Tales of Suspense #72 – 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.
[00:15:20] Interview with Lynn Peril
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 #48. Its cover date is December 1, 1963. The cover features a bit of artwork that’s actually pretty cool. We have our villain of the week, Mr. Doll, and he’s positioned between two sets of Iron Man armour. The gold suit, the one we are familiar with from the comics so far, is on the left, and it takes a minute (or at least it did for me) to realize that the scale is all wrong. Mr. Doll appears to be holding the gold suit in his hands. On the right side of the page, meanwhile, we have what the caption announces to be the ‘new Iron Man’ bursting through the wall in a new suit! It’s a red and gold number that immediately looks a lot less clunky (and, sadly, a little less phallic) than the gold version.
The teaser page that follows then features Iron Man, in the new suit, on his knees before Mr. Doll, who is now holding a miniature version of the new armour. Tony’s eyes, a lot more visible in the new suit, are wide with what seems to be pain, and he’s falling backward as Mr. Doll squeezes his tiny Iron Man counterpart. The little caption in the right corner makes us a whole lot of promises, noting that this comic features a powerful, seemingly unbeatable villain, a superhero reaching new heights of greatness, and production by comicdom’s brightest stars. Even Stan Lee seems to realize that this was packing a lot of ego into a tiny box, because there’s an addition that then invites the reader to be the acid test as to whether their opinions about the strength of the comic hold.
Now, unfortunately, I don’t hold their high opinion on this particular issue for the most part. However, I actually love how into themselves the team behind the comics are. I’m taking a couple of creative writing courses right now, and one of the themes that constantly keeps coming up is how much writers hate and feel ashamed of their own work. And on one hand, I get it, we look at our own stuff and we see only the flaws or the things we could have done differently. But on the other hand, I wish it wasn’t something we actively seemed to cultivate as part of the creative process? Like, what if we encouraged artists to be proud of the stuff they make, even if it isn’t perfect?
Anyway, I’m down off my self-worth soapbox for now. Let’s get into things. So our narrator does some interesting work to frame the pace of this story, reminding us that some stories “start slowly, then pick up speed until the excitement becomes absolutely unbearable.” Again, this reveals some interesting assumptions about comics readers, like the writer is basically saying “stick with me, kiddos! This is going to get interesting!”
So our slow start begins in the SI offices, where Pepper reports to Tony that a deal with a steel tycoon named Charleton Carter has fallen through. Tony puts a sassy little hand on his hip and announces that this simply will not do. He needs to go see Carter. Happy offers to drive, and is immediately turned down. This one felt a bit silly to me, to be honest? I mean the scene that’s coming requires that Tony be alone, but since Tony isn’t planning at this point on using the armour, why would he not let the guy he hired to drive him actually drive? Happy makes rather the same point, wondering why he’s being kept around, and Pepper snarks that it certainly isn’t do to his winning personality. She’s also back to looking pretty school-marmy in this one, which in my experience thus far has not heralded good things for Pepper’s characterization. Oh dear.
But we’ll get back to Pepper later. For now, we join Tony as he drives up to Carter’s estate. He immediately spots a dude in blue pants and a blue headpiece with horns sticking right out the side and a green shirt skulking around the place, and decides he must be up to no good. He puts on the briefcase armour and goes in for a closer look.
He flies up to the window of what I can only describe as a tower, and finds Carter begging our friend in the silly outfit not to keep him anymore. He’s clearly desperate, begging the guy to take his entire company in exchange for Carter’s freedom. Our villain jokes that he isn’t forcing Carter to stay, he’s just keeping the little doll that just so happens to look a lot like Carter! However, once Carter does as promised and signs the paperwork relinquishing his company over, then Mr. Doll would be happy to let them both go.
Not so fast, Mr. Doll! Iron Man breaks into the room, announcing his intention to put a stop to things right now. The few seconds this takes is somehow enough time for Mr Doll to alter the face of his little figure. Iron Man, not realizing this, lifts him up in the air and begins spinning him around, demanding to know how he’s achieving influence over a powerful man with a lifeless doll. Now sadly, I couldn’t even enjoy the ‘dizziness as an interrogation technique’ because this was roughly the moment where I sure we were talking voodoo, and then I felt super sad. But more on that later.
