The fact that both the Iron Man character and the Avengers team has reached their 50th anniversary since creation hasn’t received a lot of attention in the press, and this could be because the immense success of the IRON MAN and AVENGERS films means that the powers that be don’t particularly want the public to be reminded of the age of these characters. As Danny Fingeroth said, introducing the Comic Book Round Table event celebrating this milestone, Iron Man and the Avengers have created a “tremendous legacy” but are also now “really old”. But the trick is, of course, to celebrate the hero and the team not only for their longevity but also for their dynamic ongoing appeal. In many ways, both Iron Man and the Avengers are bigger than they have ever been.
The reflection on this legacy was hosted by former Marvel editor and author Danny Fingeroth (who has also written IRON MAN and AVENGERS comics), and he was joined by distinguished guests Denny O’Neil (IRON MAN writer, BATMAN writer and editor), Marie Javins (former Marvel editor and colorist as well as author of the recently released IRON MAN: EXTREMIS prose novel based on the Warren Ellis/Adi Granov miniseries), Stuart Moore (former IRON MAN writer and co-writer with Javins of the recently released ART OF IRON MAN 3), and Keith DeCandido (editor of Iron Man prose novels). Author of INVINCIBLE IRON MAN for its run of 60 issues, Matt Fraction, also took part in the discussion via video link from his home in Oregon at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art on May 1st.
O’Neil, he explained, worked on IRON MAN for three years at Marvel under Mark Gruenwald and teased out the previous brief handling of a “drinking problem” for Tony Stark because he felt the need to tell people that “it ain’t that easy” getting over addiction. O’Neil proceeded to “make the poor bastard a lush for almost two years” because he felt that Tony Stark’s story was really one of “redemption” and needed to continue to be. Little to his knowledge, O’Neil was being protected by his editor Gruenwald from extreme criticism from above, “who absolutely fucking hated what I was doing”, O’Neil said. In honor of Gruenwald’s championing of the addiction storyline, O’Neil dedicated his participation in the panel to his former editor.
When O’Neil first approached Tony Stark as a project, though, he faced several of the challenges that other panellists later agreed upon. “My problem with Tony Stark…”, he said, “I hated the bastard”. He was all of the things that O’Neil found reprehensible, an “arms dealer”, “conspicuous consumer”, “womanizer”, and “everything”, he said, “I think is rotten with this country”. Worst of all, Stark was a “technofile”, which O’Neil has never been. But if there is a super hero who is an alcoholic, O’Neil concluded, “You could not do much better than Tony Stark”. This angle helped him write about Stark, and led him “deeper into some things than comics usually do”, resulting in masses of praising letters from readers. O’Neil also compared working on IRON MAN to his work on BATMAN by pointing out that, for him, Iron Man is not “fully formed” as a character within his own origin story, unlike Batman, which enables him to change over time more flexibly.
Stuart Moore agreed, commenting that the “hippies” working on IRON MAN after Stan Lee had Stark “renounce weapons, and later alcoholism”, but that things have come back around for all those “parts” of Tony Stark. Now creators “assemble those parts”, as in Jon Favreau’s films, seeing that Stark is more fully fleshed as “multilayered” hero. His features, Moore said, “accrued over time, add up to something”. DeCandido and Javins added that those handling Iron Man’s characterization now have 50 years of material to “mine from” and that it’s a powerful “resource” to have a “50 year library”.
Since the Extremis technology introduced by Warren Ellis to the Iron Man mythology seems to have connections to the IRON MAN 3 film (released in the USA May 3rd), Javins was called upon to explain exactly what Extremis is. She described it as technology that can “rewrite the brain’s healing center”, and creates an important dynamic for Stark wherein he doesn’t “have to be connected to armor, but is part of it”. She was careful not to give anything detailed away about the new film, though, since she and Moore had seen the script while working on THE ART OF IRON MAN 3. She reminded the audience that Ellis, though “tasked” with bringing Iron Man into the 21st century through a more fluid suit of armor and relationship with technology, was later reigned back in as Stark gives up the Extremis suit in the comics, perhaps because it wandered “too far from what he is inherently”, making him too much of a cyborg. Javins also commented that “It’s always a problem when heroes become too powerful”, and the Extremis suit may have made Stark a little too god-like.
