Episode 001-Tales of Suspense #39

Episode

Tales of Suspense #39 Invincible Iron-Pod

We begin our comics journey with the Tales of Suspense #39, which introduces us to Tony Stark—and then Iron Man!

Show Notes

[00:00:00] As always, music produced by my fabulous team at Podcast Fast Track!

[00:04:48] See this great and informative piece from Boylan.

[00:10:32] Death, Disability and the Superhero

[00:13:37] “Of Iron Men and Green Monsters: Superheroes and Posthumanism”https://danhf.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/final-proof.pdf

[00:15:45] Pew, pew!

[00:16:58] Operation Pocket Money

Transcript

Introduction

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.

Since this is the very first episode of the show, I did want to spend a couple of minutes talking through where it came from and what my goals are here, beyond giving myself another reason to finally start working my way through the Marvel back catalogue. So my name is Megan, I am a graduate student doing a degree in English. I also have background and training in Women’s and Gender Studies and Writing Studies, with a particular emphasis on fandom and fan studies. So basically a lot of experience with reading stuff critically from a variety of academic and popular lenses, and thinking about why and how people like the things they do.

I came to this podcast in part because I wanted to think about and model translating those skills to non-academic audiences. But alongside that, I was really interested in thinking through the Iron Man character. I am primarily familiar with Tony Stark through the MCU, and my love for him was, let’s say extremely reluctant. I did not come to the MCU as a queer, lefty woman, remotely interested in the white billionaire man. I expected to discard Tony Stark almost immediately and never think about him again, actually. And then this terrible, horrible thing happened to me: I started to root for him. And I noticed that the parts of fandom I inhabited, which were populated by a lot of people who thought and identified in similar ways to myself, were rooting for him too. And so I had to ask my most serious and academic research question to date: what even the hell?

The comics are not, of course, the movies, and some of my affection for Iron Man is undoubtedly down to how the character was adapted. If this podcast makes it that far, that’s certainly something we can talk about! But from the bits and pieces of the comic that I’ve seen on various platforms, I also think there’s something about the source material that is worth exploring.  The little I have seen of the Iron Man comics suggests that they take on questions of inequality, of sexuality, of accountability and responsibility, of disability in more or less explicit ways, so while the length of time that the character has been around plus the often terrible politics of the comics industry mean we’ll undoubtedly have some problematic moments to consider, it seems worth also thinking about all the things that are at stake in the relationships one might have with Tony Stark.

Plot Summary

Alright, so without any further buildup let’s start diving into the comics themselves. The first will be Tales of Suspense 39. Tales of Suspense, for those of you who didn’t know, started out its life primarily as a science fiction/horror anthology, but superheroes sort of ended up slowly taking over as they became more popular; eventually, Tales of Suspense became the Captain America series after #99.

Issue 39 has a cover dated March 1963, and of course featured the debut of Iron Man!

We meet Tony Stark performing a weapons demonstration in his laboratory, which we’re told is “in a secluded area somewhere in the US defense perimeter.” We don’t actually see much of the facility itself, which is a shame for those of us whose interest in rich characters is often in real-estate porn. Instead, we join Tony and his pals from the US military in the middle of a demonstration of Stark’s transistors, which he boasts can increase the force of anything by a thousandfold. He promptly proves this by using the transistors, paired with magnets, to blow open a locked safe door. Everyone is very wowed, and Tony makes a vague kind of promise about the transistors being capable of ‘solving the military’s problem in Vietnam.’

So, a few things of note in this first set of panels. The first is the context we’re talking about. The Vietnam War was of course a turning point in American history in many respects, and became a kind of flashpoint for many kinds of civil unrest and protest. In part because of these controversies, it has been described by many including military historian Kevin Boylan as an unwinnable war. There’s a lot of reasons for this, and I’m not going to go into many of them because that could easily be its own show hosted by someone way more qualified than me. But I named Boylan’s piece in the New York Times, which I’ll link to in the show notes, because it makes what I think is a crucial and highly relevant claim for our purposes: Boylan argues back against critiques of then President Johnson for not creating a wartime psychology—in other words, not producing something like the propaganda machine that helped fuel the second world war—arguing that this was an intentional move on the part of an astute politican. The American People, Boylan says, did not want to adopt a wartime psychology. Indeed, their willingness to support the war and Johnson’s domestic agenda hinged on them not feeling like they were at War.

