Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Biggest Loser

The cover of Iron Man Annual #1 has had me thinking about the various battles that Iron Man fought with the Titanium Man, his communist foe whose history with the golden Avenger began when he issued a challenge to participate in a spectator's fight on an abandoned battlefield in Alberia. The Titanium Man has, in a way, been the Rodney Dangerfield of Iron Man's foes, given that his reputedly formidable armor has never stood the test against the opponent he was created to defeat. Their first battle, in Tales of Suspense #s 69-71, had all the trappings of a championship fight--right down to the television cameras, and, of all things, rounds. Yet even with all the fanfare, it never quite gave the Titanium Man the exalted status that Iron Man's other foes such as the Mandarin, the Sub-Mariner, or even the Melter have received.

So I thought I'd go over those earliest battles, in an effort to find out where the Titanium Man went wrong--or why he never really took off. That's a heck of a lot of armor to dump in a recycling bin.

The titanium armor's original wearer, Boris Bullski, hoped a victory against such a high-profile American hero, in front of the entire world, would elevate his status at home, where he languished as the Commissar of a remote labor camp--but Bullski had no intention of letting himself be thus held in check by superiors who feared his ambitions. Enlisting the abilities of some captured scientists, and providing them with the Crimson Dynamo's lab facilities, Bullski ordered the construction of a suit of armor which would be superior to Iron Man's.

At first, the "Titanium Man" must have looked good on paper. A large suit of armor (to fit its oversized brute of a host), made of a metal stronger than iron, and packing a disintegrator ray. At least Bullski thought it was a slam-dunk, as far as challenging Iron Man:

Once Bullski gave the suit his stamp of approval, he issued the challenge in care of Stark Industries:

The fight between these two is certainly a product of its time. Stark Industries was still a major weapons manufacturer for the government, and communism was frowned upon and held in disdain by practically anyone with government ties; and so Stark, and by extension Iron Man, took very seriously any initiative by the "reds" that would seek to humiliate capitalist-based societies. Consequently, Stark's reference to "Commieland," while somewhat unsophisticated for someone of Stark's background, is something we'll have to side-step and put in perspective of the general tenor of this book to date.

With some prodding from Senator Byrd, who doesn't particularly have a high opinion of Stark, Iron Man accepts Bullski's challenge. Finally, when all preparations have been made, the parties involved meet face-to-face:

The eastern officer hits the nail on the head: this will mainly be a propaganda victory for the side that triumphs, though we know that Bullski has another agenda in play. Iron Man, on the other hand, has no reason to suspect that it's a different kind of battle he's walking into, one where the rule book will be thrown out in short order.

And so, when the battle begins, it starts fairly predictably, with each combatant taking the other's measure:

But to Iron Man's surprise, Bullski has secretly rigged the battlefield with hidden weapons, which he brings into play almost immediately:

The shift in tactics is perhaps one reason why the Titanium Man loses credibility in our eyes as far as being a worthy opponent to Iron Man, as he apparently doesn't have faith in his own armor to humble his foe, despite all his bluster to the contrary. Anyone could have deployed and detonated hidden land mines--but wasn't this supposed to be about seeing what this invincible titanium armor could do against Stark's suit? Yet Bullski uses the mines to give him an edge, rather than his suit's weaponry. And while it's no doubt in character for Bullski, it shifts our focus from his armor, which is where it belongs.

(Besides, why bother with mines when you've got a disintegrator ray?)

But this is just the opening play in this battle, and we may yet get to see what all the fuss is about in this titanium suit. Indeed, with the momentum of the fight now with Bullski, he's able to use the element of surprise to catch Iron Man off guard with weaponry he's hard-pressed to defend against:

Iron Man, of course, has weaponry of his own. But he neglected to bring a crucial piece of it with him (leaving it in his hotel room--I doubt a call to the concierge is going to save the day here), and so finds himself playing for time. But what about the Titanium Man's sheer bulk and strength? To tell you the truth, I was a little disappointed to see how quickly the story made it a non-issue:

Fortunately, Stark's friend and aide, Happy Hogan, has found the missing weapon and risked his life to enter the battle area in order to get it to Iron Man. An act for which he pays the price, but which turns the momentum of this fight back in Iron Man's favor:

The dramatic scene with its peculiar wording from Bullski leaves us wondering whether it's the Titanium Man who's the villain here, or communism. Because with Iron Man's new resolve, the story seems to be clearly shifting this fight to one of freedom vs. communism--and in doing so, it further minimalizes the Titanium Man as a result, since, for all intents and purposes, Iron Man is now battling a propaganda tool of the people's republic. The "Titanium Man" might as well have been, say, the Crimson Dynamo.

The shift also renders the preamble of Iron Man's futile efforts against the Titanium Man up to this point moot, as he becomes a virtual whirlwind of tactics and power that up until now have been absent:

The end of the battle comes with Iron Man's use of the device that Hogan delivered to him, which renders the Titanium Man's armor inert. And left with no means to go on the offensive, it's all over but the ten-count for the Titanium Man:

Which leaves Bullski little choice but to capitulate:

It's a clear victory for freedom and the American way Iron Man, though perhaps the only thing that was proven here was who was the better engineer and weapons designer--Tony Stark, or a group of captured scientists. In that sense, the titanium suit that Bullski wore was more of a prototype that went through its first field test. So we'll be seeing Bullski again, after the Titanium Man armor is upgraded and he's launched Shellhead's way to redeem himself and his country. Maybe the guy can upgrade his reputation as an Iron Man foe, as well; otherwise, it'll be back to Siberia for this Biggest Loser.

(By the way, my hat's off to artist Don Heck and assembled inkers for turning in some very nice work on this story.  It may not have been the Titanium Man's finest hour, but his artists pulled out all the stops.)


Super-Duper ToyBox said...

Great stuff! -had not seen

dbutler16 said...

You're right about the Titanium Man being marginalized, especially by hiding weapons on the battlefield. Heavy handed anti-communist dialogue typical of early Iron Man stories.

dbutler16 said...

Reverser ray? Uh, huh.

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