Reading Marie Javins new IRON MAN: EXTREMIS prose novel, released April 16th, on my iPad, gave me an eerie moment of realizing how much had changed in the technological surface of our lives since Warren Ellis and Adi Granov released their Iron Man comic arc EXTREMIS in 2005 and 2006. Facebook was around then, but none of my close friends were using it yet, I purchased an extremely expensive iPod that weighed a ton, and it would be years before I read a comic in digital format. But EXTREMIS, as seems necessary for any really strong Iron Man story, was way ahead of its time. Then along came the first IRON MAN film in 2008, drawing in part upon EXTREMIS influences, though there are rumors that the EXTREMIS technology will play a much bigger role in IRON MAN 3. The version of Iron Man presented by the films has become the most well known version of the character, and that means that harmonizing earlier storylines with the mega personality that Tony Stark has now become (as befitting his fictional stature) is a desirable thing, and one that can make the breadth of comics history for the character more accessible for those who are relative newcomers.
Marie Javins an inspirational figure in the comics world and well beyond, first as an editor and colorist at Marvel for over 13 years, then fearless world traveler sharing her poignant experiences through blogging and authoring books. Add to that her editing work overseeing the groundbreaking series THE 99, featuring Islamic culture and religion in the super hero genre. And yet, there’s still more: Javins has also taught coloring at the New York School of Visual Arts and you’ll often hear first hand from her students in the New York comics community what an impact she’s had on their work. How many countries has she lived in? I’m not sure my attempt at counting has been accurate, but you get the big picture. Javins’ life has been extraordinary so far both on and off the page, and so when she was asked to reimagine Tony Stark’s relationship to EXTREMIS technology and terrorist storylines as a prose novel, she brought an abnormal level of well-suited experience to bear on her project. For those familiar with Ellis’ EXTREMIS storyline, you’ll know that its rife with diverse global locations, implications about mineral mining and weapons trade in impoverished countries, and has to show the reader a Tony Stark at his worst and at his best.
Without giving away spoilers, since the novel has only been released for a little over a week, I can say that Javins is a masterful writer when it comes to convincing the reader of the sensory details of travel, of locations and their character, and even more adept at portraying characters in a psychologically realistic way. She does this without overloading the text, a virtue that truly experienced comics folks seem to have an instinct for when it comes to prose, and her dialogue is superb. In keeping with the harmonics she was tasked with developing between the original graphic novel and the film, the dialogue is as sharp, appealing, and funny as the films are known for, and are windows into character personality as well. Javins sticks to that very key element of “rationalization” when it comes to Stark’s personality, always circling around those gray areas that enable him to act while staving off a potential landslide of guilt over his past acts. She gets inside the “tabloid” Tony to remind us, as good Iron Man stories must, of his humanity and how essentially miserable he can be, and essentially determined as he has to be.
You’ll believe in Javin’s portrayal of secondary and even relatively minor characters as much as you are convinced by Stark, and it seems like one of the reasons Javins accomplishes that so well is because of the sensory detail and human experience of her own travels and the compassion she’s felt for the cultures she’s experienced along the way. I highly recommend you check out IRON MAN: EXTREMIS for yourself, but hearing directly from Javins when interviewed about her project is bound to convince you more than I can:
Hannah Means-Shannon: What features of Tony Stark’s personality did you stick to as a guideline for your novel? What do you think are the most essential features of the character?
Marie Javins: Warren Ellis‘ original IRON MAN: EXTREMIS six issues came out a few years before Marvel Studios captured the public imagination with the Iron Man we’re now all familiar with. The film version adapted material from EXTREMIS but also added original material and influences from pre-Extremis comic book runs.
My job was to write the Tony Stark the public now knows while still staying true to the original EXTREMIS series. We placed it in the time after the first IRON MAN movie, which altered two major points—one was Tony Stark’s public proclamation of his identity as Iron Man. The other was his romantic interest in Pepper Potts, which caused a wrinkle in the book’s tension between Tony and Maya Hansen. Fortunately, in my timeline, Tony and Pepper were not a thing yet. In Warren’s original story, she wasn’t in the issues at all—he’d put in a salty older secretary who turned out to be a lot of fun to write when I expanded on her original lines.
Tony Stark’s guilt over having manufactured weapons is key to the EXTREMIS story line and was adapted to the screen, as is his inherent genius, innovation, and snarky sense of humor. But his single-minded need to atone drives the modern Tony Stark.
