As tended to be my custom, as soon as I started buying a new Marvel series I’d be driven to dig around in my local drugstore’s Big Bin of Slightly Older Comics to see if any earlier issues could be found and purchased, five for a dollar. And so it was that I came into possession of this beauty. It had two things about it that I liked right away: the first was a Jack Kirby cover. Kirby had been doing a bunch of covers regularly for the new Marvel books since his return from rival DC in 1975, and while there was often something just a little bit awkward about them–in times due to other hands feeling the need to correct the characters and bring them on-model, which is ironic given that Kirby created most of these characters in the first place–they also tended to pack a punch. Here, Kirby makes the Melter seem like a legitimate threat as he reduces Iron Man to goo. And yes, there’s something off about the torso of the Melter figure here, but it’s disguised well enough that it doesn’t get in the way of the impact of the image.
I said two things, and we’ll get to the second in a little bit. But I can say that I had no idea when reading this story for the first time that it was in essence writer/editor Gerry Conway repeating a story concept that had first been used by Stan Lee and Gene Colan a decade or so earlier–despite the fact that Conway is bold enough to drop in an editorial note at one point directly referencing that earlier story. All around, I liked the look of this issue of IRON MAN better than the earlier one I’d experienced. Mainstay George Tuska is in fine form, adroitly inked by Jack Abel, who served to give him just a little bit of the seeming of Gene Colan in his finish. In these days, this is what Iron Man was supposed to look like.
The set-up is about as typical an Iron Man opening as it was then possible to have. Sabotage at Stark International! iron Man himself is almost blown up in the explosion, and it damages his armor’s thermocouple unit. Tony Stark heads back to his office, musing nostalgically for his old armor–one gets the sense that Conway was setting up to do an overhaul of the suit, eliminating the strange functionality that allowed this iteration to “zap” all of its component parts into its chest-late, in a way that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Tony gets a call from employees Abe Klein and Krissy Longfellow, who are en route to the SI offices with bad news about some pending litigation against Stark. But as they’re traversing the Brooklyn bridge, they’re in traffic along with a army convoy which is itself attacked. Tony once again suits up to fly to the rescue. The page above is worth pointing out for its egregious use of what we in the business call the “arrow of shame” in order to guide readers through the reading order of the panels smoothly. As artists grew more experimental with some of their layouts, the Arrow of Shame was a frequent visitor to the Marvel books of this era.
Alighting at the scene, Iron Man is directed by Krissy and Abe towards where the mystery assailant is located. As the cover has already revealed, it’s the Melter, one of Iron Man’s most specific enemies–his melting abilities don’t seem like they’d be a huge threat to, say, Daredevil or Captain America. But he can melt Iron Man’s armor right off of him. Which he proceeds to do, in a very nice multiple-image splash page that shows Shell-Head progressively taking more and more damage. In the end, he goes plummeting off the bridge into the icy waters below, and is almost dragged to the bottom by his malfunctioning and mostly-inoperative armor before he’s able to get it off. A passing ship fishes Tony Stark out of the drink–but he’s perturbed by how easily the Melter handed him his head. Maybe it’s time to call Daredevil or Captain America?
Elsewhere, the Melter is looking over his prize, purloined from the army convoy he attacked. It’s a small thermonuclear device capable of destroying a square mile if it detonates. The Melter is attempting to sell it back to the military, who must comply or else he’ll set the thing off in a populated area, the cad. But suddenly, there is a leaden sound–and then, in this page reminiscent of the pacing of the first Iron Man cover from TALES OF SUSPENSE #39, Iron Man comes crashing into the Melter’s hideout. But this is the original Iron Man, wearing his bulky all-golden early armor. And this was the second thing that grabbed me about this issue–this sense of history. I loved the fact that Stark had to pull this classic suit out in order to take on his foe–having no idea that he’d previously been forced to do the exact same thing while facing the Melter in a pair of TALES OF SUSPENSE issues previously mentioned. Either way, it’s time for round two.
Unfortunately for the Golden Avenger, round two goes down pretty much the same way that round one did. In an especially violent moment for 1978, the Melter literally blasts Iron man’s right arm off–but this isn’t enough to stop his metallic antagonist. Undaunted, he fires a melting blast directly through Iron Man’s torso, but the golden figure still keeps coming, like the monster in a creature feature. The Melter, swiftly losing his cool, blows Iron Man’s head completely to bits–and yet none of this halts the ceaseless advance of the mighty super hero.
And that, of course, is because this isn’t Iron Man at all, but rather a robot kitted up with his old armor that the real Shell-Head is using as a decoy, so that he can get the drop on his deadly adversary. Which he does–but the Melter is completely freaked out by this point, and he falls to his seeming death claiming that he was bested not by a man, but rather a Golden Ghost. This is cheeky on Conway’s part, as “The Golden Ghost” was the title of that long-ago Lee/Colan story in which Tony was forced to don his old armor to battle the Melter, the very story Conway is riffing on here. And in all honesty, he makes better use out of the ideas, I found this issue very satisfying, and more than anything, this one is why I kept reading IRON MAN even with my dissatisfaction with the current issue that I had already read.