Or – “He Wasn’t Always A Huge Tool. Once, He Was A Huge Tool With A Tom Selleck Haircut.”

With all the verbal beatings heaped upon Senor Antonio Stark in recent weeks, I decided it was well past time to look at something that predates his characterization as a “futurist” (which seems to be synonymous with the characterization of Batman in the Morrison and Waid eras of JLA: the man paranoid enough to act in a manner completely contrary to heroism in the name of preparation), as well as a time when comics in general were simpler. The occasional would-be conqueror here, crazed guy in armor there, kick Justin Hammer’s butt on Sunday, and then have a martini. Though, for Anthony Stark, that last one is no longer an option at this point in his history…

See, this story takes place mere months after the landmark “Demon In A Bottle” storyline, where Tony Stark first succumbs to alcoholism. He’s been through the wringer at this point, even having his Iron Man identity set up for murder by the aforementioned Justin Hammer (who just happens to be one of Stark’s competitors on the market). On that note, it always seems a little fishy that so many of the “supervillains” he faces are actually competitors: Justin Hammer, Cordco, Roxxon, Obadiah Stane, et al. It makes you wonder what the Securities Exchange Commission would have to say about this, hmm? Maybe the ‘new’ version of Tony as over-prepared sociopath with no compunctions about taking out whomever is in his way isn’t really all that new, after all…

When #142 kicks off, Tony has just returned from a week’s vacation, and things at Stark International have apparently gone nuts in his absence. All heck has busted loose in his absence (once again showing that Tony has a “cult of personality” that doesn’t function in his absence, and has little or no ability to delegate), and he chides his executive secretary Mrs. Arbogast how she could have let things get so out of control in just a few days…

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You tell him, Bambi! One of the most amazing things about Stark at this point is his supporting cast. He actually has people who DO THINGS, rather than everything resting on his own shoulders. Bambi handles the comptroller function, he has security, research, lawyers, etc, something that has been sorely missing from his title in recent years. In fact, part of the problem with Iron Man right now seems to be a lack of human contact in the digital age leaving Iron Man isolated and adrift. Note also the oh-so-very Magnum P.I. haircut, moustache and Hawaiian shirt… it is the early 80’s after all. After smoothing over this brouhaha, his security chief informs him that SHIELD is on the premises and they won’t leave, leading him to seek out Nick Fury:

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Nick also has a nice flippy Dorothy Hamill hairdo going on here. The art, amazingly, is by the team of John Romita, Jr (at this time still a young turk) and Bob Layton, and their haircuts are very mod for ’81, but they also have a flair for technology and do really interesting things with Tony’s armor, as well as another character yet to be seen. Tony checks in with Scott Lang (Ant Man II, recently deceased in our time) about the Jupiter lander they’re building in one of the labs, but that selfsafe lander is stolen and destroyed by a Stark employee acting as a double-agent… and Nick Fury wants to know WHO. Tony’s going to find out, by tracing a mysterious microwave emission, but the broadcast seems to be coming from off-planet. Fortunately, he keeps his armored feathers numbered for just such an emergency…

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This is, I think, the first “special missions” armor (but, note the presence of the old pointy helmet in panel one, there) and honestly, it’s a notion that I don’t understand why nobody tried before. His armor “costume” has changed more often than nearly any other hero, even at this point, and tailoring specific suits to specific missions is a nifty idea, one that would create dozens of springboard plots in the years to come. Once in space, he discovers that things may be more complicated than they seem…

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That’s one mystery solved, then. But exactly HOW did Roxxon Oil get a fifty story space-station into play, WHAT is it doing there, and what does it have to do with mysterious microwaves and the death of an entire town? Issue #143 starts out with these questions, but they’re quickly tabled as Tony is surprised by a sudden meteor shower. Even as powerful as his space armor is, he can’t take care of the entire rain of stone by himself… Luckily, the station has it’s own security, and he’s easily as competent as Iron Man (some would say more so)…

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I have always loved Sunturion’s name and his character design is truly stunning, props to J.R. and Bob. As Sunturion pops away, Tony makes a reference to “one of those X-Men” being a teleporter, reminding me that the huge universe-wide crossover is a relatively new occurance. It seems odd today that he wouldn’t know Nightcrawler by name, isn’t it? Tony sees the danger has passed and so, heads for an airlock. Once on-board the station, he meets Arthur Dearborn, the station’s designer and administrator. Arthur explains that the station is called “Star Well,” that Sunturion is designed to act as it’s protector/custodian, and that Arthur himself handles the day to day. (Suuuure you do.) As for the station’s purpose, it’s the answer to the energy crisis, harvesting microwave energy and broadcasting it to Roxxon Earth-stations to be distributed to the masses, “at a fair price, of course.” Tony confronts him with the disaster in Iowa, and Dearborn stammers something about it being a necessary evil. “What are the lives of a few hundred, when we’re developing a technology that could save MILLIONS.” Millions of PEOPLE, or millions of DOLLARS, Art? Either way, the question is moot, as they’re suddenly alerted to the arrival of a Russian spy satellite armed with lasers and explosive drones. Iron Man starts to react, but Dearborn suddenly glows with microwave energy and says he’ll handle it…

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Not exactly a surprise, though I think that it was meant to be. Dearborn IS Sunturion, and he’s got some even more awesome tricks up his sleeve. Isolating and destroying the probes seen above, he follows the broadcast trail to it’s source, a small recieving station south of Moscow, and destroys it, then teleports several hundred miles straight back up to Star Well and Iron Man. Returning to his human form, Arthur suddenly recieves an incoming message from his superior, one Jonas Hale of Roxxon Oil. Hale blusters and threatens until he realizes that he hated enemy (previous schemes have been thwarted by the Golden Avenger) Iron Man is onboard, and he hits the self-destruct button…

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Unfortunately for Iron Man, Arthur still believes that a few lives aren’t enough to stop a project that could end the gas lines and OPEC crises forever (remember, it’s 1981, and gas is a whopping 1.25 a gallon). Iron Man tries to dissassemble the station’s power systems to protect the people on the planet below, just enough to disable it long enough to find a safer way to operate Star Well. He’s trying to be a noble hero, but I wonder what he would say if it was HIS pet project on the chopping block? After all, Sunturion has sacrificed his career, even his humanity. He’s poured everything into Star Well, and Iron Man is threatening it all. Dearborn snaps, transforms, and attacks. The two armored figures crash through solar panels, and energy blasts ricochet everywhere, doing as much damage as Tony’s disassembly might have (Heck, more than the self-destruct, probably.) Suddenly, Dearborn looks at the devastation they’ve caused, and realizes that something is horribly wrong. In space, no one can hear you curse at the top of your lungs…

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That’s the Marvel I remember from my youth! A superhero battle gets out of hand, and sets up the possibility for extreme destruction. Quote the walrus, “WOO WOO! MASS DESTRUCTION!” Sadly for me, the issue ends with a cliff-hanger, and I can’t find a copy of #144 anywhere in my collection or the back-issue bins. Apparently, I missed that one. A mostly-credible source informs me that the story ends with Arthur Dearborn exhausting all his microwave energy, and sacrificing his own life to save the lives of hundreds of strangers, thereby turning back to the path of righteousness, Marvel-style. Sunturion is later re-assembled, and appears very rarely in the M.U. as a supporting character, but his design is first-rate, and I kind of wish he was part of the Initiative. I’d team him up with Rufus “Super Midnight” Carter as a classic mismatched hero team, and give them… Heck, let’s say Denver, to protect.

This issue has a couple of plot-points that haven’t aged well, (‘Gar Logan and his Atari’-type topical references) but it’s interesting to see Tony arguing that the needs of the few outweight the needs of the many. Those couple of hundred Iowans are just as important as the millions who’d benefit from Star Well’s power broadcasts, a complete reversal of his thought process during Secret War, where the few (Cap’s rebels, onlookers, and collateral damage) can be sacrificed to make the world a safer place. And the best way to do this by giving teenagers super-powers and badges. Sure, that parses. Tom Selleck hair aside, this version of Tony Stark is one that I remember and enjoy as a humanist and a hero, and it’d be nice to see some of this characterization return now that he’s essentially the most powerful man in America. These two books are a nice flashback to the time when superheroes fought injustice, rather than one another. Taking into account the timeframe of the books (as the printing and art are far below today’s standards, but were pretty awesome when I was eleven), I give this pair of issues a cumulative 3 stars out of 5.

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The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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