I mentioned before that, around 2000, it felt like darkness had crept into the Marvel Universe. The first waves were hitting in 2004.
It really started with 'Secret War'... a mini-series which had nothing to do with any of the famous 'Secret Wars' titles, but rather was a self-contained story written by one Brian Michael Bendis, a name which would resound awesomely and ominously in the future.
In this tale, Nick Fury - the head of SHIELD - uses brainwashing and secret alien technology to have a cadre of unwitting super-heroes perform an invasion into Latveria for him. The repercussions lead to Nick Fury being fired, becoming a wanted man and going deep underground. In retrospect, this is what truly started to set things off further down the line.
But Nick Fury being taken off the board had nothing directly to do with 'Avengers disassembled'.
That happened because of the Scarlet Witch.
The Scarlet Witch - Wanda Maximoff - had been an Avenger for a very long time, although she had first appeared in the pages of 'X-Men' - as a follower of the evil Magneto. Soon, however, she turned against him, and ended up joining the second iteration of the Avengers. For many years, she served as a heroine, developing her hex powers until she could actually use magic - growing more and more powerful.
Along the way, she met, and eventually fell in love with, the Vision. She even ended up marrying him. The problem here was that the Vision is an android - an artificial man - and cannot father children, a strong desire for the couple. But the Scarlet Witch's powers, which bend reality, allowed her and the Vision to have children after all who were a fusion of the essence of their parents - even if they were different life forms.
Things went horribly wrong when, soon after, Master Pandemonium came calling. Pandemonium was an envoy of Mephisto, the Devil himself, who sent him out on a mission to reclaim the five pieces of his soul (Only later was it revealed that Pandemonium had been tricked - it was not his own soul he was looking for, but the scattered pieces of Mephisto's demonic soul). Pandemonium claimed that the two infants, who had been magically created, were the accidental product of the Witch's spell 'pulling in' two of his soul shards, which now gave them life.
He reabsorbed them, returning them to Mephisto himself, and the trauma of the shock - combined with a spell from fellow witch Agatha Harkness - caused the Scarlet Witch to forget she had ever had children.
<<pant, pant>> Yeah, it's a history lesson and a half. That happened in 1989.
However... many years later... in 2003 and 2004...
Some people think the catalyst, in-story, was another mini series: JLA / Avengers. This crossover between the two publishing houses involved, among other things, the Scarlet Witch travelling through the DC universe for a while. In that universe, 'Chaos Magic' - traditionally the magic she uses - is far, far stronger than in the Marvel universe; and while it made her a more formidable adversary for their rivals, it also started to affect her mind.
Months later, Brian Michael Bendis... that name again... wrote 'Avengers disassembled'.
It described 'The worst day in Avengers history' - a series of devastating attacks on Avengers mansion and elsewhere by their worst enemies of all time, all in a matter of hours, while the Avengers suffered devastating blows in their own issues as well. Several Avengers were killed, the mansion was devastated, the team's reputation took a serious blow and in the end it turned out it was all the work of the Scarlet Witch.
Wanda had gradually, if not consciously, come to remember she had once had children, and blamed the Avengers for losing them; now she was using her reality-altering powers, which were more powerful than ever before, to destroy the Avengers and create a new and better reality for herself.
It all ended with her completely psychotic and being taken away by her father Magneto to get comfort and treatment, the Avengers disbanding and the members at various levels of trauma and guilt - Thor got the worst of it all, since in his title Ragnarok happened for the final and definitive time, and he, Asgard and his people actually died (and Thor remained dead for several years, which, these days, is unheard of). These seemed the darkest times Marvel had ever seen.
...But, as the bard wrote, "...the worst is not so long as we can say 'This is the worst'."
What did 'Disassembled' mean for Iron Man? What fate struck the Golden Avenger in his own book?
Well... the first thing that happened was when the Secretary of Defense appeared at the United Nations to hold a speech. Unfortunately, he was drunk and became offensive and aggressive.
For some reason, when he is drunk, Tony is depicted as a mean drunk. It doesn't take a lot to get him drunk, and when he is there, he swiftly loses coordination and all inhibition. This was different though. He appeared in his armor, clearly inebriated, and swiftly started to make accusations and threats out of the blue - culminating in abusing and actually threatening the Latverian ambassador, stating the desire to blast him to atoms on the spot.
This actually happened in the 'Avengers' book. Tony was asked to step down as defense secretary pretty much immediately, which made sense after the incident... but the weirdest aspect of all was that he was not drunk. At all. He hadn't drunk a drop. He only felt and behaved as if he were, at the worst possible moment in the worst possible way. And he lost everything.
