Wednesday, July 27, 2005

I'll have what he's having, and make it a double

Iron Man 182

It was David Michelinie who started it all, by turning Tony Stark into an alcoholic. Already a rich, arrogant, former arms manufacturing womaniser, Stark took to the bottle like a natural, before being redeemed by the love of a good woman. (Who prompty upped and went back to her previously unheard of husband, but that's comics for you.) This first alcoholic storyline was unsettling and shocking. The only criticism which I would have made was that it was too short. Stark descended into, and recovered from, alcoholism in a few issues, and the only effect on Iron Man was the occasional erratic flight.

This issue is the climax of the much longer second bout of alcoholism, which carried on for over a year, written by Denny O'Neil and drawn by Luke McDonnell. I should state that I have my problems with O'Neil, who wrote the only comic book which has ever made me truly angry. I promise to review it if I can bring myself to reread the wretched thing, which miraculously avoided being left out for the binmen. Anyway, O'Neil has a reputation as a good-to-great writer, which I think is based on work he did at DC in the 1970's. I haven't read them, but reputations are usually merited.

The second alcohol issues took matters much further than the first. Stark lost his company and ended up a New York wino. Recognising he was no longer capable of being Iron Man, he turned the keys (or whatever you use to turn the armour on) over to his pilot, James Rhodes (Rhodey). This was pure excitement: it looked like they were going to replace an original Stan Lee character. The fact that Rhodey was black heightened the drama.

Now I'm not party to Marvel's thought processes, but I imagine that the hope was that Stark would be replaced by Rhodey, but that, if reader reaction was too negative, there would be a fallback position of Stark recovering and returning as Iron Man. In a rehearsal for the farcical Spider-Man Clone Saga, they hesitated far too long. Stark wandered around wrecked for months with Rhodey in the armour, but not truly Iron Man.

Alcoholism is a serious, life-wrecking disease, but it's not one that makes you empathise with the sufferer. The loquacious drunk, spinning entertaining anecdotes in a pub to a circle of admiring listeners is simply a myth. What's more likely to happen is you'll be cornered by a monotonal piss-artist, boor as well as bore, who'll spout stream-of-consciousness piffle while invading your personal space and spitting flecks of dry roast peanuts in your face. Getting drunk scrambles your brain and interrupts your speech processes. It's simply not heroic. If Jean Grey or Genis goes insane and sandwich toasts the Shi'ar high command, it's going to be a fun story. If Tony Stark goes insane and starts alternating dry-heaving with swigging from a bottle of meths, it's not just him that will feel sick.

Which is not to say that what happened to Stark wasn't touching - it was. It's just unpleasant, and should have been kept to a minimum. Michelinie had been correct after all.

By issue #182, Stark is on the streets in a snowstorm, having just pawned his coat for a bottle, and with a friend in a highly pregnant (but not by him - I think) woman, Gretl. Having given the book a fantastic, dramatic cover, the creative team absolutely ruined the suspense by naming the story "Deliverance". Why not go the whole hog and call it "It's OK, people, he's not going to die"? Anyway, Tony and Gretl shelter from the storm, Gretl gives birth, Tony covers the baby and waits for sunrise. In the morning, Gretl is dead, the baby is alive, and Tony is in hospital. Having decided to save the baby, he's also decided to save himself. From this point on, Rhodey's days as Iron Man are numbered. Stark will be back in armour and this story will slip into history.

It's a good story, but a bit corny. Would an alcoholic like Gretl really decide not to drink during childbirth because she doesn't want the baby to be born drunk? Having seen a couple of children being born, it seems to me that after a few contractions most women would happily drink furniture polish if they thought it could provide pain relief. And would Stark really have been unable to find help? If he could walk to the liquor store, couldn't he have walked to a phone box and made a reverse-charges call to Avengers Mansion? The childbirth scene is mercifully underplayed.

(expecting parents might want to look away now)

Rather than being a life-affirming, holistic, new agey celebration, childbirth is actually a gore fest, a combination of Janet Leigh's shower scene in Psycho and John Hurt's indigestion in Alien which makes your average Warren Ellis story look like "Miss Congeniality". How I miss the days when Sue Richards would be wheeled into the delivery room while Reed paced with Ben in the corridor outside, before being (very briefly) presented with a newborn, and celebrating with a big, fat cigar.

Could Rhodey have replaced Stark? I think it would have needed better writing. In all these issues, Rhodey still appears as a sidekick, in the shadow of Stark's alcoholism and not the main event. Rhodey didn't appear to have many supporting characters lined up. I'd like to claim I was a big Rhodey fan, but in truth I wanted Stark back. Having seen the next two decades of Iron Man, I think I was wrong. Rhodey could have become a great Iron Man, and this issue, with Tony Stark freezing to death, would have become one of the most notable comic books of all.

If Stark had died and Iron Man's popularity had survived, it would have changed the course of Marvel's history. Ben Reilly probably would have stayed as Spider-Man, Thunderstrike would have become Thor, and perhaps Steve Rogers would have been shuffled into retirement. Perhaps the lesson is that, if you want to make huge changes to an important character, you need to put both your best writers and artists on the book, in order to draw in new readers to replace the ones who will inevitably drop it. These issues were not of a high enough quality to achieve that.

A missed opportunity.


Blogger thecoolestblog said...

Cool blog and cool message

6:21 pm  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

I think O'Neil always planned on returning Stark to the armor eventually.

And O'Neil has since noted that he had Tony's drinking binge last WAY too long.

The most irritating thing about it is that Michelinie had done it so well before.

8:11 pm  
Blogger Marionette said...

Yeah, but you just know that even if he had died, it would have only been temporary. Heroic, touching, or pointless, Marvel are even worse at keeping those coffin lids down than DC.It's like Night of the Living Dead in there.

4:03 pm  
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