Denny O’Neil’s Iron Man: Reforging A Hero – Iron Man #162 by Brandon Masters

It is September 1982, and the newest issue of Invincible Iron Man has hit the newsstands. Finally, the opening pieces of Denny O’Neil’s main overarching plot have begun to fall into place. How does this story begin?

The Menace Within! is by Denny O’Neil, penciler Mike Vosburg, inker Steve Mitchell, colorist Bob Sharen, and letterer Janice Chiang.

Why, with an air-raid, of course! While Tony Stark works on improving his armor, a pair of propeller planes from the previous World War dive-bomb out of the skies and begin opening fire on Stark Industries!

Tony suits up quickly, taking to the skies to protect his employees. A real nice touch O’Neil adds is that Tony even cites names as he swoops by to protect them. This genuinely makes Stark feel like a man who cares for his employees, or at least someone who can put names to faces. Considering the fact that capitalists in fiction tend to treat employees as cogs that can be swapped out, especially in the “me me me” 80s, this is a fantastic humanizing angle for the multi-millionaire who dresses up as a superhero often to just protect his own interests.

The authorities are quite fast to assist, allowing Tony to zip up into the air and take on the pair of planes. Interestingly, they’re airplanes that hadn’t been flown for about 40 years: a Supermarine Spitfire from the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom, and a Flying Tiger. There isn’t an actual Flying Tiger plane that I can find in my research, but I did find something interesting. Flying Tiger is the nickname for a WWII era group of American fighter pilots who snuck off to defend China from the invading Japanese forces. Their planes were commonly the Curtiss P-40B Warhawk aircraft, and the art does reflect that.

Really, it’s both a nice touch and a military reference that had flown over my head when I first read the book. 

Weirdly, the planes are completely unmanned. While Tony is able to send the Spitfire off to the ocean, where it presumably somehow does not harm anyone else when it runs out of fuel and crashes, the person remote controlling the Warhawk instead decides to smash the plane right into Stark. Luckily, his armor is completely intact, and while beat up, Tony is mostly unharmed.

Back at Stark Industries, repairs are already underway and the security chief reports that most everyone is unharmed. While making sure his people are safe, one of his other employees named Bart Ainslee approaches to pitch a fancy new product.

Maaaaan. Those are some complicated looking headphones, and certainly like something out of the 1980s. I do question where the cassette fits, since it looks to be a self-contained unit, but maybe it’s magic technology. Like computers of the 80s, which could do anything with enough hand-waving. With Tony’s permission, Bart hands out copies to everyone at work to test out. Meanwhile, Tony’s secretary Ms. Arbogast has received a present from an admirer.

Oh. I guess the 80s were a wild time when it came to romance.

As Tony drives home, he encounters a wrecked car with one of his employees inside, one Barry Carson.

Unfortunately, the man is dead. They aren’t really sure why he was dead, and the armored Stark remarks he considered the man a friend. The doctor advises Iron Man to have a few stiff drinks, since it’s going to be a rough night while they wait for the autopsy. Tony decides to call his secretary to update her on what’s going on, but she’s not answering.

Finding it odd, Tony flies off to attend a high society gathering. Armored up in a tuxedo rather than his preferred red and gold, the alcohol is pouring like waterfalls and flows like the mighty Mississippi. One of the guests even openly encourages Tony to take a drink, that one little sip won’t hurt.

This is an utterly beautiful scene, and one that was unexpected for even a Bronze age comic. Denny O’Neil already showed heroes suffering from addiction back when he was on Green Lantern / Green Arrow with Neil Adams, having Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy fallen into drugs at the time. This also wasn’t unique to Marvel Comics either, with Spider-Man’s friend Harry Osborn having become addicted to generic pills over a decade ago in Amazing Spider-Man issue 96. However, most times comics dealt with addiction at the time like it was a one-and-done situation. Even when Harry Osborn fell into harder times, like when his father died as the Green Goblin, he never fell back on the pills. Whenever Speedy showed up again in the pre-Crisis comics, he never really addressed his past as an addict either.

O’Neil, however, has realized that Stark is the kind of man who will still have to be confronted by his issues on a near-daily basis. Not only did Tony continually attend high society events where famous people would often get drunk, he also would encounter constant magazine advertising-

-billboards alongside the road-

-and even television commercials.

So. Yeah. It wouldn’t take a genius to notice that Tony Stark would be experiencing a ton of temptation wherever he went. It wasn’t that long since the infamous Demon in a Bottle storyline, so it was still fresh in the minds of readers who’d been with the book for a few years. It is genuinely a fantastic idea to use this as character development.

And O’Neil is going to use it to rip Tony to pieces.

Oh, sorry. Spoilers, I suppose for a comic from 1982.

Having left the party, Tony shows up at his office. It’s after midnight, and he’s looking for that autopsy report. Luckily, it’s on his desk and-

-and so is an assassin! Tony wings the damaged lamp at the assailant in the dark, and is able to knock them unconscious. Weirdly, it’s Ms. Arbogast, using the gun she’d been gifted a few pages ago. As Tony’s head of security arrives, it turns out that Stark Industries has become a bit of a warzone. Fistfights, tons of accidents, several computer incidents, the whole thing is just falling apart in weird ways. In the morning, Tony and his chief of security arrive in the early morning at the company just in time to see a man walk through a glass window without even noticing.

Tony boards the tram to the Stark power plant, only for the train to suddenly stop. His security chief is clocked out cold by a swinging lunchbox, and Tony demands answers.

