Tony Stark’s ‘Secret Origin’ rewrites ‘Iron Man’s’ history


Marvel Comics‘ Iron Man (AKA Tony Stark) is literally a self-made man. He designed the battle armor that endows him with his fantastic abilities and many of the other high tech devices his companies have sold over the years. The fact that his actions and choices shaped him into the hero he’s become is very important to him, but in “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark,” the recent mega-arc celebrating “Iron Man’s” 50th anniversary, those notions were challenged by a devious robotic life form known as 451 who claimed that Tony’s genius intellect and penchant for inventions were a product of a genetic manipulation that he had done on Tony while he still in his mother’s womb.

In “Iron Man” #17, writer Kieron Gillen and artist Carlo Pagulayan brought “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” to a close with an issue that shined light on the validity of 451’s allegations and led to Tony discovering a well hidden family secret. CBR News spoke with Gillen about these revelations, the process of crafting “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark,” and what the revelations of the mega-arc mean for the series moving forward.

CBR News: Kieron, “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” has arguably made the largest impact on a Marvel character you’ve written, and if I understand correctly the entire story arose because you were forced to make other plans — first with Tony going into space and then celebrating the 50th anniversary of Iron Man. Is that correct?

Kieron Gillen: Pretty much, yeah. I had an original plan, which was completely different. None of it was written and it certainly wasn’t plotted properly. I was still doing all the research.

So yes, this story was counter punching, so to speak. That’s kind of the nature of Marvel. You’re working inside a larger company and you want to be receptive when ideas come up that make you say, “Oh that’s an interesting way to go.” So I had one direction for the book, which just didn’t really fit with where the character was going in the universe. Then I found something else. It was one of those moments where I said, “That’s a big idea. I can totally do that.” There are significant gains for the character. It’s useful, and it takes Tony on a good, long journey. It also takes my run in an interesting direction. The whole run from at least issue #6, and there was even some foreshadowing before that, has led to this point. Now we’ll follow the repercussions of this onwards.

We now know that Tony has a brother and that brother has spent his entire life living in an iron lung. He didn’t get to do any of the things that Tony had the privilege to do. Plus Tony has also really begun to question the nature of who he is. He’s been dealing with this big existential idea for these last few issues. Now he’s got something that’s much more down to Earth, but no less a threat to the nature of how he considers himself. Both of those things lead into where we’ll go next. It’s nice being able to say, “This is what my run is about.”

Let’s talk a little more about Tony’s brother, Arno, who was genetically manipulated by 451. Readers and Tony met for Arno the first time in “Iron Man” #17. I understand you had the idea for this character early on when you were first developing “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark.” Is that correct?

I wrote a letter in the back of issue #17 where I talked about how I developed the story line. It was basically a response to being asked to do a 50th anniversary story. It was a moment of anger really. [Laughs]

My original idea for the story about Tony being genetically manipulated was an interesting science fiction tale, but it fundamentally undermined Iron Man as a character. So I couldn’t really do that and make it stick. I thought though, “If we make it so Tony was adopted it leaves some room in the story and it gives Tony a brother he’s never known about.” That’s interesting. It gives us another member of the supporting cast and there’s lots of stories there.

Some readers will just see Tony’s brother as this new character. Of course, people who know more about the history of the Marvel Universe know that there was an Arno Stark who was the Iron Man of 2020 in another reality. If I remember correctly that Arno was Tony’s cousin. Now I imagine people with that longer knowledge of continuity have got a bad feeling about this Arno [Laughs]. He’s clearly different in some ways though.

It gave us an interesting way to play with some of the established history of the Marvel Universe. Plus we’re getting close to 2020. So I thought if we were going to introduce an Arno Stark into the main Marvel Universe this would be a good time to do it. So I did. [Laughs]

Tony embodies many of the stereotypes associated with only children, and as far as he knew he was one. What does it mean for him to suddenly discover he has a brother?

