[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:02:41] I’m drawing heavily on the introduction to Esther De Dauw’s fabulous book Hot Pants and Spandex Suits: Gender Representation in American Superhero Comic Books here. We’ll definitely be coming back to this one; it’s a great read!
[00:11:50] The Mummification process
[00:16:30] Shakespeare writing femslash RPF about historical figures makes me like him way more, just for the record
[00:19:30] Tony Stark: respecter of women.
Episode 6 Notes
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 #44. Its cover date is August 1, 1963. Unlike many of our previous covers, which have focused exclusively on how fearful and dastardly the foe that Iron Man will be battling this week will be, this week the real focus is on who Iron Man will be rescuing: Cleopatra, “Siren of the Nile.” I mean, we see the so-called Mad Pharoah in the background, but the dominant image is of Iron Man holding Cleopatra in his arms as he flies above a pursuing army.
So right away, some interesting deviations from the norm. As a superhero Tony has saved women before, and I know they’ve evoked the whole knight in shining armour thing. But he’s never really been marketed as the chivalrous kind of hero. He even faced a woman villain last issue, which I have to imagine was fairly rare at the time. Yet now we’re going full on with this whole ‘rescuing’ angle, right down to referring to Cleopatra as a “damsel in distress” and the person that Tony travelled “2000 years back in time to protect.” I had no idea what to do with that upon first reading, but by the end I had some thoughts about what might be going on here.
Before we move on from the cover, we’re also going to jump into our first segment: Marvel-ous, largely because of the little seal on the cover. It reads ‘Marvel Comics Group Ushers in the Marvel Age of Comics!’ I looked into this, because I was kind of curious what might be going on, but from everything I’ve been able to find, it’s just Stan Lee being his wonderful, self-promotional self. This seal appeared on all the August covers of that year, many of which…weren’t the best, apparently? So it’s less a deliberate campaign of any kind and more just a celebration.
Why would Marvel be celebrating, you ask? Weren’t they kind of in dire straits the last time we talked? Well, my friends, things were starting to turn around for our friends at Marvel. The Fantastic Four, which had really rejuvenated superhero narratives, had been published in 1961, and the company was really picking up steam.
The Silver Age of comics, in other words, is well on its way. For those of you who haven’t encountered these terms before, comic book history is often divided into a series of labels: The Golden Age, which preceded the comics we’re looking at on this show, is situated roughly from 1930-1950. The Silver Age begins sometime in the fifties—there’s a lot of debate about precisely when—and lasts until 1970. It is important to note that these categories, like many ways of dividing time into periods, are imperfect. However, they’re pretty widely used, and the fact that they are still so popular as a way to think about the history of comics tells us some really valuable things, I think, about the fans and scholars who engage with them.
So what’s the Silver Age, and how did it play out at Marvel specifically? Well, I mentioned the Fantastic 4 a minute ago because they’re a kind of lynchpin that signalled a broader shift toward flawed, naturalistic superheroes. There were also all kinds of shift in style and design—a lot more colour, for instance—and a reliance on science rather than magic and myth.
Thinking about where Iron Man fits into these periodizations is a really interesting project to me, and one that we’ll obviously come back to throughout this podcast. Right now I think we can certainly see the emphasis on science over magic coming through. The idea of where he fits as a flawed hero is an interesting one, because I don’t totally know how flawed the audience is supposed to understand Tony to be at this point.
Okay, so there’s a lot going on in those first couple pages, but let’s keep going for now. We join our pal Tony Stark at the airport. He’s about to embark on trip to Egypt, we learn, where he is aiding an archeologist pal of his with a dig. The press are there to see him off, and rather than asking questions like “Why would a weapons developer be called in to consult on an archeological excavation?” Or “should Western nations maybe stop stealing historical artifacts from other countries?” All they want to talk about is Tony’s sex life. They speculate that perhaps he’s off to Egypt to meet a lover, and when that theory doesn’t pan out, one reporter turns his attention to shipping Tony with…yes, you guessed it, Cleopatra. Would the “Siren of the Nile,” the most “beautiful woman who ever lived” be just as wild for Tony as contemporary women apparently are?
It’s clumsy foreshadowing, sure, but what I found even more hilarious about this was the fact that the press just sits around imagining which historical figures Tony would probably bone down with. It reminded me a lot, actually, of contemporary fandom! We do this kind of crap all the time, imagining like what would happen if Iron Men met Jake from Brooklyn 99. But it’s way funnier to see this depicted as something a legitimate member of the press corp would ask Tony about?
