As I mentioned in discussing Teen Titans recently, relevance, or more accurately a facsimile of it, was a big deal in comics at the end of the 1960s. The world was changing and both Marvel and DC wanted to capture some of that excitement, show they were set in the present-day and hopefully beef up sinking sales (or so I’ve read) by being more Now!
While the O’Neil/Adams Green Lantern got most of the attention, and still does this stuff was everywhere. Everyone from Superman to Robin to Spider-Man dealt with campus protesters. And drugs, as the Comics Code finally allowed stories on that topic (before Stan Lee ran an anti-drug Spider-Man story without the Code seal, even Drugs Are Bad wasn’t an acceptable sentiment). And racial unrest. Then “women’s lib” once that became a big thing. Plus hippies, communes, youth activists … mostly not done well. And even when it was done decently, it doesn’t age well. Two Iron Man stories from the 1960s show how relevance can work—or not.
Iron Man #27 (cover by Marie Severin, rights with current holder) holds up surprisingly well. The premise of the story (by Archie Goodwin and Don Heck) is that Stark Industries is building a community center in a black neighborhood and runs into trouble. Black protesters think they should have some input into what help their community needs. The project ramrod is ignoring them because of his own business interests. And then comes Firebrand, a disillusioned activist who’s decided the only way to change things is through violence. He wants to turn the protest violent, and halfway succeeds before Stark and his black friend Eddie March sort things out. Even then, the community center project is dead as the black residents begin negotiating what they do want.
I like this one (and let me make the usual observation that I’m neither a sixties former activist or black, so I don’t know whether I’d see it differently if I were). The activist-to-militant backstory was a real thing for some liberals of the era, so it makes Firebrand both more relevant and more individual than the usual militant. Likewise communities that object to top-down projects, even well-meant ones, is a recurring problem; the protesters are right, even though Tony’s goals are good. Usually when the activist and the super-hero are on opposite sides, the activist is wrong.
Then there’s Iron Man #31 (cover by Sal Buscema, all rights to current holder) by Ally Brodsky and Don Heck, which did it all wrong. This time Stark’s new power-plant on an idyllic island is triggering protests because of pollution and ruining the way of life (a lot of this resembles the plot of Goodwin’s Iron Man #14), though some residents like the jobs. Once again, the guy running the project is a crook; this time he tries to cover up by importing pseudo-radicals, the Smashers, to turn the protest militant, destroy the plant and cover up his fraud. In the end everything’s cleared up, and the locals realize that Tony’s plant is completely pollution-free.
It’s a stock story under the layer of relevance (the crooked manager could just as easily have imported an Iron Man foe such as the Melter or Whiplash to do the job. But to the extent it does have an issue hook, Brodsky blows it, handwaving away all the issues. And while the island has a native population, all the players—the manager, the Smashers, almost all the protesters with speaking parts—are white. That makes me way more uncomfortable than it would have at the time.
The Firebrand story shows a relevant story can succeed. But then again, creating a character ripped from today’s headlines doesn’t guarantee the same character will work tomorrow. I think the late Mark Gruenwald was right when he said in the 1980s that Firebrand was too dated to reuse (other Firebrands showed up later). That’s still more interesting than the Smashers.