STEVE WINDERS EXAMINES THE CAREER OF EAGLE'S POPULAR ANDROID
1963 was a good year for iron men. First there was the American Marvel super hero Iron Man who debuted in issue 39 of Tales of Suspense in March. Created by Stan Lee, this strip features a millionaire engineering genius, Tony Stark, who is wounded when a piece of shrapnel lodges itself close to his heart. He is captured by a Vietnamese warlord and forced to develop weapons for him. Stark then colludes with Yin Sen, another prisoner, to build himself a suit of powered armour, primarily to keep him alive. However, such is the strength provided by this armour that he is able to use it to help him escape and ultimately to fight evil and injustice. The armour completely disguises his features and in the finest traditions of super hero fiction, Tony Stark is able to keep his identity a secret.
The second Iron Man, who is the subject of this article, appeared four months later in the British weekly comic Boys' World. The strip began in issue 24, dated 6th July 1963. This iron man was really a powerful robot, but wearing a suit of plastic skin, appeared to be human. Consequently he was the exact opposite of Marvel's Iron Man who was a human inside an exoskeleton.
Boys' World was a magazine which closely resembled the sixties EAGLE and came from the same publisher. Like EAGLE, it contained a mixture of adventure and humorous strips, text stories and features. Its first editor was American born Jim Kenner, who brought a lot of ambitious and imaginative ideas for the new paper. Unfortunately his knowledge of the British market and its writers and artists was extremely limited and EAGLE's editor Bob Bartholomew was called in to oversee its production, becoming editor of both weeklies. Issue 24 marked a relaunch, with new stories, features and layout changes in response to relatively low sales in the first few months.
Bob Bartholomew introduced more strip stories to the comic to replace some text stories and features. Among these were The Iron Man, which occupied one and a half pages in black and white and The Angry Planet, a science fiction story based on the first Deathworld novel by Harry Harrison, who would achieve international fame by the end of the decade. Harrison had already contributed a text serial called Spell of Magic, featuring Merlo the Magician, which began in issue 11 and Merlo's adventures continued in strip form from issue 24, with Harrison still as writer. The Iron Man's authorship is not so clear though. The most prolific writer of the strip was Ken Mennell, who took over the scripting in August 1964, shortly before Boys' World merged with EAGLE and continued to be involved until the strip ended, with EAGLE's merger with Lion in April 1969. Mennell may well have been involved with Bob Bartholomew in the creation of the character as he was regularly consulted as an 'ideas' man. He created EAGLE's popular Heros the Spartan in 1962, although he did not subsequently write the strip and he was also involved in the creation of The Steel Claw for Valiant, but again he did not write the strip. However there is no documented evidence of his involvement with The Iron Man until a year later and Bob Bartholomew couldn't remember. After the first scene setting episode, which was written by someone on the editorial team, possibly Bartholomew himself, the stories were subsequently written by one or more members of the editorial team. Payment details do not identify the writers as payment was made through the Alec Harrison and Associates Literary Agency and it is their name that is recorded. This was because when the Mirror Group took over Odhams Press and Amalgamated Press in 1961, they did not pay staff members additional fees for writing stories or lettering strips, claiming that this additional work was part of their jobs. Previously these had provided opportunities for staff to supplement low incomes. In order to receive pay for this additional work, staff would submit work through agencies or using relatives or friends. The first Iron Man story to be credited to a named individual was the third story, where the Iron Man fights a villain called the 'Ruler' who finds a way of controlling the weather. Running from the issue dated 4th January 1964 until the issue dated 4th April 1964, it was written by Derek Long, who mostly wrote Women's fiction and occasionally detective stories.
In the dramatic opening episode of The Iron Man the readers meet Tim Branton, a man aged about twenty, who will be the only regular character in the series apart from the Iron Man himself. The story begins at the home of Tim's uncle, Professor Wentworth Farad, who is demonstrating his latest invention of a steel robot to his nephew. Tim, who has studied sculpture, suggests that the robot could be made to appear human, with a 'skin' made of a special plastic material and he goes to Edinburgh to get some from a friend. During his absence, enemy spies led by a sinister figure called the 'Whisperer' plan to kill the Professor to prevent Britain from gaining from his inventions. When Tim returns, he hears an explosion from the house which quickly burns to the ground, killing everyone within. The episode ends with the robot emerging from the blazing ruin.
In the second episode, as Tim approaches the house he is knocked unconscious by one of the murderous agents, who starts to drag him towards the flames. However the Iron Man appears and frightens the villains into fleeing from the scene. Tim disguises the Iron Man in the plastic skin and over the next nine episodes, the robot, whose advanced mechanical brain has already enabled him to learn to speak, quickly acquires a vast knowledge and a range of skills as he and Tim battle and eventually defeat the Whisperer and his men. The villains are really no match for the Iron Man, who quite apart from his ability to assimilate information with remarkable speed , also has the strength of a hundred men. Nevertheless the suspense is maintained by his tendency to suffer slight damage which temporarily incapacitates him. For example, although he is resistant to electrocution, when he is electrocuted some of his fuses blow and whenever his 'control panel' is bumped, it either activates or deactivates him. This control panel is presumably a safety measure in case the Iron Man goes out of control, as he functions perfectly well independently of it and it was soon dropped from the strip. Although the Iron Man would suffer further technical breakdowns in future adventures, these were mercifully rare and so the writers were obliged to create ever more powerful opponents to provide a realistic challenge for him.
