Iron Man's Marvel Comics premiere in Tales of Suspense #39 (cover dated March 1963) was a collaboration among editor and story-plotter Stan Lee, scripter Larry Lieber, story-artist Don Heck, and cover-artist and character-designer Jack Kirby. In 1963, Lee had been toying with the idea of a businessman superhero. He wanted to create the "quintessential capitalist", a character that would go against the spirit of the times and Marvel's readership. Lee said,
I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military ... So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist ... I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him ... And he became very popular.
He set out to make the new character a wealthy, glamorous ladies' man, but one with a secret that would plague and torment him as well. Writer Gerry Conway said, "Here you have this character, who on the outside is invulnerable, I mean, just can't be touched, but inside is a wounded figure. Stan made it very much an in-your-face wound, you know, his heart was broken, you know, literally broken. But there's a metaphor going on there. And that's, I think, what made that character interesting." Lee based this playboy's looks and personality on Howard Hughes, explaining, "Howard Hughes was one of the most colorful men of our time. He was an inventor, an adventurer, a multi-billionaire, a ladies' man and finally a nutcase." "Without being crazy, he was Howard Hughes," Lee said.
While Lee intended to write the story himself, a minor deadline emergency eventually forced him to hand over the premiere issue to Lieber, who fleshed out the story. The art was split between Kirby and Heck. "He designed the costume," Heck said of Kirby, "because he was doing the cover. The covers were always done first. But I created the look of the characters, like Tony Stark and his secretary Pepper Potts." In a 1990 interview, when asked if he had "a specific model for Tony Stark and the other characters?", Heck replied "No, I would be thinking more along the lines of some characters I like, which would be the same kind of characters that Alex Toth liked, which was an Errol Flynn type." Iron Man first appeared in 13- to 18-page stories in Tales of Suspense, which featured anthology science fiction and supernatural stories. The character's original costume was a bulky gray armored suit, replaced by a golden version in the second story (issue #40, April 1963). It was redesigned as sleeker, red-and-golden armor in issue #48 (Dec. 1963) by that issue's interior artist, Steve Ditko, although Kirby drew it on the cover. As Heck recalled in 1985, "[T]he second costume, the red and yellow one, was designed by Steve Ditko. I found it easier than drawing that bulky old thing. The earlier design, the robot-looking one, was more Kirbyish."
In his premiere, Iron Man was an anti-communist hero, defeating various Vietnamese agents. Lee later regretted this early focus. Throughout the character's comic book series, technological advancement and national defense were constant themes for Iron Man, but later issues developed Stark into a more complex and vulnerable character as they depicted his battle with alcoholism (as in the "Demon in a Bottle" storyline) and other personal difficulties.
From issue #59 (Nov. 1964) to its final issue #99 (March 1968), the anthological science-fiction backup stories in Tales of Suspense were replaced by a feature starring the superhero Captain America. Lee and Heck introduced several adversaries for the character including the Mandarin in issue #50 (Feb. 1964), the Black Widow in #52 (April 1964) and Hawkeye five issues later.
Lee said that "of all the comic books we published at Marvel, we got more fan mail for Iron Man from women, from females, than any other title ... We didn't get much fan mail from girls, but whenever we did, the letter was usually addressed to Iron Man."
Lee and Kirby included Iron Man in The Avengers #1 (Sept. 1963) as a founding member of the superhero team. The character has since appeared in every subsequent volume of the series.
Writers have updated the war and locale in which Stark is injured. In the original 1963 story, it was the Vietnam War. In the 1990s, it was updated to be the first Gulf War, and in the 2000s updated again to be the war in Afghanistan. Stark's time with the Asian Nobel Prize-winning scientist Ho Yinsen is consistent through nearly all incarnations of the Iron Man origin, depicting Stark and Yinsen building the original armor together. One exception is the direct-to-DVD animated feature film The Invincible Iron Man, in which the armor Stark uses to escape his captors is not the first Iron Man suit.
The original Iron Man title explored Cold War themes, as did other Stan Lee projects in the early years of Marvel Comics. Where The Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk respectively focused on American domestic and government responses to the Communist threat, Iron Man explored industry's role in the struggle. Tony Stark's real-life model, Howard Hughes, was a significant defense contractor who developed new weapons technologies. Hughes was an icon both of American individualism and of the burdens of fame.
