Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Iron Man: Alcoholic, Part I

Super Blog Team-Up
Iron Man: Alcoholic
Part I

Tony Stark is an alcoholic.

Alcoholism commonly is defined as drinking of alcohol that results in mental or physical health problems. Although that definition creates an extremely broad category, it can narrowly be defined when a person exhibits two or more of the following conditions:

  •          Drinks large amounts over a long time period
  •         Experiences difficulty cutting down or decreasing their drinking
  •          Spends large parts of their time acquiring and drinking alcohol
  •          Overriding strong desire to drink
  •          Usage causes responsibilities to go unfulfilled, social problems, health problems, excessive risk taking
  •          Tolerance level may be high due to excessive drinking
  •          Withdrawal occurs when not drinking

Stark was one of the few heroes to touch alcohol, it was part of his playboy image. And unlike a superhero on the DC side of the fence who is also a billionaire playboy when not suited up, Tony didn’t spend his off hours honing his body to physical perfection. Nope, Tony’s more cerebral pursuits meant he wasn’t paying attention to what the ravages of addiction were doing to him.

IM117 – Michelinie, Romita, Jr, and Layton

The primary architect of this storyline was David Michelinie, the writer responsible for many of my first few Iron Man titles. Michelinie played the long game with Tony’s drinking problem, littering the book during his run with hints about how dependent Tony was becoming.

IM123 – Michelinie, Romitia, Jr, and Layton

Michelinie introduced us to Bethany Cabe, one of Stark’s most beautiful and intelligent girlfriends. I have a soft spot for Bethany and really wish the movies would have opted for her as love interest over Pepper Potts. Cabe runs a security company and has a complicated backstory that made her Tony’s equal out of armor. She also harbored a dark secret in her past. A secret that made Tony’s abuse of alcohol all the more noticeable. As below where she calls Tony out for over-indulging.

IM123 – Michelinie, Romitia, Jr, and Layton

It’s almost seen as part of his business persona, a shield he puts up much as the armor he wears as a superhero. Michelinie wound up this part of the story with SHIELD seeking a controlling interest in Stark’s company. Not wanting to go back to selling munitions nor working for anyone, including Nick Fury’s spy den, Stark allowed the pressure to drive his abuse of the habit even farther than it should.

IM124 – Michelinie, Romitia, Jr, and Layton

And the inebriation is seen to disrupt more than just Tony’s business dealings and love life. The addiction starts to destroy his creative spark and intellectual genius.

 IM124 – Michelinie, Romita, Jr, and Layton

The drinking problem becomes more apparent as the arc grinds on. Iron Man’s armor appears to develop problems that result in him losing control at moments. These are more than metaphors for his addicted condition. And had he been of sound mind, perhaps Tony would have deduced the machinations of the power-mad industrialist Justin Hammer before he used remote control to cause Iron Man’s armor to kill the Ambassador of Morocco.

IM124 – Michelinie, Romita, Jr, and Layton

This leaves Tony devastated. Even after bringing Hammer to justice and fighting off an island full of supervillains, this isn’t a win for Iron Man’s reputation.
IM127 – Michelinie, Romita, Jr, and Layton

And the damage that does to the ego of Stark clearly destroys the man in ways that laser beams, electro whips, and gamma-irradiated muscle never could. Tony’s personal life begins to break down as the intoxication creates frictions from things as simple as a botched address drunkenly scrawled on a cocktail napkin.

 IM127 – Michelinie, Romita, Jr, and Layton

That mistake leads to a missed meeting between Tony and Bethany, and a domino effect that could spell doom for Iron Man, his legacy, and the fragile human inside that metal shell.

Because even though Bethany sees through the fog that Tony has buried himself in to the truth of what he is now battling…

IM127 – Michelinie, Romita, Jr, and Layton

…that does little to stop the Avenger from exercising poor judgement in the company he keeps or his actions. And when those actions turn to drunken anger, Tony’s words spell the end of a loyal and trusted friendship.

IM127 – Michelinie, Romita, Jr, and Layton

The consequences of which would be the basis for the most famous Iron Man tale of all time.

It’s important to note that most of these issues I refer to above have been collected as The Power of Iron Man (1984) and again in a volume retitled Demon in a Bottle (2008) after the concluding chapter of the tale.

As an Iron Man fanboy, I have both and HIGHLY recommend picking up one of them. Michelinie does a superior job with the storyline and Romita, Jr and Layton create iconic art as well as the telling of the tale. The group effort results in one of the best crafted Iron Man stories of all time.

"Demon in a Bottle”
Writer – David Michelinie
Pencils – John Romita, Jr
Finished Art/Plot – Bob Layton
Letterer – John Costanza
Colorist – Bob Sharen
Editor – Roger Stern
Editor-in-Chief – Jim Shooter
November 1979

As for the story’s conclusion, it begins in Iron Man 128…

…and it starts by trying to define what a hero truly is. The book comes to the conclusion that a hero is nothing more than just a man. A man who is subject to pressures and responsibilities that test him, as soon Tony Stark will be tested.

Tony, unsteady from the booze coursing through his body, wrestles with the fear of failure and the guilt of his actions. He is damaged goods, a shell of his former self. His confidence dried up in the fires of an alcohol-induced depression. 

Such men are dangerous, and not always to themselves. Alcohol works on the brain in such a way that it encourages reckless behavior and acting before thinking. Tony proves this by downing a shot and then blasting through the closed window of his office. He pauses briefly outside to chastise himself for not opening it first.

