I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
When I first started obsessively hunting down comic books with the Marvel banner across the top, Iron Man was a character that stirred only the mildest interest in me. Sure, if he was battling Doctor Doom back in olden Camelot, that was unquestionably worth seventy-five cents. Otherwise, I felt I got more than my file of the armor-clad alter ego of wealthy industrialist Tony Stark while following the monthly adventures of the Avengers. Shortly after Denny O’Neil took over writing chores on Iron Man, the venerable comic book scribe came up with a hook I found irresistible. Long before the current age where characters swap masks and shields and heroic identities with regularity, O’Neil and artist Luke McDonnell launched an extended story arc that posited what it would be like if someone other than Stark was Iron Man.
To set the gears into motion, O’Neil drew upon the famed “Demon in a Bottle!” story from a few years earlier. One of the signature examples of Marvel bringing social issues and deeper psychological issues to the sagas of superheroic feats, the earlier story had Stark come to terms with the fact that he was an alcoholic. For O’Neil’s follow-up, Stark has relapsed, an especially dangerous turn of events because his version of operating while intoxicated involves a metallic suit that flies and shoots repulsor blasts. Instead of picking fights with fellow patrons in a dank tavern, Iron Man works out his aggression by smashing up every alcohol billboard in Times Square.
This is clearly not a sustainable trajectory for a self-appointed crimefighter. After a clumsy, humiliating defeat at the hands of a villain equipped with clanking machinery of destruction (Iron Man fought a lot of bad guys equipped with clanking machinery of destruction), Tony decides the best way to prep for a rematch is by administering a few doses of liquid courage while also revealing his avenging alter ego to his pilot pal James “Rhodey” Rhodes.
The couple’a drinks work in Tony, and he passes out. Since Iron Man’s powers come from properly engineered steel and circuitry — rather than, say, the bite of a radioactive spider or a wartime booster shot — he’s uniquely positioned to cede tasks to a temp. Rhodey puts on the armor and bests the nefarious foe, thinking his entry into the superhero ranks temporary. Tony has a different arrangement in mind.
Despite Tony’s insistence that he’d like to spend his time a carefree playboy, the topple into the bottle is a classic case of self-medicating. He’s at risk of losing his tech company, thanks to the skillful — albeit ethically questionable — machinations of Obadiah Stane. Sure enough, Tony soon faces a business humiliation more brutal than any blow delivered by a hulking adversary.
All of the developments recounted above happen within a few issues, but Rhodey wearing the yellow and gold armor continued for a few years, with Stark fully reclaiming his shell-head side hustle in time, conveniently enough, just in time for the momentous Iron Man #200. And I remained a devoted reader the whole way.
O’Neil’s twist was more than a gimmick. It was a masterstroke that completely transformed the series, giving him far more elements to work with. At the most fundamental level, O’Neil doubles the number of protagonists. Instead of Tony Stark and a series of supporting players, both Tony and Rhodey are equal leads on tandem storylines. Rhodey takes on the derring do, his battles lent added tension by his spot on the early slope of the learning curve, and Tony goes through the cycle of bottoming out and regaining his sobriety and company. With a simple change of the identify of the man behind the iron mask, O’Neil managed the impressive trick of preserving the central identity of the series while making it all feel as new as the very first tale of suspense.
Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.