Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Writer Scott Snyder and artist Manuel Garcia’s Iron Man Noir is a 2010 miniseries. It was the ninth and penultimate installment in Marvel’s 1930s period noir universe, which will be dealt with from start to end in the upcoming months. We begin with this particular series, not because of what it contains, but what it does not.
You’d think that a comic book titled Iron Man Noir would provide a good stepping-off point for a discussion about comics and New York. The title practically screams it: it combines the New York playboy-cum-superhero Tony Stark/Iron Man with noir, a genre of cinema that is perhaps more closely tied to the urban than any other, in the popular and critical imagination. The cover of the first issue, and of the collected edition, shows the hero suspending himself between two buildings in full armor, with the Empire State Building for a background.
But no… If you’re looking for noir, you’ll be disappointed. This is a story influenced by the “foreign adventure” type of pulp stories, the kind that the Indiana Jones movies paid homage to. Stark and his compatriots set out to find the lost city of Atlantis and a mythical metal that might help save the hero and his ailing heart, with Nazi agents on their heels. The majority of the story takes place in Honduras, aboard a pirate ship (or, more accurately, fishing trawler), in Atlantis, aboard a dirigible, and in a castle in Nazi-occupied Norway. The few scenes set in New York take place in anonymous offices, warehouses, or apartments. A few establishing shots of the Empire State Building and one of the art deco Stark Lab provide what little, period-establishing, urbanity this series has. New York is there in obeisance to the Iron Man and Marvel Comics source material, but it is an altogether incidental and neglected presence.
Although set in an alternative universe, the comic is brimming with references to mainstream continuity, ranging from passing mention of names or events to transplanted characters, many of which are slightly or significantly altered to fit the new setting. (Tony Stark, being the protagonist and main attraction, less so than many from his long-time supporting cast.) This also makes the series temporally anonymous; the inclusion of such long-suffered but timeless Nazis as Wolfgang von Strucker and Baron Zemo makes the series’ few references to the 1930 a negligible influence at best. There is, on the whole, very little that really makes it like the period piece it is supposed to be.
Nonetheless, Garcia’s graphic style is well suited to the story. This is where the intertextual homage most clearly shines through. While it is reminiscent of much contemporary superhero artwork in its detail and renderings of anatomy and environments, it is also reminiscent of cover illustrations for the type of pulp magazines to which the story wants to make reference. Snyder’s script is good at most times, although the treatment of Stark’s heroism that runs as red thread throughout is at times baffling in its seeming celebration of unreflexive hypermasculinity. Its references to other Marvel comics also feel a more than little forced at times, as does some of the exposition. The recap pages are presented as in-character memos written by Stark, which is a nice touch, until issue 3. That memo, supposedly written to a compatriot, ends on a heavy-handed self-reflexive note that does not read well: “How did I survive? You’ll have to read on to find out. I’ve attached a book of sequential pictures documenting the next chapter of our adventure…”
All of that said, Iron Man Noir is certainly an entertaining, if not exactly groundbreaking, story. The reader who is well versed in Marvel continuity and minutiae or who appreciates their more pseudo-scientific high adventure will find much to enjoy about it, but the reader who wants the low-key, gritty, and ominously shadowed story suggested by the title should look elsewhere.