[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:01:59] “Have you ever been in love [with Marx]?” “Abso-fuckin’-lutely.”
[00:06:46] Paul Fellman, “Iron Man: America’s Cold War Champion and Charm Against the Communist Menace.”
[00:09:59] I’m not kidding about the jumpsuit slideshow
[00:11:15] “It’s a banana, Michael!”
[00:16:48] A great Ted Talk on the Cuban Missile Crisis
Episode 8 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 #46. Its cover date is September 1, 1963. Our cover promises a villain, the Crimson Dynamo, stronger than Iron Man, which right away is interesting! Our covers always try to build up the villain, of course, but I think this is the first time we’ve seen someone marketed as being in any way better than Iron Man. It’s honestly good that there’s a cue to take this person seriously, because he’s in a red suit that reminds me so much of the space suits from Among Us, so I mostly just want to declare him sus. The little teaser on the next page also features something new: some spectators, who are wondering whether Iron Man is going to be able to catch some kind of falling rocket. Other than that early issue where we saw Tony/Iron Man at the circus, the comics have felt really quite claustrophobic so far, so I’m glad we’ll be sort of getting a sense of how people beyond Tony’s immediate circle are responding to Iron Man.
Okay, so lots to look forward to! Our plot begins on the next page, where we are offered some extremely snarky and somewhat moralizing narration which I will quote in full: “Can you recognize the pudgy, scowling figure entering a strange laboratory just outside Moscow? If you don’t, then you know nothing about the Cold War! For this stocky fellow is the “Mr. Big” of the Iron Curtain! Now of course, as a child of the late eighties, my immediate referent for Mr. Big is Sex and the City, and I did enjoy a few hilarious moments of imagining Chris North strolling into Communist Russia and drawling “abso-fuckin’-lutely.’ But alas, our friend (whom I will not participate in fat-shaming) is not Mr. Carrie Bradshaw. He is Nikita Krushev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and star of Tony’s ‘Does Kennedy tell Kruschev?’ jokes (which, spoiler: do appear again in this issue.)
In The Frame
I do want to stop here for our In the Frame segment, because I do find this bit of narrative intervention kind of interesting. Yes, even a fairly young readership at this point would have been expected to be up on current events enough to recognize the political leader of America’s sworn enemies, sure. But I’ve never thought of the Iron Man series in particular as a particularly moralizing comic. I mean yes he has a clear anti-Communist position, and in general I suppose we’re invited to root him on in this struggle, but this kind of narrative finger-wagging just feels…odd.
It made me wonder, in fact, if this was in some ways a bit of leftover issues from the moral panic around comics that I discussed in previous episodes. What I mean is that maybe this bit of the comic is aimed not so much at kids, but at parents, who are being told through its inclusion “Hey, kids who read comics are smart and informed, and if they happen not to be then we’ll use the characters they love to encourage them to become that way!” Like, it’s not quite didactic, because there isn’t a caption devoted to introducing us to who Kruschev is, it’s instead implying that if a kid is smart enough to be reading comics then they don’t need to be taught or instructed by them.
It’s an interesting strategy overall, because it sort of refuses responsibility for educating kids while also sort of taking credit for the fact that they are going to recognize these real-life political figures. I’m solidly a child of the 80s so I have no idea what it was like to be a kid reading this stuff at the time, but it certainly would be interesting to know to what extent the readership Marvel implies in these captions is real, and to what extent it was sort of a fantasy enacted to try to comfort parents.
Anyway, our pal Kruschev is on his way to meet The Crimson Dynamo—also known as Professor Vanko—, and he wastes exactly zero time letting us know that he is not exactly enthusiastic about the prospect. He thinks to himself that he both hates and fears Vanko, who is apparently the world’s expert on electricity. Vanko tries to be somewhat polite in his greeting, and Kruschev has none of it. He informs Vanko that he, Kruschev, is totes the best and most important, and that he is only there to receive a promised demonstration of Vanko’s work. Vanko proceeds to put on the enormous red suit, promising that Kruschev will be ‘shocked at [his] powers.’ And say what you want about the cheesiness of that line, but I’ve missed puns. I feel like it’s been a while since we got one, and By Lenin’s Beard, I’m down for it!
