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Return to Earth in Iron Man

Kieron Gillen wraps up Tony Stark’s outer space adventure and returns him planet-side, plus exclusive preview art!

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Iron Man #16 cover by Greg Land

By Ryan Haupt

Tony Stark’s adventures in outer space have been a combination of wonder and revelation for the erstwhile Iron Man, with not every discovery being a bright one. But all things, good and bad, must come to an end.

We’ve learned quite a lot recently about this history of the Stark family and their interactions with the rogue Recorder 451, but to get a sense of how it all ends and what’s in store next following the sprawling “Secret Origin of Tony Stark,” we sat down with IRON MAN writer Kieron Gillen to talk all about the exciting events in the world of the Armored Avenger!

Marvel.com: Kieron, we’re coming up on the conclusion of Tony’s time in space.

Kieron Gillen: Indeed we are. “The Best Defense.” The Secret Origin of Tony Stark. We’re entering the sort of climax and the battle between Tony and 451 at the edge of space. Earth is in the balance or something like that.

Marvel.com: It’s interesting when you write a character like 451, where they’re so intelligent but they have a really hard time with new information.

Kieron Gillen: Yes. That’s the thing about it. The thing about 451 is that he understands everything that he’s doing is wrong but he believes in the end it will be a better world. We kind of see that in the end of issue #15. We see it overwhelm him when he thinks, “Wow, I’ve done something really wrong here.”

Iron Man #16 preview art by Carlo Pagulayan

I was reading a biography of Karl Marx a few years ago. One of the things in it stuck out to me. Marx was a pretty decent chess player but his fatal flaw was that he was thinking about his plan and not about the other people’s. He would see checkmate in three moves and not realize the other person had him in two. I think there’s a bit of 451 in there. He’s very into his plan.

Marvel.com: Would you call that a character flaw?

Kieron Gillen: It’s partially a character flaw. Originally, when I was planning 451, I was considering using the X-Men character I introduced named Unit. In the original draft, it had Unit instead of 451. I moved away from that for a few reasons. X-Men readers know that Unit is a villain, therefore it makes him less of an unknown quantity and being an unknown quantity is useful in this story. The ends justify the means, spinning it in different ways. Another way Unit is different than 451 is that Unit was built to do these kind of things. He’s emotionally cold. He’s cold and resigned on a fundamental level. No matter how many planets die, it’s fine. There’s no existential strife there. Conversely, 451 was programmed not to intervene. Anything he does is completely against his core programming. The weight of the evidence in the universe overwhelms that. That makes him quite neurotic. 451 is quite twitchy at times. He’s a creature of kind of a robotic intense passion. He’s a bit more flawed. Unit is more glacially perfect. 451 is a bit more human as a machine. Robots being a bit more human is one of the themes [of the book]. There’s an irony there if 451 is defeated, it’s a very human flaw, to be honest. Wanting Earth to be saved is one of these quote unquote human virtues.

Iron Man #16 preview art by Carlo Pagulayan

Sort of the fundamental existential question in the middle of this whole “Secret Origin of Tony Stark” is if you were made, how much human are you and how much robot are you? Tony has always wanted to believe he’s a self-made man. Let’s take that away from him and see how he feels about it. That’s the core existential problem. Something is fundamentally against your self-image and how you deal with that. That’s kind of theme all the way through. I’ve used a lot of robots in the story to draw a lot of parallels. I think the humans end up being quite humanized. That’s the point. You start thinking that in some way, we’re all machines. And these are very different concepts of machines and they’re just like Tony in many ways. This would be true, even if it was biological. We are what we make ourselves.

Marvel.com: One of my favorite moments in this arc was when Tony said some disparaging remarks to Death’s Head and Death’s Head got very offended. Tony defended himself by saying, “Some of my best friends are robots.”

Kieron Gillen: That was, “Oh yeah. That does sound kind of robot racist.” That’s funny but it’s a weird thing about robots. It’s also true. The fact that robots don’t exist means we can have a jokey use of this sort of thing. It’s a notice of people’s cognitive problems. “Robot” is kind of a dehumanizing term. So this could be a useful device to talk about these questions a bit. It’s a way to play with that area without being offensive. I think that’s the best way to put it. You can make some points about not recognizing someone or not sharing anything with them; the “othering” of people or a group of people. You can do this without immediately having people’s hackles rise. Do you know what I mean?

