I’m not sure if I can say it any better than several other critics “’Demon in a Bottle’ is THE quintessential Iron Man story.”
Tony Stark/Iron Man’s alcoholism is one of his key characteristics, and “Demon in a Bottle” introduces this. Does “Demon in a Bottle” do as well of a job tackling this issue as other, more modern stories (in comics and other media)? Not necessarily. It’s a 1979 comic book story arc after all. Does writer David Michelinie speed through what occurs during recovery? Yes. It’s almost comical. But he does an excellent job with loss and the struggles Tony deals with, and it’s easy to see why “Demon in a Bottle” remains one of the best Iron Man stories.
Prior to “Demon in a Bottle” Iron Man was a relatively flat character. Many of the stories weren’t engaging. I like how the “Demon in a Bottle” begins as usual Iron Man fare at the beginning of the arc. The storyline ran from The Invincible Iron Man #120-128 (March-November 1979), but it wasn’t until issue 124 or so that alcohol really came into play.
It’s odd watching modern critics address this story. They’ll say things like they wished Iron Man started with Tony’s alcoholism sooner and expand on it. Do I wish, in hind-sight, that “Demon in a Bottle” did more to address alcoholism or do so sooner in the arc? Yes. A serious subject like alcoholism deserves as much space as needed.
Other storylines in the 1970s dedicated plenty of issues to drugs. Roy Harper (the original Speedy) was revealed to be a heroin addict in Green Lantern vol. 2 #85 (1971), and Spider-Man fought drugs that same year (The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98), but those two storylines showed third-person accounts of addiction. Speedy wasn’t the main character in Green Lantern. Spidey fought crime, but drugs were kept at arms’ length, in third-person. Tony is Iron Man. “Demon in a Bottle” is a first-person account of how someone slowly descends—but perhaps not slow enough of a descent—into alcoholism.
Furthermore, Spider-Man and Green Lantern knew they were making a statement with their stories. “Demon in a Bottle” came out of nowhere. The issue of alcoholism grew organically, and that tends to be the insidious thing about addiction.
The first several issues Tony started drinking occasionally. As events unfolded—I won’t spoil much here, but many people would consider what happens in the early going of this story side battles and tragedies—he drank a little more each day until his addiction consumed him.
Comic book characters change a lot through the years and decades, but one thing has remained the same for Tony Stark/Iron Man since 1979. He battles with alcoholism. For a story that had little to no intention of making a statement, “Demon in a Bottle” makes a huge one. For a character who was just another guy in a flying suit, he gains one of his most defining characteristics.
Tony’s alcoholism has been revisited in later Iron Man storylines. He may offer advice to someone else suffering with addiction or he may hit the bottle again. Alcoholism is one of the things that makes Tony Stark relatable, human.
You can even see the impact “Demon in a Bottle” had in the film Iron Man 2. Tony gets drunk during a party in his armor and mayhem ensues. Director Jon Favreau may not have wanted to delve too deeply into Tony’s addiction—Disney/Marvel wanted to keep things light—but he wanted to homage to the most important Iron Man story.
I’m not sure what else there is to say. Perhaps one of you is more eloquent than me or has more insight into this groundbreaking comic book story. If you do, please share in the comments.