Mr. Doll reveals that the doll he’s holding now resembles Iron Man, and he starts to squeeze. In thought bubbles, Tony repeats that he experiences this like a throbbing pain in his bones, one that makes his body feel too tight for his skin. And this is an interesting variation on the integration of Iron Man and Tony Stark that we talked about last week. Of course last time it was this very positive coming together, Tony realizing that he has worth beyond his role as Iron Man. But now he seems to be getting the flip side of that; when one of them hurts, so does the other. Turns out, mental wellness still has its drawbacks, Tony!
So as Tony basically just writhes in pain, the Doll guy taunts him about how the public would feel if they could see their idol now. It’s a clever bit of word play, the use of the word idol here, and it also gave me brief and ultimately unfounded hope that what this issue was getting at was maybe about about attacking the value we place on rich, famous folks. But alas.
So Iron Man backs out of the Tower. Like, all the way out, until he falls over the balcony and into the water below. Seeing him wash up on the shoreline, Mr. Doll assumes he’s dead and reshapes the head of his doll to match that of Carter once again. Carter rushes to promise that he will sign over his company, and with Mr. Doll’s attention focused elsewhere, Tony is able to crawl away and escape.
He speeds back to some kind of Stark owned facility, in desperate need of a re-charge. As he enters, an employee at the gates notes that it is extremely rare that Tony wouldn’t have said hello, and I again appreciate the indications we are getting that he is a decent boss. Tony stumbles into what the comic insists on referring to as his “private sanctum,” and just manages to plug himself in. But unlike other occasions where this brings about pretty much an instant revitalization, Tony lays there on the floor, unconscious. The captions read “the long moments tick by as the unconscious Tony Stark lies motionless on the floor…the life giving current flows into his power-exhausted chest device silently but…it it too late?”
It’s an interesting provocation, and in some ways I feel like it’s one they wasted on this particular villain. What I mean by that is that given his status as primarily a Cold War superhero, I would sort of expect that someone like Crimson Dynamo would have been the opportunity to ask us to believe that Tony might not survive. Mr. Doll feels a bit too monster of the week-y to be a truly credible threat to Tony’s survival. Maybe, though, it comes back a little bit to what we’ve talked about before regarding how the comics want to treat the Communists both as a threat and as a joke. Most of the times it looks like the Communist forces are winning, it’s usually through some kind of espionage or subterfuge. So maybe to have Tony losing an attack this direct would have been considered anti-American? I’m not sure. And I do like where this is heading in terms of the suit re-design, I just find that having Mr. Doll being the inciting incident for that change just doesn’t really work for me for whatever reason.
I do like that we then transition to the next day with Happy and Pepper realizing they don’t know where Tony is, because it almost teases an identity reveal. Are the two of them about to go down the hall and find Tony lying there with the chest plate on display? Nope. They’re too busy with their mean-spirited flirting. (Happy wonders if she would look so worriedly for him if he were missing, Pepper says yes but only after she was done celebrating.) Finally, she phones Tony’s lab, and the noise of the phone is enough to finally bring him to consciousness.
Upon waking, Tony does some soul-searching. Unlike previously, when he was all worried about how weak Tony Stark was, Tony is now worried about Iron Man’s weaknesses. Specifically, he is realizing that the suit is too heavy, weighing him down and taking too much energy. He briefly considers abandoning the role altogether, but then he realizes that Iron Man doesn’t need to be finished. Dude just needs a makeover!
While Tony goes all Queer Eye on the suit (and I obviously mean that in a hella complimentary way), Mr. Carter, our steel tycoon, is at the police station. It turns out that Mr. Doll has managed to coerce three other local millionaires to sign over their fortunes to him, and the police are trying to convince Carter to swear a complaint against him. However, Carter is terrified and refuses. Meanwhile, Mr. Doll is already turning is attention to his newest target…Tony Stark!
The Evolution of Iron Man
And we now join Tony back in his lab, where he has completed a new version of the Iron Man armour! That brings us to a new segment, which I am somewhat unoriginally calling the evolution of Iron Man. Here we’ll keep track of changes to the armour.
Tony, wearing an iron onesie, helpfully outlines the major differences. The new suit is lighter. It is more powerful (because if the decrease in weight). The actual chestplate remains gold, but it’s now covered by a red chest plate—except at the centre, where we see the familiar golden circle. Inside that chestplate are doors that open up to reveal a collection of batteries he can use to re-supply the armour with power on the go. There are also more batteries stashed in the arm pieces. Speaking of which, the arm and leg pieces are interchangeable, and therefore quite modular. They can be secured in place quickly using super powerful magnets. Gloves work on the same principle, and the shoes are thin but powerful jet units. And then we get our new mask.
