Tales of Suspense #52 – 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.
[00:02:31] My discussion of the Marvel Method here is drawn from Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, a wonderful and accessible book about the history of Marvel
[00:14:10] Tony envisioning the Iron Man armour melting away
[00:15:28] Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”
Hello and welcome to Invincible Iron Pod, the unofficial and not remotely connected to Marvel in any capacity podcast in which I will be reading and commenting on all 2000 of the comic book appearances made by one Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man.
This episode we’ll be talking about Tales of Suspense #47. Its cover date is November 1, 1963. And our cover features a lot of different elements all competing for our attention. Its central image is Iron Man flying away from a man in a green and blue suit. The left arm of the Iron Man armour is melting away, revealing most of Tony Stark’s arm and hand. He appears to be retreating from that figure in green and blue, and a thought bubble sees Tony questioning how he is going to be able to battle someone who can apparently inflict this kind of damage on the suit in seconds.
In the upper middle part of the page, sort of in between our protagonist and our villain of the week, is a huge red arrow. It promises that this is a super special issue, because it involves a team-up between Lee, Ditko, and Heck, who will bring us “greater, more true-to-life battles than ever before.” Having so much emphasis on the realism thing made me wonder if some of the ridiculousness of previous issues had maybe been called into question. If so, that’s somewhat ironic because I have some capital T-thoughts about this particular issue, but for now let’s jump right in.
So our teaser page that follows…well, it’s honestly a lot of repetition. We’re reminded again who the creative team behind the comics are, so if you think we need to head straight into our Marvel-ours segment in a minute, you’re right on the money. We also get a question mark featuring text that…basically re-states the exact question Tony asked himself on a previous page. Now of course, we are talking at this point about a fairly young readership, but the extent of this repetition really stuck out to me. This page quite literally adds nothing that we didn’t already know! This suggests to me right out of the gate that something is up in terms of the production of this issue.
Alright, so no use in being coy, we need to get into a Marvel-ous segment. Specifically, let’s talk about how Marvel worked, and something that came to be called “The Marvel Method.” Now, when I imagined comics being written, I envisioned a whole lot of discussion. I pictured the artist and writer, if they weren’t the same person (which I used to assume they were) in the same room, constantly swapping ideas back and forth. Or, you know, in a Zoom call or Slack channel or something in this pandemic age we live in. I imagined basically constant collaboration—the writer going “No, I think I was imagining that guy bigger, can we increase the size of his biceps” or the artist saying “Oh but actually I thought that person would be gagged here, so they couldn’t talk.” I assumed, essentially, that the creative team was in complete and constant communication. And sometimes that’s the case, but for a lot of reasons, that wasn’t what happened with Marvel during this period. Instead, typically the artists were given a plot outline, which they would then flesh out into a full story. Stan Lee would then come in and write dialogue on top of that.
So this means a few things. First, in terms of ownership, things become super murky. Because these outlines artists were given were famously quite bare, so the extent to which they deserved credit rather than just or primarily Lee is definitely debatable. One breakdown I saw online gave the example of John Lennon coming in after Paul McCartney had written most of a song and providing a single line which ended up bringing the whole thing together. Who should get the lion’s share of the credit, they asked? The person who wrote most of the song? The person whose contribution made it effective? Lee would go on to be criticized by many people, including Ditko, for taking solo credit for decisions he might not have been involved in at all, and which he almost certainly he did not devise alone because of the very nature of this method.
I honestly don’t feel informed enough to weigh in on that aspect of things. For today, I mostly want to note that on top of ownership stuff, this method is also just an extremely fragmented one, and in some ways I find that it really doesn’t work in this issue. Oh the story is fine on a macro level, and we’ll talk more about it soon, but there are so many instances—some of which I’ll call attention to—where the writing and the art just are not functioning as unit. They’re repeating one another, or stepping on one another’s toes, and just not trusting one another to propel the story forward. In other words, there are problems with cohesion. Whether this is symptomatic of some of the personal stuff between Lee and Ditko, or just the conditions of putting material together in “Marvel Method” conditions…the result is the same. It’s a repetitive and somewhat disjointed mess.
Okay, “Let’s not waste time with long introductions” our narrator bids us. Too late, pal! Anyway, the comic drops us right into the middle of the action, specifically what looks to be some more industrial sabotage. (This will probably sound familiar to those of you who listened last week!) So the first incident takes place at a weapons demonstration in front of a bunch of major military and government officials. Some tanks fall apart.
