Saturday, April 05, 2008

Bronze Beauties #18: The Invincible IRON MAN!

My high school pal Chris Hess’ favorite superhero was Iron Man. I found this an odd preference. Oh, I’d pick up the odd issue of ol’ Shellhead (as Stan Lee used to call him), the war-borne alter ego of industrialist Tony Stark, a man with a heart condition and a drinking problem (that came later). But he always felt to me a perpetual B-lister. Part of the problem was his costume. Not its appearance, but rather, even as a kid, I just didn’t believe it.

Iron Man, at least as he was depicted until recent years, represents one of my (and Paul Pope’s) biggest beefs with superhero design: The lack of thought or care given to the practicality of costumes combined with a lazy depiction of them as clothing.

Most superhero artists draw costumes as simply lines on a neutered naked body. Characters are usually drawn with every muscle delineated and shaded, while the costume fits so snugly that nary a wrinkle appears, even at the joints. Meanwhile, boots sit flush against flesh despite having pants tucked into them and things as bulky as mechanical web-shooters magically disappear under a form-fitting glove (I always wondered if Tony Stark’s nose was squished under his iron mask).

Granted, it’s COMICS, and a certain amount of creative license is not only allowed, but welcome. We all accept that the length of Batman’s cape will widely fluctuate depending upon whether he’s standing on the roof of police headquarters or dramatically leaping off of same. Likewise, the eyes on his mask (and Spider-Man’s and any other character’s whose face is hidden) can open, close or change shape with his emotions. I have a much harder time accepting that Black Canary does martial arts in fishnets and high heels.

Certainly, too much believability isn’t the solution. Alex Ross’ hyper-realistic painted comics attempt to depict costumes as being of the real world as everything else. The problem is, this approach flies in the face of what makes comics work as an artform. “Cartoonist” is not an insult. Ross’ approach is not without its appeal, but that appeal is limited, and ultimately his work a novelty.

Anyway, as for Iron Man, I never got the visual impression that his costume was made out of METAL. Most artists just drew his armor the same way they’d draw any other superhero’s outfit, with only the metal bands around the neck and shoulders seemingly made of any kind of iron. Check out how Herb Trimpe draws IM on the (super-cool) cover of issue #39 (July 1971). In a startlingly underground-looking illustration, the hero looks more like he’s clad in red and yellow VELVET than iron! And Trimpe wasn’t the only one… Gil Kane (one of my favorite artists of the era) was notorious for making every character look like their costumes were spray-painted on.

Jack Kirby & Al Milgrom’s cover for IRON MAN #93 (Dec. 1976) makes more of an effort to depict the armor as, well, ARMOR, but then again, with his trademark squiggle lines, Kirby had a way of making FLESH look metallic!

Iron Man’s armor has been explained as being constructed out of millions of microscopic collapsible “cells,” held together by a powerful force field, which explains how he can bend his elbows and knees. But the explanation always felt like an afterthought to rationalize cloth-looking armor. In the awful ‘80s and ‘90s (as dark a period in comics as other culture), IM’s armor became bigger, more complicated and clunkier, adding dozens of variations to the arsenal. And of course, the upcoming movie depicts the Golden Avenger in a variation on the comics design that seems both believable and… metal.

Hey, you think Joel Schumacher got his idea for Bat-Suit nipples from Iron Man’s little nubbins?

Next Bronze Beauty: TARZAN!

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