HM-S: Did you feel like you had to become a rocket scientist to discuss all of the technology in the story? Was this science boot-camp for you, or has this always been an interest of yours?
MJ: Hurricane Sandy hit us while I was writing this and ironically, I had to resort to longhand and propane for a chapter. But normally, I love tech and take apart old iPhones for fun and am always trying to convince people to let me do something risky to their expensive computer equipment (they usually refuse). That said, I’m in no way capable of writing genius-level dialogue between the world’s most innovative thinkers, and I want to avoid my tech references seeming outdated next year. I recently read a slightly older book where blogs had been treated as the future of information. Well, no one could have predicted Facebook or Twitter when that book was written, or how quickly personal blogs were rendered irrelevant once online interaction became so democratic. So I avoided having Tony Stark use tech that we currently consider innovative, like 3-D printers or apps. And I tried not to be too specific about what Stark was looking for in his inventions. He’s always got to be a step ahead of us everyday consumers. He’s considering inventing things we don’t even dream of.
Warren Ellis has always been versed in high-tech culture—at least he included plenty of Easter eggs about futurists and speculative tech in his original dialogue. I was still stumbling onto realizations about his original characters a month after I turned in the final draft.
HM-S: Why did you want to write a story about Iron Man? What kind of impact do you think the ideas behind Iron Man can have on society today?
MJ: It’s funny how disinterested I was in the older version of Iron Man—he just seemed like a rich jerk to me until Warren rebooted him and Robert Downey Jr. brought him to life, turning Stark’s flaws into humor and conflicted vulnerability.
Or maybe I just didn’t get it. Maybe I was too busy with my own editorial stable and coloring responsibilities to keep a close eye on Iron Man. Or maybe I couldn’t relate to a wealthy playboy superhero, but I can definitely get behind a kind of super-geek, a tech genius who loves inventing stylish gadgets and who is so self-absorbed you never know if he’s going to save the world or insult everyone in the room. The current incarnation of Iron Man in a way reflects our obsession with stylish tech and frequent upgrades. And there’s a timeliness to his search for sustainable, clean energy.
HM-S: What was the most personal aspect of the story for you? Were there any themes you really wanted to include?
The EXTREMIS characters were complex and not simplistic. I tried to stick to that. Throughout the book, people believe they did what had to be done in spite of knowing they weren’t always on the right track. Rationalization is a constant. Tony Stark and the documentary producer interviewing him both rationalize. Dr. Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen rationalize their actions. The bad guys rationalize. Everyone in the story thinks they are doing what has to be done. Well, everyone except Sal, the old tech-hippy who happily calls everyone out. Mallen, the bad guy, isn’t always inhuman and he switches back and forth between showing glints of humanity and being purely evil. It was important to not lose that complexity.
I tweaked Mallen and the personalities of his accomplices with characteristics of people I knew when I was a kid, and tried to add in minor atmospheric details from growing up in Virginia outside of Washington DC, where the final showdown occurs, and from the short time I lived in Austin, Texas, where Maya’s office is located.
HM-S: You’ve edited and colored a vast array of comics, and even written some. What about novels? Is this a new medium for you?
MJ: I’ve written four other books, but this is my first novel. Two are guidebooks, one is a children’s 3-D atlas and world tour, and the other is a personal travel narrative of my first trip overland from tip-to-tip of Africa.
I’ve contributed to several other books, magazines, sites, and maintained some mid-sized personal adventure blogs. My favorite stories to tell are autobiographical, about exploring other countries, continents, or the bits in between. I seem to get into a lot of scrapes in shared taxis or on broken buses in the middle of nowhere. Once, I was chased by a hippo. I was lucky to make it out of that one. This was a new medium for me, but the structure of creative non-fiction isn’t so different from a novel.
HM-S: How do you think writing a prose story about a superhero differs from writing about a superhero in comics? Are there any specific challenges that depend on the prose medium?
MJ: When I edited CIVIL WAR, the first Marvel prose novel in this series, writer Stuart Moore described the point-of-view problem to me. I thought I understood, but only when I was in deep with EXTREMIS did I know exactly what he had been talking about. In a comic, you can show character’s reactions and infer a great deal from an expression or physical stance. In a book, you have the POV of one character at a time—you can’t really tell what’s going on with other characters except as the character whose thoughts you’re privy to might interpret their actions. Also, action is easier as a visual panel. A writer might have to spend several paragraphs describing what an artist can convey in a single panel.