The death of Professor Farad in the first episode was a shrewd development, because it meant that the Iron Man became an independent character. He alone could carry out repairs to himself and if he was destroyed there was no one to rebuild him. While Tim Branton initially acted as a kind of mentor to introduce the Iron Man to the world, he was a young man and definitely no scientist and the relationship between the two became one of trusting friends. Tim was the human character for readers to identify with.
The first story, which ran to eleven episodes was drawn by Gerry Embleton, who later illustrated Dan Dare in the early issues of the 1980s EAGLE in 1982. Embleton depicted the Iron Man in his plastic skin as a stocky character with a broad expressive face. (See above). At the start of the second adventure the strip was taken over by Martin Salvador, who changed his facial appearance significantly. Salvador gave the Iron Man a long angular face, which allowed him to look sleeker and more streamlined when shown without his plastic skin and and slightly less human when wearing it. The change was made deliberately to convey the Iron Man's robotic nature, as he would normally be featured wearing his plastic skin. (See below).
Both artists produced detailed frames, although Embleton's backgrounds tended to include more fine details and Salvador's face illustrations were slightly more caricatured. In his first story, Salvador created a memorable villain in the mysterious 'Doctor', who used plastic surgery and drugs to enable his accomplices to impersonate men of power and influence, including senior police officers and politicians, in order to carry out major crimes. With his heavily lined face, squat nose and wild staring eyes, the Doctor cut a sinister figure.
After the Iron Man defeated the Doctor he went on to face more criminal masterminds, mad scientists, megalomaniac dictators and other powerful robots. Villains such as Dynamo, Maskface, Count Barlac and Doctor Fear provided the opposition in stories which ran from between six and fifteen episodes. Throughout his adventures, the Iron Man maintained the pretence that he was human, adopting the name 'Robert' to identify himself, with only Tim Branton knowing his secret.
Boys' World ran for 89 issues until October 1964, when it merged with EAGLE during the course of the Iron Man's fifth adventure. Ken Mennell took over as writer on The Iron Man six issues before the merger and continued when the strip was one of four which transferred to the combined weekly. The Iron Man was the only one to establish itself in EAGLE, continuing right until the last issue in April 1969.
Martin Salvador proved a successful and long serving artist on the strip, remaining until late October 1967. As in Boys' World, the story occupied one and a half pages in black and white, but its popularity saw it increase to two weekly pages with the second issue of 1967. Salvador's comic art career had begun in his native Spain, where he created the Western strip Mendoza Colt for Chicos comic. He illustrated a strip called The Golden Sword in Britain's Sun comic and carried out work for Britain's Thriller and Cowboy Picture Libraries, before coming to The Iron Man. After leaving EAGLE, he illustrated European comic versions of The Saint and James Bond. He also drew the Wildcat Wayne strip in the Ranger section of Look and Learn in 1969. In the seventies and eighties he produced a lot of work for the American publisher Warren Comics on titles like Creepy.
As the sixties progressed, the American TV series of Batman became a success in Britain and Marvel Comics' new super heroes also crossed the Atlantic. These stories began to have an influence on the Iron Man's adventures, with more exaggerated and costumed villains appearing. The strip also took on more science fiction and fantasy elements, with monsters and lost civilisations featuring in several stories. The influence of Marvel Comics was never more evident than in Salvador's final strip, where Professor Ollson, an archaeologist, becomes unhinged, believing himself to be an ancient Viking warrior, Ragnar the Red. He forms an army of criminals who dress as Vikings and terrorise Britain with powerful force ray weapons. Marvel's super hero Thor was a Viking warrior god whose secret identity was Donald Blake, a medical student. Professor Ollson reverts to his former law abiding self when he recovers from a fall down stairs after seeing the Iron Man without his plastic skin and realising he is really a robot. He then sacrifices his life in destroying the force ray dynamo. Several other villains discovered the Iron Man's secret in the course of his adventures, but all were conveniently killed off at the end of their stories.
Another Spanish artist, Miguel Quesada, took over the strip in the issue dated 18th November 1967, after the former Dan Dare artist Desmond Walduck completed the last two episodes of the Professor Ollson story. Coincidentally, a repeat of the Dan Dare story Prisoners of Space illustrated by Walduck was running in EAGLE at the same time. Quesada had previously worked on many comics in Spain including Pantera Negra and shared a studio in Valencia with EAGLE stalwarts Jose Ortiz and Luis Bermejo. Quesada's work was slightly more detailed than Salvador's and he drew with a finer line. In his first story set in an unexplored mountain area of Bolivia, the Iron Man encounters intelligent anthropoid apes and a reptilian swamp monster and discovers a lost city. The story provided plenty of scope for imaginative artwork and Quesada made an impressive debut with his detailed backgrounds, confident figure work which conveyed action well and expressive character faces. He depicted the inhabitants of the lost city in costumes that echoed both traditional South American dress and Tibetan clothes and contributed greatly to the exotic mood of the story.