Tales of Suspense #46 – Invincible Iron-Pod
[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:10:05] Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston
[00:11:32] 1963–>2021 inflation calculator
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 #45. Its cover date is September 1, 1963. The cover promises an 18 page super epic in which the icy fingers of Jack Frost will be reaching out for Iron Man! I went pretty hard on the queerness of the last issue, so I will regretfully leave that one alone. We are also, the cover tells us, going to be introduced to Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan, who are destined to become two of our favourite supporting characters! No spoilers, but for once the cover is, if anything, underselling matters. I was so beyond psyched to meet Pepper and Happy, and in most ways this issue did not disappoint.
So our second sort of teaser page features Jack Frost pursuing Iron Man noting that while he is surprised to find our armoured hero there rather than Tony Stark, he in fact has a score to settle with him too, so all is well! And all I could really think was how much more fun it would be for the identity thing to go the other way. For someone to be like ‘Oh, Iron Man, it’s you! Long time fan, man! Will you sign my shirt? Awesome! Now it’ll be special for two reasons! It’ll be the shirt I met you in, and the one I wore to kill Tony Stark!” But then again I was raised in fandom where identity porn is one of the biggest tags, so no one should be surprised by this, really.
Anyway, we start our adventure with some state troopers, who are staring after something travelling so fast they can’t see it. They also leave behind a cloud spelling out the word ‘woosh,’ which is a detail I found pretty charming. Thinking someone is using the roads to test drive before a major race apparently going on in the area, they try to follow the figure. However, it turns out to be Iron Man using his jet skates! (The return of roller-skate esque tech, friends! I love how much the writers and artists just don’t want to let this one go.) They’ve heard the skates can go 200 miles per hour, and they’re pretty psyched.
They assume that he’s on the trail of a super-criminal and decide to let him go about his business since they could never chase him anyway. And I really do find the absence of any tension with legal or military structures thus far interesting! I mean maybe the way they would explain it is that Iron Man is known to be friends with Tony and Tony obviously has a lot of ties to the military in particular, but it still seems weird that everyone is just cool with him skating through the streets doing his own thing? Maybe a lot of years watching superhero movies have trained me to expect some kind of clash over the whole vigilante thing. But the way that the comics both want Tony to play into this anti-establishment, individualist narrative while also facing no pushback from some of these establishments is interesting.
Anyhoo, their assumption that Iron man is off doing heroic stuff is only partially correct. He has spent the morning doing that, specifically helping the FBI with a spy ring, but now he’s scheduled to participate as Tony Stark in the race our law enforcement buds were chatting about. So he lands, changes out of his suitcase suit, which I guess we are calling the Union Suit for some Thor forsaken reason? I don’t know, he doesn’t explain it and I probably will not be calling it that anytime in the near future to be honest.
So Tony changes into a blue suit with a jaunty yellow scarf and matching helmet, and promises someone who asks him that with his new improvements to the car, Iron Man couldn’t be in better shape! This one was a real eye roll for me when I first read it, but I actually think it’s the first signal we get that Tony is really starting to have some identity issues in this one. More on that soon.
So Tony’s racing down the track, delighted that with the transistors he has added to his car, he looks to be on his way to not just winning, but breaking all existing course records. And then suddenly he rounds a corner, and he starts to feel…well, not good. Turns out our pal Tony forgot, in all the excitement of the day, to recharge the chest plate, and now there isn’t enough energy left to keep his heart pumping! He subsequently loses control of the car, which flips over, pinning Tony inside the car.
And this brings us to the first instalment of a new segment, which I am calling Iron Psychology. Content warning for this one for discussions of self harm and mental distress. I should also note that none of my degrees, or almost-degrees, were in fact in psychology, so this is total armchair stuff. If you want someone with actual qualifications to diagnose Tony Stark with stuff, well, this may not be the podcast for you.
So here’s the thing. We are right on the heels of another issue where Tony neglected to charge his chest plate and nearly died. In this one we are at least given a reason—he notes that he was anxious about getting to the track on time and didn’t have time following his adventures with the FBI in the morning. However, I am generally inclined to read this trend as Tony engaging in a bit of passive self-harm. For those who have never heard this term, passive self-harm encompasses behaviours where a person might not be actively physically harming themselves, but are doing things, or not doing things, that do end up inflicting some kind of damage on themselves. So stuff like not bothering to eat or drink enough, not letting yourself do things you know will bring you joy, or—as in the case—not managing health conditions properly.
