Tony Stark’s father Howard embodies the American dream. He started a nobody, then became a big somebody.
Howard Stark’s first appearance highlights how working in a shared universe is different from just writing stuff by yourself. A writer (Archie Goodwin in this case) can introduce a little throwaway detail they obviously don’t consider important. Then someone else seizes on it and makes it a bigger thing, then someone else seizes it and makes it bigger yet. Howard Stark is a perfect example.
Reading the Essential Iron Man TPBs makes me appreciate what a great job Goodwin did following Stan Lee on the title. Under Goodwin, Tony got his first serious love interest, Janice Cord (not a memorable one, admittedly), and faced several new villains such as the Controller, Madame Masque and Firebrand. In what felt like a real game-changer at the time, Goodwin also replaced Tony’s damaged, always-on-the-brink-of-stopping heart with a more dependable artificial one.
By contrast, the introduction of Howard Stark was nothing. One panel in Iron Man #28 flashing back to Tony’s youthful love affair with Meredith McCall, daughter of one of Howard’s rivals. Both dads refuse to let their kids do the Romeo and Juliet thing, so Tony and Meredith were shipped off, he to Europe, she to relatives.
Of course, it was always obvious Tony had a father, but to that point, Tony appeared to be a self-made man. Reading Stan’s run on the book, there’s no reference to Tony’s parents or any hint Tony wasn’t 100 percent responsible for his own success. IM #28 established Tony, rather than being self-made, took over leadership of the family business. Not that this made Tony any less brilliant, of course. Based on that single panel, there’s no reason to think Howard has any engineering skills at all. He could just as easily be a money man who built Stark Industries by hiring the best tech people.
Goodwin certainly didn’t see Howard as a big deal. He’s only there because the story involves Tony meeting his lost love again and saving her from the Controller. Howard’s there simply to give Meredith a backstory rather than leaving her a generic damsel in distress. Over time though, Howard Stark has become a much bigger deal, and a gifted engineer and leader in his own right).
Part of that is the sliding timescale of the MU. Back in the Silver Age it would be simple enough to have Tony Stark whipping up a gadget in a retcon 1950s story, but not now. Howard Stark fills the gap.
Another factor is Tony’s transformation from superstar entrepreneur to drunken, irresponsible party animal. For dramatic reasons, it’s inviting to see Howard as the sensible grown-up in contrast to his idiot son. In Iron Man: Season One, Howard’s death has everyone wondering whether drunken jackass Tony Stark can possibly fill shoes as big as his father’s (we’ve since learned that Tony’s an adopted son, but that doesn’t change the basic dynamic).
A third factor is that Marvel’s doing increasing number of retcon series extending the modern heroic age back to the Golden Age. Howard Stark has worked with the V-Battalion. With the Brotherhood of the Shield. He helped out the 1959 Avengers. The more Howard does, the more his profile rises, and the more he gets reused. One story even gave him his own team of adventurers, Stark’s Seven, including Thunderbolt Ross and Jimmy Woo.
And then there’s the movies and Agent Carter, which have exposed Howard to the mass audience.
As the MU timeline continues to stretch I imagine we’ll end up with Howard’s dad, Howard Stark Sr. filling the same role in the 1950s and Howard Jr. getting Tony’s origin in Vietnam. Though by that point I may not be around to read it.