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Authors: E. Paul Zehr

Inventing Iron Man

BOOK: Inventing Iron Man
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Inventing Iron Man



E. Paul Zehr

© 2011 E. Paul Zehr

All rights reserved. Published 2011

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

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The Johns Hopkins University Press

2715 North Charles Street

Baltimore, Maryland 21218-4363

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Zehr, E. Paul.

    Inventing iron man : the possibility of a human machine / E. Paul Zehr.

            p. cm.

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

    ISBN-13: 978-1-4214-0226-0 (hardcover : alk. paper)

    ISBN-10: 1-4214-0226-2 (hardcover : alk. paper)

1. Cyborgs. 2. Androids. 3. Human physiology. 4. Human-machine systems. I. Title.

    TJ211.Z42 2011

    629.8—dc22       2011000177

A catalog record for this book is available from the British Library.

Special discounts are available for bulk purchases of this book. For more information, please contact Special Sales at 410-516-6936 or [email protected]

The Johns Hopkins University Press uses environmentally friendly book materials, including recycled text paper that is composed of at least 30 percent post-consumer waste, whenever possible.

To the memory of my mom, Marlene Mary Zehr (1935–2010), who passed away during the time I was working on this book. She always encouraged and supported me … and bought me my first comic books. Here's looking at you, Mom

The suit of Iron Man and I are one.

—Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in
Iron Man 2

Learning is the only thing the mind never exhausts, never fears, and never regrets.

—Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)


Foreword, by Warren Ellis

Preface: The Stark Reality of Robotics


Tony learns to live inside a suit of iron

1. Origins of the Iron Knight:

Bionics, Robotic Armor, and Anthropomorphic Suits

2. Building the Body with Biology:

When the Man of Metal Needs to Muscle In

3. Accessing the Brain of the Armored Avenger:

Can We Connect the Cranium to a Computer?

The First Decades of Iron: “He Lives! He Walks! He Conquers!”


Will time tarnish the Golden Avenger?

4. Multitasking and the Metal Man:

How Much Can Iron Man's Mind Manage?

5. Softening Up a Superhero:

Why the Man with a Suit of Iron Could Get a Jelly Belly

6. Brain Drain:

Will Tony's Gray Matter Give Way?

The Next Decades of Iron: “I Can Envision the Future”


If we build it, what will come?

7. Trials and Tribulations of the Tin Man:

What Happens When the Human Machine Breaks Down

8. Visions of the Vitruvian Man:

Is Invention Really Only One Part Inspiration?

9. Deal or No Deal?

Could Iron Man Exist?

Appendix: Ten Momentous Moments of the Metal Man




Some years ago, I was approached by Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada to write new adventures of an early Marvel property that was still in continuous publication but, as these old-time superheroes tend to get, needed a new coat of modern paint. Iron Man was one of those characters that Marvel was having trouble getting a hold of. No hook to hang him on to capture the new century's light. I said to Joe, “He's the test pilot for the future. That's the whole thing. Flying away from himself, trying to bring the future on. Of all Stan Lee's ideas of the early sixties, this is the one that can and should reinvent itself annually, to keep pace with the stormfront of the future.”

Of all pop culture's heroes of the past 50 years, Tony Stark is the one corporate-owned character who is absolutely designed to face the future. His armor is a reflective surface in which we can consider our era's own reaction to technological concerns. He began in a time when a weapons designer could still be a hero and when some people could still fantasize that the administering of savage beatings to Communists was the work of good men. At roughly the same time as Tony Stark was stomping through comics pages in his original tank-like armor, the U.S. military was testing the similarly massive and clunky Hardiman powered exoskeleton.

Today, Tony Stark is a bootstrapping “compassionate capitalist” attempting to bring free energy to the masses, and the Iron Man lives inside his bones as nine pints of colloidal technology. Even now we work, in the real world, on synthetic muscles, contact lenses with computer displays, cochlear implants, and fleets of nanoscale devices to sail our bloodstreams and keep us healthy. Tony Stark is the fictive
ghost of our own cyborg tendencies, always a few years and at least one impossible idea ahead of us. Pop culture's test pilot for the future.

This wonderful book lays out the schema for that notion in energetic, eclectic detail. Starting from the only true way to see the Iron Man—as a prosthesis—the author uses the science fiction of Iron Man in its most effective way, as a tool with which to examine the present and past. From the Nyctalope and battlefield prosthetics of the eighteenth century to cutting-edge cortical implantation, the Iron Man is used as I and so many other writers in the world of comics and film have used it: as a metaphor. We simply hoped the use of the metaphor would intrigue and illuminate. The author achieves both effortlessly and has written a book that educates and delights. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Warren Ellis
Southend, England



Where is the line drawn? Between man and machine? Where does her humanity end?

