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We are Iron Man! A lowbrow literary mystery.

Posted by Joshua Glenn  April 2, 2008 09:42 PM

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ironman.jpg
Still from the forthcoming "Iron Man" movie

Welcome, visitors who followed links from Boing Boing, io9, SF Signal, Topless Robot, TIME's Nerd World, Big Dumb Object, Bubblegum Aesthetics, CrunchGear, Techgnosis, Doombot, Honky-Tonk Dragon, and elsewhere.

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More SF- and comics-related stories: "We are Iron Man!" (Brainiac) | "Post-Apocalyptic Kiddie Movies" (Brainiac) | "The Slacktivism of Richard Linklater" (Slate) | "Black Iron Prison" (n+1) | "Back to Utopia" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "In a Perfect World" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Philip K. Dick: Hermenaut of the Month" (Hermenaut) | "Journeys to the Center " (New York Times Book Review/IHT) | "Climate of Fear" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Pulp Affection" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Eco-Spaceship Redux" (Brainiac) | "Post-Apocalyptic Juvie Lit" (Brainiac) | "The New Skrullicism" (Brainiac) | "Prez" (Brainiac) | "Life Imitates Comic Book" (Brainiac) "Vintage Ads of Fictional Futures" (Brainiac) | "The Partisans" (Brainiac) | "The New Gods" (Brainiac) | "Rarebit Fiend!" (Brainiac audio slideshow) | "Dr. Strange vs. Dr. Craven" (Brainiac) | PS: Here's a highbrow literary mystery that I cracked recently: "Is It a Chamber Pot?" (Slate) | PPS: As the Boston Phoenix was kind enough to point out, Brainiac beat every other media outlet in Boston to the scoop that the Mooninite Invasion of 2007 was just a guerrilla marketing campaign.

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WHO IS IRON MAN?

In the final seconds of the latest trailer for Iron Man, which stars Robert Downey Jr. and opens soon in a theater near you, the movie's armored protagonist dodges a shell fired by a Taliban-esque tank, launches a wrist rocket, then stalks away without bothering to watch the fireworks. The musical soundtrack to this awesome heavy-metal spectacle? Naturally, it's the instantly recognizable guitar riff and thundering bass drum intro from Black Sabbath's anthem, "Iron Man."

Marvel Comics introduced Tony Stark in the March 1963 issue of Tales of Suspense. Stark is a brilliant, wealthy inventor of high-tech weaponry who, while doing some field testing with US military advisers in South Vietnam, gets critically wounded by a booby-trap and is forced into the service of Wong-Chu, a "red guerrilla tyrant." Making do with low-tech materials, and with the help of a captured Vietnamese physicist, Stark inters himself in a gadget-laden suit of iron armor whose electrified chestplate keeps his shrapnel-damaged heart beating.

Barely able to operate his new legs, Stark nevertheless confronts his nemesis: "Have you never seen an iron man before?" he taunts. Wong-Chu (a stand-in for Ho Chi Minh, not to mention the Viet Minh insurgency in South Vietnam generally) stammers, "You -- you are not human! You are machine!" Pow! The "metallic hulk who once was Anthony Stark,” as the comic's scriptwriter, Larry Lieber, has Stark put it in the origin story's final panel, knocks Asian communism for a loop.

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ToS #39 -- cover art by Jack Kirby and Don Heck

In 1968, the year that Marvel's Iron Man finally got his own comic book, the US Department of Defense announced that some 24,000 troops would be sent back to Vietnam for involuntary second terms. That same year, Steppenwolf's hit song "Born to Be Wild" introduced rock fans to the phrase "heavy metal." Two years later, the trailblazing British heavy metal act Black Sabbath unleashed "Iron Man" -- a six-minute-long rock opera about an unfortunate soul who was "turned to steel" while singlehandedly attempting to alter the disastrous "future of mankind" -- on the world.

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Black Sabbath

Despite getting little airplay, Sabbath's antiwar album Paranoid reached No. 1 in England, and No. 12 in the United States. "Iron Man," the album's fourth track, is hailed today as one of the greatest and most influential heavy metal tunes of all time. So... does the song have something to do with the superhero?

