Iron Man 3 opens in theaters worldwide this week, but it’s not the first Iron Man 3; there have been several Iron Man comic books numbered #3 over the years. They provide a pretty good record of ol’ shell head’s trajectory over the years, so we thought this might be a good time to take a look back on them.
Archie Goodwin + Johnny Craig
In this issue, a typical late silver age book, Tony Stark makes a major, life-saving upgrade to his armor. Happy Hogan, in the process of helping his friend with this endeavor, turns into a monstrous mutated lunk called the Freak (a creature he had been transformed to in a previous Iron Man story). Using his new and improved armor, Iron Man is able to subdue the Freak and return him to normal. It’s a fairly formulaic, run-of-the-mill story with fine but uninspired art. One item of note is that it features a letter to the editor from a collegiate Walt Simonson, who of course would go on to become one of Marvel’s most illustrious creators himself. The topic of Simonson’s letter? A lament that Iron Man has not been kicking enough ass in recent stories.
Scott Lobdell & Jim Lee + Whilce Portacio/Scott Williams & JD
You may remember this era of Marvel as “Heroes Reborn”, when the reins to all of Marvel’s characters (sans X-Men) were handed over to Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld for a complete reboot. If you were teaching a class about the history of comic books, and needed a single issue to illustrate superhero books from the 90’s, you couldn’t do much better than this one as a prototypical example. Put simply, it’s pretty bad. Three pencillers (along with two inkers) are credited with the art. I’m not sure if that means somebody did the breakdowns and the other two took on the finishing, or what. However it came about, the art is lacking in nearly every respect. Much of the anatomy is crude—feet hidden whenever possible, muscles fantastically exaggerated, female figures with grotesquely long legs and thin waists. The renderings are littered with extra accent lines that accent nothing but the lack of detail in both the characters’ expressions, and the scenic elements. The composition includes pages where the volume of white space between panels bafflingly rivals that of the actual art. The writing doesn’t fare much better. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on without reading the previous two issues, other than the Fantastic Four come looking for Tony Stark, whom they think has been kidnapped by Iron Man. This doesn’t even lead to a cool fight, by the way. Hackneyed lines like “For the first time in years I felt that old excitement again. Like I was doing something with my life…” are offered as anchor character development and delivered, in this case, by a tiny head lost in the background of a panel where another character’s random fist is the primary point of focus. No need to go on, right?
Kurt Busiek + Sean Chen
In this, the “Heroes Reborn” era, Marvel came to its senses and brought their characters back to the 616, starting every book over again from #1. Kurt Busiek took on the task of “fixing” the Avengers, along with Iron Man. The pencils aren’t particularly extraordinary, but they’re much improved from the previous house style. The book is well composed with cohesively paced art and script. The issue is bookended by some great battle sequences between Iron Man and Dreadnaughts. In between those, Tony Stark spends time in a Swiss chalet unraveling a tale of corporate espionage. Not too shabby for a piece of diverting entertainment. In many ways the issue is a direct descendant of the Bronze Age, but with more developed art and story, and modern coloring and printing techniques.
Warren Ellis + Adi Granov
This issue (part 3 of 6 of the milestone Extremis storyline) represents a leap forward, landing squarely within the modern age of comics. The story is greatly decompressed and the art stands front and center. Granov is an A-list talent and the digitally painted renderings are at turns beautiful and grotesque, and employ a sparseness that nevertheless conveys a vivid sense of place. Granov puts real thought into the page composition—establishing a rigid 6 panel format, and then breaking it for emphasis at particular times. As with most contemporary story arcs, it’s “written for the trade” and the narrative is difficult to jump into without starting at the beginning. Suffice to say, Stark is told the secret behind the Extremis program, and encounters what I can only surmise is one its early test subjects, leading to a dynamic battle.
Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca
The storyline focuses on the son of Stark’s old enemy Obidiah Stane. Ezekiel Stane has enhanced himself with stolen Stark tech to give himself the power to exact revenge on Tony. The characters, plot and relationships are made to cohere closely to those of the 2008 Iron Man movie. Pepper Potts is Tony’s right hand, Stane is the primary antagonist, and stolen Stark tech used for evil is the driving plot. The arc-reactor is officially comic canon. SHEILD and international diplomacy play roles. In all, it’s a solid book with quality art and writing. If somebody had become interested in Iron Man from the movie and picked this up as their first foray into the comics, it would be a pretty seamless venture. The other side of the coin is that it makes for pretty predictable fare for anyone that’s been more than a casual comic reader to that point.
Kieron Gillen + Greg Land
This is Marvel NOW!, people: Marvel’s re-launch that wasn’t a reboot, to answer the retail success of DC’s New 52. Tony is in the midst of the familiar plot of hunting down and destroying stolen technology being used for nefarious purposes. The “cool factor” in the issue comes from Stark’s new modular armor which boasts a lot of cool features none of his many previous armors have had. Invisibility, holographic disguise…it is indeed a new kind of Iron Man, and it’s pretty cool. After doing battle with a newly Marvel NOW-ed trio of Living Laser, Vibro, and Firebrand, Iron Man finds that, in this instance, the man behind the of use of the stolen Extremis DNA is using it to try and cure his daughter’s cancer. Tony is able to save her in a bittersweet ending. I haven’t given Marvel NOW! much of a chance after what I felt was a lackluster Uncanny Avengers #1, but this book is solid. I may start picking this series up.