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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Iron Man Legacy 6: A Great Hidden Chapter of Tony's Lost Weekend

Today saw the release of Iron Man Legacy #6, by Fred Van Lente ( writer ) and Steve Kurth ( artist ). Though the series takes place throughout Iron Man history, the inaugural arc was set in a fairly generic status quo period ( what seemed to be post-Secretary of Defense, pre-Extremis ), so I wasn't compelled to read it beyond the first issue. But the second arc, " Industrial Revolution ", takes place in a more obscure part of Iron Man history-- Tony Stark's first trip to the West Coast.

Iron Man veterans will remember that after he lost everything in an extended alcoholic binge, Tony sought to rebuild his life on the other side of the country. With the substitute Iron Man Jim Rhodes and the brainy Erwin twins, Tony went to Los Angeles and started a technology firm. At the time, he had just decided to stop drinking and didn't want the pressure of being in the armor, instead helping Rhodey learn and maintain the suit ( much to Rhodey's chagrin ). Those were good stories, with exceptional writing by Denny O'Neil and utterly stunning artwork by Luke McDonnel. Unfortunately, O'Neil was not an Iron Man fan, and as great as his stories were, it was rather clear that he didn't care for Tony Stark ( probably because Tony was a decadent ex-arms dealer, while O'Neil was the guy who had Green Lantern and Green Arrow take a cross-country trip to find the real America ).

Then again, that was over two decades ago. Iron Man has developed as a character by exponential leaps and bounds since those days, and Van Lente takes the more recent history into account. For one, we finally get an explanation why Tony's friends in the superhero community didn't offer him help when he was sleeping on the streets; he would have refused charity even after he sobered up, given his pride. For another, Tony is still carrying an Iron Man armor around, albeit an old one he can't afford to keep in top shape, and that he only snuck past Obadiah Stane because he disguised it as a bag of his father's golf clubs. Finally, Tony's time in LA is noticed by the Pride, the West Coast superhuman crime syndicate that served as the parents/villains in the Runaways comic.

That is quite a bit of retroactive surgery, especially having Tony lug around an armor of his own ( I suppose to keep in line with more recent portrayals of the character, where Tony thinks of the suit not as Iron Man the superheroic dual identity, but THE Iron Man, a tool he uses towards his larger goals ). But it's a really promising start to the arc. While the old stories had Tony take more of a zen humility towards his recovery, Van Lente's version reminds us that this is still very much the cocky bastard we know and love. Tony makes a lot of self-effacing comments as he wanders Wilshire Boulevard, like how Oprah owes him a big confessional scene on her show, or how he now understands Spider-Man's difficulty affording web fluid ( and will reverse engineer a more efficient brand once he regains his wealth ). These definitely have a bitter edge, keeping with Tony's larger character; this is the point where Tony has lost everything due to his own damn fault, basically having given all his resources over to a madman while he was enjoying the luxury of a drunken stupor. ( A nice flashback scene is shown where Obadiah Stane is gloating over the recently deposed Tony, about how he won't last a day without his wealth; another nice continuity nod, since Obadiah was poor as a child, and became a cold-blooded mastermind in order to get an advantage over the world that gave him such a lousy start ).

Tony's best stories are lessons in humility for him, be it the original Stane Saga, Matt Fraction's run, or his neural degeneration under Byrne/Kaminski. I like that Van Lente is revisiting this chapter of Tony's history, and having Tony confront just how far he's fallen when he's hanging out on the street with a paranoid schizophrenic, and realizes that not so long ago, he, too, was a deranged street person. Very few challenging stories have been told with franchise superheroes that don't get retconned away somehow, but Tony's descent into alcoholism is one of them. Even though he regained all his wealth, he still endured the trauma and shame of that class plummet. It's good that we get a reminder of just how far he fell.

Also, I want to give equal commendation to artist Steve Kurth, who did the previous Legacy arc as well as the Ultimate Armor Wars series. Not only is that timeliness impressive in an era where many artists need a break after a single arc, but the art is beautiful. The rendering of the Proto-Classic armor ( the one with the horned mask ) is especially impressive, as well as the awkwardness of Tony having to get around on his armor's roller skates once his boots run out of jet fuel.


  1. It seems like an interesting idea, although it does, like you say, depend on some ret-cons. For instance, we see Tony living on the streets in L.A. lugging around his bag of golf clubs. The Illuminati also mentioned that Tony had been spotted living on the street in L.A. But in the O'Neil run, Tony didn't come to L.A. until after he decided to get sober and hooked up with Rhodey and the Erwins, and he wouldn't have been living on the street.

    Guess we will have to wait and see.

  2. Possible No-Prize is that even with the Erwins and Rhodey helping him get back on his feet, Tony needed quite a bit of time on his own ( which we didn't see as much at the time, because he was co-protagonist with Rhodey ). Being persona non grata for many months doesn't make one especially sociable.

  3. Wasn't Stane the one who originally started screwing with Tony's life and pushed him into a downwards spiral? I never read the actual issues, but some of the profiles I've read of Stane described how he surrepitously interfered with Tony's company and operations as Iron Man, which was what actually got Tony so stressed out that he started drinking heavily to cope with the difficulty?

    Sure, Tony deserves some of the criticism for letting his life fall apart, but unless I'm misreading the situation Stane is far and away the more responsible here, since he's the one who actually did all the illegal crap in the first place, which is what made Tony's Roaring Rampage of Revenge when he finally got his act together such a Crowning Moment of Awesome.

    Finally, it's worth noting how Stane also got involved in the supervillain business, at least on a small scale. His company produced the Savage Steel armor based on Tony's stolen technology, with the crooked cops who bought the suit using it to fight Darkhawk. Stark dealt with Savage Steel when he guest-starred in one of the Darkhawk annuals, cleaning up the leftovers of the Armor Wars.

  4. Jared,

    Obadiah certainly deserves blame for his actions-- he's one of the worst Complete Monsters in Iron Man's rogue's gallery. His methods involved psychologically torturing his opponents until they simply broke, and that's what he did to Tony-- attacked his business, his hero identity, his friends, and even his heart. He froze Tony's personal assets simply as an act of spite, to kick the man when he was already down.

    However, Tony's culpability in the existence of Stane International cannot be ignored. Whatever weaknesses he had, Tony was the CEO of one of the world's largest and most advanced technology firms, responsible for thousands of constituents. He didn't have the moral luxury to abandon them, no matter how miserable his own life had become. But that's what Tony did after Stane broke him-- he dumped the Iron Man armor on Rhodey, then simply disappeared, leaving everyone else to carry on as he drank himself to death.

    The exact timetable of O'Neil's story makes Tony look really bad. He knows Stane is trying to take over his company when he starts drinking, but at that point he's in too much of a stupor to really do anything about it. He gives Rhodey the armor under the excuse that he just " needs a break ", without allowing Rhodey to voice his opinions. And when he's needed to sign a writ that will delay Stane's takeover a week, he actively avoids the help of Captain America and Rhodey, giving them the slip so he can go get some more liquor.

    I think O'Neil had an inherent dislike for what Tony Stark represented, evidenced by how Vic Martinelli ( Tony's then-security chief ) stayed with Stane, and later chewed Tony out for using his wealth to enable his self-destructive and irresponsible habits.