Checkmate Means We Lost, Rhodey…: “Invincible Iron Man #515”

The thing to understand about Demon in a Bottle, the mythic ground that Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s just-wrapped “Demon” storyarc roots itself in, is that the actual wrestling with alcoholism doesn’t occur until the very end. By issue #128 of Invincible Iron Man (volume one), the actual issue titled “Demon in a Bottle”, we’d already been through some eight issues of angst and Cold War incursionary heroics.

The long, slow arc which began to build as early as issue #120, saw Tony Stark’s Iron Man team up Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, to interdict a conspiracy to dump chemical waste in the ocean. The arc saw a recap, and in some ways a reedit of Iron Man’s origin story. And eventually, an international espionage thrill-ride that saw Tony Stark run a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. while he worked himself deeper and deeper into a trap laid by his rival corporate Justin Hammer.

Things would end badly for Tony Stark. And by the beginning of issue #128, by the beginning of “Demon in a Bottle”, dark times already loomed on the horizon. Iron Man had successfully been framed for murder by Hammer. And Stark International wouldn’t survive the coming skirmish with S.H.I.E.L.D., the security and intelligence agency had secretly bought up a controlling share in Stark International.

By the time “Demon in a Bottle” rolled by, Tony’s alcoholism was exposed in perhaps the most elegant kind of way. It was revealed as something of a surprise ending, as a kind of lurking horror, there all along, but unseen. A brutal afterthought, a vicious punchline. Perhaps the issue had originally been intended by writer David Michelinie and editor Roger Stern as nothing more than a segue issue, a graceful epilogue to an unfortunate series of events in the life of Tony Stark. Perhaps it was history and audience that made a far greater impact than “Demon in a Bottle” had originally been intended for. Whatever the reasons, “Demon in a Bottle” would come to define a new character arc for Tony Stark, one that would last generations.

When current Iron Man writer Matt Fraction cooks up a storyarc called “Demon” one that follows right on the heels of Tony Stark having gotten drunk in years (years?, it’s hard to tell exactly how long Tony Stark has been sober in comicbook time), there’s an expectation. Fraction’s not simply writing a story about Tony working himself free, he’s writing himself into history. When “Demon” is measured, it must be measured against the full weight of the character since that initial landmark arc back in 1979.

At first blush, “Demon” seems entirely unbalanced. It follows roughly the same narrative arc as the original “Demon in a Bottle”, at the opening there are extraneous circumstances that Tony must wrestle himself free of, and by the end a “Demon”, the always-present, but unrecognized cause, is exposed. “Demon” sees an unholy alliance of Tony Stark’s greatest enemies. The “Hammer Girls”, Sasha and her mother, Justine, granddaughter and daughter of Justin Hammer have sought to undermine Stark Resilient’s mission (Stark’s successor company to the now bankrupted Stark International) of producing scalable clean energy. In a strange twist, Sasha Hammer is also the girlfriend of Zeke Stane, son of Obadiah Stane the man who stole Stark International from Stark himself in a hostile takeover. And in an even stranger twist, Sasha Hammer is also the daughter of the Mandarin, sworn enemy of both Tony Stark and Iron Man.

Much of the joy of reading “Demon” is the slow unease that builds with the dramatic irony of seeing the antagonists build their forces, refine their plans, while Stark himself is wholly unaware of even their having banded together. This is classic stuff; it’s the moment Donald Sutherland makes his stirring monologue in Oliver Stone’s JFK, it’s Julius Caesar after Cassius has convinced Brutus to throw in his lot with the conspirators.

But all of that sublime tension dissipates all too quickly. That final page of issue #513, the two-page spread where Mandarin and Stane stand looking on the 12 Iron Man villains they’ve collected, that scene that seems laced with such dark promise, is also something of a last gasp. There’ll be no more dark forces gathering in secret. “Phase Two” that the Mandarin refers to so gloatingly, is a strike that comes, and passes, all too soon.

