Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Surrogate Iron Man


In 1983, readers of Invincible Iron Man hunkered down for what would turn out to be a whopping 30-issue stretch of stories by writer Denny O'Neil and artist Luke McDonnell that featured someone other than Tony Stark in the role of the book's title character. The shift was heralded by two dramatic back-to-back covers which seemed to confirm what many of us probably assumed was the obvious choice to step in for Stark, at least for the immediate crisis:



Stark, having fallen off the wagon big time and a near-hopeless drunk by this point, was too inebriated to suit up and face the menace known as Magma who was wrecking the Stark International complex--which left James Rhodes with a decision to make. Yet his first moment as the new Iron Man perhaps sums up the problem of having Rhodey, a popular supporting character in the book, assume responsibility for the book's sales for a two-year period.



By now, the Iron Man armor was more than just a suit of remarkable technology and weaponry. It's an invention that's been refined over the years and defined by Stark--his character, his resourcefulness, his confidence and instincts, as well as the fact that it's simply a kick to see how he interacts with this suit to battle and overcome whatever threat he's facing. And when Stark improvises and makes use of the features of the armor which he knows like the back of his hand, it feels as if we're right there seeing this armor getting its best use. There's no doubting Rhodey's resourcefulness and skill, or his bravery--but his confidence in being Iron Man will in part depend on being able to use the armor to its fullest potential while knowing its specs down to the last circuit, and that skill set simply isn't among his talents.

A further complication would be the debilitating headaches he would suffer with further use of the armor, finally diagnosed by the mystic known as Shaman and boiled down to a truth that even Rhodey (and arguably O'Neil) had to acknowledge: that it was Tony Stark who was, and is, Iron Man.



At the time of his debut, however, it was easy to give Rhodey the benefit of the doubt, since he'd played no small part in revitalizing the book after he and others joined its cast of characters. In the end, no one is likely to label Rhodey's run as Iron Man as distinguished--but at the very least, his premiere issue of having fully embraced the role shows some promise and gives him every advantage in starting out on the right foot. There's Stark's continued downward spiral that doesn't neglect the character for those readers still interested in keeping tabs on him; we also see Rhodey's idea to enlist the help of S.I. scientist-technician Morley Erwin bearing fruit, helping him begin to familiarize himself with the armor's capabilities and figuring out its various functions; and in addition, Rhodey's first time up at bat in an official capacity has him battling a high-profile member of the Wrecking Crew. So all the ingredients are in place for Rhodey to make his mark as the new Iron Man. The question is: Will this issue ignite the character for readers?




With Magma having been dealt with, we find Rhodey and Morley putting the armor through its paces in an isolated area downstate--perhaps Rhodey's only alternative, since he may be unaware of Stark's testing facilities for the armor that would have allowed him to more comprehensively run down its features in a controlled environment. Currently, Rhodey is up to speed on the armor's repulsors and flight capabilities, as well as its strength potential--which are probably enough to let him engage in battle if necessary, though after seeing Stark in action he's no doubt aware that there's much more to learn if he's going to trust his life to this suit.



In the meantime, Thunderball, consumed with tracking down and reconciling with his ex-girlfriend, Rhonda, who left him to marry another guy, has crashed into a power plant near Niagara Falls with the intent to destroy it if Rhonda doesn't agree to meet with him. As it turns out, Rhodey and Morley are already on their way, in order to visit Morley's sister (and fellow scientist) Clytemnestra, who by unfortunate coincidence happens to be employed at the very same power station. And so Rhodey decides to take the express route to their destination.



By the time Iron Man closes in, Thunderball has already corralled considerable media coverage to get the word out to Rhonda. Regrettably, we'll learn that, because of Thunderball's actions, she and her husband are having problems of their own; but for now, Iron Man does his best to distract his foe and keep Thunderball's attention on him while doing his best to take him out. Let's just say that one of those plans is more successful than the other.





Thanks to Dr. Erwin's quick thinking, the power plant has a grace period of sorts while Iron Man tries to locate Rhonda--and if all goes well, it might actually survive the events of this day intact.

But with the bulk of the city's police force converging on the power plant's location, the city is left vulnerable to more conventional criminal threats--in this case, bank robbers, who happen to hold up the banking institution where Rhonda and her new husband Billy* have stopped. As an off-duty cop, Billy attempts to take on the robbers and is wounded for his trouble; but Iron Man arrives in the nick of time to prevent his murder, only to find that Rhonda isn't inclined to have anything more to do with the other man in her life.



*As we can see, there's some confusion as to whether the poor man's name is Billy (as Thunderball claims) or Ted (according to Rhonda). Hopefully that won't screw up the hospital paperwork at the front desk and delay this man's care.

Regrettably, Rhonda's decision leaves Rhodey with battle as his only option, one that doesn't go well for this fledgling Iron Man. But he may have some help from some unexpected backup.







It's not really clear what negates the wrecking ball's enchanted power, since electricity alone wouldn't cut it--and since Thunderball has roughly the same strength as the rest of the Wrecking Crew, he'd still be able to put up a considerable fight against even Iron Man's might, regardless of his ball being ejected from the fight. It's really too pat an ending, all things considered--a victory too abruptly reached by dubious means just to rate a notch in Iron Man's win column.

Thunderball would go on to have another solo appearance a few months later in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man (where he can't seem to stay away from power stations); and if you're curious you can find some further thoughts on O'Neil's handling of Rhodey's stint as Iron Man. As we know, Rhodey would eventually reappear in armor as War Machine, its array of more conventional weaponry perhaps a better fit for this man who, through it all, remained one of Marvel's most worthwhile characters.

Invincible Iron Man #171

Script: Denny O'Neil
Pencils: Luke McDonnell
Inks: Steve Mitchell
Letterer: Rick Parker

2 comments:

The Prowler said...

So If you take out a power plant, the only way to get a message out would be through a transistor radio! Transistors were the power source for the Iron Man armor! It's a circle!

Cheat time: Did Rhodey ever pop the skates so he could recharge the suit while he was en route to an emergency?

Long time readers of Wizard Magazine will remember that Thunderball was their favorite member of the Wrecking Crew... favorite member to mock!!! They were unmerciless in their mocking.

Ahh, the memories...

(All the gold and the guns in the world
(couldn't get you off)
All the gold and the guns and the girls
(couldn't get you off)
All the boys, All the choices in the world

I remember when we were gambling to win
Everybody else said better luck next time
I don't wanna bend, Let the bad girls bend
I just wanna be your friend
Is it ever gonna be enough

Is it ever gonna be enough
Is it ever gonna be enough
Is it ever gonna be enough

Is it ever gonna be enough
Is it ever gonna be enough
Is it ever gonna be enough

All the lace and the skin in the shop
(couldn't get you off)
All the toys and the tools in the box
(couldn't get you off)
All the noise, all the voices never stop

I remember when we were gambling to win
Everybody else said better luck next time
I don't wanna bend, Let the bad girls bend
I just wanna be your friend
Why you givin' me a hard time
I remember when we were gambling to win
Everybody else said HA HA HA HA HA HA HA

Is it ever gonna be enough
Is it ever gonna be enough
Is it ever gonna be enough

Is it ever gonna be enough
Is it ever gonna be enough
Is it ever gonna be enough

More and more, more and more, more and more,
More and more and more and more, more and more).


Comicsfan said...

I don't think Rhodey and Morley ever got around to the armor's skates in their testing, Prowler, so chances are they were never used in battle while Rhodey was Iron Man. The only instance I can recall Rhodey deploying them at all is during the Secret Wars series where he and Captain Marvel were investigating their home base, and Rhodey was using them to get around the place.

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