Denny O’Neil’s Iron Man: Reforging A Hero – Iron Man #158 by Brandon Masters

Iron Man is one of the first heroes to fly under the Marvel Comics banner during the revival of superheroes in the 1960s. The Fantastic Four, released in 1961 as a last-ditch effort to save Timely Comics from bankruptcy, wound up selling enough to keep the company out of debt and revived them under the new name of Marvel Comics. From there, the fledgling company would experiment with other heroes, like the Hulk (in his own magazine), Thor (in Journey into Mystery), Ant-Man (in Tales to Astonish), and Spider-Man (in Amazing Fantasy) all following in 1962. Come 1963, Iron Man was born in the pages of Tales of Suspense, specifically issue 39.

Tales Of Suspense 39 Iron Man Custom Made Cover w/ 1964 REPRINT 1st Iron  Man at Amazon's Entertainment Collectibles Store

Let’s be honest, thanks to Marvel’s recent movies, it’s hard not to know who he is. Tony Stark, injured by his own munitions in a vague war (Korea? Vietnam? Gulf War? Afghanistan?) and captured by the enemy (again ever-changing), and uses his wits and a box of scraps to build a suit of armor that allows him to become the Invincible Iron Man. Mortally wounded by shrapnel, the Tony Stark of 1963 needed to wear his armor at all times using magnets and transistors to keep the metal away from piercing his heart. 

Unlike the recent movies, it was played for “woe is me” drama and only feels hilariously awkward in retrospect. Stan Lee would often cram the pages full of dialogue trying to make readers sympathise with a playboy millionaire often defending the military-industrial complex while artists like Don Heck and Jack Kirby would just cram the pages full of weird science and Communist foes for Tony to fight. Stark would replace his dull metal armor with some bling by the second issue.

Tales of Suspense issue 48 would feature Tony moving to the red and gold color scheme everyone recognizes now, with the suit evolving as artists swapped out. Visible eyes, glowing slits, there was even a time when Stan Lee demanded Stark slap a nose on the faceplate, only to remember that he didn’t actually have that in the first place a few months later.

Due to early publishing difficulties where Marvel was limited in what books they could put out, Iron Man would share Tales of Suspense with the recently-revived Captain America starting with issue 58 in 1964. Iron Man was also one of the founding members of the Avengers from issue 1 onward, though he would leave the team’s roster with issue 16 in 1965. This was when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby chose to shuffle up the roster and bring in other characters who didn’t have their own books.

By 1967, Marvel’s problems with limited publishing would mostly be over, and characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor would all be given their own books. In the case of Thor and Captain America, they would retain the numbering of their previous books to make postal shipping easier, while Iron Man would have a brand-new book.

Tony’s tenure as Iron Man in his solo series would be a bumpy one, with Stark continually trying to give away his armor to other people. His chauffeur and pal Happy Hogan would don the armor, as would a boxer named Eddie March… who quickly was forced to retire as he was suffering from a blood clot in his brain. On one occasion, a thief stole Stark’s suit-in-a-briefcase and Tony had to use an older suit of armor to take him down. Tony would claim he had to do a lot of this alone, perhaps out of a kind of atonement or punishment. Of course, this Tony Stark doesn’t contain the same regrets over building for the military, since those early issues of his were smack dab in the middle of the “Damn the Commies” Cold War.

The biggest change that would shock most modern fans who came from current comics, or even from the movies? Iron Man was a secret identity, and Tony would bend over backwards to keep it secret despite the fact that he kept handing out the armor to other people. His excuse? Iron Man was his bodyguard.

The Invincible Iron Man was a popular comic, and only became more popular when Tony rejoined the Avengers. However, not much would happen beyond the constant spinning of wheels and the illusion of change. Stark would, however, encounter a villain he couldn’t defeat by making a new suit of armor or using his magical transistors: Alcoholism.

Written by David Michelinie and Bob Layton, with art from John Romita Jr and Layton, the story took place over issues 121 to 128, and dealt with Tony fighting the darkest of his demons. According to Bob Layton in an interview, they never intended to make a statement about alcohol. Instead, Tony would crawl further into the bottle as his life spun out of control, with SHIELD nearly taking over Stark International, and Tony actually killing a man while his armor was under the control of Justin Hammer. At the end, Tony finds the courage and might to put the bottle down. And with that, presumably, the plot was over.

And then Denny O’Neil took over the writing duties of The Invincible Iron Man with issue 158, in May of 1982.

Honestly, I miss dialogue on covers. This alone makes the cover more eye-catching!

By this time, Denny O’Neil had made comics history alongside Neil Adams by bringing the duo of Green Lantern and Green Arrow into a critically-acclaimed and beloved comic run in Green Lantern / Green Arrow back in 1971. He had also written a modern reinterpretation of Superman in 1970, making Clark Kent into a more “modern” television reporter as the Daily Planet was forced into becoming a television station through the magic of comics. This would also remove Kryptonite from most of the universe, which was done to remove the narrative crutch it had become.

But that’s not all! Denny O’Neil also worked on the 1970s revival of Captain Marvel in Shazam,  wrote some Barry Allen era adventures in The Flash, brought Two-Face and Joker back into prominence, crafted infamous Batman antagonist Ra’s al Ghul with Neil Adams, worked on the Justice League, and had also finished a brief run on Spider-Man before taking up the Invincible Iron Man. 

