Friday, June 06, 2008

Iron Man: Beneath the Armor by Andy Mangels

Iron Man is an unusual character in the Marvel Universe. Unlike many, he's not a mutant, not an alien or someone with inherent powers. He's just a regular guy, albeit a regular guy who has made his own powers by designing himself armor that allows him to go out and play the hero on a daily basis. On the other hand, that very fact allows him to change as he goes along, and he can design better powers for himself as they are needed by the situation.

This book covers the story of Iron Man, and many of his greatest and most persistent foes, such as Mandarin and Fin Fang Foom, covering each decade in a separate chapter, as well as Iron Man, and Tony Stark's friends and associates, such as his first secretary, Pepper Potts, and his driver, Happy Hogan, both normal people that balanced out the super-powered heroes Iron Man interacted with.

This book covers every issue of Iron Man, including the latest series, with Tony being a mutant, deliberately made that way by his mother and father. The new Tony Stark, of the Ultimates Universe, has a body with more neural tissue in it, distributed throughout his body. The armor that he wears alleviates some of the pain he feels simply from existing, and he drinks to excess to numb even more of the pain. All the major Iron Man arcs are covered, from the "Armor Wars" incident, where Tony went around the world, seizing back armor that was based on designs he had made because he didn't want to be responsible for the deaths and damage the armors had caused, which he felt ultimately responsible for, to the takeover of Stark's company by Obadiah Stane, and the eventual death of Stane by suicide after their battle, with Tony as Iron Man and Stane in the Iron Monger armor.

Not just the author, but the writers and artists who have worked on the Iron Man series paint Tony Stark as the story of someone constantly re-inventing himself, who, even when backed into a corner and thoroughly defeated, manages to keep coming back, over and over and over again. Unlike many characters, there are so many facets to Tony Stark and Iron Man, that endless stories are possible with the character. Stories about Industrial sabotage and espionage. Stories about being a playboy and all the different women Tony Stark has been with, Stories with other supervillains and superheroes, as well as corporate stories about being the head of a company and having to deal with that aspect of his life. Iron Man has great longevity because of the number of stories that can be told about him, and the kind of stories that can be told.

Also in this book, the writers and artists discuss what was done correctly about the stories in Iron Man and what wasn't done right. The first thing being the "Yellow Peril" aspect of Mandarin, which certainly became more than "not politically correct", which is why this character has also changed with the times, going from a man in a Fu Manchu moustache and robes, to a Chinese Patriot in a business suit, to a Feudalist who wants to bring back the bad old days. Iron Man's armor has also taken hits, like when Iron Man changed from his red and gold armor to the Silver and Red "Centurion" armor, which fans initially disliked, but which the writers hated because they saw it as a step back, being bulkier than the armor that came before.

Other writers saw Tony Stark's pilot James "Rhodey" Rhoades donning the black and silver "War Machine" armor as a diminution of the character, because he was supposed to contrast with the life of Tony Stark and Iron Man, and having him become a superhero in armor made him no different than his employer.

The book ends with a series of biographies of Tony Stark and many of his friends and foes, then a section dealing with the many different armors that Stark has worn throughout the years, including the deep sea and deep space armors. I did notice that at least one of the armors was missing, the "Stealth Armor", but perhaps they left that out because Iron Man only wore it a few times. The War Machine armor is included, though, along with the original gray armor that Tony Stark originally built to survive and escape his captors.

This is an intriguing book that thoroughly explores the origins, career and mystique of Iron Man, and by extension, Tony Stark. For anyone who has enjoyed reading the comic, wants to learn more about the star of the current movie, or has an interest in the history of comics, this book is a must-read. It's full of information, supplied in nuggets and boulders, about the stories and armors of Iron Man. It provides a fascinating background on the character, and lays out his history in black and white, and incredibly fascinating detail. You will not want to miss this book.

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