There’s all sorts of nature and nurture stuff going on with Tony and the big irony is that he pretty much did everything that 451 wanted him to do anyway. He really is a self made man, but the influence of his parents led to Tony Stark becoming the man he is. So on some level family is really important to him.

When Tony went into space he felt like an under achiever. That’s the curse of anyone who is genuinely brilliant or even moderately. You’re always left thinking you could have done more. I’m not Tony, so I’m not a genius and I’m far from smart really [Laughs], but people ask me questions like, “How do you do so many books a month?” while in my head I feel like I’m lazy. I think I could have done more. I feel like I waste too much time doing things like clicking away on the internet, and Tony is so beyond a person like me that he’d feel it even more acutely. When you’re so brilliant, why haven’t you done more?

Now he compares himself to Arno. He has a brother who could even be smarter than he is and that brother has not been able to do anything. That puts a focus on Tony’s achievements and makes him think, “I’ve had everything and he hasn’t. Maybe I should have done more.” It’s a really basic visual thing that Arno has spent his life in an iron lung and Tony has spent his adult life in an Iron Man. So on top of being adopted, having a brother makes Tony ask questions about himself. Plus his parents died when he was young so he hasn’t really had family in his life. Now he has that again.

Arno’s perspective is of course interesting as well. Now that his personal demon, 451, is dead he can go live a life. What does that mean though? Is Arno bitter about what happened to him? What has it been like for him to sit there knowing everything he knows and watch Tony do what he does? So for me there’s lots of juice in that relationship.

The revelation of Arno being Howard and Maria Stark’s biological son means that Tony is indeed a self made man since he doesn’t have his father’s genetic traits. What exactly does being adopted mean for Tony Stark? Can a guy like Tony deal with not knowing who his biological parents are?

Good question. As I said, this is a story that we’ve been leading up to and it’s also going to define a lot of elements going forward. On top of the world threatening super heroic elements this is one of Tony’s personal things from here on in. How does he feel about having a set of biological parents out there in the world?

Tony is a man who’s both very passionate and very logical. The contrast between the two are some of things that drive him. It’s not like he’s Reed Richards. It’s more that the reason is always dominant with Reed, and that leads to Reed’s great errors. Tony is quite capable of falling into holes. In issue #17 he says, “On a logic level this shouldn’t make any difference. My parents are the people who raised me.” That doesn’t change though how things feel in your gut.

I’m not adopted, but I did quite a lot of reading about adoption and late discovery adoption. I wanted to research how people process the idea of being adopted with their understanding of themselves. Unless you’re adopted or close to someone who has been you might not really think about this stuff.

Some people, when they receive the news that they’ve been adopted, idealize their lost parents. Then some people are the other way around. They think, “I don’t want anything to do with my birth parents. Screw them! They left me.” So there’s a lot of reactions and seeing what Tony thinks and how he feels about all of this is kind of the story going forward. I want to write his experience, without trying to generalize Tony’s experience of adoption to everyone. These are personal stories for everyone.

By the end of issue #17 he’s clearly tried to put his mind on something else. Arno has got something he wants to do. So he’s thinking, “Great let’s do that.” It’s a distraction.

Right, clearly this is an emotional moment for him because he does say to Arno, “Give me a bottle or give me something to do.”

Exactly. I really wanted to make it clear that this has thrown who he is. He’s got some thinking to do. This whole arc in a fantastical way with the Godkiller and 451’s plans to upgrade humanity is almost a super hero metaphor for coming to terms with being adopted. It’s a much more fantastical story but it’s still saying, “Your origins and everything you thought about yourself are wrong.”

I believe Tony says in the story, “This feels kind of the same.” The idea of who you are is built from these building blocks and realizing that something fundamental about yourself is misplaced leads to soul searching. If you’re an alcoholic like Tony you’ve done a lot of work on who you are and if you remove one of those building blocks it’s very possible that could lead to a relapse or something along those lines.

