By March, 1969, I’d been buying and reading Marvel comics regularly for about fifteen months, and I was gradually working my way through all of their superhero-headlining titles. This was the month that I finally got around to Iron Man.
While I’d enjoyed the few brief guest appearances of the character I’d seen in Avengers, and also been intrigued by some of the covers I’d seen on the racks or in house ads, somehow I hadn’t bitten the bullet before now. Maybe my younger self thought Tony Stark’s mustache made him look too old? I really don’t remember.
But I do recall becoming more and more interested in what then seemed to me to be a particular corner of the Marvel Universe that was centered on S.H.I.E.L.D.. Captain America was a part of it, since he was regularly involved with Nick Fury and co. in his own book; and Iron Man was a part of it, too, since he (in his Tony Stark identity) appeared to provide most if not all of the super-spy organization’s tech. Even the Avengers as a group could be considered part of it, since they lived in a mansion owned by Stark and seemed to be on Fury’s speed dial. (Oddly enough, my burgeoning interest didn’t immediately extend to the S.H.I.L.D. book itself, as I didn’t get around to buying an issue of that series until #15, which came out that August — and which also turned out to be the last “new” issue of the series.) In any event, that interest was probably at least part of what motivated me to finally give Iron Man a shot.
What I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have sold me on this comic, if I happened to flip past the arresting, dramatic cover to the opening splash page while I was still standing in the store, were the names of the two primary creators…
…because neither the name of the writer, Archie Goodwin, nor that of the artist, Johnny Craig, was familiar to me.
I had, in fact, seen Craig’s art — sort of, anyway — in an uncredited 1966 Brave and the Bold story for DC Comics, in which, by at least one account, his pencils were heavily reworked before the story saw publication. That incident is covered in more depth in my post for that particular issue, which also includes a bit of general background about Craig — one of the all-time great artists and writers of horror and crime comics, whose winding career path led from the heyday of EC Comics in the 1950s, to a stint in advertising, and, ultimately, back to comics — where, by 1969, he’d landed a regular gig inking (and occasionally pencilling) Iron Man for Marvel. I invite you to check out that post for further details, if you haven’t read it already.
As for Goodwin, I hadn’t yet encountered his writing, either with credit or without it — which wasn’t all that surprising, as he’d been working in the field for less than a decade, and most of his work had been for a publisher whose books I didn’t (yet) follow. In 1965, Goodwin had taken the job of editor and chief writer for publisher James Warren’s then brand new line of black-and-white comics magazines, including Creepy, Eerie, and (briefly) Blazing Combat. A huge fan of the classic EC comics who already had relationships with several of that line’s veteran artists, Goodwin was able to enlist a number of them as contributors to the new Warren titles, including Al Williamson, Reed Crandall, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood — and Johnny Craig. Goodwin wrote the vast majority of the scripts illustrated by these and Warren’s other artists (among whom were Neal Adams, Steve Ditko, and Alex Toth) and at first, he did the same for Craig (who was then using the pseudonym “Jay Taycee”); soon, however, Craig began writing his own stories, as he had mostly done at EC.
Unfortunately, these “glory days” at Warren came to a rather abrupt end in 1967, when the company ran into a major cash flow problem. Goodwin was compelled to seek more a stable professional situation elsewhere; and when he left, so did most of the artists who’d been working with him.
The writer soon found himself at Marvel, where he quickly picked up assignments writing “Iron Man” in Tales of Suspense and “Sub-Mariner” in Tales to Astonish; a “Marvel Bullpen Bulletin” in the publisher’s issues cover-dated February, 1968 welcomed the new writer aboard with a bit of fanfare (see right). As things turned out, the “Sub-Mariner” gig lasted on a couple of issues, but Goodwin’s stint writing “Iron Man” — a strip on which he’d succeeded editor-in-chief Stan Lee himself, and which (like “Sub-Mariner”) was also about to graduate into its own full-length title — would have considerably greater longevity, ultimately lasting for two and a half years.
When Archie Goodwin’s first “Iron Man” story — his second Marvel job to actually see print — hit stands in November, 1967, the splash page’s credits box included the name of another Marvel “newbie” in addition to his own — that of Johnny Craig, making his own debut at the publisher by providing inks over the pencils of the series’ regular artist, Gene Colan.
