Marvel’s shared cinematic universe has been a series of movies that have generated several billion dollars at the box office. It is a franchise that owes much of its success to the Robert Downy, Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark / Iron Man. While the general public may only know of Iron Man through the films, the character has a fascinating comic book history that Professor Joseph J. Darowski explores The Ages of Iron Man: Essays on the Armored Avenger in Changing Times. Wanting to learn more about his career and this manuscript, Darowski allowed me to interview him for Sequart.
Nicholas Yanes: When did you become a fan of comic books? To date, who is your favorite comic book character?
Joseph Darowski: I remember my first comic book distinctly, so I can peg this one pretty exactly. It was Uncanny X-Men #280 (Sep. 1991). I got it at a grocery store, back when you didn’t have to seek out a specialty shop to find comic books. I’m pretty sure my mom let me use some allowance money to buy it to keep me quiet while she was shopping. The issue was the last chapter of a multi-part story, and I had no idea who these characters were (this was before the animated series made a lot of kids familiar with the X-Men) or what in the world had already happened in the story, but I didn’t care. I was hooked right away.
From there I kept getting X-Men comics when allowance or paper route income would allow. My brothers also got into comics, and we never overlapped what we were buying, so that we would have more material to read. I also remember that the various Marvel and DC card series were huge vaults of information for us as young comic book fans. With no access to websites to go find out about characters, the backs of trading cards were where we learned a lot about character backstories and power sets.
The X-Men is the franchise I’ll always return to and follow as a fan. But whatever hero I’m researching most recently tends to become incredibly fascinating. In editing the “Ages of Superheroes” series, some characters I only followed infrequently as a fan, such as the Incredible Hulk, became interesting and I go down the rabbit hole of the long story arcs, creator changes, and cultural influences that have shaped and defined the character.
Yanes: As you pursued a career in the academy, when did you decide to research comic books and related media?
Darowski: I ended up studying superheroes almost by accident. As a long-time fan of comic books, I wrote a couple papers on superheroes when I was completing my Bachelor’s in English at Brigham Young University. I did this because it was a fun exercise for me, and because I also assumed it would be a unique break for my professors who probably had a few dozen other papers on topics from the traditional English canon to grade.
I didn’t have a clear career path in mind as I was approaching the end of my undergraduate degree, so I applied to the English Master’s program at BYU. In my application I said I would study British literature with an emphasis on Shakespeare, which was my intent. Then, the day after I heard I was accepted into the program I ran into a professor named Steven Walker, for whom I’d written a paper on Spider-Man in one of my last undergraduate classes. He congratulated me on getting into the Master’s program and said that if I wanted to write a thesis on superheroes he’d love to chair my committee. I had no idea how to go about setting up a thesis committee in grad school, so this seemed like a great chance to avoid fumbling my way through that process. Also, it was an open invitation for me to keep thinking deeply about superheroes.
When I was wrapping up my thesis I looked to apply to PhD programs that were open to popular culture studies, and I was fortunate enough to get accepted to Michigan State University’s American Studies program. Michigan State houses the glorious Comic Art Collection, curated by Randy Scott, so research material was abundantly available. Also, Gary Hoppenstand, the editor of The Journal of Popular Culture at the time, was heavily involved with the American Studies program (even teaching a class on comic books and superheroes in American culture), so studying superheroes was embraced and encouraged.
Yanes: On this note, could you discuss some of the obstacles you encountered in the pursuit of studying this field?
Darowski: I never had anyone say I couldn’t study superhero comic books, but I know that a few eyebrows were raised about the subject of my Master’s thesis. However, I never felt any real institutional impediments to my studies. Some of the professors who studied more traditional canon probably thought my area of study was frivolous, which I’m sure would be true at any university. I was warned a few times that it would likely be difficult to get an academic job with a popular culture studies emphasis, but from what I’ve seen getting a job in academia is tricky no matter what you’ve studied.
From a more nuts and bolts issue, when I was first starting to study comic books, one of the largest obstacles was simply access, particularly to older issues. Most libraries don’t have sprawling collections of back issues, and it can be prohibitive in terms of cost to try and get original prints or even reprints of older comics. Today, the digitization of comics through Marvel Comics Unlimited and other services like Comixology makes it much easier to get the primary sources for research. And the major publishers are reprinting more of their back catalogues of stories than ever before, but still there are times when it can be almost impossible to track down a particular issue.
Yanes: With The Ages of Iron Man: Essays on the Armored Avenger in Changing Times, what was the inspiration for this project?
Darowski: With McFarland, I have published a series of essay collections that each focus on one superhero. Previous volumes included collections on Superman, Wonder Woman, the X-Men, and the Avengers, and soon there will also be collections on the Incredible Hulk and the Justice League. In working with my publisher we have several criteria to consider about which characters or franchises get selected for a collection. Among these are 1) is there enough to be said about the character to warrant an entire essay collection, 2) is there a gap in the scholarship on superheroes that needs to be filled (and conversely, is the market already saturated with academic books about a particular comic book character), and 3) is there enough interest in the character for the book to find a sufficient audience (among both academics or fans of the character). Iron Man, particularly with the sharp rise in cultural awareness of the character following the successful film adaptations, certainly fit all of those criteria.