Ultimately, I think that we’re seeing Tony starting to really struggle with what it means to balance all these different parts of his identity, and that specifically he seems to be coming up against an understanding that he has a chronic health condition. He’s not, at least for the foreseeable future, going to get better. He will have to worry about recharging and the immediate, severe effects it will have on his health if he doesn’t do it, forever. And while I think it was relatively easy for him to get caught up initially in the novelty and fun of being a superhero, these last couple issues really feel Iike he’s struggling to come to grips with the trauma and ongoing chronic issues related to what happened to him.
Tony does not dissuade me from this line of thinking, by the way, with what happens next. So he’s laying there in the car, pinned there by the wheel, and he’s having this fantasy about all the things that Iron Man would be able to do if he were the one in this situation. The entire time he talks about Iron Man in third person, and we see visions of what he’s imagining, like Iron Man literally ripping his way out of the car. Now of course there’s a very real way in which Tony Stark in the suit has far different physical abilities and limitations than Tony Stark outside of the suit. And yet for him to be laying there potentially dying all while thinking about his alter-ego also felt like a kind of psychic split, almost? Like one of the ways that he’s coping with some of the issues I just discussed is to form a complete mental separation between himself and Iron Man. The latter gets all the praise and admiration, while Tony Stark is someone that conceptualizes himself primary through his limitations.
I found this whole sequence, building off the scene last issue, to be really gutting. And while I think a lot of the times I am pretty joyfully reading against or at least alongside the text—and by that I mean that I am happy to see things in the comics that are likely very far outside what any of the original authors or artists intended—to me this engagement with Tony’s mental health felt pretty deliberate. It’s also something that continues through the issue, so let’s keep going.
Okay, so Tony has sort of accepted his fate, but someone else hasn’t. A big guy in a green checkered suit comes charging onto the track, huge square jaw, big ears. I immediately found him hella endearing. Someone yells at him to leave Tony, that the car could explode at any second, but this dude isn’t willing to abandon Tony to his fate. He unpins him from the car, has a hilarious moment where Tony yells at him about the potential danger and dude is like “DO YOU SERIOUSLY THINK I AM NOT ALREADY SCARED ENOUGH?” The side of me that deeply appreciates emotional literacy in men was really into the ease with which the guy admits to being totally terrified like any healthy, sane person would be.
He carries Tony out and away from the car full bridal style, and you bet we’ll get to some of the gender and sexuality dynamics of all of this soon, but for now Tony offers him pretty much a blank cheque if the guy will rush him to a motel and leave him alone in a room without asking any questions. Our friendly stranger sensibly points out that Tony, who looks like crap, might not make it all the way there. We go back into Tony’s head, where he’s…yep, thinking about Iron Man like a separate person again. He thinks to himself that he must survive, because his own death will also mean the death of Iron Man and the end of all his exploits. In the panel, we see Iron Man having blown apart what looks like an enemy tank while a bunch of baddies are thrown into the air. Again, I don’t want to belabour the point, but this guy is dying! And he appears to have zero regrets about the loss of Tony Stark. All he can think about is how sad it would be if the world lost Iron Man. It reminded me a lot, and go with me here, but you know how when something tragic happens to a woman, the go-to move in a lot of journalistic accounts is to talk about how she was a wife and/or mother? Like that was the sum total of this person’s entire existence? This felt like that but dialed up to ten, because it’s like he’s siphoned off all the things he dislikes about himself, especially his physical condition, and put all the positive stuff onto Iron Man, who he doesn’t really think about…as Tony Stark?
Sorry, I swear I’ll stop with the armchair psychoanalysis, it’s just a really intense few pages. Okay, so dude gets Tony to the hotel (and I would give a lot to know what he thinks Tony may or may not be doing in there, because what a bizarre request!) We see Tony plug himself into the wall, and then immediately begin thinking about how he will reward his saviour.
Cut to the next day. Our friend notes with puzzlement Tony’s near instant return to full health, and compares him to boxer Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston. It’s an interesting comparison to make! Liston was famous for winning the majority of his fights by knockouts, but as a Black man who also had a criminal background, he ended up with a reputation as “the fighter America loved to hate” for being vicious and menacing. These are of course extremely loaded terms that, much like other words like intimidating, are applied in specific and detrimental ways to people of colour. I may be getting off track and reading quite a lot into the comparison, and certainly Tony Stark’s position is not that of a Black man in the 70s regardless of what issues he’s having. But that idea of linking Tony with someone people love to hate did strike me, and took me back to that quote from Stan Lee I mentioned a few episodes ago about the very purpose behind the creation of Tony Stark being to make a progressive readership end up rooting for a capitalist.
