Iron Man & the “Camelot Trilogy”

Let’s explore some more old, odd and/or obscure comics.

Even though published by Marvel and featuring two of its best known characters, I believe that various parts of the Iron Man “Camelot Trilogy” meet all three criteria.

The publication history alone supplies some novelty:

  • Part One, Iron Man (volume I) Issues 149-150. 1981.
  • Part Two, Iron Man (volume I) Issues 249-250. 1989.
  • Part Three, Iron Man: Legacy of Doom 4-issue limited series. 2008.

No surprise, this was never planned as a trilogy, or even a story that would extend beyond the original two-parter in 1981. I believe it was only ever referred to as a trilogy within the past decade, when Marvel approved publication of a third installment in the form of its own, standalone four-issue serial almost 20 years after part two. (I presume the company was simply flooding stores with Iron Man projects, in hopes of capturing some halo sales from the character’s feature film.)

Cover of Iron Man (vol. I) #150

The beginning of a story three decades (or 15 centuries) in the making

Granted that I like this story. I enjoy the characters, it’s a work (or works) of good basic craft; it isn’t terribly deep but does a good job of what it aspires to do.

But the gradual expansion from a two-issue story fascinates me.

For Iron Man’s 150th issue, David Michelinie and Bob Layton (with John Romita, Jr. drawing) produced something of a Marvel riff on “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Sending inventor (and armored superhero) Tony Stark to Arthur’s Camelot was a promising concept; the authors improved it by sending him along with modern supervillain Dr. Doom. This was partly motivated by basic plot requirements, I suspect. The doctor’s time machine introduced alongside his own very first appearance has provided many writers with a launchpad for their time-travel story over Marvel’s history. But in this case, the inclusion of Dr. Doom himself (not always a package deal with his time machine) provided points of additional interest. Though a scientific genius with high-tech body armor, like Stark, Dr. Doom is also something of a medieval figure; his armor looks more like a knight’s, he’s a king, and a sorcerer, and he even lives in a bloody castle. Sending Stark to Camelot with an opponent from his own time, who was nonetheless much more at-home in that world, was modestly inspired.

For Iron Man’s 250th issue, Michelinie and Layton produced a sequel that was very much a book-end to the earlier story. This time, they flipped things around, sending Iron Man and Dr. Doom to the future. Except the adventure in 2093 still revolved around magic and King Arthur.

Cover of Iron Man #250

Someone in paste-up got a month ahead of themselves with the “Acts of Vengeance” banner

They had an explanation for this, and in fact it was modestly inventive. England confronted a great crisis from which Arthur was prophesied to return and save it, except that the cosmic schedulers who arranged for Arthur’s reincarnation did not account for his parents conceiving him as required by the prophesy, then having the fertilized embryo frozen for years to accommodate their careers. The result being an Arthur (re)born too late to be even close to adulthood when crisis hits. This is amusing, though in a way that suggests rather shoddy, bungling fates. The whole story is a sequel with a dash of parody. The opening pages of issue #250 are a direct homage to those of #150. A hipster Merlin takes neither of the time travelers seriously. There’s a visit not only to a shopping mall but to Radio Shack (the survival of which in 2093 is an even more entertaining conceit today than when the story was originally published).

Pages 2-3 of Iron Man #150

Pages 2-3 of Iron Man #150

Pages 2-3 of Iron Man #150

Pages 2-3 of Iron Man #250 (see what they did here?)

Then, for a long time, that was it. Nothing about part two suggested grounds for a third part, despite which I speculated on one, many times, after first discovering the story up to that point in back-issue bins some time in the mid-1990s. I suppose that if nothing else my imagination was teased by the expectation that at some point Iron Man would have a 350th issue, and that maybe this would continue the established “tradition.”

As it happens, I don’t think there ever was an Iron Man issue #350. The series was canceled at #332 and then resumed with rebooted numbering, since which point Marvel has played all kinds of stupid renumbering games. In any event whatever issue of Iron Man volume 3 might have been the series’ de facto 350th issue was not a resumption of the Camelot storyline.

Then in 2008, Marvel announced Iron Man: Legacy of Doom. I had drifted some distance from regular comic book purchases, by then. The lure of a long-anticipated third installment to this much-enjoyed story drew me right back. Given the absence of any obvious direction for part three, I was naturally curious what would follow.

