Friday March 1, 2013
An invincible legacy
By RIZAL JOHAN
Marvel Comics got it right when it came to superheroes, like Iron Man, who turns 50 this month.
A CONTEMPORARY creation out of a contemporary reaction. That’s how Iron Man was born 50 years ago. The armoured superhero made its debut in the anthology series Tales of Suspense issue 39 in March 1963 published by Marvel Comics.
A superhero called Iron Man may sound rather crude (and his original comic book appearance certainly was) but he was, in fact very much the modern man of his day half a century ago. Iron Man’s alter ego Tony Stark was a brilliant engineer, industrialist and playboy.
The idea for the character was a collaborative effort between editor and story-plotter Stan Lee, scripter Larry Lieber, story-artist Don Heck, and cover-artist and character-designer Jack Kirby.
Lee, who would go on to be publisher, president and chairman of Marvel Comics, recalled that he wanted to challenge the comic fans’ pet peeves and still get them to like it.
“It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military ... So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree.
“He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist .... “I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him ... And he became very popular.” (Quote taken from The Invincible Iron Man (Ultimate 2-Disc Edition Iron Man DVD), Paramount Pictures, 2008).
With that in mind, Lee used a real life figure to base Tony Stark on. “Howard Hughes was one of the most colorful men of our time. He was an inventor, an adventurer, a multi-billionaire, a ladies’ man and finally a nutcase.” (Quote taken from “Stan’s Soapbox” from “Bullpen Bulletins” Marvel Comics, December 1997).
Naturally, the part about being “a nutcase” was not part of Tony Stark’s make-up.
Birth of a hero
The red and gold armour and solemn helm of Iron Man is now instantly recognisable thanks to the success of the 2008 film adaptation starring Robert Downey Jr as the title character. As such, Iron Man’s origin story is also familiar because the film was faithful to the comic book storyline.
Stark is kidnapped and suffers a life-threatening chest injury in the process. He is forced to build a deadly weapon by his kidnappers but instead, constructs a suit of armour with the help of the scientist Ho Yinsen. The armour not only saves Stark’s life but also helps him escape.
Comic book artist Jack Kirby (who shares co-creator credits with Lee for such titles as Fantastic Four, X-Men and the Hulk among others) was responsible for the grey, bulking almost *ahem* hulk-like design which appeared on the cover of Tales of Suspense #39.
The evolution of Iron Man’s armour had begun. By issue 40, the colour grey had been replaced by gold but the bulky designed remained. It wasn’t until issue 48 that an icon was born.
Steve Ditko, another highly influential comic book artist who co-created Spider-Man with Lee, streamlined and redesigned the armour which now had a sleeker shape in red and gold. Iron Man’s suit still continues to evolve but the foundation which Ditko laid still remains intact 50 years on.
Almost five years after Iron Man appeared in Tales of Suspense, he graduated into his very own comic series The Invincible Iron Man in May 1968.
A hero reborn
From the start, the Iron Man comic book wrestled with weighty socio-political themes such as the Cold War, the threat of Communism, the role of weapons technology vs national defense etc. As time went on, other topical issues like the Vietnam War and even terrorism were addressed.
Stark himself is a complex character, what with being a weapons designer and manufacturer while also being a superhero. He also wrestles with his own personal demons like alchoholism as demonstrated in the acclaimed eight-part story arc, Demon in a Bottle (Iron Man #120 -128, 1979).
Compared to the other titles in the Marvel universe, the Iron Man comic never achieved the popularity of X-Men or Spider-Man. Malaysia’s own comic afficionado, journalist and film reviewer Davin Arul confirms Iron Man’s status in the comic world.
“You’re not going to find too many fans of the Iron Man comic. Iron Man is generally regarded as a second-tier superhero title in the Marvel universe. It just wasn’t as popular,” said Davin. A voracious comic book reader himself, Davin found it hard to keep up with the Iron Man comic book.
“I used to read a few issues here and there and yeah, I’ve read the Demon in a Bottle storyline but there were too many other things going on, too many titles to follow. I would read it intermittently, but I haven’t read an Iron Man comic book in a long time."
It was the 2008 film adaptation however, and Robert Downey Jr’s realisation of the Stark character that really rejuvanted the Iron Man property.
“The Tony Stark I remember from the comic books was not as charismatic as Robert Downey’s portrayal. He added a lot more dimension to Stark and made him more appealing with his wisecracks and wit.”
While the film has put Iron Man on the world map, it’s heartening to know that the filmmakers remained very faithful to the comic book in terms of stories and character.
“Only the setting changed. In the Iron Man film, Stark was captured in Afghanistan and in the comics it was Vietnam I think, but the creation of the armour, his fellow prisoner Yinsen, the man’s sacrifice, were accurate and faithful to the comic.”
Despite the success of the film, the Iron Man comic book still seemed to lag behind. (According to Comic Book Resources, for example, the Invincible Iron Man title sold only about 30,000+ copies in September 2012 while the top-selling title for that month, Avengers vs X-Men #11, sold 167,000 copies.) It’s not just true of Iron Man but US comic books overall are experiencing a slump.
“The industry there has changed and sales have been declining since the 1970s. The big publishers are now focusing their efforts on more profitable mediums like video games, TV – both cartoons and live action – and films.
“It’s come to the point where comic books are just the source material. You have to understand that back in the day, the most economical way of portraying a superhero story was through comic books. That was the best medium for it then.”
Iron Man may be known for the films more than the comic book but as long as somebody puts an idea on paper, superhero stories are here to stay whether in print or on the big-screen. Funnily enough, this is the year that the third instalment of the film franchise, Iron Man 3, (which is expected to hit Malaysian cinemas on Apr 25 ) is released as well as the reboot of Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.
I couldn’t help but ask this ever pertinent question to a comic book fan: Iron Man vs the Man of Steel, who would win? Without even blinking, Davin replied, “Superman, of course.”
> An enhanced version of this story appears in the Star's tablet edition, The Star Editor's Choice March 1 edition.