Elspeth (elspethdixon) wrote,

Printed Circuits: A Tony Stark character and fandom overview.

Because I had to take a break from writing about mapping metadata sets and the Australian records continuum...

So, if you're here, you've probably seen the Iron Man movie, which I think we can all agree is one of the most kick-ass comicbook movies ever made.

To start with, some longish movie reviews from fans familiar with the comics, to give you a perspective on the movie-as-adaptation-of-the-comics as well the movie-on-its-own-merits:

puritybrown reviews the film.
elspethdixon squees about the armor and reviews the film.
dirty_diana Thinks it was awesome.
crimsonquills has much squee and one caveat.

The movie, however, is not the only thing out there. There are also over forty years of comicbooks, the majority of which are very similar to the movie in characterization and tone (not always something movie adaptations suceed at).

Tony Stark: A Core-Canon Bio

The most important thing to know about Tony Stark is that he hates himself. A lot. For various reasons, beginning with survivor’s guilt and ending with alcoholism and years of chronic depression.

The second most important thing to know about Tony Stark is that he has a suit of high-tech armor that he loves a whole lot. And a bad heart. Unlikely though it may seem, these two facts are closely connected.

Tony, an engineering genius who inherited his father’s manufacturing company, Stark Industries, at a ridiculously young age, was kidnapped by communists insurgents while on a research trip to Vietnam someplace unidentified in Southeast Asia Iraq Afghanistan someplace dangerous. We’ll call it Vietghanistan. The communists Vietghanistani rebels blew him up with one of his own landmines, and a piece of shrapnel was lodged in his heart. With the aid of fellow prisoner and scientist Dr. Yinsun, Tony was able to design a metal breastplate that kept his heart beating (how exactly was never explained, or rather, not in a way that made sense), as well as a suit of armor molded out of scrap metal that he and Dr. Yinsun intended to use to escape.

After Dr. Yinsun was executed by their captors, Tony instead used the suit to exact revenge for his death and escape on his own. Determined that his life—now bought at the cost of someone else’s death—would be worth something, he built a new, better suit as soon as he got home and became the superhero Iron Man, using his armor to fight communism crime.

Officially, of course, Iron Man was merely his body guard — Tony’s public persona remained that of a businessman and wealthy playboy.


And therein lies some of the trouble. Tony Stark built and sold weapons, Iron Man saved people. Tony Stark went to flashy parties, Iron Man joined the Avengers. Tony Stark had comparatively meaningless sex with a lot of bimbos, Iron Man had Captain America for a best friend. You see where this is going, right?

Tony likes being Iron Man a lot, but he’s really not all that fond of being Tony Stark.

Possibly my single favorite panel from Tales of Suspense.  They'd all be sorry if they knew he was dying! One of the ongoing themes in the Iron Man title is the irony derived from the fact that the supposedly “Invincible” Iron Man is, underneath all that armor, actually a deeply vulnerable and messed up guy. The heart problem that he started out with (which initially made him dependant on the armor in order to stay alive), was eventually cured, only to be resurrected repeatedly in various forms over the years. Tony’s bad heart is a remarkably “sticky” piece of canon, and writer after writer has found a way to re-introduce it every time it’s repaired, mostly because Marvel really likes to continually stick Tony on the verge of death.
Possibly my single favorite panel from Tales of Suspense. They'd all be sorry if they knew he was dying!

He was also shot and temporarily paralyzed by an evil girlfriend; briefly suffered nerve damage from an early attempt to use neural implants to control the cybernetic stuff in his suit (he got better); was killed and brought back to life in a bit of deeply stupid 90s canon that everyone thankfully ignores now; briefly ended up with a mechanical heart after his armor came alive, fell in love with him, and then tried to kill him (the best part was when it accused him of “betraying it” with another set of armor and ripped said armor—and his clothes—off him); and recently ended up infecting himself with a techno-organic virus in order to keep from dying of internal injuries. So, basically, he’s gone from needing his suit to live, to wearing it even when it was slowly killing him, to actually having bits of it become part of his body. At this point, Tony literally is the armor. And the armor is Tony.

Which, ultimately, may not be the best thing for him, because Tony has consistently used the armor as a way to hide from his problems.

Tony's but his closest friends outside the Avengers are pretty much all his employees (Jarvis, his butler; Pepper Potts/Hogan, his secretary; Happy Hogan, his chauffer; Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes, his company test pilot), and it’s his role as Iron Man and as an Avenger that he’s essentially based most of his self-worth on. A founding memeber of the Avengers, Tony has funded the team throughout most of its history, and considers the other long-time Avengers (like Steve "Captain America" Rogers) to be his family.

