May 24, 2017

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 819: Iron Man #188, November 1984

One of the really cool things about reading stories from this particular era of Iron Man is getting to see Jim Rhodes learning the ins and outs of being a super-powered adventurer. At one point in the comic, Stark notes that Rhodey might have the potential to be a better Iron Man than he ever was, as Rhodey has piloting skills that make him more at home in the air than Tony might once have been. Rhodey might be technically better, but the story being told is demonstrating how much of being a superhero is a very specific skill set that allows one to deal with the unforseeable without having it throw you for a loop.

Rhodey's not great at this. Yet.

I think the part of the comic I found most interesting was the letter column. Comics fans don't change much, it seems - they just get more venues in which to give their opinions. At least here there is editorial oversight that keeps the vitriol to a minimum. Fans are fairly united in their desire to see Stark back in the armour. Comics fans have this need, sometimes, for something original, in that there's a belief that the first version of something, particularly a superhero, is somehow intrinsically the best version. I think this betrays an odd propensity for superheroes to take on a reality that's more significant than most fictional characters. But this undercuts the ability of the creative team to propel a character to greatness. A number of the letters claim that Tony Stark is Iron Man, but I think this betrays a misrecognition about where the vitality of a character comes from. It would be more suitable to credit a creative team with being Iron Man, as they are the ones who take the iconic assemblage that is a superhero and turn it into stories that we enjoy and cleave to.

History has shown that Rhodey is every bit as good in the armour as Stark. This is a result not of anything intrinsic to the character, but to the characterization he is given by the people writing the comic. As long as the story is well-told, the inhabitant of the armour doesn't matter that much.

Not to me, anyway.

To be continued.

May 23, 2017

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 818: Iron Man #187, October 1984

So we jump 70 issues, in to the 80s, and all of a sudden James Rhodes is Iron Man. This is the Iron Man I was originally introduced to. The first West Coast Avengers series was one of the first series I ever collected, and Rhodey had just become Iron Man at that point. As I noted yesterday, the reason for this is that Tony Stark has accepted, and started dealing with, his drinking problem. There's a nice two or three panel sequence in this issue of Stark musing on "being thirsty," and then walking away from a bar that he's strolling past. It's a small moment, but one that speaks to the daily struggle that is very often the life of an addict.

Story-wise, this is a relatively straight forward tale - villain escapes from prison and threatens a small town if Iron Man doesn't present himself for vengeance. Of course, IM and his team figure out the source of the villain's powers and defeat him. It's the last part of the story about Vibro (an unfortunate villain name if ever there was one, and probably a future Scourge victim), and it has about it the feel of an epilogue. The art by Luke McDonnell is...well, it's a bit awkward, actually. There's one or two shots of Iron Man flying away and he really seems like he doesn't know what to do with his body. This could be a narrative choice, I suppose, but Rhodey simply doesn't seem like the kind of character that would hold himself awkwardly, whether flying through the air or standing on the ground, so these moments where the red and gold body looks somewhat askew are quite off-putting.

I'll keep on trucking through Iron Man this week. I've got a short run of the Michelinie-penned stuff coming up, so perhaps I'll draw our look at the golden Avenger out a little longer than a week. But I'm kind of hoping to spend at least a week over the next little while on iconic characters. The Hulk, John Constantine, some others that have become more available to me since my rearrangement of the collection.

To be continued.

May 22, 2017

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 817: Iron Man #117, December 1978

Writing this post is actually the first time I've see this cover. The copy of this comic that I have is missing the cover, so my first experience of it is seeing Tony Stark, mustachio'd and smoking jacketed (it's the 70s) getting his brain splattered all over a curtain.

Don't worry. It's an LMD. Which kind of makes Aida's behaviour in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seem a bit more justified.

Not a bad comic today, though, with a very brief flashback exception, this comic, like yesterday's, features Stark encased in the Iron Man armour constantly. I'm feeling a little adrift due to my severe lack of exposure to Iron Man comics, and whether or not this was a regular thing with the title through the 70s. In the Avengers titles I've read with Iron Man in them, he doesn't spend quite an equal amount of time as Stark, but there's definitely moments where it's important for him to be out of his armour. You have to have this for superhero comics - the secret identity doesn't just work to protect the fictional loved ones, but also to link the superhuman to the human. Stark needs to step out of the armour occasionally, or we just begin to see him as a robot, not a person.

