Like many long-running comic book characters, Iron Man has a cyclical history. Tony Stark’s alcoholism is one recurring problem, resulting in two major story arcs, “Demon in a Bottle” and the “Stane Saga," the latter of which provided the villain Obidiah Stane for the first Iron Man film. Another, even longer-running problem is Stark’s difficulty in keeping his technology out of the hands of his enemies. This is one of the major themes of the current Invincible Iron Man series and was also a major plot point in the second Iron Man film. However, Stark’s insecurities are well-founded, and they mostly stem from one of the most famous Iron Man storylines: “Stark Wars.”
Newcomers to the franchise might be asking: “Don’t you mean ‘Armor Wars?’” Yes, this collection is better known (and titled) as Armor Wars, and in fact, Marvel solicited an “Armor Wars II” which took up much of John Byrne’s time on the title a few years later. But the story is officially called “Stark Wars," mostly as a pun on Star Wars.
Iron Man’s epic vendetta begins when his enemy Force becomes an ally and Stark discovers that Force's armor has elements of Stark’s designs. Many were leaked when Stane took over Stark’s company, and they are now in the possession of Justin Hammer, who applies them to the armors of his henchmen. After an unsuccessful court battle, Stark is able to procure files on the whereabouts of his technology from fellow Avenger Ant-Man -- all except one file. What happens next can best be described as a roaring rampage of revenge as Iron Man goes from one villain to the next, shorting out their armor and trying to locate the last user. He loses his reputation, teammates and even has to fake his own death before he finally finishes his quest.
The modern Iron Man is essentially defined here, starting with Stark’s infamous Jheri curl, which my generation remembers as his hairstyle on the Iron Man animated series. Thanks to colorist Nel Yomtov (every Transformers fan just shuddered), everyone who has black hair has it rendered blue; this includes Stark and Rhodes. You eventually get desensitized to it. After years of using the distinctive Silver Centurion armor, Stark switches back to the red and gold which he will wear almost exclusively through the present day. (The major exception to this is War Machine, but that armor has become so connected to Jim Rhodes that it almost goes forgotten that Stark wore it first.) He uses multiple armor types extensively for the first time, including the well-known Deep Sea and Stealth Armors.
More importantly, this is where Stark'ss paranoia and controlling tendencies come to the forefront. The weight of the deaths orchestrated by his technology being misused sends him into a frenzy, eventually causing Stark to kill someone himself; by this point, Stark had been fighting his past as a weapons maker for years. As a recovering alcoholic, Stark'ss control issues dominate his personality during this story. His guilt and feelings of ineffectiveness are best demonstrated in the last part of this trade. A coda with incredible art by Barry Windsor-Smith consists of Stark’s haunted nightmare of the crimes he feels responsible for and his attempt to get past this part of his life. You can tell that while he admits out in the open that he wants to put his troubles behind him, he never quite gets there.
“Armor Wars” features a huge amount of Marvel Universe supporting characters, guest stars and villains. The Beetle becomes part of Iron Man’s rogues gallery, and other featured villains include the Controller, the Raiders, Stilt-Man, Titanium Man and Crimson Dynamo. Very early on, Stark also considers Doctor Doom as a culprit; the story never picks up on this, and to be honest, I feel including featuring Doom would have derailed the plot. Iron Man also attacks a number of heroes, including SHIELD’s Mandroids, the Guardsman, the Captain and Stingray. For those unfamiliar with late-80s Marvel Comics, the Captain is Captain America, who gave up his name and uniform after refusing to follow the orders of the United States government. The man who replaced him would later take the black Captain uniform and become U.S. Agent. Stingray is, well, very minor, a government-employed ocean-based ally of Namor and an Avenger for a brief period. Armor Wars is Stingray’s finest moment, and at least he is visually interesting.
Speaking of visuals, David Michelinie’s second run on Iron Man also brings back his frequent co-writer and finisher, Bob Layton, this time joined by Mark D. Bright. Layton’s art remains one of the most influential Iron Man art styles. It is hard to define this style; I like to call it “angled roundness," drawing a near-perfect balance between the very round armor of Jack Kirby and the sharper suits of Adi Granov. The most similar artist I can think of is Jim Aparo, although Layton’s characters lack Aparo’s long, thin heads. My policy is that every Iron Man artist has the right to create their own armor, and Layton’s new creation at the end of the series is known as the Modern Armor for its longevity. The shoulderpads (though not as bulky as the Silver Centurion suit), the angled red chest chevron, the heavily-outlined unibeam and “popped” collar would remain in effect for years, even when Stark had to move to a remote-controlled unit. The main new villain of the story is Firepower, whose bulk invokes the Iron Monger. It is an interesting design, even though it has a massive rocket strapped to its back for most of the story.
Armor Wars is the definitive Iron Man story, adding some extra action to the same introspective nature of “Demon in a Bottle”. Quite simply, the entire character of Iron Man changes in this story to become the character we know today, and it is entirely for the better. If you are at all interested in Iron Man, whether through the comics or films, Armor Wars is a mandatory read. At $24.99, it may seem a little steep for what appears to be a thin trade, but Layton’s art fits a lot of panels in a very small space.
For a final remark, it is amazing the publicity one film can create. Before the first Iron Man film came out, you were lucky to find old Marvel Masterworks editions and the occasional Mask in the Iron Man trade. Now, the Iron Man section of your local comic book store has dozens of Iron Man trades, collecting both the newest arcs and the “Golden Age” of the 1980s and mid-1990s. All we need are “Crash and Burn” and “Hands of the Mandarin” trades to truly have a full appreciation of the best years of the Iron Man title.