Nov 4, 2013

Tony Stark is the Balder the Brave of the Avengers Crew

Tony Stark is the Balder the Brave of the Avengers Crew
Back Issue Ben
Ben Smith

Many words have been written about many things, but no word written about any thing has been more true than that Balder The Brave is an enormous drag. Throughout the history of fiction, not to mention in cafeterias around the world, there has always been that one person in the group that is there for no discernible reason. He or she is not especially fun to be around, or funny, or great to talk to. Balder is to Thor as Screech was to Saved by the Bell. The Kirsten Dunst of Spider-Man. The Xander of Buffy, there only to condescendingly tell the characters we actually care about how much they don’t measure up to the standards he has set for them.

In that same vein, Tony Stark is the Tim Riggins of superhero armor design, and the Landry of Avengers membership. (Friday Night Lights reference, in case you were wondering, which was one of the pantheon television shows of all time. Along with The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and MTV’s The Challenge.) Never has one thing owed as much to another as the character of Iron Man owes to Robert Downey Jr. You may be skeptical, you may have even stopped reading five sentences ago, but let me explain, and all will be made clear (or as clear as I ever get, which is not).

Iron Man, as a comic book (pre movies), is kinda like Cheers the television show. It may have seemed alright at the time, but nobody really wants to watch Ted Danson reruns. (The X-Men are the Seinfeld of comic books. Imminently re-readable, as long as you can stomach Wolverine’s eventual over-exposure, like a Michael Richards racial slur.) Iron Man, along with the Fantastic Four, Thor, and Captain America, may have endured from that bygone era where Stan and Jack smoked cigarettes and play-wrestled on the Marvel couches like two drunken college fratboys wrestling over the last frozen burrito (or at least that’s how I choose to picture it). It seems remarkable to me that the character was able to last as long as it did as a core Marvel book, based as far as I can tell on the fact that it was a Stan Lee and Jack Kirby production (or Don Heck, whatever, nobody cares). Whether it be an overabundance of mullets and perms, or the horrible ‘70s porn stache, the Iron Man comics have never really been all that great. Let’s take a gander at the Bronze Age production of Iron Man’s biggest contemporaries, shall we (the ‘60s is a wash, unless you’re Spider-Man, and then it’s a win, and everyone sucked in the ‘70s).

  • Captain America — Roger Stern and John Byrne turned in one of the most satisfying eight-or-so-issue runs in comic books, disappointing only in the fact that it wasn’t longer. Stern and Byrne were followed by a lengthy run of the greatest artist ever born, Mike Zeck, which isn’t too shabby either. (Even with Nomad playing the Kim Bauer of the Captain America universe. I was going to say Lana Lang from Smallville, but all of Smallville sucked. Embrace it.)
  • Thor — Uncle Walt took all the best parts of the Stan and Jack run with the non-stop action and grand scope, and got rid of the boring stuff, like the secret identity and lack of horse-faced allies. Not even Balder at his most Balder-esque (and trust me, he was pure undiluted Balder here, with the never-ending whining about an eternity of killing) could drag down this historic achievement in ‘80s comic book storytelling. (Balder is the Lindsay Bluth of Thor comics. Not all that bad, but not all that great either. Both of them are at their best when wearing a shirt that says “slut” and/or pining over the forbidden fruit of Karnilla.)
  • Spider-Man — Roger Stern, Hobgoblin, black costume, Black Cat. As Stanley Martin Lieber would say, “nuff said.”
  • Fantastic Four — a well-remembered and regarded stint by the legendary John Byrne. (Who himself was the Frasier of comic book creators, lots of success but nobody I know actually likes the man.)
  • Daredevil — a transcendent run by a nascent Frank Miller that would set the standard for all Daredevil stories for the next thirty years. Frank Miller’s Daredevil is The Wire of superhero Bronze Age comics, which is to say for many it is the best of the bunch. (Which I guess makes Foggy Nelson the Detective "Herc" Hauk of Daredevil, but I don’t think that even accurately measures the horribleness that is Foggy Nelson. Foggy was working hard to steal Matt Murdock’s girlfriend at one point in this collection of stories, breaking guy code rule #1.)

I think you get the point I’m driving at with those comics, if not the point I’m driving at with Iron Man, which is that Iron Man had none of that. Iron Man’s most beloved story of the time was when he realized that he was a drunken mess (Demon in a Bottle), which doesn’t make him a bad person, but certainly is in the top five of most exciting topics I can imagine being tackled in a monthly superhero comic (I’m being sarcastic, in the event you can’t tell). What most people don’t remember is that story wasn’t even all that well done to begin with, and even worse was followed by years of stories where Stark wasn’t even Iron Man while he battled his addictions. Let me say that again. While most of his contemporaries from the birth of the Marvel Universe were in the middle of pantheon runs of highly enjoyable comics, Iron Man was being piloted by Jim Rhodes (nothing against Rhodey, but he’ll always be the Eric Masterson of Iron Man replacements).

Tony Stark followed up his tales of the wonders of alcohol abuse, by donning a horrible mullet and attacking his friends in the second most cherished gem or Iron Man storylines, Armor Wars. Armor Wars is like Batman Hush, if instead of using the best guest-stars and villains that you could imagine you used the worst. Next month, Iron Man battles Stingray! (Stingray is the Andy Bernard of Armor Wars comics.) What I’m saying is that Armor Wars was the Mark Millar Marvel Knights Spider-Man of Iron Man comics. It may sound like a good idea, but actually reading it is like undergoing unnecessary chemotherapy. (Armor Wars is the Skylar White of Iron Man comics. Sorry Skylar, I don’t hate you like others do, but there is no one else to reference on Breaking Bad…)

Basically, what I’m saying is that Iron Man comics were never that good, even with the occasional absurd greatness of a Hulk guest appearance, or a classic two-part humbling by the perfection that is Dr. Doom. Thankfully Robert Downey Jr. was able to give them a baseline to follow in actually making the character both competent and enjoyable, and the character has managed to flourish ever since. (That still doesn’t explain why the new Avengers Assemble cartoon is basically the Iron Man and Friends Show.)

In closing, if you haven’t seen The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or Friday Night Lights, you have some serious catching up to do my friends. Most of these can be purchased quite affordably at your preferred online retailer, using your favorite digital device.

Next time, more attempts at random semi-coherence!

Judge for yourself, guys. Here's Armor Wars and Demon in a Bottle on Amazon:

And in case you want to watch the shows Ben highly recommends, here they are:


Peter said...

Hater. The Bob Layton / John Romita Jr. run that introduced Rhodey and Bethany Cabe, had the Justin Hammer armor tech hack arc (which in time led to Armor Wars), Sunturion and Roxxon, Hulk(as mentioned), Cap trained an armor less Stark in self defense . . . All that was a classic run. That is the Tony Stark Robert Downey Jr. is channeling!

Peter said...

Sorry, I left the :-) out after the hater comment. :-)

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