Thursday, January 18, 2007

Welcome to the Machine: A Brief Review of The Invincible Iron Man: Extremis

"Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
What did you dream? It's all right; we told you what to dream."
- Pink Floyd


As mentioned several times previously, Gentle Reader, Mr. Reads and I just returned from a lengthy trip abroad. As our plane tickets were much cheaper flying out of New Orleans, my hometown and our Winter Break Destination, than they were from our current place of residence, we went to the UK via The Big Easy, and drove the several hours to and from. This means that not only did we have over 20 hours of flight time, we also had over 16 hours of driving time, more, if you count the trips between The Reads' and The Reads-In-Laws' houses.

All of this preamble to say that Mr. Reads and I had a lot of time to talk on these lengthy driving legs of our trip, and, as things often happen when Mr. Reads and I are alone, without anyone to judge us, we talked, a lot, about comic books.

I'd like to offer you the question Mr. Reads posed to me somewhere around the Louisiana/Texas Border:

What comic book superhero as metaphor works the best?

Now, this is Quite An Intriguing Question, and I thought about it for a few miles. Batman seems the quick and obvious answer; The Dark Knight—-Byronic, broody, dark, melancholic in the Renaissance Sense—-seems a heavy-handed metaphor from the start, although over the past several years, the in-your-faceness of his symbolism has diminished slightly. Superman, too, for truth, justice, and the American Way, but let's not forget Wonder Woman, symbol of rising feminism and women's rights. The X-Men, as a whole, represent the periphery: what happens to the outsiders in a society hell-bent on destroying anything different? But I dismissed all of these out of hand, and offered this final answer:

Iron Man.

It's quite simple really, when you get right down to it. Tony Stark discovers he's dying, so he builds an iron suit to protect his fragile body. He creates weapons for the government in order to fund his superhero gang. The more elaborate, the more complex the suit, the more Tony *is* the suit. In fact, the more unified Tony is with his suit, as exemplified in the trade hardcover collection of The Invincible Iron Man: Extremis which I read during my trip, the less human he becomes, not because of his cybernetic flesh, but rather, because of his corporate soul.

Do you see it, Gentle Reader? The more Tony is the *suit*, the more he is The Suit.

Tony Stark is, above all else, a warning against the greedy corporate giants we see every day in the media, the ones who steal their employees' pensions, dump oil in land reserves, move businesses overseas so they can pay someone next to nothing to do backbreaking labor. His motives, while seemingly innocent, are almost always underlined by corporate initiative and interest. Tony Stark is in the business of making money, and Tony does his business, very well.

In fact, Tony Stark as The Suit is a metaphor that moves beyond the familiar Cyborg metaphor we have come to know and love since, really, the nineteenth century, but perhaps even before. Wilkie Collins' novel The Law and the Lady, for example, presents us with the character Miserrimus Dexter, who is described as "a strange and startling creature—-literally the half of a man" who comes into a courtroom "Gliding, self-propelled in his chair on wheels" (163) and rebukes anyone who touches his wheelchair as to do so is to lay hands upon himself. For, as Miserrimus often says, "My chair is Me" (138). He for certain is the Cyborg, the half-man, half-machine that we have seen for some time now. Count them, if you will, in comics (Cyborg, Iron Man, Cable, Deathlok), in literature (Frankenstein to some degree, Gibson's Case and Molly), in movies and television (Terminator, Robocop, the Borgs). They are everywhere, reminding us of our continuing dependence on technology to save us.

But where Iron Man moves beyond that beautiful-in-its-simplicity metaphor is in this fact: he is not dependent on the technology, but rather, the technology is dependent on him. As The Suit, as The Corporation, Tony Stark decides more than any one man ever should decide. Civil War presents the aftermath of this overwhelming power, as does the seductiveness of all Tony has to offer. Look at those who have fallen under his sway; I could name several, but I think Peter Parker speaks to them all.

