What do Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Joel, Alec Baldwin and Iron Man have in common? They are all native Long Islanders. In the original Marvel comic book, scientific genius/playboy Tony Stark, Iron Man's alter ego, was raised on a waterfront estate not far from Stark Industries' main plant, which overlooks Long Island Sound. This year the character is celebrating his 50th anniversary in print.
Iron Man fans are getting ready to suit up and head out to the movies for the release of "Iron Man 3," which opens May 3. The celebration continues May 4 with Free Comic Book Day, a national event that several local comic book stores are joining.
Iron Man was born out of pain and anguish. After suffering a life-threatening chest injury and being captured by terrorists, Stark is forced into building a weapon of mass destruction in exchange for his freedom. Instead he comprises the "Mark I" -- his first powered armor suit that breaks him out of captivity and changes his future. He also created a chest plate that prevents shrapnel in his chest from destroying his heart and ending his life.
"He's a normal guy who made something incredible, not a god who was born with powers," explains Chris Chester, 39, of Centereach, who has been reading Iron Man since the fifth grade. "He started by trying to save himself and now he's trying to save the galaxy."
Creator Stan Lee wanted to make a superhero out of a capitalist businessman -- quite different from his other characters Spider-Man, the Hulk and Wolverine. Stark is the president of Stark Industries, which focuses on aeronautics, robotics and microtechnology.
"Because he's an inventor, he keeps changing his suit making it more powerful," says Glenn Fischette, owner of 4th World Comics and Toys in Smithtown. "It's a great story line that has held up over all these years."
His suit of armor allows him to fly, shoot repulsor rays from his palms as well as project a defensive shield. "The first suit was like a tin can. Now it's streamlined, sharp and powerful," says Chester. "He has armor that could fight almost anyone."
The Iron Man character experienced a rebirth with the success of the first film in 2008. It turned the B list hero into an A list superstar that not only appears in his own comic book, but in several others within the Marvel universe.
"There was a time, not very long ago, when nobody cared about Iron Man at all," says Michael Ragosta, 27, of Smithtown, who owns a copy of the first Iron Man comic. "Now he's in almost every comic book that Marvel puts out."
When most people think of Iron Man, the image of Robert Downey, Jr. comes to mind. The role of Tony Stark/Iron Man became a major comeback for the Oscar-nominated actor who struggled with some of the character's issues in real life.
"They couldn't have gotten a better movie star. He's the perfect person to play Iron Man," says Jason Stern, 31, of East Meadow, who collects Iron Man statues and action figures. "Like Tony Stark, Robert Downey, Jr. was a wild card, so he fit."
Thursday: 'Iron Man' marathon
Relieve the superhero's story line with back-to-back screenings of "Iron Man," "Iron Man 2" and "Marvel's The Avengers," followed by the debut of "Iron Man 3."
May 3: 'Iron Man 3' release
Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow star in the latest superhero action flick from Marvel Studios.
May 4: Free Comic Book Day
Shops will be giving out thousands of free comic book samplers to customers as part of this national appreciation of comic books. Many will also offer special sales.