So Tony throwing himself into his work instead of a bottle might appear to be a healthy response. I wouldn’t say that’s healthy though, even if it is for a good cause, which we’ll see in the next arc, “Iron Metropolitan.” This is why it’s interesting drama, we have all these interesting things that we can explore in a real emotional way. Will Tony actually tell anyone that Arno is his brother? Or do they want to keep it secret? How’s Pepper going to respond? All these really big, human questions interest me.

Speaking of Pepper, Tony is also dealing with her getting engaged while he was in outer space, something he learned upon his return in “Iron Man” #16. Pepper is his best friend, not to mention an ex-girlfriend, so I imagine their dynamic could change quite a bit.

Absolutely, Pepper and her fiancé Marc are going to be important supporting characters moving forward. That’s one of my favorite things about the second year. After being in space for so long and surrounding Tony with robots essentially, and quite deliberately because it was the theme of the book, it’s a real joy to have him back on Earth.

When he came back and grabbed that slice of pizza in issue #16 it was a way of saying, “I’m home now.” That’s also why I wanted to shake things up with Pepper. It was a way of saying, “Yeah Tony, you got to go off and discover yourself, but life does go on without you. Your name may be on the cover of the book, but it’s not all about you.” [Laughs]

Let’s move from Pepper and Arno to another member of Tony’s family that loomed large in this story, his father, Howard Stark. When this story kicked off back in issue #6 Tony talked about how large his father’s influence on him was, and now that it’s over we can really see how big Howard’s impact was on the life of his adopted son. It appears that one of your goals in “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” was illustrating how important Howard Stark was to the overall Iron Man mythos. Is that correct?

Yes, family was my theme across the last year of “Young Avengers” and “Iron Man.” So family and relationships with parents has been really important to what I’ve been writing and I wanted to focus on Howard and put a different spin on him. That said, the thing about having a parent you’ve lost is Tony will never be able to talk about this with Howard. The gap in generations caused by death is really, really hard. So as you said, I wanted to make Howard be a person in his son’s life. The impact that both he and Maria have had on Tony is huge.

There’s been more about Howard in the Marvel mythos than there has been about Maria, so I wanted to bring Maria to the fore as well. Howard was doing a lot of the work, but Maria has almost been the moral center of this story I’m doing. When I realized what I was doing with them in this story I did go back over the first five issues to make sure I was foreshadowing it properly.

Issue #3 was about the drug capo trying to find a cure for his daughter’s condition and the question of what you would do to save your child? That’s kind of the origin of Tony Stark in an issue. That was an overture for the later stuff that I did with him

Do you think Howard is as flawed as his adoptive son?

I think he’s pretty flawed. There’s a lot of Howard in Tony, just to state the obvious. The amount of nurture there is very clear in the way he educated and shaped Tony. Howard gave Tony an enormous amount of privilege in terms of Stark Industries. He’s had a lot of opportunities.

Tony is aware of what Howard has meant to him and how much he’s influenced his life, but there is stuff they’ve never been able to talk about. We see that in issue #17 where Tony is listening to a recorded message from his father, and it’s implied that it’s one of multiple messages that have been found. None of those are the messages that Howard wanted to give his son; at least not in these words. So it’s the gap. It’s the things unshared.

What about Maria? What kind of impact did she have on him? Do you think any of his personality traits stem from his interactions with her?

If you use the “Secret Origin of Tony Stark” to see which qualities he shares with Howard and Maria you see that there are similarities between Tony’s parents. One of the things I liked about this story is we got to see Howard and Maria interact; solving problems and even having rows. Howard is a genius, but Maria is not stupid. We saw them work together to outwit 451. So I would much prefer for the readers to decide how much each parent influenced Tony and in what ways.

Let’s move away from Tony’s family to some of the more fantastic elements of this story. For “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” you needed a way to tell a story about Tony’s adoptive parents and a space opera style adventure. I assume the need to bridge those two stories is where your robot antagonist came in?

Yeah, I’ve said before that I was originally planning on using UNIT, but we decided for a variety of reasons to not use him. I thought it was interesting because I populate the whole story with robots and the idea that Tony was wrestling with and trying to understand is, “Maybe I am the Iron Man? Maybe I’m just a weapon designed to fulfill a purpose and all those ideas I had about myself are completely fake?” That’s the big existential horror.