In Warren Ellis's and Adi Granou's The Invincible Iron Man: Extremis, we see the dangers not of a man obsessed with science and technology and yes, it's true, Friends, not even his own mortality, but rather, the very simple danger of a man obsessed with making money. When being interviewed by a documentary maker, Tony Stark responds to accusations of his impartiality at the world's suffering: "Am I an arms dealer? No. Did I start out as a weapons designer? Yes. Do I intend to die as one? No." For Tony, at this moment, the ends without a doubt justify the means. He believes the initial intentions for his inventions don't really matter, that their lethal origins are overwritten by the good he's wrought as well. The filmmaker asks Tony, "Do you think they have your painkilling drug pumps in Iraq? Do you think an Afghan kid with his arms blown off by a landmine is remotely impressed by an Iron Man suit?" to which Tony responds, "I never claimed to be perfect. I always knew there would be blood on my hands. I'm trying... I'm trying to improve the world."

Tony Stark is trying to improve the world by rewriting it in the image he sees fit. Jump ahead to Civil War, and that image is one of order and registration. In this book, that image is one in which he controls and maintains the ultimate weaponry power. In Tony Stark's perfect world, he, and only he, is The Perfect Machine.

"My chair is Me," Miserrimus Dexter says, and the 21st century response from Marvel Comics could be, "My suit is Me." Tony Stark is defined not by what he gives the world, but by what Iron Man can take from it: technology, money, safety, danger, all of it's the same in a Stark Industry kind of world. Even though Tony says, "I went from being a man trapped in an iron suit to being a man freed by it," the ending of this arc belies those words.

Tony melds himself with the suit using the advanced technology that sparked the latest rampage on the unsuspecting public. He becomes one with the suit, can see through satellites because of it. Or, as he tells Maya, his scientist companion, "We can reconfigure Extremis to do all those jobs. Make me the Iron Man inside and out."

And lucky for Tony, he's brilliant. He does become the Iron Man inside and out, literally in this case. When Maya asks, "Tony... what have you done?" He tells her, "This. Supercompressed and stored in the hollows of my bones, Maya. I carry the crucial undersheath of the Iron Man suit inside my body now. Wired directly into my brain. I control the Iron Man with thought. Like it was another limb."

The only problem with being The Suit inside and out is that you no longer know where you fit into all of this mess. And isn't that why we love Iron Man? Isn't that why we read Tony Stark, watch him self-destruct again and again, because we love our very broken men consumed by their jobs, their passions, their vendettas, their insecurities? Until I read this book, Tony reminded me of Bruce Wayne, Marvel's answer to The Batman problem. After reading this book, I realized that Tony Stark had a much different DC twin.

Lex Luthor.

Two men, both driven, both determined, both dying but for the grace of God and suit, both corporate Giants, both rich and morally ambiguous—-sometimes doing good, sometimes doing evil, but always for their own ends. Both sometimes blinded by their obsessions: for Lex, Superman, and for Tony, alcohol. Both self-destructive and self-loathing, again and again and again.

But for Tony Stark, in this book, there is a tiny ray of Hope. What the art presents us with—-besides sheer gorgeousness-—are little moments of reflection. Reflective surfaces are nothing new for the Cyborgs of literature; think only of all that shiny metal, or Molly's mirrored lenses surgically placed in her eye sockets. This book presents us with dozens of such reflections: Tony confronting the suit, the suit confronting others, even the buildings made of mirrored tempered glass. But most importantly, we see Tony confronting mirrors. In the beginning of the book, he takes a shower and then sees his reflection in the mirror. "What are you looking at?" Tony asks his reflection, or his reflection asks Tony. We're never quite sure, even when he says, "I hate it when you look at me like that."

This confrontation, mirrored (no pun intended, Gentle Reader!) in the very last scene of the book, demonstrates that there is hope for Tony. That as long as he continues to be reflective, introspective, diving inwards for the answers to The Iron Man, he may, just may avoid becoming Marvel's Lex Luthor. That maybe, just maybe, Tony can coexist with the machine, rather than consume it. Because The Iron Man Suit represents corporation *and* the hope for a better, brighter tomorrow.

Because, Gentle Reader, isn't that the very promise of technology?

18 comments:

Matthew E said...

Very intelligently conceived. I'd point out, though, that it would be more accurate to say that Iron Man and Luthor converged on this common point, as their characters started off much further apart. Luthor was originally a mad-scientist kind of guy and only became a businessman in the '80s, and Iron Man's profession was much more respectable in society's eyes when his character was first created.

