1st Marvels: John Romita, Jr. INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #115
Mantlo’s run becomes history, and Layton/ Michelinie/ Romita makes history
Paired with the inker who would notably join him on Uncanny X-Men- Marvel’s best direct market seller- the son of Silver Age Spider-Man artist John Romita followed his namesake over a decade after that future Art Director came to Marvel. I virtually forgot John Romita, Jr. got his first assignment drawing a back-up for Amazing Spider-Man Annual #11 in 1977. His full-book premiere comes in Invincible Iron Man #115, a 1978 issue which, with a few fill-ins, marks his regular tenure there.
But everyone’s got to start somewhere, and it so happens JR, Jr., as he’s often nicknamed, got the Iron Man assignment as Bill Mantlo departed the strip. Nowadays, a one-hundred-twenty-degree heat pounds a location like modern Mosul, where remainders of American armaments fell into the hands of ideological extremists who brutalized their Iraqi neighbors they could not recruit. No reasonable, woke person could blindly romanticize the power of advanced field weapons, which are only as good as the soldiers wielding them. By 1978, the attitudes shaped by Vietnam and Americans touched personally by foreign policies had led to a more counter-culturally-shaped, energy-research-oriented Tony Stark. Mantlo revived many old favorites such as the old Mandarin-gets-switcheroo-Iron Man, Ultimo stomping towards the capitol where Stark’s again been subpoenaed, Spymaster, Madame Masque and Jasper Sitwell. Outside Midas and his recruits there was nothing really new going on.
If you were new to Invincible Iron Man, Mantlo and Tuska delivered a reasonable superhero take with remixed classic touches- even a new Guardsman, complete with O’Brien brother inside. If you liked those things, you now had the latest version. As a young collector, I was attracted to the look of the Guardian armor and the back issue price was right, so these were my first versions of these characters, and #100 came with a Starlin cover, too. Mantlo gave us a the only appearance of the initially-successful Frankenstein Monster in a few years, and for many more, along with Dreadknight, a new villainous successor to Black Knight. Outside the Soviet Super Soldiers and brand-new Jack Of Hearts, we were back to the 1960’s story ingredients without the virulent anti-Communism. This would fit well with the general Jim Shooter approach coming in the 1980s; this was, in fact, the year Shooter was assigned Editor-in-Chief.
Romita’s debut continues those revisited elements. In fact, the hardest part of this storytelling- and granted, there are fans of this handbook-like approach-is how #115 takes the “revisit” element to such an extreme, there’s literally almost no new story whatsoever! When we reach the end of “Betrayal!” Stark’s ambushed by more characters from the past: the Ani-Men, recruited as muscle, apparently quite quickly, by Whitney Frost (Madame Masque), turned, as it were, on a dime by the return of Count Nefaria, an old-time Avengers foe. This is the sequel to his appearance in Avengers, a title being written at this point by a combination of Shooter, Micheleinie, Steven Grant and Mark Gruenwald, drawn in alternating arcs by John Byrne and George Perez.
There’s a rich reliance on existing Marvel continuity, but it overwhelms the utterly decompressed plot. Funny thing is, continuity between issues is about to fly out the window when the next team debuts, but then a new set of long-term threads begin weaving a modernized classic overshadowed at the time only by the revolutions in Uncanny X-Men and Daredevil.
It’s hard not to look ahead to this much-regarded three year run, because JR’s debut relies entirely on looking backwards. There’s a few proportion problems and the inking leaves the new penciler seeming a bit old-fashioned, appropriate for the Mantlo-era tone which often sported Jack Kirby covers, too. The bigger challenge yet, however: illustrating several pages of handbook review of the past of the fallen Unicorn, capped on front by a wrap-up of the departing Avengers, filled in with more morose Stark distance and the cliché “there goes a guy without a care in the world” from a guard, and a Tony Stark fist fight with Bird Man, Frog Man, Ape Man and Cat Man that ends with yet another betrayal from the recently-disguised Whitney/ Masque. Stark doesn’t get a particularly clever showing, just a scenario meant to invoke armor-less peril of the title character and a reasonably-quick-to-comprehend motivation for Masque’s betrayal. His shadowed intention was to make the dying Unicorn a pawn to the silhouetted “Other”- hard to miss the general shape of the Titanium Man, who re-outfits Unicorn with a new power beam and points him destructively in Iron Man’s direction. This all comes out when Stark utilizes a device to read Unicorn’s discordant memories, which nonetheless play out as an orderly recap of his previous three appearances and an unrevealed scene behind his present attack. There’s little discernible personality- he’d make a complex Saturday morning cartoon villain, but his character hook’s unchanged. Worse, this is all unveiled at this juncture without any development for another year, so it’s really just Bill leaving us a planned thread and cashing another quick check for hitting deadline. Romita’s relieved of pacing actual scenes, in favor of a pastiche flashback. This might’ve made the drawings themselves a simpler task for the beginner, who, with little plot and an information dump, has plenty of space, indeed, has to stretch some to get his seventeen pages.
We do revisit “he’s alone in his shell,” emphasized once again amidst the Avengers. He’s bossy jerk to the Beast. This is underscored by his later lonesome thought that he’s always surrounded by obedient machines. His concern over standing up Whitney is meant to establish he has a heart beyond his now-never-depicted lady’s man playboy life. Bill’s giving us characterization- but little interaction.
In 1980, JR Jr. begins Amazing Spider-Man in #208. Leaning on character drawing and a love for New York City itself, he catches on by #223-the end of O’Neil’s run-as the regular artist for another amazing team-up under Tom DeFalco with former Spectacular Spider-Man writer Roger Stern.