Comic book showcase: The creators of Thanos.

So I saw Avengers: Infinity War over the weekend.

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The only thing I will say about it is that it’s one heck of a turning point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and an epic way to cap off this giant experiment that Marvel and Disney have been running for the past ten years.

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Other than that, I’m not saying anything else about the movie.  The internet is filled with enough spoilers as it is.

No, today I want to do something different and talk about the behind the scenes history of big bad guy of the film, the villain who has been teased for the past five years: Thanos.

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The character is pretty simple.  He’s in love with the Marvel Universe’s personification of death and he attempts to prove his love by killing off half of the universe using the Infinity Gauntlet.

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He’s one of Marvel’s most powerful bad guys and a big part of the strange and weird cosmic stories that Marvel produced in the 70’s and 80’s.

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Sadly, Marvel’s cosmic stories were never a big seller for the company when you compare them to their mega hits like Spider Man and the X-Men.  Stories about characters like Ronan the Accuser and Adam Strange weren’t very popular, even though they’ve been getting more attention nowadays with the smash success of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

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This is really sad since these are some of the weirdest, most bizarre, and high concept storytelling the company has ever produced, and most of this insanity was created by the other legend working at Marvel, and a long time favorite of this blog series: Jack Kirby.

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You know him, you love him, he helped create nearly every single superhero on the big screen right now, and he loved him some crazy far out aliens and space stuff.

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You can see a lot of his

design aesthetic on display in Thor: Ragnarok.

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While Marvel had Kirby to thank for some of the most fascinating and bizarre aspects of their superhero universe, he didn’t create Thanos.

Thanos was created by writer Mike Friedrich,

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and writer/artist Jim Starlin.

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Both of these artists have had long and storied careers at both Marvel and DC and came into their own in the 70’s and 80’s, reinventing what comics could do and giving us some of the greatest characters and stories today.

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Starlin in particular is the prince of the Marvel cosmic universe, and his resume is only dwarfed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby themselves.

He helped create Thanos,

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Drax the Destroyer,

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Gamora,

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and he reinvented other heroes which will probably be making appearances in future Marvel movies like Adam Warlock,

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and Captain Marvel (who has a long and interesting story that I’m not going to talk about here, but long story short he was created in the 70’s and was reinvented as a lady in the present day).

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Yes people like Kirby, Friedrich, and Starlin were some of the most prominent and successful names in comics in the 70’s and 80’s, and were responsible for many of our childhood favorites.

And they all hated Marvel with a burning passion.

Long story short, the mega publisher decided to continue the long and sordid history of comic book publishers screwing authors and artists over.  Kirby followed in the footsteps of hundreds of his Golden Age co workers and was famously screwed out of most of the credit and royalties of his work, watching as his co creator Stan Lee would go on to become the biggest name in comics.

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Starlin in particular hates Marvel with the burning passion of a neutron star.

 

So they decided to quit Marvel and move on to greener pastures.  Kirby would move to DC Comics and create the characters of New Genesis and Apokalips, the latter being home to one of DC’s most powerful villains: Darkseid.

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Starlin and Friedrich decided to create their own comic, an anthology series known as Star Reach.

Star Reach is an interesting bit of comic book history.  It may seem like the comic book scene is dominated by Marvel and DC, and for the most part that’s true, but there has been a long running independent comic book scene that really took off in the 1970’s with the work of underground super stars like Harvey Pekar,

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Art Spiegelman,

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and Robert Crumb.

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The independent “comix” scene has its own separate and unique history and you could write books about it,  but for the sake of time and simplicity all you need to know is that it was characterized by its own unique art styles, adult themes, and subject matter that was absolutely NOT for children.

Star Reach was a comic anthology that collected short science fiction and fantasy stories and shared and helped bridge the gap between mainstream comics and the independent comix of the time.

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The first issue was published in 1974 and fans described the book as a “ground level publication”, sharing the distinction and aesthetic with a similar European publication we know today as Heavy Metal.