So our friend, of course, turns out to be Harold ‘Happy’ Hogan, a down on his luck boxer whose career stalled because he never had the heart to finish his opponents off when he had them nearly beaten. Which. I. This might be the most compelling backstory I have ever heard. What a brilliantly wonderful counterexample of toxic masculinity, that he’s a failure at this sport known for being brutal only because he is not brutal enough? I love him. I almost never use the word stan, but I am coming quite close to stanning Happy Hogan and I have known him for about twenty seconds.
Tony clearly agrees with me, because he sits down and writes Happy a cheque for $50,000. Accounting for inflation, that would be about the equivalent of $450,000 today, or so the Internet tells me. Which. Dang. Happy is absolutely furious that this is all Tony considers his life worth, and Tony immediately offers to double the amount. And then comes the moment where I decided that if anything bad ever happens to Happy Hogan I will burn the world to the ground: Happy is like ‘how dare? I’m not angry about the amount, I’m mad that you’re putting a price on your life!’ It’s delivered in his trademark crabby way, because yes I forgot to say it but the Happy nickname is very much a joke about how he never smiles, but it’s also the most sincere thing that I’ve seen happen in these comics so far and I will love him forever.
So Happy rips up the cheque, and tells Tony that what he wants way more than money is a job. Tony immediately uses his single brain cell and offers Happy a job as a bodyguard/chauffeur. Happy is quick to accept—subject to his approval of Tony’s car. Tony quickly names the fleet of vehicles he has, and Happy’s all ‘yeah okay I guess that’s fine.’ They both have these amazing matching pointy eyebrows in this scene by the way, and like they might as well get BFF necklaces at this point.
So a few days later, Happy is driving Tony to one of his plants. They arrive, and a couple of the guards make fun of Happy’s failed boxing career. He’s ready to completely destroy them, and so am I because I will defend Happy Hogan to the ends of the Earth. Tony instead diffuses things by offering to introduce Happy to his secretary, the famous Pepper Potts!
Whose name he promptly gets wrong. No, I’m not even kidding. On the next page, after he and Happy pass Iron Man outside the window (a thing Tony apparently has the suit do somehow in order to ward off suspicion), he introduces Happy to a woman he calls Kitty. From what I could tell in my research, this is just a mistake in the text itself, but if it isn’t symptomatic of everything that can sometimes be awful about comics, I honestly don’t know what is.
So Kitty/Pepper, who is super severe and dressed like she’s in her seventies, is super angry. Why? Because Tony could have hired someone hot, someone like Rock Hudson (whom you will remember Tony was compared to way back in his first appearance), and instead she has to look at this “battle-scarred ex-pug.” And in case you think she is thinking this internally, oh no. She says it full volume, to the dude’s face.
Happy responds somewhat creepily, noting that he hopes Pepper will get over his appearance because she is definitely his type. But he quickly realizes that she is in fact in love with Tony. And for her part, Pepper definitely doesn’t try to deny it. She lays out her plan, which I’ll quote directly, pretty simply: “He doesn’t know I’m alive, but someday he will…and then he’ll give up all his actresses and debutantes and I’ll become Mrs. Anthony Stark!” Happy bemoans having found the woman of his dreams only to be in a love triangle with his new boss, but Pepper quips that the only triangle is the sharp point that his head apparently comes to.
Now look. Was this what I expected of Pepper? I mean, yes and no. The assistant romance storyline only tends to have so many variations in popular culture, so I was certainly expecting to see, sort of a la Moneypenny in old-school Bond films, a woman in love with a guy who constantly disregards and disrespects her. What we got was that, absolutely. But what saved it for me a bit was that those storylines often come accompanied by an attitude of total subservience and eyelash-batting adoration on the part of the secretary toward her employer (and to some degree any other men), and that isn’t what we got here at all. Tony alludes to Pepper being pretty willing to challenge him, and the confident way she expresses her intentions toward him was a refreshing variation on this trope. Yes, she’s a secretary in love with her boss, and she is also a person who seems to know and understand her own worth. I imagine and hope her relationship with Happy will improve, since I love him, but I would also be pretty thrilled for her to end up with neither of them in the long run. (Seriously no one spoil this for me.)
While all this is happening, Tony heads into his private office and is conducting some checks of the Iron Man armour, basic maintenance kind of stuff to ensure it doesn’t encounter problems at the wrong time. (And yes okay I swear after this I’ll get off my mental-health high horse, but see how he’s more willing to care for the suit than he is himself?) While he’s mostly already suited up, an alarm goes off alerting him to the fact that a vault containing the company’s cash reserves and vital materials has been tampered with.
