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.