Tuesday, February 15, 2011

John Byrne's Iron Man (#257-277)

In 1990, while still at the peak of his greatest commercial success, John ("X-Men", "Superman: Man of steel") Byrne decided to revamp Iron Man with John ("Uncanny X-Men", "Daredevil") Romita Jr. Positioned in a very particular moment of their careers, the "Invincible Iron Man" collaboration resulted in the publication of the ambitiously titled "Armor wars 2" nine-part storyline, following which Byrne continued on as a writer for nearly a year, with the bulk of his scripts illustrated by Paul ("Squadron Supreme") Ryan.

Historically, these Byrne written issues follow on the heels of the highly regarded David Micheline and Bob Layton character defining collaboration. As such, and as was the editorial mandate of the day, the new creative team tried their best to frame their take around the soap operatic effects that preceded them. And while the unnecessary complicated plot line of the public believing original Iron Man dead and replaced with a new, also unknown pilot gets formally acknowledged, Byrne successfully managed to tie his creative overhaul to a part then current status quo.


This meant directly referencing Iron Man's recent spinal injury, as a way of setting up his current predicament. All the while, the "Armor wars 2" subtitle worked only as a cheap gimmick - nothing in the story had to do with any kind of follow up to the Micheline/Layton epic about Tony Stark getting back at the villains who appropriated his technology in their weapons. Byrne's broader idea was simply to get Iron Man into the state where the writer he could be at his most archetypal, while still telling a typical Iron Man story in the process.

In effect, the long set up for the forthcoming Mandarin story feels a bit arbitrary at first, given how disconnected the two plots are. Still, it definitely works when the run is taken as a whole, and the parallels to both Stark and his opponent's predicament, heavy handed though they are, speak of a larger plan that was there from the outset.

Design-wise, Romita jr.'s second run on "Invincible Iron Man" succeeds to once again, set up the entirety of Byrne's vision. James Rhodes sports a convincing African American physiognomy (if burdened by the then-current fashions), which is something that some of the previous artists have at times struggled with, the result of which made Rhodey appear as a "blackface" character. Moreover, Romita jr.'s Mandarin sports a very noble look and dignified outfit that is miles away from the misleading, racial caricature look he debuted with, and much more practical than seemingly any of the many clunky armors he was presented wearing previously.

That said, Byrne really opts to utilize most of the artist's abilities as a penciller of action based comics, with panel after panel of Iron Man tearing up bulky equipment and hurling it into his opponents, seemingly slowing down only to focus on the conversations between Stark and his best friend and employee. As such, "Armor wars 2" starts of as a seemingly typical Iron Man tale, teasing at the mystery of the reason behind Titanium man's return, while hinting at the identity of the true villain behind it (a little game that extends to the title of the issue itself). Still, the larger plot is quickly to intrude, as Byrne quickly reveals that his intention isn't in revitalizing the assortment of Iron Man's rogues gallery. As is apparent in the scenes constantly intercutting "Armor wars 2", the writer is very clear as to his decision to first and foremost restructure Stark's nemesis Mandarin into the threat he is supposed to be.

Similarly, the corporate takeover angle that comes to dominate the opening arc's plot line doesn't extend beyond Romita jr.'s departure. It seems like Byrne purposely decided to start his run of with the familiar elements of an Iron Man story, while slowly preparing the reader for the more ambitious Mandarin story. To achieve this slight of hand, John Byrne uses the Marss corporation, the antagonist in "Namor, the Sub-Mariner", his other Marvel ongoing series at the time. The sprawling, nine part saga interestingly features a clear antagonist in the guise of scientist Kearson DeWitt, who continually references a grudge with Iron Man that is never really revealed in the pages of Byrne's run. Suffice it to say, that despite this dangling plot line, Byrne and Romita jr. manage to bring "Armor wars 2" to a satisfying, action packed conclusion.

Simply put, there feels like there's a lot at stake for the title character's industrialist complex, that experiences even a worker's strike during the proceedings. This is done not only in the complicated ways Tony Stark engineers to avoid the Marss company's hostile influence over his life, but in the very scale of the fighting. The creators achieve a palpable level of danger to Iron Man's health and sanity without resorting to the familiar scenes of his armor slowly shutting off due to the energy discharged during the fight.

Unfortunately, despite Byrne's lofty plans for reshaping the character and the core of his mythos, the kind of consistent and entertaining storytelling evidenced in "Armor wars 2" is not really achieved later on in his run, except for late in the "Dragon seed" saga. With Romita jr. leaving to work on the "Cable" mini-series, honing his style to it's current look, a lot of energy seemingly leaves the pages of "Invincible Iron Man". Of course, Byrne continues his stated mission, to rehabilitate Stan Lee and Don Heck's early Marvel character for the 1990s, but for a while the focus seems squarely on the internal side of the development. Leaving the corporate angle for his Namor work, with precisely one scene showing Stark discussing the future prospects of the company ravaged by the assaults and crippled by the protest of the employees. And even then, it's to stave off the problem while focusing on his own personal problems.

