Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


for October 8, 2006


Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle

coverre-issued: 2006 - available in soft cover

Written by David Michelinie (plotting Michelinie and Bob Layton). Pencils by John Romita, Jr (and Carmine Infantino). Inked by Bob Layton.
Colours/Letters: various. Editor: Roger Stern.

Reprinting: Iron Man (1st series) #120-128 (1979)

Published by Marvel Comics

160 pages

Cover price: $24.99 USA

Currently at Marvel Comics, Iron Man is being put in a rather awkward position, acting as the defult "villain" in its massive, cross-company Civil War epic. Some guys get no respect! But this collection harkens back to an earlier period of the character.

This collection of nine consecutive Iron Man issues from the late 1970s completes what I, semi-facetiously, think of as the substance-abuse trilogy. It began in 1971 when Marvel Comics and Stan Lee decided to buck the Comics Code's ban on drugs with a three issue run of Spider-Man in which a longtime supporting character becomes hooked on pills (reprinted in Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin among others). The storyline was a critical success and led to the Comics Code re-examining its more excessive restrictions. DC Comics immediately tried to go one better by having an actual costumed sidekick in the pages of Green Lantern (co-starring Green Arrow) -- the Arrow's sidekick, the coincidentally-named Speedy -- revealed as a heroin addict (reprinted in various Green Lantern/Green Arrow collections).

For the next few years comics trundled along, Spidey's pal had a relapse, superheroes tackled drug dealers with more frankness, and troubled heroes were more the norm.

Then, in 1979, the concept was taken one step further. No longer a buddy, no longer a sidekick -- what if the actual title character developed a problem? And what if, instead of doing illegal drugs, his vice was perfectly legal, socially acceptable alcohol? What if millionaire industrialist, Tony Stark, who fought crime as the armour-suited Iron Man, started hitting the sauce?

Perhaps the most effective thing about this storyline is how understated it is. The reader of Iron Man at the time would be largely unaware of where the story's headed. Sure, Iron Man's alter ego, industrialist Tony Stark, is drinking a lot, but it seems a character quirk, nothing more. Instead, the reader's attention is focused on his various high-flying adventures, battling costumed villains or teaming up with the Sub-Mariner, or on the sinister, escalating sub-plot involving Iron Man's mysteriously malfunctioning armor, or Stark's burgeoning romance with Bethany Cabe, or his fears that Stark International will fall to a hostile takeover by the spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Along the way there's a reprise of Iron Man's origin and cameos by the Avengers and Ant Man II, as well as a scuffle with a whole slew of obscure Marvel villains.

Writer David Michelinie avoids the preachy, holier-than-thou route, and instead just tells a story that happens to concern a costumed super-hero getting a little...lost. The downside is that Michelinie is maybe a little too soft. Surely the problem with an addiction is how it affects your life, and what happens if your crutch is taken away. Instead Iron Man can still flatten the opposition, and when deprived of a drink, he takes it all in stride. It's not till the final couple of issues that a genuine problem manifests itself.

Of course, I'm underselling this collection. I praise it for its subtlety, then I spend half this review focusing solely on the alcoholism.

The pleasant surprise was how darn entertaining these issues are, just as superhero adventures. The action and heroics, the sub-plots, all make this a highly entertaining diversion, regardless of any socially relevant intentions.

Michelinie delivers smart writing and plausible, grown up characters that are a pleasure to read and a rich tapestry of plot threads. In fact, the various sub-plots are sometimes more interesting than the main action-adventure heroics which are fun, but not much more. The problem with Iron Man is that he can be too powerful, with a gadget for every crisis, leading to stories that can be simple and simply resolved. He's probably the only superhero who can be more compelling out of costume than in. After all, you've got to love a guy who has everything and still seems to brood as much as Spider-Man.

And there is something appealing about that suit of armor, of physically putting on a costume that protects you from the world. Of course, the symbolism isn't lost on Michelinie and company, perhaps explaining why, of all Mavel's superheroes, Iron Man was selected as the obvious candidate for a bout with the bottle.

My main quibble with these issues is John Romita Jr.'s art. This, among his earliest professional work, is problematic, with uneven handling of figures and physical dimensions. Bob Layton's inks help a lot, and the art certainly doesn't ruin the saga. Carmine Infantino pencils one issue and I actually preferred his guest stint (also benefitting from Layton's inks).

The other quibble is that throughout this collection, Stark is fretting over S.H.I.E.L.D trying to take over his company. The final issues has Tony triumphing over the bottle, and vowing optimistically to win back his company. The thing is, Tony Stark succeeds...in the very next issue! If this collection had included even the first five pages from issue #129 there would've been complete closure. The Powers-that-be may've elected not to include 129 because the solution, after so long a build up, is so ridiculously easy (remember my comments about simple resolutions?) they might've felt it was artistically better to end with a kind of Scarlett O'Hara optimism than to reprint the actual solution.

More likely, since the collection was intended to highlight the alcoholism, the reprint editor may have reached the end of that plot and felt that was enough. I've read other collections which, because they're intended to highlight a particular idea or artist, let stories dangle in mid-plot simply because it doesn't fall into the rigid criteria. But how can the non-comic reading world be expected to take comicbook storytelling seriously if comic folks don't take story -- that is, beginnings, middles, and ends -- seriously themselves?

Admittedly, Tony Stark beating the bottle and the bad guys then vowing to win back his company forms a reasonable finish as all the other sub-plots are resolved in this collection -- so this does fairly nicely seem like a graphic "novel". But knowing that it could've been completely wrapped up by reprinting just five more pages, well...

For continuity buffs, another storyline a few years later had him fall off the wagon completely and end up a derelict for a time. But that's something for another day (maybe even another collection). As well, Iron Man's origins date back to Stark being an arms manufacturer during the Vietnam war (a story retold in this collection) but, as mores changed with the times, Stark got out of the arms business. Yet, here, Michelinie makes no comment on whether his version of Stark is an arms manufacturer or not.

In this day and age, when it seems every few issues of every comic automatically gets collected in a TPB, it's nice when a book like this comes along (originally collected in the 1980s as The Power of Iron Man), reminding us that collections used to be reserved for stand out stories.

A classic story arc of yesteryear...that remains thoroughly entertaining today.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

Got a response?  Email us at lattabros@yahoo.com

Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine