BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO
In the year 2020 there's a new Iron Man in town, the former Machine Man villain, Arno Stark. He's something of a cold-hearted bastard and writer Daniel Merlin told the PULSE that's intentional. "Bastards are more fun, aren't they?" Although Merlin originally planned this Astonishing Tales
story to be about Tony Stark, after a suggestion from Editor John Barber
, Merlin easily modified things to the not-so-distant future. Of the change, Merlin said, "Shifting the story into the world of 2020 just made all the pieces fall into place and really inspired me towards the possibilities of further craziness."THE PULSE: I have to tell you one of the first things I noticed after reading a few pages of Arno Stark as Iron Man was that this guy was quite the bastard! Why did you want to make an Iron Man who seems to have all the worst qualities of Tony Stark to the nth degree?
Well, bastards are more fun, aren’t they? The joy of writing Arno Stark is that he really is all the worst failings of Tony Stark but without that pesky moral core there to trouble him about it. Arno Stark started out his life in comics as, essentially, a Machine Man
villain and while I’d argue he’s come quite a long way since then there’s still that essential note of bastardry that forms a big part of his charm. THE PULSE: How did this distant relative of Tony Stark come into possession of the Iron Man technology and, seemingly, the Stark fortune?
Tony Stark is still alive and well in 2020 but for several years he’s been operating from behind the scenes as the mysterious, surnameless “Howard.” As Howard the last three years have seen him become something of a mentor to Arno, apparently without Arno ever uncovering his true identity. But what terrible events led to Tony’s original abandonment of his armoured persona and corporate fortune?
That’s a story still waiting to be told.THE PULSE: Sounds intriguing! This story is set in 2020, which isn't as far away as some might imagine, but the technology seems head and shoulders above what's going on in the present Marvel Universe. This very much appears to be an alternate timeline of the Marvel Universe, is it one we've seen before or one you've come up with?
The Marvel 2020 universe got its start back in the '80s in the Machine Man 2020
limited series written by Tom Defalco
. While Machine Man got the original top billing, I’d argue Arno Stark was 2020’s
breakout star, and he’s returned several times since his original heal turn in that series. The 2020 setting was also adopted as the home for several Marvel UK
characters, with a good chunk of the original Death’s Head
series being set there.
I think it’s an interesting setting to return to in 2009, because it’s one of those near-futures that we’re now on the verge of catching up with, although both time and technology are kind of fluid things within the Marvel
universe so it can be problematic to try and pin things down too much. Overall I’m happy for the reader to take the setting as either an alternate timeline or a possible future depending on which way the wind blows in the next decade.THE PULSE: If this is a version you developed, what elements did you feel essential to incorporate?
For this return to 2020 I actually decided to move the timeline on just a little bit to 2023. It gave a little more wriggle room between now and the present and meant things could be pushed around a bit without worrying about contradicting a whole slew of continuity. I’m also always a bit bothered when characters have a date in their name as it kinda implies everything important that ever happens to them all takes place in the same year. So my take on the matter is that Arno Stark is the Iron Man of the 2020s as a whole, and any story told in that decade is fair game.
2023 is still very much the Bad Corporate Future of so much '80s fiction. Super heroes have become something of a marginalised and outmoded concept, but that’s okay because everybody’s got hover-bikes now and those are way cooler. For this return to the decade, it also served the story to bring a few of today’s environmental issues to the forefront, hence the Venice-like flooded New York seen in part one (global warming being the official reason for this, although conspiracy nuts still insist on blaming the Atlantean civil war of 2021).THE PULSE: This Iron Man's technology seems a lot more advanced than the 2009 technology as well, what were some of the factors that led to these updates/modifications/advancements?
This was a tricky one as the original Iron Man 2020 armour design now looks a bit retro compared to the present day Tony’s 2009 armour. Setting our story in 2023 gave us room to update the 2020 look, and Lou spent a little while figuring out a new design for the armour that read as futuristic while still incorporating that essential Arno Stark flare for crazy geared-shoulders and grimacing faceplates.
Arno Stark received the original Iron Men tech along with the rest of Stark International, but Arno’s a genius in his own right and he’s been making improvements to the armour ever since it came into his possession. One of the fun things in the story was playing around with the commercialisation and expansion of Extremis technology that has taken place in the intervening years. The psychotic, Extremis-enhanced foetuses that pilot Arno’s Iron-Bot bodyguards were one of those mad, 2 a.m. ideas that had me giggling at my keyboard as I typed.
I hope our readers have as much fun with them as I did.THE PULSE: Does this Arno Stark have any redeeming qualities? After seeing him play judge, jury and executioner it seems as if he doesn't really exemplify the hero archetype.
Arno’s in an interesting place right now I think. He’s always felt on some level the weight of the Stark legacy, but for a long time that was eclipsed by the depth of his failure in allowing his first wife and their child to die at the hands of a terrorist attack in 2015. He spent an aimless five years unsure of himself, his abilities and his place in the world. It got so bad that by 2020 he was essentially a hi-tech, thrill-seeking thug for hire. But the last three years has seen him finally move to put his life back on an even keel, helped in no small part by the positive influence of his second wife, Melodi.
On the surface he’s undoubtedly still something of a bastard. Scratch that surface and what you find … are several more layers of bastard. But deep, deep down I think there’s a man who honestly wants to make the world a better place -- a man who has to operate in a world where superheroes and the heroic ideal have essentially failed. A man with few moral constraints and considerable intellectual and financial resources who’s now faced with a simple question: How do you save the world? THE PULSE: Also from the first part of Arno's tale it would seem as if A.I.M.'s changed a part these next 11 years. What is A.I.R.? Who is this Madam Modoc who appears to lead the group?
A.I.M were always something of a player in the Marvel UK 2020
setting, especially when it came to the second Death’s Head
incarnation, so I knew I wanted to catch up with them and see what they’d been up to in 2023. As nefarious acronym organisations go, they really feel like a good fit for the more corporate and high-technology dominated world of the 2020s.
A.I.R stands for Advanced Idea Research and they’re the latest of the many, many splinter groups that A.I.M has seen break away over the years. A.I.R are a little different in that they’ve managed to manoeuvre themselves into a position of legitimacy in the eyes of the law, having officially cut all ties to the barbaric and illegal activities of their misguided parent organisation. Or at least, that’s the official version of the story and the one that their CEO, Madam Modoc (Mental Organism Designed Only for Commerce) is keen to promote to the outside world.
There are those in the corporate espionage and intelligence communities that still believe A.I.R to be little more than a respectable public front for A.I.M but such claims are always met with swift terrible lawsuits (or the occasional tragic and inexplicable accident).THE PULSE: Out of all the supporting players from the Marvel Universe you could have included why did you want to have Warren Worthington, Jessica Drew and some of the other staples in these altered forms?
When you’re doing a possible/alternate future story it’s hard to resist some of the fun of playing the “where are they now” game with a few familiar characters. In the case of this story events pretty much dictated who turned up where and when, but I tried to sneak in a few little Easter eggs here and there. The Warren in our story is actually Warren Worthington IV, apparent heir to both Angel’s avian mutation and the Worthington fortune. It’s the latter that made him a good fit for Arno’s world – as the rival (but not necessarily hostile) CEO of Worthington Avionics.
In Jessica Drew’s case, she just felt like a natural fit to replace Nick Jury as head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 2023. As someone who knew and respected the original Iron Man, she detests Arno Stark’s apparent perversion of those ideals. But at the same time she finds herself forced into the situation of relying on the new technology Arno can provide to help S.H.I.E.L.D. face the challenges of the new decade.THE PULSE: There seem to be so many different elements involved in this story, who or what inspired you the most as you were working on this tale?