There's going to be quite a leap in time for tomorrow's issue, and I think it may actually skip right over the famous "Demon in a Bottle" storyline. I noticed in today's issue, Tony has a couple of drinks, so this is definitely pre-alcoholism. The next issue is from 1984, probably post. But I'll be interested to see if the influence of a story that so very fundamentally revolves around the man, rather than the iron man, has placed the man a little more in the spotlight of the title.

To be continued.

May 21, 2017

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 816: Iron Man Annual #4, 1977

Today's comic (actually, like a couple of the BnV ones from last week) is part of a subset of the collection that belongs to my lovely wife. For a long while these comics were kept separately in a cute little comic box that her parents must have made for her, but they've since found their way into the larger Giant Box of Comics collection. Though, they're still under her name in my database.

Iron Man has never been one of my favourite Marvel characters. The recent films have been pretty good, and whenever Stark is on the Avengers, I've enjoyed his presence, but for me he's a bit like Batman. I like Bruce when he's in JLA adventures, but his solo stuff, Morrison's run aside, leaves me a bit cold. There are definitely characters in both the Marvel and DC universes that function better when they're held in juxtaposition to other heroes, or that blossom when part of a team. Iron Man, in my opinion, is one of these characters.

Though the comic doesn't explicitly state it, I think this story comes in part way through a longer tale. Iron Man is tracking M.O.D.O.K. and A.I.M., and recruits new superhero team The Champions to help him. We don't actually see Tony Stark's face in this issue, as he spends the entire story encased in his armour. And The Champions are a weird mixed bag of a super-team. I don't really know all that much about them, but I don't think they lasted much past the end of the Seventies.

I don't really know what to say about this story. It was a strange amalgamation of little stories, with the team splitting up to investigate three possible M.O.D.O.K. locations, only to be called back to Iron Man's original point of investigation, where the invisible enemy had been hiding all along. There is one sequence that struck me. It was amusing, but not in a way that the creators were intending, I think. Part of the action takes place in the giant Redwood forests along the Californian coast. Hercules and the Black Widow are struck by the beauty of the place, Herc even claiming that the forest is blessed by the gods. They're then attacked, and what's the first thing Hercules does? He tears an entire, probably 500-year old Redwood out of the ground and starts pounding on the bad guys with it.


It is, I suppose, in keeping with the character, but the immediate switch from reverence to destruction was kind of darkly funny.

I'll get into some of the regular series over the next week. Iron Man Week. Sounds good.

To be continued.

May 20, 2017

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 815: Archie's Girls Betty and Veronica #217, January 1974

A girl is accused of indulging in the dirty Hippy lifestyle, but it turns out she's actually just poor. Three years before yesterday's comic, and the social commentary is a bit more pointedly conservative. It's interesting to see the evolution of the comic from actively promoting a very conservative version of middle America to implicitly doing it with its mediocre stories. And that's the crux. The stories in this issue are far more expertly crafted, even if the subject matter is a lot more problematic. In the first tale, the girls of Riverdale decide to take some of their power back by preying on the local boys and assaulting them with kisses and hugs. The reason for this seems to be a worrying propensity for the boys in town to sexually assault the women whenever they want. Of course, the boys are completely open to this kissing accostment, and so the girls' power is taken from them once more. Betty is spotted with a basket, rushing to a nursery, and everyone assumes it's a baby, and that, of course, Betty will make a wonderful caregiver. Let's leave aside the fact that she's a teenager in high school. A baby was left on her doorstep - surely she must give up her education to become a mother!

This said, the stories play out in a much more satisfying manner than the later ones. There's equal parts drama and comedy in some of the stories, and better character development in a lot of ways. Perhaps this is what the comics of the later Seventies don't do quite as well - they rely far too much on the archetype of the character, rather than using that as a foundation upon which to enrich the character. Though perhaps this is also a natural swing of the pendulum for Archie comics. Using the same characters over and over for such a long time, perhaps the stories can fall afoul of the producers of the content resting on their laurels for a while, until they realize that the characters need more than simply reiteration of the same old stories. Is this where we are now with these characters? And will they return to their formulaic tales in a couple of years? It'll be interesting to watch.

