I don't usually tend to pick up the Marvel "Essential" series, but I've already chomped my way through many of the graphic novels at the library, and now I'm going through the remainders. Plus, I just like to know things. Everyone in Blogistan goes on about genius drunkie Tony Stark and his fighting robot suit, and I feel like a kid at the grown-ups' table. "What? What? I wanna know!"
Essential Iron Man Volume 1 samples stories from early in Iron Man lore, back when he was still a highlight in comic Tales of Suspense. Right off, the old-school Marvel break-the-internet-in-half promo copy sucks me in: "Watch his awesome approach! Listen to his ponderous footsteps as he lumbers closer ... closer ... for today you are destined to encounter - - the invincible IRON MAN!" Cripes! That's solid gold hyperbole with a chaser of SAT vocab. AWESOME.
The premise of Iron Man is also primo old-school material. Science genius millionaire playboy Tony Stark (played by Errol Flynn) develops revolutionary transistor-based military weapons, which will be used in Vietnam. On location on the jungle outskirts, he stumbles across a booby trap, takes life-threatening shrapnel in the chest, and is kidnapped by guerrillas. Forced to create weaponry for the enemy, he secretly creates a robot suit to artificially keep him alive and to enable him to go all jackbooty on his captors. Which he does. Cue return to America, return to military R&D, and a new Marvel-brand tragic and secret nature ("No one can ever know that I wear this hidden iron chest plate to keep me alive!") and matching secret identity as Iron Man, Fighter of Baddies and/or Commies! Take that, gangsters and Reds!
Eventually, the story acquires more of a supporting cast in the form of a cute girl and hapless buddy, and that's when it turns into a Stan Lee mad lib:
Hero: "How could $female ever love a man with $ailment? She'd be better off loving $schlubby_guy_buddy."
Female: "Why doesn't $hero love me? Sob!"
::insert a few scenes of beatin' on peeps, saving lives::
Caption: "He's the most tragic hero EVAR!!!11!"
Seriously, I liked the original premise behind Iron Man, but didn't anyone back then notice that it was turning out exactly like the other Stan Lee comics of that era: Daredevil, Thor, and so on? Hero has fights, maintains unrequited love with girly girl, ends issues with the obligatory "I'm so tragic" panel? Then again, years from now, people will probably look back and say that about our pop culture. "Didn't those fools notice that all their movies were pretty much all the same movie? Volcano and Dante's Peak, Deep Impact and Armageddon?"
Iron Man also gets his own cheesy Yellow Peril techno-villain in this volume. Enter ... the Mandarin!
I enjoyed the cameos by other Marvel greats: Angel, Hawkeye and the Black Widow, the Avengers. Shared universes like that play havoc with tragic heroes' woes, though. Actual Iron Man quote: "Nobody can help me! Nobody can repair my damaged heart! Nobody can guarantee how much longer it will keep beating! Nobody can ever know the torment felt by Iron Man!" Meanwhile, he's a member of the Avengers, where his teammates are a Whitman's Sampler of gods and science genius types, and he lives in the same world as the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and god knows who else. You're telling me he can't find someone to teleport/magic/science-ify that piece of shrapnel out of him? Mm-hmm. I'd buy it if it were written more as "Tony Stark is a stubborn SOB with an ego the size of Maryland and wants to prove that he can fix himself." That kind of pride-failing is more convincing than "rich bastard with robot suit surrounded by super-super types has woeful pity party every night."