This approach obviously didn’t serve Johnson nor the war itself in the long term, but there’s a couple important threads here as it relates to the Iron Man character that I imagine us coming back to a few times. Compared to someone like Captain America, Tony Stark emerges in the context of a very different kind of war, and that it’s one that ultimately hinges on a kind of doomed premise: war that doesn’t feel like war.  Tony is offering technology as the answer to this problem, a way to deal death at a distance with minimal sacrifice. But the removal of the intimacy of warfare is an illusion. The destruction of someone else’s life, home, or way of being in the world is pretty necessarily both a violent and an intimate act. So I don’t honestly think it’s a stretch to say that these panels in some ways foreshadow not just Tony’s own involvement in the conflict, but also the broader trajectory of the war itself.

And speaking of intimacy, the comic tells us that before we go on to meet Iron Man, we need to learn more about Tony Stark, who is, we are assured, “the dreamiest thing this side of Rock Hudson.” (Which, hey, if we’re keeping track of all the times Tony Stark is linked to bisexuality and queerness…well, it took a whole one issue for it to come up!) We get the scenes you might expect of Tony wooing ladies on the beach, and a panel featuring he and a date in eveningwear juxtaposed with Tony in a white coat in the lab; these are contexts, the comic says, where is equally comfortable and adept. Now this section is only two panels long, and it’s the only real bit of context we’re given about Tony outside of his role as a weapons developer and his wealth, so there’s a very real way in which all of these forms of intimacy (sexual, psychological, and intellectual) are all immediately bound together. Again, something else we should keep in mind as the series proceeds.

And finally we start getting into the action. We join Tony in South Vietnam, where he trips over a booby trap and finds himself imprisoned by Wong-Chu, a man we are told is a ‘red guerilla tyrant.’ It’s probably clear just from that description that this is not a sophisticated nor unproblematic representation of the North Vietnamese, and it’s still important to note. Not only because we have to be willing to name racist and Orientalist representation as such, but also because it demonstrates something important about where Marvel is willing to push things and where they aren’t. They’re very soon to become famous for being willing to depict heroes with more grayness and ambiguity than many of their competitors. However, the ‘villains’ of the work are still very flat and one-dimensional.  So at the same time as the company is telling complicated stories about what a superhero might be, they’re not so much able or willing to do so with the bad guys.

Alright, so Wong-Chu has decided to try to trick Tony, who has no more than a week to live before the shrapnel that entered his chest apparently via the booby trap, into making him weapons. Stark immediately figures this out, and promises to complete the work while in fact trying to use it to save his own life.

On the second day of his work, he is brought Ho Yinsen, who turns out to have been a famous physicist who was captured and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese.  Tony fanboys over this, and then immediately reveal his plans to Yinsen. Strategically, honestly, this didn’t seem like the soundest move to me upon first re-read; I felt sort of worried that Yinsen was going to turn out to have been forced into spying on Stark or something. But that all turns out fine, and just as Tony is nearing death, the two of them complete the initial version of the Iron Man suit.

Or rather, I should say, the Iron Man. Because it quickly becomes apparent that Stark and those around him consider the moment where he steps into the suit as the rise of a semi-autonomous being named Iron Man, not simply Tony Stark in a suit of armour. We’ll get to the significance of that in just a second, but  just a couple of examples since I know not everyone listening necessarily has a copy of the comics in front of them. So Yinsen ends up sacrificing his life to give the armour more time to power itself up. As he contemplates doing so, he thinks to himself that “[his] life is of no consequence. But [he] must gain time for Iron Man to live.” After he has died, it is “The Iron Man,” in Stark’s own words, who swears that Yinsen’s death will not be in vain.

It is shortly after that moment that the significance of this shift in language becomes clear. After Tony learns to walk in the armour, and manages to succeed in battle against a couple of Wong-Chu’s soldiers, Tony realizes that while he still thinks and feels as he once did, he will have to live out the rest of his life in the armour, which he refers to as an “iron prison.” He also refers to such an existence as both more and less than humanity.

There’s a few ways to think about how to understand the rise of Iron Man and his relationship to humanity. The first is  through the lens of disability and disability studies. In Death, Disability and the Superhero, José Alaniz notes that the superhero has traditionally “served as a disability and death-denying representation practice which privileges the healthy, hyper-powered, and immortal body over the diseased, debilitated and defunct body” (np). Alaniz and others describe the ways this is wrapped up in all kinds of ideas about which bodies (usually white, male), identities and formations (like that of the nation-state) are presumed to have and/or deserve power.

