“I’m still trying to adjust to the fact that it’s the year 2020… most of the people I knew must be dead.”
Allow me to make a confession: Now I know it’s only been thirteen days but I gotta tell ya, in that time, ever since the calendar turned to 2020, I find myself REALLY feeling my age. And my mortality. And lines like this aren’t making me feel any better about it!
Some context: The above panel is from Machine Man #1 (Oct. 1984), the limited series that saw the return of the legendary Barry Windsor-Smith to comics land after an extended hiatus, as he both finishes and colors the pencils of Herb Trimpe, who’s working from the plot of Tom DeFalco. The story picks up in the year 2020, when Machine Man is restored to life after several decades of being deactived and stored in a box in a warehouse.
Now I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Machine Man, as his original series came out when the comic hobby was blossoming into full-blown mania for me. I liked the concept and truly enjoyed his adventures, plus bonus points for the strip serving as both Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko’s last gasp of greatness at Marvel. (Unless you’re a Speedball fan, in which case Machine Man would be Ditko’s next-to-last gasp of greatness at Marvel.)
The New Shell-head
DeFalco was the writer for the last five issues of MM’s original series (which ended in 1981) and this four-issue limited series served to tie up all the loose ends left dangling when the original strip was abruptly cancelled. So nearly all the old (now really old) MM supporting cast returned here, including Sunset Bain (a.k.a. Madame Menace), Senator Miles Brickman, Gears Gavin… plus some young newbies called the “Midnight Wreckers” and another character who came in as quite a surprise at the end of the second issue—want a hint? Okay, he’s the guy for whom this post was named.
…Yep, thar she blows!
Naturally, the first thought here is much the same as described in that Superman 2020 post: Remember how far away 2020 felt back then? And now here we are. Sweet Lord, I am old. Judging the two series against one another, Marvel’s version of 2020 did a much better job of prognostication than DC’s. In fact, I’d say that the Marvel version is about as dystopic as our present reality, perhaps just a tad more overtly so.
The second thought, particularly from this present-day perspective, is how odd Trimpe’s design strikes me. It’s basically the classic Iron Man design at its base, but with a bunch of steampunk-like trappings put on top. Check out the shoulders—they’re like giant sprockets. Not that I dislike the design; it’s certainly an intriguing vision of an alternate-reality Iron Man, but it doesn’t feel like a future Iron Man. A futuristic Iron Man armor should be much more sleek and streamlined. I dig the teeth though. Makes him look quite fearsome.
One odd thing: Arno does call himself “the Iron Man of 2020” a couple of times in the text, which… why would he do that? Everyone knows what year it is, dude—just call yourself Iron Man already.
So this new Iron Man (real name Arno Stark) is one of the bad guys of the series, working with Sunset Bain/Madame Menace to bring down Machine Man. This doesn’t go well for him.
The series ends with Machine Man victorious (natch) and the new Iron Man kissing the cement in defeat. The adventures of the Arno version of Iron Man could have easily ended here, but he’d return a few more times in the years that followed.
One of Arno’s best appearances would be in his next one: Amazing Spider-Man Annual #20 (1986). This was during the editorial stewardship of Jim Owsley/Christopher Priest, who was trying to do some innovative things at the time with the Spidey books, and this annual would be a good example. Scripted by Ken McDonald (a name I don’t recall seeing in comics credits again) and based on an original story by Fred Schiller, it’s an entertaining time-travel yarn, and honestly it’s centered a lot more on Arno Stark than it is Spider-Man. The Arno portion is also set in 2015 (I’m feeling my age again), five years before the Machine Man story, so it offers a glimpse of the circumstances that may have pushed Arno over to the dark side.
Basically there’s this disfigured terrorist that has set a bomb that can only be disarmed via a retinal scan of said terrorist. But the guy has just blown himself up in his attempt to escape, so Arno is forced to use his time travel machine to go back into the past, find this guy as a kid, and take a retina scan then. Oh yeah and by the way, Arno’s wife and young son are trapped in the building with the bomb.
As fate would have it, Arno’s jaunt through time drops him in the middle of a super-battle between Spidey (when he was still in his black-costume phase) and the Blizzard. Arno mercilessly snuffs the Blizzard, but Spidey stops him from grabbing the kid, who (you guessed it) ends up disfigured as a result of the whole melee. When Arno returns to the his own time he finds the bomb has detonated and killed his wife and child, along with a whole lot of other innocent people.
Back to the Future
Arno would make several more appearances in subsequent years, sometimes as a villain, but other times as a potential hero. During my research for this post I discovered that Marvel’s got some plans to use the Iron Man of 2020 this year (appropriately enough) and that the comic in question is due to drop this very week—just two days from now, in fact. Based on what I read, I hate the premise, but then I hate just about everything in modern comics. Still, for those who remain curious, pick it up and judge for yourselves. Caveat emptor.
In addition, they’re also coming out with a new Machine Man limited series (two issues) titled 2020 Machine Man, scheduled for February. Tom DeFalco appears to be involved with this one, so what the heck, I just might actually go to the comic store for the first time since forever to check it out.