The Masked Bookwyrm's Graphic Novel (& TPB) Reviews

Iron Man Graphic Novel and TPB Reviews ~ Page 1

"When industrialist Tony Stark, inventor extraordinaire, garbs himself in solar-charged, steel mesh armor, he becomes the world's greatest human fighting machine..."

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Iron Man published by Marvel Comics

cover by Colan Essential Iron Man, vol. 2 2004 (SC TPB) 584 pages

Written by Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin. Pencils by Gene Colan, Johnny Craig, George Tuska with Jack Kirby. Inks by Jack Abel, Frank Giacoia, Johnny Craig.
black and white. Letters: Art Simek, Sam Rosen, others.

Reprinting: (the Iron Man stories from) Tales of Suspense #73-99, Tales to Astonish #82, Iron Man & The Sub-Mariner #1, Iron Man #1-11 (1966-1969) - with covers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Marvel's "Essential" volumes -- wherein a large consecutive run of issues are reprinted in black & white -- can be curious things to try and review. Unlike regular TPB collections, which usually collect a specific story arc, or are collections of selected stories, these are just massive runs of issues, not necessarily forming an arc, or promising significant tales.

Iron Man had started out in 12 page episodes in the comic Tales of Suspense (sharing the comic with a Captain America series) and this begins part way through his Tales of Suspense run, as well as the first eleven issues of his own, full length comic (as well as the 12 page chapter from an Iron Man and Sub-Mariner one-shot which bridged the an earlier Tales to Astonish issue which was part of a cross over story).

It's a lot of material. And, to be honest, there aren't too many high points. Few classic stories that stand out above the others. One could even dismiss this era of Iron Man as one of a kind of competent mediocrity.

Yet, if's a pretty darn enjoyable mediocrity.

I picked this up on a whim, feeling a tinge of nostalgia for the Iron Man of yesteryear (before the whole Civil War stuff) and because I've developed a great love for Gene Colan's art, which is heartily represented here. Colan and scripter Stan Lee supply the majority of the material, before Archie Goodwin takes over the writing and artists Johnny Craig and then George Tuska come on board for the Iron Man solo issues. (Don Heck, a frequent early Iron Man illustrator, is not in this volume...despite his name on the cover!)

In this collection there are appearances by various familiar adversaries, such as the Mandarin, the Unicorn and the Grey Gargoyle, as well as the introduction of Whitney Frost (later Madame Masque) and Special Agent Jasper Sitwell.

Part of the fun of these Essential volumes is that they allow you to follow the evolving sub-plots and the developing of themes and characters. But they can also draw attention to it if that isn't really being done, or done well. Lee seems to have a tone, and character dynamics, he's playing with...then will sometimes abruptly change direction, as if he lost the sense of where some idea was taking him. Not that it's surprising, given Lee's workload at the time, writing the majority of the Marvel comics -- it's more amazing the series where he did manage to maintain a consistent narrative drive (Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four).

These issues are, of course, steeped (or perhaps mired) in their Cold War era. Industrialist Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) is first and foremost a weapons designer -- a profession that later generations would see as a tad less romantic (a few years later, with shifting ideological tides, Tony would drop out of the arms business). And communist villains are frequent adversaries -- though the villainy isn't (entirely) one note jingoism (in one story, Iron Man remarks that his communist adversary "had courage"). And Iron Man's most consistently recurring foe, the Chinese villain, the Mandarin, is actually A-political.

