Updated: Feb 23
By David Michelinie, Bob Layton, and Mark Bright, collecting Iron Man #215-232 and Annual #9, 1987-1988
One of the best things Marvel publishes today is its Epic Collection line: fat books collecting large chunks of Marvel history in sequential order. I started out buying collections of series I loved as a kid, but over the past few years, I've been rewarded by taking a chance on runs that passed me by when they were first on the shelf.
As a kid, I really wanted to love Iron Man. In fact, the first back issues I ever bought in a comic shop were Iron Man #131 and 132. His design and concept were awesome… but actually reading the comics was kind of bland. The biggest problem I had was Tony Stark himself: his hair and his mustache. In the '80s, it felt like the '70s. So while I tried to get into his book at multiple points, I can’t say I was ever an Iron Man reader for more than a few months at a time.
I write all that to admit I’m not a connoisseur of the character, though regular Marvel reading gave me a fairly good understanding of Shell-head, as he used to be referred to.
The "Stark Wars" run in this volume was headed by David Michelinie and Bob Layton, and was intended to build some hype for the character. The two were doing the book years earlier for Iron Man’s one iconic storyline, "Demon in a Bottle", though I think it’s more of an iconic cover and character development than an iconic story in and of itself. The book was then headed by Denny O’Neil for a few years, where Rhodey became Iron Man, and the two returned here for a few more years on the book.
The status quo of the book as it opens is that Tony has lost his company and is going to rebuild a new one, Stark Enterprises, from the ground up. He’s still filthy rich, but he’s also precariously rich, as he’s using his money to start a new corporation. Any snags could see him lose it all. At the time, both he and Rhodey had been wearing the Iron Man suits, and the first issues of this collection see Rhodey suffering suit-related trauma to keep him out of them for the rest of it. Looking at it now, it’s a crappy thing to do to the character, but I can understand Michelinie and Layton wanting to strip the series back down to basics, and it’s common for new writers to wipe the slate clean when they take over existing series, especially if they were returning to a series.
Though it promises the "Stark Wars" on the cover, that storyline starts in issue 225, so the ten issues before that are just Iron Man issues. It’s easiest to discuss the book in two parts: those issues, and the "Stark Wars" storyline.
And the opening is solid. As with all Jim Shooter-era Marvel books, an effort is made in every issue to clue you in to who each character is. Sometimes it’s in text or dialogue descriptions, but more elegantly, it’s done by using character interaction. Tony, who claims to be in a tight situation with money, wastes money constantly, whether it’s on a speedboat that he buys with cash, or in renting out Disneyland to convince a pretty woman to join his company at double her current salary. As much as Tony is given a conscience in the series, his poor impulse control is repeatedly established as a hallmark of the character.
But Tony’s character is usually established through actions and interactions, and it’s a pleasure to read.
The creative team is stable throughout the year and a half collected here, and it gives the series a consistency that, frankly, makes me nostalgic. There are things about contemporary comics which are great, but the fact that most books can’t sustain a team for over six issues isn’t one. Here, the team is so into the progression from month to month, that something as minor as a hairstyle change is written into the book, and is then carried on from that month forward. Now, in '80s fashion, it’s a terrible hairstyle, but I appreciate the effort.
The art is by Mark Bright and Bob Layton, with Bright usually doing breakdowns as opposed to pencils, and the finishes being done by co-plotter Bob Layton. Bright tells stories competently, though his storytelling might be a little bland. It’s definitely Marvel’s house style of the '80s. Layton adds a lot with his finishes though. He is an interesting artist, in that he never was a superstar, but he certainly had tight skills. He reminds me of a less fluid John Byrne. His specialty was always the technology. Marvel art lived in the shadow of Kirby’s sci-fi tech for decades, and Layton was able to create his own take on tech. His refined line work gives all the armor in the book a sleekness that still holds up today. The people and the backgrounds sometimes look a little clunky, but the armor is the star of the book.
One of the coolest things they did in the series was create specialty armor for Iron Man, and this book features deep sea armor and stealth armor, in addition to his memorable Silver Centurion gear.
As the stories are divided between Michelinie and Layton, it’s hard to say where credit and blame for any of the stories should be placed. I enjoyed most of the stories here. A number of them have espionage and spy themes, including a multi-issue arc that introduces the villain the Ghost. They’re all decent. But these stories are buried in a layer of cheese. I still enjoyed it, but it had me liking it with some ironic distance. It’s easy just to blame it on the 1980s, but not everyone was into terrible clothes and fashion. There was some really cool stuff going on, and none of it was in this book. Marvel writers in the '70s could be hip, but by 1986, that ship had sailed.
I found it charming how romance is portrayed. There’s relentless flirting, and very PG-rated intimations of sex, but it is one of those books where a ten year old would read it and just think Iron Man is talking to girls, while an adult can read the cues that Tony was getting it on. And I do mean, getting it on. This is not a mature concept of relationships.
My tone is shifting between praise and mockery here, but I do find this very pleasant: a comic with sex that a child could safely read. It wouldn’t be long before Marvel started really sexing up their books for the '90s, before completely abandoning the Comics Code and slapping “Teen +” on their books, and arriving in the 2020s where the X-Men are pretty explicitly polyamorous. There’s a sweet spot in the 1980s for me where mature themes were able to be embedded in supposed kids entertainment. Comics today tend to be either toothless kiddie fare or explicit grownup fare. The '80s era of mainstream books was when it was still technically for kids, but writers tried to push the envelope as much as they could.
