Saturday, February 2, 2019

Iron Man: Alcoholic - Part IV: Tony Stark in Freefall

Super Blog Team-Up
Iron Man: Alcoholic
Part IV: Tony Stark in Freefall

There’s a saying about addicts and addition that I believe is true: no one changes their behavior until they hit rock bottom.

What rock bottom represents is different for every person of course. It could easily mean, as it does in the Iron Man comics, losing everything you have. Watching your status, prestige, authority, money, and humanity erode before your very eyes.

But for some people it’s not as dramatic. Maybe it’s the loss of respect from a loved one. Or perhaps it is losing a job you found fulfilling. It might even be the realization that you just aren’t in control of your own actions.

Whatever someone’s personal rock bottom amounts to, one thing is for certain: when you hit that low point there are only two ways things can go. Either you impact that barrier and bounce back, changing your attitudes and trying a different path to sobriety. Or you shatter against it.

Those that break are the ones we lose forever.

For the others, those who catch a bounce, they are subject to something my high school psychology textbook defined as a Severe Emotional Event or SEE. SEE is essentially the same as a traumatic event, which can be defined as an incident that causes physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm.

SEE are those specific life changing traumas that cause us to rethink our core beliefs, actions, and goals. They represent turning points in our lives where we reassess where we’ve come from and what we’ve endured. This personal reflection allows us to take stock of our abilities and to course correct our path, either to a new destination or to find a better route to where we were originally heading. In the text I read in high school, an SEE was cited as the only factor that would cause us to change our actions in the long term.

Now I may be quoting research and data that are decades out of date, but I’ve lived my life around the idea of how people work in the context of an SEE. I’ve observed how trauma affects myself and others, looking for the telltale signs of significant life changes. In most cases the results are dramatic. In some others, the impacts may be subtle but no less significant.

And again, not everyone registers trauma in the same way, so sometimes what for one person would be a SEE is a non-event for someone else.

In this rather long post, we are going to follow Tony down his 13 issue decent as he falls toward his own Severe Emotional Event. We won’t make all 13 issues in this one blog entry, there is so much to cover. We will get through most of it today, though. In effect we are charting Tony Stark’s way down to hitting rock bottom. Will that severe emotional event break him? Or will he bounce? It wouldn’t be much of a redemption arc if he didn’t, right?

The crew at the helm of these stories: writer Denny O’Neil, penciller Luke McDonnell, and inker Steve Mitchell  serve up a harrowing multi-year tale of Tony Stark’s fall from grace and give James Rhodes a chance to shine as a hero doing his best to fill impossibly large shoes.

It is a masterful arc and unfortunately only part of it is available in the Epic Collection. Issues 177 through 200 are not collected in a color trade as yet, but my hope is that Marvel will rectify that as soon as possible. Especially given the tone that “The Enemy Within” leaves Tony off at.

As for us? We will begin toward the latter third of The Enemy Within trade with issue number 169, which marks the last time we will see Tony in armor for the better part of three years. We are going to watch what Tony loses in each little sub section.

The Loss of being Iron Man

The issue starts with Tony tearing up billboard advertising alcoholic beverages in New York. This feels like the smarter part of Tony fighting back against an enemy that he is losing to. Sure, he can tear up these images, but he can’t beat the temptation to have just one more drink.

He’s blackout drunk too, hence one of the reasons for this issue’s dramatic title. He’s so drunk, in fact, that he barely makes it back to his New York apartment building. And in just a moment he won’t even remember doing this, claiming it was the actions of someone else.

Meanwhile, an old foe of Iron Man’s named Jonathan Darque a/k/a Magma sets plans into motion for revenge upon the armored avenger by attacking Stark Industries in his new-fangled tripod ship. More on that in a moment though, because first we have a scene showing how Tony clearly doesn’t remember his actions from the opening of the comic. This is damning evidence of how much his drinking is affecting him: he now is no longer in control of his actions while drunk, nor can he always remember them. 

While a still in the sauce, Tony heads back to the office with his Iron Man armor in his briefcase. 

Rhodey finally lands stateside. He gets word from security chief Vincent Martinelli of Tony’s fall off the wagon, which isn’t as unexpected as you would think. Appears Rhodey is more in tune with Tony’s moods than anyone else.

And right now, Tony’s mood is about to take a nosedive. His morning meeting with his management staff is nothing but bad news. The reactor he destroyed in a drunken rampage has put the company on the brink of a hostile takeover by creditors, many of whom are thinking of selling. Tony realizes that Stane is waiting in the wings for just such an event, and indeed he is. 

The only good news is Rhodey showing up. But not even his friend’s words can get between Tony and a drink at this point.