Of course it was revealed later that it was Wanda's magic "punishing" him for being "complicit" in the "conspiracy" to keep the fact she had had children once a secret from her.
In any case, Tony losing his position happened between issues... so in the 'Disassembled' issues of his own book, he started out already disgraced and dismissed. That was bad enough. Then, even as the incident is all over the news, Iron Man appears at the board of directors at Stark International... and massacres all present, causing the company's ownership to somehow revert to Tony. Pepper Potts only escapes through sheer chance.
The story as it proceeded was interspersed with flashbacks to Tony's relationship with Rumiko (which had effectively ended a while before) as well as to a Clarence Ward, an absurdly slimy business man who was immediately revealed as a traitor selling weapons of mass destruction to Al-Qaida. Iron Man had stopped his operation, and Ward had been believed dead in an explosion which destroyed the villains' base.
When the imposter Iron Man attacked Tony Stark's mansion, he instead found Rumiko there, who had returned to support Tony in his time of need. For her trouble, she got zapped with an electric blast, and Tony Stark arrived just in time to watch her die. The murderous Iron Man gloated and revealed himself as Clarence Ward, who had managed to steal some of Tony's armor to commit murders in his guise and further disgrace the man he held responsible for his downfall.
Tony managed to dodge his attacks long enough to armor up himself, and the two Iron Men took to battle. The government, understandably distraught at the idea of an out-of-control, murderous Iron Man flying about, had equipped a specialized strike team with the copied armors recovered from Sonny Burch's operation, and sent them to take Tony (whom they still held responsible) out.
Meanwhile, Pepper Potts was about to deploy a special anti-technology weapon Tony had designed some time before, in case his weapons technology got out of control; it was a satellite-mounted, targeted, localized EMP burst which would destroy all electronics in its range.
As Tony and Ward were destroying Stark Mansion as they fought and the strike team was about to fly in, Pepper pushed the button and everybody's armor was rendered into inert scrap metal.
With Tony exonerated of the crimes, the now-helpless Ward was executed on the spot by the strike team leader... and everything, it seemed, was neatly sewn up.
In the aftermath, after Rumiko's funeral, Tony remorsefully mused that he had tried to take on far too much, and had forgotten to watch his own back and those of the people close to him. His resignation as SoD was definitive, he re-took the reins of his company, the Avengers were disbanded for the moment and he declared he would no longer be Iron Man. This last bit was a ruse - he would remain Iron Man, he would simply go back to pretending it was someone else in the armor.
In a coda, it was revealed who had ultimately been behind all of it - Temugin, who had now become fully evil, even dressing in the trappings of his father, truly becoming the Mandarin - vowing he would have his revenge eventually.
And that was that.
And it was terrible. Terrible.
This was the first of the Iron Man stories I would describe that way. I bitterly complained back then.
And I stand by it now, more than a decade later.
The writer, Mark Ricketts, later declared (in response to a thread on the Iron Man message board) that he had been given an assignment - basically, put all the genies back into their bottles and return the whole thing to the status quo in preparation for the new run, after 'Disassembled'. Tony had to stop being a politician, he had to go back to his company, he had to be rid of certain supporting characters and his superhero identity had to be a secret again.
These four issues are the only work Ricketts has done for Marvel - in fact, he had done no superhero comics at all up to that point, and has done no other 'cape' work besides this since. His speciality was darker comics, zombie stuff, mystery stuff, post-apocalyptic stuff, and I couldn't imagine why they would ask him to do that. I don't know his other work, but I bet it's fine. But this seemed off, wrong, inexplicably so.
I think I finally get it: according to Wikipedia, he's a personal friend of Brian Michael Bendis. I think we can call this 'the other shoe'.
The artwork was generally fine, except for the outright monstrous-looking covers... which were made by Pat Lee, about whom I could write a lengthy article consisting entirely of synonyms of the words 'feces' and 'copulation'.
The story was named, and interspersed with references to, Ray Kurtzweil's concept "the Singularity" - the idea that technology will become so complex and rapidly-evolving, its consequences will become unpredictable and uncontrollable. The Singularity, which is real enough by the way, is usually equated to the emergence of true artificial intelligence.
And it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the events in the story, which is entirely about humans using technology to hurt each other - something humans have been doing for as long as the species exists.
It was a mess and I hated it. Most Iron Fans felt that way. It was a very sad way to end a run that had started so hopefully.
Imagine how elated we were when we heard who was going to be writing Iron Man from now on.