Christopher Cantwell is a writer to watch — but you probably already knew that. With acclaimed series like She Can Fly and Doctor Doom, not to mention AMC’s excellent Halt and Catch Fire, he’s already shown to be a clear and unique voice in everything that he tackles. Enter his take on Iron Man, which is currently on its third issue, and if you’re anything like me, hope it remains a steady presence on comics shelves.
In Cantwell’s run, Tony Stark is being disassembled both mentally and physically, the writer says over a recent email, and he really wants to push the character to his breaking point. He adds, “So that when the cork goes off, it’s big.” In addition, Cantwell also discussed his unique approach to the supervillain Korvac, the return of War Machine, inspirations from Denny O’Neil’s run, interactions with fans via social media, and much more.
And after you peruse Cantwell’s answers, check out an exclusive first look at the Iron Man #6 solicitation — plus interior pages from issue #5!
AIPT: How has the reaction to Iron Man been and how long until Marvel sends you a full Iron Man armor?
Christopher Cantwell: The reaction to the new run has been overwhelmingly positive. A lot of readers seem to really appreciate the new direction we’re taking Tony in and I’m thrilled. When faced with a legacy character whose history stretches back 57 years, I want to be true to him but also be bold with him, because that’s what I believe the character and fans of the character deserve. Now, have I been able to satisfy everyone? Nope. Comics fans are ardent true believers and if they believe something is heresy they won’t hesitate to tell me. That’s okay. I get it. I thought Star Trek III: the Search for Spock was blasphemy. I just hope they keep reading, because I have a very long arc planned for Iron Man in this first Korvac story. This is an odyssey for him, it’s going to take a while. I bet even the harshest naysayers might find a thing or two they dig when we really get up and going.
I would also love a full suit of armor from Marvel. I live in L.A. County and it would be amazing for the traffic. But I would definitely want the old Mark IV with roller skates. Otherwise, I would send it back to Tom Brevoort’s house with a big ol’ note that says “NO THANKS.’
AIPT: Issue #6 is the start of book two of the “Books of Korvac” story arc and you’re putting Iron Man through the wringer. When putting a character through intense pain and harm (the solicit reads “pieces of metal literally holding his body together”) are you ever thinking of the metaphorical meaning?
CC: Of course I am. I’m sure some people hate this kind of description, but the first five issue run is a dismantling of Tony Stark. I wanted to do that purely because of the heights I plan to take him. I liked this idea of him believing he’s starting out from this new place of modesty, simplicity, and humility, and as soon as he meets resistance to that he starts to get resentful. I think Tony is particularly sensitive to criticism because he’s received a lot of it in the past, even from close friends. So I wanted to see what happens when Tony says “You know what, enough, we’re gonna do this my way and you’re gonna get in line or get out.”
A huge part of that flame that lights inside him is because of Korvac. Korvac is a real psych-warfare type of guy. He needles Tony in all the wrong places. And he’s extremely condescending. Tony can only take so much of that before he blows a fuse. But as we enter Issue 6 the question becomes, “Oh man, but how far is Tony gonna take this vendetta?” It’s personal for him by the end of Issue 5. He is angry at Korvac. Man to man. So in this second arc for a few issues he’s gonna be large and in charge and have some seriously concerning tunnel vision. He still has Hellcat to ground him and keep him clear-headed, but her own head is FAR from clear post Issue 5. That’s her struggle beginning in Issue 6.
I was going back through the Denny O’Neil run where you can feel O’Neil pushing Tony towards alcoholic relapse. Tony tirelessly faces foe after foe, all based on chess pieces and all controlled behind the scenes by Obadiah Stane. Tony’s so focused on beating back these villains that he’s having trouble handling a simultaneous hostile takeover of his company. Amidst all this, he falls in love with this wonderful woman, Indries Moomji. And you can feel O’Neil inching Tony closer and closer to relapse, exhausting him, abusing him, tempting him, just crushing him from all sides. But Tony won’t give in. He keeps fighting. But pretty soon all he has is Indries. She’s the one comfort in his life. And then she just rejects him, like the most coldhearted shredding of his heart. And it turns out she was the Queen in Obadiah’s set of chess pieces, and this is checkmate. She leaves and Tony grabs the whiskey bottle. You can feel how tightly he grabs that bottle in the way O’Neil writes it.
