It was 1963 and two men were revolutionizing the field of comic books and they were on quite a roll. These two men have become legendary among comic book collectors and have become so famous that many know them even if they have never picked up a single issue. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had, just a few years before, helped turn around a company that was struggling to stay afloat, Timely Comics, and turned it into a powerhouse that would last for generations, Marvel Comics. They had done it by creating a team called the Fantastic Four and they had made an attempt to inject a little bit of realism into comics.
Reading an early issue of the Fantastic Four seems rather quaint now. However, there is now way to over-stress just how revolutionary it was when it hit the stands in the early 60s. Here was a team of real people who seemed to exude real emotions and even did things like fight amongst themselves. Such was not done in comic books at that time. The Fantastic Four became a smash hit and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were becoming legends.
They did not sit on their laurels. No, they set about creating more characters that would change the face of what had always been considered a medium for children. They next came up with a man who changed into a monster and they called him The Incredible Hulk. They also created a hero who could shrink down to a tiny size and communicate with ants and called him Ant Man. They created a man who was a doctor until he discovered a cane in a cave, hit it against a wall, and became Thor. Before long they would create a group of teenagers who were actually born with their powers and call them the X-Men. Then they would create a character that Stan Lee thought was a throw-away for a comic book magazine that was going to be cancelled.
The title was called Amazing Fantasy and it had been a collection of monster stories and strange tales that had not caught on nor sold well. It was only going to last about fifteen issues and the plan was to cancel the comic after the fifteenth issue. Stan had had an idea of a teenager who gains tremendous power. He even had an idea for what kind of power, but there was a fear that people would be turned off by it. I mean, people just didn’t like spiders very much, so why would they like a guy who had spider powers. So, as a test it was decided to try out this character in the last issue of a throw-away comic book. Thus Spider-Man was born and became a hit.
Now, it was 1963 and things were changing. The world was changing. The United States had entered an undeclared war in a country most of the comic book readers of the world had never heard of until then: Vietnam. By 1963 the hippie culture was already in existence and growing. The youth were starting to rebel. They were burning their draft cards. They were refusing to enter the Army, fleeing to Canada, and starting to demonstrate in the streets. They were protesting the war and they were protesting the military establishment and they were protesting the things that had come before and looking to change the world. So, what kind of hero could Stan Lee and Jack Kirby create that would be interesting to these young people?
Lee decided it was time to create something that would be all of the things that the youth in the country were protesting, all wrapped up into one. He would create a character who was not only part of the military establishment, but a weapons-maker. He would be wealthy. He would run a multi-million dollar corporation. He would be the “quintessential capitalist.”
There was yet another comic book title that was struggling a bit. This one was called Tales of Suspense. The writers at Marvel Comics had been trying various thing to keep it going, but nothing had worked particularly well. Once again, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby thought that this new character might be worth throwing into this title. It would be half the size of creating a whole Fantastic Four comic. Stan Lee has said he created the character as a kind of dare to himself. Why not create something that all of the youth of the world would, technically, be against and see if he and Jack could make it popular?
Stan created a character who was arrogant, handsome, good with women and brilliant. He named him Tony Stark. In 1963 the latest in technology was something called a transistor. Once again, with the benefit of time and 20-20 hindsight, it seems quaint to think that Tony Stark’s brilliant technology would rely on something considered hopelessly obsolete today, but that was the case. Tony Stark would show up in Vietnam creating weapons that were powered by transistors.
When we first meet Stark he is showing off his new transistor-powered weapons system to a group of generals in Vietnam. The weapon is a giant magnet and with the addition of a patented Stark Industries transistor, he is able to increase the power of the magnetic weapon a hundred fold and break a huge metal door in half. Then all hell breaks loose and Tony Stark ends up stepping on a mine and with shrapnel slowly working its way towards his heart. He is imprisoned by a Vietnamese warlord who wants him, and the other imprisoned scientist, to create a super-weapon for him. If you have seen the movie, you have probably guessed that the two scientists decide to create armor that will keep Stark alive by preventing the shrapnel from entering his heart, and by making the suit of armor a weapon.
The cool, slick, red and yellow member of the Avengers that fans of Iron Man today might know was not the Iron Man that walked slowly away from a burning Vietnamese enemy base in that first issue. No, the first iron suit was gray and bulky. Stan Lee admitted he was inspired, a bit, by the Man in the Iron Mask. Stark was to be trapped is his suit in order to stay alive. In fact, when he walks away after that first adventure he simply wraps a large trench coat around himself and his armor, and puts a hat over his head and walks away.