I’m a firm believer in the need for comics to be as full of mad ideas as possible, so I really tried to throw as much as I could into this story. The original idea started with the story’s tile, “Endless Stolen Sky” which was just a phrase I liked the sound of and started pushing around to see if I could find a story in it. As originally pitched, the comic was actually intended as a one-shot staring the plain ol’ 2009 Tony Stark Iron Man. But my editor John Barber
got back to me saying basically that it was a little too mad for Tony Stark, and would I like to try to make it work as an Iron Man 2020
John perhaps thought he was going to have a bit of a hard sell in explaining the joys of Arno Stark to me, but as soon he mentioned the possibility I leapt at the chance. Arno was actually the first Iron Man I’d encountered, as his exploits had been reprinted as part of the Transformers
weekly comic in the UK
, which I used to adore when I was a kid. Shifting the story into the world of 2020 just made all the pieces fall into place and really inspired me towards the possibilities of further craziness.THE PULSE: What were some of the biggest challenges of realizing your vision and getting everything to happen exactly as you wanted in these pages?
This was actually a pretty smooth ride, writing wise. The Avengers
story I wrote for Marvel
went through something like eight revisions, as I slowly, painfully learnt my way around the form. In contrast on Iron Man
, I did maybe one minor rewrite on part one and the rest of the chapters sailed through with the barest of tweaks needed.
That said, writing the final chapter still proved rather tricky, as I found myself with a hell of a lot of threads to resolve and only eight pages to do it in. I would happily have made pagan sacrifices to the dark god of your choice if it had meant getting just a couple of extra pages for the story to breath between beats. But such is the challenge of the short serial form - I think I managed to pull it off okay in the end.THE PULSE: I liked what I read of the story. Speaking of, how many parts is the initial story going to be?
The story is six parts, running across Astonishing Tales
one to six. Those with a subscription to Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited
service can also read the story there – each chapter is actually receiving its premiere as part of the MDCU
, with parts one and two already released so far.THE PULSE: How well are the artists realizing your vision for this story?
The whole art team are doing an amazing job. Lou Kang’s
pencils on the series have been a revelation and, as I mentioned earlier, his work on redesigning the Iron Man armour was really key to making the story work. There came a point in chapter five where I was like, “right, I think we’ve told enough story to earn ourselves the use of a gratuitous splash page.” So I basically wrote this insanely hard page to draw. Real crazy large scale action with a tonne of detail that would make me run screaming from the room if I was ever given it to illustrate myself.
The other week I got to see Lou’s pencils for the page and he has absolutely nailed it. This thing is … I can’t wait to see it coloured and inked because it is already exhibiting dangerous levels of awesomeness at just the pencils and I think the finished page could push off the chart of known awesome into a whole new territory. A new dimension of awesome may be charted by the existence of this page in its coloured and inked form - this is what I am saying. It. Is. Awesome. THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on?
Ongoing projects that I’m allowed to talk about are all currently happening on the web.
My next AiT Book, the spy-horror thriller Necessary Monsters
is now entering the home stretch of its web serialisation. We just got underway with our penultimate chapter and Sean Azzopardi
is really turning in some wonderfully creepy artwork for the series. If folk enjoy seeing me write a bastard, this is the place to get more of it, as the cast of Necessary Monsters are just about the worst bunch of creatures you could ever hope never to meet.
Elsewhere myself and Douglas Noble’s
dead-piano-player-in-the-old-west epic, The Rule Of Death
, continues on apace. The current chapter is building towards a tense gunpowder-fuelled showdown and also features, at long last, some actual piano playing. Zombie keyboard enthusiasts rejoice!
And finally at E-merl.com
I’m still scraping out the last parts of my brain-matter and presenting them in the twice weekly All Knowledge Is Strange
. I would have sworn myself that the series stopped making sense to anyone but me a long time ago but somehow the audience for the strip just keeps growing. I blame the internets!