[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:03:14] Robert Genter, “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”: Cold War Culture and the Birth of Marvel Comics.” The Journal of Popular Culture 40.3 (December 2007): pp. 953-978. [This one is paywalled, but let me know if you want access.]
[00:11:02] Archive of Our Own
[00:11:04] An explanation of the Hand Wave
Episode Three Notes and Outline
Hello and welcome to Invincible Iron Pod, the unofficial and not remotely connected to Marvel in any capacity podcast in which I will be reading and commenting on all 2000 of the comic book appearances made by one Tony Stark, or Iron Man.
Before we get started, I just wanted to say a huge thanks to everyone who has tuned in so far. I was so excited to officially launch the show last week, and I’m happy and gratified that there are people into this idea!
Alright, so let’s get going. Today, we’ll be taking on Tales of Suspense #41, dated May 1, 1963. So we join Tony once again out on a date. Specifically, he’s attending a hospital charity dance. Now I had high hopes for this scene, in which he appears to be wearing a black suit with baby blue accents. But let us say it does not score very on the bisexuality metre, nor the ‘depicting women as humans’ metre. His date apparently has no idea the event is being held kind of in Tony’s honour, so in the first panel when he is asked to come to the stage, she gasps “Anthony Stark? Why…that’s you, Tony!” And I just…ugh. No. She also refers to him perpetually by nicknames like ladykiller and loverboy. Even taking into account the historical context, it’s super cringe. The highlight of this unnamed woman’s awful appearance—and it’s notable that after an issue with two named women we’re back to these bland, unnamed folks—is when she hopes, out loud, that he will not be so busy planning an event for orphaned children that he won’t be able to bone down. Yep. It’s not great.
Doing the Readings
As you can tell, I was not wild about this scene. However, the fact that we started yet another issue with Tony on a date did raise some questions for me, and does bring us to our first special segment of the episode, Doing the Readings. I had sort of expected based on the tone set by the first episode for it to take a while for Tony to re-enter the social sphere. There was so much emphasis about the suit marking the end of his life, and even the following issue really stressed how hard it was for him to balance all of these aspects of his life. At the time, I was inclined to read those struggles through the lens of disability, and this idea still common today that sexuality and disability are somehow necessarily at odds. I think there’s still some valuable conversation to be had on that topic and I’m sure that we’ll come back to it.
However, I also feel like in the short time I’ve known him there has been more emphasis on Tony’s romantic life than I have seen in any of the other comics I’ve been exposed to thus far, including some pretty contemporary stuff. So I did some digging, and I ended up coming across a great article by Robert Genter. In this piece, which I will link to in the show notes, he uses interviews from Stan Lee to essentially argue that Tony Stark’s injuries are symbolic of the wounds inflicted on post-war masculinity. Men returning from the war, often struggling with untreated PTSD, and sometimes coming back to jobs that had been taken over by women, struggled with a sense of self-definition, and this is something we see represented a lot in postwar literature. We’re going to come back to this idea of wounded masculinity toward the end of this episode, because Gender says one of the ways it’s stressed is in how often Tony lays prone as the suit recharges.
For now, though, Gender notes that Stan Lee’s unlikely answer to this problem, Genter says, came from playboy. Not just the idea that he beds a lot of people, but the actual magazine Playboy. The magazine, this article says, represented a kind of refashioning of masculinity, an escape from breadwinning and marriage and domestic toward sex as “the foundational of male control.”
So basically rather than defining masculinity in relation to having a spouse, a home, a job that provided for one’s family, this new postwar masculinity was inspired somewhat by a rejection of those ideals, a turn toward sex and sexuality for its own sake. Now, there are all kinds of issues with this ideology, of course. It’s inherently patriarchal, because sex is positioned not just as something men are supposed to enjoy, but something that they are entitled to, and which structures their sense of self. There are very direct lines between this kind of logic and something like incel culture. And it’s probably obvious but I will say anyway that I do note condone any kind of relationship to sexuality which assumes that one party is owed it by another.
It is interesting, though, that the response to the ways that disability is often felt to be a threat to traditional sexuality is not to insist that these bodies and experiences can fit into that mold, but instead to question the mode itself—to wonder why pleasure has to be linked to an institution like marriage, for instance. Again, it’s being done in a pretty troubling way here, but I think what does often appeal about a character like Tony Stark, or Don Draper, whose similarities felt really striking as I read that article, is that they are almost onto something when it comes to sexual liberation. Almost.
Given what I’ve just said, it’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that when Tony’s date asks him about marriage on he car ride home, he responds that he does not intend to get married because “no girl would want to marry an absentee husband.” He then launches into an overview of the activities that keep him busy.
A little floating head of Tony in the top left corner of a large panel tells us he is managing munitions plants, he’s working on medical problems like a flesh-healing serum, he’s working on “space problems,” like a shell for resisting radiation, and he’s aiding the US defense effort. For the latter, we learn he has created a burp gun.
