Thursday, March 27, 2008
Why I Don't Hate Iron Man
Sometimes I repeat myself, but I've always taken the notion that "every comic is someone's first" to heart, even if the industry hasn't in decades, and look how well that insular error has worked out. So on the notion that every blog posting may be someone's first, I'll not that I've been reading comics for well over a quarter century, and spent virtually none of that time reading Iron Man. I started out like most kids, with "gateway" heroes like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the Hulk... oh, how I hated the Hulk. I'll save that blog for when the crappy looking Ed Norton movie comes out.
Moving on, I have some difficulty pinning down my first exposure to Iron Man. It may have been a selection of Layton/Michelinie back issues my friend Charlie had, dated around 1981, with an appearance by Blacklash coming to mind. Black clad characters weren't that common in my experience, and between the energy whip and green hair, he seemed pretty bad ass. However, for some reason I skipped an issue of Marvel Team-Up in 1984 with the character, even after buying the issues immediately before (Moon Knight!) and after (Nomad!) Yeah, that's right, I passed on Iron Man and Whiplash, but Nomad made me swerve. Obviously, this is going somewhere.
Alternately, I might have first discovered Iron Man on a spinner rack in a Gemco department store in 1983. By that point, the creative reigns had been handed over to the less heralded Denny O'Neil and Luke McDonnell, who grabbed my attention to a greater degree. You might think my previous issue was with Bob Layton, but see, I bought the second Hercules mini-series by him, so that couldn't be it. Maybe it was because Stark had been replaced as Iron Man by Jim Rhoades, a second banana of color.
You see, I grew up in po' town, so most of my friends were either low income whites or black. There were Latinos everywhere, as the area skewed barrio even then. At that point though (late 70's/early 80's,) most of them didn't speak English, and routinely stole my shit. Not being racist here, as everyone stole everyone else's shit, but I could actually keep tabs with and even retrieve the shit my non-Latino friends ganked, so I tended to hang with them. Also, since there were fewer of us, sticking together helped keep us from getting our asses kicked by large groups of people to whom English was a second language, if any. This meant I associated with black heroes more strongly than most people as pale as my honkey ass happens to be, and of course my black friends were more likely to pick up comics featuring people like Luke Cage, Storm, Black Panther, or Stalker. They tended to buy Marvel, as DC Comics didn't care about black people, beyond Cyborg. However, the only friend I had who bought Iron Man was white, and he wasn't my friend anymore by the time Rhodey took over, and for some reason I didn't really dig on him either. I bought a What If...? Starring Sub-Mariner instead. I repeat, Namor, the avenging son of Atlantis, was more interesting to me than Iron Man.
Somehow, I assume through one of those bagged three-packs that used to be sold everywhere, I ended up with a Jim Rhoades Iron Man issue. It actually wasn't a bad read, but I still wasn't into the character. Also, it read "mature." I had the same problem with the odd Yeates or Moore "Swamp Thing" I'd find on the newsstand. They weren't bad, but as a kid I felt they were too sedate and sophisticated for my reading level. Seriously, I was precocious enough to be objective about that kind of thing. Now, Layton & Michelinie eventually returned, and they were clearly not writing anything over my head, but I was just as clearly not interested. Even when they ran that cool freakin' "Armor Wars" ad about it being time for the Avenger to start avenging. A similar vibe off the "Shadow War of Hawkman" totally turned me on to a dude wearing a bird head and fake wings, but I could not get it up for Iron Man.
Why is this, I asked myself then and now? Sure, Tony Stark was an affluent white male, a segment of the population I was raised to hate/fear/distrust, but that doesn't explain my disinterest in Rhoadey. Maybe it was the suit itself, as I've never cared about technology, whether it was car, jets, robots, or robots that could turn into cars and jets. Then again, I liked Robotech, even if it was mostly for the vinyl suits, blue hair and the boom anime babes that make me think the wrong thing. What was wrong with Iron Man? I tried it during the brief Byrne/Romita Jr. stint-- nothing. One of my best friend's favorite character is Iron Man, so he got me to read some Kaminiski, but I wasn't feeling it. He had me read the "Demon in a Bottle" trade, and in fact it did turn out I thought Layton & Michelinie sucked, so that was a non-start. When Lobdell and Portacio relaunched the title, at a time when Whilce was still one of my favorite artists, I read without conviction. Busiek and Chen fared worse. Ellis and Granov were terrible, regardless of my feelings about turning Tony Stark into a cyborg in the lamest fashion possible. The only saving grace was that I read more O'Neil/McDonnell, and they really did have a well crafted run with two heroes I don't care enough about to piss on if they were set afire.
Today, I visited Occasional Superheroine, which linked to Sean Kleefeld's post discussing why he hates Iron Man. His hang-up seems to amount to Tony Stark's having a personality, where Iron Man was always a put-on "bodyguard" with no distinct character. He may well have had a point... prior to Civil War.
Here, you see, is where it all turns around. Now, I love Captain America more than I love the Martian Manhunter, to whom I've dedicated the better part of a decade researching for the purpose of constructing one expansive website a ran for a few years, and now a daily blog that I've worked on for over 200 consecutive days. Even after all that effort on my part, I think it would be a task to sustain a Martian Manhunter series of quality for an extended period of time. On the other hand, I could write Captain America every month until the day I die. I'd love to take on Mark Gruenwald's record, and I'm confident I could outperform him. Captain America helped form my identity and moral code. If I am at all patriotic, especially in this day and age, it is because of Captain America. It was a given that I would root for Captain America and his band of costumed objectors in the political schism between super-heroes caused by a tragic event claiming thousands of lives, and of course I did, until I didn't.
