Like everyone else in the world, I really dug the Iron Man flick, but it got me thinking: What are some great Iron Man stories out there? Everyone’s always talking about Armor Wars and Demon in a Bottle, but I’ve run into some trouble getting into comics from back then, what with the huge text blocks and “I’m saying what I’m doing” dialog. So, I went up to Wizard’s comic library (a truly magical place) and grabbed a big stack of trades, old and newer, and will post my thoughts as I read through them. Huge spoilers ahead. Sorry about the smaller images below, I’m still trying to work this whole thing out.
First up, Demon in a Bottle (1979)
Collects: Iron Man #120-128
Written By: David Michelinie
Drawn By: John Romita Jr., Bob Layton & Carmine Infantino
Featuring: Iron Man, Namor, James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Bethany Cabe, Jarvis, Captain America, The Avengers, Justin Hammer, a slew of villains and booze
First, a quick bit of background on my comic-reading past. I grew up a DC guy, so most of my Iron Man knowledge stemmed from the short-lived ’90s animated series, whatever random Marvel books I’d pick up from time to time and what I read in Wizard. Like everyone else, I’ve heard a lot about Demon in a Bottle, but never really took the chance to read it until now because I kind of figured I knew everything that happened and didn’t think I’d like it.
Well, I was wrong. Though the trade is a bit difficult to jump into (there’s characters I’m not familiar with and the book starts with the last 5 pages of issue #120), it didn’t bother me all that much because it reminded me of what it was like when I first started reading comics. I had no idea what was going on and loved trying to figure it out.
Keeping that in mind (and knowing that not everyone likes to read comics the way I do), I wanted to offer a little background info that might help new readers. Up to this point Bethany Cabe (first appearing a few issues earlier in IM #117) was a lady that Tony Stark was eying after his break-up with Madame Masque. At the time this book opens, he’s got no idea that she’s really a bodyguard for hire. Also, at this point in his history, the world doesn’t know that Tony Stark is Iron Man, they think Iron Man is Stark’s bodyguard. That should be about enough to get you through the trade until the big origin recap.
Like I mentioned, the book opens with the end of #120, showing us a battle between Iron Man and Namor. The ensuing fight with Roxxon Oil over a Vibranium-filled island is an interesting one, beautifully and crisply drawn by JRJR, but it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the rest of the story. This brings up another aspect of the book I liked, it reminded me how comics used to be written. Nowadays we’re so used to six-issue arcs with set beginnings and endings that it can throw us off when we’re offered a glimpse of an older story like this. Michelinie wasn’t worrying about six issues here, he had a whole tapestry of stories and subplots weaving in and out of each other that probably started years earlier and went on for plenty after. Sure, the Namor section of the story isn’t necessary, but it does lead to Tony’s recollection of his origin and the eventual reveal that someone is messing with his armor.
I really thought that I would get bored with a 12-page recap of Iron Man’s origin, especially having just seen basically the same story on screen a week before, but Michelinie’s text boxes read like a novel and guest artist Infantino’s art on this issue really captures the drama and action of his origin. In the end, the story still feels fresh after almost 30 years.
As a bonus (for me at least), the origin story included two of my favorite visuals in fiction: a splash page that encapsulates a character’s costumes/history and a character wearing a trench coat even though it’s the most conspicuous fashion choice of all time (especially if you’re a dude walking around in a suit of armor).
Okay, so after ol’ Shell Head remembers how he became a man of armor (while flying his way home) something crazy happens: his suit malfunctions, sending him flying erratically through the skies, even through the offices at Marvel. As staffers huddle in fear one calls out “Gee, Jim [Shooter, EIC at the time], I uh, realize guest stars help sales–but in editorial meetings?!” There’s even a little sign on the wall that reads “Kill All Inkers” signed by Stan. It’s a great little in-joke for fans, the kind of thing I imagine Marvel did all the time back in the day.
Tony regains control and heads back to his lab where he tests out his armor in a pretty amazing sequence mixing elements of Kirby and Steranko drawn by JRJR, who absolutely kills his issues.
Finding nothing wrong, Tony heads to a casino with Bethany Cabe only to be interrupted by Blizzard (who comes in wearing a trench coat and a wide brim hat), Melter and Whiplash. Tony suits up and makes short work of the villains only to be chastised by Bethany for not guarding Stark.
Upon returning home, Tony gets a request for Iron Man to represent Stark International at a ceremony and meet with ambassador Kotznin to which Tony agrees. He then has a drink, tries to design some sciency stuff, gets fed up and suits up as Iron Man to patrol the area.