Many metalheads claim that it does; others insist that it doesn't. For example, see the user-generated content at the website Songfacts: "Do you want to know what this song is really about? It's about Iron Man... as in the comic book character... get the very first issue... the parallels are obvious." -- Eric, Rockford, IL. vs. "The comic Iron Man is a super hero. The song is about a guy that ends up killing the human race because they don't listen to him or help him after he sees the end of the world and is turned to iron. Listen to the damn song!!!" -- Chris, Sacramento, CA. And so forth.

You know what? This is a bona fide literary mystery! If a lowbrow one. And readers, you know that I can't resist a literary mystery.

***

THEORY: THE SONG WAS INFLUENCED BY THE SUPERHERO

Theme from the 1990s "Iron Man" cartoon

Sabbath bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler has claimed that "Iron Man" was a dystopian "science fiction story" that he dreamed up after seeing "a lot of things in the news about pollution and nuclear war." But you can't always take an artist's word for this sort of thing. Consciously or unconsciously, the song could have been inspired by the comic book. Marvel Comics would certainly like us to think so. For the past decade and a half at least, they've been subliminally suggesting that when Ozzy growls, "I AM IRON MAN!" at the beginning of the song, he's ventriloquizing Tony Stark.

For example: While the theme to the 1966-67 Iron Man TV cartoon was oddly upbeat for a show about a handicapped victim of the US military action in Vietnam ("Tony Stark makes you feel/he's a cool exec with a heart of steel"), the theme song of the 1994-96 cartoon repeats Ozzy's phrase ("I AM IRON MAN!") over and over again. Although the cheesy electric guitar stylings of the latter theme aren't much like the Sabbath song, the impressionable young viewer is supposed to connect the dots between Iron Man, the superhero, and "Iron Man," the song.

Theme from the 1960s "Iron Man" cartoon

As I've already mentioned, the new Iron Man movie features the actual Black Sabbath song -- along with a dozen other heavy metal classics -- on its soundtrack. PS: In a time-warping twist, readers of The Invincible Iron Man: Extremis, a 2005-06 reboot of the comic, were told that Stark received his wound during the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan -- and that the inspiration for the armor came from his favorite Sabbath song. You can guess which one.

OK, so Marvel Comics has tried assiduously for years to establish a subconscious association between their character and the greatest heavy metal song ever. But Geezer's account of the song's gestation trumps these efforts. Or does it? By my count, there are no fewer than three important textual clues which might very well indicate that the plot of "Iron Man" was, in fact, influenced by the Marvel Comics superhero.

1. In the song, the couplet "Can he walk at all/Or if he moves will he fall" might refer to the moment in Iron Man's origin story where Stark falls upon first donning his armor.

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2. The sing-song, childish lyrics remind us of Wong-Chu’s pidgin English.

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For closeup view, click on image

3. The final verse -- "Heavy boots of lead/Fills his victims full of dread/Running as fast as they can/Iron Man lives again!" reminds us of the teaser from Iron Man's origin story: "Watch his awesome approach! Listen to his ponderous footsteps as he lumbers closer... closer.... For today you are destined to encounter -- the invincible Iron Man!"

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For closeup view, click on image

Wait, you say that you don't believe British rockers in the late 1960s were obsessed with American superhero comics? Au contraire! One thinks immediately of Donovan singing about Green Lantern in his chart-topping ditty "Sunshine Superman," for example; and also of the fraught use of the comic book Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen in the Beatles' movie "Help!" (The comics can be spotted atop John Lennon's moviehouse organ, propped up where the sheet music ought to be.) Paul McCartney, as always, was the hipper Beatle: He was into Marvel, not DC. On Wings' 1975 album, Venus and Mars, he sings a silly love song that features the X-Men's enemy, Magneto, as well as not one but two of Iron Man's armor-clad opponents: Titanium Man and the Crimson Dynamo. 'Nuff said.

Was Iron Man -- the superhero -- popular in England in the late 1960s? I think so. Here's the cover of a book I picked up in Brighton (England) earlier this year:

fantastic69a.jpg

Did British rockers dig science fiction about iron men? Again, I think so. Check out the next two images.

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UPDATE: A reader points out that a 1997 album by Geezer Butler's band G/Z/R contains a Geezer-penned song titled "Among the Cybermen." In an interview, Butler said, "The original chorus was 'Doctor Who lies dead among the Cybermen.' [It's] about the final battle of Dr. Who, but was supposed to be symbolic of the end of childhood. I changed it because I thought it sounded a bit silly. Most of the album is about growing up in the era of Sixties television, and its influence on me."

