Iron Man Saved My Life

The comic books were my childhood refuge from an alcoholic father, but they helped me overcome my own battle with the bottle, too.
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Bob Layton / Wikimedia Commons

My earliest memories are of comic books, and of my father. He’d bring me to this little bar called The Dead End in Fox River Grove, where I would sit quietly in the corner, going over the pages of the same few comics again and again, looking for new details in the stories and the art. On the drive home, I recall the car swerving. I also recall him hitting me, throwing me to the ground.

The first comic books I bought on my own were a stack of Iron Mans from a little shop not far from the one-bedroom apartment I shared with my mother. From time to time, I’d add to this collection, shepherding and obsessing over it like only a five-year-old could, spreading it out on the pullout sofa I slept on. I constantly pleaded with my mom to buy more comics. Sensibly, she usually said no. When she did say yes, I always picked Iron Man.

As with the Robert Downey Jr. film adaptations, the original Iron Man character is defined as much by his intellect or technology as by personal troubles. Starting in 1978, with issue No. 120, in a story arc known as “Demon in a Bottle,” David Michelinie, John Romita Jr., and Bob Layton took Tony Stark’s billionaire playboy attitude and added the specter of alcoholism. The story begins with Stark flying first-class, pondering his life as he asks the stewardess for a fourth martini. When questioned by her, he rationalizes that he’s is drinking for two men, his civilian persona and his costumed identity.

The casualness of the drinking is what sells it. Over the course of eight issues, it’s revealed that the luxury indulgence of the two-martini lunch, the expensive wine, and the whiskey-spiked coffee for late-night work sessions actually indicates a drinking problem. The creative team doesn’t beat the reader over the head about it, though. Until the penultimate issue, No. 127, it isn’t even clear that Stark’s woes come, in large part, from alcohol. Often, those around addicts may excuse or not recognize the symptoms until too late. On the cover of No. 128, one of the most iconic images in the character’s history, a sweaty, sunken-eyed Stark looks in the mirror, horrified. A bottle of liquor waits on the counter.

Seeing heroes appearing like that (he was even wearing his armor, sans helmet) leaves a mark. It cuts deep when someone you look up to can’t keep themself together.

My memories of my father’s drinking are few. He died before my 10th birthday, in 1996, from a failed liver. But I think I connected to Iron Man because of him. At first, part might have been his mustache, a feature both he and Tony Stark shared. When I started seriously collecting Iron Man, in the early ‘90s, the character was in recovery. But then I moved on to the older issues, from the late ‘70s and ‘80s, when he was often living on the streets or by the bottle.

I never gave up those comics. Unlike the action figures and Legos that my father had also given me, they never appeared on eBay. They remained packed away, though; for a long time, I figured I was too mature for comic books, that they had nothing left for me.

When I grew older, I drank. I tried to avoid it at first, but, inevitably, a few drinks turned into a lot more. The casualness is what got me. When I snuck beers or went to parties at 16 and 17, drinking was an adventure, something forbidden, and controlled by generous older brothers and out-of-town parents.

After 21, it became habit. Two or three beers in the evening turned became a six-pack, or a bottle of wine and a few chasers, or a baker’s dozen in the late morning and afternoon. As a kid, I never got why artists kept showing how much Tony Stark sweated when he was drinking. When I drank, seeing how the stains under my arms grew and spread, how my face turned red and shimmered in the bathroom mirror’s light, I understood.

I wouldn’t remember stretches of my day, times when I shouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel but I did. Friends would see me at my weakest and give me questioning looks later. My fiancé knew something was going on, but I hid the extent of the problem quite well. When she would see how much I was consuming, I would plead for her forgiveness, swearing I’d never touch a drop again, and then start up the next day.

A lot of drinkers are prone to random acts. I certainly was. During a long binge, I went into my home office and began reorganizing, just on a whim. If I was drinking myself to death, might as well get something constructive done in the meanwhile. My comics are stored in long white boxes underneath my desk. They’re worn by years of ownership. I opened one, nostalgically. My issues of Iron Man tumbled out, and I peeled them from the plastic sleeves they were housed in.

In these comics was someone who, though fictional, I had admired all my life, and who had a drinking problem. I considered how long Iron Man had been with me. My mother always told me I should learn from my father’s mistakes. He was a textbook example of what to avoid. But, somehow, that had never been enough. I never could take anything from his example; the memory of him kicking me, throwing me around, took precedence.

In Iron Man No. 127, Tony Stark, drunk, alienates his bodyguard and love interest, Bethany Cabe, and forces his longtime friend and butler, Jarvis, to resign in disgust. I remember leafing through this issue and feeling as though I was seeing my own life play out on the printed page.

Come the climax in No. 128, Stark sits at his desk, in armor, holding his helmet before him much like Hamlet would the skull of Yorrick. Drinking for two men has become far too much work. He decides to simply stop being Tony Stark, to embrace his addiction and remain Iron Man always. This results in a memorable scene of a drunk billionaire crashing around Manhattan in a suit of red and gold armor.

Finally, Cabe and Jarvis confront him with a choice: either us or the bottle. Pick those you love or the substance you depend on. Stark realizes that to choose the bottle would betray all he has attempted to accomplish.

Though his battle with alcoholism doesn’t end with No. 128, it puts him on the road to recovery. He experiences significant relapses but, as superhero comics implicitly promise, good wins out in the end.

That outcome moved me. My father was an example of what not to be. Iron Man had always been an example of what to emulate. A lot of boys and girls want to be superheroes when they’re young. As an adult, I still do. Being Iron Man means not only power, but also sobriety. Maybe that makes me immature. Perhaps I’m just kidding myself. But I really do think a superhero saved my life.

Alcoholics are never truly cured. Relapses do happen. But during those times I feel low, that I need that drink, I know where to turn. Those comics never leave my desk. Tony Stark’s face and the face of my father are never far away. They’re always ready to remind me what I have to lose, and what I stand to gain.

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James Orbesen is a writer based in Chicago. His writing has appeared in Salon, The New Humanism, and Jacobin.

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