[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:03:40] Take those roller skates off, soldier!
[00:05:16] Ginger from FRIENDS
[00:05:34] See this article on disability in Wicked
[00:05:411] American Abled campaign
[00:10:22] Stan Lee on wanting people to hate Iron Man
[00:11:15] The Berlin Wall
[00:15:03] A lot of material from the Marvelous segment relies heavily on Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
Hello and welcome to Invincible Iron Pod, the unnoficial 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.
This episode we’ll be talking about Tales of Suspense #40. Its cover date is April 1, 1963, and it’s Iron Man’s second appearance in Marvel comics. And it’s a ton of fun! So without further adieu, let’s get started!
So the first half or so of the comic is structured around the story of what it calls Tony Stark’s three separate lives. The first is his role as “mechanical genius,” a descriptor that is supported by showing us the new invention he’s providing the US Army with…roller skates powered by transistor engines!
I want to pause on this moment for our Science Division segment, because it’s both hilarious and informative at the same time, and that’s my favourite kind of science. Let’s start with the latter. The military representative Stark is speaking to in the scene notes that what’s important about the roller skates, which can move at 60 miles an hour, is that “infantry can…transport itself on the highways without trucks.” This fantasy of rapid, safe troop movement is very much rooted in actual concerns American military would have been facing at this point. They had aerial support, of course, but this involved numerous challenges including weather, terrain, and the fact that instrument-based flying was often ineffective, so crews had to learn how to fly visually at super low altitudes. And even when air support was successful, it was not practical or possible for this to be the exclusive method of troop movement. You had to be able to move people on the ground. But again, these were really perilous journeys, and some of the old solutions—like tanks—just didn’t work in the soggy jungles. And attacks on convoys were really common, with particularly dangerous areas getting nicknames like ‘Ambush Alley.’ Eventually this inspires the creation of what are called gun trucks, which are…well, just what they sound like. Trucks decked out with a lot of firepower and reinforced siding. To some extent this helped, but the problem is that the more protective covering and weaponry they carried, the slower they were. So the idea of vehicle-free transport, a way of moving people and stuff that is both safe and fast? Yeah, this was very much the dream.
Sadly, a search regarding the actual use of roller skates in US military history proved fruitless. And in fact I found an article from December 1980 indicating that, as a preventative measure given the power of the ‘roller skate craze,’ troops in West Germany were banned from roller skating in uniform because it was against dress code. So sad!
Alright, so back to our story. The second thread of Tony’s life is that of the “sophisticated millionaire playboy whom beautiful women adore.” Yes, that’s right, my complaints have been answered! We get to see fancy pants Tony again, and this time his date even gets a name! It’s Jeanne! Hi Jeanne. Sadly, it’s not a great night for Jeanne, because Tony is forced to leave their gay party (yes, it actually says that, I literally can’t make up how bisexual Tony Stark is 100% of the time) early. Jeanne assumes he’s off to romance someone else, but in a quandary that anyone as introverted as me will instantly recognize, Tony in fact needs to recharge.
Now, sure, Tony is taking this rather more literally than myself. Because instead of laying in bed with a cat in one hand and a tower of all dressed chips and sweet tarts in the other, we are shown Tony plugging in his chest plate. This is, one would think, rather an improvement over the last time we saw Tony in Issue One, when it seemed uncertain whether or not he would ever be able to exit the suit in its entirety again. However, he’s still pretty disappointed to have to swap Jeanne out for an electrical cord.
I’m making fun, but this does actually set up a tension that’s long existed in popular representation of disability, which is the notion that it is in necessary tension with sexuality. There’s so many examples of this. Think about Chandler from FRIENDS dating the woman with the prosthetic foot, and (spoiler alert) her subsequent reaction to learning he has a third nipple. Think about Wicked, in which Elphaba’s sister is in a years long relationship with a man who, it turns out, has stayed with her out of pity because she uses a wheelchair. This is not, of course, to say that no one has challenged this idea that disability and sexuality cannot co-exist. I’m thinking, for instance, of a fabulous project called American Abled, a 2010 piece I will link to in the show notes. The project mimicked the highly sexualized style of American Apparel advertisements, but replaced its models (typically thin and presumed to be able-bodied) with a differently-abled subject. However, the artists themselves note that the project was in response to the still-dominant tendency to cast people with disabilities as inherently asexual.
So far, Tony’s narrative seems to be falling along similar lines, and that continues as we explore the third domain of his life, which is his role as Iron Man. Because we transition right from that recharging scene to Tony out on another date, this time at the circus with a lovely lady named Marion. After some shenanigans go down and a bunch of the animals are set loose, Tony is forced to temporarily abandon poor Marion and put on his suit (which he’s managed to fit in a suitcase, and that seems like one of the most technologically advanced aspects of this whole issue, maybe even more than the roller skates!) While one would assume people in the audience would be happy to not be eaten by lions or something, they instead turn on Iron Man, who they respond to with horror and disgust. And I’m not exaggerating here. They call him dreadful looking, women and children are afraid, it’s a whole thing.