So surrounding him with robots makes him confront that and the little bit of prejudice he had against robots. It’s not like he’s a rampant roboracist or anything, but on some level he considered robots different. To him, they’re not like people, at least one some level. That’s something that percolates in the Marvel Universe at the moment. I mean, look at “Avengers A.I.”

That also meant that I wanted to surround him with different robots. There’s the P.E.P.P.E.R. A.I, and Death’s Head who is very much his own man, and then you have 451 who is very polite, but clearly the antagonist. Putting Tony amongst these various robots makes him ask himself if he’s like them.

My whole thing with “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” is that you should be able to read it on two levels. One is, “This is quite a cool idea. I’ll go with this. The story behind it makes some sense.” Then there were other people vehemently opposed to it, and they were basically in Tony’s position. They don’t want to believe that about Tony Stark and he don’t doesn’t want to believe that about himself either. That’s kind of the dual narrative, and I hope by issue #17 it becomes clear that was the point.

I thought playing with the idea that Tony had been genetically manipulated was a good idea for a story, but if I had that turn out to be true it would clearly take away a lot of what makes Tony interesting as a character. That’s not what Tony is about and to reinvent him in that way would be wrong, but at the same time it’s an interesting idea to play with and what we actually did expands Tony’s world. It gives him a new relationship and some new issues to deal with.

So the robots in the story served a lot of purposes. Essentially though, they were a way of illustrating nature versus nurture and examining how we’re “built.”

Does Tony’s relationships with robots and artificial intelligences change in the aftermath of “Secret Origin?” Does he have more empathy for them?  

Definitely. There will be some interesting moments coming up to. The robotic P.E.P.P.E.R. still has to meet the real Pepper. That will be a fun scene. I think it happens in issue #19.

I want to be careful what I say here because it’s not like Tony hated the Vision. Tony tended to go build stuff and over think it. This was a good way for him to stop thinking about the differences between different forms of life. As I said, Sam Humphies is doing some very similar things over in “Avengers A.I.” So it’s very much on people’s minds, I think.

While Tony was rubbing elbows with robots in the present day segments of “Secret Origin” his parents and their associates ran afoul of a different life form in the past, one that was making its Marvel Universe debut, the infamous alien race known as the Grays. While the Grays have been a significant part of pop culture for some time, were you surprised they hadn’t been added to the Marvel Universe prior to “Secret Origin?”

I’m sure they’ve been used in a Marvel comic somewhere that I’m not aware of. I’m not going to pretend they’ve never been used, but I’m surprised they were never major figures especially when you consider the fact that they’ve been part of the urban mythology landscape for what, like 60 to 70 years?

So I was surprised and I liked that we got do an unusual twist on the Grays. They’re like vampires and any other prominent pop culture monster in that it’s up to people to work out their own twist on them. So I couldn’t make them this “magnificent and dominant” alien species because then they’d be like the Builders from Jonathan Hickman’s books. Also, we’ve already got several “big” alien empires in the Marvel Universe. I liked the idea of doing something a bit sleazier.

I don’t think any any alien empire worth its salt would be as interested in humans as the Grays [Laughs]. So the metaphor I used to describe them is they’re the guy in Penn Station stealing your luggage. I thought that was an interesting niche for them. I’d like to return to them again someday.

Just because the Vegas clan of Grays may have been wiped out, does that mean there aren’t more Grays on or around Earth?

The guy in Vegas was like a local boss and his entire family got wiped out. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other families, though. Since we were doing a ’70s vibe in “Secret Origin” the Grays were very much a “Godfather” tribute. Fredo Corleone was a big influence on Rollo the alien; even down to the body language.

Howard’s interactions with the Grays in “Secret Origin” lead to him forming a heist-style crew composed of new and established characters. Do you have any interest in reusing these characters in future stories? I, for one, am curious about how the Red Hulk views Tony Stark in light of what went down between General Ross and his father in “Secret Origin.”