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Perhaps it was the lurid material, or the crossover appeal bridging the gap between mainstream comic books and the underground comix scene, or maybe it was the famous names attached to the book.  Either way, Star Reach was a hit and had a pretty solid five year run.

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Also, it helped set off a boom of independent comic books published in the late 70’s and early 80’s which helped shape the pop culture landscape we know and love today.

You know what?  I think this might be the perfect segue into a new age for this blog.  Sure, the 40’s were a fantastic time for comic books and produced some of comics’ most endearing characters and crazy stories, but the late 70’s and 80’s had some pretty insane characters and were a pretty fascinating time for the comic industry as well.

All good things must evolve, and I think now might be the time to change it up a bit.

This’ll be fun.

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Golden Age Showcase: Dynamite Thor

Full disclosure, I discovered this superhero after reading an article for Cracked.com.

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The article was about crazy Golden Age superheroes and the author, a gentleman who goes by the name of Seanbaby, has a pretty cool list of obscure old school heroes.

Anyway, on to the article and if Seanbaby does wind up reading this, I just want to say thank you.

Today we’re going to to talk about the most explosive superhero in all of comics, a man so explosive that his name combines the Norse god of thunder and a highly dangerous explosive: Dynamite Thor.

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Origin and career

Dynamite Thor made is first appearance in Weird Comics #6 September of 1940.

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He was created and written by a man named Wright Lincoln and is Mr. Lincoln’s only credited superhero.

He was published by Fox Features Syndicate, a company that was famous for two reasons.  First, their owner was an incredibly outspoken and boisterous man named Victor S. Fox.

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Apparently, before he became a comic book publisher he had made a living as the head of a shipping company, was arrested for stock fraud, and a book keeper for the company that would become DC Comics.  Also, he had a penchant for smoking cigars and calling himself “The King of Comics”

The man deserves his own article if we ever decide to do that.

Second, they were the original publishers of the superhero Blue Beetle.

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But back to Dynamite Thor.

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This hero’s actual name is Peter Thor, a wealthy mine owner and apparent explosives expert.

Here is his origin story.

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And that’s it.

Say what you want about Golden Age comics, at least they’re damn efficient with setting up their characters.

As you might be able to guess from the name, Dynamite Thor likes to use dynamite…a lot.

Does he need to get someone’s attention?  Dynamite.

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Destroy a ship killing and/or stranding countless numbers of people?  Dynamite

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Need to put out a fire?  You guessed it…dynamite.

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Believe it or not, this actually isn’t as stupid as it seems, although to be fair it is pretty stupid.  It turns out that you can use explosions to put out fires so…good for the writer I guess.

Dynamite Thor was also seemingly impervious to explosives, something that is a pretty useful skill to have when you chuck dynamite everywhere.  Apparently this meant he was also immune to high G forces because his obsession with dynamite allowed him to do this,

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which is probably the most unfortunate way to fly that I have ever seen.

You would think that this ability to resist explosions would allow him to be practically invulnerable but nope, he was just as injury probe as you and me.

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His supporting cast is nothing really new or creative.

He had a girlfriend named Glenda who he had to keep in the dark about his secret identity for no other reason than that’s what superheroes do,

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and he fought your standard assortment of foreign spies and gangsters.

Really, aside from the obsession with explosives and the high death toll he must have racked up, he was pretty boring.

So what happened?

Absolutely nothing happened, he disappeared from the comic book scene entirely after five pretty standard and kind of boring stories.

Fox Comics would declare bankruptcy in 1950 and its most famous creation, the Blue Beetle, would be bought by Charlton Comics,

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and eventually acquired by DC Comics into the hero we know today.

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How could he be rebooted?

The question here really isn’t “how can he be rebooted?” it’s more “can he be rebooted in such a way to make him interesting?”.

Sure, Dynamite Thor is an explosives expert and he seems to be invulnerable to explosives, but someone with that particular skill set would cause waaaay too much collateral damage to be considered a hero (although that could be an interesting theme to play around with), so he would more than likely be rebooted as a villain.

The problem here is that there are a lot of halfway decent super villains such as DC’s Shrapnel,

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and Marvel’s Nitro,

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who have explosion based powers, which means that Dynamite Thor would probably struggle to stand out.

