The stories behind the stories

Iron Man #73

“The Best Defense, Part 1: Acquisition”

Iron Man #73

Knowing that Sonny Burch has legally appropriated his old patents for production, Tony Stark seeks and gains the nomination for the open Secretary of Defense slot. That’s more than Stu Conrad was expecting, and he and Press Secretary Artie Pithins can only see disaster ahead in preparing the political neophyte for mass consumption…
Published by Marvel • October 8, 2003
Written by John Jackson Miller

Art by Jorge Lucas

Lettered by Rus Wooton

Colored by Oscar Carreno

Cover by Joe Jusko

Edited by Tom Brevoort, Andy Schmidt, and Marc Sumerak

While working on Crimson Dynamo in 2003, I was given the opportunity to pitch for Iron Man — which made sense, since that’s where the Crimson Dynamo character came from. I prepared a pitch that I described as “the full Tom Clancy” — bringing Tony Stark full circle, in a sense. He’d started as a weaponsmaker in the comics of the 1960s; then he became a pacifist in the Vietnam Era comics of the early 1970s. Writing in a post 9/11 setting, it occured to me that it would be interesting to figure out a way to bring him into government work again, against his will, but ultimately on his own terms.

Thus began the “Secretary of Defense” storyline, which I started scripting in earnest in the spring of 2003 for editor Tom Brevoort. The “Best Defense” portion of the story all focused on corrupt Pentagon official Sonny Burch, who used existing patent law to seize control of Tony Stark’s Iron Man patents armor, both profiting from them and implementing them in military uses for which they were not designed. Tony’s desire to protect servicemembers from possibly misusing his technology forced him to throw into the political ring, offering to serve as Secretary of Defense. If, of course, the Senate — and Burch’s machinations — would let him!

Not unexpectedly for a writer starting out on a major franchise title, I found this first chapter hardest to write: in fact, issue #73 went through more drafts than any issue my entire year-long tenure on the book.

The real bugaboo was the scene with Captain America. It was vital for new readers that Tony’s compunctions about defense work be restated; and vital for the story for someone to make him question those compunctions. I decided in the beginning this should be a casual discussion between the two heroes during a rescue, underlining how mundane, how matter-of-fact, risk-taking had become for them.

The story is 22 pages, one more than it technically should have had with the recap page there — but it had a lot of ground to cover. As a result, it’s got more panels than any other issue of the storyline.

I was thrilled with Jorge Lucas’ interpretation of the story. It has super-hero action, real-life military vehicles and settings, and more mundane conversations between grown-ups – and he proved more than equal to all three.

Jorge Lucas lives and works in Argentina, which meant a lot of conversations back and forth between us about the look of settings and equipment. I haven’t got a clue how all this was done before the Internet, but for the most part, we tried to play things as straight as possible. When you’re telling a story about a super-hero seeking to join The Cabinet, it can get silly in a hurry – so really depicting the world as credibly as possible is very important to staying on the tightrope.

A surprise for me came in the use of the real-life President. I was prepared to keep things more distant — Tony dealing with Stu Conrad instead — but I was assured that in the Marvel Universe in 2003, George W. Bush is president. And there he is. Some at the time of release suggested that I was making some kind of statement about how farsighted and imaginative — or how silly and reckless — that incumbent was with this story. They’re welcome to their own interpretations, but the fact is the story is told as it would have been with a fictional, never-seen-on-panel President. No underlying message implied on my part!

Years after this storyline released, “Best Defense” provided inspiration for the big screen. The reporter introduced later in the storyline, Christine Everhart, was portrated by Leslie Bibb in Iron Man and Iron Man 2. And at Comic-Con International: San Diego in 2017, Marvel announced that Sonny Burch’s character would appear in Ant-Man and the Wasp, with Walton Goggins giving the character a much more youthful look. That resulted in Jorge and me being invited to the premiere in 2018, and our names appearing in the credits!

“We need to hire the biggest imagination we can find.” — Stu Conrad

A coincidence no one noticed. until people began searching for the issue on eBay: My work on Crimson Dynamo got me the Iron Man gig, which started with #73 of the third volume of that series. There was no #73 in the second volume, but there was one in the first volume. That issue’s villain: Crimson Dynamo.

Illustrating the international nature of the weapons business, Jorge Lucas put signage in multiple languages in the background of the defense show. A real Italian company’s address and phone number snuck in on one sign!

You can’t see it because the balloons cover it, but the Assembly Center is selling “Defense Dogs” at the contractors’ convention. They’re supposed to be $3 each, but cost overruns drive them up to $27.55…

I may have sent readers back to their 1980s issues looking for Sonny Burch in the Stane International sequences; I have to confess he isn’t there. He’s modeled on the many, many bureaucrats within his own company and others that Tony Stark ran up against over the decades – and as most of them were so faceless no one remembers their names, I figured I’d insert this one more in the past.

Cross Technologies, where Sonny Burch had previously worked and some of the bad equipment came from, has been around at Marvel for awhile. Hawkeye worked there as a security consultant in his first miniseries.

I had no trouble figuring out which defense plant to send Captain America to in the flashback: My grandmother was a “riveting Rosie” at North American Aviation in Texas. I had actually described some workers including one who could be her in my script, but Jorge chose to set the scene outside, with Cap meeting WAVEs rather than factory workers.

Captain America’s tour with the ordnance evacuation unit was something I really would have liked more room to explore, had the story not needed to keep moving. Ernie Pyle filed a number of interesting stories from behind the lines with the ordnance evac guys, and the story of the booby-trapped .88 is inspired by one. Look for “Ernie’s War,” certainly still in print somewhere, for more about this interesting time…

I read somewhere that Sonny Burch’s office would really be in the “C” or middle ring of the Pentagon. But we have yet to hear from anyone calling us on the balloon placement…

The patent law discussion is no joke: There are “sealed patents” and it’s possible to lose them. The Section 182 reference really exists. My reading of the law might well be wrong in some way, but hey, maybe the Marvel version’s different.

The patented gadgets Tony names — repulsor plasma generator, three-axis steering magnet array, thermo-electric energy converter — are “real” parts of the older armors, as described by Eliot Brown in the old Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. There may be something from the Iron Manual in there, too.

The guy with the poll numbers on the last page is Artie Pithins, who’s more formally reintroduced in #74. Some may have assumed this is Vice President Dick Cheney, but the veep probably has more hair.