I want to push Tony. Push push push. So that when the cork goes off, it’s big. He’s barely being held together by issue #6 (and yes, some of it’s literal). But he’s also going to experience a little side journey in this second group of five issues, something that might show him what he could have, or who he could be, or how the world could work as a better place. But there’s some ugly truth he’ll realize, too. And it’ll help push him towards that big bout with Korvac. It’s coming. And when it does…
AIPT: When writing a character like Korvac who wants to become a demigod, nay, to become a god, how do you get into that mindset when writing him?
CC: I’ll give you two wonderful examples of god complexes that I love. The first is Alec Baldwin’s character in Malice. This monologue was written by Aaron Sorkin:
I have an M.D. from Harvard, I am board certified in cardio-thoracic medicine and trauma surgery, I have been awarded citations from seven different medical boards in New England, and I am never, ever sick at sea. So I ask you: When someone goes into that chapel and they fall on their knees and they pray to God that their wife doesn’t miscarry, or that their daughter doesn’t bleed to death, or that their mother doesn’t suffer acute neural trauma from post-operative shock, who do you think they’re praying to? Now, go ahead and read your Bible, Dennis, and you go to your church, and, with any luck, you might win the annual raffle. But if you’re looking for God, he was in operating room number two on November 17th, and he doesn’t like to be second guessed. You ask me if I have a God complex. Let me tell you something: I am God.
The second is from an admittedly lower brow work, but here is Major Bison from Street Fighter: The Movie:
For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday.
Both of those quotes sum it up so well for me. Korvac thinks of sentient beings as “mortals groping in the dark” (this is a quote of his from Issue #4). He’s saving us. The first thing he says when Dr. Zota says he needs to save Earth is that saving Earth is too small. Why wouldn’t he save absolutely everything? There is no limit to what a person like this thinks they can do. But the real special ingredient is that they think they’re doing it on behalf of others. Korvac, Doctor Doom, the doctor from Malice, Major Bison… it’s like “You’re welcome, everybody.”
Tony can get like that when run through the right crucible of circumstances. One might say I want to get him to that place. Eventually.
AIPT: As a follow-up, do you find yourself taking on the roles of each character as you write them? What is your process like?
CC: Yes, in certain ways. Nothing I do is really biographical in any way, but I’m drawing on my experiences and how I might legitimately react in situations. I can react in pissy ways, sarcastic ways, or honest ways. I have a rampant internal monologue that is always questioning what I’m doing and I can see that in Tony.
Patsy represents perhaps a more innocent side in my mind, but one that’s emerged from a hell of a lot of trauma and grief. I take huge offense if I’m really trying to help someone and they throw it back in my face. That’s definitely part of Tony’s story in these early issues.
AIPT: In February the solicit reveals War Machine is entering the story, what are some traits and aspects of War Machine you think are important in any story?
CC: YES, cool, I’m glad that got mentioned in there. Rhodes shows up in issue #4. War Machine is coming in Issue 6. Rhodes has a remarkable amount of pure virtue. Maybe this will piss people off but I feel like he’s the Iron Man Tony may deep down wish he could be. Rhodes is all about honor and his moral compass is very well dialed in. What I love most about Rhodes is his sheer strength of will. I try to deal with that in #4, 5, and 6. You can’t keep Rhodes down. It’s nearly impossible. If he had a super power besides his suit, it would be his force of will. Not to say that he is perfect. Again, in O’Neil’s run, Rhodes gets to a point where he refuses to take off the suit. Things get nasty. Even when the suit starts giving him insane headaches he refuses to stop. That’s an incredible show of willpower and stubbornness. He can be extremely self-assured that he’s right, but it comes from his level-headedness, like, “Everybody calm down, I’ve got this.” Of course, sometimes he doesn’t. But overall his heroic efforts are wonderfully selfless.