Doing the Readings
This brings us to a new segment for this week: doing the readings, in which I’ll focus on analyzing the narrative from a kind of literary scholar point of view. Our key words for this particular segment are perspective and reliability. When I got to this point in the comic, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. On one hand, it might make us question whether or not Tony Stark is a reliable narrator. In other words, it’s possible to read some of these responses as a product of Tony’s own internalized ableism, and thus entirely fictional. Or, less severely, it’s possible that some people are a little freaked out by Iron Man, but that he is taking those reactions and really sort of inflating them in terms of scope and scale. This would seem to me to be a pretty realistic response. Tony has gone, quickly and traumatically, from one of the richest and most desired people in the world to someone who is capable of inspiring fear and disgust in certain scenarios. And honestly, the way people were acting toward Iron Man felt so absurdly hyperbolic, or exaggerated, that this option feels very possible.
On the other hand, let’s be honest, sometimes people are just the worst. And there is a long history of differently-ambled bodies circulating as objects of disgust and derision. So honestly maybe this only feels unrealistic to me because it’s outside of my lived reality, and because our relationship to technology has changed a little bit. Like, given that Iron Man basically looks like a really chunky robot in this scene, I don’t think people would be super stressed about his appearance, but perhaps the implication that the suit is hiding something ‘worse’ is the real issue.
In any case, Iron Man uses a combination of suction cups (which are honestly always my favourite, because I am still sometimes amazed that they’re real things that exist and actually work?) and electric charges, which the text notes are calibrated to just stun rather than harm the animals. He then changes and returns to Marion, with whom he chats about, among other things, Iron Man’s appearance. She notes that he might have more success dressed in gold, like an old fashioned night.
Hilariously, Tony sort of paranthetically comments “leave it to a woman,” with the obvious implication being that aesthetic concerns would otherwise have escaped him. With, lol, and not just because our thoughts about gender are a bit more nuanced these days. This guy cares deeply what he looks like! He’s thirsty, and I say that in a deeply appreciative way! Certainly the connection to knights in particular is Marion’s own leap, though, and it’s an important one, because this issue is very much concerned with time. Specifically, there’s a kind of tension between Iron Man (and thus Tony) as symbols of the present or even the technologically advanced future, and the idea that one cannot truly escape one’s past. Again, more on this to come.
Marion jets off, and Tony gets to work altering his suit. As he does, he notes again that what he’s after is not scaring anyone he is not intentionally trying to scare. Coupled with the emphasis on the fact that he was not trying to harm the circus animals earlier (and remember animal rights activism was not nearly as advanced in the 60s), and Iron Man is clearly being set up to be more gentle than I expected. It made me think back to what Stan Lee said on the Iron Man DVDs, that he was trying to create a character people would hate (because Marvel’s readership was generally anti-war) and make them like him. To me, it’s stuff like this that sets up that framework. This character is capitalist, yes, and absolutely pro-war, anti-communist, all that stuff. And yet I think even early on we’re seeing him starting to wrestle in these small ways with the implications of that.
And hey, good news: he gets a chance to show off the new outfit! When Tony goes to pick up Marion from the airport, he learns that the town she was visiting has somehow been surrounded by a massive wall. Which, if you’re thinking Berlin Wall, I think that’s a pretty inescapable reading of what’s up here. For those of you unfamiliar with the Wall, it did what walls pretty much always aim to do: it separated things. Specifically, it was set up between East and West Berlin, which were controlled by the opposing sides of the Cold War. It’s perhaps the most literal embodiment of the social, political, and ideological tensions of that conflict. Construction on it began in 1961, and this comic is released in 63. So even though he’s seemingly at work in a domestic context here, Tony is still being strongly associated with the Cold War.
And of course, Tony wastes no time digging his way under the wall, despite being told that it is against the law to violate a boundary that the town has every right to make. He finds the residents of the town under some kind of mind control that causes them to strike out at him. (Interestingly, he is not at all inclined to read this as a reaction to his non-human appearance. Which again suggests to me that perhaps he was not the most reliable narrator earlier.) But in any case, he figures out that the source of all of this seems to be Gargantus, whom Tony describes as “resembling a prehistoric creature who existed 80, 000 years ago—the Neanderthal Man!” He tries to disrupt the mind control by destroying a giant statue of Gargantus that the citizens are putting up, but that doesn’t work. So he calls out Gargantus using the teeny tiny speaker on his belt, and they get down to fighting!