Which is why, when an evil industrialist named Justin Hammer figured out how to hack his suits controls and forced Iron Man to kill someone, the results were… um... not good.

Thus began the issues with depression and alcohol I mentioned earlier, which were dramatically worsened when an even more evil businessman named Obadiah Stone embarked on a long campaign of psychological warfare against Tony designed to win him control of Stark Industries. Tony, temporarily deprived of emotional support for a variety of coincidental reasons—Pepper and Happy had gotten married and left to start their own lives, Rhodey was in the hospital, Iron Man had temporarily dropped out of the Avengers to deal with the whole Stone issue—slid into a comparatively well-written (for the early 80s, anyway) depressive funk, really started drinking, and lost Stark Industries to Stone. And then fell apart even more, in what he’s canonically acknowledged was basically an attempt to commit suicide via alcohol.  

Obviously, it didn’t succeed, and Tony eventually pulled himself back together, rebuilt Stark Industries, and ultimately put on his armor again (Rhodey had been wearing it in the meantime). He never really got over the depression, though, or the sense that he’d let everybody (including Cap—actually, mostly Cap) down and is very, very aware that all it would take is a single slip to send him right back to being a self-destructive mess.

Also, there have been several more ugly incidents with people hacking his armor, using mind control on him, and otherwise turning him into a living weapon against his will, the most recent happening just after he gained nanite/techno-organic virus powers and just before the start of Civil War.

Tony, as might be imagined, has some control issues these days.

Canon Love Interests

Tony Stark has slept with many women over the course of his adult life, if not quite so many as his reputation would have people believe. Many women, and probably a few men, too and the Living Armor. Nearly all of them (the ones that weren't just one night stands, anyway) have stabbed him in the back. Sometimes literally; one of his ex-girlfriends actually shot him in the spine (and she wasn't even one of the supervillains).

A lot of people seem to have Tony mixed up with Bruce Wayne, thinking of him as a "playboy" and a womanizer. This isn't true, or at least, isn't the whole truth. Tony is a fundamentally lonely person who has relatively few methods of connecting with people: he has employees, fellow superheroes, and people he sleeps with (every time Tony meets someone he likes out of costume, he either flirts with them or tries to hire them to work for Stark Enterprises). Tony craves affection, and sex provides him with at least the illusion of it. He doesn't value himself, but sex is one way for him to feel like others value him.

Tony, despite his promiscuity, is essentially a serial monogamist -- when he's seriously involved with someone, he's completely faithful to them (even when they're not faithful to him, as with Rumiko). He's clearly seeking a long-term, stable relationship, but, possibly because of his ongoing self-worth issues, has a knack for invariably picking people who turn out to be bad for him. Tony has dated supervillains (Madame Masque), plants hired by his enemies to conduct psychological warfare against him (Indres Moomji), other businessmen/women who were only trying to take advantage of him (Sunset Bain, arguably Tiberius Stone), one night stands who may arguably have date-raped him (Heather), and creepy possessive stalkers who tried to kill him (Kathy Dare, the Living Armor), along with a string of single dates and/or one night stands with vapid supermodels and society women.

The only two serious, long-term women in Tony's life, Pepper Potts-Hogan and Rumiko Fujikawa, are either married to someone else (Pepper) or dead (Rumiko). Pepper, Tony's secretary, is one of his oldest and closest friends, married to another of his oldest, closest friends, Happy Hogan, and though the two of them have flirted on and off for years, their relationship is, at it's root, friendship rather than romance. Rumiko, Tony's on-again-off-again girlfriend for most of volume 3, and my personal favorite of his female love interests, is a somewhat more complex situation: Tony was honestly in love with her, and she obviously cared about him, but their relationship never held together for more than ten issues at a time (plus, she jerked him around endlessly and cheated on him with Tiberius Stone). When she died at the hands of a supervillain gunning for Iron Man, however, Tony was devastated.

No matter what arm candy Tony's currently taking to society dinners, or what warm body he's curling up with in bed in an attempt to assuage his loneliness or to find the escape he once got through alcohol, the Avengers, Cap, and being Iron Man always come first. Tony in current canon may be totally alone, abandoned by his firends, and slowly going crazy after being faced with the death of everyone he's ever loved, but at least Old Shellhead is still there for him.

Important, Amusing, or Otherwise Noteworthy Comics Issues

Avengers Volume 1 #1 and #4 The Avengers' origin story.

Tales of Suspense #46 and #52. Tony and the Crimson Dynamo. Old school cold war hijinks.

