Saturday, April 17, 2010

Marvel Keeps Using That Word. I Do Not Think it Means What Quesada Thinks it Means

Marvel likes its sub-lines, like 1602 and now Noir. The last year has filled out the line with Daredevil, Luke Cage, Punisher, Wolverine, and two series each for Spider-Man and the X-Men. This week brought us an Iron Man for the Noir-iverse, and it has fine art, a fast-paced story, and loads of Easter Eggs for the longtime Marvel fan. But if this first issue is many things, this Iron Man is emphatically not noir. It is pulp. The pain of it is that one could easily produce a noirish Iron Man story, if not for one problem: Tony Stark.

Though Film Noir is a notoriously slippery genre, with fairly elastic boundaries, there are a few defining features. Among the most important is the nature of the protagonist. He is generally not a man of action or great achievement. If he is distinguished, then his glory days are long passed. Think of Mitchum in Out of the Past, Kirk Douglass in Ace in the Hole, or Joseph Cotten in the Third Man.

Having this kind of protagonist at the core has serious implications for the plot as well. The noir hero never initiates the plot. He is dragged into it by a femme fatale, or by a larger scheme (as in Third Man) Occasionally, he is resentful in his reduced circumstances and stumbles upon an opportunity to seize his main chance (as in Ace in the Hole). But he is almost never in control of circumstances. (A Google search for "film noir" and "in over his head" returns more than 200,000 hits). So the noir character is a regular guy, caught up in a much larger game. And generally, that larger game is the corruption of the world. From a gumshoe caught up in a new age of apocalyptic warfare to a cynical Angeleno bearing witness to the ugly rise of the modern American city, film noir suggests that one person can't ever win. The best they can hope for is to wring out a little measure of dignity in an increasingly dehumanized world.

In this context, how can we look at this Tony Stark as a noir hero? He is supremely confident, always in control. He fights Nazis in lost cities, searches for Atlantis, and has a "Men's Adventure" amanuensis following his every move. He isn't Mike Hammer, he's Doc Savage. Now, there's nothing wrong with being Doc Savage. This guy, this guy, and this guy all have more than a touch of the Man of Bronze in their makeup. But none of them are noir. They're pulp heroes. They're larger than life, not living their lives; not mensch but ubermensch. But, then again, how do you take a character defined as swinging playboy and millionaire superstar and put him in a noir story?

Easy. You don't make him the viewpoint character. Tony Stark isn't a noir hero. His exalted position in society makes it almost impossible. We never meet the noir hero when he is a lord of all he surveys, and the genre generally takes a pretty ambivalent view towards the socially powerful. They are signs of the rot and corruption that the noir hero struggles against in vain, architects of the fallen world. But if we don't see inside Stark's head, we can put him in that ambiguous role. A millionaire with a secret agenda-- that's noir. The Noir line has used such viewpoint characters before, as in the original X Men Noir, which used the Golden Age Angel to investigate the more outre X-Men cast.

So imagine this: It's 1948. A washed-up boxer is looking for work. A beautiful redhead hires him for a job-playing chauffeur and bodyguard for her boss, one of the richest men in town. There's an immediate spark between the boxer and the secretary. And the boss is sweet on her too! But the boss is strangely frail. He spends hours each day in that iron lung contraption. They say he got sick working on that bomb that ended the war. The guilty nightmares that haunt him drive him to seek forgiveness, though most nights he goes looking for it at the bottom of the bottle. It would be so easy to take everything. And if the money isn't enough; well, there's another redhead who will pay handsomely for Stark's research notes...

It may not read better or sell better than Iron Man Pulp, but it would be the start of a story that would actually be Iron Man Noir.


  1. Hey Johnny - you're right - it is pulp through and through. We thought about just calling it IM pulp, but couldn't do it. Hope you enjoy anyway. Thanks. s

  2. Scott--

    I really did enjoy the issue, and I plan to keep reading the series. I've just been thinking about Marvel's whole "Noir" project, and this was an ideal opportunity to lay out some of those thoughts. In any case, thanks for stopping by to respond!