The latest Iron Man movie is kicking ass, being loved worldwide, and making hundreds of millions of dollars, making it the most accurate superhero movie in history, because that’s exactly what Tony Stark does. If you want to keep going there are decades of Iron Man comics to choose from. The only problem is that many of them suck.
Dozens of articles are trying to tell you which “Iron Man comics you should read,” but most of them just googled that title and skimmed Wikipedia until they filled a page. The sad fact is that most Marvel comics from more than ten years ago are unreadable for new fans. They’re great fun for people who already love them, and I do, but the plodding pacing, pointlessly convoluted continuity, and the fact that many of them happened during the ’90s mean they have about as much to do with the movies as portable toilet maintenance: they were both involved in filming the movies, but you don’t want to dive in just because you like Robert Downey Jr.
Every list recommends “Demon in a Bottle,” the classic arc dealing with Stark’s alcoholism. Dealing with it in one issue. Dealing with it in a montage. Sure, back in 1979 the idea that a superhero could have a regular human problem was interesting, but it doesn’t change how they deal with it like a used hankie. There are a lot of things you can do in a montage, but recovering from a crippling drug addiction isn’t one of them. Writer Bob Layton has gone on record stating “I’m gonna quote David Michelinie here, that it was never our intention to do anything relevant. We were paid to, basically, do the next episode of Iron Man.”
That’s as close as a Marvel author can come to saying “S***, if we’d known people would read it so much we’d have done a better job.”
Modern stories deal with the alcoholism, and everything else, much more effectively. Because they’re the result of three decades of evolution in the medium since then. So if you’re not interested in curating a museum of technically relevant Tony Stark stories, if you just want to read something kickass, here are six stories to start with.
If you enjoyed Iron Man 3 you have to start with “Extremis,” because that’s what the movie did. But Warren Ellis wrote it first and better. He’s the living edge of technology and comics heroes, constantly expanding on what’s just about possible in our world to create something much cooler in theirs. In 2005, when Marvel decided that Iron Man himself needed an upgrade, he was the one they turned to.
The single-volume story stars the Iron Man we all know and love, the armed and armored human clutching a corporation in one hand while blowing up bad guys with the other. The story explores the limitations of both man and machine, creates an awesomely powerful new enemy threatening to make Stark obsolete, flying armor components, and yes, he basically wrote everything in the movie. Except he wrote it in a far superior story which didn’t include a helpful child or a pointless foray into homelessness.
THE FIVE NIGHTMARES
The other essential Iron Man author is Matt Fraction. He once wrote a series called “The Five Fists of Science” about Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain beating up Edison’s electrical nightmares with a giant robot.
On the impossible chance that you’re still here instead of already reading that, I’ll keep going. Matt Fraction is another top-tier “understand and upgrade” writer. He doesn’t clock in to crank out an issue. When he takes the helm a hero is often due a serious shakedown. “The Five Nightmares” is Tony Stark at his absolute peak, CEO of the world’s largest everything-corporation, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and facing a threat that could utterly destroy both.
This is Stark smart-assing his way through firefights and making technical upgrade notes while wrestling suicide bombers. But the fight is the wrong type of one-sided, as his global reach struggles to grasp a new generation of freelance terrorism.
Unkind people point out that Tony Stark only has a few repeating storylines, the most predictable of which is “his armor goes rogue and tries to kill people.” Unkind people are often the most accurate. Which is why we’re grateful to Adam Warren for “Hypervelocity,” an ultra-accelerated inversion of this most basic of plots to create the most ass-kicking incarnation of the suit yet.
Where Warren Ellis extends the unformed edge of the future, Adam Warren ramps right over it in a hypersonic adrenaline-fuelled turbojetski while guzzling Instant Ninja Malt Liquor and laughing with sheer joy. His best work exhibits is glorious technofetishism which is more fun than several kinds of sex. And this series is one of his best. He doesn’t just write the artificially intelligent Iron Man, he resonates with it, his hyperkinetic style bursting at the seams with super-sophisticated gadgets, overloaded technojoy, and intelligent asides not just because of but in the same way as the upgraded intelligence of the suit.
Never mind mere Iron Man, this is one of my favorite comics ever. Read it.
We’ve seen where the Ultimate world went wrong for Iron Man. This is where it went right. The ultimate mind versus the ultimate body, in more ways than one, and it’s far more fun than any other time it’s happened. Most comic clashes between the two focus on Incredible Blows! Amazing Punches! Because you’ve never seen the Hulk do that before! This story focuses on important details like “You can’t actually take on the Hulk in a metal suit, he tears apart tanks,” and then shows how Iron Man does it anyway.
Also: the sweetest headbutt in comic history.
ULTIMATE ARMOR WARS
Half of Stark’s stories are about improving and upgrading, because the other half are even more fun – they’re the fall. “Ultimate Armor Wars” has Stark bleeding money faster than a burning bank and coasting through the collapse with the drinks left in his mini-bar. (Which is stored in the bedroom of a science-fiction jet, and bigger than your house.)
He rushes round the world, pursuing his own goal and attacking at least two sovereign governments in the midst of his own collapsing empire, hammering home the most essential element of his character: it’s only money. Most of the time that works on his side. This story has him plunging towards bankruptcy and making it look like a perfect martini-fuelled dive through kickass explosions.
WORLD’S MOST WANTED
Where “Ultimate Armor Wars” is the firework fall, “World’s Most Wanted” is Stark smashed by hammers. The series starts with the loss of everything he held dear – the directorship of S.H.I.E.L.D., the destruction of his company – and then goes on to show what real sacrifice is. His self-destructive salvation takes a tour through his entire history, detailing and detonating all the sweet spots of his development, culminating in a classic clash in the monstrous original Iron Man armor.
This is a joy for fans of the movie and comics alike. And if you want to keep going, you’ve found the perfect launch point, a newly blank slate of Stark followed by Disassembled, an exploration of his deepest drives, surging into Resilient, a real reboot for Stark as a startup CEO.
Read more of Luke McKinney’s chronicles of super-stupidity in the recent Iron Man’s 6 Dumbest Moments or the legendary Dark Knight’s Dumbest Moments Come from His Best Bat-Qualities.