Friday, February 26, 2016

A Clash Out Of Legend!

It seems unthinkable that, up until the 1980s, there was as yet no battle on the record books between the invincible Iron Man and his villainous armored counterpart, Dr. Doom--each man an electronics genius, and each wearing a formidable suit of armor that would have ensured such a meeting to be a clash of titans. All we really had was their "clash" from a 1976 issue of Super-Villain Team-Up, which took place while Doom was becoming involved in a power play of the undersea warlord, Attuma--a one-page skirmish occurring while Iron Man's armor was damaged and barely operational, and which was over and done with before you could say "Bah!". But surely it was well past time for a proper match-up between these two determined men, and with proper stakes involved.

And "time" becomes the key to their long-awaited face-off, finally taking shape in late 1981 in a two-part story that pits these two armored figures against one another and ends up thrusting them headlong into the 6th century.

But rather than take the route that the SVTU story chose and abruptly halted before the encounter truly began, co-plotters David Michelinie (scripter) and Bob Layton (finisher) make full use of both of these complicated and seasoned characters and craft a well-thought-out tale which factors in their individual strengths as well as their flaws. That's especially good news for those of us who are intrigued with Doom and his reasons for acting as he does, for Doom is given a generous amount of story space here that not only plays off of Iron Man well, but also enhances the overall story to a great degree. In fact, thanks to our two talented co-plotters, the characterization given Doom lets him all but walk away with this tale, all by himself.

Yet, appropriately, the story begins with Iron Man, who arrives in time to foil the piracy of a Stark International cargo ship but who has come aboard for an altogether different reason. It's only later, when Tony Stark attends a scheduled meeting with his regional managers, that we learn what that reason is.

Stark's abruptness may perhaps seem out of character for him over a breach of S.I. policy, Zurrow's irresponsible conduct in the matter notwithstanding; but his shortness of temper has more to do with recent events, such as the absence of his girlfriend, Bethany Cabe, on an undisclosed mission, as well as the widespread damages from the attack of Blacklash on the S.I. complex. As a result, while Stark has been known to lower the boom on careless or irresponsible employees before, in this case he seems to be attaching more seriousness to Zurrow's actions than perhaps is necessary. That's mere impression on my part, and such a presumption is never followed up on formally by Michelinie--and admittedly, not every such scene need be.

Meanwhile, Doom is conducting a similar dressing-down of one of his subordinates, at receiving the news that the shipment of crucial components he needs for enhancing his time platform has been withdrawn.

Hauptmann is obviously showing much more resentment at his treatment than Zurrow--and who can blame him? Unlike Zurrow, Hauptmann is being retained, while his life continues to hang by a thread depending on Doom's whim. (And for what it's worth, even if Hauptmann had been dismissed and allowed to live, Doom likely wouldn't be in the habit of issuing severance pay, generous or otherwise.) In essence, Hauptmann is caught between a rock and a hard place--a lifelong appointment as Doom's assistant, with the prospect of death the only way out. Or so it appears.

And so Doom conducts an operation to retrieve the crated components by force, in a raid on the waterfront S.I. warehouse. Despite Doom not leading the operation personally, his lackeys operate with impressive efficiency, manning one of Doom's multi-weaponed attack craft and being well-prepared for Iron Man's resistance.  (Not to mention the fact that Stark has left these crates conveniently labeled, with their original contents intact--why not just hand these goons the goods himself?)

Iron Man is as good as his word--traveling to Latveria as Tony Stark to pursue the matter, either through business channels or as his armored alter-ego. His choice is made for him on arrival, however, as officers of the country's current ruler, Zorba, intercept him at the airport terminal and provide Stark with a literal roadmap to Doom's castle--implying that a conflict between Doom and Iron Man will benefit Zorba in terms of throwing a wrench into any possible plans Doom may have of reclaiming the throne. I was more than a little curious at this point as to how Stark was planning to approach this situation himself, since he's apparently used his civilian identity as a "cover" in order to gain entry to Latveria, but perhaps that itself is our answer; at any rate, the question has now been rendered moot, if rather conveniently.

And besides, we'd all prefer to see this confrontation escalate a.s.a.p., no?