Enough Archie comics for now. I'll bounce back into them soon, I'm sure. But tomorrow we'll start looking at one of the superhero runs I have that I have only now been able to properly access since rearranging my comic boxes: Iron Man.

To be continued.

May 19, 2017

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 814: Archie's Girls Betty and Veronica #253, January 1977

Betty does construction. Veronica shuns her rich relatives. And Reggie gets schooled in the errors of his dominant male ways.

This one's a little more egalitarian than most the Betty and Veronica comics I've read this week. The only one that falls slightly short is the first story, in which the Archie and Jug are planning a fishing trip, and the girls are obviously too delicate to handle the rigours (?!) of camping.

Having camped with a number of women, I have to say that they're often far better at it and far better prepared than I ever am.

The stories in the latter bits of the Seventies might be less sexist (slightly), but they're also slightly less entertaining. The punchlines just seem a little....meh. Like the one on the cover there. While it might be hearkening back to The Archies' heyday with "Sugar Sugar," the punch line on the cover is forced. I had to read it a couple of times to understand he was talking about the sweetness of the girls, though that doesn't ring true for at least one of "Archie's Girls." Sweetness is not exactly a character trait we associate with Veronica. Indeed, in this issue, when Betty tries to construct a play area in a local park for some children, Veronica has it stopped purely out of her own self-interest. Even in the final story, in which Reggie demonstrates some remarkably troubling male behaviours, Veronica teaches him a lesson that is not sweet at all.

I'm sure people who've thought about it much longer and harder than I can identify the golden ages of the Archie comics. I think the late Seventies is a bit of a downswing. The Eighties stuff I remember growing up on was quite good, but then in the later Eighties and early Nineties, things flounder again. Once I've finally read all of my Archie comics, in 37 years or so, I'll be in a better position to judge.

To be continued.

May 18, 2017

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 813: Archie's Girls Betty and Veronica #246, June 1976

Today's comic veers off from the trend of domestic adventure for these two young ladies, and actually addresses class difference in a couple of its stories. Veronica has always been a wonderful touchstone for questions of class. Sometimes she's a positive representation and sometimes a negative one. More often than not, at least in the comics I've been looking at lately, Veronica uses her privilege as a weapon rather than a tool, and today's comic is no exception. In "The Outspoken Word," Veronica uses her self-perception of superiority to offer outspoken criticisms of everyone she comes across, until she meets someone as outspoken as she herself who turns the tables. "Fit to be Tied" sees Veronica give Betty an entire wardrobe of clothes that have had the size tags changed, in order to convince Betty that she has put on weight. This is a really awful story, as we witness Betty refusing to eat and exercising what we would now consider a very unhealthy amount, all because she doesn't fit into the clothes Veronica has given her. Of course, the story turns it around, and Betty becomes a champion athlete out of the deal, but Veronica's deception is never revealed, and Betty's worry about her weight is never addressed.

I was teaching my class about what we call the "Generalized Other" in communications theory today. It's the mores and narratives that we are provided by the greater society we inhabit. The key to these narratives is recognizing that the stories the generalized other tells us about ourselves is not necessarily the story that we should inhabit. The problem is that it's hard to inhabit other stories if we're not made aware that they're possible. Hence, representation. The female narratives presented by these Betty and Veronica stories in the 70s offer little in the way of non-normative behaviours. It's surprising to see Betty excel at sports in the one story, as she's usually relegated to winning over the hearts and minds of her peers with her domestic skills. And I'm not even sure what the narrative that's presented through Veronica is. Every now and again she shows some self-awareness, but more often than not her comeuppance is experienced only by herself, perhaps suggesting that the rich will get what they deserve, but never in view of those they've wronged. Which might assuage the concerns of those wronged, but is, as far as I can tell, not entirely true to life.

I'm finding these comics cool in that they're provoking in me a lot more rigorous thinking than some of the others I've read. Perhaps it's that distance of time that allows for a more critical view of things. What's lovely is that they're providing a touchstone on how far we have actually come in the last 40 years. What will things look like 40 years from now?

To be continued.