Maybe he could be a business man who has advanced knowledge of chemistry and physics and uses it to develop better explosives which he uses to commit crimes?  Or maybe he could be a disillusioned military veteran who was in a bomb disposal unit and watched his entire squad die?  The trick isn’t updating his powers, it’s making that update interesting enough for modern readers.

Dynamite Thor was a strange, very obscure hero who lives on in articles like these.  He had a pretty interesting power, used it in hilarious ways, and only lasted a couple of issues before fading into obscurity.  Basically, it’s heroes like these that make the comic book landscape vast enough and interesting enough to keep researching.

New mythologies for comic books: Russian legends and myths.

Last week I wrote an article talking about how most of the comic book industry draws upon four mythologies for most of their divine or god-like characters.  While Greek/Roman, Norse, Japanese, and Christian mythology (I debated throwing in Egyptian mythology but I decided it would make too good of an article so for now let’s just pretend that there aren’t enough Egyptian themed characters out there) are all fun and good there are plenty of other mythic traditions that deserve a lot more attention and would make awesome comic book characters and worlds.

Here’s how this is going to work.  I am going to divide each article into three parts.  The first part will talk about any history the mythological tradition might already have within the tradition of comic books.  Second, I’ll give a brief description of a couple of established heroes, gods, or creatures that would make interesting characters.  And finally, we’ll delve into the hypothetical and explore what a character or comic book series could look like.

With that being said, let’s take a look at Russian mythology and folklore.

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Russia in comics

Now many of you are probably quick to point out that there are plenty of Russian characters in comic books and you’d be mostly right.  There are plenty of famous comic book characters that speak Russian, work/kill for Russia, and live in Russia.  Characters like the Black Widow

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Colossus (my personal favorite)

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and the Crimson Dynamo

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Here’s the thing though.  If you wanted to get technical all of these characters aren’t technically Russian, they’re Soviet.

For anyone who might not know the Soviet Union was a collection of Eastern European and Central Asian nations that shared a common system of government and were all bundled together under the “benevolent” protection of their biggest and most powerful member, Russia.

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Granted they all used the Russian language and currency and they all banded together to use Russian technology and education defend and develop but each member state did have it’s own history and culture before joining the Soviet Union.

What’s interesting is that the Soviets were only around for about 80 years.  It all started with this guy: Vladimir Lenin

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who helped kickstart the Russian Revolution of 1917 which was supposed to look like this

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However, the Revolution was taken over by this guy: Joseph Stalin

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who did a lot of this

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Millions of people died, even more millions starved to death, and pre Soviet Russian culture suffered and was almost completely erased in an attempt to make room for the new and modern Soviet system of thought.  Couple that with some old fashioned Cold War antagonism and paranoia and it’s easy to see why many people, especially in the West, don’t know much about pre Soviet Russia.

I want to talk about the gods, heroes and monsters of pre Soviet Russia: a land of forests, rivers, and the kind of vast isolated landscape that would leave a person feeling very small.

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Thankfully I am not the first person to recognize the amazing stories of pre Soviet Russia for what they are, people like Neil Gaiman have included Russian folklore into their stories since the beginning of their careers.

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If you’re a fan of Mr. Gaiman’s work than you have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to talk about but for the rest of us, let’s delve into the creepy, strange, and wonderful world of Russian folk lore.

Examples and showcases:

Here’s where I showcase certain parts of Russian mythology.  Naturally I can’t go over it all, there’s enough material for an entire book but for now let’s look at three parts: the old gods, great folk heroes, and mythical beasts and beings.

Now before the Soviets came to power Russia was Christian, really REALLY Christian.

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While the Soviets  tried to stamp out the Russian church (it’s making a come back now) there was a time when Russia was ruled by the old gods.

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Not a whole lot is known about these gods (nothing was written down and the Christians were just as happy to destroy the remnants of the old world as the Soviets were) but they do continue to live on through their names.  You have the main god, the god of thunder, Perun

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The god of light, Belobog

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and his much darker companion, Chernobog.  Fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may recognize Chernobog as “that guy with the hammer” whereas fans of Disney’s Fantasia might recognize him as the guy at the end of the movie that gave you nightmares.

