Comic book reviews: Iron Man #258.1 – 258.4, Armor Wars II Redux

Ask almost any long-time Marvel fan who the all-time greatest Iron Man writers are, and chances are very good that the names David Michelinie and Bob Layton will be mentioned.  The team of Michelinie & Layton had two historic runs on the ongoing Iron Man title (issue #s 116 to 153 and #s 215 to 250) plus a handful of subsequent miniseries and specials.  They co-wrote what are generally considered three of the all time great Iron Man stories, “Demon in a Bottle,” “Armor Wars” and the “Doomquest” trilogy.

While it is true that Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Don Heck created Iron Man, I really think that it was Michelinie & Layton who truly defined the character of Tony Stark, making him a fully developed, three dimensional individual.  Under their pen, Tony could be a flawed, selfish, controlling figure, but underneath all that he had a good heart and the best of intentions.  I think a lot of subsequent writers have taken the negative aspects of Stark and magnified them.  Or, worse yet, had Stark acting like a villain because the plot required him to assume that role in order to get the story from Point A to Point B.  I’m specifically thinking of the entire Civil War crossover.  In contrast, Tony’s self-centered, destructive behavior in the original “Armor Wars” really did feel like a natural progression of the character.

Michelinie & Layton have reunited once more to chronicle the adventures of Tony Stark.  Well, actually, their latest four part story was written & drawn roughly two years ago, and was originally going to be released as the miniseries Iron Man Forever (much in the same vein as the Chris Claremont-helmed X-Men Forever).  However, it ended up sitting unused until now, when Marvel presumably decided it would make a good tie-in for the third Iron Man movie.

These four issues are rather oddly numbered issue #s 258.1 thru 258.4.  For the reasoning behind this, we have to look back to the year 1990.  Michelinie had just departed from Iron Man.  Layton was planning to remain as writer and inker, paired with penciler John Romita Jr.  The two were going to do a sequel to “Armor Wars,” and got so far as producing a prologue which ran in issue #256.  Then Layton was offered the opportunity to work at Valiant Comics, and so also dropped off the book.  At the last minute, John Byrne came on-board to do his own version of “Armor Wars II” with Romita Jr. & Bob Wiacek.  That story commenced publication in Iron Man #258.  Hence the numbering of these issues, which see Layton, once again co-writing with Michelinie, presenting their take on “Armor Wars II,” based on his original plot.  Bizarrely, Marvel did not actually give these four issues an overarching title.  For convenience sake I’m just going to refer to it as “Armor Wars II Redux.”  The trade paperback collection of these issues, due out in October, is reportedly going to be titled “Armored Vengeance.”

By the way, Layton previously had a synopsis of his original plans for “Armor Wars II” posted on his website.  Reading it, you could see there are certain differences, understandably so, since back then Layton would have been writing solo, paired with a different artist.  He also would have had seven issues to tell his story instead of just four.  If it had been published, it probably would have been a great story.

That said, “Armor Wars II Redux” was definitely a good read.  It is co-plotted by Michelinie & Layton, scripted by Michelinie, with pencil layouts by Dave Ross and finished art by Layton.  Ross and inker Tom Palmer provide the cover artwork.

Following on from the events of Iron Man #256, Tony Stark has undergone back surgery to remove a strange growth.  It transpires that the biochip which recently restored Stark’s shattered spine has interacted with the remnants of the nanites injected into his body years earlier by one of his most dangerous enemies, the criminal industrialist Justin Hammer.  The combination of the biochip and the nanites has resulted in the creation of an electronic duplicate of Stark.  This virtual doppelganger, possessing all of Tony’s intelligence but none of his compassion, infects the entire computer network of Stark Enterprises.  It plans to seize control of the global nuclear arsenal and blackmail the nations of the world into accepting its “benevolent” dictatorial rule.  Iron Man, cut off from all his allies and resources, is forced to turn to none other than Justin Hammer himself for assistance in thwarting his evil half.

All in all, I definitely enjoyed “Armor Wars II Redux.”  Michelinie & Layton’s writing was top-notch.  I enjoyed these four issues more than I did the majority of the Iron Man stories that Marvel has published over the last several years.  Once again we have the imperfect but heroic Tony Stark doing his best to overcome extremely difficult circumstances in an exciting, suspenseful adventure.

It was nice to see Michelinie & Layton bring back Justin Hammer.  In his own way, Hammer is as much the anti-Stark as the virtual doppelganger, a man of genius and business acumen unencumbered by conscience, utilizing his wealth & power to create superhuman criminals and amass power & control.  Besides, I always liked the idea of having a comic book villain who was inspired by Peter Cushing.

I also like how Michelinie & Layton wrote James Rhodes, a character they created back during their first run.  Obviously Rhodey would not have become War Machine in Layton’s original storyline, since that identity wasn’t devised until a couple of years later by Len Kaminski & Kev Hopgood.  But here Michelinie & Layton look at the consequences of Rhodey assuming that role by having him vividly recall the last time he donned a suit of armor, an occasion when he nearly died a horrible death.  I don’t  recall if any subsequent writers ever addressed that incident creating long-term trauma for him.  But it makes sense for Michelinie & Layton to bring it up, and show that Rhodey has a great deal of reluctance towards suiting up again.

I would not say that “Armor Wars II Redux” is without it flaws, though.  I really wish Michelinie & Layton had been given an extra issue to tell this story.  The final chapter definitely felt rushed in places.  Also, there was a subplot involving Tony’s girlfriend Rae LaCoste that really looked like it was going to develop into something significant, but ultimately headed nowhere.  Afterwards, searching through the archives of Layton’s website a bit more, I realized that this was a nod to their unfulfilled plans for Rae that they never had a chance to develop.  I wish they’d been given the opportunity here but, again, I guess they just didn’t have the space.

I definitely loved the artwork on these four issues.  Dave Ross is no stranger to drawing Shellhead, having penciled Avengers West Coast many moons ago.  His layouts were really dramatic.  And the inks/finishes by Layton were absolutely outstanding.    It’s a real shame that Layton isn’t currently drawing a regular series.  I hope that one of these days he has the opportunity to return to the characters he briefly worked on at the now sadly defunct Future Comics.

So, despite a few hiccups, “Armor Wars II Redux” was a really enjoyable story with superb artwork.  It certainly demonstrates that, after all these years, Michelinie & Layton are still at the top of their game.

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