Collecting issues #120-128 of Iron Man.
Writers: David Michelinie, Bob Layton (co-plotter)
Artists: John Romita Jr (pencils), Bob Layton (finishes)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Every Marvel hero seems to have a story which encapsulates the essence of their character more than any other. For some, like Spider-Man, it's the classic simplicity of their origin; for others, like the Fantastic Four's Galactus saga, it's the story which best shows off their imaginative nature or their raw visual appeal. Iron Man, however, has more in common with more complex creations like Daredevil in being defined as much by his weaknesses as his strengths, and the storyline which is collected here - dealing with his descent into (and return from) a destabilising brush with alcoholism - is one which continues to influence writers of the character today.
Tony Stark reaches one of his all-time low points in this story, eventually driving away his closest friends with his reckless tendencies before he embarks on the route to redemption. However, just like many other of the darker superhero comics of the 1980s, these issues manage to successfully blend some fairly adult themes with solid genre plots and some old-fashioned, colourful super-villains, with Stark's alcoholism remaining a minor subplot until the final couple of issues of the book. Some people might see the way in which Michelinie and Layton's transition from carefree playboy to broken alcoholic as sudden and under-developed, but that's probably due to the relatively subtle way in which the groundwork for the final revelation is laid by the hints of self-destructive behaviour which are included in the earlier issues. The alcoholism doesn't take centre stage until the final two issues, and when it does it's dealt with relatively quickly, but it's still a fairly brave subject to tackle considering the young audience that would have been buying the book at the time.
Each issue is a satisfying story in its own right which also plays into a larger arc, with Iron Man going up against a number of costumed evil-doers over the course of the book, ultimately doing battle with their mastermind Justin Hammer, and even finding time to include guest-appearances from Namor and Captain America as well as an issue-long recap of Stark's origin story. The writing is very much of its time, with plenty of overt exposition and a stronger voice for the author than many comics provide today; however, Michelinie's humour is winning, even if some of his tongue-in-cheek dialogue (what's with all the cheesy French accents?) does threaten to detract from the seriousness of the stories occasionally. As with the writer's tenure Amazing Spider-Man, there's a definite sense that he's having fun coming up with some over-the-top concepts at the same time as he's keeping his plate-spinning act going with the various members of the book's supporting cast, and even if it's not the most sophisticated style of writing, there's an inescapable charm about it which makes the stories enjoyable to read.
With many of these older collections, it's sometimes easy to find yourself put off by a style of artwork which looks dated and superficially simplistic, especially when compared to the sophistication of comics art today. However, there's a classy look to the linework which helps the book to overcome the limitations of its flat and garish colouring. John Romita Jr. has been characteristically self-deprecating about the extent to which his pencil breakdowns for these issues were 'saved' by Bob Layton's finishes, and whilst it's true that the young artist hadn't yet developed his own distinctive style, you can't discount the strong storytelling instincts that are evident from the composition of his panels. However, co-plotter Layton certainly provides an impressive finish, with his fine inking adding an extra layer of detail to the panels, whilst never sacrificing the raw energy and well-defined sense of form and weight which made Romita such a conspicuously talented young illustrator.
This collection won't be for everyone, as the majority of Iron Man's adventures are too generic and unremarkable to really stand up as great stories today. However, this book is definitely worth a look for those readers who are interested in this oft-referred-to period of Tony Stark's life, or for those who have become interested in the character as a result of Civil War. Unlike many other classic Marvel stories which have seen their plots wheeled out again and again (with diminishing returns), this is one idea that I'd like to see tackled again by a modern writer, as it feels like there might be even more potential drama in the concept that Michelinie, Layton and Romita managed to exploit in these issues.
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