Contempt... tension ... dismissiveness... resoluteness... steeled determination... We'd expect nothing less from a meeting between these two, each now reaching the point of open hostilities and each intending to be the one left standing if and when the dust settles. Yet we've all forgotten something: We know of course what Iron Man is fighting for, but what is it that Doom is after? Why is he so fervently determined to have this work on his time platform proceed? It's the one piece of the puzzle that is still missing from this story. That said, Michelinie and Layton have provided a fine beginning to what's shaping up to be a well-balanced conflict between these two armored foes--a battle which may not go the distance, if a certain disgruntled assistant has anything to say about it.

Good lord--Hauptmann victorious! It's a spectacular way to end Part 1 of this story and pull the rug out from under our collective feet. Imagine waiting a month to find out how it all turns out. Both Iron Man and Doom, trapped in the past? Hauptmann, kicking up his feet in his own castle, without fear of reprisal? It just doesn't get any better.

Yet in Part 2, we'll discover that Hauptmann's little maneuver has actually expedited Doom's plans, though Iron Man is now forced to tag along for the ride--one which starts with a tumble into the incredible!

While Doom is very nicely handled as a character in Part 1, it's in Part 2 where you wish that Michelinie and Layton had been aboard in the mid-'70s to take the reins of the SVTU book, where events occurred at a much faster, almost haphazard pace and which lacked many of the more subtle character traits that make Doom so compelling here. Iron Man of course had no idea of Doom's plans regarding the past, so he's coming to grips with what has occurred by relying on observation and limited Q&A--yet by contrast, how calmly Doom assesses the situation and fluidly begins to adapt to the circumstances. And how appropriately the story reminds us that, whether in the present or in the distant past, he is still Doom.

Doom's posture doesn't significantly change once the two are brought into the presence of King Arthur, a development which allows the story to proceed in a much different direction than the one we started out in. There's no real reason for these two men to divert their focus from their plight--or from each other--and interact with these people from another time, rather than simply avoiding them and finding an isolated spot to get their bearings and confront their immediate problem; but folding Doom and Iron Man into the world of Arthur enhances the story a great deal, helped in no small part by the legend of Arthur and Camelot which persists to this day and continues to fascinate the worlds of literature and fiction. And we'll also see this setting involve Doom in a more direct way.

In the meantime, the presentation of Iron Man and Doom in Arthur's court provides a splendid scene of both fascination and drama, in that order.

It's during the night that we finally learn what Doom has been plotting, as well as what he seeks in this era--all having to do with his sorceress mother, for whom he annually battles the demons of Hell on Midsummer's Eve in an attempt to free her imprisoned soul. Using his time platform, he's made several trips through time in order to gain knowledge from history's most reputed sorcerers in order to give him a considerable edge for his next attempt; but the additional S.I. components were needed in order to provide the platform with the power to send him further back to the time when a certain sorceress held sway. Fortunately, the platform had been preset for the era in question when Doom and Iron Man were caught up in Hauptmann's gambit--and so, once Doom learns of her location from an entranced maiden in Arthur's castle, he abruptly breaks free of his enforced status as guest and departs for the castle of the one he seeks--one who also happens to be Arthur's estranged, evil sister.

After hearing Doom's petition, Morgana agrees to help him, but for a price: Since spells are in place to prevent her leaving her castle, she will raise an army of the dead for Doom to lead against Arthur's forces and secure the king's death, after which she will fulfill her part of the bargain and grant him the tutelage he seeks from her. And Doom agrees to the bargain, especially after seeing for himself an example of her impressive skill at sorcery--using a chip from the sword, Excalibur, to perform a rite to reanimate the corpses of a horde of soldiers who fell by that sword and bring them under her will.

As for Iron Man, by this time he's been informed by Arthur of Doom's breakout, and that the castle of Morgana is Doom's likely destination. Arthur fears the worst from such an alliance, and Iron Man swears to battle Doom on the king's behalf if it should come to that. With the dawn, Arthur and Iron Man have their answer, as Doom's forces are spotted in the distance. Arthur's army, along with Iron Man, assemble to meet the threat, though it's still unclear to Iron Man what Doom has to gain by launching this attack or even siding with Morgana.