This is not to say that John Byrne's version of the character is the typical scoundrel he is sometimes presented as, far from it. Stark is simply shown to be in mortal peril, with a continuing dire threat against his personal health, and even while attempting to survive, he proceeds to provide help on a truly heroic scale. From the opening issue in which he dismantles a nuclear reactor, to the closing ones in which he helps prevent the WW3 salvo of missiles, he is squarely a heroic figure. There is next to nothing of his playboy nature on display, which presents the character in a truly mature light. He repeatedly renounces his previous lifestyle, openly declaring himself as a former alcoholic, but one that has put behind him his dandy-like ways, to focus on the more pressing problems. And truthfully, despite the short assistance of West Coast Avengers at one point in "Armor wars 2", most of the threats that he combats seem far beyond his league.

Particularly, what becomes the main thrust of the book's run, Mandarin's rise to power in China, and the consequences of his alliance with the mentor-like figure of Chen Hsu results in a conflict that seems at least on the level of threats the Avengers try to put a stop to, if not possibly even a basis of a crossover encompassing all of Marvel universe. But Byrne knew better then to dilute his vision of the character in such ways.

As designed by Lee and Heck, Iron Man is a superhero, first and foremost, and as such should be capable of dealing with any threat with the help of his supporting cast. In this iteration, Iron Man chiefly interacts with Rhodey, who is somewhat surprisingly left without any real goals beyond helping Tony as best as he can. But this should come as no surprise, considering how focused Byrne gets, once past "Armor wars 2".


Namely, the writer promptly retells Iron Man's origin in a two-part story framed by the continuing plot involving his health problems. The familiar events are depicted without a direct reference to the Vietnam war, instead taking place in the South-East Asia, where a Stark compound is having trouble in the politically unstable part of the country. Without overt reference to any kind of war, Iron Man's subsequent captivity is handled as a part of an attack by the local crime lord. Wong-Chu's actions are retold as petty and short-sighted, with Byrne revealing that the real megalomaniac behind the capture of professor Yinsen and Tony Stark is the Mandarin, who has kept to the shadows the whole time.

And while certainly nothing in Iron Man's debut contradicts what Paul Ryan is given to pencil, the retcon seems forceful and makes for somewhat of a stilted story. Likewise, Ryan's clear layouts, and competent superhero art seems somewhat perfunctory after Romita jr's pages, that bursted with dynamicism and stylized figures. It is certainly clear that the editorial believes in Byrne's vision enough that they deemed to provide him with a capable artist, but it still makes for a somewhat drab mid section of the run. And while Wong-Chu certainly isn't a villain remembered for anything beyond being the catalyst of Stark's creation of the Iron Man armor, there was no reason to burden the relatively simple coming of age story by additional Mandarin scenes, just to drive home the point that the two were adversaries from the start (especially considering that Mandarin himself is a very early Iron Man villain).

But, nevertheless, Byrne continues on with his story by sending Stark and Rhodey to China, basically beginning the "Dragon seed" saga at least two issues before the official designation. Interestingly, dealing with Iron Man's beginnings has brought the writer to revisiting the character's stance against communism. And while coming to China, Stark certainly displays a paranoid and superior attitude to the conflicting ideology, Byrne doesn't go completely overboard in his attack at the communist state. Certainly his opinion is negative, and he has Stark being fairly open about the government's policies as it pertains to the common men, but he avoids the one sided paranoia of the Marvel Silver age.

To the contrary, Stark strikes a deal with the Chinese government, one that would help him solve his medical problems, if he decided to help with the threat Mandarin poses. As part of the continuing soap opera, Byrne has opted to have "Armor wars 2"'s effects on the protagonists cause him severe complications. It would be easy to point out to the change of editors mid-run as the writer's soon departure from the title as the reason for leaving behind a major story thread unresolved. But, considering the guiding principle that seemingly inspired him, it would probably be a mistake to blame him leaving Tony in such a dire predicament a genre tradition, with the writer openly inviting the new creative team to resolve plot line as they bet see fit, in the continuing saga of the lead character's adventures.