Now, you can probably think of a dozen counter-examples to this idea, and that’s actually the exact point of Alaniz’s text, which charts the shift from these hyper-able superheroes to the rise of the vulnerable, sick and mortal superheroes many of us are much more familiar with. We will come back to this fabulous book a little later in the podcast, but the important thing to know for now about where Iron Man sits in this lineage is that the series sort of begins right in the early stages of that transition. So we’re presented in this issue with a rich, white, genius playboy whose body is marked in all kinds of ways by privilege, and let’s be clear that the introduction of disability does not mean Stark is not still immensely privileged in all of those ways. However, the decision to alter his body in this way does suggest that this is a moment where comics are beginning to consider how superheroes might be able to represent a broader range of bodies and experiences than they previously had.

The other and very much related branch of theory we might consider applying here is called posthumanism; like most definitions in academic scholarship, there are very fierce debates about what posthumanism is. Seriously, it could probably constitute a podcast on its own. But since that is not what we are doing here, we’re going to keep it super simple. As a prefix post of course implies after, so posthumanism at its simplest is a branch of thought concerned with theorizing what an existence beyond, outside, or after humanity might look like. So posthumanism asks questions both about what it means to be human at the first place, and what it means to shift the boundaries of that category. 

One key method of transforming the human is of course through technology, which is why the cyborg is so often cited as one of the first and most significant conceptualizations of the posthuman. It’s also the definition that is obviously most at stake in something like Iron Man.

Now, I do want to note before we go any further that disability studies and posthumanism have been brought together before, and sometimes in super gross ways that have either tacitly assumed that the disabled body is ‘less’ human, or that all disabled people, particularly those who use any kind of assistive devices, embrace or identify a posthuman identification. Neither of those things are remotely true, and are in fact grossly ableist. So no.

However, it is worth considering Iron Man potentially as a representation of both disability and posthumanism. Because while we’re asked on one hand to think about the very much human implications of Tony Stark’s injury and his subsequent need to live within the confines of the Iron Man armour, the narrative is also consistent with what Dan Hassler-Forest calls the superhero genre’s tendency to “foreground the human body and its desire to overcome its physical limitations” (67). In other words, we’re being offered a character who, when confronted with the vulnerabilities and limitations that make a person human, seeks to transcend that category. And of course, it’s important that it’s Tony’s heart that technology is being called in to save; the heart is so essential and so vulnerable in so many ways that of course something like this armour is being figured as a way to overcome that essential obstacle. Hearts also, of course, are popularly represented as the centre of feeling, and while I have been strict about not letting myself read on to future issues yet, I can only imagine that the extent to which someone partially made up of machinery can feel will be a central tension later on.

Stark’s feelings about that process, however, are not uncomplicated. After putting on the suit, Tony refers to his new way of being as “less than human…yet, far more than human.” A couple panels later, this is referred to as a “bitter” reality and the suit is called an “iron prison” which Tony will have no choice but to inhabit. So he’s grappling right away here with the fraught and often ambivalent relationship between posthumanism and a deep desire not to be post at all! This coming to grips with his new reality is literalized as there’s almost a full page where Tony is learning, like a baby, as he says, how to walk again in the suit.

Eventually, though, he gets outside, where the final showdown happens. Tony covers up his suit with a trench coat and bowler hat, so we get the great pleasure of seeing him strip down and deliver the zinger “What’s the problem…have you never seen an Iron Man before?” He then picks up the bad guy and spins him over his head, which will never not be my favourite fighting move ever. The guards start firing, and Tony does something to reverse the charge on his magnetic turbo insulator, creating what he calls ‘reverse magnetism.” He chases after the big bad, at one point using, and I quote, a “miniature buzzsaw inside [his] index finger,” and I will never see this scene without imagining it as the buzz-saw equivalent of Laura Dern making ‘pew pew’ noises while shooting pretend guns in Star Wars. Anyway, Tony heads off an attempt on Wong-Chu’s part to have all his prisoners executed, and eventually defeats him…with lube! More specifically, he uses some of the oil from the suit’s lubricating apparatus to create an explosion that apparently consumes he bad guy. Iron Man recharges his batteries, drained by the fight which included his being attacked by a filing cabinet full of rocks, and he sets off on his own, back in his trench coat and top hat. He leaves us with these dramatic words: “As for the Iron Man, that metallic hulk who once was Anthony Stark…who knows what destiny awaits him? Time alone will provide the answer. Time alone…”

The Science of Iron Man

Now, I made a lot of fun of the fighting scenes just now. And that’s partly because they tend to be my least favourite part of comics. But for one of our special segments called The Science of Iron Man, I did end up doing some research about the cultural status and understanding of magnets during the Vietnam War. What I learned was both interesting and hilarious. So in 1972, there is no end to the conflict in sight, and the States is getting increasingly desperate to gain any advantage they can. They come up with this idea called Operation Pocket money, which basically involved dropping a whole bunch of mines in the water outside the port of Haiphong. Now, each of the mines had a magnetic sensor that could sense changes in the magnetic fields around it. The hope was that if the metal hulls of North Vietnamese ships got too close to these mines, they would set off the detonators.

