Thursday, February 09, 2006

Iron Man vs Titanium Man: Then and Then

Nothing in comics says America and Capitalism like the character of Tony Stark, aka the Invincible Iron Man. While Businessman Lex Luthor might be the more realistic representative of the corporate wheeler-dealer he is the rapacious kind of (to paraphrase Steve Gerber) "grab it all, own it all, drain it all" entrepreneur that we all hope doesn't exist but probably does.

Tony Stark the inventor, the industrialist, the super hero is the kind of guy the Average Joe wants to actually head up a multi-national corporation. A bona-fide hero, he doesn't raid the pension plan or take a billion dollar salary as a reward for laying off thousands of employees. He's environmentally friendly. Tony Stark is no fool though, and is a shrewd businessman who has proved, at least in the Marvel Universe of Finance, that you can be a nice guy and still make billions of dollars.

In the comics Tony Stark has always been the reflection in the mirror held up to American business. During the Cold War and Vietnam he was a genius weapons-maker. In the 70's he built homes for the poor and alienated the government when he determined he would no longer manufacture munitions. During the great Michelinie/Layton/Et Al run in the 80's he fought against personal failures and fought off hostile takeovers from the competition and the Government. The 90's...hurts to talk about. Basically Tony went insane and sucked. In recent years I was really enjoying Tony Stark as the Secretary of Defense until a cross-over screwed up the direction of the book.

It was a new direction and not everyone liked it. After years of status quo in the character where Tony was just the rich industrialist playboy it was nice to see the character do something other than defend his corporate interests. Also, after decades of having various meaty-bits replaced with technology, Tony was being gradually "re-humanized" so the sudden return to Cyborg-Stark is a little annoying. Been there, done that. I guess if you haven't seen it one hundred times before like I have then it's new to you.

So as Tony Stark has usually been written in terms of prevailing American ideology it can be a bit amusing to see the changes to the character over the years. Particularly when you have a writer that has knowledge of continuity and is aware of what has been published previously.

In Tales of Suspense #71 (November 1965), Stan Lee, never one to pass up an opportunity for a little Cold War civics lesson, explains to the kiddies and hep college cats of the mid-60's in the basic differences between Americans and Commies. Stan Lee uses propaganda like a blunt force instrument.

On a trip behind the Iron Curtain, Tony Stark thoroughly beats up and humiliates that symbol of the Soviet military machine the Titanium Man, easily proving American superiority in all things.
After the fight Tony Stark tears off pieces of the armor for a trophy and (who you kidding?) a little reverse engineering. Also in the tradition of all 60's comic book heroes, Iron Man has to rub in the defeat with a lecture.

Don't worry...Lucky for you I'm not a red! I can't continue to attack a helpless enemy!
Notice it wasn't "won't attack", which would display some willful practice of superior methodology and ethics. Instead, Stan uses "can't attack", as if there is something genetic about Americans that make them physically unable to kick a hurt puppy or something.

Stan Lee then tells us the now helpless Titanium Man's greatest fear is that Iron Man will leave him to the mercy of his masters, the evil Commies.

Good old red-baiting Stan.

Cue Iron Man #135 (June 1980). A little over 15 years later the world has changed and so, apparently, have American sensibilities.

Bob Layton and David Michelinie had a great run on Iron Man in this comic era. John Byrne also scripted some good stuff during this time (#'s 258-277), but people have seemingly forgotten about them. They kicked butt, though. In this issue it is the eternal communist Boris Bullski, the Titanium Man who invades America and Tony Stark opens up a industrial-sized can of whup on him.

In a revealing contrast to the events of years before where Iron Man flexed the superiority of his ethical American muscles, Tony Stark pounds the bolts out of the Titanium Man long after he was unable to fight back.

In a parallel to the panels in Lee's Tales of Suspense story, Layton and Michelinie have Iron Man once again forcibly remove chunks of armor from Boris. Iron Man then totally frakows him into next week and really, really enjoys it.

Note the flag.

Not to get on a side rant here but this is a good example of continuity. This is the real thing that allows a writer to expand on a character and isn't the typical stereotype of fan nit-picking that people think makes the trembling geek enraged when an artist gets the number of framistats wrong on the secondary air-lock of the Negative Zone.

From comparing the two stories it's obvious that the Layton/Michelinie team had some familiarity of the IM/TM dynamic and this was America vs. Russia distilled for easy reading. Yes, it is still propaganda but it was that much more palatable due to the Jerry Bingham/Bob Layton art (and because I was also that much more clever than the hippies who read the book back in the 60's and I could never be fooled by such an obvious dramatic ploy).

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