Marvel Comics characters possess timeless qualities, but they're also supposed to be contemporary and relevant. That can be problematic if the character you're dealing with has a long storied history like Tony Stark AKA the Invincible Iron Man. Stark's character flaws and heroism have made him one of Marvel's most popular characters, but his origin and many of his original villains are connected to the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, which ended in the early '90s.
The conflict that gave birth to Iron Man and many of his earlier villains isn't really relevant to a new generation of readers. That will change this April with the release of "Iron Man: Season One," an original graphic novel from legendary writer Howard Chaykin and acclaimed Marvel cover artist Gerald Parel. Comic Book Resources spoke with Chaykin about the project that updates and reexamines Tony Stark's early days and original foes.
Iron Man's origin appeared in 1963's "Tales of Suspense" #39, and Tony Stark turns the tables on the Communist soldiers that abducted him by building the Iron Man armor. The 2008 "Iron Man" feature film and several recent stories moved the setting of that origin from the Jungles of South East Asia to the site of a current and equally controversial American conflict, the deserts of the Middle East. Chaykin's work on "Iron Man: Season One" actually predates those stories by several months -- and in some cases years.
"I'm so delighted this project is finally coming out. I wrote it as a mini-series and I wrote it between 2007 and 2009," Chaykin told CBR News. "When Andy Schmidt, who was my editor at the time, asked me to do the project I said yes because Iron Man is one of my favorite Marvel concepts and it sounded like a great opportunity."
Writing the project that would become "Iron Man: Season One" also afforded Chaykin the opportunity to get inside the mind of an interesting protagonist with a different perspective than his own. "If you read between the lines you realize that most of Marvel's characters are fairly politically liberal whereas Tony Stark is clearly not that guy. When we first meet him he's a member of the military-industrial complex and probably votes Republican," Chaykin said. "I thought it would be really fun to work with a character who operated on a political level completely divorced from my own reality. I was curious, and I'm not a choir to be preached to. When I was working in television and making a small fortune I subscribed to almost every magazine in the world at one time. So I'm on some of the weirdest fucking mailing lists you've ever seen. In my mailbox I get 'National Review' and 'The Nation' on the same day. The mail man doesn't know what to make of me.
"Plus I love the idea of a guy who builds his powers from scratch," Chaykin continued. "Interestingly enough there are a number of things in my script that ended up in the 'Iron Man' film purely by coincidence in the design elements. They don't look anything like Gerald's interpretation of Tony's origin and the movie's interpretation of the story are completely different, but some of the design suggestions I made showed up in the movie. I don't believe that was because anybody saw this stuff. It was just that we were on the same page."
Chaykin and Parel's reinterpretation of the origin of Iron Man happens in the early chapters of their story, and while the setting and some of the players involved have changed, certain elements will still be recognizable to long time fans of the character. "The action beats, for those who are familiar with that original material, are there and they're obviously expanded upon considerably, but it's in a more modern context. Let's just call it post-Cold War and leave it at that for the time being," Chaykin explained. "We're updating the story to a post-Cold War world with a biological imperative. Some of the characters are also being updated, revived and revised. We've got an entire generation of people for whom the original context of Iron Man's origin has no meaning whatsoever. So that has to be adjusted and the opportunity to do that adjustment was a treat."
The act of building his titular armor in the early chapters of "Iron Man: Season One" does not instantly transform Tony Stark into a hero. The rest of Chaykin's story, which unfolds over the course of about a year, chronicles Stark's journey from playboy billionaire industrialist to super hero.
"This is a character who, in the course of the material, has his head handed to him. He then has a moment of clarity where he realizes that he's the architect of his own adversity. He's created his own problems, and the only one who can solve those problems is him. So he steps up to the plate and does so," Chaykin said of Stark's journey. "At first he'll do it ineptly because he's not a heroic figure. One of the great things about a character like Tony Stark is that's he's a profoundly flawed man and one of the great things about casting Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony in the movies is they managed to find that profoundly flawed nature. Before Tony builds that armor he's a nihilist and a loser. That nihilism goes away as he evolves into a guy who deserves to be in that armor."
Part of Tony's evolution into a hero in "Iron Man: Season One" involves battling some of the fearsome foes Chaykin has lined up to test his protagonist's mettle. "You'll see some of Iron Man's classic foes in this story, but not by name. I love this oblique stuff," Chaykin said with a laugh. "The primary adversary certainly resonates and reflects elements of those original direct combat adversaries that Iron Man dealt with. These are new inhabitants of that universe though. I can't be any more specific than that.
"We're talking about archetypes to a profound degree. We're also talking about a character, Tony Stark, who finally comes to terms with his own responsibility to the world in which he functions," Chaykin continued. "I'm a great believer in the unwritten law of unintended consequences. To a great extent it's something I try to play with in my work. In the context of this new version of Tony Stark's origin the primary motivation of his transformation is the recognition of those unintended consequences and their results."
The unintended consequences of Tony's actions in the graphic novel won't just impact his life. They'll also have repercussions for many of his friends and the book's supporting cast.
"The classic Iron Man supporting characters are all in there. I'm a sucker for red heads. So Pepper Potts is there. Happy Hogan is there, and Rhodey is there as well," Chaykin remarked. "One of the great things about Tony Stark's world is that he's got a great, rich, supporting cast. It's not just that he's an interesting character. The people he bounces off of are interesting as well."
Artist Gerald Parel has done covers featuring Iron Man and his various supporting characters, but "Iron Man: Season One" marks the first time the artist has drawn interior pages for an Iron Man story. Chaykin has seen many of his collaborator's pages on the book and has been consistently impressed by their quality. "They're very rich," the writer said. "They're also very journalistic in the sense that you believe the world he's concocted, which I love."
The overall tone and feel of Chaykin and Parel's story will be both classic and contemporary. "In a weird sort of way it feels like a war book, but it's about a war fought between super powered men in a post-terrorist attack world. It's very much about the war on terrorism and the terrorism within ourselves. So it's a techno-thriller and that's sort of the main franchise with Iron Man," Chaykin explained. "Iron Man is a techno thriller character, but I always viewed Tony Stark as a flawed member of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. He wears the armor of a knight, but he's always questioning his role and whether or not he actually deserved his armor."
April is still several months away, but Chaykin hopes new readers and long time fans give "Iron Man: Season One" a chance when it hits stores because he would love to continue his exploration of the hero's early days with a sequel. "You can't know how much I love Captain America, Iron Man, and Damage Control. Those are my three favorite Marvel concepts," Chaykin said. "I still remember buying my first issue of 'Tales of Suspense' with Iron Man in it. I love the old gray suit. I love the golden suit, and I love the red and gold suit. It's all great stuff."
"Iron Man: Season One" by Howard Chaykin and Gerald Parel goes on sale in April.