BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS: IRON MAN #115
It's been a couple of months since the last installment of "Before They Were Famous," but I haven't forgotten about my promise to take a look at "Iron Man," specifically the issue immediately before the now-legendary David Michelinie/Bob Layton run, which gave us the introduction of James Rhodes, an alcoholic Tony Stark, and plenty of corporate intrigue while establishing a modern take on Iron Man that still resonates as the purest version of the character. The "Iron Man" movies weren't based specifically on any individual issues of the Michelinie/Layton run, but they were much closer in tone to those late-1970s, early-to-mid-1980s issues than they were to anything else starring the armored Avenger, except maybe Matt Fraction and Salvador Larrocca's recently-concluded run, but that series was still just a twinkle in Fraction's eye when the first Iron Man film began production, and his work with the character clearly pays tribute to the comics of Michelinie and Layton that came before.
By now, you know how "Before They Were Famous" works, but if you don't, it goes like this: I reread the issue of a comic book series immediately preceding a famous run and see what it has to tell us. To see if it's any good, given that it's likely forgotten considering all the attention given to the issues that follow. Over the past year, I've tackled "Swamp Thing", "X-Men", "Captain America", "Supreme", "Batman", and "The Incredible Hulk". Some were pretty terrible, while others were not as terrible and maybe even pretty okay. More of the former than the latter.
I could be wrong about this, but I suspect, with "Iron Man," that the famous run is less-clearly-defined than any of the others I've dug into previously. And it's not that there are so many to choose from. With "Captain America" and "Batman," I could have picked a handful of "famous" runs and dealt with the issue right before, but that's not the case with "Iron Man," when, out of his nearly fifty-year existence, we have the Michelinie/Layton issues and…not much else memorable, except for maybe a solid Kurt Busiek run post-Heroes-Reborn and maybe a touch of Warren Ellis and an ambitiously cinematic Matt Fraction run scarred by Sal Larroca's distractingly photoreferenced faces? But Michelinie and Layton stand above all the others in terms of length and significance of impact. And it's also not the case where the average comic reader would look at the Michelinie/Layton "Iron Man" run and see how shockingly different it was from what came before, the way anyone with eyes could see that "Supreme" became totally different with Alan Moore's arrival or the stylistic changes apparent in the jump to the brief Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli "Batman" four-parter.
But other than what I mentioned in the opener, with Rhodey and drinking and corporations, what is the deal with the Michelinie/Layton run, and why is it considered the practically-unquestioned height of the "Iron Man"series?
Well, I'm here to talk about the issue before those guys started, so how am I supposed to know?
Just kidding. Sort of.
I do plan on talking about "Iron Man" #115, while David Michelinie and Bob Layton didn't join the series until issue #116, as co-plotters and, respectively, scripter and inker. And while I want to give the Bill-Mantlo-written, John-Romita-Jr-pencilled, and Dan-Green-inked issue #115 its due, it's really only interesting when juxtaposed against the better-known issues that followed it. Heck, the issues later collected into the "Demon in a Bottle" trade paperback appeared less than a year into the Michelinie/Layton run. So things changed, at least in that regard, pretty quickly.
So here's what I will say about the Michelinie/Layton run -- and though they would leave the series and return (more than once, if you count the miniseries stuff from the past decade as part of their run): yes, they did bring in the man-who-would-be-War-Machine, and yes they did turn the spotlight on Tony Stark's battle with booze, and yes they did tilt the series more directly at the world of corporate espionage and boardroom battles and diabolical dealings, but there's something more fundamentally significant about their run and its long-term impact: they humanized Tony Stark in all the ways that mattered.
It takes a couple of Michelinie/Layton issues to fully sink in (even though the shadowy textures Layton brings to the inks immediately changes the visual tone of the book -- an impressive feat considering that they inherited a still-learning John Romita Jr. from the end of the Mantlo run), but there's a palpable difference to the way they pace their stories, and to the emphasis they give on Tony Start while he's out of armor. I get the feeling that they would have preferred less Iron Man at times, and more of a chance to explore Tony Stark's life outside of the armor, but Marvel policy at the time would have surely encouraged (if not required) Stark to don the armor in every issue, and to get involved in some sort of colorful slugfest. It's not that Michelinie and Layton sold the costumed hinjinx short in any way, but they grounded it in a real sense of consequence. It wasn't just soap opera theatrics with them. It was an exploration of character, the likes of which "Iron Man" as a series, and Iron Man as a superhero, had never before seen.
And because they did it while appropriately amping up the conflicts and throwing Spymaster and Blacklash and a time-travelling Doctor Doom into the mix, their exploration of character came with plenty of thrills as well. It was analogous to what Chris Claremont was doing at the time with "Uncanny X-Men" or what Marv Wolfman was doing with "New Teen Titans," but those comics had team dynamics to provide conflict and camaraderie. Tony Stark was alone, or he thought he was, and that sense of separation, that sense of isolation -- a man shielded from the world by a metal body suit -- gave substantial depth to a series that hadn't really had any in the previous 115 issues. The potential was there, and it was inherent in the earliest stories of "Iron Man," but it was hackneyed melodrama more often than not, and Michelinie and Layton played it cool instead. Even as Tony Stark suffered within and without.
