This was the second issue of IRON MAN that I bought new off the spinner rack at my regular 7-11, and it wasn’t a book that I particularly cared for. I know this, because a few years later I traded it away for something else. Of the classic Marvel characters, Iron Man was perhaps the one that took the longest amount of time to really click with me–though Thor is close. And really, that’s partly because, at this time, his series was decidedly a second tier title and not given a whole lot of love or attention. That was beginning to change here, but this was the final part of a multi-part space-based adventure, and so not all that representative of what IRON MAN would typically be like. Subsequent issues connected with me a lot better–and the creative team of David Michelinie, John Romita Jr and Bob Layton was right around the corner. But that’s a tale for the future.
This particular issue was written by Bill Mantlo, a writer who was capable of really good work but also really poor stories. he got better and more consistent the longer he was in teh field, but he was always a bit hit-or-miss. When he was on, he was able to hit my sweet spot, but when he wasn’t, it could be onerous to get through one of his issues. The art was provided by Keith Pollard, whom I would guess only did breakdowns here. I liked Pollard a lot in the late 1970s, especially on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and FANTASTIC FOUR. He was a straight ahead storyteller who pulled from the great masters–Kirby, Ditko and Buscema–in putting together his pages. Here, he’s finished by Alfredo Alcala, who was a masterful inker, but not well suited to a gleaming high-tech hero. Alcala’s specialty was in texture–he did wonderful things with John Buscema’s breakdowns on SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, for example. But over Pollard on IRON MAN, his line seemed a bit muddy, especially given the subject matter.
Mantlo had no doubt been inspired by the juggernaut that was STAR WARS in deciding to send the armored avenger on a space adventure for several issues, and he populated the story with a menagerie of disparate characters drawn from Marvel’s past. Among them were Darkstar and the Soviet Super Soldiers, characters whom Mantlo had developed in CHAMPIONS, as well as his pet character Jack of Hearts. There were also the Rigellians, the New Men creations of teh High Evolutionary, Galactus’ Punisher robot, and a bunch of other stuff. having had scant contact with most of it, it was a confusing mess of backstories and difficult to keep straight. More importantly, it was hard to connect to any of these characters–including Tony Stark in this issue–and to feel emotionally invested in what was going on. That last part is the key: it can be fun to do a story that pulls on different strands of teh web of connections that is Marvel continuity. But if teh reader isn’t invested in what’s going on, then it all reads like an encyclopedia entry, and the book gets closed in dissatisfaction.
So, what’s going on here? Well, Iron man and Jack of Hearts had ventured through a dimensional aperture they’d found on the moon alongside the Soviet Super-Soldiers, only to find themselves embroiled in a conflict between the animalistic New Men, who have set up a colony on a remote planet, and the Colonizers of Rigel, who claim the planet as their own. The two Earth heroes don’t have a lot of skin in this conflict, but they wind up bouncing around, shifting alliances from side to side depending on the circumstances. In order to coerce Jack of Hearts into working on his behalf, Commander Arcturus of the Rigellians has threatened to colonize Earth using the captured Punisher if they cannot have the planet now named Wundagore II. Jack tells Arcturus to stuff it, and Iron Man and the Knights of Wundagore invade the Rigellian flagship–but not in time to prevent Arcurus from dispatching the Punisher through the rift and back to Earth’s moon on its mission of colonization.
With no time to lose, Iron Man zips back through the portal–followed closely by the Rigellian forces, whom Jack of Hearts attempts to hold off. He’s given some aid in that respect by the Soviet Super-Soldiers, who have been on the moon ever since Jack and Shellhead went into the portal. Meanwhile, the Punisher is making a beeline for Earth, and Iron Man catches up to him. He magnetizes his armor to the creature’s back, as he doesn’t have enough power to make teh journey from the moon to Earth on his own–this way, the Punisher won’t be able to shake him. But neither, it seems, can he slow the thing down even a little bit. Matters get worse as Madame Masque, who’s taken command at Stark International in the absence of Tony by using a Tony Stark Life-Model Decoy as a stand-in, orders the approaching threat to be shot down using a new Stark-devised missile. Iron man maneuvers himself so that the Punisher takes the brunt of the blast, but the pair makes a very uncomfortable re-entry through the atmosphere, crashing down upon the Earth. The Punisher, though, bounces right back up and begins its rampage–whereas it takes Iron Man a few minutes to clear his head and get his bearings.
Tony is able to recognize that, while it outwardly seems to be in fit fighting condition, the Punisher must have been hurt by that missile explosion, and he engages with the creature. What follows is an extended fight scene in which Iron man uses all of the assorted tricks in his arsenal (including his roller skates) but still isn’t able to put a dent in teh rampaging monstrosity. As a last ditch measure, he turns off teh safeties in his armor, routing every bit of power he can muster into it all at once. It’s dangerous, and may be fatal, but this will allow Iron Man to strike, at least once, in the same weight class as Thor. And so he puts his all into a single blow–and is able to fell the Punisher. And fortunately, the strain on his systems doesn’t cause them to explode, and his synthetic heart is also able to stand the strain. So that’s Iron Man’s part of the battle finished. But he wonders what’s happening with Jack of Hearts and teh others up on the moon.
And so, our narrative eyes shift back to the moon for the wrap-up, where a Rigellian Recorder suddenly descends from teh sky. He declares that Arcurus’ campaign–both to claim Wundagore Ii and this aggression against the Earth–is illegal, and he strips the Commander of his rank and title and declares the war finished. The cosmic egg that created the rift in space will be used to get the combatants back home and then destroyed. And so teh story finishes up, with the Recorder praising the heroes of earth for their valiant actions. It’s a pretty lifeless end to four issues of nonsense, and the lead character isn’t even a part of it. But I was happy to see the back end of this story, so I was fine with it.
The letters page this time out included something special. In addition to the usual page of correspondence, Mantlo also arranged to print the above illustrated letter from fan Fred Hembeck. Mantlo was an early supporter of Hembeck’s work, and the two had begun to correspond over the books Bill was writing, which Fred enjoyed. (Bill was typically very supportive of new talent, in particular artists.) If I recall things right, he even got Hembeck paid for this page–a pittance, but an actual check from the Marvel Comics Group. This would have been my first contact with Hembeck, but his fan strip Dateline @#$% was incredibly important to my own development. So while this letter by itself didn’t make a huge impact on me, it did represent my first contact with Hembeck’s work. (You can see that the colorist misinterpreted those two butt-cheeks on Fred’s head–they’re meant to be his hair, but colored in fleshtone, they look like something else entirely. Oops.)