Readers Like You
Naturally, we gotta do something with this, team, so we’re going to transition right into our readers like you segment. What other figures from pop culture, history, literature, or myth could you imagine hanging with Tony Stark? It doesn’t all have to be romantic or sexual, by the way. If you enjoy imagining Tony becoming BFFs with BB8, or in the parental role of Gru from Despicable Me, I want to hear it all! (Also now I kind of want both of those things to happen, so if someone wants to draw or write Tony surrounded by minions and/or droids, I am here for it!)
Right, okay. So after Tony cheerfully decrees that Cleopatra would be ‘much too old from him’ he boards the plane and is off to Cairo. Soon he’s met up with his pal Paul, who is trying to locate a tomb. Tony correctly notes that he probably won’t be much use (which, again, I really don’t get why Paul asked him there, unless he already knows he is Iron Man.) However, he notes that Iron Man is conveniently in Cairo on a secret mission, and that he would likely be happy to help.
So Tony heads into Cairo, planning to show up the next day so that he and Iron Man don’t overlap too obviously. Again, I am really starting to enjoy imagining that literally everyone in Tony’s life knows that he is Iron Man, and it’s just this hilarious open secret. Like last week Paul phoned up someone at SI going ‘are we still doing the pretending thing? I really just have to invite Tony even though he’d had no reason to be here, and then keep a straight face when he announces that he and Iron Man happen to be taking international trips to the same country at the same time? Ugh, Jesus, fine, talk to you next week Joan.’
Anyway, Tony goes out to spend the night in Cairo. We see a brief scene where he appears to be taking in a performance by a belly dancer, but then he is forced to leave early because his chest-plate is in desperate need of re-charging. Now, as we’ve talked about before, this is by no means a new problem for Tony. He typically ends up like this at least once per issue. This one was an interesting deviation from the pattern in a couple of ways though. First, the severity of the problem. Tony ends up needing to be helped to his room by some bellhops, and very nearly doesn’t make it. It’s not really clear from a narrative perspective how or why he let it get this bad on this occasion. Did he forge about the chestplate in the excitement of traveling? Did he decide that protecting his identity by being seen out in public was worth the risk? The second and related way this one was a bit different was that it felt like there was no real reason, from a story perspective, for this scene. Other than way back in Tales of Suspense 39, the re-charging thing tends to come up either mid-battle, or immediately following a battle, because there’s been massive expenditures of energy without the opportunity for a break. There was no real story reason for this to happen now, at least not one that’s clear to me based on this issue alone. I do have some potential thoughts about how it aligns with the conclusion of the comic, which I’ll return to later on, but all I will say right now is that it’s a surprisingly affecting moment. When Tony needs to re-charge post-battle, I don’t tend to feel much about it since most people would need to do so, if not quite as literally. But here I really felt the loneliness of this, the way that his—yes, ridiculous—attempts to keep his identity a secret mean that it’s all but impossible for him to be vulnerable with people.
By the next morning, though, it’s back to business! Tony suits up and heads over to the dig site. He uses a fluoroscope, a device I was primarily familiar with in a medical context when it’s used as a special kind of continuous x-ray, basically. The idea seems to be similar here, except Tony’s is naturally powered by transistors, so it can see through foot thick walls. He quickly locates the tomb of Hatap and drills his way in. As they stand and marvel at the tomb, Paul fills Iron Man in on its history. Hatap is apparently referred to as the ‘Mad Pharoah’ because of his “uncanny knowledge of black arts and his ruthless crimes.” Good thing he’s a just a mummy now, Iron Man snarks! I really love this panelo, by the way, because we see Tony and Paul from behind, standing in front of the tomb, and it’s just so ridiculous that Tony is standing there in an iron suit mocking the seemingly dead guy in a tomb when they look almost the same. A really small but brilliant bit of visual irony—I’ll throw the panel into the show notes.
Paul notes that the wrapping of the mummy is a bit odd, and that perhaps Hatap used an nunusual embalming process. Iron Man, with what I honestly find to be a totally realistic lack of interest from a non-expert, is like ‘Okay cool see you.’ And he takes off. He returns a short while later as Tony Stark, and learns that someone has apparently stolen the mummy! (In what I think is a much less intentional bit of irony, neither Paul nor Tony see any problem with calling this theft when they themselves have no right to this cultural material.) But anyway, Paul takes off to mount a search, leaving Tony behind.