Of course, they turn out to be Stark Industries machinery, so we next see Tony inspecting another shipment to make sure it won’t encounter similar problems. Except oh no! He is snuck up on and hit over the head by a person in blue. Our sneaky pal, who at least has taken Intro to Villainy 101 and knows he shouldn’t monologue about his plans and objectives while the hero is conscious, informs us that he is Bruno Horgan, an old rival of Tony’s. His plan is to get back at the US forces and get revenge on Tony Stark. These two objectives are linked, we find out in a flashback, because Tony once wrote a report that indicated Horgan’s company, a supplier to the Army, was using inferior materials. His contracts were therefore terminated and given to…you guessed it, Stark Industries!
We are then presented with a second flashback, this time of The Melter discovering the secret of dissolving iron. Now, given that we were promised a super true-to-life narrative, I was fully anticipating needing to do a Science Division segment this week where I had to try to break down whatever was happening and how it corresponded to real life stuff. Yeeeeah not so much necessary. All we’re told is that he realized his ‘inspection beam’ (which, what the heck is an inspection beam?) was affecting iron and would have the capability to melt it. Upon realizing how crucial iron is to everyday life, Horgan promptly set out to miniaturize his ‘inspection beam’ (which never doesn’t make me hum the inspector gadget theme song…) Visually, the device kind of resembles the chest plate of the Iron Man armour. I don’t know to what extent this is intentional, and the two aren’t identical. It doesn’t cover The Melter’s whole chest, and the centre piece where the beam emerges from is much larger than on Tony’s armour. But they’re still similar enough that I definitely took notice.
Okay, so obviously he could kill our pal Tony while he has him lying there unconscious. But this would be far too merciful, he declares. Instead, he wants to keep getting to defeat Tony and watch him languish in his defeat! Alright, we get it, you petty AF my friend. I understand. I frequently express to my partner, who admittedly might not the right audience, that I would rock at living in a loveless, scheming marriage, because I am just powered enough by spite to be energized by that kind of situation.
But enough about me. So Pepper, who looks noticeably younger in this depiction and is wearing a super cute red number with a matching little hair tie, sends Happy off to get Tony to sign some stuff. Happy grumbles his way down the hallway about how he’s sure Pepper is into him, and the way he acts around women remains the single thing I dislike about Happy Hogan, who is otherwise a pure and perfect cinnamon roll. Anyway, he stumbles upon Tony, who is crawling down the hallway, thinking to himself that the blow to the head weakened him and he has to recharge immediately.
Fine, let’s so a science division segment. Because huh? What the heck does Tony’s getting hit in the head have to do with his having an electromagnet in his chest?
It turns out it’s not complete nonsense. There are documented links between the heart and the head. A head injury can affect a person’s heart rate, for example, and more serious brain injuries (especially traumatic brain injuries or TBIs) can provoke serious cardiac complications. The body’s nervous system can lose the ability to regulate heart rate during and after exercise, for instance.
So I initially scoffed hard when Tony convinced Pepper and Happy to get him in a room alone and leave him, plugged himself in, and then immediately started going on about how recharging was going to immediately give him back his stamina. But it turns out, even if the science of all of this remains pretty hand-wavy, it’s not the complete nonsense I assumed it was. Fine, Marvel! You win this round!
Alright, so while Tony is busy proving me wrong, The Melter has gained access to other parts of the SI facility—specifically, the power plant. Tony receives an immediate alert to this affect, and takes out his suitcase suit, declaring that “Whatever must be done can be done better…by Iron Man!” Now, in addition to pointing out that yes, Tony continues to hate himself and over-value his counterpart, I want to note again that he is wrong! Iron Man literally can’t do it better than Tony because dude is made of iron! My notes from my first read say “This had better be intentional at this point…” Was it? You’ll find out soon!
So with Iron Man in pursuit, The Melter is starting to melt the main generators of the plant, which will of course bring all operations to a grinding halt. The employees, completely understandably, are freaking out and making a run for it, but Iron Man soon appears on the scene. Now I had sort of assumed he was this dude’s real target, but it turns out that our buddy Bruno thought the rumours of Iron Man working for Tony Stark were just lies designed to scare people away from messing with his stuff.
