Initially created to troll their readers, Marvel had no idea that Iron Man (Tony Stark) would become a fan favourite.
Before the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Iron Man was in a strange place, popularity-wise. Unlike Spider-Man and Captain America, only self-confessed geeks seemed to really know anything about him. Sure, the person on the street might recognise the Iron Man armour, but did they know anything about the man beneath it?
Did they know he designed and built it by himself? Did they know of his struggles with alcoholism? Did they know of his friendship with James ‘War Machine’ Rhodes, and how entwined the history of the two men was? Did they subsequently know that when Rhodes took over Stark’s Iron Man duties (at Stark’s insistence), Iron Man had been a person of colour?
More importantly, did they know why Tony Stark became Iron Man?
All of these questions aren’t meant to gatekeep Iron Man fanhood (because that would be stupid and wrong), they’re meant to show how popular the character wasn’t. People knew why Peter Parker became Spider-Man. People knew why Steve Rogers became Captain America.
So why is it that didn’t they know why Tony Stark became Iron Man?
You might be thinking: ‘He became Iron Man when he was held hostage and had to make some weapons’ but that’s how he became Iron Man – not why.
It’s understandable, of course – the answer appeared in only one issue in the entire Iron Man run. Don’t worry – we’ll address it in the in-universe origin section.
First though – let’s examine Marvel’s creation of the Iron Man character.
Iron Man: Real-world origins
For the last 50 years or so, non-mainstream creators have been called ‘outside artists’, due to their ideas and aesthetic being ‘outside’ the ‘normal’ output. This resulted in those with non-mainstream lifestyles being called ‘outsiders’, as seen in the classic 1967 S.E. Hinton novel, The Outsiders.
Of course, this terminology has slowly been replaced with the prefix Alt- (as in Alt-Rock music), but the main take-away here is that until the 1990s, comics were considered part of ‘outsider culture’. If you were a comic fan, you wouldn’t talk about comic-related things to other people unless you either A) knew they were fellow fans, or B) wanted to risk getting bullied.
This is one reason why the older comic fans are such purists – it’s not about the characters themselves, as much as what they represent: A place to belong, a harmless secret group, an extended family.
This is why it’s so unbelievable that Iron Man was invented – his very inception risked a lot of Marvel’s fan goodwill.
Iron Man was created in the early 1960s by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Leiber, and Don Heck.
Lee wanted to test himself by introducing a character that fans couldn’t possibly actually like, and see if he could get them to still like the character regardless. As most of the readership were free-spirited teens (the 1960s is the beginning of the hippie era), he figured that the one thing they’d hate a character to be is a wealthy capitalist. Even worse, he’d make him a weapon manufacturer. And just to top it all off, his looks and personality would be based on the real-life tycoon/inventor, Howard Hughes.
Iron Man would first appear in Tales of Suspense #39.
Imagine Lee’s surprise when the fans loved Iron Man – especially the female readers. In fact, it was the female readers who wrote most of the fan mail for Iron Man! That’s interesting, given that the word ‘chauvinist’ was often thrown in Tony Stark’s direction in the pages of Iron Man.
Comic Tony Stark was a very different character to the Tony Stark of the MCU. MCU Stark is incredibly arrogant and prefers machines to people. The comic Stark was even more arrogant, actively hated people, and often acted in a manner that could reasonably be called ‘misogynistic’. Comic Tony would also often succumb to lengthy bouts of alcoholism. However, his personality has softened somewhat over the years, and he’s remained sober for at least a decade now.
Iron Man began as an anti-communist character – it was the middle of the Cold War, after all – in much the same way that Captain America had been an anti-Nazi character, but this was soon changed by Lee.
His popularity as a character meant that he was a good fit for the Avengers, and he’s canonically one of the founders of the group.
Marvel toyed with the idea of replacing him with James Rhodes, with Rhodes even filling in for Stark in the Iron Man comic on many occasions, often when Tony was too drunk to operate it. Rhodes proved so popular that they ended up giving him his own set of black-and-white Iron Man armour, nicknamed the ‘War Machine’ armour.
Iron Man: in-universe origins
Anthony Edward Stark was an often-sickly child, born to an extremely wealthy family. His father, Howard Stark, was a weapons manufacturer who had a long-term contract with the American military.
Young Tony spent most of his days in bed, reading books. His favourite stories were about knights, wandering the land in their shiny armour and righting any wrongs they saw. His father, sadly, was quite disappointed in the boy and often implied aloud that his son was nothing more than a lazy weakling.
As he got older, Tony’s health improved somewhat, which meant that he spent more time outside. This pleased his father, who assumed the boy would make up for lost time, trying more masculine pursuits such as climbing trees and maybe taking up a sport or two.
However, Tony didn’t like to climb trees so much as read books beneath them.
One day, as his father arrived home from work, he noticed the boy reading beneath a tree on their estate. This sent him into a rage, and he told the boy exactly what he thought of him – and he had nothing nice to say. This would set the precedent for their relationship: Whatever Tony did, his father would mock him relentlessly.
As he grew into young adulthood, Tony realised he had a knack for engineering, especially when it came to electronics. He often fantasised about making his own suit of armour, but he could never figure out how to power it, so he never even built a prototype.
He did, however, begin to tinker with some of the weapons his father sold. Finally, he was hearing some approval from his father – but only if it related to the work.
Howard must have had some respect for his son, because he left him the company in his will. After his father’s death, Tony began to run the company and things went well for a while.
While travelling abroad, Tony was kidnapped and forced to work on designing some new weapons. However, he’d been injured during his capture, so instead of making weapons, he made an electronic heart for himself.
It took a few days until he realised what he’d done – he’d just invented the power source he needed in order to operate a suit of electronic armour. He made the armour, broke out, and headed back home.
He’d go on to become a superhero, and would eventually stop selling weapons, relying on sales of other technology instead.
All the stories he’d read as a child had affected his worldview. He believed that the wealthy and powerful had a responsibility to improve their society, to right wrongs where they found them. He considered himself a modern knight, and swore his own silent oath to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves.
Some might say that he became Iron Man when he built the first set of armour. Others might say it happened when he first decided to become a superhero.
But there’s another possibility, too: Perhaps he’d become Iron Man decades ago, when he first fantasised about wearing a suit of electronic armour in order to help others less fortunate than him.