Ditko, who was the man behind this re-design of the armour, famously referred to the old headpiece as a bucket. Unlike that one piece unit, this new one has a face shield that can be lifted up and down as need be. It also has much larger eye holes, a change that Tony explicitly notes “enables him to show his expression” and thus to “instill fear into the hearts of his enemies.”
It’s certainly an interesting series of changes. Aesthetically, the suit is absolutely less clunky, and the dual colour scheme is a nice way to give the armour a bit more depth and nuance. If we think about why it was originally gold in the first place—Tony’s date suggested the visual would link him to old Arthurian knights—it might also be foreshadowing that Iron Man is forging a more contemporary identity for himself, a different kind of heroism that is not just a callback to bygone eras. I also can’t help but think of it contextually. Kennedy has just died, several Cold War conflicts, especially Vietnam, are about to get so much more controversial…whether knowingly or not, it feels to me like the move away from pure gold is kind of representative of a shift away from a certain understanding of what America is at this point in time.
A lot of the other elements are pretty practical—the lighter weight, the batteries everywhere—so I won’t dwell too much on those. I did get really stuck, though, on this idea of his expression being so crucial. You might remember that a couple of weeks ago I talked about the irony of having a masked hero who has a secret identity being part of a storyline that rested so heavily on critiquing the Communists for using underhanded techniques like spying. In some ways this feels like an interesting complication of that critique. Because on top of the whole ‘striking fear into my enemies’ bit, there almost seems to be a suggestion here that Tony’s emotional transparency is part of what makes him heroic.
That’s going to get complicated later, by the way, and we’ll come back to it then. The only other thing I wanted to remark on was the artwork in this scene. I found it really surprising! At a lot of point, the gaze felt vaguely sexual. Lots of isolated body parts and extreme close ups. And at first I spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether I felt like it was Tony’s body or the armour being sexualized, but ultimately I came to realize it really kind of felt like both. We are absolutely being asked to view Tony as someone who is young and attractive—which makes sense given what Stan Lee has said about the amount of fan mail Iron Man got from women—and the armour is being depicted almost the way I remember early Apple ads, like an aesthetic appreciation bordering on fetishism of the objects themselves. It’s really, in my view, a sort of cyborg sexuality. We’re invited, I think, to sexualize Tony through the armour, and vice versa. And I mean even the way the armour is so much lighter and therefore more body conforming…yeah. There’s a lot going on here.
For now, let’s keep moving. So after the new Iron Man, “champion of champions” is born, the police arrive at Stark Industries, determined to warn him that he may be Mr. Doll’s next target. At first they want to leave behind a guard, but Tony points out that he has plenty of his own private security guards. One is tasked by the cops with staying at Tony’s side at all times.
And this is when things really start to go downhill. Tony decides that he needs to be able to change into the armour, and therefore needs to ditch Bill, his guard. He therefore demands, in full hearing of Pepper and Happy, that Bill leave him alone in a locked room with Pepper so that he can ask her on a date. Pepper is of course delighted by this, and even when a clearly jealous Happy (jealous of whom I am not sure) points out that Tony usually dates the likes of models and Hollywood starlets, she will not be deterred.
The second she is alone with Tony, she throws him against the wall (yep, more evidence for the submissive Tony train!). She calls him a bashful dreamboat, and demands to know why he didn’t announce his feelings for her sooner. Tony tells her to keep saying such things, loudly so that they will be overheard and their ruse will be successful. He, meanwhile, slips out a hidden door, after congratulating a devastated Pepper on her skills as an actress.
Back in his office, Tony quickly changes into the armour, and notes that he hated doing that to “Poor Pepper.” Not as much as I hated it, buddy! Let’s talk, shall we?
Doing the Readings
I thought about whether or not to actually do a separate segment on this, because part of me was just so irritated by this scene that I didn’t want to give it the dignity of any kind of critical reading. But ultimately, my response to getting mad about stuff is to do some research, so off I went.
I was thinking a lot about Pepper as a secretary, and the whole host of expectations and associations we often have with that term. It’s become so loaded as a job title that it’s not even one that gets used anymore—we usually refer to jobs like Pepper’s as administrative assistants. Specifically, I was interested in whether or not this idea of a secretary as someone who is secretly just husband hunting by playing the ‘work wife’ was ever actually a thing, or if it was entirely the product of like, porn and power dynamics.
