[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:01:115] May Hansen as the almost-villain of Iron Man 3
[00:04:10] Bitches on Comics, a fabulous podcast I have learned a ton from as a relative newcomer to comics
[00:04:17] Sarah Gailey
[00:06:57] Atomic Shadows
[00:07:51] Under the Dome
[00:10:18] 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.]
[00:15:25] Narcissus , the guy who famously took having a healthy self-image just a tad too far!
[00:15:36] Peter Pan Complex/Syndrome (lots of dubious ‘science’ behind this one, but it is still a fairly common idea)
˛¸asEpisode Five Notes and Script
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.
This episode we’ll be talking about Tales of Suspense #43. Its cover date is July 1, 1963, and we are promised that Iron Man has never faced so deadly a foe! Especially given the joke I made last time this wouldn’t be that remarkable a claim except for the fact that the villain he is facing down is a woman! More specifically, Kala, Queen of the Netherworld!
Now, I try not to speak very much about the Marvel films in this podcast, but I was initially really struck by the idea that Tony was facing down a woman in 1963 in the comics, meanwhile Iron Man 3 ended up deciding against having Maya Hanson as a villain. I don’t have strictly celebratory things to say about how this comic ends up dealing with and representing gender, but I do have to give it props right off the bat for the fact that it is representing and asking readers to take seriously a female-identified villain. Yay!
So off we go. We start our journey this week at Stark Industries, which is super exciting! Thus far, Tony’s professional life has felt pretty much reducible to his work with the military. And while there’s obviously a significant amount of overlap there, I’m really excited to see him with people other than sort of exchangeable dudes in uniforms.
Naturally, stuff is about to go down at SI! Specifically, the control panel on a wind machine has broken, unleashing tornado force winds. This rips a missile that’s in testing off its mounting, and all is headed for disaster. They put in a call to Tony, though no one expects that he’s going to be able to do much to help.
It just so happens, Tony informs the worried staff and guard, that Iron Man is visiting! We then get a fabulous shot of him changing into the suit that he carries around in the attaché case. We catch him midway through costume changes, so the gold plating is not just on his chest but extending onto his groin with his legs still bare. It looks, I kid you not, like an Iron Onesie, and even though I fully realize it’s made of metal and would be deeply uncomfortable, it manages to look super cozy? Maybe it just speaks to my personal Covid-aesthetic, which has involved a lot of cozy one piece numbers. I also, no joke, recently added a fanny pack solely for the purpose of having dog treats and chews on me at all times while we train our new labradoodle. So I am exactly as cool as you are all imagining in your heads, believe me.
But, sadly, this is not really a podcast about me. So a fully suited Iron Man heads down to the labs and turns himself, in his own words, into a human fan. Basically this means he lets himself be sucked into the giant wind machine, which naturally breaks it. It’s kind of a goofy scene, but does include some more of the visual storytelling I was talking about last time—rather than endlessly describing every step, we just see the image of Iron Man spinning around and around.
In The Frame
This brings me to a new segment, which I’m going to call in the frame because it deals with some of the specifics of reading comics as a genre. As I’ve rambled these last few times about trusting the visual medium to do visual storytelling, a term that’s come to mind a few times is closure. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud famously argued that comics are inherently a more participatory medium than many others. A big part of his explanation for this was the role played by the gutters, which is the white space between individual panels. Readers, McCloud said, have to fill in that space with their own imagination, and in so doing, help shape or generate the story.
I also listened to another podcast this week, Bitches On Comics, which is a personal favourite of mine by the way if you’re looking for recommendations. In it, they were interviewing Sarah Gailey, who talked about the need for the writer of a comic to really trust the artists. Without that’s kind of relationship, then you’re going to over-write, or try to do the artist’s job for them, and it just not going to come together a cohesive whole.
It felt to me like there was a real connection there, because in both cases, the writer of the comic has to place a kind of radical amount of trust in other people—the audience and the artist—to fully bring the story to life.
This becomes challenging in the context of something like Iron Man, where you’re working with technology that doesn’t actually exist, and/or that the average reader in the sixties doesn’t understand. There’s a balance that I imagine would have been extremely difficult to strike between clarity and allowing room for that kind of interpretation on the part of both artists and audiences. But it’s definitely something I want to sort of keep in the back of our minds as we keep reading, because I also imagine that as the character, the technology, and the readership all continue to develop, we may begin to see more instances where the writers feel able and willing to sort of let go of the reigns a little bit and let the art do its job.
Alright, so having successfully dealt with the broken wind machine issue, Iron Man quickly leaves so that Tony Stark can put in an appearance before his absence from this moment of crisis becomes notable. He wears, by the way, this incredible outfit—a fedora, a purple suit with a black and yellow tie. Those of you keeping an eye on my social media will have already seen me make the comparison between this moment and the scene in Parks and Recreation where Leslie Knope shows up in what she calls her ‘sneak around clothes,’ but it definitely bears repeating. I love what a bad spy Tony is. Like basically it feels like he is keeping his secret identity secret sort of in spite of himself.
