BHOC: IRON MAN #81

It was a sad reality of the 1970s that for most of that decade, IRON MAN was a book that just wasn’t very good. Today he’s at the forefront of worldwide consciousness about Marvel thanks to Robert Downey Jr’s performance as Tony Stark in the films–but in the 1970s, his series trundled along, a lower-middle tier title without a lot of excitement to it. Things would get better right at the end of the decade, just about where I came in, actually. But as I explored earlier issues, there were a fair number of dogs–and this was one of them. I passed by it a number of times in my Drugstore’s Big Bin of Slightly Older Comics before eventually taking the plunge on it–and I was immediately disappointed upon reading it that the big head in the background didn’t belong to Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, as I had thought when I took the leap to purchase it.

This was the final issue in writer Mike Friedrich’s long run on IRON MAN, the longest and most consistent run he ever did at Marvel. It was also the final part of the so-called War of the Super-Villains, a sprawling pseudo-event storyline that really could have been something but was hampered by lousy execution, a frequent need for fill-ins and even emergency reprints, and just an overall bungling of the material. Like most of the Marvel core of writers during this period, Friedrich was relatively young when he wrote these stories, and so I suspect he didn’t have the experience that would have allowed him to navigate some of these problems more effectively. The art in this issue was provided by Chic Stone, in a rare Marvel penciling job. He’s probably best remembered as the first inker who made Jack Kirby’s Marvel work shine back around 1964, and he produced a totally workmanlike Marvel-style comic book here. But that’s about it. He’s backed up by workhorse Vince Colletta, the “Great Equalizer” who managed to bring all pencilers, better and worse, to the same relative level. In this instance, he likely helped give Stone’s final pages some of that Marvel luster.

The story was also intended as a Steve Gerber-esque satire of then-current politics, but I must admit that all of that went way over my head in the days when I first read this tale. And meaning no disrespect, being influenced by Gerber was nothing new at Marvel in the mid-70s–but Friedrich was no Gerber, and his reach exceeded his grasp in this effort. To set things up, Iron Man has pursued his long running mystery villain the Black Lama back to the Lama’s home dimension, a counterpart to our own Earth. The Lama had been one of the prime movers in the War of the Super-Villains, and in the fallout from that conflict, Iron Man’s other foe , the lefty radical Firebrand had also come to be on this other Earth. What’s more the Black Lama turned out to be the King of one of its primary nations, who had been driven insane upon journeying to our universe. King Jerald was in the middle of a civil war in his universe–and like it or not, Iron Man and Firebrand both get sucked into events.

You see, the United States wasn’t a single country in this other universe, and King Jerald (who was intended to be a parody of sitting President Gerald Ford) was at war with his neighbors, specifically the nation run by Baron Rockler, an analogue of Nelson Rockefeller, which is in open rebellion. See? Satire! For no really good reason, this alternate universe is simultaneously a quasi-medieval fantasy realm but also endowed with futuristic technology. The whole thing doesn’t really make much sense or hold together, but best to just roll with it. Friedrich was battling mightily to bring his epic to some manner of satisfying conclusion, to land this plane without killing everybody on board. Iron Man’s agreed to help out King Jerald while he searches for Firebrand–he could just leave the bad guy here, but he figures that would piss off Firebrand’s sister, Roxanne, and since Tony Stark was looking to get in her pants, that couldn’t be allowed to happen.

Unfortunately, after several pages of meaningless battle with Baron Rockler’s forces, Iron Man can’t even seem to locate Firebrand, and so his mission seems doomed to failure. He’s also got another problem to cope with: just as happened to King Jerald when he came to our world, having transitioned into the Black Lama’s universe is driving both Tony Stark and Firebrand bonkers. So Iron Man is having blackouts, seeing things that aren’t there, and acting out in anger destructively and dangerously. He almost throttles the life out of King Jerald at one point before he can get ahold of himself. Elsewhere, Baron Rockler has made his retreat successfully, only to be poisoned by his Baroness, the true power behind the throne. I assume this is also a reference to then-current politics, but I confess that I’m not up enough on the history to be able to connect the dots here, even today. Anyway, Firebrand appears from the shadows and forges an alliance with the Baroness, figuring that taking over this world is as good as any. And so they position themselves along with a big robot dragon created by the Lord Professor (who is also clearly meant to be some contemporary figure) and set out to attack King Jerald.

