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Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men--The Alchemy of Thematic Engagement

It should not be a surprise that I'm once again returning to discussion of the book. After dealing with a conference presentation on comics at the Florida Conference of Historians meeting in Wakulla Springs,FL I'm thinking about the collection again. The concept is sound, but the publishers' spirits are weak.

So, after some consultation among the editors we have decided to revamp the proposal a bit, to highlight the themes we think are important. This is not to say we have not done that before, we have, and now we are doing it again with the intention of making the links clearer to the less comic savvy reader. One thing that came out of the discussion is me moving away from race in my chapter and incorporating an examination of Iron Man. Don't worry, I will send the chapter out to a journal, so eventually someone will read it.

Moving away from my exploration of race in Marvel does not mean the book will not address race, in fact we have one article exploring Latinos in comics and another discussing race broadly in comics, so we are still engaged with this important question. On the upside, I get to write about Iron Man. I am a Iron Man fan, so this is no burden, but like everything about the collection, my discussion of Iron Man is intended to tell us something about the American experience.

Stan Lee’s exploration of Cold War through the Tony Stark/Iron Man character stands out as a noteworthy exception to the adolescent angst associated with Marvel characters in the 1960s. The first appearance of the Invincible Iron Man in 1963 introduced a telling narrative on the importance of the military industrial complex to the American experience in the midst of the Cold War. If, as military historian Victor Hanson explains, “War reflects culture,” then depiction of war, especially those created in the comic medium offers an important tool to understand American thinking about weapons and war.

Tony Stark/Iron Man offers an every evolving view of the negotiation between technology, ideology, and corporatism related to national defense. Stan Lee created Iron Man with the intention of combining classic Arthurian theme with modern science fiction. Iron Man’s first appearance came on the heels of other Marvel B-movie sci-fi inspired robot stories, such as the “The Thing Called Metallo!” in the pages of Tales of Suspense.

The state of American scientific know-how, however, was not a matter of childish fantasy in the 1960s. So, we can consider Iron Man, one way to understand Cold War hopes and fears about American military know-how. Moreover, the recent success of the Iron Man featured film and the sequel coming this summer suggest an important persistent of Cold War thinking about military power. Many where surprise about the success of the Iron Man film. I was not, in part because I recognize that the themes represented by the comics remain strongly linked to beliefs about American technological superiority and military conflicts. The ease of updating the origin story, the substitution of the Middle East for communist Vietnam, the same reliance on military technology, properly applied, to solving problems, and the implication that technical innovation can reduce the suffering associated with war are classic Cold War American ideas. These ideas still dominate our thinking. You need only consider the use of drones in our current conflicts or Congressional debates about keeping massive weapon system with little practical use in today conflicts to understand the comic exploration of weapons and weapon manufacturers is not simple fantasy. The evolution of Iron Man, represent the evolution of American thinking about conflict, military defense contractors, and the morality of military force. The message in pages of Iron Man is more complex than simply war versus peace. Like Tony Stark, American understand that weapons can be dangerous, that is why they should have the most powerful ones in their control.

I will get to work on these ideas and have something done by next month's International Association for Fantastic in the Arts meeting. Who knows, maybe some publisher will come looking to here my take on Iron Man.


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