The groundwork had already been laid. A disruptor blast during a seemingly mundane attack had caused the Iron Man to short out. This in turn gave cause to Justine Hammer and her crony the corrupt General Babbage, to subpoena system logs from the Iron Man, and assert that Stark had been drunk while piloting the Iron Man. And suddenly we’re in PR nightmare country. The second phase of the attack on Stark and Stark Resilient is simply Hammer and Babbage showing up at Resilient and demanding that Stark install a governor switch on the Iron Man. A switch that will allow them off-site override protocols.

It’s during a coordinated attack on a California wind farm and on downtown Los Angeles that the trap of “Phase Two” finally kicks in. Stark himself is neutralized, given a “mandatory cool-down” by Hammer. Pepper Potts, Stark Resilient COO, is publicly humiliated as “Rescue” (her self-assigned moniker for the MK-1616 armor she wears). And Colonel James Rhodes, “Rhodey”, Tony Stark’s longtime friend and moral compass, is left for dead. That’s it. That’s where “Demon” ends, and it seems, at just about the bell for the third quarter, that that old, sinister dramatic dread that Fraction had been building so carefully, just sputters out and dies. Never quite as formidable as the promise it seemed to invoke just a few issues earlier.

Expect of course, that’s not quite the end. That last quarter of the final issue of “Demon” is just sublime.

Rhodey’s not dead. Deus Ex Machina-ly he’d been equipped with the Stark Resilient Lifevest, a high-tech anti-ballistics under-armor sheath that had been tested earlier in “Demon”. They’ve got the upper hand now, with no one knowing Rhodey’s still alive. Stark really can’t get the governor off, but now at least he’s aware of the conspiracy around him. And “Demon” ends exactly as “Demon in a Bottle” did; with Stark and a friend driving off into the future, things in the present already as dark as anything.

In “Demon” then, there’s almost no battle with alcoholism. From “Fear Itself”, where Tony Stark first got drunk, to “Demon”, went from drunk to sober without a hitch. The irony was, that Tony wasn’t out of control. Or at least he didn’t seem to be. So how does Matt Fraction write himself into the fertile bed of myth, if there’s no harrowing of the character as there was in the original “Demon in a Bottle” issue. That issue saw an out-of-control Tony cause a toxic chlorine gas leak from a derail freight train, a situation that had already been safely resolved by authorities. That issue saw Tony beat down an unarmed office worker, while piloting the Iron Man. So where’s the out-of-control? Where’s the crazy? Where’s that all-too-familiar demon in the bottle?

You’d have to go back nearly all the way to the beginning of Matt Fraction’s run on Invincible Iron Man to 2008’s issue #1. It was in that opening arc, “The Five Nightmares”, that Stark showed the length’s to which he’d go to ensure that achieve a victory on terms of his own making. In order to defeat Zeke Stane the first time, Stark destroyed his own company. After that he put himself into a persistent vegetative state just to ensure Marvel villain Norman Osborn (Spidey antagonist, the Green Goblin), not get his hands on the Superhuman Registration Database.

In fact, you only really need go back as far as the beautifully-crafted standalone issue, Invincible Iron Man #500.1. The issue’s title says it all, “What it was Like, What Happened, and What it’s Like Now”. In a single issue, Tony Stark retells his entire life story as a kind of fable of corporate life. Friends who died become people who moved on to other projects. Giant space dragons become unbelievable deadlines. But the big surprise ending is that Tony’s trouble was never about the alcoholism. The alcoholism was another effect of a deep-rooted anxiety. A fear of failure that Tony would never entirely overcome, and one that he would take great and unnecessary risks to attempt to assuage.

The “Demon” is that older, deeper insecurity that Tony feels. Something that drives him to greatness, by driving him to lose control. For Matt Fraction to have reframed the character in this way, he’s clearly tilled the fertile soil of myth himself. There’ll come a time, soon enough, when critics will be saying, “It’s a good Iron Man story, but it’s no ‘Demon'”.

RATING 8 / 10