So was Sabbath's "Iron Man" influenced by the superhero's origin story? Indubitably. But... keep reading.

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THEORY: THE SONG WAS INFLUENCED BY ANOTHER IRON MAN

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So much for the lowbrow (possible) inspiration of Sabbath's "Iron Man." I've heard a number of other theories: the song is about Jesus Christ (in order to save mankind, the word became flesh/a man's flesh turned to steel); it's about iron- or steelworkers in a postindustrial society; it's about a high-school kid who gets bullied and snaps; it's about a drug user who slips into a comatose state; it's about a ghost; it's about a soldier who returns from Vietnam with PTSD only to be reviled by American peaceniks. The song is ambiguous enough to support all sorts of metaphorical interpretations.

UPDATE: Premiere Magazine film critic Glenn Kenny suggests that the song reminds him of Herschell Gordon Lewis's 1965 movie "Monster A-Go-Go," in which a returning-from-space astronaut appears to have mutated into a large, radioactive, humanoid monster.

monster_a_go_go.jpg

However, some metalhead exegetes claim that the source of the song's inspiration is most likely a 1968 British children's book by Ted Hughes. Now, this is a promising angle! After all, when James Parker wrote about Hughes for the Ideas section in 2003, what did he say? Remember? He said:

To read Ted Hughes as a young person was pure heavy metal. The humped strength of his lines, the brain-jamming immediacy of his images, the darkness of his concerns: There was nothing else like it.

Italics added.

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Ted Hughes

Hughes's The Iron Man concerns a metallic giant who arrives in England out of nowhere, terrifying everyone but a young boy whom he befriends, and whose obedient servant he becomes. The iron man is buried alive by farmers, whose property he destroys. But he digs himself out of the grave, and later saves the planet from a monstrous alien being. The Iron Giant, a 1999 animated film, is loosely based on the Hughes book; so is a 1989 Pete Townshend rock opera.

Written to comfort the future poet laureate's children after the suicide of their mother, Sylvia Plath, Hughes described the story as an "imaginative strategy for dealing with neurosis" -- that is to say, he wanted to tell children a story in which one of the great horrors of the adult world (runaway technology) can be mastered thanks to a child's natural wisdom.

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Scene from "The Iron Giant."

First of all, let's address the question of whether British rockers in the late '60s might have been obsessed with children's fantasy literature. Answer: Duh. John Lennon aped Lewis Carroll; Pink Floyd named their first album after a chapter of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows; and Led Zeppelin laced their lyrics with references to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. True, Hughes's book wasn't a time-honored classic, at that point; but the timing of its publication (1968) is spot-on.

Meanwhile, the whole cryptic setup for "Iron Man" -- "Is he alive or dead/Has he thoughts within his head" -- would finally make sense if they were a reference to Hughes's story about an otherworldly metal creature whose origins and purpose are never explained. Also, when Ozzie sings, "Now the time is here/For Iron Man to spread fear/Vengeance from the grave/Kills the people he once saved" -- well, this sort of thing is precisely what readers expect will happen once Hughes's iron man digs his way out of the grave. (SPOILER: It doesn't.) Of course, Stark comes back from the grave, kinda -- or from the brink of it. "The machine is keeping me alive! ALIVE!"

Hmm. So was the song influenced by Hughes's book? Yes, without a doubt!

Having considered all the evidence, I favor a high-lowbrow (or as I like to spell it, hi-lobrow) interpretation of "Iron Man." That is to say, it seems to me that Geezer Butler's lyrics are a postmodern mashup of highbrow lit written for juveniles (Hughes’s children’s book) and juvenile lit admired by highbrows (Stan Lee’s superhero comic). No wonder the song was -- and remains -- so incredibly popular. As for the DNA-altering "magnetic field" business, Geezer lifted that from the Fantastic Four's origin story.

***

WE'RE ALL IRON MAN

So what might a song whose themes were in all probability cobbled together from Iron Man's origin story and Ted Hughes's heady children's book mean?

During the Vietnam War era, and again today, those of us who aren't off fighting in a senseless war -- and who know that it's a senseless war -- gain cold comfort from the shrill middlebrow arguments we find in liberal magazines and on op-ed pages. But Black Sabbath’s vaguely antiwar dirge, whose lyrics aren't high-, middle-, or lowbrow, but hilobrow, and whose music is savage, relentless, and overwhelming, is cathartic. It forces listeners to experience man's inhumanity to man, to experience for a moment what it's like to be crippled and deformed by, say, explosive ordnance. Or by the everyday indignities, injustices, and absurdities of contemporary life.

