Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Invincible Adam Austin

Artist Don Heck spent almost three years drawing the character of Iron Man, from Shellhead's premiere in Tales of Suspense #39 and culminating with his first battle with (and victory over) the Titanium Man. But after 34 issues, the artistic reins would be passed to Gene Colan, who would continue to pencil Iron Man through the final issue of the title, wrapping up a 27-issue run and launching Iron Man in his own book, as well.

It's obvious just at first glance that the styles of these two artists are very different from one another--yet, at first, Iron Man himself was drawn as stiffly by Colan as he was by Heck, and with no discernible changes in the look of the character's armor:

However, if you look at Colan's work on Iron Man in that first issue (as we'll do here), and then jump ahead just ten issues, Colan demonstrates gaining a clear mastery of this character and a vibrant, dynamic style.

You may have noticed from the credits that Colan uses the pseudonym of "Adam Austin," which he would retain for about five issues. In an August, 2000 interview, Colan explains:

"Yeah, just the one time early on I did [go by that pen name]. I was working for DC then and I didn't want them to know I was also doing work for Marvel. I didn't think it was such a good idea for them to know because I was a free-lancer. I didn't want them to take it out of my hide, so I had Stan, instead of putting my real name, put in Adam Austin. That didn't matter, though, because they knew anyway. Art is like handwriting, you really can't disguise the style. I think all artists have a distinct style. If you get to following an artist, you get to know his work whether he signs it or not. The reason I was working for Marvel on the side was that I just wanted to be kept busy. That's the whole idea of free-lancing. It didn't matter to me which company it was. Of course, if you could get enough work out of any one company then you should stay there. Why knock yourself out. You can only do what you can do. If one company is keeping you that busy, there would be no point in trying to take on another company and wind up maybe disappointing one of them."

As I've mentioned before, reading Iron Man's adventures at this time was a bit frustrating. His armor, while sophisticated, was extremely handicapped in terms of power distribution, some of which needed to be kept in reserve in order to keep his life-saving chest device operational. In practically every fight, Iron Man worried about the strain he was putting on his heart--and he usually needed to recharge, often after only a few minutes of battle against an aggressive foe. Iron Man, one of Marvel's flagship super-heroes with a reputation for being formidable, seemed vulnerable and ill-prepared against his enemies--and no reader wants to see their hero constantly fret.

It wasn't the best time in Iron Man's career for Colan to come aboard, only to likely be informed he'd have to hamper the character a good deal of the time. This first issue for the artist, with the Golden Avenger going up against one of his oldest enemies, the Black Knight, will make crystal clear everything that wasn't working for Iron Man. Unlike Dane Whitman, the later Black Knight who became an Avenger, his predecessor (Nathan Garrett) didn't use a sword, but an array of weaponry to supplement his ever-present "power lance"--and with just that one item and a bit of planning, Garrett soon has Iron Man at his mercy. When Garrett tells a crumbled Iron Man what a disappointment he's been in this battle, I couldn't have agreed more.

But, let's focus on Colan's style, and what he brings to the table here. For one thing, Colan adds more contrast to his panels than Heck, and presents characters in greater detail and more realistic angles:

With the nice job that's being done here of Iron Man sizing up the Black Knight's threat and striding into his foe's lair, we're being led to believe we're in for one heck of a battle. Iron Man is as we remember him in the face of such a threat--cautious, but confident and resolved, maybe even a little eager. I often think of how nice it was to see Iron Man operate outside of the Avengers, since he's at his best when he's autonomous, planning his own strategy and calling his own shots. As battle-ready as he is here, you'd think the one thing he shouldn't be worried about is his own armor going the distance, wouldn't you?

The Knight's stinging words are like salt on an open wound, especially to the reader. On a positive note, Colan's panels give Iron Man some very smooth moves as well as provide a few nice visual touches. I made the comment in another story of how, under Colan's pencils, Iron Man's style of movement in battle is akin to a ballet, as opposed to someone like Jack Kirby who takes a more blunt approach. Unfortunately, Iron Man here has quickly gone from smooth to limp, as the Knight further humiliates him by carrying him into the sky in order to have him plummet to his death.

A victory based on loosening a saddle is hardly one to chalk up on the record books, but at least Iron Man's gambit allows him to save his friend, Happy Hogan. The Knight, however, is mortally wounded from his plunge, and this would be the character's final appearance alive before passing the torch to his successor:

No, I haven't heard anyone refer to the villainous Black Knight as "a benefactor of mankind," either. I'm afraid he's stuck with his legacy as a charter member of the Masters of Evil.

If you'd like to see Colan have Iron Man give more of an account of himself in battle, just have a look at his follow-up fight with the Titanium Man in Washington, D.C. You'd think Colan is as happy to cut loose as ol' Shellhead.


George Chambers said...

This story is a prime example of Stan's ridiculous overuse of "transistors." I'd imagine that Stan had no knowledge of electronics, and where he might have had Tony say something like "The Black Knight's blast has caused my main power cells to short out, wasting my power and causing my armor's circuits to heat up! I'll have to remove my power-pods to prevent further damage... but that will leave me with only reserve power"; instead, he just hauled out his favourite (and only) techno-buzzword. It wasn't until Archie Goodwin took over the writing reigns that the "transistors" were banished.

Anonymous said...

I love Gene Colan but my favourite version of Iron Man is the Romita Jr/Bob Layton/Demon In A Bottle/late '70s/early '80s period.

david_b said...

Loved Silver and early Bronze IM, but as I've said elsewhere, the covers (especially on his own mag..) were always ludracris and underwhelming.

"THE INVINCIBLE IRONMAN" is shouted at the top of his covers, yet, you see this guy in armor, typically the 2nd strongest Avenger, buckled under some two-bit villain who apparently got the jump on him. Somehow..

"I know you need a dramatic cover, but jeez.."

Anonymous said...

Just looking at that last panel of Uncle Nathan and his nephew Dane. What has caught Dane's attention. I mean, his uncle is over there and Dane's looking over here? What's going on.....

Reminds me of some of those classic SNL moments with Christopher Walken. There's some scenes where he's staring hard at the cue cards, yet he's still really good. Prime example is the "You give the man more cowbell".

And alack and alas, but years later, Marvel uses poor Dane to bridge the gap between the Marvel Universe and the Ultraverse. He's the pin in the whole Marvel/Ultraverse Ultraverse/Marvel crossover. Oh the humanity.......

The Prowler (And tonight's gonna be everything that I said and when I walk through that door I'm just gonna throw that money on the bed she'll see this time I wasn't just talking then I'm gonna go out walking).