Iron Man was not an immediate success. In fact, for a very long time he continued his spot as back-up story in Tales of Suspense. Eventually, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would resurrect one of the characters they had created back during World War II: Captain America. The good Captain would take up residence with Iron Man and the two would share a title for a while.
It soon became clear that having a hero who could not take off at least part of his armor was a problem. So, Stan Lee changed it so that Tony could just wear the chest plate and keep his heart pumping. He also decided that gray was not the best color. He had originally intended for the Hulk to be gray and the colored plates used to print the comics were unable to keep the character a consistent shade. So, without much of an explanation he changed the armor to a brilliant gold. In fact, he was gold from head to foot and entirely. The armor still looked bulky, uncomfortable, and strange but now Iron Man was the Golden Avenger.
Well, technically, he would not become that until Lee created The Avengers. This was in response to the idea of “what if…?” Lee would often be asked what would happen if certain heroes were to team up, or to fight. He had created superhero teams from scratch, but he liked the idea of a team of superheroes from existing heroes from other books. Thus, he put together Ant-Man and the Wasp, Thor, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. The Hulk did not last long, however, and soon he had brought back Captain America.
When Iron Man first joined the Avengers, he was still in his all-gold uniform. Thus, he became the Golden Avenger and he now reached a whole new audience. His popularity began to grow. He would soon undergo another change in his armor. This time his armor would come to resemble the gold and red color that many fans of Iron Man are familiar with. His armor would be sleeker, more agile, and look less like a lumbering mass of metal.
Also, changes were in store for Tony Stark. A man with that much technology at his fingertips would not stay chained to a chest plate he had to routinely recharge by plugging into a wall socket. It also made little sense to have a weakness like that and then battle villains who would easily pound the hell out of the chest plate and possibly kill him. So, Tony would undergo a heart transplant and be fitted with an artificial heart. Now, he would suit up as Iron Man without needing the chest plate to stay alive.
Tony Stark continued his life as a playboy as well. At first, Iron Man was a true blue American fighting the Communist horde. He often went up against human adversaries who had sneaked into his company to try and steal the plans for his armor. When that was rapidly becoming uninteresting, Stan Lee started having him fight super-villains. Before long Iron Man, like the other heroes in the Marvel canon, had a rogues gallery. Many of them were also people who had created mechanical suits and devices to give them super powers.
During the 1970s, Iron Man finally got his own title. He also developed new and different kinds of armor. The classic style that most fans probably envision of Iron Man’s armor came about then. He also developed stealth armor and other forms of armor that he could use depending on his needs.
Tony Stark, however, also developed something that had nothing to do with technology. Tony Stark was hooked on booze. In a revolutionary move, Tony Stark and Iron Man became the first hero that had an addiction. He managed to hide it for a long time, but then it became too much. Tony Stark was forced to remove his armor. For a time, as he recovered and battled his demons, he let his friend James Rhodes took over and battled, for a time, as Iron Man. Stark had also managed to lose Stark Industries to his rival, Obadiah Stane, while he was in a drunken haze. As he began to rebuild his fortune, Rhodes was having a problem. Iron Man’s armor was tuned to Stark’s brainwaves, not Rhodes, and he was becoming erratic.
Eventually, Stark was forced to put on his original gray, bulky armor, and battle Rhodes. He won, altered Rhodes’ armor and, for a time, there were two Iron Men. Stark also battled his demons and beat the bottle. He once again was the Golden Avenger.
Over the years, Iron Man’s armor has gotten more and more powerful, and Stark has become more and more complicated as a character. He discovered that his suit’s plans had been stolen and went on a rampage, destroying imitations of his armor all over the world. He made more enemies. He moved to the West Coast Avengers for a while. He even took the side of the government and the establishment during the Marvel “Civil War” when the Marvel Universe’s government decided anyone with super powers would need to register. He fought, toe-to-toe with his friends such as Captain America, who opposed the law. He ultimately won, and Captain America was assassinated.
Of all of the characters in the Marvel Universe, it may be argued that Iron Man is the most human. Without his armor, he is just a mere mortal and a hugely flawed mortal. He was not bitten by a radioactive anything or given super powers from on high. He is a man with huge technology and a huge brain at his disposal. Now, thanks to Hollywood, he is one of the major stars in the Marvel Universe.
But all of it started because Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were looking to continue their winning streak. They wanted to challenge themselves. So, they encased their hero in iron. The rest, is comic book history.