So just as things all seem good—Tony’s secret identity is in tact, the crisis is dealt with—the security guard, Jim, disappears. Just like in the previous issue when we saw Tony make a tank disappear, we get this disappearance being marked by a dotted outline of where a solid used to be.
It’s really striking and, I think, important, that we’re getting this visual twice in two issues. We talked last time about the post-Atomic moment of these comics. And I think in a lot of ways this obsession with disintegration and representing the abrupt and complete transition of something into nothing is really clear here. This particular image, because it was a person, really evoked for me the famous images of the shadows of bodies left behind on surfaces after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Now I do want to take a moment and say that while I’m talking about an American comic and therefore foregrounding in some ways the American response to the country’s use of the atomic bomb, that does not mean these are the voices that necessarily should be centered in these conversations. In the show notes, I am linking to a number of projects and exhibits that have represented the voices and experiences of survivors. They are very much worth looking at on their own merit—they’re beautiful and haunting and difficult to encounter. And I think that if we’re reading and talking about comics from this era and thinking about how the perpetration of this kind of violence impacted Americans, we also have an obligation to look beyond the comics and their immediate context as well.
Alright. So after the security guard vanishes, Tony himself is then suddenly sucked into this clear…dome like thing? Looking at it sort of reminded me of that Stephen King novel, Under the Dome. Except rather than staying put, the dome thing ends up sucking Tony underground, and then acting almost like an elevator that carries him down to the centre of the Earth. He is greeted by Kala, who declares herself ‘Queen of the Underworld.’
Being Tony, his first reaction to his entire thing is to be super psyched, which felt super on brand. He calls it fantastic and is absolutely delighted to learn that there’s an entire civilization at the centre of the Earth that absolutely no one knew about. He also learns that there are two SI employees here, including the guard we just saw vanish. Turns out they weren’t trying to harm these folks, they were brought down by mistake while Kala was looking for Tony!
Kala then proceeds to give us a brief overview of the organization. It turns out that the Netherlanders—and is it just me or does that sound like Neverland?—were originally inhabitants of Atlantis. However, when some land and sea quakes hit, a bunch of them fled into the dome thing, which then ended up sinking down into the centre of the Earth. Now, I admit that I’m in a dark place as far as the future of the planet goes these days. But mostly all I thought about during this backstory was like ‘hi yes we can has one of these domes will they save us please?’
However, the Netherlanders for some reason have decided that rather than stay down here in their cozy little dome thing, they want to invade the surface. And they want Tony’s help to do so, because they need his transistor technology in order to transport themselves above ground. If he doesn’t agree to assist them, they tell him, they will execute the two members of Stark Industries who are down there with them, as well as Tony himself. Tony threatens them with Iron Man, and Baxu, one of Kala’s generals, agrees that perhaps they might want to wait on an invasion. She does not agree, however, because her plan involves somehow reversing the Earth’s axis, which will impact everyone except the Netherlanders.
Tony’s employees urge him not to agree to these terms. When he does, and he is called a coward, Stark replies that his “first instinct is self preservation” and that “his own life is all that he cares about.”
Doing the Readings
This brings us to our first joint segment! Because this a Doing the Readings moment to the extent that I want to bring in some scholarship, but it’s also our First Yes Tony/No Tony segment! Because sometimes, it is necessary to both celebrate and chide Tony Stark at the same time.
Alright, so a couple of weeks ago when I was thinking and talking about how much dating we were seeing Tony doing, I discussed a piece from Robert Genter. In addition to the war and the nuclear family, Genter argues that one of the perceived wounds inflicted on postwar masculinity was the rise of the organization. Bureaucracy, the idea of the so-called ‘yes man’ versus the rugged individualist, these were things that Genter says freaked American men out, and that we will see Tony grapple with explicitly as the series progresses. I wanted to bring thus up now, though, because in some ways I think we’re getting the seeds of it right here. This is a moment where, even within the limits of what he would be able to say in front of enemy forces, Tony could have chosen to rely on the people to work for him. To work as part of a team.
And instead, he doesn’t. He doesn’t even just allude vaguely to the idea of having reasons for what he’s doing that his employees cannot understand. Instead, he seems invested in trying to alienate himself from them as much as possible, and present the worst possible version of himself. I found this so striking, and so incredibly sad. Because it feels like a sort of horrible collision between the fear of any kind of collective people action—because ew, commie germs—and then this distrust of being emasculated by a corporate apparatus.
So in conclusion: Yes, Tony, to doing the right thing, but a big No, Tony to needlessly making yourself look like a jerk. Fix your wounded masculinity another way!
Alright. Team, I’m going to be honest with you. Things sort of go downhill from here. So Tony is taken away by Baxu. It turns out a big part of the reason the General does not agree with Kala’s plan is that…wait for it, wait for it…she’s a woman. But, Tony shrewdly observes, Baku is obviously in love with her! So that probably makes the sexism cool, right?
Now, there is a question one could raise here about the extent to which Tony is, himself, endorsing or excusing these thoughts ideas versus just doing and saying whatever he needs to do to get the General on his side. And some of that is definitely going on. However, do not worry yourselves at all that I am being too hard on this comic. Trust me.
