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Monday, February 07, 2011

Iron Man armor isn't simple (to summarize)



Iron Man is a simple idea for a character: he's an armored super-hero. His super-powers and abilities come from a mechanical suit that he wears.
millionaire scientist/industrialist Anthony Stark, who was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese Commies and forced to create a weapon for them. Instead, he created a weapon for himself — a suit of high-tech armor, equipped with every useful weapon from laser beams in the fingertips to built-in jet propulsion, and used it to escape. Back in America, he continued using his armor to fight evil, adopting the name Iron Man. Stark explained the obvious close association between Iron Man and his business enterprises by claiming to have hired the superhero as his personal bodyguard.
It is a simple origin and a simple concept. He is not the first armored super-hero but he is the most famous, which until 2008 is a near-meaningless claim to fame unless you remember your cartoons or enjoy comic books. Iron Man first appeared in the March 1963 issue of anthology comic book Tales of Suspense (which was released in December 1962), giving the character quite an impressive vintage, even if he only broke out into greater pop culture visibility in summer 2008.

By "armored super-hero", I do not refer to hard-covered characters such as Captain America (who wears either chain-mail or scale-mail depending on the writer/artist) nor well-padded characters like Batman; nor do I refer to medieval nobleman warriors like the Silent Knight. I refer to powered armor and science fiction costuming. Another example besides Iron Man is the Superman supporting character Steel.

Unlike most comic book super-heroes adapted into movies and cartoons with ongoing comic book runs such as Superman and Spider-Man, Iron Man does not have just one simple, uniformly drawn image or costume.  Superman's costume has remained more or less static since the 1950s with the only changes being the size of S on his chest, and whether or not there is an additional super-symbol on his belt buckle and/or cape.  However as time went on in the Iron Man narrative and the character's ongoing canon and continuity Tony Stark designed and manufactured a new set of armor and at some point different artists enjoyed making his respective stamp on the character and the new armor was visually distinct from the previous one.  Somehow I am sure that may have helped the sales of action figures but also hindered the popularization of the character.

The picture at the top depicting an "Iron Man" character illustrates exactly the problematic complexity of the character's overall visual narrative.  While the basic concept of the character and his abilities is very basic, how each visual came to be and why it is different from another one can be literally painful to explain.  The Iron Man pictured, for example, is Rebel O'Reilly, the original Iron Man of the Heroes Reborn Pocket Universe, flying his test Promethean armor.

I don't want to explain "Heroes Reborn" right now and I certainly do not want to explain what a pocket universe is or how it relates to the Iron Man of the almost-fifty-year-old ongoing continuity, or how it doesn't relate to the movies or cartoons.  Yet the visual is out there and it is both similar enough to most images to be identifiable as Iron Man and different enough to raise time-wasting questions.

To explain it in varying detail there is
  • Advanced Iron's Iron Man Armory
  • which contains a link to detailed profiles for the "General Purpose Iron man Armors", which really is the basic super-hero garb, sorted chronologically and described in the most relevant basic detail.  Everything is named according to description and that seems best.  It is not the most up to date.
  • It also contains other armor, such as "mission-specific" armor, which really just means "story specific" armor.
  • The Marvel Universe database wiki has their "Battlesuits" category which contains Iron Man armor with most of their canonical names, as well as the suits and weapons for his sidekicks/understudies, Soviet counterparts, and ancillary characters, as well as spin-offs in other media.
  • The movie is apparently "Earth-199999".
  • Alan Kistler wrote his column on Iron Man's Evolving Armors.  He really does explain it, translating the stuff best for the newcomer.
Is the character great?  Yes!  But as he is nearly impenetrable it occasionally takes some effort to sell how easy the character is, simply because not all of his fascinating history is necessary to know in order to enjoy the character, but knowing all of it can enhance the enjoyment.  The sheer bulk of the accumulated stuff, however, should be sorted, acknowledged, and then set aside just to introduce new readers without alienating old readership.

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