Tales of Suspense #69-86 This arcreally gives you the flavor of old school Iron Man. Tony fights Titanium Man, in one of his biggest early battles, then must deal with political pressure from Senator Byrd, who wants him to reveal Iron Man's identity to the US government. Then, despite worsening heart problems, he faces off against his biggest canon ememy, the Mandarin. Features some prime character torture, a few detours into true 60s comics crack, and what may be the most awesome way to avoid having to testify in front of Congress ever.

Iron Man Volume 1 #124-128. A villain named Justin Hammer hacks Tony's suit and forces him to kill someone, leading to the start of Tony's drinking problem.

Iron Man Volume 1 #166-192. Tony tries to commit suicide via alcohol, and Rhodey puts on the Iron Man armor. When people talk about Tony's alcoholism, this is what they're generally referencing. This arc also contains an extensive amount of pretty good Rhodey content - it's one of the most Rhodey-intensive bit of Iron Man canon (extra notable: Iron Man Volume 1 #172, also known as "the Intervention Issue" and "The Gone With the Wind Issue" because the cover features Cap cradling Tony in his arms while backlit by a burning building, reads like someone decided to write a Harlequin novel based on a Tennessee Williams play).

Iron Man: Armor Wars. Tony goes kind of crazy, and Cap tries to stop him. There is a moment where they look deep into one anothers' eyes and known that nothing will ever be the same between them again. It is awesomely melodramatic. Also a good look at Tony in bastard-control-freak mode.

Somewhere at about this point in volume 1, Tony is shot in the spine by a phsychotic ex-girlfriend named Kathy Dare, who then tries to claim that he drove her to it by abusing her. Various women actually get up on the witness stadn to testify that Tony would never do anything like that, and proceed to give details about his sex life. Seriously, women have testified to Tony's skill in bed under oath. Tragically, I lack the issue citations.

Iron Man Volume 3 #8-13 Tony gets together with Rumiko, his longest-lasting (and refreshingly non-psychotic) girlfriend in canon thus far. He also gets the living snot beaten out of him repeatedly, in a classic display of his borderline suicidal tendancies (and the writers' love for beating up on him).

Iron Man Volume 3 #26-30, the Living Armor storyline. Tony's armor comes to life, falls in love with him, and becomes his abusive boyfriend. No, literally. Comics crack doesn't get any more glorious than this.

Iron Man Volume 3 #37-41 The Tiberius Stone arc. Ty, an old friend of Tony's, attempts to ruin his life and destroy his company. The Obediah Stane you saw in the movie is something of a composite of canon Stane and this guy, who pretends to be Tony's bestest buddy whilst secretly stabbing him in the back and touching him in creepy ways. There's also some important Tony/Rumiko content here.

Iron Man Volume 3 #57 and 58. Tiberius Stone returns, having become, if possible, even creepier. The badbadwrong slash vibes are practically dripping off the page in places.

Avengers: Red Zone (i.e. Avengers Volume 3 #65-70) . Tony risks his life and exposes himself to a deadly virus to give Captain America mouth-to-mouth. Seriously, there is a page and a half devoted to two male characters' lips touching on panel. What more do you need?

Avengers Dissassembled. The Avengers break up. It's kind of painful to read (emotionally speaking) if you're an Avengers fan, but it sets the background for a lot of what's happened in canon since then.

Iron Man Volume 4 #1-12. Tony gets an upgrade. The Extremis and Execute Program Arcs are a very good intro to current Iron Man canon, with a retelling of Tony's origin story. At the climax of the storyline, Tony stops his own heart to save Cap. He does that kind of things a lot. It's sort of a theme for him. (Notable detail: The sexy armor design you saw in the movie got its start here, in Adi Granov's art, and the movie characterization of Yinsun is very much based on Warren Ellis's take on him here).

New Avengers #1-20. Cap and Tony get married start up another Avengers team together. At one point, said team ends up chained up naked together. Read it for the random group nudity, if nothing else. (Notable detail: Luke Cage, one of the new team members, is very, very hot. Also awesome.)

Captain America/Iron Man: Casualties of War and Civil War: The Confession You know that Civil War thing I mentioned that made half of fandom hate Tony? Don't bother reading that. These two comics will give you pretty much all you need to know about the situation and Tony's motivations.

Iron Man Volume 4 #13 and #14. After Tony publically reveals his identity, a supervillain beats Happy Hogan to death in retaliation. Tony is the one who has to turn off his life support. There's a very good, and very intense Pepper and Tony scene in here. (Notable detail: the narrator in #14 is Sue Storm. She is on the opposite side from Tony in the Civil War fight over superhero registration. You don't see her for most of the comic because she's using her invisibility powers in order to spy on Tony).

