Handsome young millionaire with cool facial hair is lost in the wilderness and finds his life under threat from ruthless criminals. Forced to fight, he develops the means to survive himself and uses them to defeat his enemies; returned to the civilized world, he decides to apply his new weapon and new understanding of himself to fight evil...
...As the amazing Green Arrow.
Mike Grell is perhaps most famous for his seminal work on Green Arrow, "The Longbow Hunters", which redefined the hero for a new age.
But in 2002, he was hired to write 'Iron Man'.
Perhaps an ill omen was that the first story was titled 'Tin Man'. It was a dramatic story, however, about a war-torn Eastern European nation under the iron rule of a tyrant, who used surplus weaponry once-designed by Tony Stark. Falling in with the rebels, Tony befriends a young woman named Ayisha, a sniper who kills to avenge her murdered mother and people; and who dons a prototype battle armor also designed by Stark years before to finally defeat the oppressor. But in the end, Tony can't do more than avenge her death at the hands of the tyrant.
The next story was street-level, very unusual for Iron Man, and concerned a murder mystery - a string of murders of young women, generally prostitutes, some under the care of a special rehabilitation program supported by Stark. While dramatic, it was off-tone for an Iron Man tale - certainly more reminiscent of the hard-core vigilante Green Arrow.
What followed was another dramatic story, involving Ayisha -who was believed dead at the end of her debut story- as well as Temugin, the son of the Mandarin who had just inherited his father's deadly rings and legacy. A lethal drug, Sleeping Dragon, is causing devastation and murder, and Iron Man is hunting down the supplier (Again, street-level action in the style of Green Arrow). It turns out the drug was created by the Mandarin's organization, which was just inherited by (the otherwise honorable) Temugin, while Ayesha is killing drug dealers to get a steady supply of it.
As said before, she had put on a prototype battle armor created by Tony Stark; unfortunately, that armor was programmed to keep its wearer - logically, a soldier - on his feet and fighting no matter what. After her apparent death, the armor refused to let her die, integrating itself more and more with her body and using drugs to keep her going. She was completely addicted and a mental and physical wreck as a result, and had hunted down Tony Stark to force him to kill her - something the armor would not let her do herself.
After Tony refuses, she decides to bring him to that point by attacking Pepper Potts, and severely injuring her - a situation made worse by the fact she was pregnant and now can never have children again.
Now, Tony Stark flies to confront Ayesha - but is intercepted by Temugin, who desires a one-on-one duel with him, in the name of his presumed-dead father, to clean the slate once and for all. He manages to coerce Tony into battle by holding Ayesha hostage, and the two men fight, with Temugin proving to be a deadlier warrior than his father ever was - but Ayesha breaks free and interrupts the battle by sinking the submarine the action takes place on.
...The whole story ends unresolved, with Temugin and his organization escaping, Tony left without answers and Ayesha still alive in the Arctic.
Oh, but then... then... well, more about that at the end.
Anyway, next, Tony was forced to confront an enemy from the past when Tiberius Stone abducted Rumiko Fujikawa, and tried to draw him into the sophisticated simulation of the cyper-space he had created months before. In reality, Stone himself had become addicted to the system, unable to function without being hooked up to it; ironically, he had managed to duplicate Tony's original predicament, only even worse, in a twisted sense getting what he had wanted: to exceed Tony's achievements.
Although Stone ended up seemingly burned-out, his mind permanently trapped inside an empty virtual world, he later reappeared in Marvel Comics without further explanation - as, unfortunately, is entirely the norm for secondary characters, whose continuity is even less important than those of the bigger names.
After this story, we got 'In shining iron', which hinged on Tony building a functional time machine. It was actually a highly enjoyable romp - travelling to Arthurian England, with knights, an evil witch and even a dragon - with a very satisfying paradox which resolved itself built in; the time travel technology was never really referred again, unless the time-travelling armor which was used years later in a story in an anthology was somehow a follow-up (spoilers: it wasn't).
This was followed up by a Christmas-themed two-parter about terrorists with nuclear ambitions, angels, flowers and miracles; actually quite nice, again.
After 'Standoff', a three-book crossover between Thor, Captain America and Iron Man which had otherwise nothing to do with the main book's continuity, Grell moved on to his final story arc: 'Manhunt', which he penned together with Robin Laws.
Robin Laws actually is a prolific writer of role playing games and novels, and writing on Iron Man seems to have been a little comics excursion for him; which is too bad, because what little we got from him was solid.
Anyway, 'Manhunt'. The story starts with the Chinese embassy in Washington DC being destroyed by an experimental weapon, designed years before by Tony Stark; soon followed up by an almost successful assassination attempt on Tony himself, which also nearly-fatally injures Happy Hogan. More problems arise as Stark is implicated in the embassy attack when information leaks that suggests he sold the designs to a North Korean businessman... and even as he is recuperating in hospital - his cybernetic heart having saved his life - another attempt to kill him is made.
Accused of treason, wounded and weakened, with national security on his heels, Iron Man runs to find the true culprits himself; ultimately locating the Mandarin's headquarters. Confronting Temugin, he is defeated, but makes his opponent realize he, too, has been set-up; the attack was orchestrated from within his organization, but without his consent or knowledge. And so, Iron Man and the Son of the Mandarin make peace, with Temugin ominously promising he will change the world - without brute force or cruelty, but change it he will.
All in all, a strong finale for Grell, mostly - I am sorry to say - thanks to Laws, who did not share writing credits with Grell for the last three issues.
Laws continued to write one more story for Iron Man, namely 'Vegas bleeds neon', a fast-paced story which managed to blend human drama, body horror, alien invasion, blind ambition, temptation, an American legend and a daring love interest in a most effective way in a mere three issues. It even had a scene where the armor, possessed by a biomechanical alien invader, turned into something almost Guyver-like.I, for one, was sad to see Robin Laws disappear as mysteriously as he had shown up in the first place.
And what of Mike Grell?
Unfortunately, people did not warm up to his stories; going by the reactions on the Iron Man message board, he could not leave fast enough.
Even though he had proceeded to do the unthinkable: he had Iron Man publically reveal his identity. That's right. After almost forty years of keeping his super-hero identity a closely guarded secret, Tony Stark revealed it to the world on a whim, infuriating not only his girlfriend (whom he never had confided in) but also the readership, considering the utter lack of fanfare, build-up or even the slightest hint of an attempt to make the reveal work as part of a story.
The contrast with the movie could not be greater.
And yet, over a decade later, I find that these stories do not seem nearly as weak to me now as they did when I first read them. I just wish that the reason for that wasn't so painfully clear. But that is an issue for another time - as the next installment of this series will be about an author more dear to my iron heart.