Monday, April 28, 2008

Long, rambling post about Iron Man: Who he is, how he looks and why we like/dislike him

I expect to spend an awful lot of time thinking about Iron Man this week, as will many of you (and so too will plenty of people who have never thought about Iron Man at all), for the obvious reason.

I’ve never been a real big Iron Man fan, my apathy for the character stretching back much further than Marvel’s fairly recently decision to make him into some kind of reluctant villain for their whole line of comics in the pages of their big tent pole publishing event Civil War. (Oddly, I thought the long-term plan would be to reveal that he knew about the alien invasion threat in their current tent pole publishing event Secret Invasion, and defeated his former allies and essentially took over the world in an effort to defeat the evil aliens, returning to hero status in time for the movie release. Said movie debuts this weekend, however, and Secret Invasion is still seven months away from climax).

The only time I was a regular reader of the Iron Man monthly was during pencil artist Keron Grant’s short 2001 run on the title, and that had a lot more to do with the (then) Columbus-based artist’s style than the character (that’s Grant’s Iron Man above, by the way; Grant also designed a pretty cool “Under Construction” logo for some other issues).

Iron Man has always seemed to me like more of an ensemble character than a star, a character that works better when playing off others, as in Avengers comics, than helming his own.

I’m not sure why exactly he seems so unappealing to me as a superhero, despite having been popular enough with others to last for decades and decades.

It may be just that his Cold War origins stamp him as a character of another generation, or that his personality is that of the kind of guy I don’t much care to spend much time with (two traits he shares with Hal Jordan).

It could be that the vagaries of Tony Stark’s genius and his armor drain a lot of suspense out of stories featuring him; like Reed Richards, he can generally pull some plan out of his ass to save the day, or his armor will reveal some technological fix to whatever conflict is before him (for a good example of the latter, see the end of New Avengers: The Illuminati or the end of World War Hulk).

It could just be that I’m something of a Luddite, and don’t care to read about science in my comics escapism, beyond a Gardner Fox or Grant Morrison-style techno-babble gobbledygook.

It could be that Iron Man never really had his own cartoon or TV show the way a lot of other heroes did when I was growing up, so I never felt like I “knew” him until I met him in comics.

It could be that I’ve always found Tony Stark’s cover story that Iron Man was his bodyguard to be completely, irritatingly insane, since, for that to be at all plausible, they’d have to be seen in the same room at the same time constantly instead of, you know, never.

Or—and this sounds completely trivial, but these sorts of semi-subliminal signals play a deceptively large role in why some superheroes are more appealing than others—it could just be that I don’t like the red and yellow color combination. They remind me of Ronald McDonald more than a superhero.

A few weeks back, Sean Kleefeld wrote a rather insightful essay entitled “Why I Hate Iron Man” which, as the title indicates, was about diagnosing his own antipathy towards the character.

Kleefeld notes that unlike a lot of his superheroic peers, Iron Man doesn’t have two completely separate but distinct personalities. While Spider-Man and Peter Parker, Clark Kent and Superman, Batman and Bruce Wayne or Bruce Banner and The Hulk are portrayed as different people who happen to be the same person, there is, Kleefeld says, no Iron Man.

Tony Stark is himself pretty fascinating, but Iron Man is just an empty suit. “He's a walking ray gun,” Kleefeld says.

I think he may be right, and that may explain why Marvel has repeatedly outted Tony Stark’s secret identity to the general public in the Marvel Universe over the last few years. Perhaps the editors and writers were finding telling stories about Iron Man hard, and getting a little bored of the character, whereas stories about Tony Stark wearing Iron Man armor were much more fascinating?

Last year, prompted to the hype of a different Iron Man movie, Kevin Church wrote a little essay about Iron Man explaining what he liked about the character and, I’ve gotta say, that’s an Iron Man I could get into reading about.

Some kind of fundamental rewriting of the character, so that he’s more like the one Church describes and less like the one that’s been starring in Marvel comics over the past few years, isn’t impossible.

In fact, because the current and recent Iron Man seems like the one who’s off—becoming secretary of state, cloning his friends to kill his other friends, beating the shit out of Captain America, shooting The Hulk into outer space, slaughtering Skrulls by the hundreds in a preemptive strike—making him a more heroic and charming figure shouldn’t be that hard.

Of course, if Marvel doesn’t want to mess with the core of the character too much too fast, they can always tinker with the surface, and simply redesign his armor. Superheroes are forever changing their looks—even Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, who have more or less perfect costumes, tinker with them now and then—but few major heroes change as often as Iron Man.

Hell, in his first appearance he was wearing a large soup can. Then he changed to a golden soup can. Then he started wearing the sleeker, more familiar red and gold costumes, which seem to change every few years anyway.

He’s been wearing his current look for a while now…at least since the start of New Avengers, and he’s probably due for an upgrade.

At least, that’s what the good folks at Project Rooftop thought, and today they published the winners of their Iron Man: Invincible Upgrade contest, with comments by the Project Rooftop staff, Joshua Crawley of sponsor Westfield Comics, and Matt Fraction (writer of the upcoming, awesome-looking Invincible Iron Man monthly) and Adi Granov (former Iron Man artist).

