Friday, March 17, 2017

Yesterday... And Tomorrow

"...while I've battled major bad-guys as the astonishing Ant-Man ... it's scary to think that [my daughter] Cassie could be orphaned by an average Joe whose brain synapses happen to fire wrong!" -- Scott Lang

Since we began our look at Marvel's composite cover images released during the period from 1981 to 1992 with artist Bob Layton's cover to Invincible Iron Man #144, it seemed only fitting that we finish up with issue #244, published eight years and exactly 100 issues later. It's Layton who brings us full circle, once again rendering the cover but also handling both pencils and inks in an oversized 48-page story that will again provide brand new material from Iron Man's earliest days in his gray armor, though for different reasons. In that prior issue, Stark had been musing about his first meeting with the man who would become his friend and chief aviation engineer, Jim Rhodes, forming a bond under fire in the jungles of southeast Asia that would see them through the evolution of both Stark Enterprises and Iron Man. This time, Layton and writer David Michelinie (with whom Layton shares plot credit) have given Stark good reason for returning his thoughts to those early days--a reason which you and I would probably best label as "therapy."

Unfortunately, Stark is very much in need of therapy, both physical and mental. As this story opens, Stark is beginning the recovery process from a near-fatal attempt on his life by Kathy Dare, a former girlfriend who ranks right up there with Alex Forrest in both an unbalanced mind and vengeful behavior. (In fact, Kathy could probably teach Alex a thing or two about payback.) Arriving home, Stark was surprised in the darkness of his home by Dare and was shot, the bullet severely wounding him and lodging near his spine. The bullet was removed in surgery--but its passage caused irreparable damage to vital nerve tissue along the spinal column, rendering Stark permanently unable to walk. Dare was taken into police custody--but the damage, as they say, was done.

And so Stark, now a paraplegic, must pick up the pieces of his life and resume his work as head of Stark Enterprises, while his career as Iron Man seems to be a thing of the past. Michelinie and Layton have taken an intriguing turn with the character, given Stark's hands-on management style in regard to both his business and his personal life, to say nothing of his years as a heroic figure; now he must pivot and begin living his life in an entirely different way, just as any person would under these circumstances. As with his alcoholism and the prior loss of his company, Stark is faced with another situation where he must pull himself up and muster the resolve to go on rather than descend into bitterness or depression. The parallels to his experience in Vietnam--another instance where his life took a turn for the worse and forced him to re-evaluate how he would go on--are clear; indeed, the story would make strong use of that incident in determining if and how Stark will cope, as we'll see.

For now, however, we must--as Stark must--begin at the beginning of this process which, for Stark, means leaving the hospital and facing the fact that he's unable to do so under his own power. Thanks to Michelinie and Layton, it makes for an unforgettable page one, giving Stark a blunt picture of how his life would be from this point on.

Stark goes through the motions one might expect of the man his first day back, though it's not just Stark whose behavior is worth noting. Nearly his entire staff is walking on tiptoes, a balancing act of trying their best to accommodate his condition while struggling to avoid appearing too accommodating, making an effort to treat the day as if things at S.E. were business as usual. Much of their interaction with him at these uncomfortable early moments will depend on the cues they pick up from him; yet Stark is so much in "business as usual" mode that it's clear he hasn't really faced and accepted his disbility. And so this man who is always so in tune with his employees and so at home at a conference table has instead put everyone on edge with his behavior--ignoring their "welcome back" greetings or attempts at banter, finding his wheelchair to be something of a hindrance, his attention wavering on routine business and design matters, insisting on getting his own coffee. He realizes he's overreacting, that he's behaving like he has something to prove, but it's as if there's no "off" switch for it.

But with his ruthless competitors circling like vultures, it isn't long before one of them takes advantage of Iron Man's "absence" and begins taking steps to sabotage a new Stark device being developed to help locate offshore oil deposits.

With Rhodey averse to reassuming the role of Iron Man, the armor remains unavailable as an option to fend off these attacks on the electronics companies working on the sonic scanner component that Stark has designed--at least, the current Iron Man armor. But Rhodey has in mind someone else for the job--the man once known as Force, who is indebted to Stark for giving him a second chance and freeing him from the retribution of Justin Hammer.

But even with Rhodey joining the security team and taking point with "Carl Walker" to head off the attacks, they're hard-pressed to stop the incursions of the Fixer, an electronics expert whose operations as a criminal go back to the mid-1960s and who now works as a hired gun for Roxxon Oil. The pair initially face the Fixer at Accutech, a Stark Enterprises R&D affiliate, driving him off but failing to stop his mission to destroy the target component; and in a follow-up attack at S.E. itself, the Fixer has adapted to the forces set against him and evades capture.

The engagements with the Fixer have clearly frustrated Stark, who can no longer take an active part in protecting either his business interests or even his own company. All he can do is to return to his physical therapy appointments, which to him seem pointless and only serve to frustrate him in his present state of mind. But it's here that the story opens the door to the point in Stark's life where he first had similar sentiments--and the catalyst for those recollections comes in the form of a young man spending his days in an iron lung, who inadvertently gives Stark much-needed perspective on his situation.