HM-S: You’re known as a world traveler, often going well off the beaten path. Did travel inform your view of Iron Man mythology at all? Does Stark’s character have any global implications for you?
MJ: I want to avoid spoilers, but yes, my expeditions and life abroad definitely gave me flavor to add to Iron Man’s story, and not just because I’m sensitive to cultural stereotypes in villains.
People who follow my adventures online won’t be surprised to see robot camel jockeys in the prologue set in United Arab Emirates. My visit to the camel races was a highlight of the time I spent making comics in Kuwait in 2006.
And a 2011 conversation I’d had over a Fanta in a bar in Mila Mila, Republic of Congo, gave me an entire subplot. A local man had told me: “I know English because we learn it in school. We learn many things in school. Many Africans are fluent in English and French and are highly intellectual. But the problem is still that there are no jobs. You guys think we are stupid because we don’t have jobs, but we are educated too. The problem is there are just no jobs.”
That stuck with me, as did the hunger of two teenage boys I’d met the previous night in a Gabon/Congo border village. They’d politely and appreciably scarfed down some peanut butter I’d offered them (with bread and a titanium spork), and that played into a minor bit in the story too. I was traveling in parts of the world that give us all our tech minerals, but people are impoverished and desperate there. And all of this fit in with the guilt Warren had used as Stark’s driving force in EXTREMIS. “If there really were a Tony Stark”, I thought, “a man with a company that sources raw materials, a wealthy and brilliant man devoted to tech as a way to help regions impacted by past wars, what would he do?”
HM-S: What do you think about print versus digital format for comics? Do you think people will be reading holographic comics of IRON MAN in the future?
MJ: It’s like the old argument about “Do you like cats or dogs?” You can like both! The more people reading sequential stories in any format is good for all of us, and the ease of digital access brings in new readers. I understand the apprehension and uncertainty we are facing, but I’ve thought we were dead as an industry before and have been wrong. Comics seem to be relatively healthy with so many new outlets and individuals creating their own products. Of course, it’s hard to make a living right now, but that’s not comics-specific. All creative fields seem to be in a worrying state of transition.
HM-S: Are there any other projects you have coming up or that you’re currently working on that you can tell us a little bit about?
MJ: After seven years, I’m finally winding down my involvement with the Kuwait series THE 99, as well as putting to bed a science fiction graphic novel called BINARY I packaged with my colleague Stuart Moore—both of these are available now or soon on ComiXology. Stuart and I also just finished writing the copy for ART OF IRON MAN 3 and soon we’re starting the next ART OF book for the upcoming THOR movie. I also have a weekly column on the UK’s WANDERLUST magazine website.
I’m still teaching coloring at New York’s School of Visual Arts and running Botfriend, the graphic novel packaging partnership Stuart and I own. But after being editor in chief of THE 99 for so many years, it’s amazing to me that I might have time to work on my own projects again. I’ve been planning my second travel narrative CURSE OF THE HIPPO since my last one, STALKING THE WILD DIK-DIK, came out. HIPPO is about my adventures living in Uganda and Namibia, then moving to Kuwait and Cairo to make comic books. And I went around the world by public transport for the second time in 2011, so that’s a third book right there. That should keep me busy for quite a while.
HMS: Javins redefines the idea of being busy, and always has, from her days working both a day and night job at Marvel editing and coloring, to placing herself at the heart of new experiences through travel, but it’s a lucky thing she was willing to take on the adaptation of IRON MAN: EXTREMIS to craft a new story, essentially, and one that adds substantially to Iron Man mythology. But it’s an addition that is very likely to remind you of why you cared about Iron Man stories in the first place, and why society is still responding to their relevance. And just to make things even more appropriate, you can read EXTREMIS to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Iron Man as a character and go see that little film you’ve probably never heard of coming out in a few days: IRON MAN 3. Thanks so much, Marie, for talking with the Beat about your remarkable novel, and thanks for taking an interest in Mr. Stark despite the vagaries of his personality. We also can’t wait to read CURSE OF THE HIPPO, more or less assuming, and hoping, there will be some “chasing” involved.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.