But on a closer examination, there is every reason to believe that Byrne wanted to restore Tony's fragile health and dependency on the armor from his earliest Silver age days. Conversantly, once the writer's did away with his alcohol dependency, it seemed the wisest to restore the grounded aspect of the character by returning to the original set-up. Thus, Stark, a man depending on increasingly complicated ways of using his technology to save his life and protect thousands of others, once again returns to his status as a conflicted Silver Age Marvel character. But Byrne certainly acknowledges the passage of time in his run, by giving Tony a love interest in dr Su Yin, a Chinese scientist, working on his recovery.

Unfortunately, due to the plot-heavy nature of the main four parts of the "Dragon seed" saga, Stark's attempt to seduce her, and his following emotional outbursts seem contrived. The whole ordeal seems slightly out of character for Marvel's womanizing hero, who despite his stated maturity seems slightly out of touch in these scenes. Perhaps Byrne was simply realistic, knowing how hard it is to depict a relationship that feels true in a superhero comic, that is inherently tied into it's protagonist being continually driven away from everything else to continually risk his life against the endless barrage of super villains.


In any event, when approaching the title, the writer was aware how hard it would be to implant any kind of major change in the protagonist, given the popularity of the runs that came before him, as well as the nearly three decades of publishing that has pretty accurately defined the characters for whole generations of readers. Thus, he focused most of his energy on Mandarin, whose character arc is much clearer and precise. Byrne correctly poises that the over the top villain has been somewhat overshadowed by the corporate opponents his predecessors have introduced to the series.

Reestablishing Mandarin, as if he was created at the beginning of the 1990s was a much more difficult predicament than the relatively minor tweak he's given the protagonist, and not only because of the difference in popularity. Perhaps more than any other arch villain, Mandarin is fierce racial caricature, saddled with a megalomaniac ambition that was not so glaring in the comics publishing on the 1960s, but has had to be severely retooled since. Byrne approaches the idea as literally featuring Mandarin as a crime boss of a syndicate fallen on hard times. In the opening of "Armor wars 2", the villain discovers that one of his underlings has actually succeeded in replacing one of his rings of power with a simple copy, and that prompts him to start his long journey towards finally living up to his goals.

As if approaching a hero of the piece, the writer accomplishes this by pairing him with a mentor, who is himself at first seemingly another stereotypical Asian. This time though, the stereotype is intended to hide Chen Hsu's true nature, as the wizened old shop keeper begins training Man's nemesis. The sorcerer forces Mandarin to accept that his previous defeats lie in his brash and impulsive ways, and starts helping him find focus, before revealing his plans for the would-be ruler of China.

Here John Byrne and John Romita jr. reveal their decision to cast Tony's arch rival as Stark's complete opposite, by focusing on the mysticism behind his origins. The decision is further elaborated by bringing in another early Lee/Kirby creation, that of the giant dragon Fin Fang Foom. And while all this set-up preceding Stark's arrival in what feels like something resembling then-contemporary China certainly feels strange and oft putting, the creators treat it with out-most seriousness. It's hard to really be offended by their depiction of the Valley of the Dragons, from which Mandarin starts his conquest of 1/3 of China, in that it is so clearly divorced of the reality, that the reader is forced to simply accept it, as just another of the fictional locations in the Marvel universe.

With the initial attack perpetrated by the now fully trained Mandarin over, the subplot connects back to Tony Stark with the starts of his negotiations with the Chinese government. Interestingly, even then, Byrne decides to put off the direct conflict between the two adversaries until establishing the complete scope of "Dragon seed". This is accomplished by having Jimmy Rhodes take Tony's place as Iron Man, while his employer stays in Beijing to contemplate his health and his chances with Su Yin.

Once again, Byrne lapses into exposition, as he finally retells Mandarin's origin, by tying it into the wider "Dragon seed" saga. The descendant of Genghis Khan's accidental discovery of the alien space ship still feels very contrived, but the writer doesn't concern himself with it, opting to spotlight the role of the mysterious race whose weapons he has appropriated. This is where the reader's suspense of belief is stretched to the limit of what constitutes an Iron Man story, given that Byrne decides to tie in the Jack Kirby designed giant monster Foom into the back story of the space aliens, with a direct link to the sorcerer Chen Hsu.

In a way, the story works because it keeps developing Mandarin's character by revealing that he still doesn't use the full extent of his weapons, which was retconned into Iron Man's origin in the previous storyline. But the very nature of the threat in the "Dragon seed" saga still feels very over the top and out of touch with Iron Man. By opting for an archetypal approach that is a complete opposite from Dennis O'Neill's run on the character, Byrne almost loses sight of his own mandate, before bringing in Tony Stark for the final showdown in #275. It is largely thanks to the success of the dramatic finale that the storyline, and the arc as a whole succeed, but even then, it's easy to see why Byrne's efforts didn't resonate as the work his predecessors did.

