[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:08:07] There might be a week where I don’t talk about Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, but it is not this week!
[00:08:53] A great primer on respectability politics
[00:15:25] “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
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 #49. Its cover date is January 1, 1964. And Tony is in some trouble! Not as much trouble as me, the person who didn’t know anything about the X-Men going into this, but I suppose that’s probably not really cover page material. So Tony is falling through the sky, his power jets exhausted. He has been defeated, he thinks to himself by The Angel, a figure in a blue and yellow suit with massive white wings who hovers above him, arm raised in victory.
Now I should preface this episode with something important. Last time I joked that I needed to go of and learn about the X-Men, and I was open to doing that. However, when I reflected on the original aims of this show, I remembered that part of what I was really wanting to capture was that experience of being a new comics reader, which I am. There’s lots of amazing shows out there with encyclopedic knowledge about comics and their histories. I listen to many of them, and enjoy them deeply, but I think what’s unique about this particular show is that I’m not all that far ahead of anyone who is following along on this journey.
So I know from the cover that our pal Angel is an X-Man, but that’s about all I got! The next page features a similar image, though apparently less dire. Angel is taunting Iron Man that the sky is his element, and Tony notes that he’s risking his own life in betting that Angel is wrong. A caption informs us that Angell and the X-Men are on loan to us through special agreement with the editors of the X-Men magazine, and that The Avengers are similarly being borrowed from their copyright owners.
This was actually a surprising note for me because my impression was that the same cast of folks—particularly Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Research actually did not clear this up at all! So my working assumption, though I am very happy to be corrected if I’m wrong, is that this was somewhat of a performative gesture, meant to draw attention to how unique and exciting this crossover was. (A precursor to the ‘most ambitious crossover event in history,’ perhaps?) The other potential option is that somehow there was a legal requirement to differentiate between the different magazines, perhaps because of how they were funded.
Anyway, the real point, the captions on the first page tell us, is that we are living in an age of miracles! We’re given several examples, including atomic energy and telestar communications. However, as Happy Hogan is not on this list, I maintain that all these alleged miracles are highly suspect. Anyway, so we begin with Angel, who is soaring through the sky. It’s clearly pre-pandemic life because our friend is trying to make his commute shorter rather than treasuring a short respite from the people he loves. In any case, he decides to take a short cut over a factory that—you guessed it—turns out to belong to Tony Stark! And naturally, Tony is about to perform some kind of atomic testing. Which, again, I have English degrees, but didn’t this stuff normally happen in desserts?
Anyway, Iron Man is there keeping an eye on things, and he tries to warn Angel, who I just learned on this page is apparently a teenager. Said teenager is super psyched to meet Iron Man, and is in the middle of fanboying so hard he doesn’t hear his hero yelling at him. Even when Tony takes to the skies, Angel assumes it’s simply the case that their admiration is mutual.
And for once, Tony arrives what seems to be too late. The “highly refined nuclear explosion” goes off extremely close to our two heroes! Oh no! Tony, we are told, is largely protected from the explosion by the suit, and he does not suffer any lasting effects. This seems like a squandering of some narrative potential for me, honestly, but okay. Angel, however, is not wearing any protective gear.
Their contrasting experience of the blast is rendered in some pretty cool ways in the panels. Iron Man and Angel are on separate panels, but both have these striped pink backgrounds denoting their proximity to the blast. And both are shaded entirely in red. It’s a really cool effect.
It turns out, however, that Angel’s exposure to the radioactivity impacts more than his body. A dangerous change takes him over, which he describes in his internal monologue as the feeling of becoming a smarter, craftier, slyer, and more evil person!
That brings us to our first segment of the episode, the Science Division! Because having learned my lesson about assuming that all the science in these comics is completely made up, I was interested to find out if there is any documented evidence supporting the a shift in personality as a result of radioactive exposure.