Iron Man is slightly unusual in comics because, when Tony Stark, he is just a normal, vulnerable guy, which is why Tony Stark can be as compelling as his alter ego. My complaint about Iron Man has often been that he can be too powerful. But in these earlier stories there's much more emphasis on his armour's limitations, where he barely ekes out a victory before the power drains out or it otherwise shuts down -- it makes for some surprisingly exciting, suspenseful battles. As well, I had once seen Lee refer to Tony Stark as one of his tragic heroes, and (being only familiar with later Iron Man comics) wasn't sure what he meant. But in the earlier issues, it turns out the heart damage Tony suffered as part of his origin (which is re-capped once or twice here) was a continuing dilemma. It creates a melancholic sub-text (and an added nobility to the character) of this guy trying to carry on, and fight the good fight, even as he believes he could checkout at any time (and almost does). He's a playboy millionaire who has everything except, in his mind, a future. During this period, the supporting cast consisted of his secretary Pepper Potts and his best friend, Happy Hogan (gotta love Lee's alliteration). In my review of the early Spider-Man Essential collections, I comment that what distinguished Spider-Man from most super heroes was the large supporting cast -- and here's the flip side, a comic where the supporting players are pretty limited.

Still there's the requisite unrequited love theme, as Pepper loves Tony, but he pushes her away -- not because he's Iron Man, but because with his bad heart, he feels it would be unfair to let her fall in love with a man who might die at anytime. In other words, some of the human drama aspect has nothing, directly, to do with the super heroing. There's also a recurring sub-plot of a Senator trying to investigate Tony.

Dressed up with Colan's moody, shadowy art, there's a sombre mood to some of these early issues (accentuated by the black & white presentation) that is entertaining and effective. But it's also a bit repetitive, with Lee introducing these aspects, then not really seeming to have anywhere he's going with them. The adventures themselves bleed over from story to story, so that often even as a plot resolves...the story still ends on a cliff hanger pushing us into the next one (which is a benefit of these collected editions).

Then the Senator abruptly drops his investigation and Pepper, after many issues pining for Tony, suddenly falls for Happy! And the two drop back to making only irregular appearances. Tony initially takes it hard, and in a brief sequence where he becomes a womanizer and party animal, it's as if Lee wants to explore some emotional angst. then seems more just a segue into redefining Tony as more easy going hedonist. And though he still has heart problems, the idea of Tony living under a shadow of death seems forgotten. By this point, a new cast member is added -- SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell, assigned to provide security for Tony. A comical blend of modesty and arrogance (confident of his SHIELD training) the callow Jasper talks in a never ending stream of jingoistic hyperbole ("In a world beset by ill becomes a Special Agent to relax!") that amusingly clashes with Tony's more worldly cynicism. But where Jasper becomes a kind of clever concept is that, instead of being a Maxwell Smart clone, he really is good at his job. Sitwell also gets some serious plot threads, in a sub-plot involving his girlfriend secretly being leader of the nefarious Maggia crime syndicate.

Throughout all this there remains a consistent, if modest, level of enjoyment. Lee writes with a heavy hand, but it's his style, and you can groove to it. The stories rich in emotional angst succeed in their brooding melancholy, occasionally achieving a genuine emotional intensity, and the scenes going for the lighter, more flippant tone are equally fun. All beautifully rendered by Colan's organic, fluid style -- sure, his super heroes can seem a bit weirdly proportioned, but his "domestic" scenes evince a startling realism.

Eventually Archie Goodwin assumes the scripting and takes a bit to settle in, obviously trying to ape Lee's dialogue and exclamations (!). But once he moves into the full length issues of the Iron Man comic, delivers some decent adventure plots, and also seems to have a better grasp of technology -- Lee's idea of technobabble was usually just to add an "o" (Destruct-o beams)! There's less emphasis on the armour's limitations, and though heart problems crop up, it's not a driving concern...with a new sub-plot involving Tony romancing Janice Cord (after all those issues of his rebuffing Pepper 'cause he felt he didn't have the right to romance a woman!).

Art-wise, Colan bows out, replaced by Johnny Craig. Colan's art was a big plus to the series, adding a maturity and stylishness that helped prop up the, admittedly, simple plots and repetitive characterization. Though Craig is nowhere in Colan's league (no one was) -- surprisingly, the art still delivers some goods. Craig's style is more conventional, but it's clean, with well proportioned figures, and a grounded realism. Then Craig is followed by George Tuska, one of those chronically underappreciated artists, but who would go on to have an on again/off again relationship with Iron Man throughout the 1970s. Tuska maybe takes an issue or two to settle in, but bridges Colan and Craig's styles, with a more conventional line work, like Craig, a more "comic booky" look...yet with a hint of Colan in his choice of angles, and the fluid way he can draw figures in action. The visuals may lose out when Colan departs...but remain solid.

