Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man first lived, walked, and conquered in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, published in March 1963 and brought to life by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck. Since then, ol’ shellhead has gone through numerous different armours, served on Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, struggled with alcoholism, swapped places with his teenaged younger self, fought against and imprisoned his fellow heroes, featured in numerous videogames and cartoons, and shot into mainstream superstardom thanks to am iconic, career-defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr.
Story Title: “Alone Against A.I.M.!”
Published: May 1968
Writers: Archie Goodwin
Artist: Gene Colon
Long before Robert Downey Jr. uttered that unforgettable line, “I am Iron Man”, Stan Lee’s original Iron Man was to take a concept his readers would hate (a rich military industrialist), throw in a little Howard Hughes and personal tragedy, and make him a character to root for. Mounting deadlines saw Lee’s younger brother, Larry Lieber team with legendary Jack Kirby for the character’s debut in the pages of Tales of Suspense as an anti-communist. After Tales of Suspense was rebranded as a Captain America title in 1968, Iron Man was upgraded to his own solo series, The Invincible Iron Man, which has run pretty much uninterrupted from 1968 all the way up to the present day and has been home to some of the character’s most memorable and influential storylines.
Oddly for the first issue of ol’ shellhead’s solo magazine, “Alone Against A.I.M.!” is actually the continuation of a story that began in the pages of Iron Man and Sub-Mariner and finds the Armoured Avenger being captured by a “vortex suction beam” courtesy of Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) after rescuing Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage and Law-Enforcement Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) agent Jasper Sitwell. The story takes place out in the vastness of the ocean, with Sitwell onboard a ship controlled by the Maggia crime syndicate hat is scuppered by A.I.M. Sitwell desperately attempts to maintain calm and get out into the open to summon help with his pocket communicator; despite briefly losing his glasses in the fracas, the eloquent agent is able to rescue one of Tony Stark’s admirers, Whitney Frost, and get the two picked up but a hovercraft commanded by none other than Colonel Nick Fury himself. Frost sells herself as a forthright socialite who deceives men with her charm and looks, but she’s actually looking to steal the secrets of Stark Industries and reclaim herself as the “Big M” of the Maggia.
This is merely a side-plot to the main story, however, which sees the bee-suit-wearing A.I.M. grunts entrap Iron Man in a magnetically sealed chamber on the orders of Mordius. Iron Mans fight with Mark Scarlotti/Whiplash in the previous story has drained his Repulsor Rays and the chamber is too tough for him to expend the energy trying to batter through, but he doesn’t have too long to worry about any kind of escape plan as A.I.M. promptly render him unconscious with a knockout gas and transport his helpless form to Mordius’s castle out on a small island off the New England coast. The A.I.M. minions are absolutely devoted to their master’s cause and the sanctity of A.I.M.s…well, aims, but Mordius himself is quite the abusive blowhard: garbed in a blue helmet and white outfit, he doesn’t tolerate tardiness, claims A.I.M.’s greater glory is his for the taking, and makes aggressive demands of his underlings without gratitude or concern for their welfare, but they’re only to happy to bow to his every whim and place the unconscious Avenger in the “X-Ray Photo-Chamber”. Mordius’s goal is less about the main within the armour and more with uncovering the secrets of the technology that powers Iron Man’s superhuman feats and is so confident in his machine that he removes his protective headgear, thus shedding the usual anonymity afforded to A.I.M.’s representatives, which also serves the dual purpose of clearly setting him above and beyond the usual A.I.M. grunts. Mordius delivers a lengthy soliloquy on the advanced capabilities of his machine, which scans and analyses every inch of the Iron Man armour and produces near-perfect replicas that he wastes no time in outfitting to three of his underlings.
However, Iron Man proves to not be as subdued as Mordius believed thanks to the oxygen supply contained in his armour; he breaks out of the chamber, destroying the irreplaceable “Vario-Mold Matrix” that allowed Mordius to copy his armour, but Mordius’s copies wildly malfunction when they try to use the Repulsor Ray technology and jet boots, causing only further damage to the A.I.M. master’s laboratory. Incensed at the development and convinced that Iron Man somehow sabotaged the process, Mordius both opens fire and commands his minions to stop messing around with the armour’s ordinance and attack Iron Man directly. Thankfully for the Armoured Avenger, the numbers advantage of his enemies means little; his armour’s “refractory casing” distorted the x-ray enough to produce inferior replicas and the fake Iron Men are nowhere near as skilled in utilising the armour’s full potential, easily allowing him to outfight them. Now determined to obliterate his hated enemy, Mordius fires a massive rocket cannon at the armoured group, no longer caring a lick for the fates of his loyal followers. However, Iron Man is able to avoid this lethal blast and sabotages the generator room; in response, Mordius unwittingly seals his fate and the fate of his fellow A.I.M. soldiers as he causes a massive power overload when he cranks up the auxiliary power. Thus, Iron Man is able to fly to safety while seemingly the entire castle explodes behind him, presumably taking all inside it in its wake and leaving shellhead to ponder that Mordius’s inability to consider himself anything less than perfect ultimately lead to his demise.
Well…this was certainly a whole lot of nothing. Just about the only thing “Alone Against A.I.M.!” has going for it is Gene Colon’s stunning artwork and Johnny Craig’s vibrant colouring, which really bring Iron Man to life. I think beginning Iron Man’s first solo series with the conclusion to a previous story was a pretty poor decision; it seems to me like starting a two-story arc and ending the first issue on a cliffhanger would have been far more effective but, instead, we get this forgettable tale where Iron Man feigns being unconscious for the majority of the narrative and we’re left wasting time with the weirdly articulate Sitwell and Mordius, two characters who simply love finding the most dramatic and overblown way to fill up panels with pointless dialogue. Since he’s a far greater part of the story, Mordius obviously carries a lot of the blame for this; he monologues at length about his amazing machine, gloats nonstop about his assumed victory, and seems to be this hyper-intelligent, super-smart tyrant but descends into an enraged madman to moment his plans go awry.
I guess the best part of the issue is seeing how flawed Mordus’s Iron Man copies are; their Repulsor Rays hit everything but Iron Man, they fly head-first into the ceiling, and they’re unable to overpowered the Armoured Avenger despite apparently having been briefed on how to utilise the armour. Rather than coming across as a threat, though, they seem little more than bungling fools for Iron Man to toss about, mock at every turn, and are nonchalantly blasted to smithereens by Mordius’s own weapon! Iron Man is then able to destroy the entire castle with minimal effort, and without even meaning too! Half of the demise of Mordius is told off-panel and through an anti-climatic explosion, Iron Man barely even gives a shit that he just killed God-knows how many people, and I’m left wondering just what the hell the point of this issue was. I wouldn’t mind but “Alone Against A.I.M.!” isn’t the only story in the issue as the rest of the pages are taken up with a truncated version of Iron Man’s origin that was completely unnecessary and I can’t help but wonder if those couple of extra pages could’ve been better served adding to this story to maybe flesh out Iron Man’s escape a bit more. Instead, he just…conveniently slips away and then just flies out of their completely unopposed with Mordius dooms himself with his hubris.
Have you ever read “Alone Against A.I.M.!”? Were you also disappointed by its story and pacing? What did you think of Mordius and what some of your favourite A.I.M. moments? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Iron Man so sign up to drop them below or leave a comment on my social media.