Now that’s a really nice cover–one that I didn’t get to experience until many years later, as my copy of IRON MAN #96 came from one of those bundles of coverless recent comics that my local drug store had begun to sell. Today, Iron Man is one of the most recognizable Marvel characters worldwide, but back in the 1970s, his series was decidedly second tier (if that). But things were on the upswing at this moment, though that wouldn’t really become apparent for another year or so.
This particular issue was scripted by incoming writer Bill Mantlo over outgoing writer Gerry Conway’s plot. Mantlo was the source of things getting better–he seemed to truly embrace writing Shell-head and threw his all into the book, having not had a regular ongoing series featuring a mainstay Marvel character up to this point. Mantlo is one of those writers about which both good and bad can be said, largely because he would take on any assignment in his early days, turning around whole issues overnight as needed. But supposedly, like a shark, once a job was done and paid for, he didn’t look back at it–and that led to some shoddy plotting from time to time. Additionally. Mantlo was involved in two instances of plagiarism when he was later working on INCREDIBLE HULK–accounts are vague as to how much this was happenstance and how much he knew what he was doing.
As it had been for much of the preceding umber of years, the artwork on this issue was provided by George Tuska, an experienced craftsman with a very singular style. Like IRON MAN, Tuska was one of those back-bench mainstays who contributed to the line every month but who didn’t garner a lot of attention or fan acclaim. But he could tell a story visually, which is what the game was all about for Marvel pencilers in this period. His work was reliably meat-and-potatoes without a lot of colorful flourishes or complex page layouts.
So last month, Iron Man intercepted his old sparring partner, the robotic Ultimo, on a rampage in Washington DC, where Tony Stark was expected to testify before Congress once again. And Ultimo cleaned his clock, leaving his armor pitted and his artificial heart on the verge of rejection. Some momentary help appears in the form of a returning supporting character who hadn’t been seen in many a year: Jasper Sitwell, Agent of SHIELD. Jasper is able to scoop up the Armored Avenger and get him plugged into a handy power source before he has a fatal heart attack. The additional power to his life-saving chest-plate allows Iron Man to get his second wind, and despite Sitwell’s protestations that he is in no physical condition to continue the battle, Iron man launches himself out of the SHIELD flying craft and back into action once again.
Meanwhile, back at Stark Industries, Tony’s new secretary/executive assistant Krissy Longfellow has been pursuing a shadowy figure who has broken into the complex. This is Detective Michael O’Brien, whose brother Kevin had years earlier died while on Stark’s payroll–in reality, he had become the armored Guardsman, and his defective armor had driven him mad. There’s something weird going on with Krissy too–but we won’t get into that here, as it’s partly due to one writer throwing out another writer’s planned direction and doing something different when it was their turn. Anyway, after a page or two of cat-and-mouse, O’Brien gets the drop on Longfellow and clobbers her.
Back at the fight, Iron Man has reviewed his past encounters with Ultimo and remembered that the giant robot had been rendered inert by conditions inside a live volcano. Fortunately, Washington DC is situated just above an active volcanic fault–bet you didn’t know that, huh? So Iron Man begins to burrow down into the Earth with his Repulsor Rays, baiting Ultimo to follow him. As they get deeper into the underground, Iron Man tricks Ultimo into unleashing his devastating laser beams on a specific spot–and the result is a volcanic eruption that takes out the giant robot. (I don’t think we can blame any of this on Mantlo, this stuff, at least the broad strokes of it, would have been in Conway’s plot. Still–this is all pretty sloppy and unbelievable.)
Back at Stark Industries, Krissy Longfellow has come around, only to be confronted by Michael O’Brien, now clad in the Guardsman armor that drove his brother mad. He blames Tony Stark and Iron man for his brother’s death, of course, and intends to use the suit as a new Guardsman to bring them to justice. To Be Continued! A perfectly fine story, but one in which we can see the echoes of other, earlier, better tales. It’s a bit of a mélange of Iron Man greatest hit moments–which itself was enough to make it more engaging than any number of other Iron Man stories of recent vintage. But it wasn’t especially terrific on its own merits. Still, for 30 cents, you could do worse.