Published April 28, 2023

Tony and Howard Stark: The Stark Family Tree, Uprooted

In the wake of 'Invincible Iron Man' #5's Howard Stark revelation, rediscover the fraught history between the Stark Industries founder and his Super Hero son Tony Stark.

Tony Stark is many things to many people. He is a founding member of the Avengers, of course, and the savior of Earth a hundred times over. He even proved himself to be a force for galactic good on multiple occasions, be it empowered by one of his Iron Man suits or—as was the case in IRON MAN (2020) #13 by Christopher Cantwell and Cafu—through godhood granted by the vaunted Power Cosmic.

Outside of his intergalactic adventures, Tony Stark has often fixated on reaching the potential of his legacy. That legacy, however, is much more complicated than many realize, as it revolves around his complex relationship with his father, Howard Stark.

The Classified Past of Howard Stark

Howard Stark first appeared in IRON MAN (1968) #28 by Archie Goodwin and Don Heck as an aggressively overbearing presence in Tony’s life. Himself a mustachioed billionaire genius, Howard was clearly the template of success for a young Tony—an iron-willed inspiration for the eventual Avenger, even if he didn’t want to admit it. 

Of course, like his son, Howard Stark was far more nuanced and influential than anyone realized. Not only was Howard associated with the infamous Manhattan Project—the real-world endeavor to create the world’s first nuclear weapons—he also belonged to a precursor of Marvel’s preeminent covert operations organization: S.H.I.E.L.D.

For instance, as revealed in the S.H.I.E.L.D. (2010) miniseries by Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver, Howard—along with Reed Richards’ father, Nathaniel—was hired by the clandestine organization (founded by Leonardo da Vinci) as an agent tasked with protecting the world from all manner of Earth-born and extraterrestrial threats, up to and including Celestials and Galactus.

And yet, even with all of these associations, the heaviest crown Howard ever wore was that of family man and father. Dealing with the same alcoholism that would later plague his son, Howard was a hard father to be around for Tony. Like most Starks, it seems, he was impossible to impress, and even harder to please. 

Howard didn’t just expect the most from his son; he demanded it, right up until the day he and his wife Maria infamously died in a suspicious car accident, seemingly arranged by a rival of Stark Industries, a company Tony would later inherit. 

It would later come to light, however, that Howard’s strained relationship with his son was more complicated than even Tony could imagine.

The Secret Origin of Tony Stark

After a galaxy-spanning adventure with a rogue Rigellian Recorder named 451, Tony discovered that Howard and Maria Stark were not his biological parents in IRON MAN (2012) #17 by Kieron Gillen and Carlo Pagulayan. Rather, Tony was adopted as a diversion to hide the couple’s first son, Arno Stark, who had been genetically modified by 451 to pilot the universe’s most powerful suit of armor, the Godkiller, and become the “ultimate protector of mankind.” 

In an attempt to protect Arno from the full extent of 451’s genetic tampering, Howard accidentally left his son in constant need of a breathing device. To hide the fact that he had fiddled with the robot’s experiments in an effort to protect his son, he and Maria decided to hide Arno from the public eye and replace him with a decoy: Tony.

This complicated story led to an even more complex, if tragic truth. In many ways, Tony was always right about his father: Howard resented him, but not simply because he couldn’t live up to his father’s impossible standards. To Howard, Tony was a mirage, a decoy that needed to be the perfect copy of himself for the safety of his first son and a constant reminder of the biological child he doomed to a life in the shadows.

As such, it’s really not surprising that Howard and Tony’s relationship was so strained, especially because so much was left unresolved after his parents’ sudden deaths. It’s also not surprising that his relationship with Howard would be exploited by some of Iron Man’s most devilish foes as a weakness in his otherwise invincible armor. 

In the IRON MAN: LEGACY OF DOOM (2008) miniseries by David Michelinie and Ron Lim, for example, Mephisto used a demonic illusion of Howard to torment the Shellhead into submission during a particularly hellish encounter. But even that scheme was not the most heinous time Howard and Tony’s tumultuous relationship was weaponized by Marvel’s most malevolent devil.

Iron Man vs. Iron Inquisitor

Jason Aaron’s Multiversal AVENGERS (2018) run was historic for many reasons, not least because of the disturbing twist he brought to Howard and Tony’s story. In it, he presented an alternate universe version of the elder Stark who killed his family, sold his soul to the devil, and became hell’s “Iron Inquisitor”—a sort of bedeviled blacksmith acting at the whims of a council of Multiversal Mephistos. Tony ultimately dispatched this corrupted copy of his father in AVENGERS (2018) #64 by Aaron and Javier Garrón by stripping him of his armor, beating him to a pulp, breaking his hands, and trapping him in a cave with only the promise of eventual death to comfort him.

However, the experience of having to pummel his father with his bare fists forced Tony to relive an even worse version of the psychological trauma he endured as a young man. He even noted aloud how much the experience would cost him in therapy bills.

For all the complexity of their relationship, though, the main Marvel Universe’s Howard Stark did not just leave Tony a legacy of pain. In some old tapes recorded by Howard as posthumous messages to his son, he showed a true appreciation and even love for Tony. In fact, he eventually felt close enough to Tony, so bound to his future success, that he left him an altogether more powerful inheritance in INVINCIBLE IRON MAN (2022).

Tony, Howard, and the Miracle Metal

In INVINCIBLE IRON MAN (2023) #5 by Gerry Duggan and Juan Frigeri, Kelvin “Feilong” Heng—Iron Man’s newest enemy and the current owner of Stark Industries—discovered old film reels hidden behind a priceless antique picture Howard bought many years prior. Recorded and hidden for his son to find, these tapes revealed that Howard once worked on a secret project with ingenious heroic powerhouse Dr. Adam Brashear, AKA Blue Marvel. Together, they apparently discovered a new element from an entirely different universe, which Howard called “The Miracle Metal,” noting that it was Tony’s “true inheritance.”

Perhaps more important to Tony, however, was not the secret of this Miracle Metal, but the message of hope Howard left for his son. In it, he said he wanted Tony to “be the kind of man who will understand why I had to do what I need to do. For all humankind.” 

Tony Stark is many things to many people. Occasionally, his brand of heroics as Iron Man is misunderstood, but his goal has always been to protect life and to leave the world in better hands. In that respect, perhaps Howard and he aren’t so different after all. In fact, you might even say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Check out Howard Stark's posthumous message to Tony in INVINCIBLE IRON MAN (2022) #5, now on sale!

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