At this point, there’d been another cycling of the 3-Bags of comics available at department and toy stores, and so I wound up over the course of several weeks picking up a number of recent books that I had earlier missed; in most cases because I hadn’t been reading Marvel titles yet. The window on the 3-Bag as a viable source for new comics was beginning to close for me. While they would continue as a format well into the 1980s, once they got up to the point where I was actively buying Marvel books, their usefulness to me would end, as everything they offered was either a comic I had already bought or else one that I had previously passed up. But here, they were still an excellent source of recent back issues, at a time when there still wasn’t any other regular source of such things available to me.
This was another early issue in the writing tenure of Bill Mantlo, who would largely right the directionless ship that had been IRON MAN for many years. He was joined by George Tuska, who had toiled on the series semi-regularly for most of that period. Mantlo was clearly influenced by the run of Iron Man stories written by Archie Goodwin (who was now Marvel’s Editor–not yet Editor in Chief, as there was still only one in those days) and so he brought back a bunch of characters from Archie’s days, and tried to create a similar sense of rolling drama among them. Mantlo also inherited a bunch of plotlines from outgoing writer Gerry Conway, and in a few cases he propelled their development in very different directions than had originally been intended. It all made for a difference, and felt like somebody was putting some genuine effort into IRON MAN again for the first time in a long while. The armored Avenger was very much out of step with the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, being in essence a war profiteer, which I suspect caused some scriptwriters conflict in developing him effectively. But he was the perfect character for the “greed-is-good” decade that would be the 1980s, so his moment was just around the corner.
In the previous issue, Iron Man’s armor had been stolen by Michael O’Brien, the brother of the man who had once been the Guardsman, and Tony Stark’s friend. Michael believed that his brother had been killed by Stark, and so he’d been using means both legal and otherwise to get the goods on Stark. At the same time, Tony was accused of bribing certain Japanese officials in order to secure Stark contracts, an action that brought the Japanese super hero Sunfire to attack Stark International, But before he could lay low O’Brien in Iron Man’s colors, the target of his ire disappeared in a teleportation burst. Meanwhile, with no other recourse open to him, Tony donned his earlier armor, the one with the pointy mask, and rocketed into the fray. And that’s where we pick things up this time out.
Iron Man was often portrayed as a bit of a second-stringer in this era. His armor was constantly breaking down or running out of power, and his heart condition (or the synthetic heart that eventually replaced it) was always acting up, bringing him to his knees. Which was fine as far as it goes–you want your heroes to overcome adversity and to have feet of clay. But it was rare to see Iron Man simply overwhelm an adversary. And that’s exactly what happens here. Despite the fact that he’s clad in an older suit of armor, one that isn’t as advanced and capable as his present suit, Stark kicks the crap out of Sunfire in a manner that makes him seem legitimately powerful and formidable. Once the Japanese mutant is down for the count, Tony turns his attention to the vanished Michael O’Brien. He has a feeling he knows who is responsible–but he also thinks that the perpetrator is dead.
See, this had happened before, years earlier–except that time, it was happy Hogan in the armor (it’s amazing that this never happened to Tony directly, but such are the vicissitudes of fate. ) Stark is able to commandeer some SHIELD satellites to home in on Communist China, where he’s able to witness O’Brien being felled by warriors armed with electro-swords and conveyed to a waiting castle. This is, of course, the headquarters of the architect of all of Tony’s recent woes, his old enemy the Mandarin. Thinking that he had captured and neutralized the true Iron Man, the Mandarin straps him to a missile aimed at the United States, with the intention of setting off a prolonged nuclear exchange from which he can emerge in the aftermath and conquer the survivors. It’s a batshit plan, but Tony needs to stop it irregardless. Since the current suit of armor he’s sporting isn’t as powerful as the one O’Brien has taken, Stark overcharges it past its safeties, hoping that will be enough to help him take on the Mandarin and save O’Brien and the world. He then sets out to procure a Quinjet from the Avengers (whom he doesn’t bother to call in on this because there isn’t enough time, and because the logo on this comic book is IRON MAN.)
While all of this is going on, we cut around for some subplot work as well, including a revealing hint that (spoilers) Tony Stark’s new personal assistant isn’t what she seems to be, but rather Iron Man’s old flame/enemy Madame Masque in disguise. Elsewhere, a Senate subcommittee is meeting concerning the allegations against Tony Stark One of Stark’s accusers, Jonathan Rich, has a briefcase the contents of which are meant to be documents that will prove Stark’s guit. Unfortunately, it was earlier switched with a different, booby-trapped briefcase that will explode if it is tampered with–and the hot-blooded Rich is about to open it. Also, Jasper Sitwell, agent of SHIELD, continues to be flummoxed by just about everyone. Jasper was a good supporting character, more effective in IRON MAN than the SHIELD strip in which he originated, in that he could be more his own man. It’s a shame he’s fallen away in the intervening years.
Anyway, the Mandarin has his fun taunting the seemingly-defeated Iron Man, even slapping his foe, which isn’t the smartest thing to do to a man in an iron helmet. And so he launches his rocket, to which O’Brien is bound. But the real Iron Man has finally arrived in China, and he’s able to liberate O’Brien from captivity and also disarm the missile. Alighting, the pair exchange armors, with Tony revealing to his enemy O’Brien the secret of his true identity. This revelation makes O’Brien realize that his suspicions about Tony Stark were meritless, and he leaves the scene, taking Iron Man’s Quinjet back to the United States. The real Shellhead, though, is geared up for a showdown with the Mandarin, and makes a beeline for his enemy’s castle. And that’s where the issue ends–with a blurb indicating that the showdown will take place in the centennial IRON MAN #100 (which I had already read.) It’s a pretty good, pretty jam-packed issue, and a taste of things to come for the Armored Avenger in the future.