These collections focus solely on the comic book stories, not any other media adaptations of the character. Each contributor is asked to focus on a specific storyline or at least a tightly contained era of Iron Man comic books. The chapters examine those stories in light of the society at the time the issues were published, drawing connections between the hopes, fears, politics, or social movements of an era and the popular culture that was produced at the time. Thus, a reader could look at a chapter about Iron Man’s role in Marvel’s “Civil War” mini-series and gain a greater understanding of Tony Stark in the post-9/11 era when that story was told, or read the entire collection and see the long-term evolution of the character through five decades and see how social contexts influenced Iron Man’s portrayal in the comics.
Yanes: Reflecting on the history of Iron Man, what do you think are some of the most important stories this character has been in?
Darowski: First of all, his origin story is such an intriguing relic of the Cold War era. The basic beats of it can be lifted and adapted for a different era, as happened in the film version. But to actually go back and read the original story, it just drips with the prominent concerns of America in the midst of the Cold War.
It’s probably the most famous Iron Man story, but “Demon in a Bottle” must be mentioned. It gave Tony Stark a lot of the flaws and humanizes a billionaire in a suit of armor in a way a weak heart never quite did.
John Byrne and John Romita Jr.’s “Seeds of War” storyline is one I found to be underrated.
More recently, Iron Man’s role in Civil War elevated the character to a higher place of prominence in the Marvel comic book universe before the film adaptation made the character even more iconic.
And finally, the “Extremis” storyline is one of the most significant recent revolutionary takes on the character.
Yanes: You worked with a great variety of scholars on this project. What was some of the research done on this character that took you by surprise?
Darowski: Each of the books in the series has, because of the nature of the characters being studied, ended up with a social issue that becomes a sort of through-line for the collection. In The Ages of Superman, lots of the essays addressed American identity, in the volume on Wonder Woman, feminist issues were discussed frequently, and in the X-Men collection various minority identities were analyzed. For The Ages of Iron Man, the military-industrial complex (and it how it related to the Cold War) was one of the most commonly addressed issues. In every volume there are of course essays that don’t touch on those issues at all, but in each case a dominant theme developed through the majority of the essays.
Two essays in this collection that broke from that pattern, and therefore stand out, were “War Machine: Blackness, Power, and Identity in Iron Man” by Julian C. Chambliss and “Feminizing the Iron: Tony Stark’s Rescue” by Jason Michalek. Addressing issues of race and gender in our popular culture is, I think, an important aspect of this field of study, and Chambliss and Michalek do so skillfully. Many of the other essays provide excellent scholarship on the evolution of the military-industrial complex and how it reflected in Iron Man comics, but these two essays tackled other important issues.
Yanes: Further, what are some aspects of Iron Man you think still need to be explored?
Darowski: Iron Man as a character in both comic books and adaptations is certainly worth close scrutiny. The fifteen essays in this collection use a more New Historicist approach to the character, and other types of analysis would undoubtedly yield valuable insights.
Similarly, with fifteen essays focusing on specific storylines, there are myriad other stories to be discussed. Hopefully, this collection joins the already existing conversation about Iron Man in comic book studies, but also serves as a launching point for even deeper analysis of this pop culture icon.
Yanes: Tony Stark has become so popular that there are engineers working to create a real version of the Iron Man armor. Why do you think Stark has had such a powerful impact on popular culture?
Darowski: Clearly the cultural impact of Iron Man has been far larger in the last decade than the preceding four decades of the character’s existence. No matter how important the character was to Marvel Comics, it was the film adaptation that really has made Iron Man a force in popular culture. Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal in the films is such a delightful and charming take on the character that it caused awareness of who Iron Man is to explode from where it was before. The comic book character had never had the larger cultural awareness of a Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or Spider-Man, before the films.
But, for all of Robert Downey Jr.’s talent, if the character hadn’t been interesting Iron Man wouldn’t have become a billion dollar property. Iron Man did fill a new space for the superhero genre. We’d had superpowered heroes and tragic human heroes, but Iron Man was human hero with a super-suit who was simultaneously tragically broken and arrogantly self-assured. There was something about that alchemy of characteristics that audiences were ready for in the comics in the 1960s and it still worked in film in the 2000s. And, as Star Trek has shown, speculative futurist science fiction can influence real science and how that science is then presented to the public.
Yanes: When people finishing reading this, what do you hope they leave with?
Darowski: First, I hope it shows that in a general sense there is academic value in studying popular culture. Important insights into a society can be gained by looking at what entertainment is both produced and consumed in any particular era.
I also hope it is clear how elastic and malleable Iron Man / Tony Stark is. The character has evolved and shifted significantly across five decades, and tracking these changes and thinking about why those changes were made is illuminating.
Yanes: Finally, are there any other projects you are working on that fans can look out for?
Darowski: From McFarland, there are two collections in various stages of completion. The Ages of the Incredible Hulk will be released soon, and next year The Ages of the Justice League will be published. It’s likely there will be even more essay to collections to come, so if you’re a scholar interested in contributing to these collections please keep an eye out for future announcements.
I’m also writing a book with my sister, Kate Darowski, that is (presently) titled Frasier: A Cultural History. So I have some non-superhero work coming out, though I’m still sticking with popular culture studies.
And, lastly, I co-host the Protagonist Podcast with Todd Mack. Each week we talk about a great character in a great story. We usually rotate weekly between talking about a TV show, comic book, film, and novel. If that sounds interesting, you can find list of all our back episodes at protagonistpodcast.com.