The following is extracted from an account written by comics writer and historian Mark Evanier:
In 1968, when Archie Goodwin moved over to work for Marvel, he and the editors attempted to establish Craig as the new Iron Man artist. The feature, then drawn by Gene Colan, was appearing in a 10-pages-per-month slot in Tales of Suspense, but was slated to spin-off into its own comic in the foreseeable future.
Craig was indoctrinated by inking Colan’s pencils but, when the monthly Iron Man comic began and Craig attempted to take over its pencilling with #2, no one was happy. Johnny could not cope with the deadlines and Stan Lee did not feel he had the “Marvel flair.” After a few issues, George Tuska was brought in to pencil the strip, and Craig returned to inking, on that book and others.
Craig pencilled and inked three full issues of Iron Man before he was replaced by George Tuska on pencils; afterwards, he contributed pencils for just three more issues, scattered throughout his tenure as the book’s regular inker (which, incidentally, lasted precisely as long as Goodwin’s as writer), the first of which just happens to be the subject of today’s post. The occasion for Craig’s subbing here, if #14’s splash page copy is to be believed, was to cover for a vacationing Tuska — but the setting and mood of the story, whether by happy coincidence or by intent, were well suited to play to Craig’s particular strengths as an illustrator.
Indeed, the first couple of pages following the splash could, if not for the color, pass as pages from a Goodwin-“Taycee” collaboration for Creepy or Eerie:
Come page 4, however, Goodwin and Craig reassure us that we are in fact reading Iron Man, as the Golden Avenger’s alter ego, Tony Stark, at last makes an appearance:
If you’re anticipating that Tony is about to get walloped with a righteous lesson about environmentalism — or neocolonialism, for that matter — you’re likely to be disappointed by what follows on the next page:
As Inspector Christophe’s comments indicate, the story is squarely on the side of the American millionaire industrialist. Tony’s company’s “project” in the unnamed (but very Haiti-like) Caribbean island nation is framed not as exploitation of the local natural resources and populace, but rather as much-needed economic investment, expected to raise the living standard of the nation’s citizens. Travis Hoyt’s objections, on the other hand, are based not on a sincere concern for the island’s ecology or for the welfare of its people, but are merely an expression of his own privileged self-interest — he wants the “natural beauty and primitive charm” of his adopted home kept pure and pristine simply so he can continue to enjoy them.
The story’s wholly uncritical stance towards industrial development in developing nations is likely to seem inadequate to today’s reader; in Goodwin and Craig’s defense, however, this seems to have been pretty much the standard thinking of the era, across much of the political spectrum. It may also be worth noting that another, later story involving a Stark Industries project located on an island (published in Iron Man #25 [May, 1970]) was, by contrast, a veritable environmental fable. (The finale of that story — which, coincidentally, was the final one pencilled by Craig, as well as one of the last of Goodwin’s run as writer — features Tony Stark making a heartfelt appeal to his fellow captains of industry for their help in staving off an ecological crisis, only to be blown off with the excuse, “We’ve got plenty of time!”; a denouement which feels all too timely in 2019, I’m sad to say.)
From this scene, the story moves into a reverie by Tony regarding his personal travails, both recent and not-so-recent– a narrative device which was certainly useful to me as a new Iron Man reader.
“All that’s left” turns out to be a huge pile of rubble, unlikely to provide any visible clues– however, a Geiger counter Tony’s built into his wristwatch (!) finds traces of radioactivity:
Tony and Inspector Christophe continue to search the rubble until nightfall — but as the sun goes down, the drums start up, and Christophe insists on driving Tony back to the safety of town. But then, on the road…
Hoyt’s oblique reference to Tony’s having driven Janice’s father “to death and ruin” isn’t explained, and the editorial footnote referring readers to Iron Man #2 (June, 1968) wasn’t much help to my eleven-year-old self back in March, 1969. But there’s no good reason why you should be left in the dark, gentle reader, so I’ll note here that Tony first made Ms. Cord’s acquaintance in that issue, when her father, Drexel, an embittered competitor of Stark Industries, sent a robot called the Demolisher to attack Iron Man, and Janice attempted to warn the hero. In the ensuing battle, Drexel Cord lost control of his robot, which he then feared would attack Janice; ultimately, he gave his own life to help Iron Man stop the robot and save his daughter. (No, it wasn’t exactly what you’d call the most auspicious way to begin a romance.)