Stark's flashback takes us back to the point just after he arrived back in the States after his tragic injury from tripping an exploding mine in Vietnam, which left a piece of shrapnel near his heart--kept in check only by the wearing of a chestplate which was part of the amazing suit of armor that helped him to escape his captors. Stan Lee's original tale of Iron Man's origin and subsequent return skips ahead to a point where Stark has already come to terms with his condition and has fully embraced his position as the armored hero known as Iron Man, leaving the door wide open for the Michelinie/Layton story to explore Stark's initial reaction to having to wear a metal chestplate that effectively closes him off from any form of physical activity as well as limiting his relations with the opposite sex.

However Stark was living the life of a so-called playboy before he went overseas, he was now forever imprisoned by such a lifestyle that would necessitate maintaining the kind of reputation which would keep him from forming serious ties with a woman. Unfortunately, there was one such relationship that would become an early casualty of his injury--his fiancée at the time, Joanna Nivena, a woman that Stark deeply loved but whom he felt he must now cut loose.

With Joanna's feelings on his conscience (and, appropriately enough, weighing on his heart), Stark's period of adjustment to his chestplate is thrown into disarray, as this metal thing clasped to his upper body impacts on both his professional and personal lives. Eventually, the inevitable happens: during a sleepless night, and feeling imprisoned by his own body, he angrily rejects the encasement that's keeping him alive, and nearly pays the price.

Oddly enough, rather than putting his words into action and taking an inventor's approach to alleviating his situation, behavior which we would expect from a designer/engineer of Stark's caliber, he chooses to instead make lemonade out of lemons and go the commercial route, embracing the iron suit by promoting its features and manufacturing it for the masses. It brings him no closer to living with his circumstances, of course; rather, the endeavor now becomes a distraction, a way to ignore the problem and redirect his feelings about it for the time being.

What's truly confusing about this period in Stark's life, whether told by Michelinie or Lee, is: Why doesn't Stark attack this problem at the source--i.e., the piece of shrapnel that's the direct cause of his predicament? A man who's mastered the mechanics of magnetic attraction and repulsion has no other recourse than to wear a confining, bulky outer covering to manage the injury? How about designing an implant that would do the same thing? For that matter, did it ever occur to Stark to consult a surgeon on his condition, even if only to investigate other options? Wouldn't the first instinct of a person who's been wounded be to see a doctor?

At any rate, Stark's stopgap measure to *ahem* bypass his heart difficulties is addressed fairly early, thanks to an incident that would be a precursor of actions he would be forced to take during the Armor Wars storyline. The altercation causes Stark to head off what could have soon escalated to a major problem for him to divert his attention to; but it also leads him to take into his confidence someone close to him who would prove to be invaluable in helping him find his way.

The tennis match Stark and Joanna attend is a good first step toward patching up their difficulties and letting the couple address Stark's problem as a united front; but their day of unwinding is cut short when a group of armed men storm the stadium and effectively take the entire audience hostage. But in a scene which would provide more of a foundation to the origin of Iron Man, and with thanks once again to Joanna, the crisis becomes pivotal in turning Stark toward his new path, and his life's mission.

It's a powerful, resonating ending to this insert to the main story, though I'd argue that it's effectively become the main story given the wealth of material it adds to the character of Stark and, by extension, Iron Man.

Regrettably, the scene also serves to sever the relationship between Stark and Joanna, using dialog that works so well for each of them. Joanna is correct when she reasons that Stark will have neither time nor opportunity to devote to their marriage, since he has a higher calling to follow now; while Stark has made a complete turnaround, and now has the drive and determination to embrace this new direction and see it through. It's the right call for both of them to make--particularly for Stark, who sounds here more like the dedicated man of conscience that he grew into being, rather than the man who filled government weapons contracts and looked no further for his business boundaries or innovations.

For what it's worth, there's a touching interlude that features a reunion between Stark and Joanna which occurs years later--the two meeting as friends unexpectedly at a private auction aboard a yacht and catching up on the personal and professional successes of their respective lives. Its closing scene provides a virtual stamp of approval to their parting scene above.

The story fittingly segues back to Stark, who takes the lesson learned from that memory and applies it to his current situation. And when the Fixer attacks the Stark complex once more, with even more powerful weaponry, it becomes apparent that this time Stark has indeed applied his genius to the source of his problem. As he acknowledges, his solution doesn't alleviate in the slightest his facing up to his problem as Tony Stark--but it does mean that the Fixer can kiss his bonus goodbye, while Stark Enterprises' competitors will have to learn to live with disappointment once again.

This story was exceptional, and is highly recommended--taking Tony Stark out of his comfort zone on several levels and throwing him a lifeline only in the form of Iron Man, a suit of armor that has at times frustrated Stark in terms of it demanding too much of his life but is now the only way for him to have the use of his legs and thus offers a return to feeling "normal," a dependency that the book will focus on in the days to come.

Inquiring minds want to know: What is the story with Kathy Dare??

Invincible Iron Man #244

Script: David Michelinie
Pencils: Bob Layton
Inks: Bob Layton (w/assist by Chris Ivy and Don Hudson)
Letterer: Janice Chiang

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