31st Jan2010

Adventures West Coast #1: Iron Man: Demon In A Bottle

by Will

Adventures West Coast #1: Iron Man: Demon In A Bottle

Welcome to the first installment of Adventures West Coast! I won’t really be covering the books in any particular order, so this seemed to be as good a place to start as any. This time around, we’re looking at Iron Man: Demon In A Bottle, a 1979 storyline written by Dave Michelinie, with art by Bob Layton and John Romita Jr.

Before we get to the book, let’s lay a little groundwork. I was telling a friend today that Marvel is the comic universe where a character is defined by ONE action, and can’t ever seem to shake that reputation. A lot of this might have to do with the fact that DC reboots their universe every 10 years, so they can just retcon any action they, in hindsight, feel was a mistake. Sure, Superman died, but that’s only part of his story. That’s pretty much been forgotten at this point. A quake ravaged Gotham City to the point where martial law was declared, and the city was no longer recognized as a part of the United States, but you’d never know it to see it now. Marvel, unfortunately, can’t seem to afford that luxury. Hank Pym hit his wife ONCE, and now he’s the official wife beater of comics (I’m not excusing the action; I’m just saying that there’s not much of a domestic abuse history to the character besides that one time). Tony Stark leads a playboy lifestyle, and all of a sudden, he’s an alcoholic. Demon In A Bottle documents the moment at which Tony realized he had a problem, characterizing him as “the character with a drinking problem”, a reputation that he holds to this day. The problem with this, however, is that there isn’t much of a history of him having this problem prior to the storyline. If anything, it feels like a poor attempt at forcing a “very special issue”, which was the goal in that day and age.

Considering that Demon In A Bottle is supposed to be all about Tony’s descent into the alcoholism, you really wouldn’t get that impression by reading the collected edition. The collection starts off, conveniently enough, with an impromptu team-up with Namor, the Submariner. Tony’s a bit worse for wear, as he’s dealing with the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. is trying to usurp control of Stark International via a hostile takeover. To make matters worse, the Iron Man armor has been malfunctioning, so it’s a bit unpredictable. Despite all of this, Tony and Namor defeat a bunch of Roxxon mercenaries who are trying to mine the vibranium located on an uncharted island. This team-up takes place over the course of 2 issues, followed by a flashback issue recounting Iron Man’s origin story. If you’ve seen the movie, then you pretty much know how this plays out (except, in the comic, Iron Man challenges the head of the prison camp to a wrestling match, rather than using the armor to blow everyone up).

By the fourth issue, Tony’s back in New York, running tests on the armor in order to figure out why it has been acting up. Now, let me say that there are brief moments where Tony’ll pour himself a drink, and whoever’s around will make a remark like “Isn’t it a little early?” Or “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” He’s still high functioning, and he manages to take care of business, while also taking a trip to Atlantic City with his girl-of-the-moment, Bethany Cabe. Of course, the casino gets attacked, and Iron Man has to hold his own against a group of villains working for a mysterious benefactor. This all comes to a head in issue five, where Iron Man’s suit malfunctions at the worst time, causing him to kill a visiting ambassador on live television. Because cops in comics are so cooperative, they allow Iron Man to pull “an OJ”, so that he can “go search for the real killers”. Due to the shock of recent events, Tony goes on a bit of a whiskey bender, and finds himself on the Avengers’ doorstep.

Here’s where things get interesting: in today’s comic world, we take secret identities for granted. We tend to think everyone knows Tony Stark is Iron Man, just as everyone knows Steve Rogers is Captain America. These revelations, however, are recent events. At this time in the comics, Tony Stark is just the Avengers’ financier. They live in his mansion, and his “bodyguard”, Iron Man, is a member of their team. So, Tony shows up to the mansion, to inform the team that his “bodyguard” will no longer be effective as their team leader. He also takes the time to get Cap to teach him some hand-to-hand combat skills, since he’s going to have to go after his enemies as plain ol’ Tony Stark.

Next, Tony, and his pilot, Jim Rhodes, find themselves in Monaco, on the trail of Justin Hammer, the man behind the casino attack. Once they track him down, they find out that Hammer’s a Stark competitor in the industrial sector, and he sabotaged the Iron Man suit because he was upset that the ambassador’s country had granted Stark an important contract. Anyway, long story short, Tony’s got a spare suit, he kicks some ass, and Hammer’s believed to be dead, as his island estate sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Once Tony gets back home, he finds that the public still fears him, seeing as how they watched him kill a guy on TV. With his company’s reputation in shambles, combined with the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s still trying to buy controlling interest in his company, Tony goes on another bit of a bender. This time, he brings some floozy back to Avengers Mansion, and berates trusty butler, Jarvis, in the process. He passes out on his desk, only to be awakened by Jarvis tendering his resignation. “I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m so…scared.”

The final issue is where Tony actually faces the titular demon. A drunken Iron Man ends up making a bad situation worse, when he botches a rescue concerning a derailed chemical train. Finally, Bethany (remember her?) decides that it’s intervention time, ’cause she apparently had an ex-husband who was a pill popper; he ended up driving over a cliff. She tells Tony that she’s there to help him, and Tony proceeds to go cold turkey, kicking his alcoholism in 1 week. ONE WEEK. Sign me up for THAT rehab! That’s almost as impressive as the time that Jack Bauer kicked heroin in ONE DAY.

Anyway, Tony gets his shit together and goes to apologize to Jarvis. Oh, and remember how S.H.I.E.L.D. was after Stark Industries? It appears the only thing stopping them was the fact that Jarvis owned 2 shares, which had been a gift to commemorate his years of service. Well, guess who just sold his 2 shares of stock? So, Tony throws on the armor, tries to shakedown the loan shark, but it’s too late. The shares were already sold to a government rep that morning. So, it looks like S.H.I.E.L.D. is gonna end up with Stark Industries. That’s enough to drive a guy back to the bottle! Tony, however, doesn’t need that. He realizes that he’s got the power of…friendship, and that he’ll win in the end. Meh.

So, there you have it. That’s the whole reason we think of Tony Stark as this raging alcoholic. The Man was trying to stick him for his papers, and he resorted to some liquid medication. I get that he was on the highway to the danger zone, but I don’t think there was enough evidence that he was an alcoholic, per se. You’ve got to understand the era. The character was created in the 60s. Now, I don’t know if Mad Men‘s lying to me, but that’s what men did back then: they drank. All of a sudden, we get to the 70s, and everyone’s expectations are changing. Too many drinks, and you’re an alcoholic. Comics in that day were always preaching about the dangers of smoking, shootin’ up, and, apparently, drinking.

If this storyline highlighted a one-time thing, I’d say “That was a good story”. Unfortunately, this 9-part storyline only contains 1 issue of pseudo-alcoholism, and has been responsible for the past 30 years of Tony Stark’s characterization. If you’re going to introduce something that major, you can’t just have him kick the habit in one issue. It’s like they changed their minds once the story was approved. It’s still that elephant in the room, when writers run out of stories. “Uh-oh, Tony’s kinda stressed. Wonder if he’s gonna hit the bottle.” Ya know what, considering all the stuff Tony Stark has to deal with, he DESERVES to hit the bottle. Most of the villains he fights are either created by his own stolen tech, or are the direct result of some mistake he made in the past. I think that’s enough to drive a person to alcoholism, but I don’t feel that this storyline realistically portrayed that happening. Yes, I just used “realistically” to describe a comic book, but we’re talking about something that’s had a lasting impact for the past 30 years! For that, I feel this book’s bark is a lot worse than its bite.