Monday, February 3, 2020

The Future Is Now: The Iron Man of 2020

Having seen a number of grim future scenarios portrayed in Marvel's line of comics, which we eventually caught up to in real time and passed without incident, it seems fitting to take a look at what the company once had to say about the year 2020, the year in which we now find ourselves. Such a story was published in mid-1994, nearly twenty-five years before the ball would drop on 2020--and once again, there wasn't really a silver lining to be found in our future, no idealistic prognostication of mankind having finally gotten its act together and resolved to build a better world and a brighter future for itself. On the contrary, there was only the stark realism of the same-old same-old--while the only thing that had improved, for what it was worth, was our technology.

And speaking of "stark," we discover that a certain industrial conglomerate has survived to claim a place in that world--but neither the company nor its chief executive is thriving.

Meet Arno Stark, who in taking on the mantle of Iron Man has tarnished the golden Avenger's legacy. Instead of living an altruistic life, Stark instead uses the armor as a mercenary, hiring out his services as Iron Man to equally ruthless business leaders like Sunset Bain (CEO of Baintronics) while having established for himself a reputation as someone who has no compunction against committing corporate espionage in order to cripple his competitors for his own company's gain.

When we first meet Stark, a character who appears in the 1984 Machine Man limited series based in 2020, that amoral man fits all too well in the corporate cutthroat environment where Bain et al. are looking for any edge to prevail against their competitors. The plot revolves around Machine Man, whose remains have been found and reassembled by a group of technology raiders calling themselves the Wreckers--whom he then joins forces with against Bain (who subsequently hires Iron Man to take out Machine Man).

Stark of course believes what he's saying about the fate of Iron Man, though the truth would only be revealed to the reader in the later '94 story--but more on that in a moment.

Iron Man vs. Machine Man would seem to be a natural match--more so to the latter, who first seeks out Iron Man in early 1983 (when the armor is still worn by Tony Stark) on the assumption that Iron Man is a robot like himself. Unfortunately, Stark at this point in time had fallen hard off the wagon and was thoroughly inebriated--and Machine Man's overtures are met with hostilities, as Stark jumps to the conclusion that this robot is another flunky of his nemesis, Obadiah Stane, sent to bedevil him.

In 2020, however, Machine Man knows there is nothing connecting him with his foe (though it's interesting to note the coincidence of their names phonetically sounding alike--"Aaron Stack," "Arno Stark")--nor is there any hesitation on Stark's part in attacking his target on sight.

Clearly, Stark is far more arrogant than his heroic predecessor--totally committed to fulfilling his contract with Bain, though he's underestimated his opponent. Machine Man is correct, however, in his assumption that he and Iron Man will meet again, and their final battle is waged as Machine Man attacks Bain directly at her corporate H.Q.--a meeting where he will settle things once and for all with this woman, and, in no uncertain terms, with Iron Man.

Along with his credit as co-plotter of this limited series, some of you will recognize the familiar hand of Barry Smith here, taking on pencils and inks in this fourth installment as well as colorist duties (Herb Trimpe, who co-created Iron Man 2020 with Tom DeFalco, had done breakdowns for Smith in the first three issues). Smith has had his on days and his off days for me, but I really enjoyed his work here on Machine Man, though I'm curious as to what his interest was in working with DeFalco on shaping this project.

Obviously an effort has been made here to keep the familiar aspect of the Iron Man armor, while "sinisterizing" it--spiked gauntlets and exaggerated, jagged epaulettes, with a similar look to his single hip pod balanced by a sharp-edged weapon on the opposite side. The armor has also been augmented by extra protection on the shoulders, chest, and boots--and the final touch of a jawed mouth slit on the face mask completes the look. (I could have done without the jawed mouth--good grief.) But, come on--all of the emphasis on offense and a fearful appearance which combine to give the impression of an unbeatable bruiser, yet a vulnerable control panel front and center?

As to how this fight is playing out, it looks as if Iron Man may have Machine Man on the ropes--but Stark makes the mistake of giving his opponent reason and motivation to end not only his threat, but to bring an end to Bain's as well.

Needless to say, after a bit more convincing on Machine Man's part at being driven to such ruthlessness, Bain, a pragmatic executive when push comes to shove, takes Machine Man's threat seriously and capitulates, agreeing to cease warring against the Wreckers.

Two years later, in the 1986 Amazing Spider-Man Annual, writer Ken McDonald gives Stark a further dose of comeuppance when a "planet-buster" bomb he creates for the military is armed by a terrorist who is out for revenge against him. McDonald's story, based in 2015 (as well as Spider-Man's own time period), paints an unflattering picture of Stark, riding the wave crest of his successes and popularity with not an ounce of humility or, for that matter, much of a conscience. Nearly eight years later, writer Walt Simonson and co-plotter/artist Bob Wiacek (along with artist William Rosado) produce a graphic novel which attempts to turn things around for the character, who at last begins to take stock of the kind of man he's become.