The Crimson Dynamo brags that he has learned to control electricity in all forms, and he leads Kruschev into another room…where Iron Man is waiting! Kruschev immediately flips out, telling his guards to fire and yelling at Vanko about luring him into a trap. Turns out, though, that the suit is but a remote-controlled copy. Vanko demonstrates that he has control over the suit, and trolls Kruschev by making it walk toward him. Kruschev, still fearful of assassination, is super mad by this point. But then Vanko uses his rheostat—a variable resistor used to control electric currents—and manages to make the replica suit explode!
It’s honestly a pretty great visual. We see the suit, which we’re so familiar with by now, fly into pieces. Gears go everywhere, large hunks go flying off the limbs, the structural integrity of the thing totally collapses. This honestly feels like the first time that we’re supposed to take a villain in these comics seriously, and he promises he could do the same thing to the real Iron Man as long as he is locked on to the right frequencies.
For now, Professor Vanko is not done with his demonstration—or with trolling Kruschev. He sends a full on tank after the guy. His guards leave, allegedly to get help but it’s certainly possible that they are straight up abandoning the guy. Either way, Kruschev turns tail and runs, and winds up backed into a corner, the tank pointed right at him. The whole time, Vanko mocks him. “Such panic from the mightiest man in the communist bloc? Very unseemly.” But of course, he doesn’t actually harm Kruschev. The tank stops exactly two inches in front of him, and then Vanko destroys it the same way that he did the Iron Man suit.
Kruschev professes to be very impressed. But he’s visibly sweating, and we again see the tension between what he says aloud versus what he’s thinking, because in his head he’s certain that Vanko has become a bit too powerful. So he plots to make use of the man’s inventions and then immediately have him killed off.
Doing the Readings/By Lenin’s Beard
I’m going to lean quite heavily in this episode on a piece I have talked about before, and which just keeps on giving: Paul Fellman’s “Iron Man: America’s Cold War Champion and Charm Against the Communist Menace.”
So we are getting the impression already, I think, that the dominant sort of feeling and way of being in Communist Russia, at least according to American imagination, is fear and paranoia. And this scene is a great example, because while we’ve seen into people’s heads in these comics before, it’s usually been in the context of there being some kind of explanation for their actions that we wouldn’t be able to get just from context. It’s pretty rare for us to see a character say one thing and be thinking something in direct contradiction to that. But that is Krusvchev’s sort of signature move in this comic, and it will persist throughout. Fellman compares the representation of Kruschev to that of the Red Barbarian. The latter, he says, is depicted as eating a ham, but Kruschev takes that a step further by acting being one! He is cowardly, irrational and paranoid, and the disjunction between what he says and what he truly thinks and feels is a perfect illustration of that.
Now of course, you might be thinking, but we do have one other character who is constantly thinking things he can’t and won’t say out loud! And if you guessed Tony Stark, you’re right! Tony is constantly thinking about the fact that he can’t reveal his secret identity. He’s sort of obsessed with what other people perceive him to be versus the reality of who he actually is. And this gets at a tension we’re going to come back to. These comics ultimately depict an America, and specific Americans through Tony and others that we’ll get to shortly, that displays many of the same traits that the people they can’t stop making fun of do. Tony is duplicitous. He is hiding a very integral part of himself. He has a secret identity, and remember how obsessed these comics have been with the idea of rooting out spies. There’s a kind of fear via recognition here that’s very much a part of the story.
Alright, so the specific aim that Kruschev wants Vanko to accomplish before having him dispatched to the great commune in the sky is that he wants Iron Man taken out. Not so much for his own sake, but because he wants to be able to get at Tony Stark, the United States’ primary weapons developer, in order to weaken the war effort.
