One of the joys that comes with reading a random trade in Marvel’s Epic Collection, like Iron Man: The Fury of the Firebrand, is taking a stroll through eras in comics I retain only passing familiarity with. As I age, and as it became easier to find re-printings of old comic runs, I’ve generally focused on the recognized classics runs by the likes of Kirby, Ditko, Claremont, and Kubert. Understandably, those comics were the definitive catalog Marvel that came before me, but there were countless others that went to print and were forgotten. Thankfully, these trades allow readers to explore some of the lesser-known runs, warts and all, that make up the cannon of our favorite characters.
This Iron Man collection collects solo issues published between 1970-72, and is a fairly mixed bag. Many of these stories deal with a central theme that should be familiar with fans of the MCU: is rich industrialist Tony Stark a force for good in the world, or are his creations and company a net negative? Intriguingly enough, many of these stories find Iron Man confronting true-to-life issues such as economic exploitation, imperialism and a hero’s responsibility to an oppressed people. They are all welcome plots, but the book rarely addresses them in a satisfying or meaningful way.
Issue #27, the standout from this early set of issues, explores an impoverished inner city, now being pushed to conflict by the villain Firebrand, who wants to see radical change to address the inequalities. Archie Goodwin writes this issue, and while heavy on exposition and political narration, it does see Iron Man coming to terms with the fact that society around him is damaged, and it may take more than a colorful hero to fix it.
In issue #29, written by Mimi Gold and drawn by Don Heck, Iron Man vacations in a tiny Caribbean island, only to be pulled into fighting a robotic foe and saving the impoverished peasants. He then, predictably, tells the angry islanders to avoid violence and work together to build a better future.
In issue #30, written by Allyn Brodsky with art again by Heck, Iron Man travels to an island off the coast of Japan to battle Zoga, a monster that wishes to end American sovereignty over his country. In true Silver Age fashion (and with regrettable racist caricatures of the Japanese and Chinese), he defeats the creature, revealing his true origin without confronting the underlying premise of the conflict.
My favorite issues are drawn by George Tuska (issues #45-46), who had a reputation for being a reliable, but forgettable, fill-in artist. His work seems most fitting for romance comics, which works surprisingly well with a ladies’ man like Tony. It was quite a nice break from the poorly imitated Kirby-esque work in the earlier issues. Sadly, the issues find Iron Man dealing with protesting college students, presenting them as easily misled and in need of a man like Stark to step in and contain the crowd.
This trade displays the clear themes Iron Man was toying with at this time, but the inconsistency in writing and art make it jarring when moving between issues. In this trade alone, there are six different writers and five separate artists. These years are just all over the place, and it’s easy to see why it isn’t included in the pantheon of Marvel issues from this era.
Nonetheless, I’m thankful Marvel is keeping its odd corners of continuity in print. While I may decry some of the racist characterizations and oversimplification of principal challenges from this time period, it’s a fine reminder that comics have always been political. Marvel was trying to address these important questions all while Iron Man fights polychromatic robots and behemoths. It may not stand the test of time, but it is worth a glance.
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