Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Iron Man and the Champions

cover art by Al Milgrom
Iron Man Annual #4 (August 1977) does just what an annual or giant-sized comic should do. It tells an entertaining adventure story featuring characters we enjoy, but one that stands alone, not concerning itself with whatever ongoing stories might be taking place in the pages of those characters regular series.

Writer Bill Mantlo and artist George Tuska start off the story with a bang. Iron Man, who has just learned that villain MODOK is still alive, is smashing into an AIM base in search of the big-headed bad guy.

I don't think I read this one when it first came out and I'm pretty sure I'd remember it if I did. The cover, drawn by Al Milgrom, is great. MODOK's visual design is unusual and effective--he should be silly-looking, but in the hands of a good artist, he is always creepy looking. So featuring him on this effectively composed and action-packed cover would have been a selling point back in the day when paper-route money would have been enough to make it a viable impulse buy. The slam-bang opening would have added to book's appeal had I thumbed through the first few pages.

Iron Man trashes some robots and other booby traps, then realizes that MODOK is already gone, taking along a power source that is undoubtedly meant to power a super-weapon.

This is all taking place on the West Coast, so Iron Man decides to seek out some West Coast help to track down MODOK. Since this is before the West Coast Avengers, then the Champions become Iron Man's go-to hero team.

But this plan gets off to a bad start when Tony sees Ghost Rider and automatically attacks the scary-looking guy.

This leads to a brief tussle between Iron Man and the Champions before Black Widow orders everyone to shut up and platy nice. I think this largely entertaining issue is open to some criticism here. The cause of the fight between Iron Man and the Champions is pretty contrived and seems to be there simply because is obligatory for heroes to briefly fight each other before teaming up against the villain.

But Iron Man and the Champions do calm down and start playing nice. Iron Man explains the situation and briefs them on SHIELD intel about three different AIM hideouts in the area. Iron Man fights a mook who has been turned into a powerful robot, but he realizes all these battles are just a decoy.

Figuring that MODOK and the super weapon are at one of these spots, they divide into teams. Three Champions apiece check out two of the sites, while Iron Man investigates the third.

It's here that my other criticism of the story comes into play. It would have been nice to have Iron Man directly interacting with the Champions during a battle. For most of this story, he and the super-team are battling bad guys separately. Gee whiz, this is a team-up story. Let 'em team-up!

Anyway, it looks as if Black Widow, Hercules and Angel are about to get beaten by AIM agents, while Iceman, Dark Star and Ghost Rider are about to be eaten by sea monsters.

He rounds up the Champions, who had regained the upper hand in their own battles, and brings them back to the secret base he had raided at the beginning of the story. Iron Man has figured out MODOK's double-bluff in pretending to abandon his original H.Q., only to later return to it.

But MODOK has finished building his new power source into his chair, which greatly enhances his mental powers and allows him to essentially drop a mountain on top of the good guys. Hercules, though, manages to hold the mountain up long enough for Iron Man to Macgyver some of MODOK's equipment and boost his own power enough to blast everyone free.

MODOK's chair is damaged in this blast. Iron Man does try to save him, but the villain crashes to an apparent death despite this.

I've pointed out a few minor flaws--the contrived but thankfully brief fight between Iron Man and the Champions and the relative lack of interaction between the Avenger and the West Coast team. But overall, this is an exciting and well-constructed adventure tale. I enjoyed the Marvel superhero comics from this decade and appreciated extended story arcs, but I also enjoyed those annuals that effectively told a self-contained story that could be enjoyed entirely on its own. Comic Book Universes are big places. There's room for both long and short tales with their borders.

Next week, we ride one last time with the Pony Express.

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