This just in, from the Disney Vaults: An essay I wrote for Comix Experience’s Onomatoepeia newsletter waaaay back in 2008, just before the opening of the Iron Man movie (The essay was part of a series, originated by the wonderful Jeff Lester, called Fanboy Rampage — a title I later, entirely accidentally, convinced-I’d-come-up-with-it-myself, stole for the blog that started my career. That, hopefully, explains the “Fananoid Ramplog” reference).
Reading it back now, that Civil War II joke… Man, it’s like I just knew that Avengers Vs. X-Men was going to happen at some point, isn’t it…?
Remember “comics”? Once upon a time, they were the way that children were given stories and adventure before television was perfected – And they were also the birthplace of the 21st century’s most successful movie franchise, the Iron Man series! You’ll discover all about the “comic book” and Iron Man’s place in the history of that forgotten medium in tonight’s episode of Fananoid Ramplog!
Hello. I’m Ira Glass Jr., and this is Fananoid Ramplog for today, May 2nd 2058. On today’s show, we’re looking at the history of the most popular fictional character in all human existence, Iron Man. His first movie was released 50 years ago today, changing the course of human history, but it may surprise some of you that Iron Man didn’t get his start in movies. No, in fact the character – as well as all of his supporting characters including shapely secretary Virginia “Pepper” Potts – were actually created for something called comic books. You’ve probably heard all about comics from your grandparents, or perhaps even their parents, but tonight we’re looking at the way that comic books and the armored avenger were, like Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, a match made in an entirely temporary heaven while in preparation for something much better indeed.
Even directly before the opening of the original Iron Man movie, no-one knew quite how important that one motion picture would be to the evolution not only of the entertainment industry, but also all of technology itself. After all, the movie – Iron Man 1: A New, Metallic, Hope, as it’s become known in the years since its release – has been cited by no less an authority than Steve Jobs as the one motivating factor in the creation of Apple’s iSuit:
“I sat there, watching Robert Downey Jr.’s sensitive performance as Anthony Michael Hall Stark, recognizing a lot of myself in his steely portrayal of an exec with a heart of stone and a hide of steel. As Stark moved from soulless war profiteer to soulless superhero in an awesome high tech suit of armor, it’s not too much to say that I had something akin to a religious epiphany, realizing that the previous Apple school of DRM technology and sleek, designer personal computers was entirely corrupt and the wrong way to run a multinational corporation. Who was I to profit off the desire for consumers to buy and listen to music? Especially when I could instead profit off their desire to fly into the blue skies in their own personal awesome high tech suit of armor.”
The iSuit, released in the holiday season of 2008, quickly became the cornerstone of the revitalized Apple empire. Its combination of telephone, music player and mechanical suit with boot jets and repulsor rays proved irresistible to the general public despite the horrific accident at the press launch that resulted in the death of original Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr. when Jobs accidentally shot him in the face when demonstrating the incredible firepower available to everyone for a surprisingly low price of only $10,000.
(It was, of course, the death of Downey Jr. that allowed friend and fellow scary-eyed actor Joshua Jackson to step into the role of Tony Stark for the following fourteen installments in the series. Jackson’s performance as the homeless, alcoholic Stark in Iron Man 7: Demon In A Bottle, Not Literally, It’s A Metaphor For Alcoholism provoked such critical plaudits as “I almost forgot that he was Pacey in Dawson’s Creek for a second” and “He’s like a young George Clooney, if Clooney has no charm and had starred in Dawson’s Creek for seven years before disappearing into the career wilderness.”)
Iron Man the movie franchise became a futuristic, faceless avatar for technological advancement, but for hardcore Iron Fans, this came as no surprise. The character had always been a chrome-clad personification of the cultural zeitgeist since his creation in whatever form he had appeared in. His video game appearances in the later 1980s and early 1990s were cutting edge examples of the pixel art, and his various forays into animation were, if nothing else, proof that American animation was kind of shoddily acceptable if you were ten years old and bored enough on a Saturday morning to watch Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. According to cultural historian Ian Shameless-Grudge, however, both of those examples were just shameful additions to his original career as an American comics prime example of the spirit of the times:
“You have to consider that American comics started as a cheap, disposable medium aimed at children and functional illiterates at the time of a great economic depression,” Grudge explains, “and so their characters were almost intentionally simplistic so as to be shaped to fit in with whatever was happening in the larger American tapestry at that time. By the time that famous opportunist Stanley Lieber Lee invented the Iron Man in the early 1960s, that idea had become so ingrained that Iron Man was literally faceless, so perfect was he suited for that role.”
Iron Man’s first appearance before a hungry, if ultimately disinterested, American public came in 1963’s Tales of Suspense #39. In that tale, Lee and artist illustrator Donald J. Heck made Tony Stark an example of the American Dream made good: Rich, handsome, and with a pencil moustache that only Errol Flynn could pull off in real life. But like Flynn and the fractured American psyche of the time, Stark hid a terrible secret: His heart was weak. So weak, in fact, that he had to wear a metal chest plate that he had to continually plug into a wall socket to survive.
Grudge again: “Here, Tony Stark is the American everyman at the dawn of the information age, literally having to plug himself in to everything that is happening at the end of the day. Whether intentionally or unknowingly like some kind of autistic idiot savant, Lee places his hero into a situation with which everyone is familiar. Look, also, at the way in which women are drawn to both his suave demeanor and his Communist-fighting ways. Here, Lee is showing us that it is not enough to be a good American; in order to be truly successful, you must plug yourself into walls and be ruggedly handsome as well.”
