If you read enough Iron Man, you’ll start to notice that the same stories keep happening every couple of years. Tony has become an alcoholic three times, there have been three Armor Wars, and Jim Rhodes has replaced Tony three times.
I give all the writers involved credit for coming up with new variations on these scenarios. Denny O’Neil drove Tony to the breaking point while Stane stole his business and life. John Byrne piled on the enemies and took control of Tony's body during Armor Wars 2. Matt Fraction modernized all three of these stories in his epic run on Invincible Iron Man. When it comes to Rhodes, though, I can’t help but love his best return to the armor in Iron Man: War Machine by Len Kaminski.
Back in issue #240, Tony’s crazy girlfriend Kathy Dare shot Tony and paralyzed him. He’s since declined in health, at one point requiring the armor to live at all. At the start of the trade, he has a meeting with the Stark, an alien race that worships him and has been foes of the Guardians of the Galaxy; this gets Tony thinking about what he’s done for the world and how he’s spent his life. Tony has also retaken his old company, which is still called Stane Enterprises and which is still involved in the illegal activities begun by its former owner. When these activities lead to an accident at a Japanese plant, the plant’s owners send the Masters of Silence to kill Tony. This group of techno-ninjas is one of the book’s goofier concepts, but this was in an era when Japanese popular culture was still new and exciting to Western readers.
Tony’s reaction to being attacked by techno-ninjas is, naturally, to slap as many guns as possible on a suit. The Samurai Armor (my personal favorite from the animated series toyline) wouldn’t be invented for a few more years, so instead, we get the War Machine armor. I’ve tried to push through the years of nostalgia to analyze War Machine’s design, and it remains one of the best Iron Man suits ever built. Even the spikes on the shins and large shoulder pads can’t change how dynamic it is, especially with the twin guns on the shoulders. I prefer the initial version of War Machine, the one designed for Tony’s use, which lacks a unibeam and instead has a flat chest. It may have inspired other lame 1990s heroes to mount excessive amounts of guns on their suits, but the War Machine armor uses its weapons tactically and is built for versatility.
Fighting first against and then alongside the Masters of Silence is the end for Tony, and he dies ... or at least, that’s what Jim Rhodes thinks. The comic never allows the reader to pretend that Tony died. Instead, while Rhodes resists becoming Iron Man once more, Tony dreams in cryogenic suspension. We see Tony's tragic early life was and get an ugly look into Howard Stark’s descent into alcoholism. Eventually, Tony rebuilds himself in a sequence very reminiscent of how he does it in Invincible Iron Man: Stark Disassembled, complete with advanced technology embedded in his body. Considering Fraction’s other shout-outs to parts of Iron Man’s past, I think this is intentional.
After everyone from the Avengers to Doctor Doom toasts to Tony’s memory, Rhodey has a dream that prompts him to take up the Iron Man identity. The dream is melodramatic, especially when Blacklash, Spymaster, and Constrictor start quoting Conan the Barbarian, but it’s effective. Rhodey’s first outing is against Spymaster, Blacklash, the Beetle and the Blizzard, with help from Avengers West Coast. This involves Rhodey getting shrunk down to an inch tall thanks to Hank Pym; I especially love the image of the villainous quartet shrunken down in a Ziploc bag. It makes me hope that they make Minimates of Blacklash, Beetle and Blizzard so that I can make a prop of my own.
After this, War Machine takes on Atom Smasher. As a fan of Al Rothstein, I naturally had a bit of a laugh at this, although in fairness, this Atom Smasher existed four years before Kingdom Come turned it into the new name for Nuklon. The story is actually a cogent take on the nuclear issues which pop up frequently in Iron Man stories. The Living Laser returns in the following issue, and Rhodes pulls a very cruel trick to get rid of him. This highlights just how different Rhodey is from Tony and it marks a crucial moment that leads to War Machine’s own title.
At the end, Rhodey discovers that Tony is alive ... and he quits, until he has to put the armor to help Tony take on an invading robot army. Tony’s new armor is the Telepresence unit, which marks the transition from the Neo-Classic to Modular armors. It has the mouthless Modular helmet on top of the Neo-Classic circular unibeam; the hollow body also houses enough weapons to match War Machine’s arsenal. Firepower from Iron Man: Armor Wars also makes a reappearance; as always, the government is trying to edge in on Iron Man’s game. Rhodey decides to go his own way, joining Avengers West Coast as War Machine and breaking off communications with Tony.
I love Kevin Hopgood’s artwork. It’s right at the cusp of Image art, but he has a much better sense of proportion. The War Machine armor looks gorgeous under his pen. The coloring is wrong in the issue with the Living Laser -- Rhodey has red hair, and there is too much red in the issue all together. I should also point out that Rhodey has a ridiculous Vanilla Ice-style fade, if you need any more proof that this comic is straight out of the '90s. Hopgood also does some neat visual effects for the “digital world” within Tony’s mind.
It’s no coincidence that the Iron Man: War Machine trade came out around the same time as the second film. I really appreciate how they adapted the character to film, and it stays true to how the War Machine began. This is some great Iron Man work.