Comics

How to Replace Iron Man (Without Really Trying)...

In our last two installments “To Be Continued...” has covered the first guy to wield Captain America's shield since the original and the first guy to pick up Mjolnir besides Thor. This time... will the real Iron Man please stand up?

With the Iron Man films breaking records since 2008, movie fans everywhere know who James “Rhodey” Rhodes is. Tony “Iron Man” Stark's best buddy, the Air Force Colonel who went on to don his own suit of armor to become “War Machine”. Tony Stark's first appearance was 1968 and while Jim Rhodes wasn't introduced until eleven years later in Iron Man #118, Rhodey was retconned to be integral to the origin of Iron Man. It was later revealed that Rhodey himself was the man who helped Iron Man escape from Vietnam when the wounded Stark had just completed his first suit of armor (see Iron Man #144 for details). Long after that first meeting, but long before he went by the name War Machine, the man went by a different name. Not “Rhodey” or “Jim Rhodes”... for a time the name he went by was “Iron Man”.

While in the movies, Tony Stark famously proclaimed to the world, “I AM Iron Man!”, in the comics the secret was as well kept as (spoiler warning) “Bruce Wayne is Batman!” The idea was that Tony Stark was a billionaire industrialist playboy and inventor who did create the Iron Man armor, but not for himself, for his unidentified body guard. The problem is, of course, nobody ever actually saw Tony Stark and his “Bodyguard” together in the same place at the same time. The replacement of Stark as Iron Man wasn't related to the need for secrecy, or misdirection, however. By the time Rhodey was poised to become the title character in his own book and donner of the tungsten underoos, Tony Stark was trapped in a different container... the bottle.

By the time of Iron Man #169 (April, 1993), Stark was a full-blown alcoholic and actually passed out instead of defending Stark International against a marauding mecha walker from the goofy villain Magma. Incidentally, so far removed were the comics from the whole “I AM Iron Man!” thing that this same issue marked the first time Tony “officially” revealed his identity to his best buddy on Earth. Thus, Rhodey found himself the only hope for his company to remain unsquished and threw the armor on, saying "I just realized... I'm putting on the suit, me... Jim Rhodes! Soon as I drop this helmet on I'll actually be Iron Man!”

And so he was from issue 170 through issue 199. That's two and one half years of not only starring in Iron Man, but also appearing as “shell head” in crossover titles like The Avengers and the company-wide team-up Secret Wars II. This included the era after Stark International became Stane International (the company logo only required the alteration of two letters) during which time Iron Man (whom the world saw as one continuous bodyguard) went rogue and kept his suit of armor (dumping the wide array of alternate armors to the bottom of the ocean where Stane couldn't get to them). In Iron Man #192 the two Iron Men actually came to blows (with Stark wearing a recreation of his classic gunmetal grey “Mark I” armor) over who would be the “official” Iron Man. To be fair, Rhodey was impaired by adverse effects of the armor's tuning to Stark's specific brainwaves and Tony didn't want the damned armor back in the first place. This made things all the more surprising in Iron Man #200 (the first and last appearance of the Iron Monger) when Tony sprang back into action in his new “Silver Centurion” armor, once again as the “Official Iron Man” and Rhodey didn't bat an eyelash of disapproval.

Could it be that the “Golden Avenger” armor was cursed? The recently sober Stark distanced himself from the red-and-gold armor to the point that his new armor even eschewed the classic color combination. Iron Man #215 promised “A New Era of Greatness” and sported cover art that featured both Stark and Rhodes in full armor flying through space. That “Greatness” proved to be short-lived, unfortunately, as the very next issue's cover featured their return to Earth with Rhodey literally on fire inside his classic armor. This unfortunate event undeniably cured the newly crispy Jim from his Iron aspirations. In Iron Man #220 when the old red-and-gold is the only armor available (with not one, but two supervillains attacking our heroes, both Rhodes and Stark refuse to wear it. Rhodey excuse is that “There's too much history between me and the suit.” with Stark explaining “It symbolizes a dark part of my life.”

Indeed, when Stark finally slapped on a new suit of red-and-gold armor in Iron Man #231, the steel duds were of a radically different design, while Rhodes himself stuck firmly to a costume of cloth. That is until Tony Stark's apparent death in Iron Man #284 (almost a decade after Rhodes first put on the suit). At this time, Rhodey inherited the position both of the CEO of the rechristened Stark Enterprises and that of Iron Man once again. Upon the discovery that Stark was actually still alive and on life support (in issue 289) Rhodey's famous last words were “You... son... of a... I QUIT!” He took the new, now non-red-and-gold, armor with him and adopted the name “War Machine”.

Rhodey continued as War Machine in his own title, occasional crossovers in Iron Man, in the West Coast Avengers and in Force Works. When the original War Machine armor was lost in the timestream in War Machine #17, Rhodey wasn't (if you will) “Stark Naked” for too long, as he was soon gifted a set of alien armor known as the “Warwear”.

As if the poor guy hadn't had enough ups and downs, he even attempted to retire from superheroics and take up a salvage business, but that ended in bankruptcy, so he became a national security consultant and found himself all but destroyed in a terrorist attack. Thanks to bionic limbs and life supporting armor (courtesy of Tony Stark) Rhodey was once again War Machine (see Avengers: The Initiative #1). Rhodes even became Iron Man a third time (for a very brief time) in Invincible Iron Man #527.

In the comics the armored character known as the “Iron Patriot” (an amalgamation of Captain America and Iron Man) was actually Norman “The Green Goblin” Osborne. However other “backup” Red, White and Blue armors were seen in the comics before “Iron Patriot II” showed up with none other than James “Rhodey” Rhodes inside the tin can for all the world to see (see Secret Avengers Vol. 2 #8). Of course, this may have been a case of art imitating live-action. Much as the Nick Fury of the comics was replaced by the Samuel L. Jackson-looking “Nick Fury, Jr.”, the Iron Patriot of the comics had to be Jim Rhodes, as the Iron Patriot of the movie series was revealed to be a re-paint of the War Machine armor.

So, is Tony Stark's mantle and moniker safe? Most assuredly, only he can make the claim (in any medium) of “I AM Iron Man!” That said, if his best buddy walks up behind him immediately after and says “Yeah? Been there, done that... lots of times.” old Tony will have to just sit there and turn red... the man has a point.

So there you have the third in Marvel's Avenger's triumvirate of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man... all of whom have been replaced or re-replaced. “To Be Continued...”returns to PopMatters.com forthwith, true believers!

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