Tony is barely able to climb out on top of the train and suits up. Ripping the train open, Iron Man notices that all the murderous employees are wearing those strange headphones. He is able to get the security chief out, and the headphones murderers simply… stop. Prying open the headphones in his lab, Tony notices that there’s a weird piece of tech inside. Apparently, Tony had looked into some research from Brazil that used similar technology to brainwash people. And now it’s been handed out among Tony’s employees! Tracking down the signal, Iron Man finds out exactly who it was: Bart Ainslee!

Or, rather, not. With the bandages removed, Iron Man realizes that it’s not the man who he considered a family friend, instead an assassin named Tattoo. When he asks…

Tony demands to know who put the assassin up to this. He claims to no longer remember, that someone purged his mind of the information. However, the assassin Tattoo’s plans are simple. 500 headsets, handed out among Tony’s employees. All of them now programmed to activate in four minutes, and all of them ordered to kill and destroy without hesitation. As the clock ticks down, Iron Man tries confiscating the headsets one by one. There’s nowhere near enough time, however, and Tony realizes that there’s got to be a local transmitter. The signal is the strongest coming from the recently-repaired Stark Arch.

With seconds to spare, the day is saved. However, Tony isn’t able to get any new answers out of Tattoo. The man is now dying, a radio-activated poison quickly coursing through his veins. As he dies, Stark tries to get any answers out of him, but he dies while uttering “Man…”

Unfortunately, while it does lean hints towards the Mandarin, one of Tony’s oldest foes… it’s not him. The real foe will make his presence known in about six issues, and he’s got plans to make his life a living hell.

Unfortunately, this issue seems to lack an archive for September 1982’s Bullpen Bulletins. I also couldn’t find an archive of it online, so I was prepared to use another Bulletin… or just skip it. However, a Wiki dive did give me a chance to see what other issues came out at this time. Luckily, I have a copy of Ghost Rider issue 72 from the exact same month… and week, as it turns out.

The biggest news with this issue actually comes from the real world. Jim Belushi, comedian and actor, had been involved with an issue of Marvel Team-Up where Spider-Man had joined forces with the cast of Saturday Night Live to fight the Silver Samurai. It was a remarkably funny issue, and the tale of Belushi wanting to meet the Marvel staffers is actually beautiful. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the column tends to puff up Jim Shooter’s ego. He does conventions! Fans worry about him pushing himself too hard! He’s been interviewed! He even draws for the fans! Jim Shooter humble brags with the best of them, it seems. The bottom of the page has a rather memorable funny strip as well. Marvel would pick this concept up and run with them later in the decade up through the mid-90s. Here, though, it’s just a funny-if-you-know-about-it reference to Three Mile Island and radiation making people glow. Living in a place also infamous for nuclear reactors (Richland, Washington), it wasn’t lost on me, and it’s actually a running joke for the people around here.

As for issues to look out for this week, we have Team America issue 4, where prototype-Wolverine-knockoff motorcycle man Lobo takes on child smugglers… who use them to power arcade machines. The eighties were a fantastically weird time. Wolverine’s first issue of his first mini-series, titled Wolverine, also came out. A wonderful comic with Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, this needs to be in any X-Fan’s collection. 

Thanks to the 232nd issue of the Amazing Spider-Man, comic fans are also given what might be the first dose of “comic collecting.” In this case, the Marvel Guide to Collecting Comics. It was also sold separately, weirdly. While I am unable to find a copy of the book in the modern era of 2020, it does seem like this is the first actual piece of evidence that comics started becoming more of a collectible commodity than just as disposable entertainment. This attitude towards encouraging comic collectors would result in Marvel’s eventual bankruptcy in 1996, though Marvel was far from the only company to openly encourage the crap that we still suffer from to this day.

As for letters, we have some here too! Behold, the future issue of 166:

Whoops! Gotta censor those spoilers.

The fans loved this issue, hands-down. Curt Meisner cites seeing Tony be a human being a refreshing experience, with his alcoholism being more than a footnote in the character’s history. He also proposes that Conan guest-star in Iron Man eventually, which would have been an utterly amazing thing. Maybe we can have that someday in the modern day, now that Marvel has Conan once more.

Mark Laakso also loved the issue, and wrote in the rare letter to rave about it. Ian Mosley actually played the ye olde version of the “um, actually” nerd and informed Marvel about the technical specifications of the Spitfire and P-40, earning himself a “World War II” themed No-Prize for pointing out a plothole in a Marvel comic. Another fan, Eric Bosshart also earned one for pointing out that Marvel claimed Iron Man Annual 1 was coming out… when it was actually the 5th annual.

Oh, hey, we never explained what a No-Prize was!

This, dear reader, is a Marvel Comics No-Prize. Marvel would award them whenever fans would come up with a plot hole or major issue within a comic. It actually started when Stan Lee offered to send a fan $5.00 for an explanation as to what happened with a key plot issue in The Fantastic Four issue 2. Too many people sent in explanations for $5.00… which was $43.03 in modern day 2020 money, so Stan claimed the rest won “no prizes.” This grew with Marvel, eventually becoming a mailed item for fans who won a “No Prize.”

Amusingly, they were empty envelopes. Because it wasn’t a prize.

Sadly, Marvel doesn’t mail them out anymore. Postage, and Marvel’s money issues in 1996 basically killed it. Still, it’s a piece of magic from the earlier days of Marvel, and their weird sense of humor. I love it.

In all, this was an incredible issue so far. Denny O’Neil has made one hell of an opening gambit by the mysterious villain, and I’m looking forward to sharing his future steps with all of you.

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