Marvel.com: Definitely. I’m sure you know the etymology of the world robot? It’s a Czech derivative of the word for slave. You could almost argue that the word “robot” itself is a loaded term.

Iron Man #16 preview art by Carlo Pagulayan

Kieron Gillen: Yeah. This is one of those things you hope [AVENGERS A.I. writer] Sam Humphries is gonna take on. When I saw AVENGERS A.I., part of me thought, “I’m writing some of this stuff!” Sam is great and I love his stuff. People think that mutants are a good metaphor but I think robots are one too. We can do lots of things with robots. We’re doing a variety of robots. In issue #16 or #17, P.E.P.P.E.R. is a she and she corrects Tony who calls her an “it.” The fact that she identifies as this gender means you call her this gender. Does that make sense?

Marvel.com: It’s interesting thinking about this concept as you and I are both English speakers, of debatable quality, but there are languages, I think it was either Norwegian or Swedish that actually got rid of gender pronouns to avoid this whole problem.

Kieron Gillen: I didn’t know that. English is just a stupid language. I use “he” or “”she.” Classic grammar books always say to use “he” when you don’t know what gender. I always use “they” which is incorrect because you’re referring to multiple people. I would rather be confusing than right when doing something like that. Making up a whole new word or inverting it to “she” isn’t any better. There’s a piece that I wrote for “The Escapist,” where you can’t change something from “they” to “he” or “she” without immediately alienating half the people reading it. Language is stupid, it should be better.

Marvel.com: Fortunately English is one of the more malleable languages.

Kieron Gillen: Hopefully down the line it will get better because that’s a really bad bug.

Marvel.com: We need a patch for that.

Kieron Gillen: We do! It’s rubbish! Tony Stark designing a better language would be amazing.

Iron Man #16 preview art by Carlo Pagulayan

Marvel.com: Getting back to the idea of whether we are built or do we make ourselves, it brings me back to that experiment where people were asked if they lost a finger and had it replaced with a prosthetic, are they still human? And everyone says, “Yes,” obviously. Then they ask about a hand, and everyone still says “yes.” Okay, an arm. Both arms. And they keep going and going until they replace the whole person. What is the difference between being a human and a machine?

Kieron Gillen: The big final argument in issue #15 between 451 and Tony is that it almost doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters what you do. It’s really basic. It doesn’t matter what we are, we need to accept ourselves and try to live the best we can. It’s a really basic kind of super hero statement or position to hold; which isn’t to say that we should negate our past, I’m not saying that, but fundamentally all we can do is live in the moment and act as best we can in this world.

Marvel.com: It seems like what you’re showing is Tony’s ability to do that and 451’s inability.

Kieron Gillen: Yeah. Right at the end, Tony kind of drags 451 around to his position. And then 451 relapses immediately. Tony’s big moment in this wasn’t the big fight at the end. It was when he decided what was more important, being himself or saving Earth. Tony chooses to plug himself into the Godkiller knowing he would not be himself after. That’s kind of a big existential acceptance. In the ultimate end, if it came down to it, he’s not that important. He’s a hero. He would rather give up not just his life, but himself to save all these people. That was the big moment and when he makes that big final step and then it doesn’t work, which is one of the things that will keep you up at night: You pointed the gun at your head and expected the bullet to go into it.

Marvel.com: Was there a temptation to have the suit work or was the plan all along knowing he wasn’t going to be able to control it?

Iron Man #16 preview art by Carlo Pagulayan

Kieron Gillen: I always knew that basically there was a problem with the suit. There was something going on and 451’s plan had gone awry.

Marvel.com: You’re dealing with two characters that are written to be more intelligent than you, and yet they’re supposed to be at odds and outsmarting each other above and beyond their own innate intelligence. How do you come to that as a writer without feeling just really dumb?

Kieron Gillen: I was thinking about this exact question the other day. The characters that I write tend to be smarter than I am. The one advantage that you have as a writer is time. Most of these people are making plans in split-seconds, especially as we are getting towards the end. Things are kind of improvised. It’s improvised for them and I have weeks to think about it. As long as I am consistent and obsessive in my thinking, I can make a story-based facsimile, or enough to be convincing. Does that make sense? It’s not like an improv session of trying to be smart. That’s much harder. The idea is that you sit back and think about what could work or what they could possibly think of. It’s a good question and it comes down to use of time. It’s like they have extremely powerful computers and I have a weak computer. My computer just takes a while longer to do the math.

