Comics Spotlight On: Iron Man

Geek Culture

Happy Comics Release Day!

I was inspired to put together this spotlight when my children started asking me about good Iron Man comic stories. They’re fans of both the movies and the television show, Iron Man: Armored Adventures, which features a teenage Tony Stark. .

I admit, while there are some truly great Iron Man stories in print, it is hard to match the energy of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. Downey makes all the seemingly self-centered choices by Tony Stark understandable and almost tragic. It’s one case in which real life outdoes artwork.

But, that said, there are plenty of Iron Man stories that kids and adults will enjoy.

Tony's Drinking Problem is Not New: Iron Man #128, published in 1979


The movies didn’t tinker much with the basic character of Tony Stark.

As in the movies, Tony is a brilliant inventor who runs a large corporation that produces weapons. Originally, the setting for Tony’s transformation into Iron Man was the Vietnam War, a topical setting in 1963. According to a published statement by co-creator Stan Lee, Howard Hughes was used as an inspiration for Tony Stark.

Stark is severely wounded when he’s kidnapped by the enemy and creates the original Iron Man armor both to save his life and escape. But he comes through the ordeal a changed man, dedicated to becoming a hero and transforming his company.He’s also dependent on the armor to run his heart and save his life.

And this is where the movies and comics begin to part company.

The movies pulled the best bits of Iron Man history together in a far different order than they were in the comics. Obidiah Stane was a later villain, not part of Iron Man’s first appearance. The comics delve more deeply into Tony’s troubles with alcoholism, going all the way back to the Demon in a Bottle storyline in 1979. James Rhodes does indeed put on the armor and become the hero known as War Machine because of Tony’s personal issues but not quite as fast. In the comics, Rhodey became the title character for a time.

Tony and Pepper indeed had a long-time will they/won’t they relationship as in the movies. However, in the comics, Pepper eventually married Happy Hogan and they were a solid couple until fairly recently.

What is missing from the movies are three of my favorite characters. That would be SHIELD Agent Jasper Sitwell, a gee-whix idealistic young agent who nevertheless has courage and skill, Bethany Cabe, Tony’s bodyguard and eventual lover, and, most of all, the acid-tongued Mrs. Arbogast, Tony’s executive assistant. Think Betty White.

I suspect that the prominence of Pepper Potts in the movies resulted in poor Mrs. Arbogast being superfluous, and no doubt, Bethany Cabe was deemed too close in personality and job description to the Black Widow.

But there was no reason to leave out the bow-tie-wearing Sitwell, given that Tony is assigned a SHIELD liaison. I hold out hope that he might show up later.

Trade Collections Kids Might Like:

Iron Man has had a long publication history so fortunately a number of his best stories are available in trade. I first started reading right around issue #100 of the original series. Seeing all these covers really brought those stories back. However, I think kids might be better of starting with the Marvel Adventures digests. This is Marvel’s kid-friendly line and, I think, also contains some of the best superhero stories being published today.

Trade Collections That Adults Might Like:

If you want to start at the beginning, there are the Essential Iron Man editions. My favorite arc jumps ahead some years, to Iron Man: Demon In a Bottle by David Micheline and artists Bob Layton and John Romita Jr. It collects issues #120-128 of the original series. For more recent trades, there’s Warren Ellis revamp, Iron Man, Vol 1: Extremis. The latest Iron Man stories by Matt Fraction are also collected starting with Invincible Iron Man Omnibus, Volume 1. Be warned, the new stories do feature events from the rest of the Marvel Universe. I think it’s still possible to read and enjoy these stories without knowing all the background of the big Marvel events but there are definitely many references to them in Fraction’s Iron Man.

If more Black Widow is what you crave, there are two excellent miniseries in trade: Black Widow by Devin Grayson and Black Widow: Volume 1, Homecoming by Richard K. Morgan.

Best Cover:

The cover I included in this post is the most recognizable and considered a classic. But my personal favorite is Iron Man #150 in which Iron Man and Dr. Doom battle it out in the distant past of Camelot.

About the Creators:

Iron Man was co-created by Stan Lee but also by Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack (King) Kirby, a virtual who’s who of Marvel comics greats. David Micheline is my favorite Iron Man writer, with my favorite artist split between Bob Layton and John Romita, Jr. Of the more recent Iron Man writers, I have to admit fondness for Mike Grell, who turned the title into a Shakespearean-style tragedy in which Tony’s technology both saves someone and dooms them. Grell is most famous for his Longbow Hunters series starring DC’s Green Arrow. Many didn’t like his work on Iron Man. I did.

The current on-going is being written by Matt Fraction, who also writes the new Iron Fist series, which is a wild combination of martial arts, pulp action, and Asian myths and legends.

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