Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. After two movies—plus a third one in the works and The Avengers due even sooner—the entire world recognizes that. But that’s not the case in the monthly series Invincible Iron Man. The Tony Stark of that world bears a striking resemblance to Josh Holloway—better known as Sawyer from Lost—and has since Salvador Larroca started drawing writer’s Matt Fraction’s run on the book over three years ago.
And it’s not a coincidence.
Comic-book “casting” has been going on for decades. Artists, after all, have probably the hardest job in comics. They often need something (or someone) to model the characters after in order to get dimensions, body language and facial expressions correct. When C.C. Beck and Bill Parker set out to create an alternative to Superman in the late 1930s, they came up with the character Captain Marvel. Beck stated that the character had been modeled after actor Fred MacMurray, but had been done so carefully. He used the actor’s cleft chin, wavy hair and slanted forehead, but as time went on, Beck rounded out the face to make the comparison less obvious.
Dozens of other characters have been based on popular actors throughout the years, too. John Byrne and Chris Claremont used Orson Welles, Donald Sutherland, Robert Shaw and Diana Rigg as basis for the characters of the Hellfire Club, and Steve Ditko modeled Dr. Strange after horror legend Vincent Price. However, as was the case with Captain Marvel, features were always tweaked during the process.
But while comic-book characters’ resemblance to celebrities has always been part of the process, lately it’s become far less subtle—and much more distracting. Over the past decade, artists have been moving away from using actors as a simple basis to simply using them. Sometimes artists do that for the benefit of consistency, and sometimes it’s purely for publicity. When Mark Millar and J.G. Jones launched Wanted in 2003, the main character, Wesley, looked exactly like Eminem, and The Fox was definitely Halle Berry—there were even a couple of panels in the book that looked just like screenshots from 8 Mile. Millar said the resemblance was because the actors were interested in playing the roles in the upcoming movie adaptation. Of course, the rights to the film hadn’t been sold yet, but it was a clever move by Millar to get the industry talking. It was also a bit of a distraction, because Wanted seemed like it had been created with the sole purpose of being an elaborate film pitch, as opposed to letting it stand on its own as a piece of comic art.
Alex Maleev, currently the artist of the Icon title Scarlet, usually works in the style of photorealistic art and has never been shy about letting the world know that. He hires a model to pose to make his job easier and to give the character a more real feel. With Scarlet, that model even gets recognition on the credit page. The difference is that she’s an unknown. The reader isn’t immediately taken out of the story when they see her because they never have before. That’s much different than when Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato took over Thunderbolts and Norman Osborne suddenly looked exactly like Tommy Lee Jones.
To some that doesn’t matter, and to others it’s so distracting that it ruins a potentially great story. At times, it also seems like the artist is taking the easy way out of the situation by using a specific actor. Sure, it’s hard keeping up with the pressures of meeting a monthly schedule, but that’s part of the game. It just feels like the shelf life of a trade (or hardcover) would be longer if the first thought that came to mind when flipping through was, “Oh, this was a great Iron Man story,” as opposed to “Wait, why does Tony Stark all of the sudden look like the guy from Lost?”