The preponderance of superhero movies nowadays had touched even my sense of nostalgia, and so I cannot help but look back with fondness on my own comic-reading childhood, back in the early ’90s. I was always an Iron Man fan; Iron Man is hyper-popular now, but when I was reading, the big money was in the X-Men and Spider-Man; the other kids always looked at me, confused, when I brought up Iron Man. There were no Iron Man t-shirts, and there was only one Iron Man doll, which I could never find—at least until 1994’s short-lived Iron Man cartoon that lasted for two brief seasons, one absolutely terrible and the other pretty good (and with a Tony Stark with long, gorgeous locks and a rock-ass theme song). But Iron Man #250, from 1989, had been my first comic, and when—in the fourth grade—I was given the opportunity to actually subscribe to a comic book or magazine (I don’t recall, exactly, what the circumstances were, but as part of some…school program? Perhaps?…the whole class received a little booklet with a checklists of titles to subscribe to), I chose Iron Man without hesitation. Without much else in the way of outside influence, my fandom boiled down to me and the comics themselves, which, of course, has given me a smug sense of my own purity. If I were still reading today, I would certainly be an insufferable Iron Man hipster.
My first sustained exposure to the character came during the Len Kaminski run. Kaminski’s run has been lauded for its touches of “cyberpunk”; I’m not familiar enough with cyberpunk to really know if this is overstated, but I do know that Kaminski included scenes like this…
…wherein Tony Stark codes his own nervous system (at the time, his own natural nervous system had been the victim of a techno-organic virus, the result of some particularly nasty corporate espionage…stuff like that was why I dug Iron Man).
Kaminski and artists Kevin Hopgood and later Tom Morgan (whom I actually preferred), brought Iron Man into the nascent tech realm. Those scenes in the movies where you get Robert Downey Jr’s face and the displays from inside his helmet? Likely influenced by Hopgood’s layouts during this run of issues. The Kaminski run also introduced War Machine.
I mention all of this as a preamble, mostly, because if there’s one thing I love almost as much as good art, it’s bad, bad, terrible art.
Like all good things, Kaminski’s great Iron Man run came to an end because of thoughtlessness and stupidity (and marketing, which in 90% of cases is a synonym). Marvel finally started paying some attention to Iron Man and the Avengers and decided that sales were low and stagnant and so, instead of actually putting some advertising muscle behind the quality work that was already there (at least in Iron Man’s case), the people in charge decided that a shake-up was needed. This didn’t start off…too badly. Kaminski remained on the main title, but in true ’90s fashion, Iron Man was saddled with a new, X-Treme team that was spun off into its own book, born of the “smoking ashes” of the west coast branch of the Avengers. The team was called “Force Works,” because the future of team names in the ’90s was short, declarative sentences.
Force Works started out okay. The concept wasn’t bad; essentially, Iron Man built a computer that could predict calamities and chaotic situations around the world, allowing the heroes time to arrive and (ostensibly) avert the problems, but he needed the Scarlet Witch’s ill-defined, plot-device-friendly powers as a catalyst, so he recruited her and made her the leader and then argued with her a lot. Some of this was in character (Stark was always stubborn and a bit arrogant) and some of it existed to promote the kind of soap operatic drama that helped the X-Books sell so well.
The biggest problem with Force Works was the art, which was uniformly terrible in a specifically ’90s sort of way:
There was a lot of grimacing. And also hunching:
You can’t even see Iron Man’s face in that last shot, but you just know that he’s clenching the shit out of his teeth. All of these guys look like they’re trying to push their skulls through their faces, and there’s not even anything stressful happening in the story. These are all shots of them talking, without the presence of threats of any kind. In the center panel, Wonder Man (…) is joining the team after a stint as a heartthrob movie star, yet he looks like Clint Eastwood circa 2016.
Force Works meandered along for a while, but after a year or so, Marvel decided that the whole Avengers line of titles needed an even bigger shake up, which gave the world this:
Kaminski escaped before this whole mess happened, because one of the aims of The Crossing—besides making sure that The Avengers as a whole were Never the Same AGAIN—was to replace Tony Stark as Iron Man in the stupidest way possible, and Kaminski is a smart man with a fully developed sense of pride. Apparently, the idea of a company-owning hero with his feet planted firmly in the tech world, who’s brilliant but has some control issues, didn’t actually have legs, so Marvel decided that, to spice things up, they’d bring in a new, teenage Iron Man… who was actually a teen Tony Stark from an alternate timeline! To accomplish this, adult Tony Stark was revealed to have been either a sleeper agent for Kang the Conqueror or a bad guy all along (it’s never really clear, because issue by issue this seemed to change). The Avengers went back in time to get a Tony Stark from before he was “corrupted,” bringing the Teen Tony in to fight the Adult Tony. Because the Avengers are idiots, they don’t consider the fact that Teen Tony has no experience with any of Adult Tony’s weapons or armor, and so Teen Tony gets his ass handed to him and is nearly killed, but then Adult Tony is able to break free from his mind-control/decides he doesn’t want to be a badguy anymore and sacrifices himself to save everyone.
The Crossing is a giant, incoherent mess that would be mercifully written out of existence over the course of the following years. Its scope is enormous, but at no point was I ever sure why anyone was doing any of the things they were doing. Kang’s big plan is never adequately explained, and, again, it’s never really clear how much control Stark is under. Everyone’s motivations are mysterious, partially (probably) to build anticipation for future storylines, but also because—I’m guessing, based on the haphazard construction of this entire affair—none of the writers involved in this mess had any idea what those storylines would be.
Also, it’s filled with art like this, in which the sleek and practical modular armor design of the Kaminski/Hopgood/Morgan era gives way to Evil Face Rivets and the Onesie of Doom:
And whatever the hell is going on here:
Now, that Crossing cover further up? Pretty good art on it, yes? But that art was drawn in 2011-12 for the Omnibus edition of this thing, a handsomely mounted, strongly bound hardcover that collects the entire Crossing in one convenient book, which is like receiving a beautiful, bejeweled, 24-carat-gold box and then you open it and it’s filled with cockroaches. This is the end game of ’90s nostalgia.
I leave you with this:
This is from 1993. The Crossing was 1995. It’s amazing how quickly things degrade.