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Iron Fan

Longbox Graveyard #98

Editor’s Note: With Iron Man 3 in theaters this week I could think of no better time for a guest blog from my old pal Chris Ulm, who is a fine writer, a giant nerd, and the biggest Iron Man geek I know. Take it away, Ulm!

Iron Fan: A Think Piece About Brotherly Warfare, Armored Noses and Atomic Roller Skates

As I write this, we are exactly seven days away from Iron Man 3 hitting the big screen. Despite my inappropriate level of disappointment with the various trailers that have been released so far, I will be first in line. Why?

Because I really have no choice. See, the …

Invincible Iron Man!

… has haunted me since the fateful day that I saw issue #47 on the racks at the slightly disreputable Sweet Liquor store in Culver City, CA:

Iron Man #47

My father reluctantly bought the tattered and beat up issue (in those pre-comic book store days, all of the comics I bought were characterized by embedded dents and folds from being pressed into wire racks and fondled by filthy urchins such as yours truly). I was instantly enthralled.

Entitled “Why Must There Be An Iron Man,” this re-telling of Iron Man’s origin was written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Windsor Smith. The story absolutely captivated me and turned me into a comic book nut. Thomas did a masterful job of recapping Tony Stark’s ill-fated journey into Vietnam, his subsequent ambush and race against the clock to build a weapon of vengeance with the help of kindly Dr. Yinsen. As I breathlessly read the issue, the first nine years of continuity exploded into my brain. I learned about Iron Man’s friends, lovers and enemies. About the Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D., the rogues gallery — all the sturm und drang typical of Silver age Marvel under Stan Lee and Roy Thomas.

Why Must There Be An Iron Man?

The story was told with economy typical of Thomas’ work. It probably helped immensely that In 1972, Iron Man has only been around for nine years and the Marvel Universe was only a tad older. To put it in perspective, Hollywood brought Marvel’s Spider-Man to the screen ten years ago, and the comic book Marvel Universe is now over 50 years old. Back then, ol Shellhead’s back story felt both infinite and containable to my young mind.

Set as a series of flashbacks at a funeral, Barry’s art knocked me out. I loved the different incarnations of Iron Man and the sense of progress that was held within the strip. Much later, I would have the privilege of co-creating Rune with Barry during my long tenure as Malibu Comics Editor-In-Chief.

After consuming this issue, Iron Man instantly became my favorite character of all time. I knew it in my guts — but I couldn’t have told you why — at least not then.

Iron Man was born the same year I was — 1963. He debuted in Tales of Suspense #39 and was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby.

Tales of Suspense #39

Stan is reported to have wanted to create a businessman hero patterned after Howard Hughes (in Hughes’ glory days). Lee wanted to create a rich industrialist, a munitions maker, that would be exactly the kind of character that the readers would reject.

“… I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him,” Lee explained.

Which was actually very true. Tony Stark was pretty damn unlikeable but his creation was awesome. Iron Man was instantly more captivating to me than any of the other Marvel pantheon.

Iron Man!

I admired Captain America. A lot. As a young pre-teen, I found that green trash can lids made excellent Adamantium shields and my brother Eric made an equally excellent Red Skull — it was actually amazing how far trash can lids can be flung with enough determination. So Cap was great. And he was right in Tales Of Suspense next to Iron Man.

And Spider-Man was likeable and funny. Couldn’t get enough of Spidey.

But I didn’t want to BE Cap or Spidey. I liked to read about them. When I read Iron Man, I imagined myself in the role of Tony Stark. It actually helped that Tony was a cipher. Really, Tony was either Reed Richards with a welding helmet, Don Draper with a pimpy mustache or a whiny drunk in need of therapy. Sometimes he was all three in the same issue.

Tony, Tony, Tony ...

(In fact, my secret shame is that I didn’t like Tony Stark at all until Robert Downey Jr. so brilliantly gave him a personality injection in the first Iron Man movie.)

But I didn’t need to.

In the Silver Age, Cap was a Goody Good, Spidey was a Loser, Thor was a Shakespearean Stiff and Ant Man was … well … ANT MAN.

Tony Stark may have been a giant douche but Iron Man was AWESOME.

Unlike the vast majority of the Marvel Universe, Iron Man was not a radioactive accident or a product of faulty cosmic ray shielding. Nor was he created by the activation of a happenstance X-gene or being born to the right All Father. No, what I loved about Iron Man is that he is the only Silver Age Marvel character that created himself.