So, this column is supposed to be about none of that stuff, and instead focus on the Bill Mantlo/John Romita, Jr. "Iron Man" #115, right? I suppose. But it's a decidedly flimsy issue on its own.
Issue #114 would have been a more interesting choice, even if it falls outside my self-imposed parameters. That one had a crazy story about a walking Arsenal and a deranged Unicorn, drawn by Keith Giffen. Mantlo had been on the series for a couple of years by then, and he left plot threads dangling, though that issue indicates that the Arsenal story would be wrapped up in the "Avengers," which it did a year later, in a Mantlo-written Annual.
The issues leading up to #114 were even crazier, with Iron Man and Jack of Hearts teaming up to fend off an invading armada. Jack of Hearts was a particular favorite of Mantlo's. He created the character and then bounced Jack around to various books that he was writing. For a time, Jack of Hearts was an Iron Man protégé, and Mantlo gave Tony Stark an interesting role as a mentor to the young hero. But with Mantlo around, it was all "Star Wars" riffs and direct callbacks to Silver Age Marvel with Lee and Kirby plot points and imagery plugged in as often as possible. "Iron Man" #112, for example, gives us an opening splash page with Iron Man riding a flying robot horse from the Knights of Wundagore, while wielding a glowing sword and shouting: "For liberty and freedom -- Charge!" He's defending the animal men of Wundagore II against the Rigellian invasion, in case you were wondering. Oh, and the Soviet Super-Soldiers are involved in the fight as well, because of course they are, and then the robotic Recorder descends in the final panel and puts an end to the whole conflict through thirty seconds of exposition.
I love this over-the-top Bill Mantlo stuff, and the Keith Pollard art from those pre-Michelinie/Layton, and pre-John Romita-Jr. issues plays up the spectacle and the superheroic absurdity.
But less than a year after that, a haggard Tony Stark is slamming back the whiskey and growing a five o'clock shadow by ten each morning. Things get real for Iron Man once Mantlo takes off.
Unfortunately, "Iron Man" #115 -- which, once again, is the supposed focus this week, even though I keep not talking about it -- doesn't capture the charms of Mantlo's approach. It might be his single worst issue, with nearly the first half of the seventeen page issue devoted to recapping previous Mantlo stories and then giving us a weird, "futuristic" computer printout recap of the Unicorn's history. You remember the Unicorn, right? Dresses in long boots, wears green and orange and shoots a laser out his forehead? He'd return in the Michelinie/Layton run, but here he's just a plot device who takes up a lot of pages and looks ridiculous. And though the Unicorn's shadowy boss is shaped exactly like the Titanium Man, there's supposed to be some kind of mystery around who the Unicorn is really working for. (It later turns out to have been…the Titanium Man! But that's after the Mantlo run has ended.)
Other than that, the issue is just an assault by the Ape-Man, Frog-Man, Bird-Man, and Cat-Man, better known to practically no one as the Ani-Men, who are most notable for having been originally designed by Wally Wood for a "Daredevil" issue after he had stopped caring about making comics that looked great. And the Ani-Men work for Madame Masque, who was Tony Stark's girlfriend at the time, and it's not so much of a shock when the lady in the metal mask -- who he makes out with, even while she wears the mask -- and who is also the daughter of Count Nefaria turns out to be a no-nonsense traitor. But that's how "Iron Man" #115 ends.
It's a weak farewell from Mantlo, and it seems so unlike his previous stories that I can't help but wonder what role editor Roger Stern or incoming creative team Michelinie and Layton played in the hand-off. Because the betrayal of Madame Masque leads directly into a series of falls for Tony Stark, and he soon loses many of the things that matter most to him. Michelinie and Layton would have had to do some fancy footwork had they take over in the midst of a space battle with Jack of Hearts and the Soviet Supersoldiers and the shadow of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. But they didn't. They got to begin their run with a Tony Stark blasted with the scent of defeat, and the stuff with Madame Masque leads relatively seamlessly into issues with S.H.I.E.L.D. and corporate power struggles and Spymaster and dirty little secrets and then the booze starts flowing and things get sadder and…in Tony Stark's tragedies a classic run takes hold.
Bill Manto and John Romita Jr.'s "Iron Man" #115 is an easy-to-forget, less-than-thrilling comic book that's not at all representative of the issues that came before and not as good as the ones that come after. But it did its job at softening up Tony Stark for the incoming team. It's a prologue to the fall from grace yet to come. An ugly, heavy-handed prologue that tried to straddle the line between absurdity and pathos and fell into the insipid abyss in between.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.