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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
2. The sing-song, childish lyrics remind us of Wong-Chu’s pidgin English.
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!"
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:
Did British rockers dig science fiction about iron men? Again, I think so. Check out the next two images.
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.
THEORY: THE SONG WAS INFLUENCED BY ANOTHER IRON MAN
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.