I found a fabulous interview, which I will link to in the show notes, with Lynn Peril, the author of Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making it in the Office. Peril was a secretary (she proudly claims this title so I am respecting her choice of language) for many years, and her book outlines the evolution of the secretary. The whole interview is really worth a listen, but one of the moments that really stood out to me was when she was asked about this idea of husband-hunting at work. Peril talks about how a lot of guidebooks were completely contradictory on this. Many of these texts would stress that a secretary should make sure to perform domestic tasks like dusting her employer’s office, and ensure they dress in a way their boss would find appealing, because you want to show off what a great potential spouse you are. Other books would stress that the workplace is a professional setting and women should never expect to form personal relationships there. So basically, women in these roles were kind of wrong no matter what they did.
So to bring this back to Pepper, what’s interesting to me about her is that she kind of embodies both sides of this advice. She is, by every appearance, extremely competent at her job. And she also has some pretty deep feelings for her employer. I’m sort of inclined to read the cruelty she faces in this particular issue as a kind of dual punishment from each side of this discourse. What I mean is that Pepper is too hyper-competent to be ‘just’ (and I’m putting that in scare quotes) there to be a wife, so she’s threatening in that respect. And yet she’s also not professional enough, because she’s not able to completely mask her feelings for Tony.
None of this makes it any less icky, by the way. I just felt like contextualizing it was one way to make sense of this claim Tony makes that treating her this way was something he ‘had’ to do when clearly he had about a bazillion other options.
Okay, so Tony emerges dressed in the Iron Man armour and dismisses the guard. And almost immediately thereafter, Mr. Doll arrives. Upon seeing that Iron Man is present, he immediately changes the features of the doll. And honestly, this is the most unrealistic part of this whole storyline to me. I don’t feel clear on exactly what material the doll is or how he is able to make such instantaneous yet decently detailed changes, but it just doesn’t quite work for me as a conceit.
But whatevs. He begins manipulating his new Iron Man doll, but it turns out that without the increased load on his heart brought about by the other suit, Tony is able to withstand this pain better. He decides, though, that he’s not going to let Mr. Doll know this. As he decides this, we get a close shot on his face, with his eyes much more visible in the new mask.
Remember what I said about the emotional transparency thing? It’s interesting that instead of striking fear into people’s hearts by showing something truthful (anger, focus, determination, whatever) the first thing Iron Man is called upon to do when his face is made more visible is to lie. And actually it makes me think about the previous awful scene with Pepper as well, which was another kind of emotional dishonesty on his part as he feigned ignorance about her feelings for him. I’m not sure what I make of that yet, other than that maybe this suggests the world is just too complicated for heroes who are completely sincere all the time.
But anyway. Tony decides, while he’s feigning much more pain and distress than he’s actually in, to try to get Mr. Doll talking. So of course, he asks about the doll. Specifically, he wants to know where it came from.
Doing the Readings (part 2)
And that brings us to Doing the Readings, because Mr. Doll unfortunately and unsurprisingly replies that the doll is from Africa, where he stole it from a witch doctor. Yep, that’s right, not content with some pretty appealing sexism, it’s apparently necessary to round this issue out with some racism, too.
Let me back up. Yes, it is absolutely the case that there were some major societal changes going on in 1960s America, and that one of those shifts was in the area of religion. Indeed, it is right around 1963 when this comic was released that some like Callum Brown have described Christianity as being in ‘free fall’ in other words, losing some of its social and cultural influence. This is an oversimplification, and of course there are many ways that Western societies like the United States are still structured around Christianity far moreso than any other religious observance. But it is generally the case that there was increasing interest both in other religious doctrines and in a secular approach to organizing public and private life.
And I now want to be extremely clear that this representation of voodoo? It’s not that. This is not about an embrace of alternative cultural and religious practices. It is in fact mostly about racism. In his dissertation, “Imagined Voodoo: Terror, Sex, and Racism in American Popular Culture,” which is freely available by the way and I will link to it in the show notes, Adam McGee describes what he calls imagined voodoo. This is distinct, McGee says, from actual practices of voodoo, most particularly Haitian Vodu. The representation of voodoo in American popular culture are often a way to depict people of colour as “uniquely and naturally inclined towards spiritual insight, mysticism, psychic capabilities, magical gifts, and supernatural feats of religious piety—as well as acts of occult malice and treachery.” It is, McGee later goes on to say, “an imaginary religion and magical system, indelibly imprinted upon the American brain and linked to white anxieties of black uprising, hyper sexual black bodies, miscegenation, and ultimately the dissolution of the white race.” So basically, voodoo (at leas the way most people understand voodoo as it is mediated through popular culture) does not exist, and never existed. It was essentially made up as way for white folk to project a whole bunch of anxieties onto Black bodies without appearing openly racist.