—Reflections on Tony Stark's assistant Pepper Potts using the Iron Man armor, World's Most Wanted #1, “Shipbreaking” (Invincible Iron Man #8, 2009)

I didn't realize at the time—that a shell of iron—is hollow.

—Tony Stark on his childhood, “Dust to Dust” (Iron Man #286, 1992)

Smashing through walls, flying through the air like a human jet, and controlling an amazingly complicated robotic suit of armor seemingly by mere thought. Oh, and being practically indestructible. These are things associated with the Marvel Comics character Iron Man. The full title description for his comic book is actually “The Invincible Iron Man,” which is kind of a giveaway about the powers he is supposed to possess. Being invincible is a pretty tall order, though. Basically Iron Man is a really, really smart guy (OK—I give in, he is a genius) in a super high-tech suit of armor. It seems pretty clear that we humans have been able to develop some extraordinary technology. We certainly have the ability to control powerful machines and fly through the air (and beyond) with rockets and jets. We also have some pretty fancy armored suits for protection in outer space and in the deep dark reaches of inner space, the sea. But the ability to really put them all together at once is the key to having a
real Iron Man. The central focus of this book is exploring just that issue. Is it possible to have seamless biological control of an armored robotic suit? And, if it is possible, what does it really mean for how our bodies function and for our future as human beings?

One day I was speaking with my daughters (then ages 6 and 9) about the focus of this book. I told them I was going to explore the background of the possibility of Iron Man. Since they didn't yet know about Marvel's character of Iron Man, I showed them some images in an Invincible Iron Man comic book from the 1970s. Their basic response was this: “He wears a big suit. I wouldn't want to be him; it looks too hot.” I told them that the suit is “air-conditioned.” While that answer satisfied my kids that day and may deal with the real but superficial problem of overheating both human and machine, it does not address at all the totally unsuperficial problem of how that big suit could actually be controlled by the human inside it. Exploring this problem and all the related problems that spring from it is the real focus of
Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine

In many ways, this book carries on from my previous one,
Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero
. That book was about examining the reality behind whether the self-made man Bruce Wayne could become the ultimately sculpted Batman through physical training. This book is about the self-invented man Tony Stark becoming Iron Man through the application of robotics. However, as we shall learn, a lot of training and adaptations are needed to actually master that iron suit. The iconic characters I have studied have several things in common. Batman is also a superhero lacking in actual superpowers. He first appeared in Detective Comics; the first appearance of Iron Man wasn't in his own comic book either. Instead, his first story was in Tales of Suspense #39 from March 1963. As with so many Marvel characters, this story was the brainchild of creative genius and writer Stan Lee with synthetic contributions from scripter Larry Lieber and artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby. Just to make sure readers could not fail to note how powerful Iron Man was supposed to be, the cover of Tales of Suspense #39 actually says “Who? or what, is the newest, most breath-taking, most sensational super-hero of all …? Iron Man! He lives! He walks! He conquers!” In our journey examining the possibility of Iron Man, we will talk about the living and the walking parts. I am a bit opposed to gratuitous conquering so we won't really get into that bit. In homage to the
true comic book writing style, I will emphasize that by throwing down an exclamation point!

Iron Man is the character that emerges when millionaire industrialist Tony Stark (for those not in the know, his actual full name is Anthony Edward Stark) puts on a mechanized suit of armor that he custom designed and built. The basic origin story for Iron Man—like all comic characters—has been revised, revisited, and re-created over the years. The key part that has been maintained in all alternate origins is that Tony the industrialist gets captured and kidnapped by bad guys. They know (as does the whole world because Tony Stark really is a genius and brilliant inventor and head of a huge international conglomerate) that he can build all kinds of devices.

The actual story title for Iron Man's introduction in 1963 was “Iron Man Is Born!” and in this tale the military industrialist Tony Stark has been designing and selling weapons to the U.S. government for use against the communist guerillas in South Vietnam. While on a “site visit” to the jungles of Vietnam to see his technology in action, Tony trips a booby trap bomb. Shrapnel from this bomb gets lodged in his chest very near to his heart. In order to get help and a surgery to save his life, Tony agrees to help create a new weapon for Wong-Chu, who is the main communist terror warlord. However, he plans to trick and double-cross the villain with the help of another kidnapped scientist, physicist Professor Yinsen. The two men build a chest plate that creates a magnetic field which then acts to hold the shrapnel in a kind of stasis. This was really nicely shown in the 2008 Marvel Studios' film
Iron Man
. If you recall the scene in the desert cave in which Tony, played by Robert Downey Jr., wakes up to find a 12-volt car battery connected to terminals coming out of his chest, you get the idea. Well, from this chest plate Tony and Yinsen develop a full-body and fully articulated mechanized suit of armor. This is the double-cross part, by the way, and gives birth to Iron Man as a super hero to fight crime.

BOOK: Inventing Iron Man
9.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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