Scott Snyder is undoubtedly one of the biggest names in monthly western comic books. His last ten years at DC Comics has produced critically and commercially acclaimed titles like Batman, Dark Nights: Metal and Superman Unchained and his more independent work at Image gave us series such as Wytches, Severed and Undiscovered Country. However, one of his earliest comics works has gone unremembered and forgotten in many ways and most fans may not know that before Snyder told his first superhero story at DC Comics, he had penned a four issue miniseries for Marvel Comics for the burgeoning Noir imprint.
Marvel Noir had taken off a year prior with Spider-Man Noir and X-Men Noir, two series which provided radically different takes on familiar Marvel characters. Spider-Man was recast as a brooding vigilante fighting the mob in 1930s New York, while the X-Men were a group of maladjusted teenagers without powers brought together by a corrupt psychiatrist who believed sociopathic tendencies signalled the next step of human evolution.
These two minis were popular enough that an entire line of Noir comics span out from them, including Daredevil Noir, Luke Cage Noir and Punisher Noir. However, it’s arguable that Marvel went two hard and heavy on the Noir line too quickly, publishing nine limited series in the Noirverse between December 2008 and July 2010, but the final series in the line served as one of the very first superhero stories published by Scott Snyder, who had just broken into comics two months earlier with American Vampire from Vertigo.
Prior to comics, Snyder was a prose writer who published his first collection of stories in 2006, which caught the attention of Stephen King who included two of the short stories in the 2007 Best American Short Stories shortlist. King would later go on to make his own comics debut writing back-ups in American Vampire, telling the origin of the very first American variant of the vampire race. Prior to Iron Man Noir, Snyder’s very first comics work as also for Marvel, in a Human Torch one-shot celebrating the 70th anniversary of Marvel as a publisher, but I wanted to focus on Iron Man Noir for this article because I think it gives a greater insight into the kinds of stories Snyder would tell over the next decade.
The first thing you need to know about Iron Man Noir is that the title is a bit of a misnomer because this isn’t a noir story, it’s a pulp story. Tony Stark isn’t a hard boiled detective or a down on his luck boxer or a gangster looking for one final score, he’s a gentleman adventurer who fights nazis in fantastical locales. This isn’t Tony Stark as Philip Marlowe, this is Tony Stark as Indiana Jones and it’s pulling from the same points of references as Speilberg and Lucas did forty years ago.
Tony Stark is a heroic adventurer who travels the world with a group of allies which include his loyal aide James Rhodes, his assistant and lover Gialetta Nefaria and his chronicler Virgil Munsey. While searching for a mystical mask in the middle of the rainforest, Nefaria betrays Stark’s team and reveals her allegiance to a group of Nazis, led by Baron Heinreich Zemo and Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker. Munsey is killed while Stark and Rhodey escape barely, by starting a fire which fuses the mask to Nefaria’s face, turning her into this reality’s version of Madame Masque.
Returning home to the US, Stark realises that the Nazis are searching for Atlantis, so along with his new chronicler Pepper Potts and an eccentric sea captain named Namor, Stark heads back out to discover the secrets of the lost city before the Nazis can get their hands on the sunken treasure. Snyder plays on the original accident that created Iron Man by giving this version of Tony his own kind of arc reactor type device, but with it being the 1930s, it’s literally powered by a car battery and Tony’s insistence on rushing headlong into danger despite his ill health is a running theme through the miniseries.
One of the criticisms levied against Snyder’s earliest works was how every character had daddy issues of some kind. David Brothers first pointed it out on 4thletter! in a piece titled “mama can’t tell me nothing” which highlighted how often Snyder had his characters, through narrative captions, discuss advice their older male mentor figure had given them in the past. The post notes several examples from American Vampire, Detective Comics and Swamp Thing and while it doesn’t happen directly in Iron Man Noir — partly because the series is narrated by Potts and not Stark — but there are flashbacks to Tony as a young boy and how his father’s tortured genius affected him then and influenced the man he became.
Tony’s relationship with Howard Stark comes back in a satisfactory way later in a way that I don’t want to spoil should you choose to read it, but his father isn’t the only mentor figure in Iron Man Noir. Tony’s relationship with Jarvis is also an important factor in the miniseries, which gives you a kind of two-for-one Snyder special. Jarvis ins Iron Man Noir isn’t a butler but instead a grizzled war veteran and one-time brother-in-arms with Tony’s father who now serves as an engineer working with Tony on Howard’s armored suit program.
The Iron Man armor lurks in the background of Iron Man Noir but one of my biggest problems with the series is that there just isn’t that much Iron Man in it. It may be down to the fact that Snyder is a prose writer adapting to a new, serial format but the actual Iron Man armor doesn’t get used until the final few pages of the third issue. I do, however, appreciate that we don’t just get the 1930s version of Iron Man but we also get the 1930s version of War Machine too. Snyder’s story doesn’t really delve into the racial politics of the time at all, which is kind of a glaring omission but it’s nice to see Rhodey get featured as much as Tony in the big final fight.
Overall, Iron Man Noir is paced more like a graphic novel than a monthly comic but Snyder does well at throwing in some last page twists to shake things up and keep readers’ interest piqued. The big twist at the end of #3 is especially well done and ties the story together in a way that doesn’t just feel earned in the context of the mini but when it’s explained in the final issue, it actually plays off mainstream continuity in a way that’s very satisfying. Snyder plays with established characters in this new setting in fun ways and Tony’s status as a known adventurer even allows the series to drop a few easter eggs highlighting past jaunts and run-ins with the likes of MODOK, The Ghost and Fin Fang Foom.
Iron Man Noir isn’t a lost masterpiece by a now A-List creator but it is a great insight into the kind of creator Scott Snyder was at the start of his career and serves to highlight the ways he’s grown in the decade in-between. It’s certainly not an essential series to track down and read but it’s a fun, light-hearted romp with familiar characters placed in unfamiliar settings and in that regard, I think it’s successful at what it aimed to be. Except for the title, it really should have been called Iron Man Pulp.