What If... Iron Man Had Been a Traitor?

Almost four years after the original What If? series ended, this Special comes out without fanfare. Penned by Peter Gillis who wrote for the original series a lot, it seems like an inventory story, only now drawn by the current Marvel homme à tout faire, Steve Ditko, in order to keep the copyright for the title. Still, it feels of a piece with the original stories, focusing on a Marvel hero's origin, and using a celebrated artist to do it in a double-sized format. Sadly, the stories that last What If? promised (by Stan Lee, Jerry Ordway and George Perez) never saw the light of day.

What If Special #1 (June 1988)
Based on: Tales of Suspense #39
The true history: Tony Stark gets shrapnel in his heart and is captured by communist agents in Indochina. He agrees to build them a weapon, but in reality turns his life-saving vest into the Iron Man armor in order to escape. Fellow prisoner Dr. Yinsen runs out to buy Tony time to charge up and the rest is history.
Turning point: What if Dr. Yinsen had not bought Tony Stark enough time?
Story type: Deviated origin
Watcher's mood: Inscrutable
Altered history: In this reality, the commies run into the room before the suit is charged up and they take Tony's helmet away, preventing him from controlling the thing. He is then sent to Chen Lu, who in our world, would have become the Radioactive Man. But this project is more interesting. Using remote control to stop Stark's heart if he doesn't betray his country!
The reds then let Stark be found in the jungle, and he soon unveils the Iron Man to shore up his dropping stock value. Iron Man then goes on to make friends with other heroes and fight various villains, just as he did in the original stories. However, one man doesn't trust Stark's little stay in Southeast Asia: Pre-eyepatch Nick Fury!
Nick's seen The Manchurian Candidate and is on the warpath. When the U.S. government decides to create SHIELD, they ask Stark to build its weapons. When he sees that Fury is about to be named director, that information is beamed back to Chen Lu, and from Chen Lu, goes right to Hydra.
Nick gets away, but ends up in the hospital where he asks Reed Richards to investigate Stark Industries. Reed does discover foul play in the form of radio wave emissions, while Chen Lu is privy to Tony Stark's new interest in meditation.
Reed knows too much now, so Chen Lu sends Iron Man to kill him. Iron Man attacks the Baxter Building while the rest of the Fantastic Four are away, and bulldozers through the defenses.
He leaves a tape behind, the "kind used for ultra-slow recording". It contains a message that reveals the secret behind Stark's meditating.
Reed manages to shut down the armor, with some sly help from Stark himself, and the latter is wheeled into surgery.
Not that Reed is much of a medical doctor, as he freely admits. Though he removes the armor and the shrapnel, Stark's heart is gone. He'll have to stay on life-support machines until artificial hearts are invented (in the Marvel Universe, about a week and a half). As for the Iron Man armor, well, Reed sends it back to Chen Lu...
That is hardcore, Reed. Hard. Core.
Books canceled as a result: I'm not convinced an Iron Man series couldn't come out of this anyway. Stark makes a new plastron that keeps him alive, then a new armor, and Iron Man is back. Just so long as he doesn't wait for Reed Richards to make a new heart for him. (See his schedule for turning the Thing back into Ben Grimm.)
These things happen: Iron Man has turned out to be a traitor before, most notably as a sleeper agent for Kang in the Avengers story arc "The Crossing". And then there are those times that all depend on what you consider "treason" (i.e. Civil War). Ultimately though, Iron Man isn't even really a traitor in THIS story.

Next week: What if the Avengers Lost the Evolutionary War?
My guess: Today, we'd have half a dozen Defenders titles instead.


Prime Director said...

Your What If? feature has been great so far. It's no Spaceknight Saturdays, but it'll do.

What If Iron Man Had Been a Traitor? and What If Steve Rogers Had Refused to Give Up Being Captain America? are my favorite What If stories, because I think they both reveal what the writers think is the essence of the two characters: Rogers is a willing martyr for justice and liberty and Stark is accidental anti-hero who's one step away from being an outright traitor.

Just as Captain America's origin is uniquely tied to the "good war" (WWII), Iron Man's origin is tied to the "bad war" (Vietnam).

Steve Rogers, the poor, Depression-Era volunteer who willingly risks his life in an experiment conducted by a brilliant jewish refugee (I can only assume Professor Reinstein fled Germany just ahead of the Holocaust) to produce a fighting man capable of standing together with FDR to smash the nazis, is innately good, noble and beyond reproach.

Tony Stark, son of a wealthy industrialist, a war profiteer who is mortally wounded in the field by his own death-dealing munitions, is captured by the enemy but then helped by one of the innocent people his bombs would've killed and creates a powerful suit of armor that saves his life and allows him to escape, assume a costumed identity and become a shill for his own corporation, is at times (every ten years or so) "dramatically" revealed to be a moral weakling, an ethical grotesque or an outright traitor.

Siskoid said...

Nice analysis, PD!

De said...

Albeit a bit of a nit, but Nick lost an eye during World War II. He should be wearing an eyepatch in this issue.

Unless of course, it's a bionic eye. Where's my No Prize?

Siskoid said...

Actually, he started wearing the eyepatch while he worked at the CIA. He had been steadily losing his eyesight on that side since he got shrapnel in it during WWII. Since he isn't yet in SHIELD, this is correct. (There's even a scene with a doctor telling him he should start wearing one.)