The epic (almost fantasy) feeling of "the Dragon seed" is likewise undermined by the efforts of Paul Ryan, that even at his best simply doesn't match the energy Romita jr. has imbued these characters with as he was redesigning them for "Armor wars 2". The scenes of Fin Fang Foom and his cohorts bringing down mountains around Tony, Rhodey and Mandarin all present clear storytelling and strong layouts, but serve to largely focus the reader on the character, and not the stylistic merits achieved during the composition of the pages themselves. For what it's worth, Byrne provides a powerful moment when Tony finally meets up with Mandarin, who having achieved full power due to Hsu's manipulations opts for the only real choice in the resulting crisis.

This is where the real strength of John Byrne's work on the series shines - he has succeeded in transforming the stereotypical villain into a three dimensional character that actually feels responsible for the events that erupted in the Valley of dragons. For one brief moment, Mandarin seems almost an anti-hero, which is perhaps the peak of morality in a typical superhero comic. But tragically, Byrne chooses this same moment to unleash the explosion that actually resolves the plot in a very organi and constructive way. The aftermath sees Stark return to America, but the journey has made an effect on him that once again has nothing directly to do with Mandarin, as seen in the Tony DeZuniga drawn back-up. The short piece is melodramatic but the artist manages to get across at least some of the subtlety in Tony and Su Yin's feelings.

But compared to Tony, it's once again Mandarin that manages to appear more convincing in his own epilogue. Seeing the ultimate price paid in the events for his attempt to rule China, as well as balancing his cruelty with temper leaves the honorable antagonist utterly devastated by his ally's betrayal, both physically and mentally. After such a powerful conclusion, it's hard to accept Tony's unresolved health problems as a long term problem. Departing the series, Byrne was certain to leave the new creative team an Iron Man that can still use his armor, no matter the doctor's predicaments. It's just that the very core of the character is tied into the idea of a man surviving by building an armor to protect himself and then the others. The fact that the other writers stretched the metaphor of Stark bettering himself while continually adapting his armor doesn't change the fact that developing an addiction to alcohol is just as severe a health problem as Tony's original heart defect.


And yet even though his story was by and large told, John Byrne had two more issues with Paul Ryan to complete his run. Interspersed throughout the "Dragon seed" saga, and a couple of issues preceding it were short vignettes featuring Black Widow as she suddenly remembers the threat of a secret KGB project, and the way she goes about contacting her colleagues in the spy community and the new Russian government about what she knows about the ominous Oktober project. Eventually, she decides to approach the Avengers, before finally deciding on Tony Stark being the one to contact considering the possibility of WW3 that could result out of their inability to stop the former KGB's protocols.

In what is mostly an action story, Stark proceeds to once again retell the history of his current health affliction, while the Widow wisely chooses her words. Byrne's portrayal of Natasha as a fierce and independent woman is very convincing, and is largely in line with Ryan's depiction of the Avenger as a physically fit, attractive woman, without much in the way of the usual superhero excesses when it comes to the female form. And while Widow's then-current costume seems a bit generic, it also reinforces the concept of Natasha as a somewhat more realistic character compared to Marvel's typical stars.

In any event, for a character that debuted in the pages of "Iron Man" (back when he was a "Tales of suspense" headliner), to so successfully take over two whole issues of Tony Stark title feels a bit unusual, particularly considering the circumstances. And while Byrne has certainly set up her return to the title in the preceding episodes, Iron Man's role in the Oktober conflict steel feels arbitrary. The closing pages indicate that the story was perhaps cut short, but Byrne still manages to give Tony a lot of space to shine as the hero, once past the contrived way in which the Oktober project is actually set in motion. All in all, a decent two issues featuring Stark that despite his medical problems still manages no less than to save the world, somewhat echoing his actions in Byrne's opener. And following the extensive work he did to bring back the character to his origins, one could say that John Byrne simply used these two issues to spotlight a solid superhero tale that could be done with the current set-up following his run on the title.

1 comment:

Manuel Chavarria said...

It never seemed like anyone knew what to do with The Mandarin once he stopped being a Yellow Peril caricature... and it always struck me as telling that Michelinie and Layton--arguably the most respected and vaunted Iron Man writers--only used the Mandarin once, near the end of their second run, in pretty perfunctory fashion (hell, Iron Man's battle with the Mandarin in 242 is immediately overshadowed by Kathy Dare shooting Tony at the end of the issue). I'd argue that John Byrne doesn't re-establish the Mandarin; he fully *establishes* the character, as this is the first time he comes across as a viable, three-dimensional threat. Len Kaminski followed up on this beautifully, I felt, but when The Mandarin shows up in Kurt Busiek's (otherwise very good) run, he's back to playing Musical Motivations, which I found disappointing.