Cover of Iron Man: Legacy of Doom #1

“Merchandising, merchandising… where the real money from the movie is made”

I suppose the result was about as much of a curiosity as one could have expected, starting from the premise of following up a 1980s matched set of past/future two-parters with a 2000s story extension told over four issues.

Iron Man: Legacy of Doom is fine. I enjoyed it. Ron Lim supplied the art, and as I have noted I always enjoy his work. The same level of storytelling craft as the other parts is maintained. I suppose that I simply give the story something of an asterisk, within the context of the “trilogy” which it made, because it doesn’t really fit quite enough to make the trilogy concept entirely convincing.

The format is entirely different, as noted. Probably for that reason, there’s a considerable deal of vamping before the “main” story launches halfway through the series. There’s a small connection back to the 1981 story in issue 2, but then again, while small it feels nearly as strong as the subsequent issues’ connection with either 1980s story. Even with Merlin and Excalibur, this seems like it just about could have been a story on its own without either of those predecessors existing.

Which actually contributes a kind of meta-interest to the Camelot storyline, because while not being a major Iron Man story, it has actually been followed up in at least three other stories; taken together they suggest an alternate structure that is more compelling than the “official” trilogy. Let’s call these stories parts A, B, and C.

Part B actually appeared in the Excalibur series, a long-running ongoing about a British superhero team named Excalibur. This three-issue story happened also to feature a magic sword, along with Iron Man, Dr. Doom, and a direct connection back to the 1980s Camelot stories which is actually as substantive as that of Legacy of Doom.

I submit that part C is the 97th issue of What If, volume II. Published late in the series, when Marvel began loosening up the traditional premise of an alternate history with a clear point of divergence, there is no direct tie-in to the events of the 1980s Camelot stories in Iron Man. Stark himself is not in the story at all. But this story of Dr. Doom trapped in Camelot offers a relationship to Iron Man issue #150 that is both obvious and compelling. Here is a bold alternative to the “official” trilogy’s squeaky-clean artwork, and particularly to the flippancy of Iron Man #250. Instead of some Renaissance fair fantasy Camelot, this is a grim story set in the Dark Ages, brought to magnificent life by Leonardo Manco. I’m very fond of this one.

Cover of What If (vol. II) #97

Dr. Doom sells comics! BAH!

(Also, it was published close to when Iron Man #350 would have been published, had Volume I continued uninterrupted.)

Part A I have reserved for last, not only because I discovered it later, but because it brings things full-circle in some ways. In 1982, less than a year after Iron Man issue #150, Marvel published what we might call a direct alternative sequel in What If, volume I.

What If vol. I issue #33 is an interesting contrast with What If vol. II issue #97. The earlier issue is faithful to the original What If concept, including the alien Watcher as host/narrator. Yet the fundamental premise forms a natural pairing with the much-later story. What If I:33 is a story of Iron Man stuck on his own in Camelot; What If II:97 is a story of Dr. Doom stuck on his own in Camelot.

Given that Iron Man #150 temporarily stranded both of them in Camelot, before returning them to their own era together, these two alternate reality stories seem equally relevant as tie-ins even if only one makes the connection explicit.

Proposed structure for "expanded" Camelot "trilogy"

Trilogy, meet Arrow of Time

What If I:33 is in most ways closer to the original story, which it followed up within less than a year as noted. The artwork is a close match, and not just the content but the tone of the story feels closer to Iron Man #150 than any of the other follow-ups. Which is interesting given that Steven Grant was the author, and the sole contributor shared with the “official” trilogy was Bob Layton, credited only with inking on What If I:33.

Thus, you could say that “part A” simultaneously makes as strong a case as any of these stories for being the direct heir to Iron Man #150… while also being as much an oddball as any of the rest. Not only did it have a different creative team from any of the main trilogy, it wasn’t even its own issue of What If; it shares issue #33 with of all things “What if Dazzler had become the herald of Galactus.”

Cover of What If (Vol. I) #33

Oh those wacky 1980s

I like this multi-branched story. One can enjoy the stories as they are; one can pick up the branch and consider it from various angles. One can also critique the individual stories, which I have only done to a small extent here. I could very genuinely return to “the Camelot trilogy” another time and write at least as many words of further commentary on the actual story content.

But that’s another post. For another time.

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