So Tony is left to build some transistors, and naturally he just recreates the Iron Man suit instead. He promptly beats down Baku, but does not kill him because he believes the man to be the rightful ruler. Now off Tony goes to take down Kala. And we commence with what must be the silliest fight scene thus far.
So right away she goes for the disintegration ray. Tony counters with a reverse energy beam. Next she tries an imper-sonic flame thrower, aiming to melt the suit. This doesn’t work, because Iron Man tosses in a “pellet of concentrated crystals” that turns the flame into a block of ice. The real problem, though, is that Kala WILL NOT STOP ANNOUNCING IN DETAIL TO TONY WHAT SHE IS ABOUT TO DO. Seriously, it just keeps going back and forth like this, with Kala telling him exactly what she’s going to do and what its intended effect will be, and Tony using the exact right tool or strategy to counteract it.
Now, yes, we could think about this as sort of the opposite of what I talked about earlier, an instance where the visuals and the text aren’t totally trusting one another. But honestly, there was something also kind of hilariously gendered to me about the fact that Kala ends up being mostly defeated by her own clear, effective communication! She is literally handing this guy the exact tools that he needs to hurt her. There is very little doubt in my mind that if she didn’t, she could pretty easily take him down. And if that’s not an unintended metaphor for the way that we train women to be good at certain things and then punish them for those same skills, I don’t know what is!
Ahem. So things go on like this for a while. After the flame thrower it’s atomic bullets. Tony uses magnets to alter the course of these. He then uses a bunch of mirrors to create illusions of himself. I’ll come back to this shortly, because it sets up a parallel between he and Kala that, I don’t know if it’s intentional or not?
But anyway. As she tries to figure out which Iron Man is the real one, he grabs her and takes flight, breaking through the dome and up onto the surface of the Earth. And here is where things get gross. So something about being exposed to the atmosphere on the surface causes Kala to immediately begin aging at a rapid rate, until she appears to be an “old hag.” She begs to be taken back underground and promises never to invade the surface again so that she can remain hot forever. Tony cheerfully agrees, noting that she is “cruel and ambitious…but not stupid.” Gee, thanks Tony.
Doing the Readings
Alright, so it’s time for doing the readings part two. So there’s a few allusions to classical mythology and literature we could see here. Especially since Kala first sees her reflection and realizes what has happened in a pool of water, there’s a definite comparison being made to Narcissus, who famously fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and ended up wasting away in front of it until he died.
Given how similar Netherland and Neverland sound, we could also see a bit of a Peter Pan complex going on here too. In other words, we could see Kala as sort of embodying a permanently immature state, a refusal to grow up. Tony does really love calling her things like foolish and girl and vain, so that fits as well.
The whole thing is transparently and grossly sexist, and nothing I can really say is going to rescue it from that. Sorry. But one thing I did find interesting was the parallel that’s set up between them when Tony makes use of all those mirrors. Because as I’ve pointed out a couple of times, Tony is super into himself! He’s a total dandy, cares very much what he looks like, and even what the Iron Man suit looks like! So I feel like, again I don’t know how intentional it is on the part of the writers, but to some degree he feels implicated to me in by some of the same vanity and aesthetic self-regard that Kala is.
Okay, so Kala suggests that Iron Man stick around and marry her, but he suggests instead that she hook up with Baxu. Which. Ew, but whatever. So Iron Man takes off, bringing the two SI employees with him. And in the very last panel, he’s back on the prowl. A dude in the background of the scene notes that Stark’s recent adventure under the Earth at least kept Tony, ‘the wolf’ away from the ladies for a while. Tony, literally surrounded by women, smirks and declares ‘that’s what you think bub!’
…sigh. So before we get to conclusions, let’s get the really painful bit out of the way. Because our pal Tony has managed to score his lowest rank on the bisexuality metre in this particular issue. I can’t give him more than about a four in this one. Sorry team, but the sexism, the compulsory heterosexuality, honestly his sneak around outfit was the only reason it wasn’t lower.
Okay, team, so what do we do with this one? If you were on the fence about reading it, should you skip it entirely?
I would say no, you should still take a look, mainly because it’s a kind of archive that brings together all the ways that various traumas or perceived traumas (threats to masculinity especially) are being worked through using this character. It’s not something I really enjoyed reading, but it was an instance where because the story itself was something I hated so much, I could really see a lot of the ways that it was shaped by and reflecting its context.
Readers Like You
Okay, so what am I asking you to do in this week’s readers like you segment? Well, I mean, I now have this image of Tony Stark dressed up as Peter Pan in my head, so if anyone wants to take a stab at making that, I would be forever in your debt.
The SI wind tunnel also has me imagining all the different ill-advised departments and machines that Stark Industries might be housing, so please do feel free to pitch me your best suggestions. That’s your homework for the week!
But I am also always thrilled and excited to hear your thoughts about anything to do with the comics or this show. Please feel free to reach out by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod. I love chatting. If you’re enjoying the show, please also make sure to subscribe and/or share.
Please tune in next week, where Tony will
-Time travel (yay!)
-Meet The Mad Pharoah (oof nooo)
-Hang out with Cleopatra
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!