The Melter begins to turn his melting beam away from the generators and toward Iron Man. And Tony Stark, one of the smartest people in the world, thinks to himself ‘Oh dang! I’m in a suit made of metal!’ I mean, not in that many words, but that is the basic message. And the almost unforgivable silliness of it taking so long to put that together is saved for me only by the visual appeal of this page. A lot of our dialogue bubbles are coloured in, and it’s a touch I really love. The panicked employees all speak in yellow, and Tony’s panicked thought about the beam is in blue. It’s a really nice touch that manages to convey feeling through colour in a subtle way I just love. And I love it even moreso for the fact that subtlety is not this particular issue’s strong suit. (Seriously, at one point we get a lengthy description of Tony running down the hall while explaining that the tunnel he’s running in has been sound proofed. Even though that turns out not to really matter to the plot at all.)
Whelp, just as Tony had predicted, he gets hit by the beam and the suit melts—specifically, that section of the arm we saw on the cover. Now, in terms of the life-like stuff promised on the cover, I will say that I found it really quite silly that Tony is never burned by this. Like not a mark on him. How on earth is being encased in a suit that is melting not somewhat akin to being cooked alive in it? I mean, it would definitely be a big problem for him to have to conceal an injury matching a place where Iron Man’s suit was also damaged, I get that in terms of the plot, but even my science-simple self found this almost too much of a stretch to really accept.
But okay fine. So Tony is freaked out, and he retreats for I think the first time ever. We watch him fly away, pursued by the Melter. He still isn’t fully charged, so he manages to distract our villain with some transistor magnets that he uses to split a steam pipe. Pretty much the entire time, we get thought bubbles full of Tony’s running anxiety commentary. He did not freak out nearly this much when he was being held captive and working on the suit under fear of being killed. This is as rattled as we have ever seen Iron Man, who (after losing The Melter) decides to change back into Tony Stark—whom he refers to as ‘Tony Stark.’ Seriously, if I did a shot every time he disassociated I would be drunk every episode, my friends.
But alas I am extremely sober. So Tony makes plans to repair the generators, which are damaged but not completely ruined. (He also promises to pay the employees involved in its repair triple-time. And I love that he seems like a decent boss, especially since his plants are now getting hit so hard all the time.)
So it’s chaos in Tony’s office. Congress wants to speak to him, some blueprints need to be reviewed, a whole bunch of things absolutely has to happen right now. And he is having absolutely none of it. He demands that all of his appointments be cancelled. Happy expresses his concern, and Pepper aptly notes that Tony, who has always depended on Iron Man in a crisis, must feel completely lost without him.
And so we come to my absolute favourite section of the comics so far, and not just because it vindicates everything I’ve been saying about Tony’s mental well-being! Yes, that’s right, it’s time for another Iron Psychology segment.
This entire sequence is basically an internal monologue. We watch Tony take off the suit, wondering what he’s supposed to do now, and berating himself for “running scared.” There’s an absolutely gorgeous panel where he imagines his identity being revealed, the golden Iron Man mask literally melting away to reveal a terrified Tony Stark. He then holds up the helmet in what I can only assume is a deliberate allusion to Hamlet holding up Yorick’s skull, and this is when the magic happens. He realizes that he is human. Specifically, he has a human brain, and it’s a damn good one! Turns out Tony Stark is not actually worthless without Iron Man.
This happens in four panels, and they’re absolutely fantastic. This is the culmination of a storyline that we’ve been tracking over several issues now, and it brings together so many threads. Not just the sort of mental schism that had developed between Tony and Iron Man, but also some of what I talked about back in the very first episode about Tony as a cyborg, and as a disabled human. One of the effects of him sort of isolating Iron Man away from Tony Stark is that it also allowed him to hate on his own humanity and the traumatic injuries he sustained. Here, I think we get Tony as a true cyborg for the first time.
Do the Readings
That brings us to a brief doing the readings segment. I’ve talked about cyborgs before of course, but specifically now I want to chat about perhaps the most famous academic depiction of the cyborg, which came to us through Donna Haraway. Haraway argued that the cyborg was a figure of tremendous potential because it exists in a sort of liminal space. A lot of the things we treat as poles, she says, like man/woman, public/private, human/inhuman, the cyborg exits somewhere in the middle of all those categories. And in so doing, the radical potential of the cyborg is that it might allow us to question how natural or fixed those categories ever were to begin with.
So when I say that Tony is becoming a real cyborg here for the first time, what I mean is that instead of imagining himself as a set of poles—Tony Stark over here, flawed and weak and human and traumatized, Iron Man, perfect and golden and marvellous over here—I feel like he’s finally starting to truly understand that he is most powerful when he is both of these things at once. I am excited for our boy, ya’ll!