(I refuse to count Ant Man).

Ant Man doesn't count!

Iron Man changed all the time. Iron Man had the same advantage over the other heroes that Homo Sapiens had over the rest of the hominids. Now there were some misfires, most notably the nose:

on the nose!

But by a large, Iron Man bootstrapped his abilities by using his brain to build better tools. Repulser Rays? Check! Uni Beams? Check! Jet powered roller skates? Check and check again!

rocket skates!

See, if you want to be Batman, you have to take on a lot of emotional baggage. There is no Batman without the death of Bruce’s parents. There is no Batman without the ongoing evil of Gotham City to motivate him. Not true for Iron Man. Stark can be tinkering in the sunlight of Malibu in between assignations with strippers. Even Stark’s problems are all self-created. He’s a drunk. He treats women like dirt and can’t commit. He throws away his money and lets evil corporations buy him out. All his own fault.

I just knew I could have done so much better, given a big slice of genius and inexhaustible resources.

And in a sense, I have, with my very own Iron Man suit. My good friend, a gifted artist and partner in Appy Entertainment— Farzad Varahramyan — was all too aware of my Iron Man fetish and, after my twin daughters were born gifted me with his own interpretation of the Golden Avenger:

Farzad Varahramyan

Iron Man 3 opens on my birthday. I’ll be there.

Iron Man!

Thanks to Chris Ulm for this week’s blog!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #99 A Secret Wars Apologist

The Song of Red Sonja

The Song of Red Sonja

March brings a new Dollar Box column over at StashMyComics.com.

Conan The Barbarian #24, Barry Windsor-Smith

Yesterday I wrote about the not-so-great Red Sonja solo series from the 1970s, but this article is all about Sonja’s origins, in one of the finest single comic book issues of all time — Conan the Barbarian #24. It’s a classic tale from Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. Read all about it!

Thanks, as always, to StashMyComics.com for hosting The Dollar Box!

Red Sonja

Longbox Graveyard #90

It’s been awhile since I wrote about Conan here at Longbox Graveyard, but my Hyborian bona fides are well-established. I’ve lauded the original Barry Windsor-Smith run of Conan the Barbarian, mourned Hollywood’s many ham-handed attempts to bring the Cimmerian to the silver screen, and penned a love note to Belit, the “ultimate Marvel Comics girlfriend.” I even reviewed the Conan-inspired Fire & Ice movie here a couple weeks ago.

Conan material is starting to get thin on the ground at my secret comic book headquarters. I will review Savage Sword of Conan someday, and will take a crack at King Conan if that rumored Schwarzenegger Conan movie reboot ever gets off the ground. I’ll probably give the new Dark Horse version of Queen of the Black Coast a go someday, too. But in the meantime, I thought I’d satisfy my urges for Robert E. Howard nostalgia with a little Red Sonja. After all, she’s the She-Devil With A Sword! She has red hair! She wears a chainmail bikini! What could go wrong?

Almost everything, as it turns out.

Red Sonja #1, Frank Thorne

to the death! (or cancellation, whichever comes first)

Red Sonja was born in the pages of Conan the Barbarian #23, and won the hearts of all right-thinking Conan aficionados in the classic “Song of Red Sonja” from issue #24 (a story so good it made my Top Five Single-Issue Stories post, way back when, and is also the subject of my latest Dollar Box column over at StashMyComics.com). Working only from a name mentioned in passing in a non-Conan Robert E. Howard story, series scribe Roy Thomas introduced Sonja as a beautiful, fast-thinking foil to young Conan … a smart, daring, and calculating swordswoman who was pretty clearly out of Conan’s league.

Conan #24, Barry Windsor-Smith and Roy Thomas

Red Sonja was a vivid and instantly-memorable character, the kind that inspired fervent fan devotion … but also the kind that likely should not have received her own book, in that few of her qualities could easily be made to stand on their own. What makes Sonja likeable is the way she plays off of Conan — how she seems clever, determined, fearless, and one step ahead of our hero. Conan knows that Sonja will betray him — and so do we — but we go along with Sonja’s schemes because she’s the right kind of crazy. She promises riches and adventure, and maybe something else besides.