Matthew Turnage said...

PD, I've got to disagree with your assessment of Iron Man, because it misses a key element of the character. Iron Man's origin gives him a reason to build the armor, but does not give him a reason to become a super hero. Tony Stark has an adventure-seeking streak (see his early racecar driving) that accounts for part of it, but he also sees himself as a modern-day knight who fights for what's right simply because it's the right thing to do. His funding of the Avengers all those years, even when he wasn't an active member, is a good example of his true character.

Things like "The Crossing" and "Civil War" were written by people trying to make the character fit the plot rather than letting plot grow from character, and have no real relation to Iron Man as he's been portrayed for most of his history.

Prime Director said...

MT, I recognize that Iron Man did not start out as a cypher for the military industrial complex; nor did cap start out as a ACLU-style social democrat...

... but regarding the Captain America-Martyr/Iron Man-Traitor What If stories, what I said was I think they both reveal what the writers think is the essence of the two characters. So, for the most part, we're in agreement. Iron Man has been hijacked by writers with an agenda (Cap, too).

I don't mean to pick on Stark. Even the best hero can be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

Yes, Stark got his "powers" under less-than-heroic circumstances; but, except for Thor and the X-Men (and maybe Pym), pretty much everyone else in the Marvel Universe did, too:

- Bruce Banner was changed into the Hulk when he saved Rick Jones from the detonation of the Gamma Bomb, a weapon of mass destruction he designed.

- The Silver Surfer was granted the power cosmic when, in exchange for Zenn-La's safety, he agreed to lead Galactus to feast on other innocent worlds.

- The FF got their powers when they took Reed Richard's space craft on an unauthorized test flight when it appeared his project was about to lose government funding. They were exposed to cosmic radiation because of Reed's hubris. Ben was the only one to pay a price for his power.

- Peter Parker's powers were a gift of providence - the scrawny geek's love of science put him in the right place at the right time. But he didn't ask for the power or the responsibility.

- No, even Steve Rogers isn't perfect. He enlisted but was rejected as 4F. He was not the best the country had to offer. He was judged to be inadequate. His pride led him to volunteer for the Super Soldier program.

I don't know if you're familiar with Rom's origin, but his was the perfect sacrifice when you get right down to it. Its like Rogers's and Stark's origins were corrected and combined into one character.

Like Stark, Rom's transformative experience dehumanized him. After his injury, Stark couldn't remove the armor because it kept his injured heart pumping. But Rom's transformation was voluntary and more horrific. He was cut into pieces - half of him was grafted to a coffin-like suit of armor, half of him was put into a cryogenic crypt. Over time, Stark was able to free himself of the armor and its responsibility, wearing it only when it served his chosen purpose at the moment. He was not committed and at times, lacked ultimate purpose. Rom was committed, and the purpose of his sacrifice was never in doubt.

Like Rogers, he was a volunteer, but Rom was the best Galador had to offer and his sacrifice was the first to be accepted. Both are soldiers, but Cap was knocked out of action before the decisive battle, frozen in suspended animation while the war was fought and won without him. Rom fought and won the ultimate battle of the war, bearing the brunt of the enemy's doomsday weapon and striking the decisive blow. Rom single handedly turned the tide. When the defeated enemy fled the battlefield and scattered across the cosmos, rather than reclaim his humanity, Rom swore to hunt them all down and banish them from this plane of existence.

sigh... I miss Spaceknight Saturdays :(

Siskoid said...

Well, they don't make Rom comics anymore, so...

As for Spider-Man's origin, that's not what's damning about it: He lets a crook go (not his problem) and that crook kills his uncle. Only then does he become a hero.

You seem to have found a sort of theme with Stan Lee's origin work. We could also mention Thor who was punished by his father for his arrogance, thus winding up on Midgard as Don Blake. Or Dr. Strange who was a greed and pride-driven jerk before he found his inner Sorcerer Supreme.

Matthew Turnage said...

In some ways, I think Iron Man is the closest to a DC-style hero of any of the early Marvel characters. He's rich, handsome, smart, and became a super-hero because he had the opportunity and the desire to help, not because of some deep psychological trauma.

Even in his origin as originally presented, his physical disability is not really presented to be a result of his own hubris in the way it is with Stephen Strange.

I think it's this certain level of "DC-ness" that led some writers to feel the need to "Marvelize" Iron Man more over the years. Some of those attempts worked, but most of them (at least in the last 15 years or so) have not.

Siskoid said...

Ant-Man might be another hero with a measure of DC-ness from the early Marvel.

His flaws (unless Skrulled out, who knows anymore?) came up later.

Kandou Erik said...

OHHH - another Steve Ditko comic after his return to Marvel. With the exception of Squirll Girl, it was just sad to see him back trying to fit back into a system he had rejected so long ago. It just never fit; his art looks decidedly stranger that it use to, and it didn't help matters that he was being put along with characters he previously had no hand in creating.

I have an issue of Daredevil he drew, and it just seemed sad in comparison to the hights he had made in Spider-Man, and his other creations, like the Question and the Creeper.

Sadly, it sort of had shades of when Kirby came back to Marvel as well. He wasn't very favored by the new modern artists at Marvel because they thought his art style looked old by that point. (Though I heartily disagree! I love all his return to Marvel work!)


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