Denny O’Neil’s Iron Man: Reforging A Hero – Iron Man #161 by Brandon Masters

The year is 1982, and the month is August. Denny O’Neil is now in his third month of writing The Invincible Iron Man. It is also the summer of 1999, and I am finding this comic on the floor of my (now former) brother in law’s bedroom. Comic books weren’t his thing, as he was a stereotypical sports teen instead. This book, and several others in Denny O’Neil’s run, were my introduction to the Iron Man comic, and what an introduction it was.

If the Moonman Should Fail! is written by Dennis O’Neil, pencilled by Luke McDonnell, inked by both Mike Esposito and Steve Mitchell, colored by Bob Sharen, and lettered by Rick Parker.

Not coincidentally, this was also my introduction to Moon Knight. The pure white lunar knight was introduced in Werewolf by Night issue 32 back in 1975. Created by Doug Moench and Don Perlin, Moon Knight was a man named Marc Spector who was a former CIA agent turned mercenary. Betrayed and slain at an Egyptian archeological dig, the moon god Konshu comes down from the heavens and gives Marc life again in exchange for becoming the avatar of him on Earth… and also super powers that depend on the writer. Moon Knight was popular enough to keep popping back up in other comics throughout the 70s, and eventually getting a reoccurring comic by 1980 by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz himself.

He is also infamous in memes for Dracula owing him money.

In a move I can barely comprehend from the hellscape of 2020, the sales of Moon Knight were so good that he was elevated from being sold on the newsstand to being sold only in comic book shops by 1981. Marvel did this with a lot of their good selling (but not best-selling) books at the time, in what I can only assume was a method to drive subscriptions and possibly build the Direct Market of comic shops at the time. Considering comics are often cited as a dying art form and can only be found in specialty shops or online, this astounds me.

Moon Knight can be boiled down to “Batman with multiple identities,” if you want the elevator pitch. Marc is a millionaire, and crafted the identity of Steven Grant to be the public face for those funds. He was also a taxi cab driver named Jake Lockley, and would use that identity like Batman’s own Matches Malone: to keep an ear out for crime and other issues in the city. Some creators treat the identities like a simple change of costume for the same person, while others have decided he actually has multiple personality syndrome, and still others feel Marc is just insane Batman.

The Bendis run, for example, made him believe he was also Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Captain America. Perhaps so he could fit in more trademark Bendis Banter.

Now imagine knowing zero about this guy until stumbling across him in an issue of Invincible Iron Man. Talk about a crash course.

Our tale begins with Iron Man under water, blasting at metal with his repulsor rays. As it turns out, Tony Stark is testing some upgrades to his suit to ensure it works underwater. The reason? He’s about to visit an underwater lab, Project Neptune. While it’s an offshore power facility, Stark Industries also apparently built a lot of it.

Honestly, it doesn’t look like a power plant. But what do I know? Still, it’s not like anything bad is going to ha-

These beekeepers of evil are AIM, short for Advanced Idea Mechanics. They’re basically evil scientists who do things for evil, and are best known for creating MODOK, that guy with the massive head and tiny body you often see when people cite how insane Marvel Comics is. They’ve also been recently redeemed by mutant Roberto daCosta buying the company and making them into U.S.A.I.M. as part of his branch of the Avengers: The U.S.Avengers. Don’t ask.

Up on the surface, Tony Stark and Marc Spector are both waiting to board a small sub to go down to Project Neptune. With them is Sissy Host the Second, an older woman who is richer than the two of them put together and a heavy funder of the project. Unfortunately, A.I.M. has vague plans to scuttle the place after taking industry secrets from all three of the rich old folks. Before they can start the interrogations, though, Marc decides his millionaire persona can throw some punches.

Tony uses the chance to duck off and change into Iron Man, but decides to fly out and back inside the substation rather than directly into combat. As such, he misses most of the fight!

A.I.M. also detonated the submarine everyone had taken in, leaving them stranded while A.I.M holds them captive for ransom, guarded with torture robots. It does make for a fantastic battle, however, with Tony ripping one robot in half, forcing his way through a magnetic trap, and even using judo on a larger human shaped robot.

Unfortunately, while there is one escape pod left, A.I.M. left one last safeguard to ensure that no one survived: a robot designed to rip apart the airlock!

Tony is able to force the airlock closed, but plastic components of the door can’t be sealed properly, and a magnetic lock prevents it from being shut. While there’s also an inner air lock door, it apparently doesn’t have the ability to hold the water back. Despite the same door being used for the escape pods. I dunno, man. I just work here.

With Tony stuck keeping the airlock doors as sealed as possible, Marc Spector leaps into action by taking the last escape pod from the elderly Sissy, making it look like he’s leaving them all to die. Instead, it’s up to Moon Knight to save the day! Ducking into his personal Taxi cab back in NYC, Marc changes into his Moon Knight persona. Moon Knight and his personal assistant Frenchie go into the seediest corners of NYC and begin tracking down the man who built the airlock controls for the base, possibly the only man who can stop the ocean from killing all aboard. As it turns out, the engineer has some drug addictions he’s been getting a fix for recently.

