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There were more than a few moments in Michael Fleisher’s career as a comicbook writer when it feels as if he was, to use a 21st century term, trolling both his employers and his readers. Never is this a more compelling suspicion than with the enthusiastically inept Ironjaw, a spectacularly ill-conceived and profoundly obnoxious barbarian title. As absurd in its premise as it was twisted in its ethics, Ironjaw was apparently so highly thought of by Atlas that it featured in the company’s first wave of three colour comics on November 12th 1974. On the surface, and I suspect that was as far as the powers-that-be at Atlas ever glanced, Ironjaw was an attempt to muscle in on the market for barbarian protagonists. As Atlas was launched, Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian monthly title was closing in on its fifth year of publication. In addition, Marvel had recently launched a black and white Savage Sword Of Conan magazine, which sat on the racks and newsstands next to other uber-macho sword and sorcery titles featuring the likes of Kull The Destroyer and Ka-Zar The Savage. It must have looked as if there was a craze to jump, or at the very least a substantial readership to cater to.
Yet a more careful glance would have noted that Marvel’s attempts to cash in on the success of Conan had not been generally successful. Even as Ironjaw debuted, Kull had disappeared from sight, to join Marvel’s already cancelled Thongor and Gullivar Jones strips. (Kull would return, briefly, in 1976, only to quickly disappear again.) Ka-Zar would survive until 1977, but always in the bottom tier of non-reprint titles. Only Conan would continue and prosper, with the associated Red Sonja bi-monthly limping through to a quiet death in the late Seventies. Lacking even the sales of Conan, DC’s attempts to produce sword’n’sorcery features had proven even more unsuccessful. Its Weird Worlds title had been euthanised in the summer of 1974, while the more typical members of its Tarzan family of books, with their own world-famous brand of supposedly noble savages, were struggling for sales and heading for their final DC issues. In short, Atlas had chosen, once again, to attempt to compete in a crowded, declining niche in a crowded, declining marketplace.
With just a little effort, the Neal Adams’ cover for Ironjaw #1 – see the head of this page – could have featured on the front of Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian. A little change of emphasis, perhaps, a slight touch more brawn, a miniscule remodelling of the hair and costume, such as it was, and no-one would have thought anything of it. As if under orders to minimise the impact of Ironjaw’s iron jaw, Adams presents it as a relatively minor detail rather than a central aspect of the character’s visual design. That the metal prosthetic was then coloured white, rather than steel grey, only helped to obscure the fact that here was a barbarian with a hefty artificial jaw that, encompasing skull and mouth and teeth, effectively took up a good two-fifths of his face.
To turn to the first few pages of Ironjaw’s interior was to be faced with a character that seemed very much less familiar and appealling than Adams’ generic barbarian. There is, for those who can buy into the Conan mythos, a deeply blokeish species of glamour to be associated with the “heroic” leads of R. E. Howard’s Hyborian Age. In Marvel’s colour comics, that misognyistic, force-glorifying allure became, by necessity, mainstreamed through relatively polite and sanitised storytelling. But in Fleisher and artist Mike Sekowsky’s collaboration, Ironjaw was, as the logic of his design surely insisted, a fearsome grotesque.
Such was the lack of romance in Sekowsky’s depictions of Ironjaw that two fundamental problems for the reader immediately appeared. The first was the unappealling and alienating brutality that radiated from the page whenever the character appeared. This was not a character that it was in any way easy to immediately empathise with. Indeed, it was if Fleisher and Sekowsky had set out to embrace the Howardesque barbarian stereotype and lay bare all its unlikely, unpleasant underpinnings. (I’ll return to this matter of whether Ironjaw was in truth a satire or even, given Fleisher’s track record, a celebration of uber-machismo tomorrow.) The second was the questions inevitably raised by that iron jaw. How was it possible that a technologically unsophisticated civilisation could have produced a complex metallic prosthetic so efficient and effective? How was it attached, and how did it stay attached, and how was it maintained, and how did he talk, and eat, and rest? A story element so apparently central that the comic was named after it demands to be centre stage. Since nothing of these enigmas were even touched upon in the debut issue, the questions remained, and, indeed, festered.
That iron jaw might have a way of touching upon issues of loss, vulnerability and pain. It might have allowed issues of technological augmentation to be illuminatingly touched upon in a context in which even now they’re rarely touched upon. The American comic book was by now well practised when it came to criticising the negative labels traditionally applied to those with untypical appearances, with characters such as The Thing and The Hulk at Marvel having been fan favourites for almost a decade and a half. If there was a considerable way to go yet in how to represent disability, and that is most certainly true, then a start had been made. But instead, Ironjaw’s disability was a gimmick, and worse yet, a gimmick without any obvious reason to exist. Would anything in the book of the slightest substance have been different if that iron jaw didn’t exist?
Well, why did Ironjaw have an iron jaw?
To be continued tomorrow: