Iron Man: Stark Science

Iron Man: Stark Science III

How does a scientist like Tony Stark deal with magic and gods? Kieron Gillen gives his take!

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Iron Man #2 preview art by Greg Land

By Ryan Haupt

Tony Stark, much to his own chagrin, lives in a world of magic. We sat down with IRON MAN writer Kieron Gillen to get his take on how Tony deals with his all too frequent journeys into magical mystery.

Marvel.com: One thing I wanted to talk about is you mentioned that Tony was frustrated by forces like the Phoenix, but he’s also friends with people like Thor and Doctor Strange, so how does he reconcile being a very scientifically minded person when confronted with the magical side of things?

Kieron Gillen: Well, you see he hasn’t really thought about it much [Laughs]. He’s like, well, that’s your thing guys, and I’m sure there’s a science there [Laughs] but that’s really not relevant to my job. Part of me thinks that it is that simple. He says in the first page of the first issue, gods are in short “belief.” Does Tony believe in the divinity of Thor?

Marvel.com: He seems to. During Secret Invasion, he refers to Thor as his god.

Kieron Gillen: Yeah, you say that. But is it “god” in quotation marks? Or is it god, as in, I’ve got a mate called the “god of games,” and I call him my god, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “my god.” If you press Tony, he would just say, “well Thor is just an alien that I don’t understand yet.” He doesn’t mean to be disrespectful; he would never enter an argument, because he’s definitely smart enough to understand that whatever gods mean, it might mean something else. But actual god god? I think Tony would have trouble with that idea. And he’s engaged with all these extra forces, he would be a very opposed to the idea of a god god, you know what I mean?

Iron Man #2 preview art by Greg Land

Marvel.com: In the Marvel Universe, there’s actually evidence for higher powers. Some people in our world think there’s no way humans could have built the pyramids without aliens, which I don’t believe in the slightest, but in the Marvel Universe, you actually have things like Eternals, Deviants and Celestials that put a lot of weight behind a theory like that.

Kieron Gillen: Well, the Phoenix is almost like the god of evolution, at least that’s the way it [was] being played in AvX; essentially the god of an impartial force. I think my initial plan for [Iron Man] was considerably more hard science than this, but when I looked more at where he was and especially what else was happening in the Marvel Universe, I kind of realized that the conflict would break it up. I needed to have Tony do a little bit more questioning. That is basically where I am. The Marvel Universe is a very hard place to be an atheist [Laughs].

Marvel.com: There are a few characters in the Marvel Universe that are out and about atheists, but it’s almost like Scully’s problem in “X-Files.” When you live in a universe where there actually is evidence for all of this stuff bigger than your science, if you maintain a position of non-belief, then you are actually being the obstinate, stubborn and difficult one. Because Scully, every time, doesn’t matter how many aliens she encounters, doesn’t matter how many monsters she sees, at the beginning of every episode, she’s back to her default mode of being like all of this stuff is bogus and none of it is real, which doesn’t make any sense. If you were actually a critically thinking person, you would start to accept these things based on your prior experiences.

Iron Man #2 preview art by Greg Land

Kieron Gillen: Certainly, and that’s the fundamental problem. Supernatural for me, when I’ve been writing gods, as in Loki and whatever, I fundamentally write the idea that they are different to us. Thor doesn’t lift because he’s very strong; Thor lifts because he’s a supernatural being with that ability. That’s why certain things can hurt him, that wouldn’t be able to hurt say Hulk. He’s a creature of magic, magic works in its own set of rules outside nature. That’s my philosophy. I believe that supernatural by definition isn’t natural, if you can understand how it works, then it ceases to be supernatural, and it’s actually natural. I’m quite interested in that. Tony trying to understand the supernatural if he actually succeeds, will turn that into science [Laughs]. I find the Don Quixote bit quite appealing. 

Marvel.com: That’s really cool. It goes back to the Arthur C. Clarke line that everybody loves to quote, that any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.

Kieron Gillen: But the thing about that quote, which is not entirely true, is that he’s a science fiction writer. But it does not deny the fact that something [like] actual magic could exist. That’s the thing. I’m not saying that that’s what you were doing, but that quote is quite readily used to say that all magic would have to be science. I think that misunderstands the nature of fantasy. Which, speaking to a guy who did my career in sciences and who is an atheist, to me it’s fictional. But wrestling philosophically is interesting for me.

