Denny O’Neil’s Iron Man: Reforging A Hero – Iron Man #160 by Brandon Masters

After a brief fill-in issue by Roger McKenzie in which Iron Man fought the Fantastic Four villain Diablo the alchemist, Denny O’Neil returned to deliver another issue of his run on the book. While we’re a long way from what this run would be remembered for, it’s still an outstanding book. Behold, July 1982’s Invincible Iron Man 160.

A Cry of Beasts is written by Denny O’Neill, a surprise artist (or two), inked by Dan Green, colored by Don Warfield, and lettered by Rick Parker.

For those who don’t have a habit of deep-diving into comics of the 1980s, the Serpent Squad were this really weird supervillain force made by Roxxon Oil in order to find and retrieve the Serpent Crown. A relic with untold power, they were thwarted by the Thing and Stingray in the pages of Marvel Two-in-One 64 in 1980. While there were other supervillain teams bumming around Marvel, it’s easy to see these guys as the “new hotness,” as they had made several appearances between then and this issue.

Eventually, they would be folded into the Serpent Society, as they were another snake-based supervillain team coming out a few years later. There’s no real loss, as Society has a much bigger ‘umph’ to it than Squad does.

However, aside from Serpent Society completionists, there is a fantastic reason to hunt this issue down:

Before we address the nightmare going on with the opening splash page, let’s zoom and enhance on that penciler!

That’s right, Marvel legend Steve Ditko would throw his art into this book. While he did create many major Marvel heroes around the time Iron Man was made, he never really worked on shellhead. Jack Kirby handled him during the time he was on the Avengers, while Don Heck was often his artist in Tales of Suspense alongside Kirby. Still, for those who had wanted to see Ditko work his magic on another wonderful Marvel character, this issue is going to be perfect for you.

Interestingly, Marvel mainstay Marie Severin is also credited with drawing a page in this issue on the Marvel Wiki, specifically the splash page above. We don’t know why, nor do we know what happened to Ditko’s version of the page, or if there ever was one. Still, she did a great job!

So, our opening splash page features Tony Stark, having fallen off the wagon and consuming booze at a rapid rate. Further, he no longer seems to care about his identity, instead drinking in his armor while unmasked! Luckily, this is all a nightmare, and Tony wakes up in a cold sweat.

Getting ready for the day, Tony reflects on how he’s going to have to spend time at a vague party held at the Long Island Zoo tonight. While he hasn’t had any alcohol for over a year, it’s still something he can taste on his tongue in darker moments. And since it’s a high society party, there will be “gallons” of booze. However, Tony still feels like he needs to go, and brings along his Iron Man briefcase in case something goes wrong. But what, Tony remarks, could go wrong at the Zoo?

Well, I mean, a cult wearing suspicious purple robes could use smooching as a distraction for murder and infiltrate the Zoo. That’s a thing that could happen.

At the party, Tony finds himself with the star of the evening on his arm. A miss Muffy Cuddle, whose name has to be a rejected Bond girl at this point, is a new starlet who has changed her name to become more popular and marketable. She’s taken to the world of Hollywood like a fish to water, and the booze to boot.

I’ll be honest, Steve Ditko’s art is simply great here. It’s a stark contrast from what came in prior issues, as the book is leaning more into the cartooning side of the comic spectrum. It actually really looks nice, and everyone looks remarkably expressive. While Ditko is obviously trying to stick within Marvel “house style” (where artists try to make the books look uniform across the whole line) of the early 1980s, little bits like Tony’s expression when he looks both longingly at and frightened of the booze stand out wonderfully.

As it turns out, the party is actually to celebrate a new scientific breakthrough. Stark International has developed a biological scanner that will actually scan the animals of the Long Island Zoo, allowing automated systems to make meals that would best fit each animal and feed them at specific times. It also happens to monitor all goings on at the Zoo, and even reports things like fires and vandalism.

It’s kinda weird to read about something that feels like such science-fiction, only to have some actual science slapped on at the end that’s happened in the last 40 years.

Meanwhile, the three robed cultists remove their robes, and reveal themselves to be the Serpent Squad. Anaconda, Death Adder, and Black Mamba are all after the biological scanner that Stark’s company made, and their employer has plans for it. Since the Squad doesn’t know specifically where the item is held, they break the animals of the zoo loose to create the mother of all distractions. It doesn’t take long for Tony and the Zoo owners to notice, and Stark runs off to summon his bodyguard!

After over 160 issues of Iron Man, it was getting a little hard to make the “Tony dresses up in his armor” sequence interesting. 

