This is an issue where it isn’t so remarkable how much I remember, but in how much I didn’t understand and what went over my head. The heyday of my Iron Man collecting, and therefore Iron Man reading, was ages 8-12. Ideas like Communism and The Civil Rights Movement existed as unrelatable ideas that were taught to us in history class. It was the mid to late 80’s. Yes The Cold War was still going strong, but it had been 20 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis and neither country was eager to repeat that mistake again. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an acknowledged hero of the Civil Rights movement, we got the day off from school and I had not yet witnessed anything close to real racism in my life. So when I read comic books from the 60’s and early 70’s the ideas in them were like ancient history. They were written for their time and thank God we weren’t like that anymore. Reading them now, however, opened my eyes to just how much issues like this one covered.
Let’s start with the super villain in this story: Firebrand.
When I was younger I had no idea what a “firebrand” was. I knew that this bad guy had fire related powers, but no idea that his name was also relevant to the story. Of course now we have the internet for instant definitions:
Firebrand: one that creates unrest or strife (as in aggressively promoting a cause) :agitator
– from www.merriam-webster.com
And our character makes with the agitating right off the top. He helps some local protesters break into the construction site of a community center that the Iron Man Foundation is paying for. Even though the protesters are excited about their sit-in Firebrand makes it clear he’s looking for a fight and then takes off.
Eddie March, who you may remember did a brief stint as Iron Man, is now out of the hospital and has been selected to be the director of the new community center since he is both a native son of Bay City and also has the popularity of being Iron Man for his short time. As they head to the site, Eddie marvels at the changes to the city, with the exception of the North Side which is just as bleak as he remembers it being when he was a kid.
He and Iron Man arrive at the construction site with the city councilman in charge of the community center, Lyle Bradshaw, to see that there is already a bit of trouble between the protesters (black) and police (white).
There’s almost a Commedia dell’arte feel to the characters from this point. Not that they are directly from the Commedia tradition, but that there are archetypes that each character represents. Iron Man is the unbiased moral “right” that wants what is best for all within the law. It is worth noting that Tony Stark appears very little in this issue. For 95% he is in his Iron Man guise – a superhero with no definable skin color. Eddie March is the biased “right” who can relate to the protesters more than Iron Man can. The protesters, all black, represent the civil struggle and members of it become the focus of different variations within that struggle. The police, all white, represent the white establishment defined by law without bigotry. Lyle Bradshaw represents exploitative greed and the white establishment defined by bigotry. These are some pretty heavy concepts to toss into what were called, at the time, “funny books.” My 9 year old brain saw them more as:
- Iron Man = Awesome
- Eddie March = Was Iron Man = Awesome
- Firebrand = Bad guy with fire powers
- Protesters = Poor and Suffering
- Police = Police
- Bradshaw = Jerk
So I saw the good guys versus the bad guys in the issue, but I missed all the nuance of how this applied to the times. It is also worth noting that reading this issue with today’s current events in mind, like Ferguson and “Black Lives Matter,” that as far as we’ve come, there is still a way to go.
Taking advantage of the unrest, Firebrand shows up and a riot starts.
There’s a super villain/super hero fight that happens, but that’s not the point of the issue. Instead, the poignant plot line is between Eddie March and a young woman he saves from the riot, Helene.
After they escape, Helene takes Eddie through the city and they discuss what might actually help raise the community as opposed to just have a community center built for them.
While this is happening we get some background into how Firebrand came to be.
And how he built his suit (a bit of unintentional foreshadowing to The Armor Wars and The Five Nightmares).
Battle aside, Iron Man, Eddie, Helene and Councilman Bradshaw eventually all end up back at the councilman’s office and discuss what might be best for the community – which leads to an impasse. Naturally, Firebrand shows up, raises hell, and kidnaps Councilman Bradshaw.
We also find out that Bradshaw is completely corrupt and is profiting on the community center.
Normally, in a comic book, we’d expect to have everything wrap up all nice an clean, but it doesn’t. Firebrand escapes. The riot is stopped, but so is construction of the community center. Eddie and Helene get jobs at the Iron Man Foundation. But the comic even mentions that it is a very slow matter to get back to healing and understanding.
The last panels bring the whole thing home.
I don’t know that we have the same kind of material created for children that addresses issues like this in the same way that they did back in the 70’s. It was a time for experimentation and breaking established rules and that lead to some great filmmaking, music, and storytelling. It’s also strange to me that a story this on the nose still found a way to get over my head. I guess there’s no stopping a pre-adolescent brain that’s obsessed more with the super hero than the stories that he is featured in. Regardless, it is very eye opening to re-read this now and get a whole new sense of meaning from it. Although not the original point of this project, it has been a very nice bonus.
See you next time.