When Sonja tramples Conan aside and gallops out of town on a stolen horse, we can respect her as a fellow rogue — her betrayal was inevitable, and her “I-wish-there-was-another-way” besting of our hero both elicits our sympathy and affords us a laugh in a rare ending where Conan doesn’t get the girl. Implicit in this exchange is the promise these characters will meet again — and they would, both in Conan’s own mag and Savage Sword — but Sonja would never be quite so good as she was in that first tale, and the character that walked into her own book in Marvel Presents and Red Sonja would prove a distant echo of the Sonja we’d come to know and love.

Marvel Feature #4, Frank Thorne

the series sported a couple good covers, but you know what they say about judging a book …

There’s certainly much to work with here. The Conan books were among Marvel’s most popular of their era and it would seem a small thing to walk an adolescent audience over to a series promising all the monsters and mayhem of the Hyborian Age with a little cheesecake on top. But instead of embracing the core elements of what made Conan work, Red Sonja runs from them in an ill-advised attempt to distinguish the book on its own merits. It’s like the creators set out to solve the wrong problem. The task should have been extending Conan’s magic to a second title. Instead, Red Sonja strives so hard to stand on its own that it ends up rejecting almost everything that made Conan such a romp in the first place. You can change a thing or two, but altering too many tropes at the same time leads to a kind of cognitive dissonance bound to put curious Conan readers off of the book.

Red Sonja #3, Frank Thorne

like Conan, Red Sonja scores a disposable mate at the end of some stories … and it kind of works (sometimes) … but other Conan tropes are missing from this book

The problems begin with Frank Thorne’s art, which displays a high degree of style and illustrative ambition but was as far-removed from the look of Barry Windsor-Smith and John Buscema on Conan as you can imagine. Thorne’s Red Sonja is almost abstract in her purity — there isn’t a wrinkle or a frown line on her, and her face is an exaggeration of wide, dark eyes and full lips that amounts to an exotic but unconventional beauty. In this, Sonja is in contrast to almost everything else in Thorne’s world, where every creature seems monstrous — gnarled, tattooed, infected, and corrupt, faces out of some south sea cannibal nightmare.

Frank Thorne, Red Sonja

everyone but Sonja has a case of the uglies in Frank Thorne’s Hybroian Age (and I’m not always certain about Sonja, either)

Thorne’s costumes, arms, and accoutrements seem more out of a fairy tale or an Arabian Nights fantasy than Howard’s Hyborian Age, and Thorne’s architecture, though sometimes ambitious, fails to evoke the wonder of a world that Buscema more effectively rendered even with rough indifference (and that Windsor-Smith laid down with manic attention to detail).

Thorne could turn in a decent bit of visual storytelling now and then (particularly when a page wasn’t swarming with overwritten captions) …

Marvel Feature #5, Frank Thorne

… but Thorne’s action scenes were especially weak, with his characters contorted in awkward poses, lamely clashing swords with all the conviction of a sixth-grade stage play.

Red Sonja #5, Frank Thorne

Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age is a broad landscape of borrowed tribes and tropes, and there’s certainly room for Thorne’s take — but there isn’t room for Thorne’s take and the more familiar Marvel impression at the same time. More than just being about two different characters, these books appear to be set in entirely different worlds.

Part of this may be down to trying to do too much, too fast. Marvel launched a fist-full of female superhero books in the mid-1970s — Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, She Hulk, and Red Sonja all date from roughly the same age. Female superheroes are tricky to market and create and it is worth noting that none of those books would succeed. Launching just one successful female solo title would have been a challenge — launching four or more in a limited period of time seems a recipe for failure, especially given that Red Sonja’s creator, Roy Thomas, would be a remote presence in the book’s first several issues.

Marvel Feature #4, Frank Thorne

Frank Thorne would also suffer with monster design, but this gorgon was a strong effort

Marvel Presents #1 is a typically thrown-together 1970s Marvel book — a reprint of a Red Sonja story from Savage Sword of Conan, and a slight but not half-bad original eight-pager by Thomas and Dick Giordano. It’s like Marvel decided to publish a Red Sonja comic but didn’t bother to tell the creators! In Marvel Presents #2, the regular team is aboard — artist Frank Thorne and writer Bruce Jones, edited by Thomas. It takes Jones and Thorne a couple issues to find their footing — the first few stories are strewn with small, densely-written panels that afford Thorne’s art little room to breathe — but while Jones’ scripts were moody and atmospheric (and began to explore Sonja’s psychology in ways later writers would ignore), his tales were undone by distracting and over-clever plot twists and “shocking” reveals that served only to throw readers out of the story.

