[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:04:17] Fellman, Paul. “Iron Man: America’s Cold War Champion and Charm Against the Communist Menace.” Voces Novae Vol. 2, Article 3.
[00:06:34] Patton, Brian. “‘The Iron-Clad American’: Iron Man in the 1960s.” In The Ages of Iron Man: Essays on the Armored Avenger in Changing Times. Ed. Joseph J. Darowski. McFarland & Company, 2015. pp. 5-16.
[00:08:23] HUAC and Hollywood
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, also known as Iron Man.
This episode we’ll be talking about Tales of Suspense #42. Its cover date is June 1, 1963, and its cover makes us a big promise! We, reader, have a “shocking surprise coming to [us], as the knight in shining armor walks straight into this, the greatest danger he has ever faced!” Which, I honestly feel like is a promise that has been made at least twice already before. And on one hand I obviously get it as a marketing tool, and on the other it makes me lol a little. For once, what about promising the most medium-est challenge ever? (And in case you’re wondering, this is why I don’t write comics…)
The cover also promises that Tony’s identity will be discovered by one of his enemies in this issue. Given the last issue’s emphasis on how no one knew how all the pieces of Tony’s life fit together, that feels like it makes sense.
Alright, so we open with some people calling each other comrade, so we know pretty much immediately that this is an Iron Man story dealing with the national context of the Cold War. Our comrades, it turns out, have stolen what they believe to be America’s newest atom bomb, and they’re crowing over this on a ship, excited that they’re going to please someone called the Red Barbarian. Naturally, they decide to open the box to check out the “revolutionary elements of design” the bomb apparently contains—and while I know on one hand that we didn’t know as much about the dangers of even being near nuclear weapons at this point, it’s also hilarious as a contemporary reader to watch these baddies be like “yeah, I’m totally going to open the box with an atom bomb in it, what could go wrong?”
Turns out a lot, but not for the reasons one might think. Because this large crate doesn’t contain a bomb at all, it contains something even more explosive…Iron Man! In what is thus far my favourite panel of all time, he busts out going “You heard right! Iron Man!” And I just. I love it so much when he gets to just be a thirsty, overdramatic brat.
Our communist friends decide they’re going to shoot him, but Iron Man uses his accessory belt and pulls out a little transistor powered device, and points it at a nearby crane. This little tool, it turns out, increases the magnetism of the crane by 100-fold. This causes the bad guy’s guns to fire, and then the guns themselves to fly into the air. The crane is high enough in the air that they can’t just let go of the guns without injury. It’s a pretty creative, non-violent option, and I’m flagging that now because it’s something we’ll come back to a little later on.
There’s a brief conversation between Iron Man and some FBI agents about the fact that the baddies were working for the Red Barbarian. They know his headquarters are “somewhere behind the Iron Curtain.” However, the suit has to be charged before there can be any further investigation, so off he goes.
The next time we see him, it’s as Tony Stark, who ponders aloud how much the communists would love to get their hands on his newest weapon, a pocket-sized disintegration ray. He demonstrates the next day on a base the army has apparently constructed around his lab, wearing a super cute one-piece jumpsuit. I think it’s supposed to be sort of similar to an airforce style jumpsuit, but it also feels super fashionable in our current moment. Seriously, one of my fave Tony looks so far.
But right, the disintegration ray. So naturally, it’s supes impressive. He vaporizes a two-foot-thick wall, he vanishes a tank. The latter is actually quite a cool bit of artwork; you see a visualization of the rays in bright pink, and then inside there’s just a dotted outline of where the tank used to be. I’ve been somewhat critical in past episodes of the fact that the comics sometimes over-rely on textual explanations or descriptions of what’s happening, especially when it comes to the science stuff. For me, this panel was a really good example of the writers and artists taking more of an advantage of comics as a visual medium.
It also leads us into our science division segment. In “Iron Man: America’s Cold War Champion and Charm Against the Communist Menace,” Paul Fellman has a lot to say about this device. He reads it very much as a symbol of the current moment. He compares this device, which he notes could literally make the communists disappear, to the Captain America comics, where the fantasy was Captain America punching Hitler in the face. The disintegrator ray was, Fellman says, symbolic of the new level of violence involved in the post Atomic era. That comparison definitely seems fitting, especially since the comic opened with an allusion to the A-bomb, even though it turned out to be a mislead.