And out pops Hatap! He was waiting, you see, until he was alone with Tony, because dude ain’t dead! Instead it turns out that he was in suspended animation for years, having drank some kind of special potion before a battle with Cleopatra. This made him look dead, and he was embalmed and entombed according to his final will and instructions. Which…listen, I have questions. How can one be like, partially embalmed? I’m a total non-expert on this topic, most of my knowledge comes from watching Six Feet Under like a million years ago, but I sort of thought embalming was kind of a binary thing, and not something a person could really survive?
The Science Division
After I read this I couldn’t not look it up? And if I sound reluctant, that’s because I 100% am, team. I have never been less happy to start a science division segment in my life. I am not one of those super evolved white people who is more chill talking about death, okay? I am the absolute stereotype of a white woman in this regard. The thought of the world going on without me is not comforting, it is terrifying. And a little annoying.
Okay, so content note if, like me, you are squeamish about death and dying and all that stuff. You may want to skip the next couple of minutes. So there’s a lot about the Egyptian mummification process that we don’t know, and that include embalming. The most thorough record anyone can find indicates that it involved the removal of a lot of the body’s squishy bits, including the brain and many internal organs. The body was then filled up with a bunch of aromatic spices. The heart was always left inside, because the Egyptians believed it contained a person’s intellect.
The body was then covered in salt for 70 days to remove moisture. (This is different than contemporary methods that involved the use of formaldehyde.) It would then be covered in resin and wrapped in bandages, then handed over to the family for other preparations.
So look, I know this is a comic, and it’s not trying to be an anthropology textbook. But I just…I have so many questions about what kind of special embalming process this guy underwent that apparently allowed him to survive, even in suspended animation?
Sadly, none of these questions will be answered. After his brief and entirely unsatisfying explanation as to how he’s alive, he informs Tony that he intends to return to the past and defeat Cleopatra—and that he wants Tony to come with him! To try to make sure he agrees, he has infected the workers at the site with some kind of plague. Tony privately muses—again, in a very Tony-like way that I deeply enjoyed—that he definitely didn’t need that kind of inducement. He definitely would have gone travelling through time with an unstable, partially-embalmed guy for free!
So Hatap uses a magic bracelet thing to summon a chariot of time. And Tony, who expected the entire thing to be some kind of fake vision conjured by Hatap’s magic, is surprised to find himself really back in ancient Egypt! Immediately, he ditches Hatap by hiding behind some sand, and quickly changes into the Iron Man armour. Hatap, seeing him, assumes Iron Man is some kind of deadly bird who has murdered Tony, and promptly runs away.
And naturally, Tony is immediately fixated on finding Cleopatra. You know. To ‘help.’ So he takes off, noting almost casually that he won’t be able to re-charge any elements of suit until he gets back to the present and, you know, electricity. And what does one do when confronted with the reality that ones resources are severely limited? Well they go on a side-quest, of course!
Tony sees the Romans laying siege to an Egyptian palace and decides to fly in and help the Egyptians because “a man has to side with the underdog, even in the past.” So if you thought he would have any concern at all about not messing up timelines or changing the course of history or any of that…yeah, no. In the immortal words of Andy Dwyer, incorrectly paraphrasing coach Taylor, “eyes closed, head first, can’t lose!
The Romans, seeing a flying warrior coming from the sky, start describing what is happening almost in a play-by-play, which is honestly a tendency I sort of relate to. Some people have fight or flight responses? My knee-jerk reaction to any kind of shock or trauma is often to describe it. ‘Oh, the child is bleeding! Oh, I am about to drop this heavy item!’ It’s very useful as I am sure my partner could tell you. Anyway, Tony does all kinds of impressive stuff, like knocking down the Roman catapults, grabbing their missiles in his hands and chucking them at ships, all kinds of fun stuff. They then decide to try to run him down with the chariot. In a scene I genuinely found pretty damn cool, he plants his feet and uses anchor transistors to keep him steady, and just lets the thing hit him.