Later that night at the ceremony, everything seems to be going fine until the mystery villain works his technical mojo, causing Iron Man to blast a hole straight through the ambassador’s chest. Man, what a great scene. I remember this being referenced back when I read Avengers, but had no idea it was coming up and was blown away (like the ambassador, heh). Even today the murder of an innocent man at the hands of a hero strikes a chord. These are men and women who have sworn to help humanity often at the detriment of themselves and, when something like this happens, even if it’s not their fault, you just know that it leaves a hole inside of them that will take years to heal. Michelinie wasn’t pulling any punches and will continue to lay it on pretty thick for our armored hero, but never shows him completely beaten because this is the kind of guy who’s gonna keep fighting until his dying breath.
All of this leads into my personal favorite issue of this story, #125. The issue opens on a shadow-covered Iron Man, again drawn beautifully JRJR, contemplating all that’s just happened. He’s able to convince the cops to let him go as long as Stark brings the armor to them for safe keeping by telling him that the armor malfunctioned. Afterwards, Tony goes on a bit of a bender, looking a lot like the famous cover that this collection gets its name from. We then see Tony showing up at Avengers Mansion where he asks Captain America to give him some fight training, which is a great scene because Cap’s got no idea that Tony and Iron Man are one in the same. We’re treated to another fantastic montage scene (one that was referred to a year ago when Cap and Iron Man were having their troubles during Civil War). What I love about this scene, besides the art, is that it just makes sense. I’m a big fan of the idea that these characters don’t automatically know how to handle themselves. Even after being a superhero for years, Tony’s always relied on his suit to help him, but what he’s got coming up, an assault on the man he only knows as Hammer, will require his prowess, not Iron Man’s.
He also knows how to get help from his friends in the superhero community. Tony sets up a meeting with Scott Lang, the new Ant-Man, who then uses his shrinking abilities to visit Whiplash in jail and get more information on Hammer. I don’t mean to keep gushing about this issue, but I love the sense of this being a shared universe that you get just by reading this one comic. Not only do you have the Avengers seeing the news of Iron Man’s accidental murder, but Tony training with Cap and getting help from Scott. These are the kinds of stories that make reading comics in a shared universe fun.
I also love stories in which the hero has to operate in his civilian identity, but is still a badass. Ed Brubaker did a great job with this in his first year on Daredevil, starting with Matt Murdoch in prison and then sending him to Europe. In this issue we’re treated to Tony Stark playing James Bond and not just in the bedroom. Tony follows up on the info he got from Scott and heads to Monaco with his buddy James Rhodes at his side and flying his plane.
Tony and Rhodey go on to run across some hoods that they, at first, easily dispatch, but end up with Rhodey unconscious on a beach and Tony in the clutches of Justin Hammer, the man who’s been screwing with Tony this whole time. But who is this guy? Well…no one, kinda. I mean, he’s a pretty big deal rich dude, but he’s the kind of villain that’s been waiting in the wings for his moment to attack. Kind of like what’s happening with Morrison’s current Batman run (maybe).
So, now that Tony’s in his enemy’s clutches, what happens next? Tony pulls some more James Bond-like maneuvers (electrocuting his guard and using a grappling hook belt he got from Scott Lang) to get his armor back, just in time for Hammer to unleash a legion of super-villains like the Constrictor, the Beetle, Porcupine, Discus, Stiletto, Leap-Frog, Man-Killer and more. Iron Man rumbles pretty mercilessly, but awesomely, with the villains, then goes after Hammer himself (did I mention they’re on a big boat-like island?), who’s escaped, leaving Tony to return home, get skunky drunk, snap at Jarvis and receive Jarvis’ resignation the next day.
All of which leads us to the issue you’ve seen the cover of a hundred times, but (if you’re like me) never actually read. Yup, the famous “Demon in a Bottle” Tony-looks-like-hell cover.
I gotta say, this is my least favorite of the issues. Not because it’s a poorly written or drawn, but because it just seems a little too cut and dry. Sure, plenty of writers have gone back to this aspect of Tony’s personality, but this issue really seems to steam through his ordeal with booze. Even the emotional and heartbreaking scene with a drunken Iron Man crashing through his office window, things just go by too fast for me. It turns out that Bethany had a husband who was addicted to drugs and doesn’t want to see the same thing happen to Tony, so she helps him through his withdrawal (again, drawn in agonizing detail by JRJR). Our hero also patches things up with Jarvis, finding out that the faithful butler’s mother is sick and to help offset the costs, Jarvis sold his shares (there’s a subplot running throughout the whole story that S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to buy a controlling interest in his company). Tony tells his long-time friend that he’ll pay for everything and goes on to deal with the rest of his life, including a battle with self-control over a bottle of booze that he wins. End of story.
Okay, I don’t want to end on such a downer note. Again, I really liked this book and think that, given an even bigger trade that shows more of Tony’s battle with his new found bottle demons, I wouldn’t feel the way I do. Jeez, this was a really long post. Too long? Let me know.