Showing his metal

Marvel Comics' man in the iron mask, Iron Man, first appeared in the company’s “Tales of Suspense” i
An Iron Man comic book cover from 1968
An Iron Man comic book cover from 1968

Teenagers loved their transistors during the early 1960s.

Circuits and signals inside pocket-sized radios allowed kids to tune in and turn up guitar favorites.

Writers and artists at Marvel Comics had other ideas for the miniature power sources. If transistors could charge up Elvis Presley, Jan and Dean and the Ventures, they might also energize a new comic book star.

Marvel was right: Their man in the iron mask, Iron Man, first appeared in the company’s “Tales of Suspense” in 1963. On Friday, the armored superhero makes his first cinematic appearance as the big-budget, big star “Iron Man” opens across the nation.

The film kicks off a stretch that will please comics fans. “The Incredible Hulk,” the second movie featuring Marvel’s beefy, green tough guy, opens June 13. “The Dark Knight,” the second film in the revamped Batman franchise, opens July 18. In January 2009, Will Eisner’s wisecracking sleuth “The Spirit” is expected in theaters.

In “Iron Man,” Robert Downey Jr. plays the title character. Some comics experts say Downey’s presence will turn iron into gold at the box office.

Downey is weapons manufacturer Tony Stark, injured by shrapnel during an attack after a business demonstration in Afghanistan. Nabbed by the enemy, Stark is ordered to build arms for the terrorists. He builds a crude suit of heavy, transistorized metal instead, which protects his damaged heart, and makes an explosive escape from his captors.

Refined weapons

That’s pretty much how it happened in the comic books, but Marvel’s drama originally took place in Vietnam. In both pulp and movie versions, Stark refines and improves his armor and settles on a red-and-gold color scheme. The invincible Iron Man’s jet-powered boots let him zoom through the skies; “repulsor” rays fired from palms of metal-gloved hands give the “golden avenger” opportunities to blind opponents with science.

In the early comics, the only weakness was that bad heart. The electronic chest plate kept the shrapnel in place but had to be constantly recharged.

“Marvel artist Don Heck, who drew many of the early Iron Man stories, thought that was what made Iron Man so appealing,” wrote Mike Benton in his 1991 “Superhero Comics of the Silver Age. “He wasn’t an invincible, all-powerful being.”

Benton quoted Heck about the character: “If a guy can’t get hurt at all, it limits the interest as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “You know nothing’s going to happen to him — that’s why Iron Man in the beginning was good, because of the fact that his battery would drain down, and the guy could be in the middle of something and have to get the hell out of there.”

When Heck, writer Larry Lieber and artist Jack Kirby were working on the first issues of Iron Man (Kirby did the book covers and created the bulky, gunmetal gray outfit the character wore during early appearances), they were working on something new.

There had been heroes in metal before: L. Frank Baum’s Tin Woodsman might have been the first when “The Wizard of Oz” was published in 1900. In 1942, DC Comics introduced “Robotman,” a mechanical body driven by a human brain. The same concept was used for Japan’s “8 Man” (“8th Man” in the U.S.) during the early 1960s. DC’s “Metal Men,” who showed up around the same time as Iron Man did, were robots with human personalities.

Bill Townsend, owner of Electric City Comics in Schenectady, said readers during the ’40s might not have accepted an armored hero. “The idea of someone essentially being a walking tank is something that no one would buy,” he said.

Unlike earlier metal heads, Iron Man could remove his armor. He could change into Tony Stark’s business suit and socialize with his secretary, Pepper Potts. When the Titanium Man or Crimson Dynamo came calling, the iron went back on and Tony saved the day. The character, nicknamed “Shellhead” by his Marvel handlers, earned his own limited animation cartoon show in 1966 and his own book in 1968.

Not invulnerable

The vivid, colorful covers also had vivid words inside. Tony could always worry about his hardware.

“That girl, I’ve got to save her,” says Iron Man, spotting a woman in trouble during an attack by the Slasher. “But how can I when my armor’s melting like a candle?”

On another day, it was bravado from Rokk, the Living Mountain: “Hang it up, Avenger! That tin suit won’t protect you from being crushed to a pulp!”

“He’s right,” thought the hero. “My armor’s splitting open like a can of peas!”

Those problems didn’t happen very often, no matter what the Melter or Mandarin tried. Jeff Rovin, writing in his 1985 “Encyclopedia of Super Heroes,” said the metal suit could withstand the concussive force of nearly 100 pounds of dynamite and 15,000-degree heat. Anyone wearing the outfit would be 75 times stronger than normal.

Writers also gave Iron Man a drinking problem, which he beat during the mid-1980s, a heart transplant and bunches of new armor colors and modifications.

Townsend is looking forward to seeing Downey dressed in both silk and iron suits.

“I’ve seen the trailer — the trailer looks really exciting, and I’m really looking forward to seeing Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark, a guy who’s smarter than anyone else and knows it,” he said. “I’m not quite sure exactly how they’re going to handle Iron Man, because Iron Man currently in the comics is kind of a character in flux. It’s unclear whether he’s a villain.”

In a recent, long story project that involved just about all Marvel’s big stars, Iron Man led heroes who followed the government’s new policy of registering and revealing secret identities. Other characters disagreed with the plan, and fights and fatalities followed.

The movie Iron Man won’t be dealing with such issues. His biggest worry is expected to be the Iron Monger, an armored villain who is also making the jump from page to screen.

J.C. Glindmyer, owner of the Earthworld book store in Albany, said both fans and non-fans can look forward to Iron Man at the movies.

“People in general, they’re always looking for something new at the movies, something exciting, something different,” he said. “And comics fans always like the idea of seeing something from the printed page actually on the silver screen. Sometimes it’s done very well, and sometimes it’s not. Just from the look so far, Iron Man’s looking really good.”

Facial resemblance

Glindmyer said it helps that Downey resembles Tony Stark; he said Val Kilmer’s turn as Batman in the 1995 “Batman Forever” was criticized by fans because the actor didn’t resemble the character from the comics. And some “Fantastic Four” fans wondered why the team’s blond-haired Johnny Storm — the Human Torch — was played by brown-haired Chris Evans. Even James Bond fans complained a little bit when Daniel Craig, a sandy blond, was announced as the traditionally dark-haired British secret agent.

“If you want to believe in the character, he’s got to resemble him,” Glindmyer said. “You know when an actor is not right for a role. Robert Downey Jr. has the attitude, he’s got the look, he’s got the swagger that fits this character. He’s definitely got this part, a part he was pretty much born to play.”

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