I've read some Essential collections where, though not bad, the overall impression left is one of ambivalence, the stories okay page turners, but nothing more. Yet, curiously, despite my freely admitting that there's nothing, perhaps, standout about this era of Iron Man, and the frustrating way themes and sub-plots are teased along...then peter out, I really quite enjoyed this collection. As a read-it-for-what-it-is, the pacing is good (the 12 page chapters of the Tales of Suspense run nicely bite-size), the art (particularly Colan) absorbing, and even if there's an inconsistency in the tone (Tony is an angst riddled guy living under a cloud of death/Tony is a cocky playboy) at least the shifts are -- more or less -- defined, so it's not ppingponging back and forth erratically.

So, yeah, it ain't perfect...but it was eminently enjoyable! As a bundle of Iron Man tales, it hits the spot.

cover by Mike SaenzIron Man: Crash  1988 (SC GN) 72 pgs.

Written, illustrated, lettered, coloured by Mike Saenz.

Additional notes: Tabloid sized, published under the banner of Marvel's imprint line, Epic. Supposedly the first graphic novel entirely drawn, lettered and colored by computer. Features a "behind the scenes" commentary by creator Mike Saenz.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Though billed as the "first computer generated graphic novel", that's not quite the landmark it might seem. Creator Mike Saenz had previously done the computer generated comicbook, Shatter.

Sidestepping the technology for a moment, the story can be seen as either Marvel's modest attempt to emulate DC's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, or as actually anticipating DC's Elseworld line, in that it isn't meant to reflect normal continuity.

It takes place in the future. Iron Man's alter ego, industrialist Tony Stark, sells the designs to his armour to a Japanese company, hoping to bring the benefits of his technology to the world. But the world is locked in a kind of technological cold war and everyone, including superspy Nick Fury (brought out of retirement) advises him against it, fearing the technology will end up in the wrong hands. A few double crosses and assassination attempts later, and Tony has to don his moth-balled Iron Man suit to stop the bad guys.

At its best focusing on Tony Stark and the brooding espionage plot, the story remains interesting for the first half, seeming complex in its obliqueness, even throwing in a possible romance with a Japanese aide (that never goes anywhere). It's when Iron Man goes into action that things fall apart with mindless shoot 'em ups, simplistic resolutions, lapses in logic and even confusing aspects. I'm still not sure how a technocratic cult fit into the machinations! And in the last pages there's a completely new story idea that comes out of nowhere and just leaves you going, "huh?"

When staying with the characters, Saenz does O.K., but his love of techno-speak eventually overwhelms the narrative. Even the computer jargon title ("Crash") isn't relevant to the story. Some readers might understand passages like: "My SCV secondary material body protective shielding is formed of titanium beryllium goedesic alloy doped with nickel iron mylar superstrate and interlaced microcrystalline quartz fiber and synthetic rubber endoform and ectoform substrate layer." Some readers may even care...but not many, I'll wager. There's no "Try a blast of my repulsor rays, ugly!" and leave it at that. In fact, Saez dumps Iron Man's traditional gadgets for machine guns and a canon that (implausibly) Iron Man seems to be able to pull out of nowhere. There's nothing in the story to justify Iron Man's use of lethal force, either, so I have to assume Saenz is one of those "Guns & Ammo"-types who bristles at the more liberal conventions of the superhero genre -- even if a brutal Iron Man detracts from the narrative (since it's out of character).

Now, about the whole "computer generated" aspect. Reviewed all these years later, history has eloquently said all that I could. Computers have become a part of modern comics, it's true -- used to augment art by creating effects, helping in the separation of colours, and used by letterers. But as for wholely computer generated comics? It doesn't seem to have happened. All the technology in the world can't replace a talented man or woman with pencil and ink brush in hand. Here Saez shows a nice eye for panel composition, and the use of computer enchanced textures is interesting, and faces inparticular can have a soft, 3-D effect...even as they tend to be limited in expressions. But the overall artwork is crude and clumsy. I'm not completely dismissing the art -- it's certainly atmospheric in spots -- but it's problematic.

