A new collection of seminal stories featuring the armoured Avenger

(Panini Books)

BEFORE the first Iron Man film became a box office success, most non-comics fans would probably have associated the name with Ted Hughes’ acclaimed children’s book instead of Tony Stark’s alter ego.

Today however, Iron Man is probably one of the most recognisable and well-known of Marvel’s superhero pantheon, with Robert Downey Jr’s big screen portrayal now inspiring his comic counterpart, instead of the other way round.

Naturally, Panini Books are taking advantage of the character’s raised profile by releasing a follow-up volume of their Definitive line, and in doing so have the luxury of being able to move away from the more obvious content and instead including issues which have either not been reprinted elsewhere, or deserve wider exposure than they have been given previously.

There are obvious links to the characters featured in the third Iron Man movie, so we have the debut of The Mandarin and an epic multi-part tale from 1974, and War Machine and Pepper Potts both get a decent amount of coverage, but that’s not to say that this is a gratuitous collection of stories aimed primarily at the movie’s audience.

The roll-call of comics talent includes the likes of Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, Len Kaminski, Matt Fraction, Greg LaRocque and Salvador Larroca, and if those names aren’t enough to whet your appetite then you’re probably in a coma.

The issues collected are Tales of Suspense 50, Iron Man Vol 1 21-22, 68-71, 291 and 500, Marvel Team-Up 146 and Iron Man Vol 5 19, taking in the Golden Avenger’s adventures between 1964 and 2011.

Although initially born out of the United States’ rivalry with Red China, the Mandarin has developed as a character over the years, a contemporary Fu Manchu powered by alien technology who is arguably Tony Stark’s greatest adversary. The stories featured here include his debut and his clash with oriental rival the Yellow Claw.

We also have the first occasion when Stark handed his armour over to a replacement, long before Jim Rhodes took on the mantle of Iron Man, a team-up between Rhodey and Spidey, and one of the earliest appearances of War Machine.

The last two stories pick up on Stark’s trials and tribulations following the Secret Invasion by shape-shifting alien Skrulls, which left him a fugitive on the run from former Green Goblin Norman Osborn, who had come out of the conflict with control of the United States’ military resources and covert agencies.

Desperate to avoid Osborn obtaining his acquired knowledge, which includes the secret identities of hundreds of superheroes, Stark is forced to erase his memories and effectively reboot his mind from a back-up disc made some years earlier…

With the events of recent years now wiped clean, a recovering Iron Man begins a process of reparation and rehabilitation, trying to make up for his deeds during the divisive Civil War and under the egis of the Superhuman Registration Act.

As he works alongside Spider-Man in the present, this final tale also flashes forward to a future world which has been conquered by the Mandarin, and how rebel leader Ginny Stark leads a last desperate battle for liberation.

There’s such a wealth of quality material here that it’s almost breathtaking. This volume dares to challenge the crown of its predecessor for the sobriquet of “definitive” as it offers a rich and rewarding look at the career of Tony Stark the likes of which just isn’t available elsewhere.

Panini have already announced Reloaded volumes to tie-in with the forthcoming movie sequels for Wolverine and Thor, and hopefully the likes of Captain America, Spider-Man and the Avengers will not be far behind their respective celluloid follow-ups. If they’re all as strong as this Iron Man book then Panini are onto another batch of winners.