Now, team, I’m not going to lie to you. I did not find this a particularly compelling section to read. It’s really heavy on Tony describing what he’s doing, which on one hand is necessary for the reader’s understanding, and not he other hand just didn’t work for me as a plot device. But things all come to a head when Tony uses super-powered magnets to try to basically freeze Gargantus, and instead they end up tugging him apart. Because Gargantus? He’s a robot, ya’ll! He’s being controlled remotely by a ship parked in a cloud that Tony noticed wasn’t moving as it hovered above the town, even though the wind was blowing.
We venture inside the ship, where we learn that an alien race who first visited Earth 80,000 years ago had come back with the aim of controlling and exploiting the population. They assume, however, that if there is one Iron Man capable of defeating them there must be more, and they nope out without, you know, verifying this in any way. So it turns out that while Gargantus had an aesthetic that evoked the past, it turned out that he was actually being controlled by a futuristic alien force. Much like Tony, who is futuristic in so many ways, is evoking knights and chivalry and all kinds of old-fashioned ways of being. It would have been really easy, actually, for the story to be a lot less complex (the futuristic Iron Man versus some kind of dated historical figure) and however weird this ending was—we’ll come back to that in a sec—I actually really liked that it urged us to think about time as something a bit more complex.
And speaking of chivalry, we close out our adventure with Tony and Marion. He of course professes his ignorance about the events in the town, but muses to himself that “nobody ever worked so hard find out what happened to his date!” Which. Tony. Honey. Let’s maybe not give yourself too much credit? But this does seem like an interesting bookend to the beginning, suggesting that maybe Tony is starting to learn how to balance and blend all these different parts of his life.
But back to the aliens for just a second. Because if you’re primarily familiar with contemporary superhero stuff like I was before I started this podcast, this probably felt like a huge WTF of an ending. We don’t often think about superhero stuff as related to science fiction. This is where publication history becomes sort of important, though, so let’s go to our last segment, Marvellous. There’s a few things to know here, and they’re all intertwined. First, Tales of Suspense actually started its life as a science fiction anthology, not something explicitly or exclusively focused on superheroes. Marvel was also really struggling financially and culturally at this point. Seduction of the Innocent, a book that famously argued that the violence and sexuality in comics was poisoning the minds of America’s youth, had come out in 1954. One of the ways the company was dealing with the blowback from this, along with the waning popularity of superheroes after the end of the Second World War, was to fire any staff they could get away with firing, and cribbing some of the stockpiled material that Lee had been collecting for years. So the conclusion of this issue sort of represents the perfect storm: an anthology still not sure of its identity/purpose; a company still figuring out how to make superheroes relevant again; and a need to reuse storylines, characters, and ideas whenever possible.
So what to make of all of this? It’s kind of a mess, but in a way that I mostly found kind of wonderful in a beautiful and cheesy way. I liked that it did some disruptive stuff with time. Rather than Gargantus being some kind of preserved prehistoric figure, meaning that pitting him against Tony would be this overly simplistic past versus future thing, something more interesting happens. In some ways the dynamics are actually reversed; we’re offered representatives from a technologically evolved alien race. Given how easily they seem to take over the town, they’re perhaps more futuristic than any humans we know. They’re defeated by Tony Stark, who is likened to a heroic knight of old in his golden armour. I really found this quite clever, because it sort of refused any simplistic idea of the past always being inferior to the future. And I’m actually inclined to see this as somewhat connected to what I was just talking about regarding Marvel’s need to make a case for the continued relevance of superheroes. By connecting Iron Man not just to the future but also to a shining, golden, heroic past, I really think Marvel invites us here to think about Iron Man as, yes, a different kind of superhero, but also someone still a part of this long and wonderful lineage which is worth carrying on rather than just discarding.
I also enjoyed digging in a little bit more to the day to day reality of Tony’s life. As you know if you listened to the last episode, fights are often the least interesting thing to me. So these moments where we get to see what it’s like for this man to try to integrate Iron Man into the rest of his life were really rich, and something I definitely hope to see more of.
And this brings us to the bisexuality metre for this episode. On one hand, despite the promising reference to a gay party, I found Tony a bit less full of bisexual energy in this issue compared to the first one. But the more I reflected on it, the more I kept coming back to the framing of the comic, specifically the way it was structured around this idea of multiple selves which are sometimes in contradiction or conflict. I actually felt like this resonated in some really compelling ways with bisexuality and with queerness more generally, the way that one might be out of the closet in some contexts and in in another, or even if one is out everywhere, one still might perform their sexual identity differently depending on context. So I will generously award Mr. Stark another 6 on the bisexuality metre. But come on, Tony, next time don’t leave the gay party early! Stay a while, won’t you? We have good cookies!
As you can probably tell, I had a ton of fun working my way through this issue, and I hope you had fun listening! As always, please feel free to reach out by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod. If you’re enjoying the show, please also make sure to subscribe and/or share.
Please tune in next week, where Tony will
-Meet Doctor Strange
-Ponder marriage (the two are not connected)
-Get unplugged—and not in a good way
Until next time, this has been the Invincible Iron Pod!