I swear I’ll be quick about this, since I know I was all about that Tony Stark/Iron Man psychological split last time, but it really stood out to me that Kruschev only wants Iron Man out of the way because he recognizes Tony Stark as the real threat. In a way, he’s the one who values Tony in a way that Tony, who was super obsessed as he was dying only with how sad it would be for the world to lose Iron Man, is seemingly incapable and unwilling to do. There’s a kind of beautiful irony in the idea that only his enemy is able to recognize his value, no?
Anyhoo. Crimson Dynamo promises to rid the world of Iron Man, and bring his real head (Kruschev is carrying the helmet from the fake version.) We then cut to two weeks later, where Pepper and Happy are bantering as they stand on the grounds of SI’s main testing facility. He says he would never want to go up in a rocket. She makes fun of him for being a coward and speculates that this is why he failed as a boxer. Which, jeez, Pep! An outraged Happy grumps that she would probably find fault even with Iron Man, and golly gee he sure wishes Iron Man were here to keep an extra eye on things. Naturally, this cues Tony to come walking by. He’s in another jumpsuit, purple this time, with a jaunty yellow hat, and I’m just really digging his jumpsuit phase. I definitely want to make some kind of slideshow of all his jumpsuit looks, and maybe dress up as 60s Tony for Halloween next year. It just seems so dang cozy. Sadly, he goes and slips into something less cozy—i.e., the Iron Man suit.
Meanwhile, Crimson Dynamo shows up outside the facility, determined to sabotage the launch of a multi-million dollar missile Tony has created. These apparently works, because the next thing we know we’re inside the missile, where the test pilots are freaking out and furious at Tony for making what they assume has been a mistake with his calculations. Iron Man takes off after the missile, which appears to be in free fall, as a crowd of anxious spectators wonders if he will be able to make it in time.
He does, but just barely. He takes the brunt of the impact of the falling missile himself, and sort of waddles off to lick his wounds in private. Crimson Dynamo is, of course, disappointed by this turn of events. However, he notes that even Iron Man cannot be at every Stark Industries plant at once! Which sort of makes me realize that I have no real frame of reference for how large or small this company is. Like I know what a multi-billion dollar company looks like now, but how big would SI have to be in the 60s for Tony to have the kind of influence and money he has? I have no idea. I’m the “it’s a banana Michael, what could it cost, 10 dollars?” of how much stuff cost in the 60s.
Anyway, this realization on the part of Vanko’s leads to a kind of montage of frames where we see him completing various acts of sabotage at different SI plants. An electrical panel is burnt to cinders, another rocket is interfered with and explodes—though thankfully it only has robots in it. A bunch of tanks all start exploding and firing at random. Things are looking pretty rough! At one point Vanko helpfully tells us he is destroying his tenth plant, so we know that there at least 10 of these around the world. Thank you, comrade!
This series of attacks is starting to have a major impact on SI, and not just financially. We see Tony chatting with an official from the Pentagon, who hints that he may soon lose his government contracts if the attacks keep up. Even worse, we learn there are whispers going around Washington. The belief is that perhaps Tony is a communist agent, who secured as many contracts as he could and made himself essential to the Cold War and is now deliberately sabotaging his own plants to basically ensure a Communist victory.
The emphasis on whispers, the paranoid theories and threats of an investigation…it sounds familiar, no? I’m going to quote that article from Fellman at some length, because it sums things up brilliantly: “The [Iron Man] stories, images, and dialogue,” he writes, “revealed an America that was proud of her military and confident of her moral superiority. Nonetheless, America’s lonely position at the top made her citizens just as nervous, paranoid, and violent as they often imagined the Soviets to be” (17). Absolutely. There’s a lot more that seems to connect the Soviets and the Americans in this particular issue than sets them apart, which is perhaps what makes the conclusion of the story possible. More on that soon.
So back in Tony’s main offices in Flushing New York, he is chatting things over with Pepper and Happy. He stands to lose everything if he loses his government contract (which, is that really how money works? Again, I’m a millennial, what the hell do I know, just let me eat my avocado toast in peace please). Happy jokes that if he was smart, he would leave his job now while he still could, but naturally he declares himself too handsome to also have brains. (Did I mention enough that I stan Happy Hogan, and will do so until the end of time?) Pepper also declares her intentions to stay—to protect Tony from being annoyed to death by Happy.