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As I said before though, we don’t know a whole lot about these gods.  This is because around 980 A.D Russia became a Christian nation thanks to this man.

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That’s Vladimir of Kiev, the man who would make Russia Christian and shape it into what it is today (technically he’s Ukrainian but shh!  That part of the world is already in enough trouble as it is).  Let’s make one thing clear, Vladimir was not a nice man.  He used violence and fear to build his empire and it was reported that he had five wives and over 800 concubines, but since he made Russia Christian (by forcing entire populations to baptize themselves in rivers) the Church liked him and made him a saint.

Anyway, Vladimir ruled from the city Kiev which became very wealthy through trade.  Wealth attracts rivals and rivals means war so Vladimir surrounded himself with his knights or bogatyr in Russian.

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These men were romanticized into early Russian superheroes and the epic tales (or byliny in Russian) about their deeds read almost like a Thor comic.

The three men pictured above are three of the most famous bogatyr: Illya Muromets, Dobrynya Nikitich. and Alyosha Popovich.  Here’s a small taste of their alleged exploits.

  • Illya travels from his hometown to Kiev in order to serve Prince Vladimir.  While Kiev is over 500 miles away he vows to accomplish the journey in six hours and nearly succeeds, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was delayed fighting a supernatural forest bandit.
  • Dobryanya fought a multi headed dragon by himself for three days and nearly drowned in its blood.
  • Alyosha fought the monster Turagin but beating him to death with a staff, cutting him into tiny pieces, and presenting his body to Prince Vladamir.

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It’s worth mentioning that we should probably take these stories with a grain of salt but there is some speculation that these great deeds were metaphors and representations of actual people who fought against some of Russia’s many, many enemies.

Lastly we’re going to talk mythical creatures and beasts.  While the south of Russia is dominated by plains and steppes the north of ancient Russia was covered in dark, deep, and cold forests.

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These were the kinds of places where demons lived and where a Russian peasant would think twice before venturing out into the woods at night.  Naturally places like these were the breeding ground for all sorts of mythical creatures like the child snatching leshii 

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and the seductive and tempting rusalka

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But it would be terrible form not to mention the queen of Russian folklore, the witch that rules them all: Baba Yaga

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She lives in a house that walks on chicken legs, flies around on a mortar and pestle, and in a couple of accounts has no qualms about eating people.  That being said Baba Yaga is an interesting case study.  In some stories she is definitely evil but in other cases she lends her help and powers to the hero of the story.  Basically she’s awesome and more people deserve to know about her.

How to use Russian mythology in comics

This is the part where I offer my own personal opinions on the folklore of the day and how they could be used in a comic book.

I mentioned that these stories would be right at home in a Thor comic and I meant it.  Gods walking among the people, legendary heroes who can kill dragons and travel hundreds of miles in hours, and mystical creatures are Thor’s bread and butter. In fact, inserting Russian folk legends into Thor comics would work really well considering that the Vikings and the Slavic Russians have a long history together.

But let’s say that Marvel doesn’t want to add Russian mythology to Thor, what happens when you try to make a Russian comic book hero stand on its own.  Personally I think that having one of these legendary bogatyr travel forward in time to modern day Russia would make an interesting story.  Something like that could be a “fish out of water” story where the hero attempts to fit into modern Russia while coming to grips with the fact that he is a relic.  The hero would have to cope with the centuries of violence and persecution that Russia has undergone and struggle to be a hero in a society that has all but forgotten him.

As for the mystical elements of Russian folklore I don’t see any reason why there couldn’t be a modern story with these elements in them.  One of the most popular types of stories are the stories where a protagonist, usually a young child, travels to a mystical realm where the creatures and gods of ancient Russia exist.  Think of it like Alice in Wonderland only with woodland sprites and witches in chicken feet shacks.

Anyway, that’s a brief description of Russian folklore and how it could be made into an epic comic.  Let me know your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

The Primordial Soup: Why is Iron Man so popular?

