Iron Man: The Ultimate Guide to the Armored Super-Hero

Review by KC Carlson

I originally saw Iron Man: The Ultimate Guide to the Armored Super-Hero in the bookstores around the time of the release of Iron Man 2, and I found it interesting enough for a second look — especially since I’ve been fairly critical of DK’s books of late. So I requested a review copy, which for unknown reasons, just arrived a week or so ago. Luckily, I hadn’t changed my mind in the interim — this is a very comprehensive look at the high points of Iron Man’s career, especially designed for new Iron Man fans from the blockbuster movies who want to know more about their new hero.

Iron Man: The Ultimate Guide to the Armored Super-Hero cover
Iron Man: The Ultimate Guide
to the Armored Super-Hero
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For me, who’s been reading his four-color adventures since the 1960s, Iron Man has always been one of the prototypical Marvel characters. His ongoing comic book series — like those of many of Marvel’s earliest and long-running characters — has been, at times, both among the best that Marvel has to offer, and one of the worst titles that Marvel has published. At one low point in the 1970s, Iron Man was published bi-monthly, which at that time was an indication that a comic series was in danger of cancellation. That wasn’t surprising, since the book had become directionless, with stories endlessly recycling earlier, better stories and concepts. Thankfully, this DK book doesn’t dwell much on what was bad. It’s telling that in its chapter on Iron Man in the 1970s, after a brief one-page overview of the decade, the entirety of the chapter details the events of the acclaimed run by David Micheline, Bob Layton, and John Romita, Jr. which began in 1978 — long considered to be one of the high points of the series — ignoring the earlier part of the decade entirely.

While it might not be a nuts-and-bolts complete history of the character, it feels that everything that’s essential is here. Author Matthew K. Manning’s text is remarkably both breezy and succinct, and he’s got a good feel for including what is important and what needed to be left out. Although if you want detail, check out the coverage of Tony Stark’s former girlfriends and Iron Man’s C-level foes. Even I didn’t recall some of these schmoes!

The other element that Manning nails is the importance of both Iron Man and Tony Stark to the overall Marvel Universe. From Armored Avenger to financier of the Mighty Avengers, to premiere tech-guy, to his background in espionage (SHIELD), politics, and corporate intrigue to being a regular punching bag for the Incredible Hulk — Iron Man/Stark’s many roles outside the pages of his own series are also chronicled in detail in this 200-page hardcover.

Besides the decade-by-decade overview of the adventures of Iron Man (the bulk of the book), there are also essential call-outs to the tech itself (including all of the various revamps of the IM and War Machine armor over the years), friends, foes, spotlights on key issues and events, alternate reality Iron Men — including Ultimate Iron Man — and an essential and detailed timeline of events. Less essential is the selection of quotes for “The Wit and Wisdom of Tony Stark”, but I guess some folks like that sort of thing.

One thing this book is not, is a history of the creative people who have worked on the title, although there’s a nice write-up of the men Marvel acknowledges as the creators of Iron Man (Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby) and occasional shout-outs to some of the modern big names like Warren Ellis, Adi Granov, and Matt Fraction (who provides an informative Introduction to the book). There are also some teeny-tiny credit lines for Marvel techmeister Eliot R. Brown’s contributions to Iron Man tech over many years (which I believe have been newly re-rendered on computer for this book). One important, early, and influential Iron Man creator is not mentioned at all — Gene Colan — which leads to my biggest gripe about the book.

Wouldn’t you think that in a chapter labeled the “1960s”, you’d be treated to a chapter of classic IM art by Don Heck and Gene Colan? Nope. Except for a handful of tiny panels — most of them tied to specific issue discussions — all of the artwork chosen to illustrate the 60s is modern work from the last few years, re-illustrating classic events and characters. (Greg Land’s Black Widow is particularly irksome as being out of place.) Further, in what I hope is an accidental omission, the usual artist acknowledgment page is not included in this book, meaning that dozens (possibly a couple hundred — the book is packed with artwork!) of artists from the last 40+ years are not being recognized for their work reprinted in this book.

Those caveats aside, this is one of the best concentrated Iron Man info-dumps you could find, with the information neatly organized in easy-to-digest nuggets. I like the newer, more compact format that DK’s individual hero books (like the previous Wolverine volume) have evolved into. For one thing, it seems to have calmed down DK graphic designers a lot. Where the larger format books were often a puzzle as to where the eyes should go next to actually read the text in its proper order, these smaller books have much better page and eye flow between the various (and often bombastic) graphic elements. (Although the sideways text blocks have got to go!)

I can’t let the graphic folks completely off the hook, however. In their efforts to make Iron Man: The Ultimate Guide to the Armored Super-Hero the shiniest book possible (to match the sleek, hi-tech IM armor), they have made two annoying errors. First, painting the outside edges of the book pages golden is striking — until you realize that this technique has rendered most of the interior pages stuck together, necessitating a careful separation of the pages before actually being able to read. Further, the high-gloss coating applied to some of the cover elements, actually reacts badly to the natural oils in human skin (at least my hands). It eventually disintegrates, leaving both hands and book sticky, and the book cover (especially the back) with permanent finger- and hand-prints.

That’s something that, had he been asked, Tony Stark could have solved in a nanosecond.

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