As for which superhero works best as metaphor, that's a tough question, because they're all metaphors for different things, and it's not always easy to pin down. I'm gonna have to give that some thought.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Matthew,
Very intelligently conceived. I'd point out, though, that it would be more accurate to say that Iron Man and Luthor converged on this common point, as their characters started off much further apart.

I do admit, I am Not Quite Up To Speed on my Marvel history. For situations such as these, I defer to my Reading Brothers and Sisters. Thank you for the detail!

Luthor was originally a mad-scientist kind of guy and only became a businessman in the '80s, and Iron Man's profession was much more respectable in society's eyes when his character was first created.

Very, very interesting. I knew that, vaguely, about Lex from Comics Read Long Ago, but honestly, I had forgotten. My image of Lex Luthor has so been written over by recent runs, particularly the Lex in No Man's Land, and the Lex in the recent runs of Superman (the "I hate you" Lex).
And Tony does seem to be evolving into very strange things, doesn't he? Civil War has me on the edge of my seat about this, because I *like* Tony Stark.

As for which superhero works best as metaphor, that's a tough question, because they're all metaphors for different things, and it's not always easy to pin down. I'm gonna have to give that some thought.

It's really true. So many of them work well and work in great ways (and some definitely don't work, like my opinion of Professor X) that it was a really difficult question that I did have to think about for several miles. But since the trip had about 500 miles one way, just driving, it didn't take up that much of the trip with silence ;)

Let me know what you come up with!
Ciao,
Amy

Matthew E said...

Let's not forget another difference between Iron Man and Luthor. When it comes right down to it, Luthor's a supervillain. He's evil. Iron Man, despite his flaws and despite what's he's been up to in the past few months, is a superhero. If he betrays every one of his scruples and convictions in Civil War #7, he'll still have more of them than Luthor.

I tied my brain in knots trying to figure out whether you had pegged Batman correctly from a metaphorical point of view and got nowhere. Batman's tough to pin down, because there are so many aspects to his character that aren't all useful for the same purposes. Superman, though, I think you've got wrong: 'truth, justice and the American Way' is just a catchphrase. What he really represents is Good.

I didn't get much further with other characters. I have half-formed ideas, like the Hulk being Anger, Captain America being America, the Legion being Hope, and so on. But it occurred to me that maybe the biggest success in this discussion is Spider-Man, because he is the greatest superhero character who is, definitely and specifically, not a metaphor at all. He's a character. He resists all metaphorical summing up. (And he's not an Everyman. If there is an Everyman superhero, it's probably the Spirit, who's nowhere near as vivid a personality as Peter Parker (intentionally, I'm sure), and who sometimes hardly even bothers to appear in his own stories.)

Amy Reads said...

Hi Matthew,
Let's not forget another difference between Iron Man and Luthor. When it comes right down to it, Luthor's a supervillain. He's evil. Iron Man, despite his flaws and despite what's he's been up to in the past few months, is a superhero. If he betrays every one of his scruples and convictions in Civil War #7, he'll still have more of them than Luthor.

Yes, you're right, but for me personally, the people who are the scariest are the ones who think that they're righteous. Give me a mercenary over a zealot any day of the week; Lex feels more like a mercenary, while Tony feels a bit like a zealot recently. But perhaps I just hate, hate, hate hypocrisy, and Civil War is revealing that across the board to me.

But you're right: when we boil it all down, Lex Luthor is a Villain, and Tony is, for all intents and purposes, a Hero.

I tied my brain in knots trying to figure out whether you had pegged Batman correctly from a metaphorical point of view and got nowhere. Batman's tough to pin down, because there are so many aspects to his character that aren't all useful for the same purposes.

And that's why Batman is really my favorite superhero of the xy chromosome persuasion. He's got layers, despite the fact that he really shouldn't. I've always felt that Batman was conceived to be cut and dry (as, really, so many DC characters were in The Early Days), and he's gotten so utterly fascinating. And also? Kind of scary.

Okay, so here's a thing. I was about to comment to you about a conversation I once had with a friend, and I decided to make a post about it instead. Thanks for the inspiration, Friend! Look for it in the next day or so :)

Superman, though, I think you've got wrong: 'truth, justice and the American Way' is just a catchphrase. What he really represents is Good.