It's the story, though, that ultimately undermines the thing by the end, not the experiment with the art.

This was published under Marvel's imprint Epic. Yup, just as Marvel largely pioneered the graphic novel format (among mainstream American companies) but DC has emerged as the main user of the format, Marvel came up with an imprint banner (named after a magazine Marvel tried in the early '80s) that specialized in less superhero, more SF/fantasy works, usually with a mature readers spin just like DC later did with Vertigo. The only deference paid to the "mature readers" idea, here, other than (maybe) the violence in the climax, is a scene where Tony shares a (platonic) hot tub with a pretty gal.

Ultimately, this starts out a moody, SF espionage story...but falls apart before the end. USA. 

Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle
  was first released as The Power of Iron Man and is reviewed here

coverIron Man: The End  2010 (SC TPB) 136 pages

Written by David Michelinie (co-plotter Bob Layton), with Larry Lieber, Matt Fraction. Pencils by Bernard Chang, Bob Layton, John Romita, Jr., Joe Brozowski, Don Heck, and Kano. Inks by Bob Layton, others.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Iron Man: The End (2009), Iron Man: Requien (2010 - which itself reprints the Iron Man origin from Tales of Suspense #39, 1963, and Iron Man #144, 1981), Iron Man #116, 244 (1978, 1989),

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Reviewed March 27, 2010

This is a bit of an odd grab bag, with a few recurring themes so that it's hard to say what the overall intent was. Part of it was presumably just that Marvel had already ear marked the one-shots, The End and Requiem, for collection, and just decided to round it out with a couple of other vintage issues. As well, with a new Iron Man movie heading for the theatres, the marketing pressure was on to put out as many Iron Man TPBs as they could to cash in.

One theme might have been a kind of "alpha and omega" idea, presenting various tales embellishing upon Iron Man's origin, with "The End" story, which was an apocryphal "last" Iron Man story. Another theme might have been collecting a bunch of stories by writer Dave Michelinie and co-plotter/inker Bob Layton, a duo that has been involved, off and on, with Iron Man for years and is regarded by many as the dream team of the series.

The 38 page one-shot, The End, is one of a series of specials and mini-series Marvel has produced for various characters, basically positing a possible final story for that character. It might seem like an odd story if this collection were picked up by a casual -- or movie -- fan, as it's basically apocryphal. It even ignores modern continuity, as here it's still a secret that Tony is Iron Man. That may be because this is more than just a possible "last" Iron Man story, but as presented by Michelinie & Layton, a final adventure for their vision of Iron Man...he's even married to Bethany Cabe, the romantic interest they introduced, but I'm not sure has necessarily been maintained by other creative teams over the years. Anyway, it's about an aging Tony, working on one final mega-project for Stark Universal, and coming to terms with his own failing, aging body. There's still action, and Iron Man battling another armoured opponent...but it's also kind of low-key, a character piece. In that sense it works well enough, Michelinie and Layton, no longer spring chickens themselves, are maybe able to imbue the idea of a maturing Tony with authenticity and empathy. Bernard Chang's art is clear and clean. Though a mixture of bitter and sweet, it ends more up-beat than the "end" premise might suggest. At the same time, it is a pretty simple, obvious concept and story.