Before Rhodey can have a heart-to-heart with Tony about picking up the bottle again, Magma’s tripod final reaches Stark Industries. Tony goes off “to find Iron Man”. Had Rhodey known at this point that Tony and Iron Man were one person, he might have stopped him, seeing how drunk his boss is. Instead Iron Man/Tony attacks Magma…

…and barely holds his own, almost getting himself killed a couple of times due to sloppy thinking…

…and finally flies off because he can’t cut it. He lands by Rhodey and is so dizzy from the booze that he can barely stand. 

He has Rhodey follow him through the lab, brushing aside lab tech Morely Erwin (keep an eye on that name, he’s important!)…

…and after charging his armor’s power pods, blows the circuits serving power to the entire campus, Tony realizes he’s in trouble. The blown circuit was caused by his forgetting he’s in the old armor. It couldn’t take such a heavy load and blew a fuse. Tony knows he’s not able to handle the burden of being Iron Man…

…and he tells Rhodey his secret. Rhodey isn’t real surprised. He HAS been the guy flying Tony around all over the world for a couple of years now comic book time and has noted Iron Man always shows up when Tony can’t be found. He is surprised that Tony continues drinking, even as the effects of it on his ability to use the suit are dwindling.

Unfortunately, that last glup does Tony in. And with Magma still attacking outside, Rhodey make a fateful decision over Tony’s prone, blacked-out body.

Rhodey’s choice didn’t happen until next issue, however. The landmark issue number 170 did not lie in its cover blurb.

For as soon as you opened the cover, you had Rhodey in armor about to change the course of Iron Man for the next 29 issues. 

It also marked a final moment for Tony Stark. With Rhodey assuming Tony’s Iron Man duties, the last bit of real responsibility that matters to Tony is stripped away. From this point forward Tony begins making very poor and selfish decisions that threaten his very health. 

It’s odd to me that from the story perspective that the stress of Tony’s responsibilities both as CEO and as Iron Man are what push him over the edge, yet it is having those same responsibilities are exactly the same things keeping Tony somewhat grounded prior to O'Neil's run.

This view of Tony passed out as Rhodey assumes the mantel of Iron Man is a depressing sight.

The story focus shifts to Rhodey tackling Magma at this point, but I did want to show his first meeting with Morley Erwin, the nerdish tech who kept showing up in prior issues. 

Morley would have a big, BIG impact on the storyline to follow and his inclusion here, helping Rhodey get a grasp on how Stark’s armor works is the instigation of all that follows.

While Rhodey is making friends and fighting bad guy Magma, we are going to concentrate on Tony. Rhodey’s time as Iron Man is an arc that isn’t to be missed and it led directly to his own title as War Machine later on down the line. They are good stories, worthy of a special review all on their own.

Our focus is on Tony's battle against the bottle, however, and how these string of events, orchestrated by Stane and fate, drive him to give up on being Iron Man, on running a company, and eventually on life itself.

Here he wakes up still drunk and watches a bit of the battle between Rhodey and Magma. His first instinct is to get in armor, to not shirk from what he feels is his duty. However, he is still too drunk to even get the door that keeps his suit underglass unlocked.

And his frustration at this point leads his woozy brain to make more of the wrong choices.

Rhodey puts up a valiant fight and learns a lot about the suit, but it really isn’t enough. Had it been solely up to his defense, Magma would have crushed the building Tony was in and destroyed all his Iron Man suits. But he got an unlikely assist in the form of a missile fired from a flying Knight on a horse. Who stopped Magma’s rampage? Who is behind this missile that knocks out power to the entirety of Stark’s campus AND to Magma’s tripod-terror?

Yup. Stane. He is trying to preserve Stark’s technology for himself. His intervention stops Magma’s machine rampage, but the villain escapes into Stark’s Iron Man lab...only to find on very drunk and inappropriately dressed millionaire. 

And while drunk Tony isn’t much help physically, he does give Rhodey one good tip…

…which ends up tossing Magma head over heels. Beyond that one bit of info, though, Tony is so drunk he’s useless. Which leaves Rhodey to finish up the fight.

He does so good, that Tony comes to a dramatic decision at the end of the issue…

…his next words are shocking. He states “Anybody who wears the armor is Iron Man.” There is no way I will ever believe that. Rhodey barely works as Iron Man because he doesn’t understand near enough about the armor’s capabilities and he isn’t a tech genius. He is a great pilot and a gifted fighter, both of which fit as part of War Machine's persona. But he's NOT Iron Man.

It is lucky that Stark put the suit in the hands of a capable, moral guy, but you couldn’t put just anyone in the IM suit and they become Iron Man. Too often it was Tony's brain that got him out of jams instead of his muscle. For Stark this is a shedding of that identity and the responsibility. Iron Man requires guts and bravery to stand up to all the things arrayed against you. Tony just isn't feeling it due to his drinking.

