It’s Christmas, folks, which means that it’s time to get downright jolly here on Marvel Madness. Earlier this month I shared a story with you all that was a little more heartwarming and schmaltzy than the ones I usually highlight on this site, giving us a version of a Christmas Carol with J Jonah Jameson. It was a nice little story, but it certainly lacked some of the usual insanity that I look for in these Marvel Madness posts. So, to balance things out, I decided to go as far in the opposite direction as I could. I mean, take a look at that cover. Ho-Ho-Homicide! Hell yeah. Now, as typical, you should never trust the covers of comic books, because they are often wildly misleading as to the actual contents of the story, so going into this story I wasn’t too confident that Iron Man was actually going to do mortal combat with Santa Claus. But, let me tell you right now, we get pretty damn close. And, we also get to talk about a Marvel supervillain who I love, and who I am absolutely stunned has never made an appearance on this site yet. We also get to talk about Iron Man outside of the context of him and Doctor Doom getting up to shenanigans involving Camelot, which is a shame but also a nice change of pace at the same time. So, get in that yuletide state of mind, and let’s get ready to talk about how Tony Stark celebrates Christmas.
The story begins with Iron Man dealing with some ongoing business that had been occupying himself at this era of the book. He’s been looking for the person that killed a former romantic partner of his, Whitney Frost, and has assumed that her death was at the hands of the Maggia, the Marvel version of the Mafia, specifically by their new leader Madame Masque. Now, I know that Madame Masque is indeed Whitney Frost, but I guess Iron Man hasn’t figured out that little tidbit yet. Because we see him crash into a Maggia hideout, where he blasts a series of incredibly 1990-looking goons, and the big war-mech that they had just in case he showed up. Iron Man makes pretty quick work of the mech, but while he’s dealing with it the rest of the Maggia goons are able to slip away, leaving just one guy behind, the pilot of the mech, for Iron Man to interrogate. But, the guy refuses to spill on Madame Masque, leaving Iron Man furious. And, that fury is going to get worse, because we then cut to a large compound outside Los Angeles that serves as a training facility for a villain known as the Taskmaster.
Now, in case you aren’t familiar with him, the Taskmaster rules. He’s one of the finest fighters in the Marvel Universe, primarily because he has a superhuman memory that allows him to learn the fighting style of any person he encounters, just by looking at them. This was aided by some Nazi Super Soldier nonsense, and made Taskmaster one of the deadliest assassins in the world, able to tussle with any superhero he needs to. And, when he’s not out doing his own dirty work, he serves as a trainer of assassins and henchmen, putting various potential pupils through insane trials in order to make them as deadly as possible. Which, is what we’re seeing here. He’s assembled a group of potential trainees, and is currently putting them through the ringer, having them compete in deadly tests, which straight up encourage backstabbing. Such as what we see here, which is the aftermath of one of the trainees, Number One, sabotaging one of his colleagues by making it so his gun would misfire, and he’s be obliterated. Which, counts as extra-credit for Number One.
And, while Taskmaser is doing his thing, Tony Stark is returning from a hard day beating the hell out of mobsters. He flies to Los Angeles, where he’s currently set up shop, returning to a Stark building. He takes off his armor, showing off his bitchin’ mullet, and then gets ready for a special event that he’s lined up. Because, it’s almost Christmas, and Tony Stark has decided to do something nice for the people of Southern California. He’s built a massive domed building outside of his offices, and recreated a winter wonderland inside, complete with real snow and a hill where people can sled and ski. Which is currently being taken advantage of by Tony’s closest friend, James Rhodes. The two start goofing off, when they’re interrupted by Marcy Pearson, a high-ranking executive as Stark Enterprise, who is pretty peeved that she has to deal with all the business while Tony Stark gets to playboy around the world with his buddy Rhodey.
And, while Tony Stark is dealing with passive aggressive corporate drama, we see that the Taskmaster’s training schedule is still going quite nicely. Especially for the man identified as Number One. He’s able to make his way through an elaborate obstacle course, complete with automated rocket launchers, which he makes quick work of. Taskmaster is pleased, and order his recruits to their chambers, where they’ll meet back up in the morning for more tests. At that moment Number One is currently the second ranked member of these recruits, and in the morning will do combat with a woman who is currently ranked above him. Or, he would have, if he hadn’t planted explosives in her room so that when she turned the lights on the entire room exploded, killing her. Which, once again, gives Number One some extra credit in Taskmaster’s eyes.
We then take a brief break where Tony Stark goes to his favorite hairdresser to somehow make his whole look even more absurd, including some straight up-Trumpian fake tan on his face, all while he pines over Whitney Frost. But, before that really leads anywhere other than heartbreak and bad hair, we cut back to Taskmaster’s trainees as they get ready for their final test. Which is just a straight up battle to the death on the front lawn. They’re given no weapons, and are blind-folded, basically forced to stumble around until they bump into each other, and then attempt to strangle each other. And, once again, Number One does quite well. He manages to get a strangle-hold on one of the others, and cracks his neck so that he won’t cry out and give away their position. Then he finds the last one, Number Five, and they just blindly beat the hell out of each other until Number One is able to kill him, making him the winner. And what’s the prize for this whole little murder camp? Well, to become the new Spymaster, of course!