The results, like a lot of PR design and re-design work, are must-browse. As with the Beasts! call for open submissions, I once again decided to draw outside of my weight class, and submitted a few designs, which I’ll post here on EDILW for your derision later in the week.

The winning artist was Daniel Krall, and it’s easy to see why. I mean, just look at this piece:

See, that’s an Iron Man comic I would buy on sight. The armor itself evokes the suits of armor a medieval knight would wear, and that’s a great source of inspiration for a character like Iron Man (Runner-up Marcus Parcus seemed to go for something similar in terms of knight-in-shining-armor inspiration). It looks like it takes forever to put on, but, at the same time, it looks simpler and more heroic than some kind of teleporting, transforming or liquid metal type of armor.

If it were just the armor that Krall redesigned, I would be only mildly impressed with the piece. But man, his Stark is fantastic—I love the jacket and gloves over the suit, the drink in his hand, and the evident pride in his creation, which he throws his arm around. And man, even the “Stark” logo is great.

Judge Joel Priddy mentions Krall’s previous redesigns of Nick Fury and Black Widow, and says “I think we can all agree that Daniel should be assigned an ongoing book set in Marvel’s early Cold War era.”

I agree that Marvel should hire the hell out of Daniel Krall to draw something for them. I’ll buy whatever it is.

My other favorite piece was Felip Sobreiro’s,

which mixed the chunky proportions of the original, chunky, garbage can-looking suits with the later red-and-gold color scheme and more refined components.

I was also particularly impressed with Jemma Salume’s,

which manages to make the most difficult Iron Man feature in Iron Man armor history—the nose—work, and Jon McNally’s

because it included Iron Man’s greatest innovation—boot-mounted battle roller skates. Because why fly when you can skate?

Make sure you check out all the entries, and click through the to the artists’ own sites, as there’s a lot of great art to be seen there.

And come back later in the week for my own poor attempts at redesigning Iron Man, and more thoughts on the character’s appearance.


Regault said...

Battle wheels have shown up in mecha anime for quite awhile. The earliest I saw them was in the early 80s with AT Votoms.

My inherent problem with Iron Man y much all of the Rooftois the same I had with Guardian from Alpha Flight. They're technically "power armor" characters, but their power armor has a look and powerset so similar to normal superheroes they might as well just be Green Lanterns. Which is why I've always preferred armored heroes to be like Box and STRIPE and War Machine; if a tech hero is shooting someone with a raygun, it should look like a raygun.

Also, Iron Man's so tied into his company that most of his "heroic deeds" in his solo title seemed to involve protecting his company from spies and saboteurs. And there's the typical "status quo is god" factor that makes science heroes in comics so annoying. If they're so smart and benevolent, why don't they cure cancer?

Didn't like any of the Rooftop designs except McNally's. I can't believe someone created an "Asian-themed" armored hero design without the slightest hint of Ishinomori inspiration.

snell said...

Another problem with modern Iron Man is that they've made him too damn powerful. Extremis? He can now hack into any computer on Earth (except when he can't??)?

So now he's essentially 60s Superman--there's no way he couldn't kick almost anyone's ass, so they have to keep inventing random "kryptonite" bs, some technobabble why his cyber abilities don't work that particular issue. Which, of course, he manages to overcome. So the plot of each issue becomes more about the creation/overcoming of some arbitrary new tech, which just isn't riveting.

SallyP said...

I was never much of an Iron Man fan, although I found him to be tolerable. Ever since Civil War however, I have come to actively loathe him.

Mike Lorah said...

True story: I've read less than a dozen issues of Iron Man in my life.

Hdefined said...

I've always liked Iron Man, conceptually, but I don't know if I've even read a good Iron Man comic - I've never read the Demon in a Bottle Story, though. I did like Joe Quesada's Mask in the Iron Man arc, but it seemed more of a Tony Stark story than an Iron Man story.

I think Caleb's brought up a good point (brought up by someone else): there is no "Iron Man."

Watching the movie previews, I was getting excited by RDjr's Stark, and then I stopped myself and thought, "But why would such an arrogant and self-assured jerk want to dress up in armor and go super-heroing?" I could be that he's so arrogant that he only believes himself capable of piloting his armor . . . but I still don't really see him as a hero.

He's always been "jerkish" - not like Civil War portrayed him, but along the lines of what Priest did with him in Black Panther #41-45 (an ESSENTIAL Iron Man story). Priest defined the character as someone who thinks he's always right - not necessarily someone who acts on that belief, but who exudes it all over the place. Or rather, he'll act on it if it serves his own interests (as opposed to, say, taking over SHIELD and locking up superheroes because "the law is always right").

Scott said...

I've always thought Iron Man was kind of a jerk, but since the Civil War stuff started happening I've actively hated him. Which is probably a great thing for Marvel, because it means that I have a lot more interest in one of their characters now. I don't think of Iron Man as just "one of the Avengers" anymore.

Plus maybe the rocket skates are to save power and get around easily when he's on smooth and level ground? Since he mainly fights other robot-building companies, it makes sense that he would need a fast way to tear around inside other companies' offices.

patrick said...

Iron Man was practically flawless as a super hero flick; it drops pretty obvious hints that would indicate a sequel as well... i'm thinking the next one should be equally great