Seriously, if you have made it this far you know I am not really one for fight scenes, and I thought this sequence was pretty fantastic. You get a great silhouette sort of shot with a red background, and you see the pieces of the chariot and the horses all flying through the air. I really, really loved it. So much that I am bestowing it with a special honour: the first of my panel of the week awards. Which are very legitimate and high honours that comic artists of the future will undoubtedly fight over.
Based on this, the Romans decide he must be some kind of Egyptian God sent to defend them. Tony then tear gases the remaining soldiers which sort of felt like overkill really, but okay. They retreat, and Tony heads into the palace. He learns that Cleopatra had just recently fled and he’s all “WTF OM SQUEE” and immediately takes off to go find her.
The ship she escaped on is currently under siege, but Tony has attached a lil propellor to his foot and turned himself into a little mini speedboat. It should feel sort of James Bond-ish, but mostly I just felt like it was super cute. He makes quick work of the Roman galley, saving the life of Cleopatra, who we are about to meet for the first time outside of a quick flashback when Hatap was talking earlier.
Doing the Readings
And that brings us to our doing the readings segment, because I learned a lot about Cleopatra for this episode! I had actually been under the impression that she was pretty openly bisexual. From the admittedly surface-level research I conducted—because again, I was an academic for a long time but not in history—there doesn’t actually seem to be much substantiating that. I likely inherited the belief, actually, from Shakespeare, who depicted not just Cleopatra but also a lot of her female household members as quite queer. So really, it’s the fault of my English degree that she had been built up in my head as a queer icon only to be ripped away.
One thing that did immediately strike me upon seeing her, though, was how white she appeared in the comics. This led me down a very interesting rabbit hole, because it turns out that Cleopatra’s race has been hotly contested for a number of years. Many argue she was more Greek than anything else, and as such would have had fairly light features. A BBC documentary in 2009, and several related articles, have instead tried to position her as North African, based in part on an examination of a skull that was supposedly that of her half-sister. Certainly there’s quite a lot at stake in these conversations, and for me it certainly doesn’t seem coincidental that white people seem to want it both ways: they want Cleopatra to be just ‘exotic’ enough that they can sexualize her in those ways that are specific to women of colour, while also keeping her just white enough to feel like they share in some part of her identity.
I should also note that her fust full appearance, where we see her laying sprawled out across a chaise of some kind, did bear a striking resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor’s depiction of her. I’ll throw a side-by-side comparison into the show-notes, because they really are almost identical in their posture and mannerisms. That movie would have just come out a couple of months before the comic was released, so I can’t speak to whether or not that left enough time for the one to actually influence the other. But honestly in some ways that feels sort of beside the point. Because whether it’s that the comic is sort of paying homage to that depiction, or whether we have two remarkable similar imaginings of Cleopatra coming into the world at almost the same time, the result is somewhat the same: depictions that emphasize, above all else, her charm and sexuality.
Alright. So Tony is brought before Cleopatra because she wants to thank him. Naturally, his interior monologue for the first bit is just him rambling about how hot she is. But eventually they get down to business. He tells her all about Hatap and his plan, and Cleopatra offers to give him anything in exchange for his protection, all while throwing herself against him and putting her hands on his chestplate.
Tony’s reply? “I ask for nothing but to serve your highness.” And I actually have a lot to say about this moment. Because Tony is totally into this woman. He can barely stop thinking about how beautiful she is. And he’s had the press taunting him going into this trip about whether or not he’s masculine enough to seduce this exact woman. How easy would it have been to fade to black here, or have at least some other allusion to the two of them making away for some quiet time?
Instead, he invokes service. In a sexy way, this mostly made me think about a meme I saw recently on Tumblr. Someone was trying to argue that of all the Avengers, Tony Stark would be the one to most resemble that famous rapper who publicly talked about how he refuses to perform oral sex on his wife because men are kings and they don’t do that. And the replies were flooded with all of these instances, some of which were from the comics and some were from the films, where Tony actually presents as a deeply giving and kinda submissive lover.
But even if you’re not into subby Tony, I do think it’s great and important that in this moment where it could have all been about validating him and his masculinity, he instead invokes the language of service, and maybe honestly recognizes, too, that any desire she is expressing for him in this moment is likely far more about strategy than about actual honest interest. Either way, this is my definite ‘Yes , Tony!’ moment of the week.