In the present, Tony legs it back to the site of the Jeep’s crash, where he finds the attache case containing his armor, and then quickly suits up:
Ol’ Shellhead employs his “ever lovin’ armor”‘s “vario-beam tracer” to check for further signs of radioactivity — apparently, it’s at least a little more powerful than his wristwatch Geiger counter — and soon discovers radioactive footprints leading off into the jungle. Meanwhile, back at Travis Hoyt’s place, Janice decides she’s heard enough of the acerbic writer’s badmouthing of her boyfriend, and starts to leave — but before she can make it to the door, Hoyt springs a surprise on her:
I like to imagine that drawing the preceding page — which might not be truly horrific, but sure is creepy — made the EC veteran feel like he’d come home, if only for a bit.
Iron Man removes the boulder to reveal a tunnel burrowing deep into the rock — and in the tunnel’s mouth, a set of loudspeakers “blaring the voodoo beat.” Meanwhile, the Night Phantom drags Janice to the very edge of the “Pool of Life”, where he proceeds to tell her his origin story:
But even as Iron Man lands his first blow against the Phantom, the latter shoves Janice over the edge of the pool:
Once he’s pulled Janice to safety, Iron Man breaks Inspector Christophe free from his shackles. He then turns to secure Hoyt before the latter can recover and escape — and discovers that the Night Phantom is making a dash not for the exit, but rather for the Pool of Life:
It’s possible to read those last couple of panels as being a little condescending to Inspector Christophe, a black islander who, though seemingly well integrated into “modern” Western society, still gives some credence to the “superstitious” beliefs of his island’s traditional culture. On the other hand, they can also be read as indicating a greater sensitivity on Christophe’s part to a hidden reality of “ancient forces”, which the thoroughly Westernized, “first world” mindsets of Iron Man and Janice Cord are incapable of apprehending. I’m frankly not sure which reading is more accurate; but as it’s been fifty years after the story’s creation, I’m going to give Goodwin and Craig the benefit of the doubt on this one.
The story ends with Tony rather self-satisfiedly noting that despite Hoyt’s sabotage, his company’s never-specified “project” will be rebuilt, “big enough so nothing can destroy it” — and then resuming his moping about his personal problems, in the manner I’d grown accustomed to from virtually of all of Marvel’s other solo, sad-sack superheroes.
This was a “done-in-one” story, with no substantial plot threads left dangling to draw me back for the next issue (indeed, the last panel doesn’t even tout the next Iron Man, plugging instead Shellhead’s guest shot that month in Captain Marvel — more on that in a bit) — which may be the main reason that I didn’t come back for the very next issue. I did show up for the following one, however (#16), and then again for #19, so I’d like to think I gave the series a decent shot then, back in 1969. After that, though, I didn’t pick up another issue until #33 (Jan., 1971) — and truth to tell, I never did get fully on board with Iron Man, save for brief runs here and there. The character simply never grabbed me the way a number of Marvel’s other stars did. I dunno — maybe it was the ‘stache.
But whatever the case, I can’t lay the blame on Archie Goodwin and Johnny Craig, or on the specific fruit of their creative efforts represented by Iron Man #14. “The Night Phantom Walks!” may not have exactly bowled my eleven-year-old self over in March, 1969, but I must not have actively disliked it, or I doubt I would have bought #16, two months later. And re-reading the story in 2019, I find that it holds up better than might be expected. For my money, it’s the most successful pencilling job Johnny Craig turned in on Iron Man, and probably the best thing he did for either Marvel or DC. And while no fan of Craig’s classic EC horror stories is likely to mistake “The Night Phantom Walks!” for, say, “Zombie!” (The Crypt of Terror #19, Aug.-Sept., 1950), there’s no reason for them to be sorry it exists, either.
And that about wraps it up for the blog today — save for a quick plug for next week’s post, which will be all about the fifty-year-old comic book plugged at the end of today’s fifty-year-old comic book — namely, Captain Marvel #14 (I told you we’d get back to it, didn’t I?) — which not only sorta crosses over with Iron Man #14, per that final panel, but also ties into the ongoing Egghead/Mad Thinker/Puppet Master storyline that began in January, 1969’s Captain Marvel #12 and then continued into February’s Avengers #63. Come back next Sunday for that one, OK?