And clearly that isn’t something Stark can do right now. He’s running from his problems and ditching his responsibilities. His last statement to Rhodey as much as admits that fact. He doesn’t know or care about the effects his actions will take on himself or those around him. He’s selfishly deciding to let his addiction dictate his actions, the impact on himself, his friends, and duties be damned.

And he leaves Rhodey in a heck of a position. As a result, Iron Man calls up the Avengers and quits, lacking the training to be effective. Before he makes that call though, you can clearly see the frustration Rhodey has over Stark’s decision.

Loss of REAL Friends

From this point forward, we chart Tony’s fall from the upper class society he was used to all the way down to the gutter. He’s going to be hanging with a different crowd of people, in many cases people who care more about finding that next drink than they do living up to their responsibilities. He’s going to disappoint a bunch of his existing friends too. Friends who counted on him in and out of the armor.
We will deal a little with Rhodey, too. The book technically becomes his at this point, much as the armor already had. In issue number 171, as Rhodey took on the mouthy, magically enhanced Thunderball…

…and met Morley Erwin’s even brainier, braver sister, Clytemnestra…

…Tony was finding that having cultivated the wrong type of friends…

…would lead him back to binge after binge.

This is why having a support group of non-drinking buddies is oh so important to an addict attempting recovery. Otherwise, a person finds it nearly impossible to resist the temptation to join in and party with people not trying to remain sober for the next 24 hours. And for an alcoholic, it is always about getting through the next day sober.

Friends like Heather here tend to cause lapses in judgment, which in turn leads to abdication of responsibility, lazy thinking, and poor decision-making. At the same time, she’s not the type that will be there for you in a pinch, let alone face the challenges of staying sober.

All of which leads from Tony hosting an impromptu party at his apartment, to him passing out in a chair while being the laughing-stock of the room as Heather leaves with another man.

As for Rhodey’s fight? It ends with the predictable defeat of the villain, and a very unpredictable radio report of the arrest of Tony Stark.

Which leads to what many readers hoped would be a turning point for Tony Stark, just based on the surprise guest star showing up on the cover. Steve Rogers, the upstanding moral paragon known to the world as Captain America, shown to be rescuing Tony Stark from imminent peril on the cover created ideas in all our heads that perhaps that was a metaphor for saving Tony from his addiction. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

Tony gets in that horrifying predicament presented on the cover through a series of actions where he steals a suit of medieval armor…

…Is caught by the police…

…while intoxicated in public…

…and thrown in the drunk tank.

While there he meets the wrong sort of people. I think this fella will be showing up again soon. As for Stark, he is bonded out, but note that his antics appear to have been lost on him. Everything he’s doing while drunk is done through a haze and he can remember very little of it to nothing at all. 

Too bad the press isn’t similarly impaired. Their memory of Stark’s antics are all too fresh. To escape their questions and the lingering embarrassment, he rushes to a cab and directs it to take him to a liquor store in a guilty, subdued whisper.

Rhodey has been working with the armor and Erwin to familiarize himself with all of its features. He’s become pretty proficient, but he still sees this as a temporary gig. Rhodey believes Tony will snap out of his funk soon.

However, he quickly learns that Tony’s company doesn’t have time to waste. Stane’s plan to acquire all of Stark Industry’s debts is reaching its conclusion and the only thing that can stop him is a legal document that needs Tony’s signature. Unfortunately, Stark has disappeared off the grid. 

Rhodey calls in a favor with the Avengers and sends for Captain America to find the missing CEO. Just a quick “for your information”, Cap knows Tony’s secret identity and realizes that Rhodey is someone different wearing the armor. Due to an earlier argument in Avengers 232 (unavailable to me, unfortunately), he rushes to the last place Tony was sighted and begins a search.

Cap’s appearance in this neighborhood sets off a blaze of another kind, both figuratively and literally, as Firebrand happens to see Cap asking around for Tony Stark. It sets him off and he ducks into a bar for a drink and a quick change into his supervillain duds. Looks like the pair are about to have a face off. 

And speaking of face offs, Cap finds Tony drinking his cares away in the upper rooms of this dilapidated hotel building. Steve tries to ask Tony, in a very pointed way, why he would leave all the things he has behind to bury himself in a bottle. This is a tactic that will likely not bear much fruit.

Engaging an alcoholic like this is a dicey thing. Many get off on the negative attention such confrontations create. They look forward to heated and agitated debates, and will even use calm and controlled facades to rope in loved ones just so they can fight with them. They are masters of selective hearing, especially if it is something they do not want to hear. 

Cap slaps the bottle out of Tony’s hand to get his full attention, to which Tony accuses Cap of wanting to physically hurt him.

Cap doesn’t give in to Tony’s goading. In background (that was possibly reconned later), Cap even divulges that his own father was an alcoholic. Knowing full well that the best tactic here is to short-circuit Tony’s need for negative attention and having stated what he came there to say once already, Cap disengages. He knows that arguing with Tony at this point will get him nowhere. An alcoholic needs to sense fear of losing their audience and realize there is no satisfaction in arguing with someone who doesn’t argue back.

The rest of the book is the confrontation with Firebrand, who sets the building on fire. Cap rescues Tony and the other homeless while Rhodey arrives to dunk Firebrand in the Hudson. Note that even as Cap drags Tony out, he’s still playing the “pity me” engagement card and seeking to draw Cap into a frustrating circle of negative emotions.

Unfortunately, after Firebrand is booked and the blaze put out, Steve and Rhodey find that Stark has traded clothes with another bum…meaning that the ticking clock on saving Stark Industries has run completely out.

The Loss of Stark International and Financial Ruin

The takeover of Stark International starts in issue 173, “Judas is a Woman”. In this book we learn just how horrible of a sadistic bastard Obadiah Stane is as he rubs Tony’s nose in the destruction of all he’s built.

Tony begins the issue in the worst shape ever. He’s hiding out in alleys and drinking his cares away, when a gang of street toughs find him.

The gang proceeds to kick the ever-living shit out of Tony and are about to put a bullet in his skull for no reason other than they are murderous bastiches…

…when from out of no where, these two bad dudes arrive and shoot the gun from the lead punk’s hand. They pick up Stark’s injured body…

…and take him to a hotel. You are assuming these are the good guys from Stark Industries, but in that you are dead wrong. Tony has gone from one form of torture to another. The pair load him into a limo…

…and load him up to keep him going. 

And while he may be thanking them at first, he won’t be for long.

At their destination they are met by none other than Obadiah Stane himself. 

Stane wants to show off the sign showing he now owns Tony’s business empire. He’s brought Tony here to witness his triumph and to show his staff how utterly destroyed their former employer is. Stane's goal is to humiliate Tony, and he's doing a pretty good job.

Stane is reveling in the debasement of his business rival, so much so that many of Stark’s workers vow to resign now that he’s taken over.

But as upset as they are with Obadiah, most are similarly disappointed in Tony and what he is doing to himself. Mrs. A hands out a very special rebuke to her former boss.

Stane then brushes Tony off. He’s had his fun with him and now he doesn’t care what happens to him. Stane’s thought is that the destroyed Tony will likely drink himself to death, and that’s fine with him.

It’s not fine with Rhodey, who confronts Stane. But Stane is too wiley by half. He sends Rhodey on a wild goose chase after Indries Moomji, the woman who drove Tony back to the bottle with her rejection. Stane posits that perhaps she could somehow magically restore Tony’s will to remain sober.

Rhodey takes the bait and we spend the rest of the issue watching him assault an espionage group she’s taken up with called The Sisters of Ishtar (hopefully not related to that awful movie). When he finally “liberates” Indries, she explains that while she is something of a femme fatale by training, skills, and special pheromones…

…that she doesn’t have the power to take away Tony’s addiction. That her rejection might have been what took him past the tipping point, Tony’s battle with alcohol was an ongoing struggle that HE decided to give in to. Also nothing she can do will break that spell he’s under, because Tony is the one deciding to take that next drink.

I like that Tony’s struggle isn’t reduced to a magical aliment that can be cured with a snap of the fingers. Too often superhero books shortcut the mortality of their characters and reduce conflict resolutions to easy fixes in the service of maintaining a status quo. Not so here. Tony will have to learn to fight his way out of alcoholism if he wants to survive.

Unfortunately Rhodey finds when he calls his Mom’s house where he’s stashed Tony to dry him out, Tony’s not ready to make that decision. He’s still falling, although he has very little distance left to drop.

As you can tell from this SUNDAY posting, this arc is VERY involved and I want to give it the space to breathe. That means my original blog post now has about two to three more posts to go, and I hope you bear with me while we watch Tony get his bottoming out moment in our next installment, watch him reluctantly rise back from the ashes, and finally confront the man who was his undoing in final, fatal battle. Hang in there with me, if you will and remember to leave me a comment below.

Sorry to that this one jumped out unedited this morning. My first cup of coffee hadn't kicked in I suppose. Super Blog Team-Up links for Redemption are still below, so if you haven't read those guy's great work, get to cracking on doing that as well.

See everyone...Monday? Wednesday at the latest. 


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