So they return to the summer palace, and Tony plots to capture Hatap so he can steal the magic time bracelet and get home. Tony bewilders everyone on the battlefield by just laying down on the ground, but it turns out he is laying down on some casters that’ll stick to his suit, and then turning himself into a ‘transitor powered jet-engine that will propel him forward with the force of a juggernaut.’
Team. TEAM. He looks like a giant penis on wheels in this scene. I’m sorry, okay? I try to take these fight sequences somewhat seriously, but when your man turns himself into a flying golden penis on wheels, there is literally nothing else to do but giggle.
Hatap, sensing defeat is eminent, tries to get the bracelet out and escape without Tony. Iron Man, determined to make me cackle nonstop for the rest of my life, squirts him with lube. No, I’m not even kidding! Again, Tony’s solution is to spray this guy with oil so that the bracelet falls out of his hand. Hatap lunges for it and then trips and falls onto his own sword. IT IS ALL SO PHALLIC THERE ARE JUST SO MANY SHARP POINTY THINGS AND LUBE SPRAYING EVERYWHERE HOW IS A GIRL SUPPOSED TO FOCUS.
Okay, so Hatap penetrates, I mean stabs himself to death. Tony grabs the bracelet. Cleopatra throws her arms around him, declaring that she has ‘lost her heart to him’ and begs him to stay behind and rule with her. However, Tony vanishes before her eyes, vowing to remember her ‘for all time.’
And we close with a final set of two panels. Tony’s friend Paul is reviewing some hieroglyphics with him, and points out an image of Cleopatra ‘embracing a golden armored figure.’ So Iron Man is apparently part of ancient Egyptian drawings now, and somehow that’s okay but poor Marty McFly isn’t allowed to place bets on the outcome of some sports? So unfair.
Finally we are back where we started. In the last panel, another reporter asks Tony again if he could have made an impression on Cleopatra. Again, why would the press be so obsessed with this question? I just, I don’t—WHY? Is this a thing that happens? Listeners, if you can find me examples where the press has gone around asking famous people whether or not they could have made it with historical figures, please send them to me. I need to know. For now, Tony smirks and replies “Why not old boy! After all, stranger things have happened!”
Okay, how am I honestly supposed to draw any conclusions from this comic, which somehow managed to be the best and worst thing I have ever read? My notes, which I made while laughing uncontrollably in bed next to my wife, read “Dr. Who Meets Forrest Gump.” And honestly, I stand by that assessment. It’s a ridiculous story. It’s definitely kinda racist, and takes a brilliant strategist, leader, and politician in Cleopatra and reduces her pretty much entirely to her sexuality.
It also does sort of the same to Tony, which, given some of what we’ve talked about on this podcast already regarding Cold War masculinity’s increasing emphasis on sex rather than more domestic pursuits, is interesting. The press are constantly fascinated by the fact that he’s sort of enacting this fantasy, freely having sex with a bunch of women without actually committing to any of them. But they don’t actually do it! Why not?
Well, one explanation might bring us back to the scene with the chest plate from the beginning. Because Tony’s need to recharge does end up interrupting a somewhat sexually charged scene with the belly dancer, and the only other occasion where he’s left a non-battle moment to recharge has actually also been during a date. Earlier in the podcast, I suggested that sort of embodied this idea a lot of people have that disability naturally or inherently interferes with sexuality. In some ways, we could read Tony’s not engaging with Cleopatra as the ultimate extension of this: he can’t stay with her, because he’s now necessarily tied to the present. He needs electricity to live.
But I sort of think it’s more than that. For me, this gets at the heart of what a lot of people like about Tony Stark: that the worst aspects of his masculinity seem to be somewhat performative. He sticks to the script, sometimes even seems to enjoy it, but also doesn’t appear all that interested in living that script out in moments of true privacy.
As you can tell, I have a lot to say about this issue. But what did you think? I would really love to hear other folks’ thoughts.
Before we sign off, though, the bisexuality metre! This issue was pure bisexual chaos the entire way through. The golden penis. Tony’s sweet subby offers to serve Cleopatra. Did I mention all the phallic imagery? Oh, I did?
I have no choice at all but to award this ridiculous and campy romp through Ancient Egypt a 10/10 on the bisexuality metre. Congratulations, Tony.
If you disagree with this ranking, or have anything else to say about the comics, come talk to me! Please! You can 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 Jack Frost, the ‘Human Snow Storm’ (way too real for someone from the praries!)
-Meet Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan (ahhhh!)
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!