Michelinie and Layton put other ‘adult’ matter in that doesn’t work as well. Throughout the book, there are these celebrity references, and I’m sure that’s Michelinie inserting them, because he did the same thing in ASM from time to time. Don Johnson, Michael J. Fox, Norm from Cheers, and the Griswolds from Vacation all appear, among others. It’s weird: sometimes in Marvel history, I’ve absolutely loved the use of real figures, like Roy Thomas’s use of Tom Wolfe in Incredible Hulk and Doctor Strange. Here, it’s done a number of times, to the point that it doesn’t feel hip. Rather, I got the vibe that the writer would rather be working in Hollywood. It doesn’t break the book, but it’s awkward the fifth or sixth time it happens.
That aside, I found these issues to be fairly breezy to get through, and one of the main reasons was that Iron Man looked so damn cool. The movies got that right about him, they made him the superhero equivalent of a sports car, and this run, with Layton’s impeccable inking, makes Iron Man look awesome. It’s a real shame the silver armor only lasted 30 issues. The colors, the '80s shoulder pads, and the perpetual shine of the armor makes it a pleasure to look at.
And then you arrive at STARK WARS.
The set-up for this run was so simple, and gave the book a powerful mission for the next eight months or so. Iron Man learns that Justin Hammer has stolen his suit designs and auctioned them off on the black market. Tony is anguished that his designs may have killed more people than Iron Man has ever saved, and he vows to dismantle each and every armored villain (and hero!) that might use his designs.
Iron Man reckons with his legacy, and intends to break rules to fix what went wrong. He cuts off contact with the West Coast Avengers. Tony “fires” Iron Man from Stark Enterprises. Iron Man has officially gone rogue.
There’s an old expression about how to wow an audience: Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said. This book does the comic version of exactly that: it sets a mission plan, proceeds with the mission, then goes through what just happened. It’s not a deep piece of writing, by any means, but it is a rip-roaring way to build a monthly comic.
To start, Iron Man goes after famous armored villains like Stilt Man and The Controller, but is very soon forced to confront the neutral and the good.
At first, I thought some of it was a little goofy, especially his insistence on not filling in his teammates on his plan. There really is no reason the West Coast Avengers wouldn’t support him, but as the story goes along, the rational makes some sense: Iron Man is going up against SHIELD and later the Soviet government, and he has fear that blowback from his actions might affect his team. He wants them to plausibly be able to say they have no idea what’s going on without being forced to lie.
And so it goes, Iron Man takes down a number of armored characters. He’s given a contraption to stick on the armored character, and if the armor is his design, it will fry the circuitry.
Pretty much all the bad guys he encounters are using the Hammer black market designs, but when he goes up against honorary Avenger, Stingray, he learns that Stingray is using an original design. Unfortunately, he’s already attacked an ally, adding to doubts about him.
He compounds this by going against the Mandroids and Guardsmen, designs of his licensed to the federal government, the latter of which puts him in conflict with Steve Rogers.
Some of this could have been handled better through frank discussion, as most comic fights could, but compared to the logic in, for example, Civil War I or II, this story is airtight.
By the time he goes to the USSR to take on the Crimson Dynamo and the Titanium Man, Iron Man has burned nearly every bridge available to him. It’s good stuff, and you get to see him modeling his long-distance stealth armor.
As he has neutralized the government’s armored forces, he leaves an opening for a less scrupulous arms dealer to sweep in and offer a far crazier prototype than Stark Enterprises would ever dare. The climax of the story has Iron Man “dying” at the hands of the beast and a new Iron Man, a supposedly different person, returning in all new gold and red armor.
This new armor is so sleek and futuristic, to this day it is what I think of as Iron Man’s new armor. I’m in the middle of reading Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run right now, and Iron Man’s in it, but I couldn’t tell you what his armor looks like outside of the colors. And if you put the last 20 years of his armors in order, I couldn’t tell you what comes before or after. But if you put his original yellow suit next to the first red and yellow set, then the silver and red, and finally this fourth one, you can see a progression. What’s better is they all have iconic shapes and lines.
This isn’t to call out the modern stuff as bad, but rather to point out it isn’t good in this way. This stuff looks good in a way you just don't see anymore.
The collection is capped with a Barry Windsor-Smith issue, which is Windsor-Smith trying to do for Iron Man what he did in his occasional X-Men fill-in issues; that is, art the thing up. His issue is good, but it doesn’t fit the series as well as it did in X-Men. X-Men of that era was extremely weighty melodrama, so the Windsor-Smith stuff just amplified that atmosphere. With Iron Man, it’s always a little goofy, so it’s just harder to appreciate it when it goes to this highly dramatic place.
At the very least, it’s a chance for Windsor-Smith to showcase his highly-detailed art and unique color choices.
Stark Wars doesn't exactly work as an overarching story, it's more of a checklist for a series of bad-guy-of-the-month stories. But those smaller stories all work on their own, and give Iron Man a real motive to look for trouble. It's a big win.
I read a lot of these Epic Collections, and this was one of the smoother ones. There’s something about the quality that the Marvel system was producing at that point. It was rarely producing great art, but it was producing well-done work, work that reads easily. Reading it now, over 30 years after it was published, it’s a time capsule into a creative framework that’s all but dead.
Ian McMurray is a Canadian, now settled and working as an educator in Sapporo, Japan. Starting with Uncanny X-Men #200 in 1985, an unreasonable percentage of his income has gone toward purchasing the sequential arts. He is a lifelong comics proselytizer, yet is genre agnostic, and makes comics under the name Ian M.