You see, for years, Iron Man did what was normal for super-heroes: he put on a sort of costume, pretended to be two different people, and fought other people with similar powers and interests as himself. I never had much interest in "straight" super-heroes. Flash was always nabbing bank robbers, as if I gave two shits about FDIC-insured fat cats losing a few bills. Spider-Man was always catching muggers, as if such a thing had any bearing on a poor boy from Texas. Iron Man was the worst, a rich white man protecting his company's trade secrets from super-thieves. I loved Captain America because he fought terrorists, Nazis, and other idealogues that ran counter to liberal values. After 9/11 though, Marvel's icons like Cap and Shell-Headed started revealing their secret identities. This led to lots of stories in which Steve Rogers searched his soul about the meaning of his life and America itself in the face of this national tragedy. I was cool with that in the post-Watergate years of the Man Without A Country, or in the face of Reagan's jingoism as personified by Super-Patriot/USAgent. After 9/11 though, I felt there were only two ways to go: address America's dirty hands that led to these terrorists hating on us, or socking proxy Osamas in the mug like he handeled Hitler in '40! Since in any way speaking about American culpability was verboten in the first half of this decade, the only thing to do was deliver on the comfortingly simplistic iconography of the war on terror. Captain America's writers instead straddled the fence, effectively going nowhere, and selling us the non-adventures of Steve Rogers, namby-pamby.
Meanwhile, Iron Man stood revealed as a raging hypocrite. Yes, he lied to people in his personal and professional life for years. Yes, this essentially constitutes grievous fraud. Yes, Stark the alcoholic was also the various rampaging Iron Men. Yes, he illegal entered foreign countries, caused enormous loss to property and life, yet still tried to play at taking the "high road" by abandoning arms manufacture, as if his own armor wasn't the source of continued threat throughout the world. These revelations earned him a government post, and later, directorship of S.H.I.E.L.D. In this Civil War, after decades acting as an unlicensed corporate policeman, he had now forced through legislation to outlaw any acts of vigilanteism in the United States, while simultaneously pressing for similarly action abroad. Iron Man effectively reinstated the draft when it came to super-heroes, and jailed anyone, even Captain America, who did not tow the line. Iron Man and Tony Stark were now inseperable, unavoidable, and utterly fascistic. Many now consider him the greatest super-villain in the Marvel Universe.
Not I. Somehow, my left-leanings be damned, I wholeheartedly support Iron Man's campaign. Despite all the nefarious shit he got up to with Reed Richards and Hank Pym, and despite the obvious parallels with George Dubbya, can you honestly say you think ungoverned super-heroes are a good idea? Perhaps in a universally and unbelievably altruistic comic book universe, but Marvel has always been considered "realistic." Their heroes are not Justice League goody two-shoes, but the people you know, with super-powers. I don't know anyone I'd trust with super-powers, and super-heroes are a inherently fascistic concept. Maybe in the early days when Superman beat down the doors of wife-beaters and rescued innocent persons from death row, the prospect of instant and unequivocal social justice was desirable. Even as a child though, it wasn't hard to see those hoodlums Batman likes to beat senseless being a degree or two seperate from the circumstances I grew up in. Desperate people in desperate times, hustling to get by, only to have some psychotic thug give them a concussion. It reminds me of when I read Jim O'Barr's "The Crow." On the one hand, it wasn't as comically stupid as the awful movie, with it's multiracial super-villain team of home invaders. On the other, a man so white he painted himself up as a mime kills a group of very black and mostly indistinguished black men who raped and murdered a couple on a roadside. Am I reading too much into that? Maybe, but the subtext seems pretty textual there. Oh, how many drug peddlers have Green Arrow and Speedy shot through the motherfucking hand? Am I the only one who thinks that's maybe a little excessive? I want someone to rein in the real crazies, those self-appointed gestapo in tights!
Finally, Tony Stark is Iron, and Tony Stark is the Man. No more soft-peddling the fact this cat is hard-drinkin', armor-wearin', fast-drivin', slow-lovin', cash-blowin', underling bossin', 100% U.S. Grade A Republican Son-of-a-Bitch! No more eqivocation. No pussy-footing. Tony Stark makes you feel he's a cool exec with a heart of steel. As Iron Man, boot jets ablaze, he fights and smites with repulsor rays. Iron Man is about fucking up Commies, Skrulls, and any other douchebags that don't get the meaning of the word "invincible." Iron Man is about power, not feet of clay and detox. Iron Man is about having what every man in this wants, and working it like he knows how. Iron Man is about what Superman would be like if he were a Marvel character and still retained his true heart. Comic book creators tend toward liberalism, and that is exactly why Iron Man hasn't worked for most of fandom in forty years. Now is the time for the fantasy of strength and righteousness, especially as the reality of overbearing, ill-considered self-righteousness looks to have launched us deep enough into a recession to scare everyone shitless. I don't want to think like a Steinbeck character while I scrape by for the next decade, because I expect that's the shit we'll all be living soon. I want to be Iron Man!
And that is why I now like Iron Man. Also, the new movie stars Robert Downey Jr., and pits him against a bald Jeff Bridges. These are two of our greatest living actors, in a super-hero movie! If Batman fans weren't such deluded fuckwits, they'd think about mixing their own medications in the face of that overwhelming coolness. Too far? Too soon? Just trying to roll like Iron Man, blogging like a waterboard...
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