Tony heads down a trap door thingy connecting his office to the vaults.
In The Frame
This brings us to our In The Frame segment, where I talk about some of the formal qualities of the these texts. So Tony’s journey down into the vault involves the use of arrows on the part of the artists, directing the reader in what order they should read the panel. This was a really interesting moment for me as someone who reads a decent amount of contemporary work, because that’s very much not the convention anymore. It’s often pretty clear from context what the correct order is, and if it isn’t that’s often intentional on the part of the author, a way to sort of convey chaos or a disordered sense of time or whatever.
It really made me reflect on two things: the first was that the assumed audience of comics at this point was substantially younger. Comics were still very much considered something only young people engaged with. It was also still a relatively new medium, particularly these issue-length narratives. So moments like this stand out to me because they’re instances where the comics is sort of educating its readership about how it should be engaged with and understood. It reminded me a lot of encountering novels that come equipped with questions that book clubs can discuss.
This also made me kind of nostalgic. As I talked about in the pilot episode, a huge part of the reason I started this show was that I had no idea how to read comics when I first started, and I still consider myself very much an amateur. For me it’s not so much the formal stuff—I understand how to move between panels and follow what’s going on—but trying to understand what all the different universes are and how they’re related and where on Earth I should start was and remains really challenging for me. I’ve mostly relied on the Internet for guidance, and it’s obviously great to have that as a resource, but I also sort of wish there was a more centralized set of resources that made the learning curve feel a bit less steep.
Readers Like You
This leads me right into our Readers Like You segment, because I would love to hear from folks about how they learned comics. Who or what taught you how to read them? What do you wish someone had told you? What resources did you use then, or still use now? And what kinds of materials do you still wish existed?
I ask the last one because I am soon to be leaving academia, and in so doing leaving behind my institutional access to paywalled academic research. So if there are ares you feel like you want to know more about, I would love to hear what they are!
I should note by the way that there is an entire academic field called comics studies, and I’m definitely not trying to step on their toes. As I’ve said a few times, I’m an amateur in this area, and I don’t intend to turn my work with comics into another academic project. I’m talking more about reading lists or glossaries or other materials that I could assemble, or we could assemble together, that you think would be valuable as starter kits for new readers.
Okay, back to Tony. So he gets into the vaults and finds Professor Shapanka, one of Stark Industries’ best scientists, trying to steal a bunch of stuff. Far from seeming apologetic, this guy is mostly irritated that he wasn’t informed Iron Man was in the building today, because obviously he would have waited for a better time to try to case the joint.
It specifically turns out he is after Iron Man’s formula for tiny transistors, and he wants to sell them. Specifically, he offers to reward Iron Man if he goes along with the venture, which feels hilariously close to what I was proposing earlier about having people who like one of these supposedly separate entities and hate the other. Shapanka says he has cracked the secret to eternal life, and would be happy to share it with Iron Man.
Iron Man refuses, and leaves Shapanka down in the vaults for the security team to find. He fires Shapanka, but chooses not to have him arrested. Far from thinking this to be a good deal, Shapanka is outraged to learn he will not receive severance pay. In the course of this conversation, Tony says something about cold feet, and this trigger some kind of realization in Shapanka about how to solve an issue with his research. He is practically giddy as he departs.
So naturally, we cut to the Professor’s lab. He has frozen an alley cat (which, hey!) and when he succeeds at unfreezing it, our feline friend is fine. Shapanka is thrilled that his solution to aging, which involves wearing a suit which will keep his body frozen, will be successful. A week later, we see him rob a bank by walking in and using a jet of oxygen to freeze people just enough to let them breathe but not enough that they can move. He immediately begins fantasizing about how he can use this to kill both Tony and Iron Man. And again this fantasy is something we see alongside his description.
Fantasy really does play a key role in this one. And it’s powerful not just thematically, but as an instance where the visual and text-based storytelling align, which is something I’ve ranted about in the past. We don’t just have characters telling us what they’re thinking, we’re seeing it the way they are in their minds, and that lends those scenes a lot more immediacy and intimacy.
So after a couple more test runs, Shapanka—who has received the nickname Jack Frost—takes a run at Stark Industries. He freezes folks behind a giant wall of ice, so they’re trapped in the building. But thankfully Pepper is outside in the parking lot, and she calls up Tony to warn him. Jack freezes her on his way past, because you see she was always so cold to him. Get it? Cold? Tony is just finishing suiting up when Happy, apparently inside SI, bursts in. However, he is immediately frozen by Jack Frost, who has followed him inside.