Megan Reluctantly Learns More About War
Which brings us to our next brief segment, which I am calling Megan Reluctantly Learns More About War. Because I had no idea what the hell a burp gun was. For a while I hoped it was a joke thing, like a whoopee cushion but for firing burps or something? But then stuff went ‘baroom’ in the background and blew up, so I figured I was probably mistaken. Instead, it turned out upon investigation that a burp gun was a commonly used Soviet weapon. Basically, they needed to be able to mass-produce cheap weapons, and they came up with the burp gun, so named because of the brap-pap-pap sound they made when being fired.
Now what’s special about Tony’s technology is basically that he’s taken a gun that is cheap and efficient and made it way more effective by miniaturizing artillery shells into the size of machine gun bullets. So again, much like the roller skate thing but not as funny, Tony Stark is used to fantasize about a solve for a very real issue.
Alright. So Tony’s date, she is doubtful about his rejection of marriage, and drops the world’s most heavy-handed hints about how he’ll settle down when he meets the right girl. Meanwhile, Tony is off in is head thinking about how she doesn’t even know what his most important job is: his work as Iron Man.
In this little montage with voice-over style captions, we see him taking on gangsters in amazing purple and green suits trying to rob a bank, taking down a plane full of communist spies, preventing the collision of two ships, and convincing aliens which may or may not be the same ones from last issue that they can’t conquer Earth because it’s full of “metal creatures with fantastic strength.”
I’ll point out, again drawing on that same article from before, that the threat of espionage was a very real paranoia in the US at this point. The Rosenbergs had famously been executed only ten years before, and it was a persistent cultural fear that the country could be infilitrated by communists. (Now of course, for some of this sounds like a dream come true, but that’s another conversation.)
We then see another scene of Tony sitting on an easy chair, his chestplate plugged into the wall receiving what he calls a booster-shot of electricity.
His date asks if she’ll see Tony again tomorrow. He glibly puts her off by saying that he’ll catch her the next time he’s in town, and then thinks to himself that she could see him on television the next day, because the event that he’s attending as Iron Man will be televised. This issue is really obsessed with the secret identity thing, by the way. Tony seems to be thinking a lot about what it means to have this huge part of his life that he cannot disclose, and this issue again is sort of framed similarly to issue 40, with its emphasis on how his life is divided into these different parts that only certain people have access to.
Okay, so the next day, Iron Man shows up to entertain the kiddos. Again, they are no longer at all freaked out by him now that his suit is gold. They are totally delighted to watch him fly, use magnets to juggle a bunch of cars over his head—you know, totally normal and not at all frightening stuff. If I didn’t have a toddler who is never more delighted in films than when houses are completely destroyed, I might question this depiction. But no. The bloodthirstiness here seems entirely on point.
And then, for his final act, a cannon is brought out? Which, again, not questioning that kids would be into it, but…A CANNON? Anyway, apparently no one sees any problems at all with this, so they fire it, once at a wall which is of course destroyed, and then again Tony, who naturally catches it and shatters it into pieces in his hands. He promises a piece to each of the kids, which reminded me a lot of Ron Swanson in Parks and Rec offering a landmine to a child.
In the world’s worst case of foreshadowing, in the history of ever, a commentator notes that this feat of strength and power could only me matched by the villainous Dr. Strange. However, he’s in prison and there’s nooooooooooo way he could get out!
Cut to: Dr. Strange. About to escape. He’s apparently just been biding his time until Iron Man showed up at the children’s hospital which is conveniently only a mile from the prison, so that he can use what he describes as a “tiny electronic gadget” he made by “modifying common radio and TV parts.”
The Science of Iron Man
And in the world’s shortest The Science of Iron Man segment…a tiny electronic gadget made of common radio and TV parts?
There’s a tag on Archive of Our Own, a fanfiction hosting site, called “Hand Wavy Science,” which indicates that the author is depicting science and technology from an inexpert position. And I would hestitate to even put this under that tag because it’s barely even hand-wavy. It’s more like “AND THEN HE MADE A THING AND DON’T ASK QUESTIONS IT JUST WORKED OKAY?”
So it turns out that this device is going to control Iron Man. Strange pretends to faint, something that apparently happens all the time because he was struck by lightning when paratroopers were attacking his lab.
The vague device works, and we get what I thought was a really cool bit of artwork where a dotted outline of Strange’s face appears in the clouds near Iron Man’s head, demanding that Tony free him. Tony obeys, and while I assumed this would lead to a storyline where people assumed he had gone bad, the guards instantly seem to realize something is wrong because he’s walking like he’s in a trance. He flies Strange away, while Strange rambles to himself about his plan, which involves dominating the world in order to…get his daughter a husband?
As dubious as this goal is, he’s kind of self-actualized? He goes on for a paragraph about how above all else he craves his daughter’s love, and he wants to atone for all the years he didn’t have a presence in her life.
Next thing you know, we cut to Iron Man stumbling down the road. He finds out what he did, because apparently he doesn’t remember, and he’s horrified. He vows to recapture Strange, naturally, so we cut to a private island off the US coast. Dr. Strange is introducing his daughter Carla to his accomplices, who he identifies as “cunning scientists” and “power-mad military men.” Carla doesn’t seem impressed, Strange is delighted by their presence, and excited to take over the world Pinky and the Brain style. Which he attempts to do that evening, when he explodes a bomb in outerspace and then hijacks all international airwaves to announce that he will destroy all life on Earth unless every nation in the world surrenders to him within 24 hours. Yikes.
