Thursday, 16 March 2017

Comic Review: Iron Man 2020

PUBLISHER: MARVEL (1984-1986), MARVEL UK (1989), MARVEL (1993-1994, 2008-2009)

Got to love a rogue obscure character getting a trade. The most fun thing about Iron Man 2020 (the hope of this blog is to avoid the obvious, so don't expect much bantz about how this will be happening in three years time) is that somehow, somehow, despite being popular with fans the character's still been sparsely used. To fill this trade whichever magnificent sod decided to run this collection has had to chase through issues of Machine Man, Spider-Man annuals, a nineties one-shot no-one remembers and the Astonishing Tales webcomic and even then rope in a storyline from What If. This is some editor's labour of love and I salute them. Quite what makes Arno Stark so appealing is a difficult thing to put the finger on; he's sort-of a bad version of relative (their exact relation is fuzzy, not least as 2020 started looking like a perfectly viable date for Iron Man to still be running) Tony Stark but not in a particularly evil way exactly, he's just a mercenary and a corporate bastard. Sort of what Tony Stark would actually be like in the real world, without telegraphed alcoholism or Skrull replacements or anything to offer a bailout. 

The character debuted in a comic which isn't even really about him, Tom DeFalco's reworking of Machine Man. Arno shows up in the first issue briefly then armoured up at the end of the second before being the antagonist (at the behest of Sunset Bain) in the last couple of issues but it's not a problem because the mini-series itself is excellent, a much-underrated gem of the era for Marvel. Machine Man had been around for years as a crap Silver Age idea that the company tried to push for a couple of years before giving up on; here he's awoken in a dystopia proto-cyberpunk 2020 by the Midnight Wreckers, a group of rogue robot salvage outlaws making a credit or two against the oppressive corporate might of Baintronics. The 2000AD-tinged world was met with rounded characterisation and a revitalised Machine Man, whose push for his own rights as a sentient being were better framed than in the cheesy original. The story, ably illustrated by Herb Trimpe & Barry Windsor-Smith, might just be DeFalco's crowning moment and it's fantastic how fresh the universe feels. Against all this is Arno, whose arrogance and disdain leads to an epic defeat. It's not an auspicious debut in those terms but the character is interesting just as everyone else in the series is, fully rounded and with well-mapped motivations. Incredibly the series was barely followed up on, which perhaps adds to its' special feeling.

The arrogance and bullheadedness of Arno is brought into full force for his second appearance, as a guest villain in the 1986 Amazing Spider-Man Annual. The story was fairly simple as Stark travelled back in time to try and prevent the future destruction of Stark Industries (and the death of his wife and child) at the hands of a terrorist with one of his own advanced nukes to try and stop the bomber in his youth. Spider-Man spots the aforementioned attempts and Arno's mix of clumsy, unilateral methods lead to a misunderstanding, a battle and a you-guessed-it ending. What's fascinating is the amount of focus given to Arno; the symbiote-suited Spider-Man doesn't appear until the 16th page and even then isn't given much more to do than to react to the antagonist. The whole drive is from the Iron Man end even if it's Spider-Man's comic and era and if this wasn't part of a push for some sort of Iron Man 2020 solo series I'll eat three of my fingers. The result is further rounding out of a flawed but more or less decent man who lets his ambition and stubborn inability to explain himself to anyone get the better of him and it makes for a rather good story, livened up by a solid cross-town brawl.

The Machine Man mini had been ran as a back-up strip in Marvel UK's Transformers and, the British people being weird from even a young age, gave Arno such a cult following that the Spider-Man appearance was also printed in the UK when things like Armor Wars weren't. As such he was roped in for the final issue of the British arm's Death's Head series, written by Simon Furman and drawn by Bryan Hitch. The titular mechanoid and poor old Arno are set up by a thrill-seeking ultra-powerful society named the Dicemen to fight for entertainment though naturally after a bit of a dust-up they both realise they've been had and go out for vengeance. Arno actually comes out of the whole thing better than the star of the comic and it's another fun little stop on his weird ride.

A couple of cameos aside though he then spent another few years out of print before inexplicably surfacing in 1994 in his own 64-page graphic novel. No-one knows why. It's possible it was some old pitch or plan from the eighties someone turned up in a draw or something but I've just made that up so I'd be surprised. The prestige format one-shot was written by Walt Simonson and Bob Wiacek and concerns Arno being hired to rescue a businessman's hostage; the idea of the guy getting his own story with his own name up there on the cover is intoxicating but alas Simonson is as much of a dullard as ever and really you're reading any old Iron Man filler story set slightly in the future; the last-page revelation that an aged Tony is actually overseeing Arno's new career as a boring traditional hero rubber-stamps the character decay.

The one-shot went down so well that Arno disappeared for another decade or so before resurfacing in Marvel's webcomic revival of Astonishing Tales (later being selected for the print version as well). The writer was webcomic pioneer Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, courted by Marvel to give the format some cachet; considering he's British it's not too much of a reach to imagine the choice of character was influenced by those Transformers reprints once again. Whatever the reason Arno's back in proper morally questionable form fighting sky pirates and the result is good fun for the most part, though I'm not sure about Lou Kang's hunched up armour redesign (even if he's not dumb enough to remove the bevelled shoulders).

Finally to top things off there's a What If, or at least a bit of one. The issue, #53 from 1993, was a triple-header and it looks like being a deadline issue; all three were written by Furman and each featured a different crap artist. For the Iron Man 2020 segment it's Manny Galan, long known as a bit of a joke for his work on Transformers - Generation 2, where he worked like a maniac to pull back the title's backlog while trying to ape Derek Yaniger's style. Those were obviously circumstances that brought out the best in him as here his work looks like it's out of a colouring book, and not a particularly great one either, probably a Chinese bootleg with Unkillable Steel Fellow daubed on the front. It poises the question of what would have happened if Arno had been left in the present after his run-in with Spider-Man; it turns out he would have taken advantage of Tony Stark's disappearance a few years down the line, killed Jim Rhodes (who really should never do What Ifs as he dies ridiculously easily) and then got put in his place by Tony almost immediately before going on to be an abusive father who would vaguely do some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy thing because something similar happened in the Spider-Man comic and Furman thinks it's clever but doesn't really understand.

So yeah, it's a collection of highs and lows as such an eclectic grab-bag of sources would suggest but really the Machine Man story alone is worth the price, with the Spider-Man and Death's Head issues worthy inclusions as well. The less said about Simonson's effort the better but I suppose it being here means you're less likely to get fascinated by the better parts and go and spend money on the thing like a sucker. No bitterness. The revival feels odd in there with its' digital colouring but is a harmless little oddity while the presence of the What If is not only a testament to completism but means if you're reading the book in the bathroom there's some emergency toilet paper on hand. The character was more recently revived for Kang's Chronos Corps, so this makes a solid primer.

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