So Iron Man really could have saved himself a lot of effort if he had just hung around King Jerald’s palace waiting for Firebrand to show up–because that’s what happens here. Shell-Head has to first vanquish the big robot dragon that Firebrand is flying around in before taking on the villain himself. And he’s also got to wrestle at the same time with his own slipping sanity and that of Firebrand. By the end of the conflict, the two battlers are almost incoherent “mind-dragons” flailing at one another. But Tony Stark’s iron will allows him to pull back from beating Firebrand to death in his mania, proving himself superior to King Jerald, who had succumbed to that madness.

The Baroness and Lord Professor are still out there, still a threat to King Jerald’s rule–but none of that is really Iron Man’s problem. He got what he came for, and so he figures that before he cracks completely, he ought to get out of Dodge. Using the Golden Globe that was the McGuffin throughout the War of the Super-Villain, the all-powerful prize the various factions were fighting over, Iron Man and Firebrand take their leave and return to their own world–though the second they arrive, Firebrand cuts and runs, having made landfall a few moments earlier. So even Iron Man’s victory over his foe is a bit tarnished, but he’s just happy to be back home and sane, and so he flies off, into the hands of another creative team as the final blurb tells us. I didn’t hate this story or anything as a reader, but I did find it kind of blah. It was outings such as this one that made it hard to get into the adventures of Iron Man.

8 thoughts on “BHOC: IRON MAN #81

  1. Mike Friedrich’s reach almost always exceeded his grasp. Though I did like one scene from the War of Super-Villains where he explains why the big guns (Fu Manchu, Doctor Doom, Red Skull) aren’t interested in competing (Doom’s too arrogant to compete, the Skull demands the sphere by right and Fu Manchu figures out everything and declines).
    Archie Goodwin took over the book and did a great job after Stan left but then yeah, things foundered. Much the same with Thor, which wouldn’t be good again until Simonson.

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  2. Stone drew Iron Man with a bit of a nose.Sort of a Dr.Doom look.Was that in vogue during that period? ( Enjoy your musing greatly)

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  3. I was one of those kids back then who bought everything from SC and Marvel that was super-hero related. Even if I didn’t much like the character or didn’t like the art or writing, I bought it. That’s why I bought this book through and past this period. I remember hating how the War ended. It made no sense for Firebrand to win, Black Llama turned out to be just some random loser, and the ending was just plain awful to read.

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  4. I remember that early in the saga, it was implied that some big name villains were going to be part of it, but then somewhere along the way that all fell apart (hence the explanation later on as to why they weren’t there). I’ve always wondered what happened behind the scenes to kill the larger event. Do you have any details, Tom?

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  5. Thanks for this recap, Tom!

    The first issue of Iron Man I bought as a kid was one of the fill-in issues in the middle of this arc. I was intrigued by mentions of the Black Lama and the “War of the Super-Villains,” but never learned the details ’til now. It sounds like this was a real disaster.

    Also, your comment on people trying to imitate Gerber: political satire is a tricky thing, but the most important element is that the writer actually, you know, SATIRIZES something. I can understand all the shots taken at Nixon by Gerber and Englehart; but Gerald Ford? Really? Was he such a controversial figure that you’d cast him as a supervillain? (Especially given that Saturday Night Live was satirizing him as a bumbling clown!) And how are “King Jerald” and “Baron Rockler” enemies, when in real life Ford picked Rockefeller as his Vice-President? This all just seems like an incoherent mess.

    Finally: given your comment on Friedrich’s writing, I was vastly amused that he credited himself as “typewriter” on this issue. Sort of the ultimate in self-deprecation, if you recall Truman Capote’s comment on Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

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