Iron Man (proposal)

Here’s a brief abstract I wrote for a prospective paper (to be submitted in several places) about Iron Man.


Iron Man stands apart from other comic book superheroes in several striking ways. His superpowers do not come from an alien origin or a spider bite; rather, they are products of postindustrial technology. There are other superheroes whose powers are technologically based, such as Batman; but Iron Man’s cutting-edge engineering could not be further removed from Batman’s artisanal use of technology. It is also noteworthy that where most superhero costumes are disguises used to preserve anonymity and strike terror into foes, Iron Man’s suit is actually the literal source of his powers. In addition, although Tony Stark/Iron Man is a millionaire-turned-crimefighter just like Bruce Wayne/Batman, there’s a sharp contrast between Batman’s vengeful, almost sociopathic, outsider status, and Stark’s highly networked public persona, who stands at the center of corporate and military power.

For all these reasons, Iron Man is a fairly unique figure. Many American superhero stories of the last fifty years can be diagnosed as male-adolescent compensation fantasies: the nerd is empowered to strike back at his tormentors, and achieve the glory of saving the world. But Iron Man puts a strange twist on this scenario. For in his case, the redemption- and power-fantasy is also a fantasy of the military-industrial-technoscience complex, and ultimately of Capital itself. Corporations are recognized as “persons” under the law, and Tony Stark is very much the personification of a corporate entity. Iron Man’s technological triumphs, his ambivalent relations with the US military and intelligence communities, and his vulnerabilities as well (the shrapnel that threatens to enter his heart, and the alcoholism that is his constant temptation), all cross the line that separates individualist psychodramas from allegories of the ways that libidinal forces directly invest the socius (as Deleuze and Guattari would put it).

For this essay, I look beyond the recent Iron Man hit movie to consider a wide range of Iron Man’s incarnations in Marvel comics. I will pay some attention to Stan Lee’s invention of the character as a Cold War figure in the early 1960s, and to the depiction of Tony Stark’s corporate struggles and problems with alcohol in the comics of the 1970s and 1980s; but my main focus will be on Mark Millar’s, Warren Ellis’, and Matt Fraction’s radical reinterpretations of the character in the last several years. My aim is neither to critique the ideology of Iron Man comics, nor to claim that the book is somehow deeply subversive; but rather to use this comic book series in order to develop some ideas about how social fantasy works in our era of neoliberal globalized capitalism and of post-Cold War, post-9/11 paranoia and surveillance.

Grace Jones, Corporate Cannibal

“Corporate Cannibal”, the new Grace Jones video (directed by Nick Hooker) is utterly astonishing. Jones is 60 years old (!); and this is the first new work she has released in close to twenty years. But “Corporate Cannibal” is anything but safe and nostalgic.

Corporate Cannibal

The video is in black and white, and the only images that appear on the screen are those of Grace Jones’ face and upper body, black against a white background. But Jones’ figure is subject to all sorts of electronic distortions. The most common effect is one of elongation: her face is stretched upwards, as if she had an impossibly long forehead, as if her notorious late-80s flattop haircut had somehow expanded beyond all dimensions. Or else, her entire body in silhouette is thinned out, gracile (if that isn’t too much of a pun), and almost insectoid. The image also bends and fractures: her mouth stretches alarmingly, her eyes bulge out and expand across the screen like some sort of toxic stain. And sometimes Jones’ figure multiplies into two or three distorted, and imperfectly separated, clones. Nothing remains steady for more than a few seconds; the screen is continually morphing, and everything is so stylized and disrupted that we don’t get a very good sense of what Jones actually looks like today. Her facial features remain somewhat recognizable — Grace Jones has never looked like anyone else — and at a few moments, we get a brief almost undistorted close-up of her eyes, nose, and mouth — but there is something monstrous as well about this individuated “faciality”; and in any case it is gone almost before we have had the time to take it in.

Corporate Cannibal