Retro Trade Review: Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle
Contains Iron Man #120 – 128 (March to November 1979)
Written by David Michelinie (#122, 126)
Plot by David Michelinie (#120-121, 123-125, 127-128), Bob Layton (#120-121, 123-125, 127-128)
Conceptual Assist by Bob Layton (#126)
Script by David Michelinie (#120-121, 123-125, 127-128)
Pencilled by John Romita Jr. (#120-121, 123-128), Carmine Infantino (#122)
Inked by Bob Layton (#120-128)
Coloured by Ben Sean (#120, 122, 125-127), Carl Gafford (#121), Bob Sharen (#123-124, 128)
Spoilers from forty-one years ago
I’ve been wanting to tackle Iron Man in my regular Retro Review column for a while now, as I’ve been wanting to trace Tony Stark’s evolution as a character (I really don’t remember him as the smart ass Robert Downey Jr. portrays from my childhood), but the longboxes with my Iron Man comics is in a very inaccessible place at my parents’ house, and I’ve not gotten around to digging them out yet (there’s just always so much else to read). In preparing for that possible future column, and filling in some gaps in my collection, I was thinking a lot about the time when Jim Rhodes took over for Tony, because he was on a bender. I’ve been thinking about how groundbreaking this was at a time when people didn’t often replace characters for extended stretches in comics, and when black characters weren’t given such prominence.
And then I realized that this storyline, which was my introduction to Iron Man as a youngster, was not the famous Demon in the Bottle storyline, and that Tony’s struggles with alcohol came much earlier. Somehow, I had no clue.
And then, fate put a discounted trade of that story into my hands, and it was time to at least tackle this story, while the later stories remained inaccessible. I’d always thought that Denny O’Neil was the person who made Tony an alcoholic, but no, it was classic Iron Man writer David Michelinie (O’Neil, who also made Speedy an addict, would go on to write the Rhodes issues, so my mistake at least makes sense).
I’m excited to dive into this storyline, and finally experience one of the earliest examples of “serious superhero comics” there ever was. I’m also excited to experience some very early John Romita Jr. artwork.
Let’s find out how it is.
This book features the following characters:
- Justin Hammer (#120, 122, 124, 126-127)
- Captain Jonas Hale (Roxxon; #121)
- Wong Chu (#122)
- Blizzard (#123-124, 126-127)
- Melter (#123-124, 126-127)
- Whiplash (#123-127)
- The Beetle (Abe Jenkins; #126-127)
- Spymaster (#126-127)
- Leap-Frog (#126-127)
- Man-Killer (#126-127)
- Porcupine (#126-127)
- Constrictor (#126-127)
- Stiletto (#126-127)
- Discus (#126-127)
- Water Wizard (#126-127)
- Namor the Sub-Mariner (#120-122)
- Ed Koch (Mayor of New York City; #125, 127)
- Vision (Avengers; #125)
- Falcon (Sam Wilson, Avengers; #125)
- Beast (Hank McCoy, Avengers; #125)
- Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers, Avengers; #125)
- Captain America (Steve Rogers, Avengers; #125)
- Wasp (Janet Van Dyne, Avengers; #125)
- Ant-Man (Scott Lang; #125)
- Edwin Jarvis (#127-128)
- Hiram Dobbs (#120-121)
- James Rhodes (#120-122, 125-127)
- Bethany Cabe (#120-128)
- Mrs. Arbogast (#120, 123-124)
- Professor Yinsen (#122)
- Ling McPherson (#126)
Let’s see what happened in the comics, with some commentary as I go:
- The book opens with Tony Stark on a commercial airplane, returning from somewhere, and working his way through a few martinis. He recapst the previous issues, which had him fighting Spymaster and discovering that SHIELD was secretly buying up a controlling interest in Stark International. A tank comes flying through the air and hits the plane. Tony grabs his briefcase and makes a dash for the bathroom, where he puts on his Iron Man armor and exits the plane. He manages to help the plane down into the ocean more gently than if it was under its own power, and then helps with the evacuation. A pair of US Special Forces ships arrive and help pick up the passengers before the plane sinks. They take everyone to a South Atlantic island that is not on any maps or charts. Grange explains that the island is used to dump radioactive waste, and that when he and his men came most