Tony thinks he has it won when he opens the trap door down into the vaults and sends Jack Frost flying down toward them. However, our chilly pal freezes the motor that would seal the door shut and begins to climb out. Iron Man then tries stepping on the guys fingers, but he can just generate more ice fingers! Oh no!
That’s when Tony, one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, remembers that the opposite of cold is—heat! He turns on his search light, then hooks it up to some mini generators. This stalls Jack Frost long enough for Tony to construct a miniature furnace, with parts he apparently had on hand in his utility belt. This causes Jack Frost to do a Wicked Witch of the West routine—I’m melting, meeeeelting! Meanwhile, Iron Man drags Happy and Pepper outside.
They’re joined shortly thereafter by Jack Frost, no longer so frosty, and begging for the torment to end. He’s taken into custody, and the police note that Tony is probably super grateful Iron Man happened to be around! Iron Man agrees and heads off to ‘get’ Tony. Happy, meanwhile, thinks to himself that while he regrets giving up a relatively peaceful life, Tony clearly needs a lot of protection. Our excessively snarky closing note reads “Ignorance is bliss, so Happy Hogan should be the most blissful guy in town!” Which, rude? But it is one of the first times that our closing panel has focused on someone other than Tony, so regardless of how foolish we’re supposed to find Happy, it seems clear that something kind of important has shifted in this issue.
Do the Readings
What is the nature of that something? Well, as those who follow me on social media know, I tried to do some research about Pepper and Happy, and came up short. There’s not a lot written about comics Pepper—there’s actually more about the MCU version, which feels hilarious to me given how criminally underused her character is.
But for this week’s Doing the Readings I did find a more general piece that talked about comic hero sidekicks. In his article “‘Gay’ Sidekicks: Queer Anxiety and the Narrative Straightening of the Superhero” Neil Shyminsky argues that one of the crucial functions of sidekicks in superhero comics is to act as a kind of projection of any queer desire on the part of the superhero. Basically, someone like Robin ‘straightens out’ Batman by making him seem extra heteronormative by comparison. Already this system has some problems, Shyminsky notes, because these heroes are ultimately dependent on the same queerness they’re trying to distance themselves from.
Particularly for its time, I found that this comic was doing some really interesting stuff with the relationship between Happy and Tony. Far from making Tony seem hyper masculine or virile, Happy is the one who comes across pretty butch here. He carries a weakened, dying Tony out of a burning car like a Disney princess for goodness sake! So at the same time that we have Pepper serving sort of as a sidekick but mostly as a love interest, we have Happy doing sort of the opposite of straightening Tony out.
And if that’s not an effective transition into the bisexuality metre segment, I honestly don’t know what is! It’s probably pretty obvious that we have another 10/10 on our hands here. It’s a darker version of bisexual chaos in this one given some of the mental health struggles I talked about earlier, but I think we’re also starting to see some hints of light, maybe even of some found family in the form of Pepper and Happy. I’m thrilled by these developments, and hope to see a lot more!
So, what do we do with this one overall? This is easily my favourite of the comics thus far, even moreso than our first meeting with Tony. It was genuinely affecting. I felt a little misty-eyed watching Tony lay there dying, thinking only about how his super-hero self wouldn’t be around anymore. Happy’s line about Tony’s needing to value himself hit me kind of like a gut punch. I’m really starting to feel the depth and complexity of this character.
As far as questions moving forward, I’ll be interested to see what happens with our sidekick pals, especially Pepper. I feel like they’re not setting her up to be oblivious in the same way that Happy is, so I’ll be interested to see how long it takes before she finds out about Iron Man’s identity—if she doesn’t know already.
As we continue moving forward, I’ll also be interested to see how the narrative tries to balance the many elements of Tony’s life. We’re seeing more of SI and that’s great. We have all his personal drama, particularly his ongoing struggles with trauma and his active dating life. Plus Iron Man’s larger nationalistic pursuits. It’s a lot to put on one character, and I’ll be interested to see how that dynamic between them all continues to evolve.
As always, you are welcome to come talk to me about anything I’ve said you agree or disagree with, or if there’s things you feel like I missed about this issue! There was a lot of ground to cover and there’s still material I feel like I wish I had gone into more depth about.
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. I’m super excited to get the word out about this show more and start hearing from folks!
Please tune in next week, where Tony will
-Meet Crimson Dynamo, who is billed as stronger than Iron Man!
-Give me excuses to say By Lenin’s Beard again!
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!