This issue of IRON MAN was yet another book that I wound up with after getting it in a plastic 3-Bag purchased at a department store or a toy store. I had only recently begun to follow the series, and I wound up reading all of the issues during this period in a weird, backwards, haphazard order. I’m sure that’s part of what kept me from really connecting with them in a major way; all of the story surprises were already known to me coming in, having been revealed in later installments. But the title during this period was on an upswing, after about half a decade or so of being aggressively lousy, so my timing was fortuitous. And better days were just on the horizon, not that anybody really knew that at the time.
The person mainly responsible for the improvement in IRON MAN was writer Bill Mantlo. Mantlo had been a journeyman in the Marvel Bullpen of the 1970s, writing whatever he could get his hands on, often quickly when a title was in a scheduling jam. His output was inconsistent–eventual Editor in Chief Jim Shooter, for example, found his work to be consistently sloppy, and butted heads with Mantlo about revising it to make it better (or just to make sense to him.) But given a central title like IRON MAN, Mantlo buckled down to show what he could do. He was heavily influenced by Archie Goodwin’s tenure as Shell-Head’s writer, and so he brought back a number of elements from that run: Madame Masque, SHIELD liaison Jasper Sitwell, even the villainous Midas. But it all worked, as the soap opera aspect of the series clicked into focus again in a way it hadn’t for some time.
As this page handily recaps, over the course of the last several months, Midas has been working behind-the-scenes in order to stage a financial takeover of Stark International, which he accomplished last month. Left with nothing more than the armor on his back, Iron Man has retreated to his childhood home on Long Island, accompanied by his romantic interest Madame Masque, whom it was revealed had been posing as Stark’s newly-hired administrative assistant Krissy Longfellow. Masque–Whitney Frost–is in love with Iron Man, and she’s worked out that he’s secretly Tony Stark. But she’s also still a wanted criminal, and so Jasper Sitwell, who has been tracking her for some time (and who was smitten with her in the past) shows up to take her into custody.
This was the first story to really delve into Tony Stark’s background and upbringing. Howard Stark had been mentioned on one prior occasion, but this is where Tony’s mother Maria is finally given a name. It’s astonishing how much more well-known and central they are today, thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe incarnations. Anyway, the structure of this issue is done really strangely, with an opening dream sequence that sets up the plot but transitions briefly to the present before jumping into an extended flashback–it’s confusing, and in certain places it winds up putting the punch lines before the set-ups (a panel of Jasper in the shadows stalking Madame Masque is functionally useless here, given that we’ve already seen him confront her at gunpoint.) I can only assume that Mantlo plotted it in this fashion, and it’s a bad choice.
Elsewhere, Midas is putting his own plans into motion, reluctantly aided by Stark Industries union representative Abe Klein. Having taken over Stark Industries, Midas is now the richest man in the world–but all that wealth isn’t enough for him, he seeks to increase his power, and he’s planning to do so by weaponizing several spare suits of Iron Man armor that Tony was forced to leave behind. He’s also overhauling the grounds, mechanizing it, turning it into a fortress that Iron Man and his eventual allies (including Michael O’Brien, who here resolves to become the Guardsman again in order to help Stark out) will have to overcome before even reaching Midas.
Elsewhere, Iron Man has returned from his reverie to find Madame Masque facing Jasper Sitwell. It’s about time for a fight sequence after so many pages of recap and plot progression, and the one we get is pretty absurd on every level. Jasper is in love with Whitney, but because she’s thrown him over for Iron Man, he attacks Shell-Head, attempting to kill him for stealing his girl. It’s an insane reaction–and one that the text attempts to point out as being insane while still allowing it to happen. But it’s janky. Additionally, the notion that one guy with a gimmicked-up gun can hold his own against Iron Man, even if he is a trained SHIELD agent, is pretty unbelievable as well. But these are the pieces that Mantlo has on the board, and he need a fight scene, so he works with what he has
So it’s fight, fight, fight until, as inevitably she had to, Madame Masque steps up, getting in Jasper’s face and telling him that she isn’t some prize to be won. She’s made her choice–and no surprise, it’s the millionaire super hero rather than the half-mad SHIELD agent firing his gun at everyone. Whitney and Tony commit to one another as a couple while Jasper wanders off to be depressed-. And then the issue closes with some final subplot stuff: checking in on Mantlo’s pet character Jack of Hearts who had come into the series in the previous month, and who would wind up sticking around for a while as a sort of apprentice super hero to Iron Man, as well as the journey of Marianne Rogers, former Tony Stark girlfriend who possesses uncontrolled mental powers and who isn’t as cured as her release from a mental institution would imply. So this isn’t a bad comic, though the amount of forward progression in the storyline is relatively minimal.