Tony wrestles with some tigers of dubious anatomy, only to also see a gorilla murdered by one of the Serpent Squad before they go back into hiding. Tony is able to find out about the murdered guard, and also the “buzz” that someone has hired the Serpent Squad to sabotage the Zoo for vague reasons. “Iron Man” who is totally not Tony, asks Muffy to stay behind in the control room, and she’s too drunk to care.

Unfortunately, the Serpent Squad found the control room while Tony was out, and their master plan has begun! Black Mamba removes the scanner computer from the mainframe, and shoves it inside a gun. You see…

I have to question the logic of the mystery employer giving the secret weapon to their hired goons, but that’s why I’m on this side writing about comic books and not planning to take over the world. I should talk to Dave about that. (Ed. Note: “The same thing we do every night, Brandon.”)

The owner of the Zoo wanders into the control room, wondering why Tony has gone missing. Unfortunately, Black Mamba wants to test out her new toy.

Luckily, Tony shows up after the poor man dies, and tangles with the Serpent Squad. He electrifies his armor to fry one of the Squad with long tentacles, and blasts another’s hand to distract them before taking them out with a repulsor blast to the face. However, Black Mamba has gone missing! In her place, Tony’s first love Pepper Potts! 

Well, ok, Pepper Hogan, as she had married Happy and left the book alongside him a long while ago. Still, this was Tony’s first romantic interest back to haunt him… only not. It didn’t take long for Tony to realize Black Mamba’s real powers.

Thankfully, the gun doesn’t kill Stark. It does rough him up quite a bit, and Tony is able to take out the last member of the Squad. He does wonder how someone was able to figure out how his basic technology was able to be turned into a gun, but is interrupted from his musings by Muffy screaming for help.

Unfortunately, it looks like a stay at the Betty Ford clinic is in the future for Muffy. Tony sees what could very well become himself, should he fall off the wagon again in the future. And with that, issue 160 draws to a close.

Again, a one-and-done issue from O’Neill and the art team he could assemble. However, once again, it does establish some subtle subplots that will come up again and again until becoming main plot threads. Someone is after Stark International technology, and knows how to abuse it. And, of course, Tony’s alcoholism is still a factor in his character.

This particular week in July of 1982 has Marvel hyping up some interesting things. First off, a large list of direct distributors from the era. With Diamond Publishing basically becoming a (legally-distinct-from-an-actual) monopoly in the market crash of the 1990s, it’s completely bizarre not only seeing Marvel acknowledge no less than 16 different distributors, but also offering to help fans track down local comic shops to get back issues. This is really, really weird, but a great snapshot of what things were like pre-internet days.

Also this month, the first issue of Larry Hama’s masterpiece that is G.I. JOE. While I’m not a massive fan of the franchise, the man took a line of nameless action figures and turned them into a 80s franchise on par with Transformers and Star Wars almost single-handedly. You have to respect game like that.

Also of note, Uncanny X-Men 159 is advertised as being drawn by the one Bill Sienkiewicz. This is actually the tale Night Screams, where Dracula tries to seduce and romance Storm off the team. While most of the issue is Sienkiewicz working within Marvel House Style, there are some random panels where you see his amazing talents bleed through the page. Damned good comic, and should be read by Dracula and X-fans.

We also have letters this time, from the pages of Invincible Iron Man 164. The first letter, from Jens Altman, actually spends a lot of time wondering who the main artist will be for the rest of O’Neil’s run now that Bob Layton and Jerry Bingham seem to be off the book. They also beg for some crossovers with the marketing books Marvel was putting out at the time, like G.I. Joe and Rom: Spaceknight. These sound awesome, but licensing rights would make such a crossover fated to never be reprinted again once Marvel lost those licenses.

Doug Buseck rejoices over seeing Steve Ditko in the book, and loved the issue. Don Carnes has apparently just done a reread of the main Iron Man series (or as many issues as he has), and likes how the book has evolved. He also recommends Tony make an adamantium armor, and wonders if the Mandarin will ever show up again, as it’s been 60 issues since the villain had shown up last.

Finally, Dave Pinkle demands to know why so many ladies have been in a romance with Tony, only for them to leave Tony with a broken heart. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be until 2008’s Iron Man movie when the comics would give Tony a reoccurring romance with Pepper Potts, frankly.

In all, this was a great issue. Ditko’s art was a pleasant surprise, and assisted in a perfect way by Dan Green’s inks. The story wasn’t fantastic, but you can see a lot of early character that O’Neil loves to play with being laid down on the ground floor of his run.

Next time, we have a surprise guest-star, and we run into one of the issues I actually own in this run of comics.

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