I would also suggest, too, that it brings us back to what I talked about in the first episode regarding this fantasy of warfare without intimacy. Punching the way Captain America does is certainly intimate! It involves reaching out and touching another body, even if in a violent way. Whereas what Stark is in many ways just the opposite. It’s the kind of warfare where there wouldn’t even be bodies once it was all over. It felt sort of fitting in that sense, that Tony notes that the technology is still imperfect. Because as we discussed in episode one, this idea of warfare without intimacy is ultimately always a fantasy.
Doing the Readings
We’re also going to transition right into our second segment, doing the readings. Because even while Tony and his military pals crow again over how much the Communist regime would like to get their hands on this technology, we transition over to the Red Barbarian. He is indeed furious that his spies can tell him that Tony Stark is working on something, but not what, precisely, that something is. To express his outrage, he…throws a ham at them, and then is about to have the men executed when someone else enters the room.
We’ll get to who that someone else is in a minute, but it’s worth pausing here to note the contrast that’s being set up. So think back to Iron Man in that first scene, subduing the Communist spies without any real violence to speak of. In fact, he uses the fact that they are carrying guns and he are not in order to apprehend them, because it’s the guns that get stuck to the crane. By his very name, we know to expect pretty much the opposite from the Barbarian, and we are not disappointed. He is violent for the sake of being violent. This is a trend that will continue, Brian Patton writes. “Whereas [Iron Man’s] communist foes are paranoid and humourless, dehumanized by the collectivist ethos of their social and political system, Iron Man embodies a humane, individualist solution to what ails them.”
There is obviously a tension between that claim and the one from our first segment about the incredible potential for violence contained in the weapons Tony makes for his day job. At this particular point, I’m not totally clear how purposeful or knowing this tension is. I’ll certainly be interested to see if and when Tony starts to reckon with the fact that one of the ways his split identity seems to be functioning is that he’s far more merciful as Iron Man than he is as Tony Stark.
For now, let’s get back to the show. Now just in case you thought things couldn’t get more ridiculous than dude throwing a whole ham at his own troops, Nikita Kruschev walks in the room. Only it’s not actually Kruschev, it’s a dude calling himself The Actor, who is armed with some masks and a decent ability to impersonate other people. To further convince the Barbarian, he impersonates the man himself, and then, after being shown a photograph of Tony, is able to convincingly pass for him as well. He therefore promises the ‘dual’ defeat of both Tony Stark and his pal, Iron Man.
Obviously, a lot going on with identity here. Both the sources I have already mentioned describe the postwar United States as both hyper-confident and yet extremely paranoid, especially about the prospect of this web of a vast spy network capable of stealing the technology they did not believe Communists could make on their own.
I would add another factor in as well, based on the fact that this character is explicitly identified as The Actor. It was not that long before this, late forties and into the fifties, that HUAC—the House Un-American Activities Committee—was investigating many groups and individuals for a wide range of activities and beliefs deemed un-American. One group that came under fire during this time was, of course, Hollywood. That’s right! The 45th president and those associated with him did not in fact invent hating on Hollywood. A number of performers were called in for hearings, and over 300 were eventually either blacklisted or boycotted.
So on top of the overall aura of suspicion and fear about losing their place on top, the US had and continues to have a specific obsession with art and artists. Some of this came down to content, the idea that there are some topics and people that citizens of a nation have a responsibility to represent in a particular war. However, I think that’s also wrapped up in another kind of suspicion of the fact that actors and spies perform tasks that are ultimately closely aligned. They’re professional liars. And I think the very real fear at this point was that the skill set could be a bit too transferable—that it would be all too easy for a spy to succeed as an actor, and vice versa.
So with Tony lured away to a fake meeting in DC, the Actor and two pals infiltrate the base. The Actor finds some of the material used in the Iron Man suit in Tony’s lab, and almost immediately puts together that they are one and the same person. He decides, however, to keep this information to himself. And then the Actor takes off, leaving his guards behind to assassinate Tony.