For years, Iron Man was the intellectual mechanical bitch of Marvel Comics, who published the character throughout his entire comic history. Aiming to keep interest in the character at a premium, Iron Man slowly and accidentally became the personification of each and every movement in the evolution of American comics as a medium:
- Superheroes as Socially Relevant Vehicle: As American creators awoke to the idea of their stories becoming vehicles for more weighty subjects, Tony Stark went from being a social drinker to an unforgivable lush who forgets how to shave and, at one point, ends up homeless and sleeping on the streets in the middle of a snowstorm. Fans ate the subject up eagerly, but wondered why he didn’t use his armor to at least fly away to somewhere warmer.
- Superheroes as Replaceable Suits: Looking to create a sense of excitement over decades-old characters, creators started to kill off and replace their favorite superheroes. The Flash died and was replaced by his sidekick. Green Lantern quit and was replaced by an architect. Captain America quit about seventeen times to be replaced by whoever was nearby, but at the forefront of the movement was, of course, Iron Man. Mixing the replacement vibe with his social relevance, Tony Stark’s alcoholism forced him to step down and be replaced by an old war buddy who was – in a move that demonstrated even more revelance – black. Comics would never be the same again.
- Superheroes as Slaves To Creators Desperate To Do Anything Gimmicky To Grab Attention For A Failing Medium: As the 1990s and Clinton-era politics destroyed both the comics medium and America as a whole, writers and artists resorted to ever-more outlandish stories to try and stun fans into spending money. Like a mulletted Jesus, Superman died and was born again for our sins. Batman found himself crippled and then healed, and popular blind acrobat Daredevil put on a suit of armor to slow himself down and ruin his hearing with clanking. Again, Iron Man led the way, by turning out to be a mind-controlled murderer who then died, only to be replaced by a teenaged version of himself. Once this storyline saw print, such gimmicking ceased, with the entire medium realizing that it would never be able to top this kind of invention.
- Superheroes as Crass Political Stand-ins: Realizing the potential for moving political discourse forward using brightly colored characters with a propensity for punching, Marvel Comics’ Civil War storyline forever changed comics by aligning Iron Man with the far-right movement. In a masterstroke, the newly neo-con Iron Man fought the spirit of America Captain America and won, demonstrating the power of the conservative iron fist once and for all. Critics raved about the series and begged for Iron Man to go back in time and kick the crap out of Abraham Lincoln as well, leading to 2009’s Civil War II series.
Sadly, Civil War II – with its stunning conclusion where Iron Man returned to the present only to discover a partially-buried Statue of Liberty on a beach and exclaiming “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” – was the end of the character’s comic book career. In 2010, with a popular movie production arm easily more lucrative than their inbred comic book publishing division, Marvel Comics ceased the publication of their entire comic book line with that apocalyptic conclusion.
Back to Ian Shameless-Grudge: “Quite simply, with the monolithic success of the original Iron Man motion picture, there was no need for Marvel to continue with comic books. For years, their publishing line had been merely there as something to promote and provide additional profit from their movies, and even the failure of all three attempts to make a watchable Hulk movie could not dissuade them from making the decision to move full-time into movie production in 2010. Of course, the fact that Civil War II killed off all of their characters both literally and, thanks to the controversial pornographic interludes in the third to fifth issues illustrated by Greg Horn, in the minds of their fanbase helped that decision to an expected degree.”
Marvel’s first movie following their switch to permanent movie producers was, of course, the second Iron Man movie, Iron Man 2: Electric Boogaloo. This multiple-Academy Award winning movie – including one for Brian Michael Bendis and Larry McMurty’s controversial script depicting Tony Stark as a scientologist coming to terms with his sexuality with the help of new bodyguard Luke Cage – was exactly the kind of smash hit that they had hoped for, and the perfect launch pad for a series of follow-on movies including My Date With Millie, Night Nurse and Halle Berry Is Storm Because She Was Cheap When We Were Making The First X-Men Movie And Now We’re Stuck With Her… all of which started life as a comic book.
Some say that this was a sad ending for the life of the comic book medium, its audience finding cheaper and more satisfying thrills elsewhere when even its own top characters moving into cinema and television productions, but others disagree, claiming that the comic book format had achieved all it could be hoped to achieve – Namely, introducing the world to the particular fetishes of auteur Frank Miller and making Stan Lee into some kind of counter-cultural icon – before simply rolling over and dying in some distinct Darwinian fashion. As ever, we leave the last word to our cultural historian, Ian Shameless-Grudge:
“Now that we’re in the latter half of the 21st Century, it’s astounding to see how much of our culture has come from comic books. You can’t leave your house without running into a mailman trying to wiggle his ears like Willie Lumpkin or hear someone who’s attended the Victor Von Doom School of Rhetoric. The tragedy is, of course, no-one now knows where all of these beautiful ideas have come from. With DC Comics going into bankruptcy following their 2008 Final Crisis series and then Marvel leaving the industry two years later, comics disappeared from the public consciousness just as their ideas moved beyond even the pop culture supremacy that they’d been enjoying at that point. It had long been a belief that the industry would survive without those two publishers, but, sadly, that turned out not to be the case. I would say it was a bad thing, but I’ve read Tarot and Return to Wonderland, and really? Good riddance.”