To say that Denny O’Neil was a nigh-unstoppable creative force in comics is still underselling the man’s talents.

Unlike most of O’Neil’s time on Invincible Iron Man, issue 158 is a one-shot issue. Almost all of the rest of O’Neil’s run would throw Stark curve after curve in an ongoing storyline that was only rarely found during the Bronze Age of comics, usually in fellow Marvel book The Uncanny X-Men. However, this could almost be considered the “thesis statement” of O’Neil’s run, a brief opening that would tell the reader what to expect the theme of the following essay would be.

Entitled “Moms,” issue 158 begins with Iron Man plummeting to his death. As you do.

Denny O’Neil was joined by fellow comic legend Carmine Infantino on pencils, Green and Milgrom on inks, Bob Sharen on colors, and Joe Rosen on letters.

Apparently, while flying back to Stark Headquarters, Tony’s entire armor crashes and he falls out of the sky. As he plummets like a Fortnight character who forgot their parachute, Stark’s armor eventually kicks back in. Flying low to the ground, Stark returns home embarrassed. However, he can’t find anything wrong with his armor!

Meanwhile, back in the mountains Iron Man was flying over when everything in his armor died. There’s an adult man and his mother, and she is serving him milk and scrambled eggs. The back of the room is coated in degrees and the pair are… completely weird. He calls her Moms, she calls him Sonny. As he eats with some disturbing close-ups, he recounts how she used to torment him as a kid, and then… sends his Moms to the cave.

I’m getting real “sent to the cornfield” vibes here.

Back with Tony, he’s gambling and generally being a suave playboy when he overhears some starlet mention that her plane also had issues as she flew into town. Being the title character of the comic, he drives off into the woods to investigate. 

Honestly, Sonny is both the most memorable and weird thing about this issue. It’s really hard to tell what O’Neil is going for here outside of sheer creep and disturbing characterization. While Moms apparently tortured him in his youth, Sonny has graduated to abusing his mother and forcing her latent ESP talents to shut off electronics in the area. For reasons.

In fact, he forces her to shut down all electronics in the area for an hour, locking her in a catatonic state. This also shuts down the nearby flying Tony Stark, who wanders into the cave lab by chance. When Stark tries to investigate, he laments how his suit is knocked out.

Sonny clocks Tony across the head and dumps him into a deep watery pit and covers up the hole at the top. Strangely, Sonny doesn’t realize that Tony Stark is the man in the Iron Man suit, instead just wondering how Iron Man stumbled across his secret hideout. With the water rising, Tony realizes he really needs to escape since he’s without his helmet and oxygen system he built into it. As the water continues to rise, he tries to climb out by pushing himself against the wall with his legs.

Special credit to legend Carmine Infantino, who has some fantastic perspective in this sequence. What could have been a boring and dull side view instead shows how high Tony is climbing, and how steep the pit actually is. As you can see, Tony is unable to escape and falls back in. As the water rises to the top, Stark realizes it has to be flowing in from somewhere. Taking the deepest possible breath, Tony dives down into the water, and does find the hole it’s seeping through. Unfortunately, Tony just can’t escape with the armor on!

Discarding his invaluable armor, Tony is able to just barely escape from the deathtrap Sonny left him in. Dragging his half-dead body back into Sonny’s lab, Tony is able to overpower the mad scientist with a left hook to the jaw. While he looks over Sonny’s unconscious form, he fully states what Denny O’Neil is setting out to prove:

Tony Stark is what makes Iron Man, not the armor.

The collection of comics I have may have removed most of the advertisements, as Marvel’s official archives in 2007 chose to remove anything that wasn’t in-house. However, there are a few things saved that go missing from the modern collections: The Bullpen Bulletins and the letter page, Printed Circuits. Wherever I can, as not all issues would run letters, I will include the readers’ reactions to each issue (from several issues down the line). Further, we will look back into the eighties to see what was popular at the time with Marvel, or any other cool things at the time.

Interestingly, this looks to be the first Bullpen Bulletins under the tenure of Editor in Chief Jim Shooter. Jim would be EiC of Marvel from January 1978 until April 1987, and the best and worst comics of the era often can either be blamed on, or linked to him somehow. This week of May 1982 hypes the release of Team America, the licensed tie-in comic to a bunch of Evil Knievel toys that ditched the superstar stuntman when he was accused of rape and assault, and instead became about five motorcycle guys fighting midwest HYDRA as they used their latent mutant powers to summon another motorcycle guy who was really, really good at riding a motorcycle. I’ll have to write about that one sometime.

Also of note, Wally Wood passed away shortly before this issue hit print. With Marvel, Wood did a lot of early work with Silver-Age Marvel, even creating the red costume for Daredevil. He’s also incredibly well known for a ton of wild comics from EC and even working on early Mad Magazine issues. We lost a legend that day, that’s for sure.

No letters for this issue, however. We’ll see some early 80s Marvel Fans’ reactions to issue 160, however. In fact, while issue 159 would be a fill-in issue from someone else, O’Neil’s full run would begin with the following issue. When we come back, an all-new foe (eventually) faces Tony Stark who will be familiar by name to fans of the MCU. Further, a rather drastic change will (eventually) take place, updating this book for the 80s in a most unexpected way!

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