I love how it looks like they’re all crouching just to fit in the first panel.

Frankly, it is awesome. It’s weird that Tony is taking a back seat to Moon Knight in his own book, but this is around the time that Moon Knight’s book was selling great, and Marvel had shoved him into the Direct Market. It makes a demented sort of sense to advertise him, like crossing over a cable show with one on network television.

Eventually finding the poor developer with bad habits, Moon Knight is able to get the information to Project Neptune, where it turns out the reset circuits are stored in the kitchen! With the airlock sealed, Tony is able to go track down A.I.M.’s hideout and takes them all out in seconds. With the day saved, Tony thinks about how cool Moon Knight is, but how crappy Marc’s millionaire persona is, and changes back in hiding.

This issue was pretty much my comic introduction to Iron Man on top of Moon Knight, aside from the animated TV show from the mid-90s. It’s not a super strong showing for Tony, but some rare selflessness of him asking to be locked inside the airlock to keep everyone else safe was quite awesome. Moon Knight, though, really comes off awesome without seeming like a stereotypical “Poochie” character. The fact that there’s no editor’s note asking readers to pick up his magazine does help things.

This is also Luke McDonnell’s first issue as the main penciler on Invincible Iron Man, and once he stays on, he will remain so until issue 196. He brings a lot of energy to the page, with some great sense of motion and poses. The bar fight alone is utterly amazing, with some great panel layouts to increase the amount of action on the page. The ending fight between Tony and A.I.M. does just turn into a whirlwind of yellow around the armor, but it works with how fast Tony is supposed to be taking them all apart. 

As for this week in August 1982, Jim Shooter was still pushing for G.I. Joe a lot. Apparently, Marvel was able to get a television commercial out for the comic, which they would later repeat with next year’s Transformers. There were also a few marriages in the Marvel family, as well as new kids welcomed in, and it’s genuinely cool to hear about the personal lives of creators like this. Also, Jim Shooter was also selected as one of the six New Yorkers of the year, for… reasons?

In the hype catalogue, we actually have some interesting things to mention. For one, Marvel’s first major event crossover experiment was coming to a close: The Contest of Champions. This was basically an excuse to get all the major heroes in one place and make them fight one another, as well as find some way to make Marvel more international by making heroes from other countries to be involved in the story. Like Shamrock, the mutant girl from Ireland with the superpower to be possessed by ghosts that give her luck-based powers.

Hey, they can’t all be winners.

Also of note are the Marvel Super Specials, seen at the bottom. This month, the adaptation of the movie Conan was being released. Back when home releases of movies were far from a sure thing, you could wait decades before a popular movie would come out on a home format like VHS or Betamax… if at all! TV airings and theatrical re-releases were a solid bet, but rare to be seen. As such, novelizations and comic books were a great way to get those licenses into people’s homes for a quick buck. In most cases, these comics were based on early scripts, and often had deleted scenes or alternate endings based on when the book was made. I had a few of these as a kid, and will likely be writing about those eventually, too.

Marvel was a sucker for those movie licenses, and would buy them by the truckload. After all, Star Wars was a smash hit, so something else could be just around the bend as well. Between movies, you could also find exclusive graphic novel content featuring big-name creators and characters in a larger format for a decent price.

As for the letters sent in for issue 161, we see them printed in 165 a few months later. It seems like people really, really liked this issue a lot. We see Brian Burlingame actually bringing up something I found really odd earlier – that Moon Knight was a good book, but no longer on the newsstand. The editor Mark Gruenwald does take the time to plug the subscription service a few letters down, and I can’t help but wonder if we got a good story out of a cheap advertising strategy.

Mike Sopp notes that the antics of Moon Knight were close to the antics that Batman once got up to, especially under O’Neil’s pen. To be fair, this is completely what Moon Knight seems to be half the time, but with an additional mystical angle. There’s also an observation that 162 will bring up alcohol once more to Tony, and we’ll see where that goes!

I also enjoy the letter from A.D. Yap, where he notes that Printed Circuits is only printing the “good” letters for Iron Man. While I do know that Stan Lee had no issues publishing letters disliking the content, especially when racists were involved. Now that we’re in the era of Jim Shooter, it could well be that comics just don’t publish negative letters.

Also, yes, bring back “Sock it to Shell-Head!” for a letter column name!

In all, this was a fantastic issue. Yes, I admit that I have nostalgia goggles for this issue, and it still remains in my collection to this day. But, it’s hard to argue a well-written knockoff Batman being awesome alongside a solid Iron Man story of sacrifice. Denny O’Neil is just getting warmed up, frankly, and things are going to be a little less one-and-done as we go on, however.

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