Thursday, May 01, 2008

Iron Man Moves Up to the A-List

Back in the mid-1960s it was easy to tell which Marvel heroes were A-list and which were B-list. The A-list heroes got a monthly book all to themselves and a summer annual which was a double-sized comic. This was a pretty short list - The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, Sargent Fury and the Howling Commandos, and the Avengers. The B-list heroes either shared a monthly book with someone else or were published bi-monthly. This included the X-Men and Daredevil in semi-monthly books and the Human Torch, Dr. Strange, Giant Man and the Wasp, the Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America, all sharing monthly books. Later the Submariner replaced Giant Man and Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD replaced the Torch. As sales increased all of these got monthly books and several mover up to the A-list.

In the early days Marvel has so few writers and artists that you couldn't tell A-list characters from B-list ones by the quality of the staff working on them. This changed over time. The more popular characters tended to get better talent with the B-list talent going to the B-list characters.

Iron Man spent most of his career solidly in the B-list. When he got his own solo comic he had Roy Thomas and Gene Colon, both very talented, but the comic was soon handed off to lesser creators. It had a run of several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s with some A-list talent. When they moved on the comic returned to its B status.

The other way of telling a comic's status was how much freedom the current team had to change things around. Changing Spider-Man's girl friend was a top-level change. Other strips worked the characters over several times.

There was a fad for replacing characters then bringing back the original. This started with Iron Man (and Green Lantern in DC at the same time). Tony Stark's alcohol problem overcame him and he spent a couple of years living as a homeless bum while Jim Rhodes took over the armor. Stark eventually sobered up and took back the armor. Later he died and Rhodes took over a gain for a short time until Stark was resurrected.

The comic was retconed and rebooted several times. Iron Man's origin moved from Viet Nam to China. He was turned into a teenager then returned to adulthood. He moved his base of operations from Long Island to California. His heart problems came back and were fixed a couple of times.

In the 1980s Marvel expanded the Avengers franchise with Stark founding the West Coast branch. This also introduced a new abrasive, manipulative facet to his personality that eventually became a defining trait leading up to his role in the Civil War.

With tomorrow's release of the Iron Man movie, Tony Stark finally moves into the A-list. Ironically his long-time status as a B-list character may help him here. Marvel grew tired of other studios licensing their characters then making movies that didn't do them justice (Ang Lee's Hulk). Iron Man is the first movie directly produced by Marvel and is supposed to usher in a new line of movies that are true to the characters. All indications was that they are off to a good start. Preliminary reviews have been very good. By all accounts, the casting of Robert Downey Jr. was a masterstroke. Not only does he have a history similar to Stark's but he manages to keep the character interesting throughout the movie. Ghost Rider was a success because Nicholas Cage did the same thing with Johnny Blaze.

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