With Iron Man 3 coming out in the United States the day after tomorrow, it seems like an appropriate time to list the best Iron Man comics for a new reader.
“Extremis” (Iron Man Volume 4 #1-6)
Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s six issue arc may just be the best introduction to the comic book version of the character, as Tony Stark upgrades his armor, recalls his origin and faces a modern threat. There are few references to Iron Man’s past or the outside Marvel Universe, which makes the story even more accessible. Artist Adi Granov would go on to become a consultant on the films due to the strength of his painted work here. The Extremis super-soldier solution plays a big role in Iron Man 3, as does Maya Hansen, who develops a much more complicated relationship with Tony Stark.
“Demon in a Bottle” (Iron Man #120-128)
These issues, from early in David Michelinie’s first run on the series, have come to define the character. It ends with Tony Stark confronting his alcoholism, although the bulk of the story is a clash between Iron Man and rival industrialist Justin Hammer, who appeared in a slightly different form in Iron Man 2. The main story in which Iron Man is framed for murder, and forced to fight a legion of supervillains holds up pretty well, too. Early collections of the storyline go by the more generic title “The Power of Iron Man.”
Iron Man VS Doctor Doom (Iron Man #149-150, #249-250)
Another high point of Michelinie’s Iron Man run, these issues feature two clashes between Iron Man and the most dangerous man in the Marvel Universe, as they’re sent to Camelot under King Arthur. The relationship between Morgan le Fay and Doctor Doom became important in Bendis’s Avengers. The stories take Tony Stark out of his comfort zone, into an entirely new environment, revealing new facets of the character, without relying too much on prior continuity.
The Armor Wars (Iron Man #225-232)
The last of the big three David Michelinie Iron Man stories, this arc features Iron Man fighting against the US government to get his stolen technology. It comes to exemplify his relationship with authority, and his willingness to fight friend and foe in order to preserve his independence, and prevent others from suffering due to his inventions. It’s definitely one of the character’s defining arcs.
Iron Man: The Iron Age #1-2
This mini-series by Kurt Busiek and Patrick Zircher is probably the best introduction to the Silver Age Iron Man. The Stan Lee stories, while often good, are hardly essential, often lacking the magic of the Lee/ Kirby Fantastic Four or the Lee/ Ditko Amazing Spider-Man. The two issues covers Tony’s friendship with Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan, as he gets used to his new responsibilities as a superhero. It plays to Busiek’s strengths in stories like Marvels and Astro City, as he features extraordinary events from the vantage point of ordinary civilians.
If you’re interested in Silver Age Iron Man, “A World is Watching” from Tales of Suspense #69-71 is probably Stan Lee’s strongest tale with the character, and one of the best in which Iron Man fights another guy with armor, this time the Titanium Man, champion of the Soviets.
Marvel’s biggest event was ultimately a clash between Iron Man and Captain America. It came to define the epitomize the character’s relationship with the Marvel Universe for the next generation. Robert Downey Jr’s depiction of Iron Man also owes a lot to the portrayal of the character in Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s two Ultimates maxi-series, so those two books are also worth hunting down. Civil War: The Confession by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev deals with the aftermath, while the Casualties of War one-shot by Christos Gage and Jeremy Haun features further exploration of why they’re fighting.
A Note on the Mandarin
The Mandarin is generally considered Tony Stark’s archenemy, and he’s one of the villains in Iron Man 3. The problem with anyone looking for an introduction to the character in the comic books is that his best stories haven’t been all that good. CBR readers got it about right, when they came up with a top ten list without any appearances by the Mandarin. Maybe writers were uncomfortable with the racial connotations of a bad guy who fit the yellow peril stereotype. Or maybe it’s just that David Michelinie never wrote the villain.
Enter the Mandarin is an acceptable recounting of Iron Man’s first clash with his greatest enemy, which also built on Iron Man’s friendship with Anton Vanko, the Crimson Dynamo (merged with Whiplash for Mickey Rourke’s bad guy in Iron Man 2.) The Knauf’s post-Civil War run on the series (Iron Man Volume 4 #15-18, 21-28) is essentially a twelve issue battle between Iron Man and the reborn Mandarin, and it’s been mentioned in a few recent best of lists. It doesn’t include much of what has come to define the villain, although it does incorporate Maya Hansen and Extremis, so much of it was incorporated into the narrative for Iron Man 3. The storyline “Ten Rings to Rule Them All” from Iron Man #95-100 by Bill Mantlo and George Tuska is considered one of the best early Mandarin stories. The Mandarin was also the main villain in the final arc of Matt Fraction’s run on Invincible Iron Man, although that came after about sixty issues of set-up.