Iron Man never does learn Doom's true motivations for his actions here--but perhaps it's not necessary for the story to go that far, since Doom's predisposition toward making a play for power is already well-known to Iron Man and is sufficient cause for him to act. What follows as a result is the stuff of nightmares (or "knightmare," as the story's title proposes), as Arthur's forces fight bravely to stem the tide of death, in the literal sense. And the problem of such a struggle eventually becomes clear: How do you prevail against attackers who are already dead?

Above the fray, Iron Man and Doom engage with each other, though Iron Man realizes he must battle conservatively since there is no ready source of power here to recharge him for a prolonged battle. (Though you'd think that one could say the same for Doom; but I'd have to give Doom the edge, since he can make more use of device-weaponry which doesn't rely on his armor's energy.) Iron Man, however, is the only one of the two forced to assess the situation as a whole, since it's Arthur's men who are at a distinct disadvantage--and he deduces that in that respect, it's really Morgana's control of these corpses that's manifesting the threat here. Consequently, he disables Doom long enough to leave the battle and head off to Morgana's castle in order to end this threat at the source. As for Doom, he doesn't catch on to Iron Man's strategy, concluding only that Iron Man has decided to flee for reasons unknown--and so he decides to stay with his forces and lead them to what seems to be eventual victory.

Meanwhile, Morgana has mystically monitored Iron Man's approach, and launches a number of sorcerous attacks against him, which Iron Man counters with technology--an approach which confuses and daunts Morgana, to the point of Iron Man eventually penetrating her castle and confronting her.

Taking with her the Excalibur fragment, Morgana escapes to another dimension--leaving her aspiring student as an army of one, though having no further interest in the battle at hand now that he realizes that his defeat on the field could mean that Iron Man may have disposed of the sorceress whose knowledge might have gained him his mother's freedom.

When Doom and Iron Man meet again, explanations are made (though only to a point, in Doom's case), and both men are left to face the conundrum of how to return to their own time, assuming that's even possible. To find the answer, these two enemies must establish a truce--and from there, combine their talents to work together, in refashioning the only sophisticated tools and materials they have at hand.

It's a series of images and asides that help to cap this conflict nicely--ensuring their cooperation for the time being (so to speak), but essentially doing little to alter their relationship with each other as wary foes. Regardless, the fact that they complete their task in the span of one night is adequate demonstration of their brilliance--and the moment arrives when they must go for broke.

It's a fine way for this story to maintain the status quo between these two while being forced to come to an end, there being no option (or reason, outside of Doom's inclination toward vengeance) to continue their conflict--for now, at least. However, if you find yourself wanting to explore more of this scenario between Doom and Iron Man, it's received extensive coverage in subsequent stories, each of which has the participation of Michelinie and/or Layton. In the following year, a What If story demonstrates that even in defeat, Doom has a way of evening the score before the two men part company; there's also a sequel to this story exactly 100 issues later in another two-part Iron Man tale from late-1989; and finally, there's the similarly-themed mid-2008 four-part series, Iron Man: Legacy of Doom.

By the way--how would you like to be Hauptmann right about now?

Invincible Iron Man #s 149-150

Script: David Michelinie
Pencils: John Romita, Jr.
Inks: Bob Layton
Letterer: Joe Rosen


Colin Jones said...

I had the 150th issue and the What If follow-up. In the original story, when they have to team up to get home Iron Man asks "How can I trust you ?" and Doom replies "You have my word" but in the What If story Doom replies "You have no choice" and then proceeds to double cross Iron Man and strand him in the past permanently. But there's a sort of happy ending as Iron Man is crowned "King Anthony of Britain" after Arthur gets killed - definitely one of the more memorable What If stories. Of course, all that "ye olde Knights" stuff is total bunkum, it's all medieval not the 6th Century. There was a show on British TV in the '70s called "Arthur Of The Britons" which presented a much more realistic picture of what a King Arthur would have been like - Arthur was more like a tribal chief and everybody lived in mud huts with thatched roofs, including him.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't seen these issues before. I quite enjoyed this. Doom and Iron man are a good match-up. The characters have some things in common, I think.
For anyone who is a fan of the Authurian mythos, and the various ways it's been treated in comics, I might recommend Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory limited series. It's quite a novel take on the legend.
Great post!

Comicsfan said...

Thanks very much, M.P., glad you enjoyed it. I've always thought this two-parter was a standout in the Michelinie/Romita/Layton run.

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