The Secret Comic Book Past of Marvel's Iron Man

As Tony Stark flies into a new series this week, a look back at the lowlights of his comic book career.
David Marquez/Marvel Entertainment

The first issue of Marvel Entertainment's latest Invincible Iron Man comic book series hit the stands this week, with the series being named as the flagship title for the company's All-New All-Different Marvel publishing initiative. It's a series purposefully built so that fans of Robert Downey Jr.'s cinematic version of the character can jump in and enjoy, but the comic book version of Marvel's own Man of Steel (not to mention cables, spark plugs and other mechanical equipment) has far more going on under his bonnet than most would expect.

The convoluted comic book history of Tony Stark has far more twists and turns than the big screen version would suggest, as only befits a character who's stayed in essentially continuous publication since his debut in 1963's Tales of Suspense No. 39. While some of the differences between interpretations might seem, if not obvious, then at least logical — comic book Tony is explicitly an alcoholic, which the movies have only obliquely hinted at — others are … well, let's go with "somewhat less so." In fact, after more than half a century of superheroing, there are some genuinely strange pieces of Tony's comic career that might seem surreal to newcomers. Here are the highlights.

Iron-Lung Man

In 1989's Iron Man Vol. 1 No. 242, Tony is shot and left for dead by an ex-lover, leading to an extended period of time during which he was outwardly unable to function as Tony Stark, but continued his career as Iron Man thanks to the wonders of fictional technology. Initially, it was revealed that the bullet had fractured his spine and left him unable to walk, but that status quo only lasted until a villain attacked his system with a "techno-organic virus" that required him to be placed into cryogenic stasis after his nervous system shut down. Of course, he recovered completely from both maladies.

Evil Iron Man (1)

After being hypnotized by a time-traveling villain, Tony worked unwittingly as a supervillain for some time before being murdered … by himself. In one of the more unexpected plot twists of superhero comics, 1996's Avengers Vol. 1 No. 395 saw Stark literally killed by a teenage version of himself from an alternate dimension who went on to take on not only the Iron Man identity, but also become Marvel's leading Iron Man in a number of series, for some months afterward. It took a restructuring of reality by an omnipotent child to bring back the Tony that fans knew and loved. (Don't ask.)

Iron Loves Man

1999's Iron Man Vol. 3, No. 15 brought another unexpected twist to Tony's career, when it was revealed that the Iron Man armor had achieved sentience, and fallen in love with Tony. The emotional bond was so strong that the armor ultimately sacrificed itself to save Tony's life a year or so later — although that was only necessary because the armor had previously brought Tony to the brink of death in an attempt to force him to reciprocate the armor's feelings. We can only wish that this storyline would be the basis of a fourth solo Iron Man movie.

Iron Professional

Unlike his movie incarnation, the comic book version of Tony Stark has held a number of different positions throughout his tenure as a comic book hero — CEO of multiple start-ups (The Stark fortune has failed many, many times, leading to the creation of new companies with names like Circuits Maximus and Stark Resilient), of course, but also two positions of note outside his normal purview. For a brief time from 2003-2004, Stark was the U.S. secretary of defense — a position he was forced to resign from after the Scarlet Witch's magic made him mentally unstable — and then, for an equally short period, he was temporarily director of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the wake of the 2006 event series Civil War. That ended with him wiping his own brain like a computer to ensure that no one could steal important secrets from his mind, because, well, comics. (Again, he recovered.)

Evil Iron Man (2)

As the result of the 2014 miniseries Axis, Tony's moral compass was magically — in the words of the Fresh Prince — flipped, turned upside down, leaving him as an anti-hero in the short-lived Superior Iron Man comic book series. It was during this time that Marvel's Time Runs Out storyline occurred, a storyline that ended with Iron Man and Captain America literally fist fighting while the world ended around them. Melodramatic and apocalyptic? Of course — but don't feel too bad for the fictional citizens of the Marvel comic book universe. As can be seen by the very existence of Invincible Iron Man, everyone got better just fine.

Invincible Iron Man No. 1 is available digitally and in comic book stores now.

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