By issue #6 of Marvel Feature — and rolling into the run of Red Sonja’s self-titled book — Roy Thomas is aboard as co-scripter with Clair Noto, but even here the old Conan magic is lacking. Maybe Thomas was taking his hands off the reins, or maybe he still felt it essential that Sonja substantially distinguish herself from the tone and characterization we’d seen in her Conan appearances he’d penned, but this Sonja is all over the place, cavorting with unicorns and entering herself in beast man Olympics because … well, I’m not sure why, frankly.

Red Sonja #1, Frank Thorne

an artful page, but we’re not in Hyboria any more

Aside from a sense of justice stemming from her own oppressive origins that leads Sonja to quickly take up the cause of the underdog, I’m not sure who Sonja really is, or why she does what she does — and that bold red-headed wench who one-upped Conan and lived to tell the tale is long gone from these stories.

As a line extension of the Conan series starring a spin-off character from a book I loved, Red Sonja pretty much fails on all counts. Probably the best way to approach these issues is to set aside all previous conceptions — about Red Sonja, about the way the Hyborian Age looks and feels, about the kinds of stories told in Conan — and evaluate the series on its own merits. But when stripped of all that makes the Conan franchise special, these Red Sonja stories are generic fantasy stories that fail to deliver. Red Sonja was just different for its own sake, not better in any way, and offering few advantages for all the pains it took to distinguish itself from its parent book. The attempt to make Sonja stand on her own in terms of psychology and tone may have seemed imperative at the time but it ultimately did both readers and the book a disservice. We would have been better off with more of the same, all the usual Conan cliches and situations, made to seem slightly different by having Red Sonja at the center of the story, but still clearly a part of the swaggering, fast-paced sword and sorcery stories that worked so well in Conan the Barbarian.

Red Sonja #6, Frank Thorne

the best single issue in this run — Red Sonja #6, with a script from ElfQuest co-creator Wendi Pini — embraced the old Conan tropes and was better for it

I wish I could say that this book was ahead of its time, and that its fearless experimentation and bold new look made it a pleasure to rediscover after all these years, but sadly this is not the case. Re-reading these books was a hard slog, like cranking an engine that stubbornly won’t turn over. In it’s favor, I better enjoyed what Frank Thorne was trying to do than when I first read these books in the 70s, and was pleased to find the stories were less exploitative than I remembered. Yes, this is a barbarian girl in chainmail, but Thorne draws the character with dignity and avoids the “broke-back” contortions common to female characters in contemporary superhero books, where every page seems a pin-up built out backwards from the heroine’s ass and boobs. And every once in awhile there is a page that almost works.

Almost.

Marvel Feature #6, Frank Thorne

As noted above, it is hard to determine how much of a hand Roy Thomas had in plotting and scripting these books, but these stories are considerably less confident and sure-footed than his Conan work. It may not always have been wise to recycle some non-Conan Robert E. Howard tale into an adventure of Conan the Barbarian (as Thomas would do time and again), but doing so at least ensured that those issues would conform to Howard’s story beats and themes, rather than the fairy tale flights of fancy that too-often are at the heart of Red Sonja.

It is a testament to the strength of the brand (and Conan’s popularity) that the book lasted as long as it did, running seven issues in Marvel Presents and fifteen more as Red Sonja before its inevitable cancellation in 1979. Marvel and the audience certainly gave this book its shot — this isn’t the case of a boldly experimental book being cut down in its prime, like Don McGregor and P. Craig Russell’s Killraven. Everyone understood exactly what this book was trying to do — and no one wanted this particular flavor of barbarian fantasy. Red Sonja is a rich concept, though, and the character would go on to star in a series of successful books from Dynamite Entertainment, with no less a luminary than fan-favorite writer Gail Simone scheduled to pen Sonja’s adventures in a new series starting in July 2013.

But by not delivering on even the basics of its genre, Marvel’s Red Sonja disappoints on almost every level. I am stopping short of giving the book a failing grade. I’ve reserved that mark for Marvel’s John Carter book, which squandered far richer source material. But Red Sonja is the very definition of a “D,” and I’m not talking about Sonja’s cup size!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #91 By Any Other Name: Sub-Mariner!

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