recently, they found an old hermit type named Hiram Dobbs who set up a farm there. When the soldiers tried to remove him, Namor, the Sub-Mariner, arrived and fought them, because he has some reason to keep Dobbs on the island, which is how the tank ended up flying through the air (although no one explains why they would need a tank to bury radioactive waste on a secret island). Iron Man agrees to talk to Namor, and it seems that Grange has some kind of hidden agenda here. Namor doesn’t know Iron Man well at this point, and when he sees him approaching, he tosses a boulder at him. Namor and Iron Man fight in the air for a bit (Tony admits to himself that he’d be doing better had he not drank so many martinis), and then Dobbs shoots at Iron Man (with rocket bullets, whatever those are!), and Tony ends up in the water. Earlier, at Stark International Airport, on Long Island, James Rhodes and Bethany Cabe chat. Mrs. Arbogast calls to tell them that Tony’s plane crashed, and they rush to help somehow. Iron Man continues to fight Namor under the water, and holds his own against him by heating the water around him. Somewhere in the Mediterranean, Justin Hammer meets with some men, and we learn that he has some kind of remote control over the Iron Man armor. He orders the men to proceed to Stage II, and suddenly, the plexiglass that keeps the water out of Tony’s helmet slides open, and he starts to drown.
- Iron Man continues to sink and drown. Rhodey and Bethany pilot a helicopter towards where the plane that Tony went down in is supposed to be, but can’t find anything. They spot the island where the US Special Forces took Iron Man, but as they approach, a Captain Jonas Hale (I’m not sure what happened to Lt. Grange, as he doesn’t appear again) warns them off over the radio. Bethany relays a security clearance, and the Navy vessels reject it and begin firing at them. Rhodey is shot in the shoulder, and the helicopter goes down. Bethany gets Rhodey onto a life raft, and they are immediately picked up by the military guys. Iron Man comes to, and realizes that the Sub-Mariner saved his life by bringing him to the island. Dobbs is with him. Dobbs keeps Namor from renewing hostilities, and instead, Namor explains that while he was swimming near the island, he discovered a trail of dead sea life that led him to some barrels of toxic waste. He buried them under a pile of rock (wouldn’t taking them out of the water been more effective?), before succumbing to their poison himself. Dobbs ended up catching him while fishing, and nursed him back to health. Iron Man explains that the island is covered with nuclear waste, but Dobbs refutes that, having been on the island for twenty years, and never having seen soldiers there until that day. The military guys fix Rhodey’s arm, but Bethany attacks the guards, figuring that if her security clearance didn’t work, they aren’t actually US military. They find their way into the command room, and learn that they’ve been taken prisoner by Roxxon, who want the island because its core is comprised of vibranium. Iron Man recharges his suit off a battery that Dobbs has, and we learn that he moved there with his wife to live a quiet life twenty years before. Namor and Iron Man agree to work together to figure out what’s going on, and attack the ships in the harbor, including the one that Rhodey and Bethany are on. Hale orders the vessels to open fire, but Namor and Iron Man are more than a match for such conventional weapons. The Roxxon men see that the real Navy is also on its way, and seeing that he’s beat, Hale orders that all the munitions they left on the island be detonated. Rhodey and Bethany quickly fill Iron Man in, and he starts towing all the boats away. Namor grabs Dobbs, who doesn’t want to leave, but he gets him out of there before the entire island blows up. Later, the commanding officer of the real Navy explains that when the downed airline passengers explained how they were rescued, the Navy felt they should investigate. We learn that Hale has disappeared, and all records of what Roxxon were up to were destroyed. Iron Man expresses concern over how that vibranium could have disrupted the world economy, while Namor is more concerned about Dobbs and human greed.