Fingeroth asked the panellists whether they thought that IRON MAN stories “glorify or act as a cautionary tale regarding technology”. DeCandido felt that they are “both” in function. Stark, he said, who’s not only at the top of his field, with plenty of feminine attention, can be given too much power until it becomes “like a drug” for him. Javins disagreed. She doesn’t believe that Iron Man stories are a cautionary tale. She thinks we are supposed to love the technology and be attracted to the “cool” factor, and that Stark is like “Steve Jobs if powered up”. This causes problems, of course, when technology is represented in the comics, novels, or films, that then becomes dated for the reader, from the “flip phones” he uses in more recent, but already outmoded, comics to the Stark Phone that is now a normal smart-phone reality.
Fingeroth asked O’Neil to comment on the similarities and differences he sees between Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, both rich kids with technology on their side. O’Neil described them as “two different kinds of rich guys”, but returned to the idea that Tony Stark has a unique ability to evolve as a character for readers. O’Neil related that he had actually been given an opportunity to rewrite Iron Man’s origins during a period of upheaval at Marvel, but looking through back issues decided, “No, this is perfect. This ain’t broke”. Batman, however, has a deep seated problem, according to O’Neil, based on his inability to change to the point of “forcing himself not to grow”. O’Neil brought in some personal observations from his own experiences, hinting that he had struggled with alcoholism, and commenting that addiction meetings themselves can become a form of addiction, but they are a less harmful one than the damaging behavior, so are a preferable trade-off. Whereas Batman’s obsession is one that he can’t trade-off, and holds on to. Batman has only a few choices ahead of him, O’Neil speculated, after he gets too old for his eternal mid-30’s career as a crime fighter. In O’Neil’s “private inter-skull biography” of Batman, he will either die falling from a rooftop because he’s gotten past his prime, or he will give up the job, disappear, seek out Talia and “sire beautiful, intelligent children”, using his money to benefit society. His ego, O’Neil said, may make his story a “tragedy”, though.
Moore picked up this line of discussion by observing that Stark’s ability to “move on” is one of his defining features, but his real issue is that he has so much to “atone for”, including all the kids harmed by Stark landmines, something that “crystallizes” in the first IRON MAN movie. When Moore wrote the series IRON MAN: Director of Shield, in which Tony Stark takes over for the missing Nick Fury, and his identity is “public”, he noted that Stark is “constantly in motion” and he still thinks of Stark that way. Fingeroth prompted Moore to talk about his work on the CIVIL WAR novelization. Moore explained that in CIVIL WAR, Stark becomes the “voice of the government” in urging superheroes to register their identities due to his realization that “super heroes are dangerous”. Initially, Moore felt affinities for Captain America’s position resisting the registration, but over time felt compelled by Stark’s character, “thoughtful”, full of “doubts and questions” that readers should pick up on and identify with.
Matt Fraction then joined the panel via video link and answered a series of questions from Fingeroth about his own take on Tony Stark and his motivations, as reported by the Beat in an earlier news item here. Fraction joked that he needed a job at the time, but was also full of “empathy” for the character, bordering on “fascination”, and also worked with a partner, Salvador Larocca, who was “as reliable as Amtrak” getting his work in. Fraction said that in working on INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, he had a “target” in his head and that they “lost and gained pieces along the way”, but agreed that the job was a “dream project” since he’d been reading O’Neil’s work on IRON MAN since childhood and wanted to “follow in some of his psychic footsteps” as well as his “more concrete footsteps” when it came to recrafting Stark.
