Saturday, December 19, 2009

I Love a Parade, Part III: Isn't It Iron-ic?

Previously, Vroom! discovered he’d be portraying Iron Man on the Marvel Universe float in the 1987 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade…

The Iron Man costume was particularly problematic. First was the question of which armor design was to be used. Iron Man had gone through a number of iterations since his debut in 1963, including his original gray armor, which lasted less than two issues and resembled a pot-belly stove topped by a large shell casing, and the subsequent golden suit, whence the “Golden Avenger” nickname was coined. But even that second design only lasted less than two years. The majority of the following decades, Tony Stark wore a suit of red-and-gold, re-envisioned every few years.

In the comic book, it was Stark’s restlessness—continuous tinkering and upgrading—and drive for perfection that was to blame, when in reality any new writer who came onto the book usually worked a revamp of the armor into the storyline as a means of leaving their thumbprint. Plus, editorial discovered that the introduction of a new suit translated into a spike in circulation, so whenever Iron Man sorely needed a boost in ratings, as it were, they instructed the writer du jour to work said redesign into the storyline.

At the time of the 1987 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the armor had recently been changed again to arguably the worst design of the character’s career, since his inception, an ugly, red-and-silver suit of considerable bulk, belying the sleeker, more streamlined look one would expect from any advancement in technology. Needless to say, I was relieved to discover that the new costume would be inspired on Shellhead’s red-and-gold armor, yet not completely faithful to any one design in particular.

Next problem: How to create a suit that would adequately appear as if made of iron? I couldn’t very well traverse the parade route wearing an actual suit of armor. The faux iron duds had to look like armor, yet still be functional, which meant an acceptable allowance for mobility, i.e. I had to be able to walk normally, not like The Winter Warlock during his early stages of “putting one foot in front of the other” in Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. An all-encompassing helmet and the decreased vision that accompanied such exacerbated the situation.

Fortunately, the character’s overall design was not completely endemic of Ye Knights of Olde. The arms and legs were predominantly sleek—advanced micro-circuitry designed by the suit’s engineering genius was the explanation. These areas were easily replicated by a golden-yellow skintight bodysuit, the fabric of which displayed a metallic sheen without limiting its stretching capability. The clunky parts were the helmet, gauntlets, chest plate, shoulders, grieves, boots and lower torso. The latter component would prove to be the most problematic. Basically, Iron Man wore an iron diaper. Talk about your chaffing!

Besides the fact that forging the larger pieces from actual iron would be cost ineffective and make the resulting costume too heavy in which to move or simulate battling bad guys, imagine the difficulties in finding a Village Smithy when in need of repairs. It’s difficult enough finding a “spreading chestnut tree!” Fortunately, Bob Flanagan—the creative genius behind the construction of the new costumes—had a material called celastic at his disposal. It came rolled in large tubes, like butcher paper, only hued the color of paper grocery bags and slightly thicker. When wet, the celastic could be molded. It hardened as it dried into a lightweight, impact-resistant, waterproof shell. Its surface took paint easily, so it was perfect for simulating Iron Man’s and Dr. Doom’s armor, Magneto’s helmet, Wolverine’s and Daredevil’s head pieces, Silver Surfer’s actual head and Dr. Strange’s amulet, the powerful Eye of Agamotto, which also doubled as the clasp for the sorcerer’s cloak of levitation.

Rather than having an actor subject themselves to the onus of applying silver makeup whenever portraying the space-surfing former herald of Galactus—disregarding the inherent problems of misapplication, smudging, and makeup coming off on children—and in order to better capture the alien mien of the hero, a new head was created from the measurements of the actor’s noggin. A silver fabric was stretched over this cranial fabrication, the same material of which the bodysuit was fabricated. The Surfer’s eyes were designed similarly to Spider-Man’s, so his eyesight was just as limited as the Wall-Crawler’s. For some inane reason, it was decided that Silver Surfer should be smiling. Anyone familiar with the character knows that the Surfer is a solemn and melancholic individual, forever lamenting the loss of his humanity—which he sacrificed in order to save his world—and beloved, Shalla Bal. He never smiled . . . ever!