- Most of issue 122 is a flashback retelling Iron Man’s origin, and it’s guess penciled by Carmine Infantino (I never really thought of him as doing much work at Marvel). Namor leaves the Navy vessel, heading home, and Iron Man lets the admiral know that he’s going to fly home on his own power. Bethany and Rhodey watch him depart, as does Namor, who starts to think about how well they worked together. Tony is tired, so he switches to a slower, but more energy-conscious flight mode, and tunes in his FM radio to listen to music (in the middle of the ocean) as he flies. He thinks back to the Vietnam War, when his special transistors were able to boost the power of electromagnets. This led to him going to Vietnam to see how his tech worked in the field, and being the sole survivor of a “Cong” attack. This landed him in the custody of the warlord Wong Chu (such a Vietnamese name…), and with shrapnel in his chest, slowly making its way to his heart. He agreed to build weapons for Chu in exchange for life-saving surgery, but Tony knew they were lying about that, so he decided instead to begin working on a weapon to use to free himself. He was given assistance by Professor Yinsen, a physics professor. They managed to make a suit of armor, including a breastplate that would keep Tony’s heart beating. Realizing they were about to be discovered, Yinsen ran into the hall and attacked his captors, giving Tony enough time to don the armor and use it to hide. Later, after he escaped, he tracked Chu to a local village, where he was wrestling villagers as an excuse to kill them all or something. Tony appeared in the Iron Man armor and easily tossed Chu. Next, he used his transistor magnet things to disarm his soldiers. He attacked their base, killed Chu, and made his way back to America, where he developed better versions of the armor, and founded the Avengers and stuff. As Tony makes his way to shore, Justin Hammer decides to move to the third phase of his remote control of the armor.
- Iron Man has returned to New York, but as a result of Hammer’s phase three, he loses control of his boot jets while flying over the city. He crashes through Marvel Comics’s offices, bounces into the river, and crashes in a yard on Long Island. The boots seem okay again, so he heads straight to Stark International, and his sub-basement lab, where he runs a diagnostic for a couple of hours, and learns that nothing is wrong with the armor. He then spends two pages giving the armor a full workout (he even uses his jet-skates), but thinks that everything is fine. In the offices, Bethany is trying to get Mrs. Arbogast to agree that Tony Stark is missing (I’m not sure how she had time to go to the hospital and return to the office when Tony last left her at sea). Tony shows up, gives an excuse as to why she couldn’t find him, and then, almost as an afterthought, asks about Rhodey. Bethany gets angry at how casual he is about the fact that Rhodey got shot. Tony pulls her into his private quarters to avoid a public scene, and then pours them both a drink. Bethany is not sure that Iron Man is professional, but Tony bats away her objection. Soon, they are at dinner in a fancy restaurant in Atlantic City. When Tony goes to pour a second bottle of champagne, Beth suggests they unwind another way. Tony interprets this to mean that they should gamble. At the same time, three villains, Blizzard, Melter, and Whiplash enter the casino with the goal of robbing it, although for Casino games there are options like the roulette online which is better option to gamble online. They bust into the vault, but set off the alarm in the process. Tony hears it, grabs his briefcase, and rushes out, knocking into the same old lady he bumped into on the airplane in issue 120. The villains continue to fight guards, until Iron Man shows up and starts fighting them. He does well for a while, but the combination of Blizzard and Melter blasting at him taxes his circuits. Melter tells Whiplash to grab the cash and take off, but he decides that, despite his boss having told him that Iron Man is off limits (how would this unknown boss have known he’d be there?), decides to use his whip to smash the armor the same way he did the vault door.
- Just as Whiplash is about to use his whip to crack Iron Man’s armor, despite it being against their orders from Justin Hammer (and why would he have them rob a casino that he thinks Iron Man is going to be at in the first place?), Bethany shoots the whip. Blizzard freezes her gun and hand, but Iron Man breaks out of Blizzard’s ice, and turns his attention to the Melter, who he pushes through the floor. He next takes out Blizzard, while Bethany stops Whiplash from getting away. After it’s all done, Bethany tells Iron Man off for not doing a better job of protecting Tony Stark. Iron Man flies away, and Tony Stark appears, claiming to have been pinned under some debris. Bethany flirts with him, and they retire to a hotel room. The next day, they return to Stark International, and it’s clear they had a good evening. Mrs. Arbogast doesn’t approve of their smooching in the office before Bethany leaves, claiming she has a bodyguard gig that night protecting the ambassador from Carnelia. A Mr. Pithins wants to meet with Stark, because the Carnelians have requested that Iron Man attend the same party. Tony pours himself a drink (it’s 9:30 in the morning), and agrees to Pithins’s request. Tony is worried about SHIELD’s plans to acquire his company, so he checks and sees that an unnamed person still holds two shares, which makes Tony believe his company is safe. He spends the rest of the day working on a technical design and drinking coffee laced with brandy, until he gives up in frustration and takes the Iron Man out to clear his head. He helps a woman whose car has broken down on a bridge. At the same time, Justin Hammer decides to proceed with his plans, which involve both the nation of Carnelia and destroying Stark International. Iron Man arrives at the UN, and Pithins leads him inside, reminding him that Stark’s new deal with Carnelia is the first that that country has opened itself to the West in some time. The ambassador, who is a bit of a buffoon, chats with Iron Man while Bethany stands behind him. They all pose for pictures, and that’s when Hammer makes his move. In front of the crowd and cameras, Iron Man fires his repulsors through the ambassador’s chest, killing him.
- In the aftermath of the murder, Iron Man convinces the police to let him go, stating that the only way he can figure out who has been tampering with his armor is to be free. The police agree, which angers Bethany, but Iron Man leaves, promising to have Stark deliver the armor to the police. An hour later, we see Tony and Bethany in a meeting with Ed Koch, the mayor of New York. Tony and Bethany get into an argument, and he accuses her of failing in her job to protect the ambassador. It gets a little tense, considering that I think they are together. The next morning, Tony shows up at work reeking of brandy and unshaven, rattling Mrs. Arbogast. He heads into his office to pour a drink, and gets angry at a picture of Iron Man. At Avengers Mansion, the team (Vision, Falcon, Beast, Ms. Marvel, Captain America, and the Wasp) discuss what’s happened with Iron Man (really, it’s just Steve and Hank talking). Cap feels he needs to take over as leader of the team until Iron Man is vindicated of his crime. They don’t see that Tony is listening to them. He pulls Cap aside, and asks that he train him in some self-defense, seeing as his “bodyguard” is out of the picture (clearly, no one knows that Tony is Iron Man at this point in his life). They train for a while, and then Tony heads off, determined to figure out what’s going on. He’s working on the clue that Whiplash let slip, when he said Hammer’s name. Tony goes to see Scott Lang, who works for him, and is also Ant-Man. He wants to get knowledge from Scott about how to break into Ryker’s Island (Scott was once incarcerated there). Scott offers to go instead, and he uses his Ant-Man abilities to get to Whiplash, and ask him about Hammer. Later, he reports to Tony, who then plans to take his jet to Monaco (he packs a spare Iron Man armor, just in case, but is reluctant to use it). He’s surprised to see Rhodey piloting the plane, but they quickly renew their friendship (although Rhodey gives him a strange look when he pulls out his flask). Upon arriving in Monaco, Tony calls Princess Grace from a payphone for information as to where Hammer might be. There’s a J. Hammer Imports office, and the guy working there is on the phone with Hammer, letting him know that Stark is in town. Tony and Rhodes enter the office, and are attacked by some paramilitary-looking types. They manage to get away from them, and make off in a jeep. There’s a police roadblock that they avoid, with the other guys chasing and firing on them. They drive the jeep across a beach, and feel they’ve gotten away, until they see some sort of hovercraft coming ashore with some two dozen more gunmen, some wearing jetpacks.
- Issue 126 opens a little later, and we see that Rhodey is left on the beach, explaining things to the local police, who take him away. There’s a few pages of recap, which leads to us seeing Tony getting knocked out and taken by Hammer’s men. Now Tony is coming to in Hammer’s office, and Hammer introduces himself, explaining that he sees Stark as a competitor. We learn that Hammer’s employee hasn’t been able to open Tony’s briefcase, and Hammer explains how he’s been able to take command of Tony’s armor, and why he had Iron Man assassinate the Carnelian ambassador. In passing he mentions that Carnelia has now signed a contract with his company. Tony attacks a guard and tries to run, but when he goes to climb the wall of Hammer’s compound, he learns that the entire estate is on a massive boat in the middle of the Mediterranean. Tony is taken captive again. In New York, Bethany McCabe is talking to her partner, Ling McPherson, about how she feels that history is repeating itself with Tony. Tony is annoyed that Hammer’s fancy prison doesn’t have any liquor in the liquor cabinet, and gets annoyed when the guard won’t bring him any. He creates some noise, and when the guard comes to investigate, he electrocutes him and takes off. He sees a helicopter landing, and decides that might be his best way off the island. He sees that Melter, Whiplash, and Blizzard have returned, thanking Hammer for freeing them. Tony heads to the building where his armor is, and uses his very long grappling hook belt (seriously) to climb up the side of the building and bust through a window. He surprises some guards and Hammer’s scientist, and retrieves his briefcase. Hammer is lecturing his villains when the alarm goes off. He calls out his reserves, and we see a bunch of B- and C-list villains (Water Wizard, Man-Killer, Leap-Frog, Spymaster, The Beetle, Porcupine, Constrictor, Stiletto, and Discus) come out of a building and all head to the computer room with Hammer, where they find Iron Man waiting for them, and quickly explaining that he’s taken Stark somewhere safe.