When Fingeroth asked him about how he viewed Stark’s “ailments”, Fraction readily explained, “I’m an alcoholic and addict in recovery and that gave me insight into the character right away”. He described writing the series as “my own history”, and also commented on an eerie phenomenon he witnessed in which aspects of the INVINCIBLE IRON MAN storyline, once written, then seemed to come true in the real world. These “horrible things” included “kids with backpacks blowing up cities”. He added a dash of humor by reflecting that his “google searches” for the series probably got him on “so many watchlists”. Since several of the panellists had explained that they didn’t initially like Tony Stark as a person, Fingeroth asked Fraction if he’d felt the same way. Fraction’s response was the opposite. When he asked himself, “Where’s my doorway in” to the character, he “found out that the entirety of the place was decorated to my taste”. He took great pride in presenting a character that many people didn’t like and finding ways to make them love him as a challenge and a “goal”.
Fingeroth asked Fraction if he thought that Robert Downey Jr.’s casting helped Fraction warm to the character. “Profoundly so”, he said, to the point that when he heard about the casting through reading Variety, and saw that the actor chosen was not “Slab Rock-Chest”, he knew it would be a good movie. “I can’t express how its changed my life”, Fraction said, regarding working on INVINCIBLE IRON MAN and consulting on the second film. Favreau, he explained, had “copiously annotated” editions of Fraction’s comics and scripts at hand working on the movie, and it was very validating for him to see that. Fraction predicted that IRON MAN 3 is “going to be a monster. It’s going to be AVENGERS big—crazy!” before citing his upcoming work as FANTASTIC FOUR, FF, and HAWKEYE. HAWKEYE got big applause from the audience and Fraction clowned around, commenting, “Thanks, Mom! I didn’t know you were there”, since he was surprised people felt strongly about the book. With a super villain-style farewell, he signed off for the evening.
The Q and A period which followed was almost as in depth as the previous panel discussion, and wide-ranging, breaking into inter-panellist discussions along the way. Topics included the role and evolution of Rhodey as a character, Pepper Potts ascending to a nearly-hero role as Rescue in the Fraction comics, and possibly in the film, and the comics-setting of IRON MAN stories in New York, which the films have broken away from. Using New York as a setting, panellists agreed, was largely a matter of practicality for artists, many of whom have traditionally been New York-based. The films, Javins explained, intentionally wanted a bigger geographical spread, with several Stark headquarters, leading to the Malibu mansion. Moore noted that the upcoming film, which he had prior knowledge of, was doing something right in not attempting to outdo THE AVENGERS in scale and action, a move that would have been fool-hardy, but taking the third IRON MAN film back down to the focus on Stark’s life and motivations, keeping close to the character.
Both Moore and Javins felt that Robert Downey’s Jr.’s impact on the success of the IRON MAN films cannot be emphasized enough. Javins, after seeing IRON MAN the first time became dissuaded from her dislike of the character because of the humor involved. O’Neil felt that Downey Jr. got the “cockiness” right, something that was subtly present in the earlier comics. The panellists weighed in on whether they thought there was something inherently unrealistic about a character who has technology on a vast scale and yet doesn’t manage to drastically change the society he inhabits. Fingeroth commented that it’s a similar question to “Why didn’t Superman end World War II?”. O’Neil reminded the audience that IRON MAN is a “heroic fantasy”. “We are doing magic realism”, he said, posing the assumption, “It’s possible that…” and if readers or viewers can’t accept that suspension of disbelief, then they can read or view other types of stories.
Getting a bunch of people so versed in IRON MAN and AVENGERS history into one room for a couple of hours, especially those with writing and editorial insights, was a pretty remarkable thing, and those moments in which the panellists seemed to be creating a kind of organic oral history of Iron Man as a character were particularly illuminating. It suggested that they, too, had certainly bought into the “magic realism” of the character, and felt as connected to him as they might to a living human being. Maybe even more so, since they’d helped to craft and influence his personality over time through their own insights. They had all become fans of Iron Man in different ways, but the result was the same: a very personal relationship with one of the most flawed and fascinating characters in the Marvel universe. On the eve of the premier of IRON MAN 3, establishing just what has kept Stark alive as a character for so long, his ability to adapt and change, and his drive for personal redemption, couldn’t have been more relevant. Hearing these pros relate many of the same questions and responses that readers and fans of the movies generate only confirmed how universal Iron Man has become, partly due to their own work making him as human and as complicated as possible over the years.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.