Unidentified world powers try to drop atomic bombs on his stronghold, but it is shielded. So it’s up to Iron Man, who shoots himself out of a submarine and under the fortress. He sneaks around looking for the electrical room, which it turns out he can somehow sense because his body is now attuned to electrical energy like a bloodhound to a scent. Interesting!
As he sneaks around in a hugely heavy suit, he would likely be heard sooner except for the domestic drama playing out between Strange and Carla in the background. Carla rightly points out that her Dad’s attempt to become violent despot is a touch disturbing, and in the style of toxic parents everywhere, Strange replies that he has done it all for her! Why can’t she understaaaaaand?
Eventually Tony is noticed, and announces his plan to short-circuit all the equipment Strange has. Strange points out that this will also destroy Iron Man, and Tony cheerfully says that everyone has to go sometime, and smashes the generators. As Iron Man lays there, powerless, we get our second bit of clumsy foreshadowing, as Strange notes that even a single electrical spark could restore Iron Man’s strength. But he can’t reach any!
Or CAN HE! Carla spies a flashlight containing two dry cell batteries and chucks it to Tony. As she does, she berates her father, explaining that all she really wanted was a normal life, and her Dad’s evildoings have broken her heart. Tony, meanwhile, revives himself. Carla interestingly asks for forgiveness, which Strange grants before he makes a run for it.
I really want to dwell on this scene, because in a lot of ways it is very different from what we’ve seen so far. There is almost no fighting in the physical sense beyond the drama with the electricity. It’s about two and a half pages total from the time that Tony enters the compound to the time the entire battle is over. There’s two real sites of drama, and neither of them are really about whether or not Tony is going to get the power shut down.
The first one regards his suit, and brings us back to that article I mentioned at the beginning. It’s a constant thing, as we have already seen across only a few issues, for Tony to end up prone, waiting for his suit to recharge. Genter reads this as a symbol of his wounded masculinity, this historical trauma enacted through the wound to his body. And certainly we can see that here.
What interests me just as much, though, is the other real site of drama, which is taking place on the domestic sphere between Carla and her dad. In some ways I think this could align with the reading Genter offers. We could read Tony’s triumph here as the defeat of this new, hypersexual masculiniuty over the old nuclear family model. In that sense, Tony wins because he isn’t married, he doesn’t have kids to disappoint.
But here’s where that gets a bit complicated for me. As the comic closes, we see Tony and Carla standing together talking. She wonders aloud why her dad was never capable of using his considerable intellect and power to contribute something positive to the world. Tony replies that perhaps Strange did—meaning Carla herself.
Now of course, this could just be someone trying to be polite and kind to another human being in a state of distress. But when paired with the real joy that Tony got earlier in the issue hanging out with kids, I’m inclined to think something else. Unlike someone like Don Draper, who spends a lot of the early seasons of Mad Men wanting to escape normative masculine scripts while also performing attachment to them by having a wife and children, Tony has enough privilege and status to not need to do that. He’s perfectly free to not care about anyone except himself. And yet in a couple of issues we’ve seen kids emphasized. He wants to impress them. He wants to comfort them. He wants them to like him. And he seems to genuinely enjoy being around them. And now in this conversation with Carla he seems to be very genuinely suggesting that Strange did something important and valuable when he had a daughter.
To me, this suggests that maybe Tony Stark’s rejection of particular social scripts like marriage is not entirely a complete one. Whatever disconnection he seems to feel toward the idea of being married, that doesn’t necessarily seem to extend toward the idea of having or at least being with kids.
And that takes us nicely into our wrap-up! Because one of the big questions I have going forward for this episode is how this idea of Stark’s complex masculinity is going to continue to develop. I spent a lot of this particular issue not really liking him as much, but I’m also really compelled by the idea that some of what we’re seeing here is the more psychological elements of the trauma he’s suffered.
As far as women go, even though I found the person at the beginning super annoying and frustrating, I did find that her role was bookended quite nicely by Carla. On top of the stuff her character raises about kids, her role also gives me some hope going forward that we will get to see Tony spending time with at least some women who are more well-rounded and complex.
And let’s not forget the bisexuality metre! This was a hard one to rank, because in some ways Tony was aggressively heterosexual in this one. But given everything I’ve said, it also seemed like sometimes he was really pushing at the boundaries of those categories, the roles he was expected to play and perform as “ladykiller” Stark. With a certain amount of hope in my heart, I therefore award Tony a solid “7” on the bisexuality metre. Don’t let me down!
And that’s it from me this week! As always, please feel free to reach out by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod. If you’re enjoying the show, please also make sure to subscribe and/or share.
And please tune in next week, where Tony will
-Battles the Red Barabarian (yikes)
-Utters the phrase “By Lenin’s beard” (which will be entering my vocabulary forever)
-Is threatened with the revealing of his identity! (There’s an outing joke I could make here, but it feels too obvious even for me…)
Until next time, this has been the Invincible Iron Pod!