But I think the "Truth, Justice, and American Way" embodies, for his creators, Good. Of course, over the past several years, Superman's become a big more multi-cultural, and I really enjoy that. One of our Fellow Bloggers recently wrote that Superman had, hands down, the best run in 2006. I really think it's true. His OYL jump has been fantastic, almost reaching my personal favorite handling of OYL: The Teen Titans.

I didn't get much further with other characters. I have half-formed ideas, like the Hulk being Anger, Captain America being America, the Legion being Hope, and so on. But it occurred to me that maybe the biggest success in this discussion is Spider-Man, because he is the greatest superhero character who is, definitely and specifically, not a metaphor at all. He's a character. He resists all metaphorical summing up. (And he's not an Everyman. If there is an Everyman superhero, it's probably the Spirit, who's nowhere near as vivid a personality as Peter Parker (intentionally, I'm sure), and who sometimes hardly even bothers to appear in his own stories.)

Mr. Reads and I actually discussed the Spider-Man Issue, and both of us agree that his strength is his universality. Spider-Man means so many different things at so many different times that it is really hard to pin him down. And I like that. I don't read The Webbed Wonder myself, but I really, truly appreciate him. I think he is, without a doubt, the best role model for young comic readers. Mr. Reads often tells me how Spider-Man helped him through difficult times in high school, because hey, if the 15-year-old science geek can be the superhero, so can other 15-year-old geeks :)

I've not read The Spirit. Should I?
Ciao,
Amy

Matthew E said...

I'm not a big Spirit expert. I've read DC's 'Best of The Spirit' collection, and the recent Batman/Spirit special, and the first issue (so far) of Darwyn Cooke's Spirit series. I liked them all, and plan on continuing with Cooke's Spirit. You could try an issue or two of that; it's fun stuff, and as far as I can tell the stories are all done-in-one, so it's not like it would be a huge investment.

plok said...

Can I suggest a post on Marc Singer's blog to you guys? "This Man, This Metaphor!" I quote it all the time, myself. Does away with things like the Spider-Man metaphor problem very neatly...

A couple other things occur to me, too, now I'm here -- like, I seem to recall it was the radio show that invented the "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" bit...although it's undeniably great...and I too haven't read very much of The Spirit, but I do think it's awesome, and well worth the time.

Finally, Amy, how old am I? I was actually shocked to hear you say you were unfamiliar with Lex Luthor as a scientist! Oh, DC, something's been lost...you know, I worried about this from the beginning, I really did...

Nice post!

Matthew E said...

Okay, I read 'This Man, This Metaphor', and I can go along with it, but it doesn't change what I think about Spider-Man; just sort of shifts it a bit. Before reading it, I might have said, "Cliff Steele is a metaphor for the Western mind-body dichotomy, but Spider-Man isn't a metaphor for anything." Now, I can say, "Cliff Steele is himself a stand-in for, or an extreme example of, the Western mind-body dichotomy, but Spider-Man isn't a stand-in or extreme example of anything."

plok said...

Man, I'm glad you read that, Matthew! No one ever takes my advice!

But allow me to take a contrary view in regard to Spider-Man. Don't you think he exemplifies the adolescent's struggle to pass through the gates of adulthood and citizenship? If I may paraphrase Peter Parker's famous motto: the more freedom you become entitled to, the more self-control you must exercise, to be a real grown-up; the more power you have, the more you must practice self-denial.

Agree/disagree? It's actually pretty advanced stuff for a comic-book character, I think...

Amy Reads said...

Hi Matt,
I'm not a big Spirit expert. I've read DC's 'Best of The Spirit' collection, and the recent Batman/Spirit special, and the first issue (so far) of Darwyn Cooke's Spirit series. I liked them all, and plan on continuing with Cooke's Spirit. You could try an issue or two of that; it's fun stuff, and as far as I can tell the stories are all done-in-one, so it's not like it would be a huge investment.

Sounds great. Thanks for the recommendation! I've got the Batman/Spirit one-shot rumbling around here somewhere, but haven't had a chance to read it yet.
Ciao,
Amy

Amy Reads said...

Hi Plok,
Can I suggest a post on Marc Singer's blog to you guys? "This Man, This Metaphor!" I quote it all the time, myself. Does away with things like the Spider-Man metaphor problem very neatly...

I will definitely check it out; thanks!