It takes the bulk of the book's 64 pages for the reader to begin to see signs of hope for Stark--as it should be, since a man like Arno Stark, with his history and character, doesn't develop a conscience and a sense of responsibility overnight. But "Howard," who had been the personal assistant and bodyguard to Wellington Marcus, the story's villain, gives some measure of hope for him, while revealing the true identity of the man who had a hand in putting Stark on the right course.

The story is eventually re-released as part of a 2013 collection which comprises the various appearances of Iron Man 2020 up to that point--about seven bucks more than the Simonson story but perhaps worth it for the inclusion of the tale from the Spidey annual. I'm slightly curious to know if the character was or will be revived for this year--though if not, that may provide an inkling as to Marvel's thinking on whether this version of Iron Man is worth pursuing. After all, if Tony Stark is still young and active in current Iron Man stories, you'd need to whip up one heck of a time displacement story to explain Arno Stark.


Anonymous said...

Back in 1979 I bought a book called 'The Usborne Book Of The Future' (Usborne was the company that published the book) which attempted to take a realistic look at what the next 50-100 years might be like (I was 13 at the time and the book was aimed at my age-group, about 10-15). It was an extremely optimistic vision of the future and one double-page spread imagined the Olympic Games of 2020...on the moon. Apparently by 2020 there'd be a moonbase/lunar city which would host the Olympics. Now that's the future we should have had!

Anonymous said...

Clearly you are an optimist Comicsfan - 2020 has only just started. Personally, I'd wait a bit longer before saying we caught up and passed it without incident...

Bashful Barry didn't have any particular interest in working with DeFalco, and came onto the Machine Man book through his longtime pal Herb Trimpe.
As it happens they both worked together inking Kirby's Bicentennial Battles, which I think was Smith's last Marvel job of the 70s.
Apparently by '83 he was interested in comics again, but didn't really know how to get back into doing them, and Happy Herb suggested a mini-series he'd just been assigned to pencil...
(Pretty sure the co-plotter credit was only on the final issue that Smith also did all the artwork for)


Big Murr said...

I don't follow/collect Iron Man, but what I've gathered from various promo blurbs and offhand remarks from Avengers. From that scant information, I gather:

1) Arno Stark is alive and well and is some sort of "lost brother" to Tony.

2) The current Iron Man blurbs tout Arno as the lead character/Iron Man.

I was kinda wondering myself if "Iron Man 2020" was going to show. I'd seen the comics you feature today on the sales rack back when. Eight years ago in Spider-Man, Doc Ock pillaged the 2020 armour (in a BainTronics storage facility) for future tech.

Big Murr said...

I do miss the idea of optimistic futures in comics. I have Superman #128 from 1959 (well before my collecting time) which I scored just because of their vision for the year 2000. In forty years, according to the story, Earth would be part of the United Worlds, with all the solar system colonized. (and inventing time travel on the side)

lordjim6 said...

All I really know about this guy is that he killed the original Blizzard in that spider-man annual. Now that I think about it, wasn’t he a member of the legion of the unliving in West Coast Avengers at some point?

Comicsfan said...

Colin, I think that idea might have needed a little more discussion--competitors in events such as the shot put and discus throw (not to mention pole vaulting) would have been setting startling new records, with gravity no longer an impediment, eh?

Sean, you notice I was careful not to lump in 2020 with those prior instances which were met in real time and turned out to have little to no resemblance to the fictional comics scenario. In any event, hopefully we can both be optimists in a year's time!

Murray, I suppose it's the job of a good comic to present the reader with a hopeful and intriguing future that's worth looking forward to--and it's funny how most of those accounts turn to the colonization of space as an indication that we would be a united world when that time arrived. Nowadays, as contemporary pioneers edge closer to branching out into space, it's probably a valid cause for concern that we still seem to be no closer to peace, and further apart as a species than ever--concerns that those in 1959 perhaps thought would be allayed by the turn of the century.

lordjim6, you've got it right--Arno was a proud (albeit dead) member of the Legion in an issue of Avengers West Coast, along with the Swordsman, the Grim Reaper, the Black Knight, et al.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting how believable an evil Stark/Iron Man seems. It makes a lotta sense, somehow.
I really dig the art here. Great comic!


Comicsfan said...

No argument on Smith's work here, M.P., he did a nice job.

Anonymous said...

Ah, reading again more closely I see I inferred an over optimism that wasn't there, Comicsfan. Apologies; and yes - hopefully our dystopian 2020 won't turn out to be as grim as Marvel's predicted dystopian 2020.


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