Now wait, you might be saying, but Mr. Doll is not visibly marked as a person of colour! Doesn’t matter, McGee notes. In the case of white characters making use of these practices, the purpose is either to identify them as race traitors or identify them as intellectually inferior. In the case of Mr. Doll, I’m inclined to read it more as the latter, but I also think the context of this comic existing alongside the civil rights movement shouldn’t be ignored either. Ultimately, while I obviously can’t speak to anything like authorial intent, I am very much inclined to read this whole storyline as symptomatic of some pretty messed up ways that North America thought and often continues to think about Black folks.
Alright, let’s get this finished team. So Mr. Doll decides to summon Iron Man, and this is the point where Tony realizes his acting skills are really going to be put to the test. Because he absolutely cannot react. We get some more great close ups of his face under the more revealing face mask as this all plays out. And I really wish that the voodoo thing hadn’t been a factor here, like I wish it had been some kind of mind control device or something, because I actually really love the idea of Tony having to struggle to dis-identify himself with one aspect of his being just as he’s finally achieved a kind of internal unity. I think it’s great storytelling apart from the racist elephant in the room.
So Iron Man leaves the room, and locks himself behind a time-locked door so that he can’t get out even if he wants to. And then he removes what he refers to as his ‘heart activator’ so that he will be able to concentrate without being in extreme pain, because the slowing of his heartbeat basically deadens his nerves. He begins to build something.
We then see Tony re-enter the room containing Mr. Doll as Iron Man. Of course, our villain instantly changes the doll’s face in seconds, and brags that all it will take to bring about Tony’s defeat will be for him to drop the doll from any height. But Tony brings out whatever it is he was building! It shines some kind of beam on the doll, and this along with Tony making some shapes with his fingers somehow causes the doll’s face to look like that of Mr. Doll rather than Iron Man. (Seriously, I wish I could be clearer in my description, but I read this set of panels multiple times and it’s still kind of gibberish to me.)
So the doll is already on its way to falling, and Mr. Doll is not able to catch it before it lands. I assumed this meant he was dead, but we learn in the next set of panels that he was simply unconscious, and Iron Man has locked him in the basement for the security team to fetch. As the cleanup happens, Happy snarks at Iron Man that he doesn’t get to order Happy around since Happy is Tony Stark’s personal chauffeur. And honestly, I love that for Happy. I love that he’s not remotely impressed by Iron Man.
So Tony gets changed out of the suit and back into his Tony Stark attire, and as he walks with Happy, our favourite chauffeur notes that he hasn’t seen Pepper in a while. This causes Tony to go tearing off down the hallway because…yes, you guessed it. He never let Pepper out of that locked room they were in.
And just when I thought I couldn’t hate everything about this enough, Happy chooses this moment—this moment! When Pepper is hurt and humiliated!—to ask her out. She pretty fairly slaps him and goes running out of the room, and Tony and Happy exchange ‘ah, womenfolk’ quips.
And honestly, I am mostly just grateful this one is over. Between the stuff with Pepper and the voodoo storyline, this was definitely not a high point in the series for me. I have very little that’s positive to say about it, as it honestly also seems to undo so much of what I’ve really loved about the series and the character so far. It’s an interesting historical artifact, but I’m mostly happy to never voluntarily return to it.
And speaking of not great things, I’m going to have to assign this one like a 0/10 on the bisexuality metre. Honestly, I tried to rescue it by making some kind of joke about how the suit has two colours now, and I just…nope. This particular iteration of Tony Stark does not deserve to be associated with the noble tradition of bisexuality. Do better, bud!
Readers Like You
But hey, maybe this is a good time for Readers Like You. Did I miss something? Does anyone who loves this comic, or who at least enjoyed it more than me, want to do their best to convince me I’m missing something great? Did I miss a bisexual gem in the midst of all the awful? I would love to hear your thoughts.
And as always, in addition to the Readers Like You question, you are welcome to come talk to me about anything. I’m behind on the Discord server because I’ve been doing some work for the Marvel Trumps Hate fundraiser this week, but I swear it is coming!
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
-Face off with a ‘mutant gone mad’, an issue which will guest star the X-Men!
-Meanwhile, I will run away to frantically try to learn more than the absolute basics about the X-Men!
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!