We get another great caption, this one not so moralizing and much more in the way of a kind of smooth transition. “But as Stark helplessly tries to fathom the unknown, the unknown has Iron Man very much on his mind.” Seriously I think that’s pretty smooth writing. So as you may have deduced from that, the Crimson Dynamo is at the Flushing plant, and he proceeds to quickly fry the electric fence that encricles the facility.
Tony, upon receiving alarms to this effect, quickly sends Happy and Pepper off to find the guards, and changes into his Iron Man suit. We get another quick moment of “I hate myself and love Iron Man” where he thinks to himself that while Tony Stark would be trapped in this flaming room, Iron Man will be able to smash right through the wall. The interesting thing in this instance is that he’s sort of wrong! Crimson Dynamo has mounted this particular attack specifically to try to draw out Iron Man, so in some ways he might have been better off as Tony Stark.
But of course, when faced with the chance to blow stuff up, Tony will always blow stuff up. And so Iron Man and he comes face to face with Crimson Dynamo, who announces his plan to line up his frequency with Tony’s and destroy the suit. (So, much like women, Communists are guilty of announcing their intentions a bit too clearly and specifically! In my general experience with both of these populations, this tracks, my friend. This tracks.) Said announcement leads to what my mind could only refer to as ‘the battle of the belts.’ Crimson Dynamo is fiddling with his transistor thingy, and Tony is doing something with his own.
Tony turns out to be the faster draw (and the joke about how proficient he is taking a belt on and off pretty much writes itself). It turns out he has used a transistor powered force field to prevent Crimson Dynamo from interfering with his equipment. Crimson Dynamo, not having learned from round one, then announces his intentions to electrify the ground Iron Man is standing on. Naturally, Iron Man takes to the sky.
While Vanko tries to figure out his next move, Iron Man manages to get him to brag about having destroyed the other SI plants—while recording it, so that he is going to be able to exonerate himself from suspicion. The act of doing so also makes Tony realize that the communists are “chronically suspicious” of one another. Again, he is only capable of knowing this because the Americans are the same way. Two sides of the same coin.
Tony then proceeds to karate chop a bunch of trees (and I wish I was kidding about that wording) so that eventually Crimson Dynamo is imprisoned inside a square of fallen trees. It’s…it’s a weird move, honestly, and one that at least to me didn’t play quite as cool as I think they wanted it to, especially since the next thing he does is pick the guy up and take to the sky. Like, why kill all those trees, dude?
But whatever. He flies Crimson Dynamo toward Flushing Bay, where he threatens to take him for a swim. Vanko points out that this will electrocute them both, and Tony’s only retort is essentially “oh please, do you really think I’m not always bordering on some pretty severe suicidal ideation?” Okay, no, I guess what he technically says is that he doesn’t care if it means Crimson Dynamo is finished, but team, it’s barely even subtext, okay? Tony is still pretty messed up here.
Anyway, just as it looks like our two armoured pals are about to go for a shocking swim (whatever, if Vanko gets to pun then I’m going for it too), Vanko surrenders.
Doing the Readings Part Two
Whiiich brings us to Doing the Readings, Part Two. Still with our pal Fellman, who has a lot to say about this particular issue. He reads this story as basically an allegory for the Cuban Missile Crisis. That period in history, for those of you unfamiliar with it, was essentially a high-stakes game of chicken involving nuclear weapons. Or at least that is how my Canadian high school taught it to me, and certainly we can see the resemblance here. In fact, Fellman says this is the closest these comics ever get to directly representing a real life moment in the Cold War conflict. And much as Kruschev is regarded as the one who blinked first and backed down in real life, Vanko surrenders here, pleading with Tony to spare his life.
However, Fellman rightly notes, the comic takes this real life resonance one step further, because Vanko doesn’t just surrender. He defects. Tony plays him a tape, allegedly of Kruschev, instructing his troops to seize Vanko and kill him the moment he returns to the Soviet Union, all because he is more popular than Kruschev himself. The tape turns out to be fake, it’s Tony himself speaking, but of course this doesn’t matter. Because Tony is essentially correct, and Vanko believes him.
