This issue of IRON MAN was another book that I got out of a plastic 3-Bag being sold either in a department store or a toy store. Like the other recent books I picked up under similar circumstances, this issue had initially gone on sale before I’d started to follow Marvel comics, and so the 3-Bags represented a second chance to catch up on recent storylines. IRON MAn as a title was on a bit of an upswing at this moment, thanks to the scripting of writer Bill Mantlo, who genuinely seemed to want to be writing the series. Far from being a popular book, IRON MAN was a bit out-of-step with the era of the 1970s, given that it starred a multimillionaire maker of weapons of war–part of the Military Industrial Complex, in other words. Even with the steps made to distance Tony Stark from his roots and have him turn his back on making weapons, the character had some tough sledding during the times, and his book wasn’t seen as a particularly plum assignment by many. But Mantlo was giddy to have control over a foundational Marvel character at last, and so was determined to make the most of the opportunity.
I’ve spoken in the past concerning George Tuska, who penciled long stretches of Shellhead’s series and was strongly associated with the character, at least for 1970s readers. Tuska had been a powerhouse in the 1940s–John Romita in particular was an enormous fan of Tuska’s work on CRIME DOES NOT PAY for Lev Gelason’s outfit. He was also one of the relatively few craftsmen from the 1940s who was able to make the switch-over to working in the Marvel style, where the artist would draw the story from only a brief synopsis rather than a full script. Tuska’s storytelling was always spot-on, and while he was perhaps underappreciated by fandom due to the fact that his work wasn’t especially flashy (in the same manner as Sal Buscema and Herb Trimpe, to name two other artists with a similar rap), he always delivered a crisp, clean, powerful reading experience. His time on IRON MAN was heading for the wrap-up at the time this issue came out, though nobody knew it at that moment.
Mantlo, it turns out, was a fan of Archie Goodwin’s time writing IRON MAN several years earlier, and so he proceeded to bring back any number of elements from Archie’s run. This almost made things feel as though fifty issues or so of the series in the middle hadn’t even happened, but as Goodwin’s days represented the last time that the series was consistently good, this was probably all for the best. The issue opens with Jasper Sitwell, SHIELD agent (and emigree of the Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD series) assigned to Stark International in pursuit of Stark’s executive assistant Krissy Longfellow and private eye Harry Key, who have made off with a briefcase containing a spare suit of Iron Man’s armor. The pair manage to elude Sitwell not through any machinations of their own, but rather when their car is suddenly levitated skyward by a tractor beam emanating from a massive flying platform.
Meanwhile, Iron Man is still en route back to the United States following his skirmishes with both the Mandarin and the Dreadknight over the past four issues. He’s forced to fly conventional airlines, which gives mantlo the opportunity for some fish-out-of-water fun. He also name-checks longtime letter writer and newly-hired Marvel Bullpenner Jo Duffy, for whom Iron Man signs an autograph despite his metal gloves. As this is transpiring, the identity of the figure who rescued Harry Key and Krissy Longfellow is revealed–it’s Midas, a villain last visited during Goodwin’s era. He’s the one who has been backing Harry Key’s attempts at industrial espionage at Stark International, and he is sorely vexed when he discovers that all Key got in that briefcase was Iron Man’s helmet and gloves–the case was a fake, a diversion. Frustrated, Midas hurls Key to his death before turning his attention to Krissy, who reveals her own true identity. As has been patently obvious for a couple of issues now, she’s secretly Iron Man’s old foe-turned-romantic-interest Madame Masque. And she’s got history with Midas as well, as he was the one who took the shattered Whitney Frost and helped her to re-establish herself as the deadly Madame Masque.
Midas has taken advantage of Tony Stark’s disappearance to take financial control of Stark International through his holding company, Golden Touch. Legally, the place and all of its belongings are his. Midas’ proxy, Mr. Atreus, orders security beefed up around the factory–and just in time, as Iron Man is finally arriving home. Tony isn’t sure just wat is going on, but he’s fired upon by his own security staff, and this pisses him off. Unfortunately for Shellhead, he didn’t take any notice of who was writing his adventures right then. If he had, he might have realized that Bill Mantlo had a pet character that he had introduced in the pages of the DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU black and white magazine. it turns out that character has an appointment with Stark International, and he comes across an enraged Iron man attempting to storm the grounds. Misinterpreting events in the manner of every hot-headed Marvel super hero of the 1970s, Jack Hart throws himself into the fray in his costumed identity as Jack of Hearts. And of course, he assumes that Iron man is the aggressor here, and decides that the Armored Avenger is the one in need of a punching out.
Midas is delighted at this turn of events, and is all too willing to let the two super heroes go to town on one another before he steps in to confront the victor. That turns out to be Iron Man, of course–it is his magazine, after all. He’s also super-pissed about what is going on, and takes out his aggression on the attacking Jack, at one point slashing through Jack’s costume, which contains the uncontrollably zero force that empowers him. But the sudden explosive discharge drains off JoH’s energy, and he plummets towards the ground, rescued by Iron Man at the last moment. It is at this point that Midas reveals himself as the new owner of Stark International. He promptly fires Iron Man, little realizing that it’s Tony Stark he’s addressing under that metal helmet. (And which is a bit of a shame–an iron man who was employed by Midas would have been a fun status quo to play with for an issue or tow.) Tony also learns that Krissy was Madame Masque all the time, and that she was secretly trying to prevent Midas’ takeover. But too little, too late, the damage is done.
Iron Man just about loses it at this point, and Jack of Hearts and Madame Masque need to hold him back in order to stop him from publicly attacking Midas. Jack tells him that what he’ll need to do is to find Tony Stark, that Stark will need to challenge Midas in court in order to regain his assets. Jack cuts out, but swears to help if he at all can, leaving Iron Man and Madame Masque without any recourse and without even a place to go. As they jet off, the just-arriving Jasper Sitwell arrives from out in the field and is himself crushed by how badly he has failed. And elsewhere ( in a plotline that would eventually be dropped partway through and not resolved for decades) Tony’s former psychic girlfriend Marianne Rogers is being discharged from the Sanitorium where she’s made a recovery from the madness her powers had inflicted upon her. And that’s where this particular story is To Be Continued. It’s mostly lots of juicy subplot payoffs, with a mandatory fight scene in the middle between Jack and Iron Man. But even so, it was a lot more solidly constructed than any number of recent issues of IRON MAN.
Mantlo also commandeered more than half of the letters page this time out to both relay a bunch of information concerning Jack of Hearts’ backstory that wasn’t contained within the story (an explanation that smacks of an order from Jim Shooter, who was then acting as “pre-proofreader” and trying to help make sense of the vast number of books that were going through Marvel’s system, often without anybody other than the creators looking at them. Shooter thought that Mantlo was often sloppy on the fundamentals, and so I could see Mantlo’s write-up here being in response to Shooter’s reasonable note that, for people who didn’t read those black and white magazines, nothing is known about Jack of Hearts.) and to elicit support for the character from the audience, in the hope that he’d be able to do more with him down the line. Jack would eventually get a tryout in MARVEL PREMIERE, so it’s possible that this call for letters worked–though it’s equally possible that Mantlo stumped to do Jack there when an opening came up.