A couple other things occur to me, too, now I'm here -- like, I seem to recall it was the radio show that invented the "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" bit...although it's undeniably great...and I too haven't read very much of The Spirit, but I do think it's awesome, and well worth the time.

You're probably right re: Truth, Justice, etc. I think I remember that, too. But it has been so entwined with Superman's character that we come to expect him to stand for American issues. I think that's why I like Justice League and JLU cartoons so much; he is very much a Man Of The World(s). He helps everyone in need.

Finally, Amy, how old am I? I was actually shocked to hear you say you were unfamiliar with Lex Luthor as a scientist! Oh, DC, something's been lost...you know, I worried about this from the beginning, I really did...

Teehee! I'm familiar with him as a scientist, but not as The Scientist. Does that make sense? The Lex Luthor I grew up with was very much the evil Batman.

Nice post!

Thanks for reading!
Ciao,
Amy

Matthew E said...

allow me to take a contrary view in regard to Spider-Man. Don't you think he exemplifies the adolescent's struggle to pass through the gates of adulthood and citizenship?

Well, you're more of a Marvel expert than I am, certainly; if you can support that then I won't argue about it. But at my level of familiarity with him I'd say that it's one aspect of his story, certainly, but I wouldn't use the word 'exemplifies', because:

a) the character hasn't been an adolescent in decades
b) there are so many other aspects to Spidey that I don't see why this one stands out
c) it doesn't have a lot to do with his superheroics
d) it's a subtle enough concept that we really don't need someone to exemplify it in a superhero comic

(But I thought for a second. If Spider-Man is not a symbol of the adolescent's struggle, et cetera, then is Captain Marvel? No, I guess he's not, but it's an interesting comparison.)

plok said...

Amy: yes, "Truth, Justice, and the American Way"...they were brilliant folks who cooked up that slogan. Fits Superman to a T. I mean I'm Canadian, for God's sake, and I still believe in that!

Matthew: I swear to God, you are going to have to just take my word for it. If Peter Parker doesn't exemplify the adolescent striving with (and for) adulthood, then neither do I. Good Lord am I going to write an enormous post on this! Good Lord are there enormous posts to write on it!

But let's hear some metonymic descriptions of first-version Legion characters, eh?

Matthew E said...

Okay, if you insist. I don't think all the Legionnaires exemplify things; many are (or started off as) blank slates with single superpowers. But there are still things to say.

Timber Wolf exemplifies a monster's desire to be human. (Which is interesting, because he is human. But it doesn't help him.)

Shrinking Violet is shyness. She's shy in her personality, her name and her powers. (Then her personality changed. Don't blame the reboots for that one; Paul Levitz did it before Crisis in a very well-written story.)

Bouncing Boy is slapstick comedy.

Tyroc is the James Brown song 'Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)'.

Wildfire is... I'm having trouble putting my finger on it. He has to be something. Spirit? Anger? Hmm.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Matthew,
Okay, if you insist. I don't think all the Legionnaires exemplify things; many are (or started off as) blank slates with single superpowers. But there are still things to say.

What about Brainey? He's really the only character I'm familiar with in Legion, and while Brainiac the original definitely stands for the dangers of technology, he seems more like the hope for technology--maybe?
Ciao,
Amy

Matthew E said...

I didn't mention Brainy mostly because plok and I have discussed him to death in these posts and their comments:

http://legionabstract.blogspot.com/2007/01/legionnaires-brainiac-5.html

http://circumstantial.blogspot.com/2006/11/untented-kosmos-my-abode.html

Matthew E said...

Sorry, I don't think those links copied very well. Let me try them this way:

here

and

here.

I think they're both worth reading but you may want to pack a lunch before embarking on them.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Matthew,
Sorry for the delayed response. The week kind of got away from me.

Sorry, I don't think those links copied very well. Let me try them this way:
here
and
here.
I think they're both worth reading but you may want to pack a lunch before embarking on them.


And I haven't had a chance to read these yet, either (see my post re: dissertation chapter, and you'll understand!), but I look forward to packing a lunch and embarking very soon!
Ciao,
Amy

plok said...

Um...better pack two lunches. And some No-Doz, possibly.

Oh no, wait, only one of those is what I thought it was!

Cup of black coffee oughtta get you through, in that case.