Marvel.com: That’s an excellent analogy especially considering all the robot talk.

Kieron Gillen: Exactly. They’re both better machines than I am.

Marvel.com: It seems like Death’s Head is completely out of the picture at this point. I’ve enjoyed him as a foil to both characters, showing some of the greed of Tony and the mechanical intelligence of 451. He seems like a bridge between the two characters in some sense.

Iron Man #17 cover by Greg Land

Kieron Gillen: Yes, that was part of the idea. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugliness about the three robots, between P.E.P.P.E.R., Death’s Head, and 451. They’re all very different sorts of robot and alien artificial intelligences. He was an excellent foil. I wasn’t even sure I was going to do what I did to him until I did it. I got into that issue and I thought it would be much better if he falls now. He has his Tony moment but he has it in a very different sort of place and it leads to a very different sort of thing. He’s fallen out of place and if the Godkiller is going to fall out of reality, does what remains of Death’s Head fall with him? So yes, we’re saying goodbye to Death’s Head for now. Death’s Head was one of my favorite comic characters as a kid. So I thought, damn, I have to do it!

Marvel.com: Can you talk about P.E.P.P.E.R the A.I.? I can’t tell if he’s talking to her using the affection he has for his suit or for Pepper Potts, the person.

Kieron Gillen: It’s complicated, isn’t it? One of my favorite things about the [next] arc where they get back to Earth is when Pepper finds out about P.E.P.P.E.R. As you can imagine, that’s fun. I don’t want to spoil that scene but the way Tony justifies himself is like taking a picture of her with him. This is something he can do. Because he can do this sort of thing, he doesn’t think it’s actually Pepper but it kind of reminds him of her. It’s his version of having a photo of a friend on your dashboard.

Marvel.com: Yeah, but it’s kind of creepy.

Iron Man #18 cover by Paul Rivoche

Kieron Gillen: Yeah, that’s the first thing I did in issue #5 with P.E.P.P.E.R. I had them go, “This is a bit creepy, isn’t it?” Just a smidgen like going through her used underwear drawer, was the line. It reminds him and also grounds him. It reminds him of home. It’s almost like writing about her. Is writing someone into a story creepy? I don’t know. I see Tony as a sort of creative genius in some ways. That’s the thing about Tony. The suits look great. He’s not just an engineer, he’s also a designer. He’s got an eye for these kinds of things.

Marvel.com: Is this the last we’re going to see about the Godkiller armor? Is there anything more you can say about that?

Kieron Gillen: It’s fallen out of reality, to wherever that goes. It’s to be hidden as well as 451 was able to. It’s gonna try to take Tony with [it] and how can Tony escape in time? It’s certainly a big thing to introduce to my run. It’s the fact that Tony escapes with 451 and takes this giant database back to Earth. It doesn’t have 451’s brain anymore but this enormous database of information. That’s his holy grail. That’s what he’s been looking for. He’s taking back one of the biggest bodies on knowledge in existence, that’s what he’s taking back from space. But we can’t really say that because that’s in the next issue.

Marvel.com: It sounds like there are a lot of reasons for people to check out the next issues.

Iron Man #18 variant cover by Hajime Sorayama

Kieron Gillen: Yeah, #16 and #17, this is what Tony brings back from space. Tony has changed and stuff has changed on Earth. That’s what is really interesting to me. It’s the classic journey. You send someone away and they learn and bring stuff back. There’s sort of an odyssey vibe in it, where he discovers some things about himself. Of course, time continues back on Earth and in the Marvel Universe, Tony has been back on Earth for his day job. He has been back on Earth briefly running [the Illuminati] in INFINITY. It’s not like he was socializing down there. He was working. It’s like me going to New York and not seeing any of my friends when I’m visiting Marvel. Now he’s back on Earth as a human being. I don’t include any of the NEW AVENGERS or INFINITY stuff in IRON MAN as I just do it straight. He’s going to go back and ask, “What’s all this about twerking? What’s all this about now?” [Laughs]

It’s fun. Being back on Earth opens up a lot of classic fun, Tony Stark dealing with humans stuff. It’s fun to write.

Read IRON MAN #15, available now, and catch the penultimate chapter of “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” on September 25 in IRON MAN #16!

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