Historian Robert Genter, in The Journal of Popular Culture, writes that Tony Stark specifically presents an idealized portrait of the American inventor. Where earlier decades had seen important technological innovations come from famous individuals (e.g., Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers), the 1960s saw new technologies (including weapons) being developed mainly by the research teams of corporations. As a result, little room remained for the inventor who wanted credit for, and creative and economic control over, his/her own creations.
Issues of entrepreneurial autonomy, government supervision of research, and ultimate loyalty figured prominently in early Iron Man stories—the same issues affecting American scientists and engineers of that era. Tony Stark, writes Genter, is an inventor who finds motive in his emasculation as an autonomous creative individual. This blow is symbolized by his chest wound, inflicted at the moment he is forced to invent things for the purposes of others, instead of just himself. To Genter, Stark's transformation into Iron Man represents Stark's effort to reclaim his autonomy, and thus his manhood. The character's pursuit of women in bed or in battle, writes Genter, represents another aspect of this effort. The pattern finds parallels in other works of 1960s popular fiction by authors such as "Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond), Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer), and Norman Mailer, who made unregulated sexuality a form of authenticity."
After issue #99 (March 1968), the Tales of Suspense series was renamed Captain America. An Iron Man story appeared in the one-shot comic Iron Man and Sub-Mariner (April 1968), before the "Golden Avenger" made his solo debut with Iron Man #1 (May 1968). The series' indicia gives its copyright title Iron Man, while the trademarked cover logo of most issues is The Invincible Iron Man.
This initial series ended with issue #332 (Sept. 1996). Jim Lee, Scott Lobdell, and Jeph Loeb authored a second volume of the series which was drawn primarily by Whilce Portacio and
Ryan Benjamin. This volume took place in a parallel universe and ran 13 issues (Nov. 1996 – Nov. 1997). Volume 3, whose first 25 issues were written by Kurt Busiek and then by Busiek and Roger Stern, ran 89 issues (Feb. 1998 – Dec. 2004). Later writers included Joe Quesada, Frank Tieri, Mike Grell, and John Jackson Miller. Issue #41 (June 2001) was additionally numbered #386, reflecting the start of dual numbering starting from the premiere issue of volume one in 1968. The final issue was dual-numbered as #434. The next Iron Man series, Iron Man vol. 4, debuted in early 2005 with the Warren Ellis-written storyline "Extremis", with artist Adi Granov. It ran 35 issues (Jan. 2005 – Jan. 2009), with the cover logo simply Iron Man beginning with issue #13, and Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., beginning issue #15. On the final three issues, the cover logo was overwritten by "War Machine, Weapon of S.H.I.E.L.D.", which led to the launch of a War Machine ongoing series.
The Invincible Iron Man vol. 1, by writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca, began with a premiere issue cover-dated July 2008. For a seven-month overlap, Marvel published both volume four and volume five simultaneously. This Invincible volume jumped its numbering of issues from #33 to #500, cover dated March 2011, to reflect the start from the premiere issue of volume one in 1968.
After the conclusion of The Invincible Iron Man a new Iron Man series was started as a part of Marvel Now!. Written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Greg Land, it began with issue #1 in November 2012.
Many Iron Man annuals, miniseries, and one-shot titles have been published through the years, such as Age of Innocence: The Rebirth of Iron Man (Feb. 1996), Iron Man: The Iron Age #1–2 (Aug.–Sept. 1998), Iron Man: Bad Blood #1–4 (Sept.–Dec. 2000), Iron Man House of M #1–3 (Sept.–Nov. 2005), Fantastic Four / Iron Man: Big in Japan #1–4 (Dec. 2005–March 2006), Iron Man: The Inevitable #1–6 (Feb.–July 2006), Iron Man / Captain America: Casualties of War (Feb. 2007), Iron Man: Hypervelocity #1–6 (March–Aug. 2007), Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin #1–6 (Nov. 2007–April 2008), and Iron Man: Legacy of Doom (June–Sept. 2008). Publications have included such spin-offs as the one-shot Iron Man 2020 (June 1994), featuring a different Iron Man in the future, and the animated TV series adaptations Marvel Action Hour, Featuring Iron Man #1–8 (Nov. 1994–June 1995) and Marvel Adventures Iron Man #1–12 (July 2007–June 2008).