But not everyone is excited. Specifically, the Hollywood starlet Tony has apparently stood up for a date while having his solitary mental breakthrough is not impressed, and Pepper definitely has a bit too much fun ejecting her from the office.
The next morning, Tony finally emerges. Pepper and Happy have stayed overnight with him, and this issue gave me SO MANY IRON FAMILY FEELS YOU GUYS. Anyway, instead of getting to just hang out and self-actualize with his besties, turns out Tony has been summoned to Washington to appear before a special congressional committee. Happy wants to drive, but Tony turns down his services. This prompts Pepper to make fun of his driving.
And seriously straight people, are you okay? Why does your flirting seem to involve so much being mean to each other? I just, I don’t get it?
But I probably can’t diagnose heterosexuality in an episode, so let’s continue. So after some completely unnecessary captions and thought bubbles explain why Tony might choose to use the Iron Man suit instead of driving, he lands at a cottage just outside the city, changes, and begins to drive the rest of the way. He passes a random couple as he does. The woman excitedly points out the custom car and swoons a bit over Tony. Meanwhile, the dude is all “oh yeah look at the guy in his fancy car must be nice to have no problems grumble grumble.” And I don’t know if this is fair or accurate, but knowing that Mr. Ditko leaned pretty far right, all I could think of in this series of panels which juxtaposed Tony listing all his ongoing problems and concerns with this dude assuming he has none was that it was designed almost like a “rich people have feelings too, pal!” Kind of thing. Again, maybe that’s not fair, and maybe it’s just supposed to be a bit of quick comedic irony. But either way, I found it to be kind of a weird scene.
Anyway, Tony shows up in Washington, where they’re berating him about the drop in his production and about the ‘accidents’ at his plants, which they naturally put in scare-quotes. Tony insists that The Melter is responsible. And this is where stuff gets weird. Because these folks don’t believe the Melter actually exists? They think Tony, and apparently all the people who were eye-witnesses, must be hallucinating.
By Lenin’s Beard
It is, honestly, a super weird direction to take, and it brings us to our By Lenin’s Beard segment—no, I haven’t mixed up which one I meant, trust me. So I sat with this one for quite a while trying to figure out why they would have gone this direction with the narrative. The only thing I came up with actually brings us back to the issue from last week. As I mentioned, it was extremely similar! It involved the destruction of Tony’s plants, threats to take away his government contract, a lot of it is almost identical. The one glaring difference, of course, is that the villain last week was the Crimson Dynamo, a Russian scientist. This week, the threat is internal, and the government cannot believe that it’s real.
Again, I don’t know how intentional it is, but it felt like a kind of beautifully accurate portrait of what is essentially confirmation bias. The Communists are expected to resort to these kinds of tactics—destroying stuff the US makes instead of making their own. They’re sneaky and underhanded and they throw ham and they’re just all around baddies, right? But an American using the same playbook to attack another American? Unthinkable! Does Kennedy tell—oooh wait dang, no, this is the month Kennedy died, isn’t it? Okay, let’s skip that joke.
Moving right along! So while Tony is still in this meeting, he gets a call that there’s been an attack on the plant in Flushing. (Yes, yes, that is the exact same plant that got hit last week!) So Tony leaves, and arrives on site, promising an employee that he will go get Iron Man. The employee privately thinks to themselves that Iron Man has ‘had it.’ And even though I made fun of our heterosexual friends earlier, I do really love getting to see into the heads of some of the random bystanders in this issue.
So Tony heads off to change. Timing turns out to be a bit bad on his part, because the Melter was just about to leave and start on other projects, but then he gets a glimpse of Iron Man starting to repair the damage to the plant. And he is vexed! So he takes off back into the plant.
A guard comes running into inform Happy and Pepper of the villain’s return, and they bicker over who is going to go find Tony. They both run over right as The Melter and Iron Man come face to face once more.
In The Frame
And now it’s time for In The Frame! Because yes, if you’ve stayed with me this far, you know I’m not really one for fight scenes. But I will say for sure that this one is by far the most formally complex we’ve seen in terms of the comic itself. There’s a ton of variation in the panel sizes and layout, and this really helps to give scale and dimension to some of the beats. Like there’s a sequence where Tony is holding this massive pile of iron piping over his head (I’ll provide the image in the show notes) and the height of the panel really helps give a sense of just how strong he is.
The Melter, well, melts that big pile of stuff, turning it into molten ore, but Tony (maybe having heard my earlier complaint about burning) uses “tiny jet blowers” to dispose of the ore. And now I’m just imagining some kind of fan spewing hot metal at all the bystanders? It doesn’t totally seem that much better, honestly?
Tony, having clearly gotten his swagger back, mocks one of the Melter’s threats as being ‘corny as a late-late-late show villain.’ Which, maybe not quite as devastating a blow as he thinks, but I like that he’s trying. The Melter bids Iron Man a fond farewell and directs the full force of his beam onto him. But alas, it does nothing! Tony stands there, bearing the full brunt of the beam, without even moving. (It’s another great panel, this one horizontal, that really lets Tony get to that full on hero-pose. It reminded me a lot of the scene in Ancient Egypt where he just stands there as the tanks try to run him down.)
And now we get a beautiful kind of book-end to that initial scene of Tony reiterating and panicking while the Melter pursued. We see The Melter’s panicked thoughts as he realizes his only weapon is useless. We see him demand to know why it isn’t working—and for once Tony doesn’t just tell him! The Melter makes one last attempt to defeat his foe, turning his beam on a crane holding a boulder high up in the air. He’s successful, but the boulder isn’t going to land on Tony. It’s headed for Pepper and Happy!
Tony takes off, and just barely manages to catch the thing before it destroys the man I promised I would burn the world for, and Pepper, who is also pretty swell. Pepper now apparently has the hots for Iron Man, by the way, so clearly she has not read enough identity porn fan fiction to realize this is not going to end well.
Anyway, the Melter is still on the run, but he’s on Tony’s home turf now. And did I mention Tony has his groove back? He totally does, and he pursues The Melter with ease through the facility, trapping him in a room behind a fire door. Panicked, our foe tries to melt the floor under Iron Man, forgetting that he can fly. And also he can rip up the rest of the floor and shake it like a sheet, in another visually cool scene that’s played out all in silhouette.
With no other apparent options, The Melter takes off through the now-destroyed floor and into the sewer system below. A chance of drowning, he says, is better than the certainty of being caught. Tony watches, frustrated, unable to determine if the Melter survived his escape or not, and worries that his trick—changing his suit so it was made entirely of aluminium instead of iron, may not work a second time. And like, I want to be worried about that, but mostly I am super thrilled at the fact that Iron Man, who at the beginning of the comic had a kind of god-like status in Tony’s mind, was not even Iron Man in this final battle! Such growth!
Ultimately, he decides that is time for Iron Man to fade into the background for a while so that Tony Stark can take over. And we close on a long horizontal panel of Tony ordering around repairmen and Pepper, both of whom appear delighted. Not quite as thrilled is Happy, who wonders to himself whether the imminent threat of death is not in fact more fun than the drudgery of everyday life under capitalism. Which, honestly Hap, MOOD.
So, where does this leave us? At the level of a personal journey kind of story, I found this issue incredibly fulfilling. It was the culmination of a lot of stuff that’s been building for a long time. It was validating for me because it also made me feel a lot better about feeling like there as more to this character. Even Sean Howe’s book, which I do really love, was pretty dismissive of Iron Man, noting that his only real problem is that he’s a bachelor playboy who can’t take his shirt off with his dates. Tony Stark is a tremendously privileged character and I would never suggest otherwise, but I did enjoy seeing him openly working through some of the psychological issues the comics have been hinting at for a while. Especially for something written when it was, I’m really impressed.
As I said, I did find the narrative itself and especially the cohesion of all the different story elements not always particularly strong. The general plot was pretty repetitive of last issue, and even though there are interesting things we can say about those parallels, I don’t in my heart feel like they’re particularly thoughtful or deliberate.
But wait, could the bisexuality metre save us? Kind of! I mean, come on, Tony has a whole scene where he locks himself in a room and basically learns to integrate the two sides of himself into a cohesive whole. Come on now. We have been pretty light on dating action, but I feel like getting himself well before hooking up with a bunch of people is honestly the kind of bisexual energy we need more of in the world. So this one gets an 8/10 from me!
Readers Like You
And hey, you have some homework too! Since we ended up talking a lot about form and cohesion this week, I’d love it if you shared some examples—either of these things working and coming together beautifully, or instances where the art and the text are sort of shouting over one another. Show me what you got, team!
As always, in addition to the Readers Like You question, you are welcome to come talk to me about anything. My aim is to get our Discord server running sometime this week.
In the meantime, you can reach out by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod. If you’re enjoying the show, please also make sure to subscribe and/or share.
Please tune in next week, where Tony will
-Get a much-needed suit upgrade
-Battle a bizarre villain called Mister Doll!
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!