But, it turns out that there’s a lot of ways to disturb a magnetic field, and one of them is called a solar flare. This basically means that every once in a while the surface of the sun erupts, and sends a whole bunch of magnetic material flying toward Earth. (Which, seriously? Like Earth doesn’t have enough problems?) This is how we get the Northern Lights, but also occasional disturbances with GPS and a near nuclear war. Thanks a lot, Sun! So anyway, on August 4, 1972, just such an event happens, and it ends up setting off a whole bunch of these mines for no known reason.

Now, the only conceivable conclusion to come to based on this information is that I have conclusively figured out how to take down Iron Man. USE THE SUN!

Bisexuality Meter

But enough about the fighting and the hand-wavy science deployed by the American military. Let’s talk about sex! More specifically, I want to introduce another segment that will be featured in these episodes, which I am calling the Tony Stark bisexuality meter. One of the only things I knew going into these comics was that Tony is pretty clearly and at some points openly bisexual, and I was super psyched for that.

For our very first bisexuality meter, probably the most important determining factor for me was the Rock Hudson comparison. Hudson was of course a famously closeted Hollywood star, so I found the comparison between he and Tony quite telling, even as the comic at this point seemed to be trying to insist that Mr. Stark was all about the ladies. Combine that with the short-shorts he’s wearing on the beach in one of those sequences, and his solid eyebrow game, and I give this particular issue a solid 6 on the bisexual metre. Hopefully once Tony sorts through some of his existential angst, he’ll be able to move on up in the ratings—and ditch that dang trench coat! 

Overall Review

So overall, what does one make of this as an introduction to Iron Man? I don’t want to be the only one answering this question, because my aim with this podcast is not to make one specific argument, but rather to set up opportunities for conversation. To that end, I’ve set up a Discord for the show—link is in the show notes—where those of you who are reading along with me will be able to discuss what we thought of the issue we’re on.

I will provide some initial thoughts here, though, to kind of get the conversation going, and because you’re my semi-captive audience right now and I love talking about this stuff! Okay. So, as a first meeting with comics Iron Man, there were some things I really enjoyed. I liked the character’s intellectual humility—he fanboys all over Yinsen, for example, and I found that really sweet and relatable.

I’m also intrigued by his relationship with the suit. In the films Tony Stark famously makes the case that the suit is a prosthetic, but everyone rightly sort of laughs this off, because already by that point he does not have to remain in the Iron Man armour for the arc reactor to work. So I like in some ways that the comics seem to be taking that idea of the suit as a prosthetic a bit more seriously, though obviously in some ways that we might find a bit troubling or problematic now. I did really like the stylization of the panels where Tony’s grappling with the suit; a lot of them feature simple, single-colour backgrounds, and while some of that is obviously just the style of the time, the effect of having a lot of panels like that in a row when Tony is doing things like learning how to walk in the suit is that they feel extremely claustrophobic.

One thing I’m not sure how I feel about right now is how little we knew about Tony sort of going into the events that lead to him being in the suit. We spend so little time with him before he’s captured that I’m a bit unclear how and in what ways he’s sort of been impacted by what’s happened to him. Some of this speaks to the sort of shift toward more character-driven storytelling in later years, so I’m not trying to sort of evaluate the comics outside of their context, but I do hope to find out more about Tony both pre and post suit as time goes on.

Specifically, one area that I’ll be sort of interested to see how it develops is Stark’s relationship to the military, and especially the war in Vietnam. He seems pretty unapologetically in favour of the war here, convinced that the “problem” of the war is one to be solved through technology. Now, given the close and enduring ties between these kinds of comics and the military industrial complex I don’t expect to see a super progressive Tony Stark emerging, but I do hope that some of those issues I discussed earlier, that idea of trying to avoid the intimacy of warfare, for instance, are something that we start to see him becoming a bit more critical of.

But again, these are just some initial thoughts of mine, and I’m really interested to see how others are responding! Hit me up with questions or comments on Twitter @InvinciblePod, or on Tumblr @InvinciblePod. Especially as I’m still getting my feet under me as a podcaster I am very open to hearing not just specific reactions to this episode, but your broader hopes and dreams for what this podcast might become as we continue to make our way through the Iron Man canon.

On that note, thank you for tuning in to episode one of the show!

-Tony being forced to leave a gay party early (oh no!)

-Tony’s girlfriend getting a name (yay!)

-And, Tony facing down with what looks like a giant prehistoric dude!

See you next time on The Invincible Iron Pod!