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A blog for poetry, prose, and pop culture.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Word Balloon: Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle

Hey all!

May is most certainly Iron Man month, with the big sequel to the film rolling out in just 1 day (as of writing this). As I did with Watchmen and Wolverine last year and Kick Ass this year, I thought I would continue the trend and turn a spotlight on Marvel Comic's Iron Man in this column.

Since the success of the first film, I think the origin of Iron Man is pretty well ingrained into people. Billionaire weapons manufacturer Anthony Stark is captured by terrorists and forced to make them a bomb. Dying as a piece of shrapnel is inching towards his heart, he creates a power source and constructs a suit of armor to protect him and allow him to escape. Traumatized over the destructive powers of the weapons he has built, he vows to use the armor to protect the world, though he is still a victim of his own narcissism and billionaire playboy ways.

Despite Iron Man's longevity and character appeal, he has really been one of Marvel's B characters for most of his publishing career. Iron Man has never had the great creative teams nor Marvel's dynamic artists on board and seminal Iron man stories are few and far between in the characters nearly 50 year existence. Up until Marvel's Avenger push the last few years, which has seen the character quality and impact improved greatly, Iron Man has really only had one creative defining story arc by arguably his one and only great creative team. That story is the seminal "Demon in a Bottle" arc collecting Iron man Volume 1 #120 to #128 by writers David Michelinie and Bob Layton, with art by John Romita, Jr. Carmine Infantino and Bob Layton himself.

Michelinie and Layton had been tasked to fill in the next arc on the series and they were teamed with John Romita, Jr, son of Marvel legend John Romita who was one of the longest tenured artists on Spider Man. This marked Romita's first monthly penciling assignment and he was teams with Layton and Michelinie, who were already established at Marvel. The writers both stated they never set out to write a relevant story, they simply looked at the kind of life a person like Tony Stark would live. Rich, famous, and dealing with the stresses of running a multi-national corporation, partying, and the strains of being Iron Man, they figured that Stark would have problems outside of the usual villain of the week. In fact, they looked at alcoholism as the villain of the week for this arc. The fact that this story IS so identifiable with Iron Man, and the fact that the legacy of this storyline is still a resonate factor in Iron Man almost 30 years later, though, is relevant.

Demon in a Bottle is really about Tony Stark hitting rock bottom. After a battle with the Roxxon Corporation, the Iron Man armor begins to malfunction on Stark and he crashes. After running a series of tests and finding no problems, he visits a Casino with his then girlfriend, Bethany Cabe, but it is attacked y a group of villains, including Whiplash. He dons the armor again and defeats the villains with some help from Bethany, but overhears one of the goons saying that "Hammer" wants Stark alive. After the battle, Iron Man appears at an event to meet a foreign ambassador, but his suit again malfunctions and he kills the dignitary with a repulsor blast. Forced to turn over the Iron Man armor to the authorities, Stark slips deeper into drinking.

Heavily drinking and despondent, Stark convinces his friend Scott Lang (the Ant-Man) to sneak into prison and get information from Whiplash on Hammer's involvement. Discovering that it's his business rival, Justin Hammer, he and James Rhodes (his friend and eventually War Machine) fly to Monaco to confront him, only to be captured. Hammer explains that he has seized control of the armor to ruin Stark's reputation and to get his company back on top. Eventually Stark escapes but Hammer sends a group of super villains after him. Tony manages to regain control of his Iron Man armor and defeat the villains, though when chasing after the fleeing Justin Hammer, Stark crashes and significantly damages the island the complex was on, sinking it and destroying it.

Tony returns home and continues to binge drink, alienating his friends and co-workers, prompting his butler Jarvis to quit and to descend so deep into alcohol that his own girlfriend relates a story about the loss of her first husband to drugs. Stark relents and vows to get treatment, both to save his relationship and to save his company, which is now in the grips of a corporate take over.

This story arc is considered one of the 1970's greatest tales and still generally holds up very well, really only lagging at the ending, where Tony cures his alcoholism in the final issue of the arc. Being the 1970's though, they didn't really craft stories in a long term fashion like that, though its tales like Demon in a Bottle and the stuff that Chris Claremont was doing on the relaunched X-Men title that were changing that. Stores were being crafted with long term plot developments in mind, where a single issue or storyline would have repercussions months, or even years after the initial arc had finished. Michelinie and Layton were at the forefront of creating a new way for comics to be read and probably do not get as much credit as they should have. This is a comic that really tried to inject realism and tell a story where the hero, for the most part, is flawed and un-flattering. For the first time in Iron Man's long history, the reader was engaged in Iron Man's life and world, telling a tale we all know well, that of the rise and fall of a hero, but crafting it in such a way that Iron Man for the first time, was truly human.

This was John Romita JR's first monthly gig and as such some of the learning curves really show. Still even in this raw form you can see his real strength really start to shine through, his storytelling skills. He injects a sense of realism and tragedy in the pages that help to accentuate the story. Today his storytelling skills are his strength, really crafting the pages in such a way to tell the story in a way that needs no words. This is relevant even 30 years ago in his work on Demon in a Bottle. I think he is also helped amiably by writer Bob Layton's inks over his pencils. Layton was an established inker and used his knowledge and craft to help fine tune some of the rough edges of Romita's art. Even the fill in issue by industry legend Carmine Infantino, one of the most renowned "workhorse artists" of the 1950's and early 60's. Infantino had created the Silver Age Flash and even helmed DC Comics in the early 70's before returning to freelance penciling in the late 70's. His fill in issue of Iron Man I always thought was a great bridge, bringing the old guard of comics to the new talent, and ultimately the new way in which comics were published.

As you enjoy the second Iron Man film you will see several instances where they reference Demon in a Bottle, though they are never a slave to the story. They incorporate elements of the tale to tell their own modern version of the story. Where alcoholism is simply a symptom and not the villain. Still, a nearly 30 year old tale STILL maintains its relevance to Iron Man. It retains it for a reason, it's that good. While the film create sits own mythology, its fun to look back and see the basis of these myths and to pay homage to the material and the creators that make these movies possible today.

Iron Man was a character that never really got his due in Marvel. Up until right before the successful launch of the Iron Man film, he was simply one of Marvel's characters. It's great to see Iron Man really regaining his place as one of Marvel's top tier superheroes. For my money, you can't go wrong starting with the Demon in a Bottle trade and there is never a better time than now to check the book out. It may even lead you towards some of the really good stories being told today about Iron Man by authors like Warren Ellis and Matt Fraction, all of whom look to Demon in a Bottle as the turning point for Iron Man. Check it out.

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