Marvel.com: I think you’re absolutely right about your interpretation of that quote and I think that probably is something that people do get confused. People think about showing TV to a caveman, and they don’t really think about the applications of what that quote really means. But that leads to a question that I really wanted to ask you…

Iron Man #2 preview art by Greg Land

Because Tony exists in the Marvel Universe, which is already more advanced than us in terms of its basic science and then Tony is a few steps ahead of them, how do you prevent Tony’s suit from just becoming a piece of magical armor that he can just put on and do whatever he wants? I know you’ve already talked about the modularity of it, but how do you temper its capabilities in that sense?

Kieron Gillen: Yeah, that’s tricky [Laughs]. You’re completely right. In the basic rules of magic, you set up any trick you’re about to pull off, it doesn’t come from nowhere. If you read JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY, you’ll see almost all the effects I do make magic make sense. Early on, there’s a bit where Loki uses the Blade of Twilight, an enormous sword of Surtur, but the sword is a pen, and he uses the sword to rewrite the Surtur’s history etc. And all the pieces are there and actually symbolically effective and interesting. And there are enough pieces there that people can say, oh I can see what those pieces were, so it makes symbolic sense even if not necessarily logical sense, because that’s kind of how magic tends to work.

The other way of doing it is literally if characters can teleport, you have him teleport earlier and establish that teleportation works in this situation and this situation. You set up the rules of magic you’re working off and then you stick to them. And that’s kind of how you do super technology, I think. If you have something that is really going to be a Deus Ex Machina to a story, you’ve got to set it up quite early. So in my case, I showed what powers the suit could do at the start of the issue. Like in the scene where he’s doing the dueling, you see him swapping out for the UV laser. In the scene in issue #3 where it’s a stealth mission, I list his abilities at the start. You just talk about it. The limits are kind of self-enforced. It’s tricky, because you set it up with a certain amount of effort, and you have try to make people buy that. It’s like the Phoenix disruptor, you see Tony working on it for a long period of time. It doesn’t work, and then carries on working for a long period of time, and then eventually he comes to some realization at the end of AvX. So it’s that kind of thing.

Iron Man #2 preview art by Greg Land

To me, magic is thrilling because of the poetic sense of it. There’s a poetic language, and people like that. With technology, it’s slightly different. If it doesn’t feel real, it has to feel at least credible. Part of it is what’s the deal with this guy in a suit? One of my favorite things in the first issue of CAPTAIN MARVEL by Kelly Sue [DeConnick] is the bit where she’s talking about how people get warmer near her because she radiates heat. A lot of this is the physicality of the technology, and the fact that it isn’t just a magic box that does stuff. The more comics you take that technology, the more intense the magic box approach, which is why in the end it can be poetic and almost magical, and that’s kind of what cosmic is about.

But the second you lean toward Iron Man, you want to feel the fact that the suit is a thing, you want to feel the fact that if the arm gets damaged, the arm stops working. Warren [Ellis] was always the best at this. You use a very carefully chosen bit of technology and run with it. Extremis is based around many places in the human body, there’s no central control cell thing, there’s nothing to rewrite there. However, that sounds like a scientific idea, even if it doesn’t exist. It wasn’t discovered, but maybe it’ll be discovered eventually. Now I can buy that, at least I can buy that for a story. I wouldn’t try to make it [Laughs]; I wouldn’t try to do a thesis around it.

Iron Man #2 cover by Greg Land

To cut all that down, it’s whatever you can sell. If you can make people buy it, you can do it. If you can’t, you can’t. One of my favorite bits of poetics is a bit in “The Odyssey,” where they go home on the boat and for reasons I can’t even remember, they design the boat in a certain way, and that’s why people commit suicide. And I was talking to a friend and he goes, well, this plot makes very little sense, to be honest, and you think, why did they do this, this and this? However, this is some of the best poetry in the entirety of the book. So mostly, Homer completely distracts the people listening or reading from the fact that the story makes no sense by hand waving with beautiful poetry. He sells that story, and by the time you’re past it, you’ve accepted it, and you’re not looking at it with a critical mind.

And that’s kind of like doing technology that doesn’t really make sense in the real world. If you make it feel sensible, the story is sorted.

Thanks to Kieron for sharing his ides with us! Come back for our final installment of Stark Science when things get positively out of this world!

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