Oh yeah. I’ve talked to another writer about using the Bear in something else, which could be fun. How much these people knew about everything that went down is also an interesting thing that could be explored. If Tony is interested in digging into the activities of his father these people are the obvious ones to go to. So I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see any of those characters, but I don’t want to say where, when, or even if they might show up.

As we discussed earlier, this story may have been about heist crews and fantastic sci-fi ideas but it was also about personal and intimate things like family. Was writing this story personal for you?

Yeah, all my work is personal. I sort of process what’s going on in my life at the moment through it. I was thinking about my own relationship with my parents and some other things. So some of that went in, not that I’ve been genetically manipulated by aliens — at least not that I’m aware of. [Laughs]

Looking back at “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark,” we want to take some time to talk about the work of your artistic contributors. What do you feel they brought to the mega-arc?

Greg Land drew issues #6-8. Dale Eaglesham did issues #9-12. Then Greg came back on. Then after that, Carlo Pagulayan came aboard for the last few issues.

What do you feel these guys brought to the story?

Enormous patience for my crap. [Laughs]. Greg is a long term collaborator who I’ve worked with before and he brings a sense of glamour to everything. He especially did that with our space sequences. Tony thought he was going on holiday and Greg really made it feel like that. You also saw him start pushing into Steranko-style layouts, which you’ve seen him get further into in his “Mighty Avengers” work.

Dale did most of the period stuff. We kept the time quite vague because we didn’t want to date the story, but we wanted to the portions with Howard to feel like they were taking place in an earlier time period. He nailed the whiskey, big mustaches, and Vegas quality of the story. I thought those elements were pretty important.

Then it was particularly nice to have Carlo on the final few issues because he did all the designs for Iron Man. All the suits of armor in the first arc were designed by Carlo and he did a few of our design covers. For him to come on at the end of the year and take all those suits of armor out for a spin felt really nice. He’s a fantastic design guy and that’s what he brought to our final conflict.

Let’s conclude by talking about your next “Iron Man” arc, “Iron Metropolitan.” As we discussed at the beginning, Tony’s brother is now in his life and if the end of issue #17 is any indication they’re now going to jump into some big projects so Tony can distract himself from the uncomfortable revelations that have been popping up in his life the last few issues. Is that correct?

Yes. In short, “Iron Metropolitan” is where Tony and Arno get to build a city. There’s a quote by a designer I like named Matt Jones where he says, “A city is a battle suit for surviving the future.” I drop that early in in the first issue, and the idea here is looking at the ramifications of Tony and Arno deciding to do something like this. Where would they build their city and what would they build?

The place they choose is the ruins of Mandarin City. It allows me to do some big world building sci-fi stuff, but it also allows me to introduce my big plot for the second year. Tony’s relationship with Arno is sort of the personal side of the plot and now that 451, our big villain, is brain dead I’m doing something with the Mandarin.

The fact where we have so much to talk about [with] Tony and Arno literally means I don’t have to talk about the villain. I’ve got what I think is a fun take on the Mandarin. We’re not bringing him back from the dead or anything, but I have got something from the Mandarin mythos, which works really well. I think by the last two pages of #18 people will be able to go, “Oh, I get it.” They’ll be able to see where it is in a conceptual way — but the execution will be wide open. It’s a one-sentence sort of idea at its core, and I spin it out like crazy.

Will Arno be in the public eye in this story? Or will he and Tony be keeping his existence secret to the world and he’ll be interacting with the world from his hospital room?

Arno doesn’t need to stay in that room any more. It’s pretty clear. However, in terms of how he’s going to be presented? That’s a different question, and by the end of “Iron Metropolitan” that all gets sorted out. He’s a major supporting character. He’s been the ghost in Tony’s story so far, and now he steps forward.

“Iron Man” #17 is on sale now, and “Iron Metropolitan” begins in “Iron Man” #18, available 11/6.