Iron Man Volume 4 #21-28. Now Director of SHIELD, Tony slowly goes crazy under the combined weight of his new Extremis powers and his all-consuming grief over Captain America's death (and Happy Hogan's death, and a couple other people's deaths. The past two years have been a bad time to be Tony Stark's friend). Meanwhile, the Mandarin re-emerges onto the scene, more powerful than ever and finally sans the stupid mask/skullcap ensemble.

Additional note: Some people may mention something called Ultimates to you. Be aware, if you read it, that some of the characters are horribly, horribly out of character, particularly Captain America, Ant-Man, and the Wasp. That said, Mark Millar does brutality and action plots pretty well, and the storytelling is at least internally consistant. I recommend the two Ultimate Avengers cartoon movies rather than the comics, if you want an idea of what Ultimates-verse is like but also want any of the characters other than Tony or Thor to actually possess at least one redeeming quality.

Ultimate Iron Man, on the other hand, is a completely different story that has nothing to do with either Ultimates or Iron Man. Orson Scott Card, who wrote it, apparently never read either title. Ignore it totally if you're new to comics; it will only confuse you.

To other people's meta.

likeadeuce provides a nice run down of canon!Tony and canon!Iron Man and how they compare with the movie. She has a slightly more critical/negative view of Tony than most of us who are active in the tiny little Avengers/Iron Man fandom, so her analysis is probably less biased by the unconditional Tony!Love the rest of us can't help but let color our views of canon.
crimsonquills has a fascinating essay on perceptions of Tony within the Marvel U that serves as a nice counterpoint to and expansion of likeadeuce's post (despite being written some six months ago), and has some extensive and in-depth discussion in the comments.
She has another interesting essay on Identity Play and Self-Worth in Iron Man.
schmevil discusses Tony's track record with and attitude towards women.
Various Iron Man fans at starkindustries discuss their favorite canon moments. With illustrative scans.

Meta & Shipping:
ASword, A Horse, A Shield, the Captain America/Iron Man ship manifesto, by elspethdixon (the bio of canon!Tony in this post comes from here).
crimsonquills on Steve/Tony and conflicting ideologies.
An illustrated list of all of the blatant demonstrations of love/marriage/slashtasticness between Captain America and Iron Man, courtesy of cap_ironman.

grey_bard has assembled a near-complete list of all the Tony fic on the intarwebs on delicious.


Tony fandom is small, but passionate. It's also so closely intertwined with Cap/Iron Man fandom, which in turn is closely and incestuously intertwined with Avengers fandom, that the three are essentially a single fandom. And most of this fandom is agressively partisan on Tony's behalf, with very little tolerance for character-bashing, or anything perceived as character-bashing.

And there is a lot of character bashing. Dear God there is a lot of it. Imagine all of the hate and vitriol you may have seen directed at, say, Lana Lang in Smallvile fandom. Now double it. That's how Tony Stark is generally treated by an unfortunately large percentage of comics fandom. There is a long and convoluted explanation for this, involving a recent and very controvercial Marvel crossover event called Civil War. Think a Marvel version of Infinite Crisis, but without the endless countdowns.

It's better than it was a year ago, but there was a point when a week did not go by on scans_daily (ground zero for comics on lj) without someone making a post for the sole purpose of bashing, degrading, and tearing down the character.

Even if you don't care about the comics and are only here for the movies, you still need to be aware of it, both because there's a decent probability that you'll at some point run into one of the Tony-haters, and because the experience of seeing a character they love bashed again and again has left some of the long-time Tony fans with a pretty powerful knee-jerk reaction to seeing the character bad-mouthed or mis-characterized. Edit: See the comments for a demonstration of me being knee-jerk defensive. It's been a year, but people's feelings on the matter have not diminished at all.

Warning given, I now present you with a list of all of the places to read fic and/or post any movie fic you may have written in order to get maximum reviews.

cap_ironman Captain America/Iron Man slash community, and the site of most of the Tony fic on the intarwebs.
starkindustries Recently created Iron Man comm, created by comics fans but open to movie stuff as well (non ship specific but friendly to both slash and het). They are eagerly awaiting any Tony/Rhodey buddy-sex or creepybadwrong Obediah Stane/Tony smut you care to write, as well as any Tony/Pepper fic.
starks_armory older Iron Man comm (comics). I've got no idea if it's active or not.
marvel_slash the main community for Marvel-verse slash on lj. Crosspost the Stane/Tony non-con smut here.
marvel_fic a companion comm to marvel_slash, for het and gen fic. Crosspost the Tony/Pepper UST angst here.

And comicstore_news, the all-purpose newsletter for most of DC and Marvel fandom, movie-verses as well as comics.
Tags: comics, meta
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