So, yeah, it appears that Justin Hammer, a frequent business foe of Tony Stark’s, has hired the Taskmaster to select a new person to become the Spymaster, a rotating mantle for people willing to so superhero espionage. And, Number One has completed all he tasks, and has now been given a dead man’s clothes and title. But, things aren’t quite over yet. Because in order to prove that he’s ready for future spy-work, the Taskmaster is giving him one final test. Our new Spymaster is going to have to go to the Stark Enterprises annual Christmas charity party, at that aforementioned indoor ski hill, get past Tony Stark’s elaborate security, and steal something from the building, in order to prove that he’s got what it takes to really be the Spymaster.
We then head to the party, which is in full swing. Tony Stark is strutting around with Rhodey, chatting up families and attempting to avoid Marcy Pearson and her actual work, while all sorts of under-privileged children are playing and getting their pictures taken with a Santa. And, all of this board-room drama is keeping Tony Stark plenty distracted, to the point that he doesn’t notice that this Santa they hired sure is acting strangely. Because, in case you couldn’t have guessed it, it turns out that the Spymaster has decided the best way to sneak in and out of the Stark Enterprises charity party is by impersonating that jolly old elf himself. Unfortunately, Spymaster is a little too surly to accurately pull off Santa, causing quite a few kids to start accosting him. And, when one of them notice that Santa’s packing heat, things start to escalate, quickly.
Santa taking orphans hostage at a corporate sponsored Christmas charity party is probably not going to get Stark Enterprises good press, huh? Thankfully, Stark Enterprises just so happens to have a pretty helpful employee, albeit a secret one. Because as soon as Santa starts taking kids hostage, Tony is able to sneak away, leaving Rhodey in charge to trying to talk him down. Spymaster decides to drop the charade at this point, and pulls off the Santa outfit, revealing his new duds. But, as Rhodey attempts to talk the Spymaster down, Iron Man comes tearing up through the floor underneath him, breaking through the concrete and grabbing Spymaster.
In the process Iron Man is able to get rid of Spymaster’s child human shield, and then lifts the villain up into the air, where he tries to talk to him, figuring out what this whole thing is about. But, Spymaster isn’t here to talk, and he ends up sticking some little device onto Iron Man’s armor which causes it to short circuit, sending old Shellhead flying through the air, dropping Spymaster. He’s able to land on the ski-jump, gracefully sliding down the slope and flying into the air, all while Iron Man comes crashing down the ground. Rhodey attempts to shoot Spymaster while he’s completing his ski-jump, but it doesn’t exactly go that well.
Iron Man’s able to destroy the device Spymaster struck to his chest while the villain deals with Rhodey, giving him the chance to come back and hit him from behind. Rhodey an the Spymaster begin fighting on the ground, but Spymaster is able to get a lucky kick to the head, knocking Rhodey down. He then tries to finish the job with some sort of electrified nunchaku. Iron Man flies down and puts himself between Spymaster and his friend, threatening the villain. But, it doesn’t really impress Spymaster, and he begins pummeling Iron Man with the nunchaku, which actually seem to pack a serious wallop against Iron Man’s armor.
In fact, the blow is able to send Iron Man careening through the air,, smashing into the ski-lift, and destabilizing it. The lift begins to teeter and fall, right onto a group of children. So, Iron Man thinks fast and begins pushing the lift, attempting to stabilize it. He’s able to hold the thing apart long enough for the kids to all run to freedom, but it all ends up falling apart right after, at which point he finds himself buried in rubble. Spymaster then struts up, and begins mocking Iron Man and the kids, until Iron Man loses his cool. He starts demanding to know what’s going on here, why he’s attacking the charity event. Which is when Spymaster just kind of explains that he’s only here to take the angel off the top of the tree as a sign of skill. Which, causes Iron Man to explode. This whole thing was over an ornament, and he just tells Spymaster to take the goddamn thing and get out. Spymaster then does just that, and calmly leaves, letting Iron Man clean up the mess, and try to impart some morals to the kids.
I love the Marvel Universe, and one of the things that I love most about these comics is that crazy things are happening at all times to everyone. Even on Christmas, some supervillain is planning some sort of evil deeds. Even something as lowkey and minor as attempting to steal Tony Stark’s Christmas ornaments, all to prove himself as a B-List supervillain. Tony Stark was just minding his own business, trying to show off his awesome mullet and spread some Christmas cheer, when he had to defend them all from a psychotic man wearing a Santa outfit. Like you have to do sometimes while living in the Marvel Universe. Obviously it would have been fun if this was in some way a real Santa, or some such nonsense, but a villain wearing a Santa Claus outfit over his supervillain outfit is perfectly acceptable. Plus, I’m so glad I finally got a chance to talk about the Taskmaster, even if he didn’t have a whole lot to do. It would have been pretty delightful if the Taskmaster was the one in the Santa costume, but seeing him ruthlessly kill and train a new Spymaster was pretty fun. I just need to find some more Taskmaster goodness to share with you all someday soon. For now, let’s all just appreciate the image of a gun-wielding Santa, holding a child hostage, getting the absolute shit beat out of him by Iron Man. Tis the reason for the season.
Iron Man 254 “Graduation Day” was written, penciled, and inked by Bob Layton, colored by Paul Becton, lettered by Janice Chiang, and edited by Howard Mackie, 1990.
Categories: Marvel Madness