Thursday, February 7, 2008

Discount Bin Finds -- Iron Man #195

Split personality?  IRON MAN #195
You ever notice that you tend to find certain back issues with more frequency than others? Now, I know what you are saying. "Of course, Luke. There's a massive pile of old X-Force and Brigade and Secret Weapons comics at my shop!" But that's not what I am getting at here. No, what I mean is, have you ever noticed that certian particular issues show up with more frequency than others? It's an odd phenomenon, and one which I have seen multiple times with this particular issue, Iron Man #195.

For whatever reason, this cover, with it's eye-catching split-face graphic dominating, seems to pop up a lot when I go back issue hunting. It was one of the first back issues of Iron Man I ever got from a discount bin years ago, and yet I keep on seeing it. I don't really see any of the issues around it all that often, only this one. What could the reason be? Maybe this issue had a slightly higher print run? More non-regular readers bought it due to the cover? Shaman being hugely popular at one point and then his fandom crashed? I don't know the answer. It's one of those great unexplainable head-scratchers of American comics, like how Jack Kirby designed costumes for two different guys named "The Sandman" at two different companies.

Anyway, onto the actual comic, brought to you by Denny O'Neil on words and Luke McDonnell on pencils. As implied by the cover, this is during the period when Jim Rhodes was wearing the red-and-golds, and he is going through a bit of a personal crisis. For months now, Rhodey has been having intense, debilitating headaches every time he puts on the Iron Man armor. Having exhausted his medical options, he heads north of the border to seek out Shaman, thinking a mystic might be able to help him. Shaman acts as Rhodey's guide of sorts on a journey into the metaphysical, which brings our hero into some dangerous territory inside his own psyche. Meanwhile, recovering alcoholic Tony Stark is inspired by his old Hawkeye to work on a new armor, as a sort of therapy technique.

This era of Iron Man was blessed by having not one, but two really strong creative teams working on the title. Starting from when "Bob & Dave" (Layton and Micheline) took over, through O'Neil's tenure, then back to Bob afterwards, it was one of Marvel's superior titles in the late 70s and early 80s, before the rise of the mutant franchise and the decline of the "heroes" books. Denny O'Neil's run is characterized by Tony Stark's collosal collapse off the wagon, and the ascension of long time second banana Jim Rhodes into the armor. And unlike a lot of other identity swaps, it works out well and holds up to re-reading. (It helps that Stark, in his alcoholic state, remained a supporting focus of the title, and that Rhodey himself was so well built and characterized since his introduction.)

Taken on it's own, this issue is a satisfying Marvel comic, with lots of self-doubt and heroic flaws on display. The main story of Rhodey's "vision quest" (of sorts) is filled with trippy visuals of the kind one doesn't normally find in this feature. In an oblique way, this issue reminds me of one of a few other favorite issues of Iron Man which deal with similar themes: #232, the epilogue of "Stark Wars/Armor Wars," and #300, where Tony overcomes his paralysis (which takes up about half of the oversized length). All three deal with the nature of the men wearing the armor and just what the armor is protecting them from, a central theme in the Shellhead mythos going back to the Tales of Suspense days. The issue does lack the main focus of most Iron Man comics -- that is, technology and armored action -- but you don't mind too much as you are reading since it allows the characters to shine through instead.

So, the next time you are perusing a discount bin and you happen to see this title (and trust me, at some point, you will!), pick it up and try it out. Even if you are not an Iron Fan, I'm willing to bet you might find something worthwhile inside.

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