Note: The digital edition of this collection is currently out on Amazon, Marvel, and Comixology as of September 9th. The physical print edition, however, is due in stores September 18th. This review is of the Digital version.
Marvel Comics has a bizarre obsession with their potential future. In the past, they’ve ranged from dystopian nightmares (1981’s Days of Future Past) to a generally happy future with the kids of Marvel heroes taking over (The MC2 Universe). Sometimes it’s something out of Star Trek (the original Guardians of the Galaxy), or even early cyberpunk (the Marvel 2099 line). Regardless of how far into the future something is, Marvel has always loved the idea of a heroic lineage creating new versions of those same characters whenever possible. However, sometimes readers get an individual characters who just come out of nowhere from the future, only to return to whatever limbo they came from. This collection features probably the best example: Armo Stark, the Iron Man of the distant year 2020.
To be fair, he was made by Tom DeFalco and Herb Trimpe in 1984, when 2020 was still thirty-six years away.
For those who’ve not stumbled across this obscure character before, Arno Stark is the vague descendant of Tony Stark from the distant year of 2020. After his first appearance as a villain, he would eventually evolve into a self-interested anti-hero whose actions almost always would catch up to him in the end. Perhaps it was the handlebar mustache he wore, which made him look more like an evil Errol Flynn. However, his popularity would never quite reach the heights of his predecessor, and he eventually fell into D-List obscurity. Marvel’s release of Iron Man 2020 features almost every appearance of the Iron Man of the Vague, Unidentified Future. The end result is a mixed bag of good and poor stories, but with some real interesting takes on the future of the Marvel Universe hidden inside.
The first comic chronologically is the 1986 annual from The Amazing Spider-Man, titled Man of the Year. Plotted by Fred Schiller, with script by Ken McDonald, the annual features Arno Stark showing off new weaponry to the military, having taken Stark Technologies back into weapons production in the year 2015. However, a terrorist strike results in his appropriately-titled Planet Buster Bomb being set to explode in a matter of hours. With his company, neglected wife, and ignored child on the line, Arno brings his time travel armor add-on online to go get a retina scan of the terrorist as a child. In his way: the Amazing Spider-Man, smack in the middle of his black costume era. Art is provided by Mark Beachum, Bob Wiacek, and Bob Sharen, all of whom bring their A-Game for this annual. Iron Man of the future looks fantastic, and the choreography between Spidey and the future Iron Man is worthy of praise. The story is just as good as the art, though there is some serious mood whiplash between the antics of Spider-Man’s daily life and the dead seriousness and callous behavior of the future Iron Man.
Amusingly, this wasn’t Arno Stark’s first appearance. The next chunk of content from this collection belongs to Machine Man, a four-issue 1984 series written by Tom DeFalco. Herb Trimpe provides the page breakdowns (think of them as storyboards for comics) while the amazing Barry Windsor-Smith does all the remaining artwork. Taking place in 2020, the comic is a hilarious examination of what life could be like in 2020 through the lens of DeFalco’s utilitarian writing style and Windsor-Smith’s beautiful artwork. The tale, of course, focuses on Machine Man. Best known as “that funny robot” from Nextwave: Agents of Hate, this is long before his characterization became closer to a murderous Bender from Futurama. Instead, a more introspective and thoughtful Machine Man is shown. Having been left in a technology dump ages ago in pieces, he is repaired by local nerd-gangbangers in some of the most 1980s outfits the future has ever produced.
What follows is a bizarre quest to find out who disassembled him, which points at villains from his old solo series run in the 1970s. This tends to leave all the readers encountering Machine Man for the first time, or anyone picking up this collection on a whim, completely confused as to who these major characters are. However, Machine Man has an amusing charm all its own, owing to the attempts at future slang and future technology that extrapolates from then-modern slang. The end result is a hilarious mash-up of flying 1970s motorcycles, nonsense words, and computers that come from Jack Kirby’s nightmares. Despite Iron Man only showing up in maybe half of the pages of this 4-issue miniseries, Machine Man is a genuine gem in this collection in spite of itself.
Bizarrely, Arno Stark also made an appearance in Simon Furman’s Death’s Head for Marvel UK. Titled The Cast Iron Contract, the story feels incomplete. This is likely due to the fact that this is the last part of a small ongoing story in which the titular robotic peacekeeping enforcer is hunted down by rich, evil white men for sport. In this case, it is done by hiring out mercenaries, of which the Iron Man of the undetermined year has become one. Art for this story was done by Bryan Hitch, with colors by Evan Peters, and the entire package is a great one. While Death’s Head is a bizarrely-named fan-favorite, issues like this really show why people like the guy (and his writer, Simon Furman). Dialogue is snappy, characters come off as fairly charming even when they should have few redeemable qualities, and the fight between Stark and Death’s Head is very well done. The book also looks fantastic by regular comic standards, but feels a touch shallow following after the Windsor-Smith pencils of Machine Man.
The last major work of note was released in 1994 graphic novel, Walt Simonson and Bob Wiacek’s Iron Man 2020. Simonson wrote and plotted, while Wiacek also plotted and provided some pencils and inks. William Rosado provided the rest of the art, while Christie Scheele did the colors. This massive story focuses entirely on Arno Stark and his future as head of Stark Industries. However, Arno is a much deeper character here than in any prior tale, perhaps because the story is allowed to focus almost entirely upon him and allow him to grow. The daughter of a competitor company’s CEO has been kidnapped, and Arno is the only person he can turn to. The CEO’s daughter, Mickey MacLain, isn’t a standard damsel in distress either, but does have a bad habit of continually being recaptured.
The plot is actually really good, with several clever twists that leave Arno thinking about things other than his wallet for once. Wiacek and Rosado also go a great job with the art, making the future Iron Man suit look truly threatening for once (sorry, Mr. Windsor-Smith), and kitting the suit out with some truly clever gadgets. This is easily the Iron Man 2020 story, albeit only because there have been so few that bothered to look into him as a character.
It seems like Marvel wanted to fill out the rest of the book a bit more, so they tossed in a few outliers. Arno Stark’s appearance in 2009’s brief Astonishing Tales revival is included, featuring a truly confusing story about air pirates using old SHIELD Hellicarriers trying to break SHIELD’s new Hypercarrier and rob a Heliliner filled with ultra-rich people at a party. It has a few good character moments, but the plot has no space to breathe, and the art makes Arno’s suit look a few feet shorter in proportion. Rounding out the last few pages is a third of a comic, from What-If #53: What if the Iron Man of 2020 Had Been Stranded in the Past? Too short to really flesh out a good tale of character, this What-If is dedicated to causing chaos in Tony’s life and trying to kill off everyone, like most What-Ifs from the 1990s tended to do. Not a comic that would make anyone’s top ten, but a decent popcorn comic and a nice end cap to the book nevertheless.
The digital remastering used for this collection is kind to the older art. The crew working on the restoration end seem to have made sure all the new colors matched as close as possible to their original print counterparts. In the case of Machine Man, that had to have been painstaking work to restore such a vibrant comic. However, the Astonishing Tales issues don’t seem to have had any touch-up at all. While it may have been unnecessary to touch up a comic only nine years old, it does leave those pages somehow feeling inferior despite the higher production values at the time.
The only real problem with this collection is that the collection feels oddly empty. While it does collect nearly every major adventure this Arno Stark has been involved in, the lack of characterization of him in most adventures, and the lack of a coherent narrative, winds up harming the intent of the collection more than helping it.
Considering Arno himself has long since fallen into obscurity and limbo, one has to question why Marvel chose this time to make a collection about the guy, aside from trying to fill in a hole in the release schedule. Amusginly, the extra content seems to agree, mostly focusing on the Machine Man miniseries rather than on Arno himself. There are some really excellent comic books involving a surprisingly obscure character here, as strung-together as it may be. However, the collection suffers from the same problem that the 2020 Stark does: It’s just shallow, and feels like it’s mostly here to fill in pages with an amoral Iron Man.