So this little movie just came out.

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It’s safe to say that the Avengers and the Marvel movie experiment has been a massive success, bringing together a team of some of the greatest superheroes of the 20th century.  What’s even better for the fans, and Marvel’s box office bottom line, is that most of these superheroes have built up successful movie franchises on their own.  The mighty Thor can easily draw fans in on his own with his epic fantasy tales (though it doesn’t hurt that he has Loki on his side).

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Captain American can rake in the box office proceeds with his sense of moral justice amid a world that is increasingly going to hell in a hand basket.

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And the Incredible Hulk is resilient enough to survive over fifty years worth of comics, television, Ang Lee, and a reboot.

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But by far the most popular and successful super hero to arise from Marvel’s post bankruptcy movie juggernaut is Iron Man, who over the course of seven years and three movies has managed to rake in over 2 BILLION on his own.

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But what makes Iron Man so popular?  Why did Marvel decide to kick off their movie universe with an unknown director and problematic lead actor?  Let’s find out.

In order to figure out why Iron Man is so popular we have to go back through his history.  One of the reasons I find his popularity so funny is because Iron Man may be the only hero created so people would hate him.  Stan Lee initially created Iron Man in 1963 during the height of the Vietnam War.  Iron Man aka Anthony Stark, is a “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” who designs and builds weapons for the U.S military, which meant he was responsible for the Marvel equivalent of this.

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which Stan thought would piss off a lot of younger readers.  However, for some odd reason Iron Man proved to be incredibly popular and he developed into a Marvel mainstay.  Due to his capitalist, free wheeling, death dealing lifestyle Stark became the embodiment of American industrial might and militaristic aggression beating back colorful villains like the Crimson Dynamo, an experiment by the Soviet Union attempting to duplicate the Iron Man armor.

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And the Mandarin, an evil Chinese super genius with ten rings that give him various powers.

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It’s pretty clear that most of these villains wouldn’t work today, Iron Man 3 avoided using the Mandarin in his original form, because they were meant to be caricatures of America’s great Communist enemies: the Soviet Union and China.  Through out the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s Iron Man was Marvel’s representation of American industry, conquering his foes with technological prowess and ingenuity.

And then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and just like that the Cold War ended.

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You’d think that would be the end if Iron Man, after all what would the living embodiment of the military industrial complex have left to fight, but he managed to keep his position as one of Marvel’s top characters long after the Cold War was over.  As far as I can tell there are two possible explanations for this.  First, there’s the Batman argument, which basically means comic book readers just really enjoy watching a 1%er beat the ever loving crap out of poor people with cool gadgets.  But the second option is much more interesting to me.

Iron Man is a geek.

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Think about it.  Iron Man makes his living designing machines and gadgets.  From an early age Stark was tinkering, programming, and graduating from MIT at age 15. Heck, his only real superpower is his mind, which was able to develop a suit to give him the powers of a god.  There is no problem he can’t solve with technology and nothing his mind can’t handle.

Now if we take that template and we apply it to our society and our modern day world we can see something interesting.  Who are our real world industrial heroes?  Who are the people we admire for changing the world and making massive fortunes?  The answer is, geeks who developed the products that run our world today.  Computer experts like Bill Gates.

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Programming innovators like Larry Paige and Sergey Brin.

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And visionaries like Jeff Bezos.

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And our fascination with tech innovators doesn’t end with the people who wind up with all our money, it extends to the rest of us as well.  In fact, if you look at the number over the past twenty years, there are more engineers and people studying engineering then ever before.  If you go to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo they are filled with people working on fun and interesting gadgets and tech.  We love the ideals that heroes like Iron Man exemplify like intelligence, confidence, innovation, and curiosity and while it is true that Iron Man does share quite a few similarities in his background with heroes like Batman I think that people tend to be more interested in Batman’s dark atmosphere and fanatic devotion to justice while we are more drawn to Iron Man’s spirit of innovation and creativity.

Unless everyone just likes to associate him with the song, in which case this entire article is completely pointless.