This is followed by another one-shot -- Requiem -- which was itself mainly a reprint collection (albeit the old stories re-coloured using modern processes). The "new" framing sequence has Tony holed up in a cave in the middle east, reflecting on his origins -- cuing a reprint of the 13 page origin from Tales of Suspense -- and on his first meeting with one-time buddy, Jim Rhodes -- cuing a reprint of IM #144 which was a flashback tale set immediately after the Tales of Suspense tale, with Tony/Iron Man still in the Vietnam jungle. Currently, Tony's origin has been up-dated from Vietnam to Afghanistan, so in order to use the reprints, they come up with the idea that Tony is semi-delusional while remembering, excusing the Vietnam setting and other oddities. It's a kind of clever way of using, and justifying, out of continuity material...even as it seems a tad disrespectful of the old stories. Particularly when Tony (in the framing sequence) dismisses aspects as "gibberish" and making "no sense" -- attitudes modern comics pros and their readers often take toward old comics, apparently oblivious to how silly and unbelievable their modern "sophisticated" stories are. I mean, Tony has wires running out of his head in the modern framing sequence!!!

It's hard for me to get too excited about the origin tale -- simply because I've read it before! But for those who haven't, it's a decent enough tale, with capable Don Heck art -- Heck's later work would tend toward unimpressive, but this was from a better period for him. The basic story of Tony in a war zone, befriended by Prof. Yinsen, was good enough it was kept basically intact for the Iron Man motion picture! The other Vietnam, tale -- now by Michelinie & Layton (with Joe Brozowski providing pencils) -- is an okay romp, adding another chapter to the origin. But it's pretty light and superficial. Though written in 1981, they approach it with all the gung ho jingoism as if it really was written during the war, as Iron Man and Rhodey cavalierly battle and blow up enemy soldiers.

Perhaps the most awkward part is the framing sequence itself, which is clearly tying into some on going events in Iron Man's life that isn't explained and is left unconcluded.

The next issue, Iron Man #116, seems an odd choice. It's an okay actioner, but it is the second of a two-part tale, meaning you kind of come in in the middle and is built upon past events involving Madame Masque, a semi-reformed villainous then dating Tony Stark, and here father, the ubiquitous villain, Count Nefaria. As such, any emotional undercurrents won't have much impact on a reader unfamiliar with the background. It's drawn by John Romita Jr competently enough -- possibly only his second pro work (he came on board the previous issue), not yet having evolved into the fan favourite he would become. Probably the reason for this issues' collection is that it marks the debut of the Michelinie & Layton combo on the title (they took over in mid-story). The fact that the story ends with Madame Masque walking out of Tony's life suggests it was partly a house cleaning issue, that Michelinie & Layton weren't interested in continuing her as the romantic interest.

Head and shoulders, the highlight of the collection is the double-sized Iron Man #244, though it too carries a bit of continuity baggage, as Tony is crippled, having been shot an issue or two before, and it ends with him still in a wheelchair (though he would get better a few issues later). The story -- as they often are (super heroes getting crippled not infrequently) is about him being depressed, rising to face adversity, then reclaiming his life and destiny. Along the way, there's an extended flashback, again to his earliest days. Returning home from Vietnam, he doesn't, at first, intend to pursue a career as a super hero, until circumstances push him that way. It's a densely written tale, more than justifying its page count, with action and adventure (albeit of a simple minded type), but where the focus is very much on the character, and exploring Tony grappling with his various dilemmas -- the modern crippling, and the flashback dealing with his Vietnam-incurred heart trouble. And it's in the Tony Stark stuff that it particularly excells, with Michelinie and Layton (who also draws this one) making you feel his situation, not just observe it. It's probably the most mature, textured of the stories here.

The art throughout this TPB is generally not less than adequate, while never perhaps rising above being pretty decent. Having Layton ink almost all the pencillers does tend to lend the thing a slight uniformity, without hiding the individual pencillers unique strengths (or weaknesses). All draw in a basically realist style. Probably the best art is when Layton pencils on IM #244 and Chang's on The End one-shot.

As I said, you can view this collection as various things -- a chance to see the growth and evolution of the Michelinie/Layton team, from their very first Iron Man story to one of their most recent, and as a chance to see Iron Man's origin retroactively expanded upon with various tales. Or just as a grab bag of tales. In that latter sense, it's an okay read, with none of the tales being bad...while, at the same time, only a few of them being especially noteworthy.

This is a review based on the original comics.

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