This would not have been Bob’s decision; he worked off model sheets and comics supplied by Marvel, and his work was reviewed and approved along the way. Methinks the same mucky-mucks involved in the decision not to include Spider-Man on the float, also decided that a smiling Surfer would be better received. At least they’re consistent in their illogic. The affect, once the suit was completed, made the character look more like Caspar, the Friendly Ghost, a sentiment that was often strengthened by the shouts of “Hi, Caspar!” by fans along the parade route.

As for Iron Man, the Golden Avenger’s red gauntlets were attached to a pair of leather work gloves, which were then painted to match. Ankle-high boots were given the same treatment, although the grieves were left unattached and loose around my calves, gravity keeping them down over the boot laces. Unless I performed a handstand while in the costume, nobody would be the wiser. The chest plate was strapped tightly under my arms, which served to keep the straps out of view. The iron epaulets were built as part of the chest unit, but loosely glued on with leather strips, so my arms would not be greatly impeded and I would be able to raise them above my head, a maneuver key to donning the helmet. An adjustable plastic band fitted within the helmet—similar to those in construction-worker hard hats—kept the helmet in place.

Then there were the iron diapers, which were secured via a leather strap and buckle on either hip. In its initial incarnation, the pubic area was made of the same hard celastic. I defy any one to stride freely with an inch of hard material running from crotch to perineum. I hadn’t walked this way since the bathing suit rashes of my youth. It was painful. The next stage of development, and the one which would be in place during the parade, had several inches of the offending scrotum-to-sphincter bridge taken out, so that none of the celastic traveled directly between my legs on the underside of my butt. The unforgiving material still ran partway under my jewels, so as to hide the metallic yellow of the spandex bodysuit underneath, but at least I could walk, though in pain from the celastic digging into my inner thighs.

My vision was even more limited than when in the Spider-Man suit; the eye slots were smaller for one thing, and because my eyes were not actually up against the slots, but rather an inch removed, that smaller opening seemed more so. One trick I quickly learned—one that I would use to a greater degree when in the Hulk or Thing costumes—was peering down through the mouth aperture in order to see where I was walking. This enabled me to walk without visibly bending over to see wee fans approaching to shake my hands; and navigate stairs, curbs or any other low-lying obstruction that could prove hazardous, especially when walking the parade route or climbing about the float.

NEXT: Super Play-Set


John III said...

I actually liked the Silver and reds at the time. It's what caught my eye and had me start buying Iron man comics. That, and the art work at that time was just fantastic. Not to mention the writing was getting much better then too. I remember his armor was bulkier because he so many new features and weapons in this suit. When that was destroyed, he enabled these weapons and features in the new red and golds, although slimmer. Ahhh...the geek in me.

Vroom! said...

Hi John!

That's the thing with comic fans; any title or particular run thereof; any artist or writer; any character—featured or supporting; or, in this case, any costume design, will be as many people's favorites as it will be others' least so. I've men ardent fans of the Spider-Man clone storyline of the mid-90s. But from what one would most hear in the media and on the internet is how much that storyline destroyed the comic.

I was a fan of Iron Man from back in the pre-"Demon in the Bottle", Michelinie/Layton days and enjoyed continuously even through Stark's downfall and Rhodey's rise. I didn't care for the silver-and-red suit and that was the predominant opinion of Iron Man readers at the time. It seemed like it was designed merely for effect, more contrived than previous changes that stemmed organically from the storylines of their time. It also never felt permanent, like it was merely a set-up for a later more appropriate suit. Which proved exactly the case, when Stark returned to the top and built that newly designed red-and-gold suit you mentioned.

Anyway, thanks for the continuing support and comments.

Have a great holiday!

John III said...

I hope you had a great holiday too Steve! Mine involved being snowed in at the in-laws farm for four days. Living on a generator for a few days because we lost power, accidentally tracking in mud through the house after fixing said generator, and backing over their dog with the jeep on the way to Christmas church service. Oh what a weekend.........

I stopped collecting Spider-man by the 90's so I never knew what happened with the clone thing until I read about it years later. That was some weird stuff! As for Iron man, I also bought some back issues to get the story on the alcoholic background. I collected them until Stark came back to his new suit after dying. Right after he fights the Hulk in his Hulk Buster armor I believe.
Until next time!