Then he flies off in need of validation, in need of proving himself. He’s too drunk to operate the armor well and his judgment is severely impaired. Thus when he finds a train wreck containing a tanker car full of deadly chlorine gas, shell-head doesn’t properly assess the situation. Instead, Tony barrels in and attempts to move the car, picking a particularly fragile handhold to move it with.

This results in him dropping the car, releasing the hazardous gas,…

….and upsetting the people he was attempting to help through his carelessness. 

Upset with himself and spiraling back into depression, Tony heads back to his penthouse lab on Stark International’s campus. He tosses his helmet aside, cursing himself for being unable to be the hero everyone expects him to be. He turns to his suits of armor and realizes that’s not the only thing his drinking has cost him.
It’s worth it to note that alcohol dependency gets worse for those who are suffering from high stress levels and anxiety, factors that have been building up for Tony over the course of the last few issues. Alcohol is inexpensive and easy to obtain, especially for someone in Stark’s world of penthouses and big business deals sitting alongside fully stocked bars. Medically, alcoholism is considered both a physical and a mental illness.

Right now, though, someone stops Tony from taking that next drink.

And that person is Bethany. Tony is indignant and I’m unsure if that bluster he is sporting is the booze, his ego, or a combination of both. Clearly Tony can’t “handle things himself.”

Bethany knows it. She’s been through it before, with a previously unmentioned husband, Alex.

Alex pushed himself too hard to achieve and the stress of all that work caused him to overindulge in drugs. By the time Bethany tried to help him, Alex was too far gone. His addition wrote the final sentence to his story.

I love how Tony tries to play this off as Bethany looking for some sort of wounded sympathy. 

A move that she tosses right back in his face. This isn’t about feeling sorry for someone’s choices, it’s about making the right ones for yourself. Alex’s tale is a warning that Stark needs to take seriously.

Not only that, but Bethany pledges to stand by him. She goes one more and shows Tony that everyone in his vast circle of friends would stand by him if only he will admit his weakness, own up to his dependence, and allow each of them to help share his burden. Before it kills him. And Iron Man.

Tony does the hardest thing a hero can do. He asks for help. 

Love this sequence with the falling glass showing us that this is the start of Stark’s recovery. However, since this IS a superhero comic book, the story gets a little abbreviated. Stark’s withdrawal and recovery lasts a scant single page, and most addicts would state that seems a bit too easy of a detox sequence. True recovery is a hard won fight that can last months, and recovery from addiction is only the beginning. 

The reason Stark is allowed to get back on his feet so quickly comes the next page over, as Tony goes to apologize to his ex-employee and personal butler Jarvis. It’s here that we come to realize the damage Tony’s drinking had done to his life isn’t something waved away with a magic brush.

No, Tony’s empire, the business that he has slaved over from before his first appearance in Tales of Suspense, is now in jeopardy of falling into the hands of someone else.

And unfortunately, it is too late for Stark’s money or Jarvis’s good intentions to do much about it. 

For it is here that Stark faces what will become his ongoing test. Alcoholism isn’t a “one-time thing”. It is a disease that, once one finds themselves afflicted, leads to a lifetime of resisting the urge for just one drink. Sobriety is the only cure, but it is a cure an alcoholic must choose every moment of every day. As the stresses or challenges we face in life occur, the temptation of crawling back up inside that bottle or of letting it shield you or numb you to the events of the world around you, become the cross you must bear.

It is in this moment and many other that follow, that Tony proves himself a hero. THIS time he doesn’t pick up a glass and load himself with a dose of false courage. There will be times in Iron Man’s future when that will occur, but today he wins the battle against the demon in the bottle. 

Even though, in confronting the loan shark who has now sold off the two controlling interest shares in Stark Enterprises,…

Iron Man learns the awful truth.

That he’s too late. His own actions have cost him control of the company that bears his name. He is now an employee of Shield. 

And again there comes the moment of testing, as Stark lands back at his penthouse apartment. The stress of this moment being greater than any he’s had to face since going on the wagon.

Bethany does what she can to persuade him to not take that first drink and then turns away. In this, the book is spot on.

Because the freedom of choice is always in the hands of the alcoholic. There is no one who can stop you from taking that next sip. No one you can blame, no one you can hold accountable. No one but yourself. You control the decision, and in very graphic terms the book shows us that no hero will knock this bottle out of Tony’s hands. This is Tony’s decision. He has to stand up to this challenge on his own and make the right choice. 

And in the end, he does just that. Tony proves that, for today at least, he has what it takes to withstand the evil that lurks inside him.


  1. I really enjoyed that. I like how you worked the realness (if the is the right word) of what alcoholism is and then point out how the comic was authentic to that, even calling out the quick recovery and detox taking place across one page. I'm looking forward to part II.

  2. Man..Mike I think that was better than the actual books themselves! Ha! Very much enjoyed it! This era of Iron Man was pretty cool as it dealt with Tony more so than the suit. Fantastic my friend!

    Cant wait to read more!

  3. Great write-up on a classic storyline. Don't forget to credit Bob Layton, who co-plotted all of these issues.

    1. I mentioned Bob Layton, but perhaps you are right. I might not have made the credit quite clear enough. The truth is this is possibly one of the best Iron Man teams and here they have crafted a masterful story.

  4. Oops! That was me commenting as "Unknown" above.

    In any case, I'm looking forward to the second installment.


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