- Iron Man starts to wade into the assembled villains. Stiletto’s spikes can’t penetrate his armor, and he’s able to deflect Discus’s discs to knock out those two villains. Hammer orders them to pile on, but Iron Man busts out of the building. He pulls off The Beetle’s wings, and uses his long tentacle-finger things to swing him into Leap-Frog. Water Wizard makes himself a boat out of water and takes off, and Iron Man knocks Melter and Blizzard into each other. He creates a bunch of holographic duplicates (that’s a weird ability for the armor to have) to confuse Man-Killer, slips out of Constrictor’s coils, and then swings him into Man-Killer. Porcupine has a grenade launcher in the chest of his suit, but Iron Man breaks the hatch it emerges from, so Porcupine’s costume blows up. Hammer prepares to escape, but then a bunch of helicopters arrive and start shooting at his army of guards. It appears that Rhodey has gotten the local police to help out. Hammer orders his villa/vessel to escape at full speed, but Iron Man flies right through it, cleaving it in two. He grabs the guy that could control his armor, and holds him high above the sea, threatening to drop him without information. Later, Tony and Rhodey talk and we learn that Hammer got away, but they found enough evidence to clear Iron Man of wrongdoing. Later, back in the US, Iron Man receives his other set of armor back from Mayor Koch. Pithins walks with Iron Man, who is upset to see that people on the street, including a young girl, are now afraid of him. Back home, Tony gets mad at the Iron Man persona, blaming it for his current problems. He goes to a fancy restaurant to drink alone, and Bethany calls him there. They arrange a lunch date for the next day. Tony, drunk, writes down the wrong address. The next day, he goes to the wrong place, and gets angry that Bethany hasn’t arrived. Bethany is more worried than upset. Tony shows up later at Avengers Mansion with some woman, drunk, and is very rude to Jarvis the butler after he wisely suggests that Tony not show the woman some classified equipment. It’s well into the next afternoon before Tony starts the next day, when Mrs. Arbogast tells him that Jarvis has come to see him. Jarvis tenders his resignation, which surprises Tony. Tony starts to recognize that his life is coming unravelled, and that his drinking is to blame.
- Tony sits at his desk, in his armor, with a couple of mostly-empty bottles lying around. He talks to his helmet, admitting that it hasn’t been fair to use Iron Man as a scapegoat for his problems. He admits that he’s afraid he’s going to lose Stark International, and muses that he should just stay being Iron Man all the time. He decides to clear his head, and flies through his window. He ends up at the scene of a derailed train on Long Island. The authorities are worried that a tanker car full of chlorine is going to leak, but Iron Man just swoops in and grabs it. It falls out of his grasp and hits the ground, starting to leak. Tony returns to his apartment and goes to pour himself another drink, but is stopped by Bethany Cabe. As Tony drinks, Bethany tells him about her husband, who was a junior German ambassador to the United States. He ended up getting hooked on pills, and ultimately died in a car crash he caused. Bethany won’t let Tony feel sorry for her, but instead turns the attention onto Tony, who finally asks her for help. We see a recovery montage, as Tony detoxes, and starts to be able to design new items again. They go together to talk to Jarvis, who is packing to leave. Tony apologizes, but Jarvis still wants to leave, as his mother’s health has taken a turn for the worse. He agrees to return to his job once his mother recovers from her operation. Jarvis explains to Tony that he used the two shares in Stark International that he held as collateral for a loan to help pay for his mother’s medical bills. This freaks Tony out, so he has Jarvis call the loan officer to get them back, but he learns that when he quit his job, the collateral defaulted. Tony freaks out a little, as he figured those two shares were enough to fight off SHIELD’s attempt to take control of SI. He wants to drink, but doesn’t. Instead, he goes to see the loan officer, crashes into his office, and offers him cash to get the shares back. When the guy threatens to call the police, Iron Man trashes his office, and only then does the guy explain that he’s already sold the two shares to a government agency. Tony realizes what this means, and returns to Bethany and Jarvis at Avengers Mansion, and goes to pour himself a drink. Bethany convinces him not to, and that’s that. Later, Tony and Bethany drive into the sunset, with Tony vowing to fight to get his company back.
