Alternate Cover: the best and worst Iron Man stories

In preparation for the forthcoming Iron Man movie, James runs down the Iron Man comics you should seek out - and the ones you should avoid at all costs

You’ve seen the trailer, you’ve played the abominable game demo, and all things being right you’ve read the press conference report right here on Den of Geek. That’s right! It’s Iron Man Week! Marvel’s first self-financed movie is about to hit cinemas, and it looks like it’ll be their best comic-to-screen translation since Spider-Man. In honour of yet another character making the leap from the small page to the big screen, I’m going to give you a rundown of what I’d call the top five, must-read Iron Man stories.

5. DoomquestOriginally appearing in Iron Man v1 #149-150, Doomquest tells the story of a time-lost Iron Man and Dr. Doom arriving in the mythical Camelot and finding themselves on opposing sides of King Arthur’s fight with the evil sorceress, Morgan le Fay. Stark, a man of science, finds himself fighting against the odds in an era of mysticism that Doom, himself a dabbler in the black arts, can thrive in. Nevertheless, taking these two armoured characters and placing them alongside the similarly-clad Knights of Camelot highlights the origins of their archetype.

The story ends when an uneasy truce between the two allows them to find a way back to the present, but it sets up a lasting rivalry that shows how Doom, far from being the Fantastic Four’s number one antagonist, might just be Iron Man’s ideal opposite number. Doomquest was sequelised in Iron Man v1 #249 and #250 (which are also collected in the recent Iron Man: Doomquest hardcover) and again in the currently-on-shelves miniseries, Iron Man: Legacy of Doom.

4. ExtremisLately, Tony Stark is referred to as a “futurist” rather than a simple inventor he was back in the day. So, when Marvel wanted someone to find a new spin on their most prominent futurist, who should they call but comics’ most prominent future-technology fetishist, Warren Ellis. Ellis depicts Stark as something like Bill Gates if he were more of a ladies’ man, and sold weapons rather than Windows. Partnered with the superb Adi Granov, whose armour design from this series was undoubtedly the main influence for the movie, Ellis helped re-launch Iron Man’s title before departing, but not before he’d redefined the character substantially…

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Extremis sees a mortally-wounded Tony Stark turning to the Extremis “virus” to save his life – not the first time Stark has turned to technology for that purpose, of course. The Extremis virus essentially turns Stark into a cybernetic human, who can store the Iron Man armour inside his own body and control it directly with his thoughts. It’s doubtful such a radical change will be permanent, but it does set up the current status of Iron Man in the Marvel Universe. Of course, above all, it’s a good story from top talent, and that’s always worth your money.

3. Armour WarsRunning in Iron Man v1 #225-#231, Armour Wars (or, if you prefer, “Armor Wars”) was one of the first stories to publicly “out” Stark as Marvel’s premier bastard. It had Stark suddenly getting very uptight about how he had lost control of his inventions after discovering that his technology was turning up all over the place – often being misused. He vowed to track down anyone using Stark Tech and wrest it from their control, with devastating and occasionally fatal consequences for the user.

Nonetheless, it remains an important part of Stark’s character development, illustrating just how far he’s willing to go to protect his principles, valuing them even over the friendship of Steve “Captain America” Rogers and his membership in the West Coast Avengers. After Stark takes the fight to the US Government’s armoured prison warders, the Guardsmen, who have a Stark-derived design, his actions spur a prison break and he is declared a danger to the public. He manages to regain some credibility by faking “Iron Man’s” death, but even so, his reputation took an undeniable hit.

2. Civil WarSomething of a dark horse in this countdown, Civil War was Marvel’s recent line-wide crossover that placed Stark as the ideological figurehead and Gestapo-chief of the “pro-registration” movement, a role which saw him in the unenviable position of capturing and imprisoning his former allies after helping to criminalise their activities. While Marvel claimed that the issue was being given equal weight on both sides, you only have to look at Stark’s “Best Villain” nomination in the 2007 Eagle Awards to see how well that worked out.

The story itself shows Stark at his self-centred, uncompromising best, utterly convinced that he’s right and willing to step on anyone to make sure the situation ends up in whatever way he thinks is best. The storyline is a sprawling epic, though the best Iron Man material can be found in the Civil War: Casualties of War and Civil War: Amazing Spider-Man trade paperbacks, as well as the core Civil War collection. The conclusion eventually placed Stark as head of Marvel’s premier security/espionage organisation, SHIELD, a role he occupies to this day.

1. Demon in a BottleI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Iron Man’s origin isn’t as strong as it could be. While Spider-Man’s is in a character-defining work of genius, Iron Man’s is a bit hard to get a handle on. Billionaire genius builds robotic heart, attaches guns to it and shoots his way out of Vietnam? As origins go, it’s no “bitten by a radioactive spider” is it? You have to look much later in Iron Man’s lifespan for the truly character-defining story. In Iron Man v1 #120-#127, David Michelinie and Bob Layton provided what would prove to be Iron Man’s most important story.

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Under attack from all quarters, Starks soon discovers that his company is at risk, and his cocktail-swilling playboy lifestyle catches up with him in all the wrong ways, and he finds that he’s become an alcoholic. Being fairly of-its-time all this happens against a backdrop of the usual superheroics and supervillains, and it hasn’t aged as well as some stories from this era. Nevertheless, it is essential reading for the character, as Stark’s fight against alcoholism has remained one of the character’s defining characteristics. Stark eventually relapsed in Iron Man v1 #167, ultimately losing his company and armour, and becoming a homeless vagrant while James Rhodes became the new Iron Man.

Undoubtedly, you can expect this story to have a strong influence on the cinematic version of the character – the seeds are already being sewn, and Demon in a Bottle is the only Iron Man story you can reasonably expect to see getting the Hollywood Rewrite treatment in the next film.

BONUS! The Top 3 Iron Man stories you should probably avoid:

3. Ultimate Iron Man Vol. 1 Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card creates a re-imagined vision of Tony Stark who has blue skin and neural tissue spread throughout his entire body meaning he’s literally got brains coming out of every orifice. Not quite the simple synthesis of man and machine that the traditional version of the character is.

2. Heroes RebornIn the late 90s, the comics industry bad boys at Image took a stab at some of Marvel’s heroes in an isolated continuity island, often with painful consequences. Iron Man, by Wildstorm, was one of the better attempts, but that’s not saying much. Incorporating what was probably the most horrible armour design ever, it did at least feature the Hulk quite prominently, which is an appropriate choice for the character.

1. The Crossing Turns out, Iron Man has been under the control by a time-travelling villain named Kang since, well, pretty much Day One of the Avengers. Unable to free Stark, the Avengers replace him with a teenage version of himself from an alternate past while the original eventually sacrifices himself. “Teen Tony” then goes on to create anime-inspired armour design. Fans across the globe weep. The whole mess was later mercifully erased from continuity, in part by the Heroes Reborn run. Now let us never speak of this again.

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James Hunt’s Alternate Cover will be back again next Monday; read his last column here.