The origin of headbanging?

Metallica's popular antiwar song, "One," was supposedly inspired by Dalton Trumbo's 1939 novel, "Johnny Got His Gun," whose narrator is a soldier whose limbs and face have been blown off. Like Tony Stark, Johnny is a living casualty of military violence. Like Hughes's iron giant, Johnny is a terrifying sight, an alien and a freak. An iron man.

Anyone who desires nothing so much as to prevent humankind from tearing itself to pieces, but who feels paralyzed, helpless, tongue-tied -- and therefore full of inarticulate rage, perhaps even a desire for revenge of some kind -- is an iron man.

We're all iron men.

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38 comments so far...
  1. Maybe the magnetic field wasn't lifted from the Fantastic Four.

    "Turned to steel in a great magnetic field" resembles the origins of the Silver Surfer.

    I always thought the song was like an alternative timeline Surfer story. Galactus is defeated and the surfer tries to return to his home world where he is rejected by his people and snaps and kills them.

    Posted by Jared Byer April 3, 08 04:38 PM
  1. I've always regarded the song as a parable about the dangers of homophobia. "Iron" is Cockney rhyming slang for "homosexual" ("iron hoof" = poof). A man comes out and declares his sexuality to society; he is spurned; he gets his vengeance. (How can you not read "great magnetic field" as a metaphor for the genetic predetermination of homosexuality?)

    Posted by Patrick Cates April 3, 08 07:52 PM
  1. Wow, I always knew comic books were fertile ground for Freudians, but that "Iron Man is Born" graphic really takes the cake. How yonic can you get?

    Posted by wordgeek April 3, 08 09:10 PM
  1. I read the Hughes book when I was 7 and ALWAYS thought the Sabbath song was about the robot.

    Posted by Salamander9 April 4, 08 12:44 AM
  1. Sabbath bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler has claimed that "Iron Man" was a dystopian "science fiction story" that he dreamed up after seeing "a lot of things in the news about pollution and nuclear war." It had nothing to do with the superhero, that is to say.

    I'm not sure why there is analysis beyond this point in the article. Love the song tho'. Will probably see the new movie.

    Posted by Evil Jim April 4, 08 02:13 AM
  1. "One" is hardly the origin of headbanging. See the lyrics to http://www.darklyrics.com/lyrics/exodus/bondedbyblood.html#1 , the album is from 1984/5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonded_by_Blood .

    Posted by unwesen April 4, 08 04:19 AM
  1. Nicely done!

    But...PAUL as the hipper Beatle? That's a joke, right?

    Posted by Karen April 4, 08 08:07 AM
  1. Jared, I like the Silver Surfer theory. Very nice!

    Patrick, I think you're making up the "iron hoof" stuff, but it's good material.

    Wordgeek, all men of iron were untimely ripped from their mothers' wombs, didn't you know that? Don't you read Shakespeare?

    Evil Jim, haven't you heard of the Death of the Author? Roland Barthes announced this in 1967-68. Note the timing! Shortly before or right around the time that Geezer was writing "Iron Man." It's up to listeners to coauthor the song.

    PS: I know Metallica didn't invent headbanging. But watch the video! They cleverly use a scene from the movie version of "Johnny Got His Gun" in which Johnny is banging his head in Morse Code...

    PPS: Sorry to shatter a cherished illusion, but Paul was definitely hipper than John, even if Paul's post-Beatles career doesn't seem to demonstrate this. Read any book about the Beatles, they all agree on this point.

    Posted by Josh Glenn April 4, 08 08:19 AM
  1. There are a LOT of iron men this could have come from, like maybe Stalin ('steel man'). Is it possible that this is just a trope that was in the air and these guys seized on it? It is evocative. Do we really have to track it back to one source? I mean, knights, steel barons, RUR, the iron cross, an "iron will," etc? There are tons of iron men out there.

    I think that the connection between Viet Nam and 6/11 is much more interesting. If you can't win it on the ground, win it in the funny papers.

