the nature of the job. Now it's all up to Tony, and we'll get to see whether he rises or falls before the challenge over the course of the next year or two."
S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't the first clandestine group Iron Man has been a part of. After the events of the Kree-Skrull War, Stark, Doctor Strange, Reed Richards, Professor Charles Xavier, Blackbolt of the Inhumans and Prince Namor established a secret group tasked with tackling any future catastrophic threats to life on Earth, a group that would come to be known as The Illuminati.
"The Illuminati is a classic Tony Stark idea--it's like a superhero think tank of the biggest, most influential guys on the planet, trying to work out their problems and difficulties on a massive scale," Brevoort explained. "It's like a blue ribbon committee for superheroes. And I think the reason Tony and everybody kept quiet about it, was that it was potentially a scary idea as well, especially to those mistrustful of the motivations of the players involved not all of whom seemed to be on the side of the white hats all the time."
The Illuminati made a number of secret decisions but their most controversial one had to be their vote to exile the Incredible Hulk from Earth. This lead the Hulk to the far off planet of Sakaar, a world he helped liberate from a brutal dictator. Just as the Hulk seemed to be finding peace on Sakaar the shuttle he originally arrived in exploded and wiped out much of the planet's population. Now, in the current "World War Hulk," series, the Hulk and the survivors of Sakaar have invaded Earth and are hungry for the blood of the Illuminati.
"I think Tony and company were perfectly justified in sending the Hulk into space," Brevoort stated. "Given the Hulk's long history of going on rampages and causing billions of dollars worth of destruction, and given the fact that no prison or containment had ever been devised that could hold him, and given that the Hulk himself often announced his desire to be left alone, it seems an eminently sound plan to me," Brevoort said. "And the Illuminati didn't send the Hulk to Sakaar--they intended for him to land on another planet entirely, but he was pulled through the wormhole to Sakaar by the Sakaaran shadow priests in fulfillment of their prophesy--an act that none of the Illuminati could have foreseen. So I don't think any of what happened on Sakaar can be put on Tony's head."
Don't power down yet! "Waxing Shellhead" continues tomorrow when we chat with "Iron Man" writers Daniel and Charles Knauf.
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