Naturally, this does not go as planned. Tony returns, pulls a trick with the lighting of the building so that he is able to get into the Suit without clueing anyone in about his identity, and literally shakes the truth out of these dudes. Seriously, he wraps his arms around their chests and just kind of shakes them around. I continue to find the action sequences in this one a dang delight.
So Iron Man gives chase, and wishes himself good luck which I just found super wholesome. He is able to intercept The Actor before he gets back to the Barbarian. When The Actor demands to know how he managed to get there, Iron Man retorts, “Does Kennedy tell Kruschev?” And then he makes fun of the guy’s car for good measure, “Say! They don’t build Em so strong behind the Iron Curtain, eh?” So, just in case we didn’t realize already, this is definitely not a comic where the Cold War is being fought just on an ideological or symbolic level. It’s super literal this week.
So we see someone enter the Barbarian’s headquarters in the Iron Man suit. That person claims to be The Actor, and he delivers a briefcase he claims have Tony’s weapon plans in them. The case is timelocked, though, so he tells the Barbarian he’ll have to wait four hours. Of course, the man in the suit is not The Actor, but it turns out The Actor was in on this trick. Because it turns out that he thinks the Barbarian won’t care so much about the plans once he finds out that The Actor has learned the true identity of Tony Stark.
So the Actor returns to HQ, sure he’s about to receive a glorious welcome. He’s wrong. Turns out, the Barbarian thinks he’s lying about knowing who Iron Man is, and he thinks that the absence of the plans means that the Actor forwarded the plans to Kruschev directly in order to get all the credit. The Actor begs and pleads, promises that he’ll reveal Iron Man’s secret identity if only the Barbarian will wait!
And then our last panel takes us outside. Iron Man is shown flying away from headquarters. Inside, the Actor’s demise is confirmed. The Barbarian scoffs at the idea that the man had known who Iron Man is. “By Lenin’s beard,” he decrees, “what a fairy tale!”
So I was wrong last week, because I had only scanned the comic quickly. It isn’t Tony who says By Lenin’s Beard, but let me assure you, dear listeners, that will not stop me from using this new catchphrase at any available opportunity! I feel, actually, like this would be a great title for a new segment for discussing how Communists and Communism are being represented as the comics continue. But if you have a better idea, by all means let me know! This wonderful turn of phrase definitely deserves the perfect and most fitting segment.
And from one of my favourite things, pithy sayings based on communism, to another: the bisexuality metre! This is easily our most bisexual Tony to date. The jumpsuits. The emphasis on performance and performativity and secret identities. The fancy entrance. It’s wonderfully, delightfully queer. I therefore happily award it a solid nine on the bisexuality metre. Hooray! Keep it up, Tony!
So what are the overall take-always here? I mean. I loved it. It’s easily my favourite comic so far. That’s not to say I agree with the politics here. I’m a lefty-leaning human, and I think a lot of the tensions and contradictions of American policy and ideology are really on display here. Iron Man, and by a certain extension America, really seems to want at this point to both be considered a gentle, benign leader that eschews brutality in favour of…something else. But of course the problem is that the threat of force is always already behind it, and honestly I’d rather have someone throw a ham at me than a disintegration ray! I loved this issue, though, because it’s a kind of artifact of that particular moment. It’s so clear that much like the US at this point, Iron Man is really struggling to figure out who he is and what he’s for. In a way, with the end of the MCU’s Infinity Saga coming at the same time of a range of tensions and problems in the contemporary United States, I think a lot of us are asking similar questions now about what superheroes are for. These are exciting, valuable conversations. For me, they keep the genre fresh and relevant.
Readers Like You
But for a new segment this week called Readers Like You, I want to know what you think. Am I reaching too far here? Is Cold War Iron Man best left in the past?
And, for a more fun question,. I shared my favourite fighting move from the week, which was Tony just grabbing and shaking a dude until his secrets literally fell out. What’s your all-time favourite comic move?
Let me know the answer to either of those questions, as well as any thoughts you have about the episode or show in general, 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 follow me on those accounts.
And please tune in next week, where Tony will
-Face off against what appears to be his first lady villain
-Meet some Stark Industries employees
-Use ageism and sexism for…good? Maybe? (Probably not.)
Until next time, this has been the Invincible Iron Pod!