    Posted by JP Craig April 4, 08 08:37 AM
  1. @2, Patrick: The Cockney rhyming slang take is interesting, but Sabbath was from Birmingham, 2+ hours away from London, and IIRC, they were fairly fierce about being from a 2nd-rank working-class town. As far as "great magnetic field" goes, we can read that as a metaphor for almost anything enormous, invisible, and transformative.

    The Silver Surfer interpretation in 1 is very intriguing, and would make for great fanfic if it hasn't already.

    I propose that the 'Iron Man' meme has been in place at least since 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,' and that it's an irresistible subject: Who's behind the immensely powerful figure with no outward traces of humanity?

    Posted by Murderface April 4, 08 08:50 AM
  1. David Bowie's "Pretty Things" is totally about mutants. :) "Look out at your children. See their faces in golden rays. Don't kid yourself, they belong to you. They're the start of the coming race. ... homo-sapiens have outgrown their use...all the strangers came today. And it looks as though they're here to stay" "Gotta make way for the homo superior!"

    I like to pretend it's sung by Magneto. :)

    Posted by yo mama April 4, 08 08:55 AM
  1. geezer butler was also an avid follower of max weber, the nineteenth-century german sociologist, who described the protestant idea of 'grace' and the capitalist work ethic that it underpinned as "the iron cage of the soul". sociology rocks!

    then again, i might be wrong.

    Posted by Ass Hat April 4, 08 09:04 AM
  1. Great article! You really dug deep on this one. I must, however, point out one factual error. You noted that in the Beatles' "Help!", "John Lennon's" organ featured the Jimmy Olsen comic instead of sheet music. Perhaps you haven't seen this movie in a while, but the organ, and the "white" section of the giant townhouse belong to Paul. John had the bed sunken into the floor in the "yellow" section. So...the comic book is Paul's anyway. I guess it goes to show that his taste got better as the years went on. And as much as I don't want to admit it, he was the "hipper" Beatle. Hell, Paul was into electronica in the 60s! He was the most fashion-conscious of all the Beatles, and very much into "culture". He helped finance the art gallery that Yoko showed in, and subsequently met John...

    But I digress. Anyway, kudos for the level of detail, and the Queen reference. :)

    Posted by Laura Taylor April 4, 08 09:49 AM
  1. G//ZR's debut album, Plastic Planet, also features the song "Detective 27" which is about Batman (Detective Comics #27 was Batman's first appearance)

    Posted by G April 4, 08 09:54 AM
  1. The magnetic field reference to the Fantastic Four origin is, I think, just a mis-step but still in the right direction. While I think that it is a reference to the Silver Surfer, as Jared does, the Silver Surfer first appeared in Fantastic Four #48. So there is a correlation between that magnetic field and Fantastic Four, though it is misleading as you are lead to believe that it is the Fantastic Four's origin, instead of an origin of another character featured within the Fantastic Four books/universe.

    Posted by JS April 4, 08 11:09 AM
  1. Perhaps the influence of the song was a drug (or alcohol) induced dream (nightmare) after watching the movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still"? In the movie you have a "Man" saying that the earth will perish if humans do not change their violent ways and he is backed up by a giant "Iron" robot.

    Posted by Kurt April 4, 08 12:02 PM
  1. Being both a Marvel and guitar fanatic, I'd love to think there was a link between the song and the comic book character. However, it occurred to me that there might be an even simpler explanation that hasn't been mentioned yet. Tony Iommi - the great guitarist in Sabbath - lost the tips of two fingers in a steel factory accident. He then had to play the guitar with metal finger caps (which added to his distinctive tone). Is Tony Iommi in fact the Iron Man? Given that Sabbath grew up and worked in the highly industrial Midlands, the song could also just be a reflection of the steel works and foundries where they came from.

    Fascinating subject though! And great research.

    Posted by Timster April 4, 08 12:39 PM
  1. #7 - Paul WAS the hipper Beatle, at that time. We may all think John is the hip one in hindsite, but back in the mid-60's, John was a married family man, at home most nights with Cynthia and Julian. But during this period, Paul was the only unmarried Beatle, who spent his nights out and about in swinging London. Paul "discovered" Jimi Hendricks, went to Yoko Ono's art exhibits before John, Paul was very active in the cutting edge hipster lifestyle of the day. Really, it's true!

    Posted by Senseless Babble April 4, 08 01:18 PM
  1. Hmmm... Interesting topic.

    An old friend of mine worked in a Brighton comic shop and he was regularly visited by Geezer Butler, who at least that time(Early 90'ties) was an avid comic book fan...