Vanko thanks Iron Man for saving his life, and shakes his hand. He immediately starts offering up valuable intel, including the location of a spy ring that has a substantial amount of gold for sabotage purposes. Tony offers him a job at SI, and the next time we see the two, Iron Man has his arm around Vanko’s shoulders. Happy is very perturbed and, I suspect, slightly jealous at the prospect of losing his spot as Tony and Iron Man’s best friend. Poor Happy.
Our closing frame takes us far from this buddy-buddy scene, back behind the Iron Curtain. Kruschev revives the time-honoured Soviet tradition of throwing stuff, this time something glass, as he curses Vanko for his defection and vows to bury Iron Man. But crucially, he doesn’t get the last word! Oh no, our snarky narrator friend has returned! “Wrong comrade!” They crow. “Next time, Iron Man has an entirely different extra-long eighteen page epic adventure as he battles ‘The Mysterious Melter!” Which, I mean, way to step on the toes of my outro, narrator person. But whatever.
So what do we make of this? I have honestly not a damn clue. That is in large part because I have no idea how intentional a lot of what’s going on here is. What I mean to say is I completely agree with Fellman that there’s so many resonances between the US and the Communist Bloc in this issue: the paranoia, the lack of unity, all of that. But I don’t really have a sense yet how intentional that is. Are the writers in on the joke, and is therefore one of the first instances where I feel like we’re getting some level of critique happening in the comics? I’m inclined to think there’s some level of intentionality about this, especially given that in these whispers sequences, we know that Tony is not guilty of any of the treachery his country is ready to immediately accuse him of. At the same time, though, it can’t be all knowing, because the question that then naturally follows is why we would want Iron Man to be the hero of a war that isn’t worth fighting, which is based on similarities rather than differences. I’ll definitely be interested to see how this plays out.
One other thing I did notice in this one was the absence of any ‘recharging’ moments. It seems notable that after multiple issues where this played such a major role in Tony’s journey, there was not a single mention of the suit needing to be charged. In a way it feels connected to some of what I just finished saying about the confusion and contradictory politics of these comics, because in a way it feels like Iron Man needs the Cold War maybe even more than the Cold War needs Iron Man. And if we also recall the ways that Tony Stark appears to be really dependent on Iron Man for a sense of validation at the same time as Iron Man also makes him hate himself…I mean, it’s like this web of sickness all feeding itself. Which feels to me like an accurate depiction of the Cold War and postwar masculinity, but again, I have no idea how much of it is intentional, or if that’s even the most important question to be asking.
And that brings us in a roundabout way to our bisexuality metre. This was quite a challenging one to rank, honestly. Other than Happy’s jealousy about Tony and Vanko bonding, there’s no real explicit engagement with Tony’s romantic or sexual life in this one (which, much like the absence of the charging stuff, feels like a kind of glaring omission.) However, we do get some of the earlier themes I’ve mentioned as having certain bisexual overtones—like all the emphasis on needing to prove you’re on the ‘right’ side and being mistrusted by everyone around you except your found family.
So I’m going to sort of split the difference on this one and give our pal Tony a 7/10. A respectable score, but it’s no Cleopatra.
Readers Like You
And one more thing before we go: your homework! That’s right, it’s Readers Like You time! You’re still welcome to weigh in on any of the questions I asked in previous episodes, but for this week specifically I want to hear a bit about how you’re feeling about some of the issues I just mentioned regarding the politics of the comics. How knowing does it feel about the problems of American Cold War rhetoric? Are the writers kind of winking at the problem a little bit, or is it one of those situations where it’s only hindsight allowing us to make these connections? Let me know what you think, Comrades!
As always, in addition to the Readers Like You question, you are welcome to come talk to me about anything. I think in the next couple of weeks I’m going to try to get a Discord started so that we can maybe try to book club this thing and read the comics together. My dog is really tired of me talking to her about
In the meantime, 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
-…well, you heard that damn narrator. He’ll meet the Human Melter.
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!