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Iron Man: Armor Wars II is a trade paperback collection of a nineties Iron Man story arc by Jon Byrne (writer) with art mostly by John Romita. It ran over several issues and is mildly interesting for anyone who is interested in Marvel comics and the character although this particular era of Iron Man is not one I find terribly exciting or inspiring. It's good but never great and never really does the venerable character justice. Everyone probably knows Iron Man by now. Tony Stark is a genius billionaire industrialist and inventor. When he puts on the solar charged weapon clad crimson red and gold high tech armoured suit he has invented he becomes one of the most powerful superheroes in the world - The Invincible Iron Man. I was always fascinated by Iron Man when I first started buying comics because of the stoic visage of his metal mask and the nature of his powers. It seemed relatively novel that instead of being bitten by a radioactive insect or submerged in gamma rays this was a superhero who has used his own genius to create artificial powers for himself in the form of his space age armour. Tony Stark is a somewhat flawed character away from his suit (certainly much more so in the past) and this story attempts to explore that a little bit. Not much though. Stark has been a playboy and alcoholic and wonders here if his past has caught up with him at last. Industrial villains Kearson Dewitt and the Marrs twins have secretly taken control of the electronic chip in Stark's nervous system (Stark of course got some shrapnel in his heart in Vietnam and the origin of Iron Man lies in the artificial magnetic device he had to put in his chest to stop the shrapnel from moving and killing him) and now have complete control of his body. Stark has no idea what is happening to himself and his nervous system and wonders if it is sabotage or if he damaged himself in his drinking days and is now paying the price.
The only way Stark can control his body and block the external manipulation is by constantly staying in the Iron Man suit and using an "encephalo" device which transmits his thoughts to the armour and allows him to control it with his mind! Trapped inside the Iron Man armour (that must be claustrophobic!), Stark starts to feel sorry for himself as he tries to make sense of what has happened and work out who is behind it. Supervillain enemies are ready to take advantage of his weakened condition and even bigger trouble is brewing because his greatest and most nefarious enemy The Mandarin has been resurrected in China by the mysterious wizard Chen Hsu and is about to awaken the mighty dragon Fing Fang Doom. "My rings of power. I remember now how they came to me. How I have used them in my many battles with Iron Man. And more! I recall how once, anticipating my own destruction at his hands, I transferred my intellect into the rings. The tenth part of my intellect was always absent and without it I truly could not be The Mandarin!" Needless to say the Chinese authorties are in very big trouble indeed. Armor Wars II is essentially a prelude into Dragon Seed Saga where Iron Man battles the dragon Fing Fang Doom and has to try to save China from The Mandarin in return for expert medical help with his condition that only a specific Chinese doctor can supply. I actually think that Armor Wars II is slightly more interesting though for not being so obvious and completely action oriented (although there is quite a lot of action here). It's quite an interesting premise to have Stark almost helpless and trapped inside his Iron Man suit. Iron Man is very vulnerable now and takes a few pastings from lower league villains that he'd usually beat easily. There is a fun battle between him and The Living Laser (white shimmering character who as his name suggests dispenses laser beams all over the place).
Stark loses control of his body during the fight and collapses. Nice sequence where an ambulance arrives and tries to treat Iron Man but of course can't take any readings through his high tech suit! He has to rescue himself by using the encephalo device to thought project another Iron Man suit to come and get him. We see that Stark has gazillions of these Iron Man suits in his huge lonely mansion complex. I really like the fight Iron Man has with one of the villains near the end. His foe has a monstrous armoured suit much bigger than that of Iron Man and they practically level a city block as they battle it out. Some great splash pages too and plenty of comic book dialogue and pseudo science. The art here isn't my favourite example of Marvel art by any means. It's scratchy and the backdrops in panels are often non-existent. It is strangely atmospheric though and the artist is good at drawing faces and conveying moods and character. I like the big battle at the end though because you get some cityscapes in the panels. Guest stars are relatively thin on the ground here but you do get an appearance by West Coast Avengers (who Iron Man was a member of around this time). As the name gives away, West Coast Avengers were the Californian branch of their original New York counterparts and have quite an intriguing team during this Marvel era. The bow and arrow wielding Hawkeye and US Agent amongst others. US Agent is John Walker and is sort of like a more bad tempered Captain America (his suit is very similar). John Walker was actually Captain America for a time when Steve Rogers was in exile. On the whole though, this cameo does have the unfortunate consequence of reminding the reader that the art in West Coast Avengers at this time was better than the Iron Man weekly.
It sounds a bit dull to have a story revolving around corporate intrigue but it's a nice twist that the industrial attack on Stark is aimed directly at him rather than his company! There are some good Fantastic Voyage style panels of our businessmen villains in a big control centre monitoring Stark. They paralyze him during his battle with The Living Laser but worry they might have tipped their hand and so release him for a while. The Marss Corporation were actually villains in Namor the Sub-Mariner I think. Byrne just shunted them over when he took his duties on Iron Man. One slightly irritating thing here is that there is often a lack of motivation in the story. One villain in particular goes to great lengths to kill Iron Man and speaks of a tremendous grudge but we never find out why and Tony Stark doesn't even recognise him in the end! It's probably good to be somewhat cryptic at times but this feels like a plot strand that was never tied up because they couldn't be bothered to explain it and were moving onto Dragon Seed Saga soon anyway. This an era of Iron Man that I've never been terribly excited by but always feel strangely drawn to anyway and become absorbed in whenever I pick it by chance. I think one of the strengths is that it stresses the character of Tony Stark (drawn to look like Timothy Dalton with a tache). Despite his money and brilliance he's a rather lonely and vulnerable character outside of his Iron Man capers and the fact that the real enemy is an invisible one adds to the intrigue and sense of danger for our dapper hero. This is a perfectly solid and readable comic but falls some way short of being a great one.