Okay, this is not really what I was expecting. The choice of issues for inclusion in this trade are strange. The stuff about SHIELD wanting to quietly take control of Stark International is revealed only through flashback, as it’s the issues before #120 that contain that. I’m not sure why 120 is the starting issue, except that it shows Tony downing back martinis on an airplane before going into action as Iron Man. Likewise, the SHIELD story is not resolved in this trade at all, while Tony’s drinking seems to be shelved as quickly as the bottle of “Jack Powers” at the end of issue 128.
I’d have expected that more time would have been given over to establishing Tony’s drinking as problematic. Yes, we do see him knocking them back pretty regularly, but in the context of the times, it’s not portrayed as particularly unusual, and for the most part, Tony is able to fight as Iron Man without any real impairment. When Iron Man goes too far, and kills the Carnelian ambassador, it has nothing to do with his alcoholism, and everything to do with Justin Hammer’s poorly explained ability to take control of Tony’s armor from the other side of the world.
Much of the drama of Tony’s drinking hinges on how he treated Edwin Jarvis, but that feels incredibly forced to me. Jarvis and Tony have known each other for years, yet it only takes Tony snapping at him once to get him to turn in his resignation? That really doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, nor does it make sense that Jarvis is so central to his speedy redemption at the end of the book.
Bethany Cabe, and her recognition of Tony’s problem, and her ability to connect it to her earlier relationship, forms the core of these issues. What’s interesting to me is that when Tony is courting Bethany, she doesn’t seem to be bothered by him getting sloshed in Atlantic City. I also like the fact that Bethany has rivalry with Mrs. Arbogast, Tony’ secretary, and with Iron Man, not knowing that he is actually Tony. That is the kind of old-school Marvel character situation I always enjoy, and I generally like how Bethany was portrayed here.
I would have thought that Rhodey would be a lot more distinct than the helpful sidekick he’s portrayed as here, but I guess that all comes later. I don’t buy Tony and Rhodey’s friendship here though; it seems more like a mutually admiring employer/employee relationship.
Anyway, I recognize that I’m passing judgment on a book from 1979 from a 21st century perspective. No other book at this time showed alcoholism with this level of subtlety and realism, even if it’s not terribly subtle or realistic. I wonder if the easy way in which this got wrapped up is what prompted Dennis O’Neil to revisit Tony’s drinking later on, and to eventually replace him as Iron Man with Rhodey (you know, the story that I originally thought was in this trade).
The David Michelinie/Bob Layton writing team is pretty effective, and this book generally serves as a strong example of how good Marvel comics were in that era. Sure, there’s some silliness around, but each issue (with the possible exception of the origin recap issue) was exciting and fun to read. John Romita Jr.’s artwork is unrecognizable as his, compared to even his earliest issues on Uncanny X-Men. I’m not sure how much of that is because JRJR hadn’t found his style yet, or if it’s because Layton’s inks smoothed out any idiosyncrasies in his art. This is prime Marvel house style, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s interesting that Tony is in no way the wise cracking character we’ve seen since his movie success. I do really want to dive into my Iron Man run (starting with O’Neil’s earliest issues, through the period just before Tony got turned into a teenager in the 90s), but I’m going to have to do some serious moving of boxes before that can happen. I’m a lot more tempted now than I was before reading this book, so maybe you’ll see that soon.
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Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle
Tags: Iron Man, Marvel, Retro Reviews