AIPT: Writing comics in the modern era means being open to feedback from fans on social media, is that an aspect of the writing experience that has been helpful?
CC: There is a point being made right now that not every super hero has to be deconstructed. That is very true. I can feel that the pendulum might swing soon. We’ve deconstructed about every super hero character there is. In the same way that anti-heroes got a little worn out on television in the 2010’s, I can see this deconstruction model maybe getting parked for a bit soon. Not to say that I don’t love those stories. King’s writing in Vision, Mister Miracle, and Batman is unparalleled. What Donny Cates has done with Venom and Thor. There is this thing coming out next year for a major Marvel character that when I heard the full pitch I thought, “that might be the best deconstruction story ever told.”
But—even when someone is calling me a piece of s--t with brain damage—there’s a point that’s not lost on me. 2020 is such a morally gray and compromised world for so many, and that means often when many of us hear the term “super hero” we think of it as a paradox. Well, even if they pretty much aren’t real in actual life, these characters from Marvel and DC are precisely that: ideals. Writing an ideal can be boring. But it’s possible. 100%. And I think taking any character from the big rosters and telling a purely virtuous story with them—where goddammit they always make the right decision no matter how hard it is—could be very engaging. So yeah, some of the vitriol thrown at me has gotten my wheels spinning creatively.
Even in this little three-issue side story, I’m gonna do with Tony in upcoming issues, I’m wondering if there’s a way to see Tony actually access that virtuous part of himself and be a pure hero for a bit. And I’ve thought that if I’m lucky enough to do more story with Iron Man beyond Korvac, that I might try an arc like that out, where Tony gets out of bed, puts on his armor, and goes and saves lives at great risk to himself. I mean, he’s doing that in my book already. I just feel he’s owed a level of emotional complexity that has a substantial amount of darkness in it. But who knows. I’ve also considered doing an arc with him that feels almost entirely like The Maltese Falcon, which might go the complete other way than everything I just described.
There is a Buddhist term, Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is a being who has achieved full enlightenment, but rather than cross that shore all the way, instead chooses to stand there and wait for others, and help guide them across the river first. I do think there have been modern Bodhisattvas. Fred Rogers was a Bodhisattva.
I think there are some Bodhisattva stories to tell with our modern super heroes, because at their best, that’s what they are.
And in thinking about it, there is one character I don’t think I could ever write as morally compromised. I think I would have to write them as a pure soul. It’s because I believe they are a Bodhisattva. And that is Spider-Man.
Check out the Iron Man #6 solicit below. For even more from Cantwell, check out the AIPT Comics podcast interview.
BOOKS OF KORVAC: BOOK TWO BEGINS! After receiving a near-fatal injury from Korvac, Iron Man lands in emergency triage with his life on the line. Halcyon and Misty Knight work quickly to lock Tony in his armor and stanch his injuries…but now he can’t take it off or else he’ll die. With pieces of metal literally holding his body together, Tony regroups with his allies, all while trying not to give into his rage over being bested by Korvac. With Hellcat on the psychological ropes and his other hero compatriots recuperating from their own near-death experiences, can Tony muster what he needs in order to chase Korvac out into space and stop the mad demigod’s quest for ultimate power? Perhaps War Machine is just the friend Tony could use in this moment…but James Rhodes might only be there to bench a manic and battered Tony from action so that he doesn’t get killed. Still, as always, Tony has never been good at taking no for an answer…
IRON MAN #6
Writer: CHRISTOPHER CANTWELL
Cover by ALEX ROSS
Release Date: February 2021
Check out images from Iron Man #5 below!
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