    Posted by Pato April 4, 08 01:19 PM
  1. What about the 'Where he traveled time' line? That's the one that violates all the other theories doesn't it?

    Posted by ron April 4, 08 01:43 PM
  1. THEORY: The song and the comic were both influenced by a real man made out of Iron.

    Posted by Christopher Vigliotti April 4, 08 03:06 PM
  1. "We're all iron men". Great post.

    One thing is for sure, second stringers have a better chance of having a good movie about them. Really, IM never had his auteur. No Frank Miller, no Jim Starlin, not even a 70's era genius writer to remake him. The best he got was Denny O'Neil after the guy had finished being great. (No disrespect, _I _ didn't write those classic Batmans or GL/GA's.)

    Favreau + Downey seem to really "get" the character. Fingers crossed.

    Posted by Solo500 April 4, 08 05:01 PM
  1. Yeah, gotta concur about Paul being the hippest Beatle. People assume because his solo output was filled with syrupy pop fluff that he didn't have any more depth to him than that, which is nonsense.

    In the early 80s he did an interview with Rolling Stone in which he blew his stack about that accusation and spelled it out pretty clearly. When the Beatles were in their prime in the mid 60s John, George and Ringo were all married men, living with their wives and kids in the country, while Paul was a bachelor, living in the heart of London. While the other three were playing family man Paul was hitting the clubs, going to galleries, etc. Ironically, it was Paul who suggested that John check out a gallery show by Yoko Ono, and we all know where that headed.

    Gr

    Posted by Tex April 4, 08 05:28 PM
  1. I always associated the song Iron Man with the silent movie "The Golem" even though it was stone not steel.

    I think it was the standard plot point of the monster turning on the creator and "now he has his revenge" that made me think of that.

    Posted by DarkHumour April 4, 08 10:53 PM
  1. Stan Lee (Larry Leiber's brother) and Jack Kirby had a lot to do with the creation of Ironman too and were not mentioned.

    Hughes' Book and Townsend's opera are pretty good, but Sylvia Plath was a jerk.

    I think IronMan the comic book influence Hughes to some degree.....

    I think Tony Stark has been psychically replaced by the Dr Doom Stark from another dimension.

    Posted by FrankD April 7, 08 12:16 AM
  1. An alternate take. I understood the song the first time I heard it over 27 years ago. It was a vivid description of alienation from the society that I wished to be a part of but had been rejected by. The anger at the people (all people) for the rejection resulted in the (irrational) wish that if they won't let me be a part of them then I would like to destroy them. This is identical to the path the Monster in Frankenstein takes when he is introduced to language and society by the blind man and then is brutally rejected by the larger society when they see him. This is and has been a recurrent theme in both high and low lit as well as popular music (cf. Simon and Garfunkel - I am a rock). This also helps explain some of the popularity of most 'Death Metal' and much of regular Metal with the rejected/disaffected/pissed-off crowd.

    Posted by Raised by wolves (but I am much happier now) April 7, 08 01:53 PM
  1. I think "field" sort of rhymes with "steel."

    Posted by Jim Treacher April 8, 08 05:12 PM
  1. Mr Glenn, I still have a number of issues remaining on my old Hermenaut subscription...Any chance I could get some back issues in their stead? thanks.

    Posted by Hermenaut Fan April 8, 08 11:35 PM
  1. Excellent article. And great research for digging into all areas to try to prove/disprove the link between the Sabbath song and the comic book "hero"

    I think one thing to note here. There is a history of songs that are have obvious meanings, but then you hear the story from the one that wrote the song and the meaning is something else. Take "Happiness is a Warm Gun" by The Beatles. For years, people associated this with John's heroin use. But there are several explanations from John himself that show an actual firearm being the inspiration for the song.

    So Geezer may have dreamt up a fictional story himself and penned it into the song "Iron Man", but as you said, you can't always take an artists word. The multiple facets of music and meanings leaves everything open for interpretation.

    As for me, I think there are many things, as you pointed out, that nail "Iron Man" the song to Iron Man the comic. The final of these is the inclusion of the song on the movie soundtrack.

    Again, great article and a great read.

    Posted by Marty Mankins May 4, 08 09:40 AM
  1. The song is about Jesus and a vengeful God.

    Posted by Deez May 13, 08 12:01 PM
  1. I have often heard that Iron Man is a reference to the devil.

    Posted by ULTRON 5 May 14, 08 09:24 PM
  1. Other than the title "Iron Man", I never found too much in common with Sabbath and Marvel. Unfortunately, I was the smart kid who got it and when I attempted to discuss it with older people (fifth graders), I got "Nuh-uh, it's about Iron Man, retard!"

    As you can tell, I hated Elementary School.

    But I digress. Nice article with some interesting views. My friend and I personally believe the song influenced the comic.

    Posted by Toby Mobias June 11, 08 03:39 PM
  1. How silly. OBVIOUSLY the song was written about Robert Bly and the men's movement.

    Well, it's as believable as most anything else here.

    When someone says of a creation, in all sincerity, "I don't know. It was a jumble of things", you have to accept that, even after you've traced all the subconscious influences, they were STILL run through a filter of "I don't know. It's just a jumble of things."

    Posted by Chainsaw August 26, 08 12:18 PM
  1. Joshua, you are correct in your assumption that the Black Sabbath song "Iron Man" was inspired by the Ted Hughes book. In Martin Popoff's outstanding Black Sabbath biography "Doom Let Loose" (published in 2006 before the Iron Man movie was released), Geezer Butler said the following about the origins of the "Iron Man" song during an interview that Popoff conducted with him:

    "The title was from a comic book, Iron Man; it was an ecological theme. We were all very environmental at the time, and it was about this entity that turns into metal and is incapacitated at the end, just lying there. He can't talk at the end of it, but he has this knowledge that can save the earth from catastrophe."

    Geezer continued: "I was into English comics but not really American comics. I think Ozzy just came up with the title 'Iron Man.' When we were writing that song, Ozzy just threw in a line about Iron Man . . . I didn't really know about the comic at the time though."

    While the song's lyrics are probably about as related to Hughes' story as the lyrics to the song "Black Sabbath" are related to the plot of the 1963 Boris Karloff film with the same name (i.e., not at all), the Hughes book is undoubtedly the inspiration for the song's title since Geezer's explanation about environmental issues and a preference for "English comics" points directly to Hughes' book.

    I just did a magazine interview with Tony Iommi and was able to confirm this with him as well.

    Posted by C Gill September 24, 08 12:57 PM
  1. this is soooooooooooo awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Posted by rosie darazio October 28, 08 10:26 AM
  1. has anyone heard of a ironman issue in which tony stark is replaced /passes on his legend ?

    Posted by Dave Byerlee October 31, 08 01:21 AM
  1. Excellent! Great work. Fabulous multimedia collection of facts! Here's another angle: Ever consider that the song is about the strong high energy states of experience that much of Black Sabbath's music, much of heavy metal music, and, one supposes, much of any real-life black sabbath activity, if it really goes on, is intended to create? If the idea of being in that state is the central idea and intention -- with the lyrics and music being tools to get there -- then calling the song, "iron man," could come naturally to Ozzy's mind (as C.Gill says Geezer said) even if there were no comic book around in the US and UK culture and psyche. The comic's popularity would then make the title and idea really resonate. From there, Geezer could weave a story from his imagination, borrow from the comic, or both. Either way, it would support what the band was really trying to do, but was maybe, for some reason, not saying. Once again, fabulous research, argument, and presentation! Best I've ever seen.

    Posted by Iron Man Fan Tom May 28, 09 03:09 PM
  1. This is great. I've read lots of art history papers which took ten times as much space to say one-tenth as much (and were, needless to say, far less entertaining). A couple of points: there were a couple pre-DOOM PATROL versions of "Robotman" who were basically sentient "iron men"; the Marvel gimmick, as always in the early Sixties, was to introduce the element of psychological anguish that would plausibly accompany such a condition. Also, "Monster-A-Go-Go" had a (vastly superior and more popular) British predecessor in "The Quatermass Xperiment (sic)" (American title: "The Creeping Unknown") that would surely have been seen by any imaginative English Baby Boomer either in the theater or in its original T.V. serial version. Also glad to hear people concurring with the unpopular idea that McCartney was the hipper Beatle. I read a book a few years ago called (I think) THE UNKNOWN PAUL McCARTNEY which catalogued the musician's connections with the avant-garde, which were far more extensive than, I think, anyone would have imagined.

    Posted by Mark Morey December 22, 09 10:41 AM
 
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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