Turns out? Yeah, kind of! In a 2002 study, the International Atomic Energy Agency examined a range of short term and long term effects of radioactive exposure following several major accidents. In the section on psychological effects, the report described a whole range of symptoms ranging from depression, anxiety, and paranoia. These effects tended to worsen as time went on. Now, I want to note in this case that the study was referencing those impacted by the Chernobyl disaster, and that some of what was being observed may very well be more the results of lingering trauma than something physiologically induced by the nuclear exposure itself.
This also made me think back a bit to some of our discussions in earlier episodes about how these comics are in part artifacts of the postwar United States, and this includes how the nation and its artists came to terms with their role as perpetrators of nuclear warfare. Earlier representations, like all the instances where Tony was creating weapons designed to basically disintegrate people, leaving behind only traces, suggested a view of nuclear warfare that was largely positive. And certainly it’s not like this comic is an anti-atomic manifesto. Just a page ago it was called a miracle! However, the fact that it brings about these changes in Angel does potentially suggest a bit more ambivalence, a concern perhaps about the unexpected and unanticipated effects of nuclear weapons.
Now, I had sort of assumed that it would take a while for people to realize that something was wrong with Angel—especially since one of the very few things I do know about the X-Men universe is that mutants are regarded with a lot of fear and suspicion. However, Tony understands what’s going on almost instantly when Angel keeps flying away, evading Iron Man’s efforts to see if he needs help. Again, it feels like this narrative has a lot of opportunities for potential drama that are kind of neglected.
But Tony has bigger problems, as we’ll recall from the cover. Because his efforts to track down Angel have drained the jets in his boots. He begins falling out of the sky! It’s a more intense variation on the usual ‘chestplate is drained and needs to be recharged’ trope, because it has such immediate and dramatic effects. Tony’s only chance of saving himself, he realises, is a magnetic repeller. He aims this at the ground, and it basically functions to break his fall. He compares it to a brake as he crashes through the roof of one of the plant’s buildings and lands safely, with only some minor damage to the chest plate.
So Tony heads to his private lab to repair the damage, and places what looks like a proto-type of a video chat call to Pepper informing her that he’ll need some undisturbed time alone. It’s a cool bit of art, and honestly one of the first times that the tech aside from the suit has really felt futuristic for its time.
Meanwhile, Angel has returned to Professor Xavier’s school and announced his intention to quit the X-Men to his teammates Cyclops, The Beast, Ice-Man and Marvel Girl. They’re all very upset by these developments, noting that Angel is one of the original team members. Angel is entirely unmoved by their protests, and declares his intentions to go off and join the ‘bad’ mutants, the ones they are supposed to be fighting.
Yeah okay, I mostly avoided doing much research on the X-Men before I read this issue, but I did stop at this point and look up a couple of things in Sean Howe’s book. So let’s head to a Marvellous segment so I can share some of my findings. So one of the only things I knew about the X-Men coming in was that the so-called mutant gene is often read as a metaphor for queerness. However, Howe argues that it’s important to remember in terms of timing that the X-Men also emerged amidst the Civil Rights movement. The very idea of there being good and mad mutants, Howe argues, is a useful illustration of the limits of Marvel—and especially Stan Lee’s—liberalism. Because the suggestion seems to be that while bigotry is not acceptable, there are also limits on how someone facing these kinds of oppression.
On top of giving us a sense of the limits of Lee’s own politics, this idea of good and bad mutants as a potential allegory for the civil rights movement also taps into something we might now call respectability politics, a concept first described by Eveline Brooks Higginbotham in 1993. In short, respectability politics is the self-policing of marginalized groups in order to appear more appealing to their oppressors. This can take a number of forms, but at its heart if often means identifying particular identities, tactics, and ideologies as the ‘bad’ form of progress against which a ‘good’ form can be found more desirable. So think about, for instance, the emphasis in recent years on non-violent protest and how that’s the ‘good’ way to express discontent and anger.
I’m not sure to what extent Angel temporarily turning to the ‘bad’ kind of mutant-dom fits with this reading of Mutants. Perhaps we might read it as a cautionary tale about what would likely now be called radicalization? Honestly, I hope not, because there’s so many problems with respectability politics. However, it felt irresponsible not to bring this idea up.
Okay, moving right along. So Angel’s announcement eventually causes a fight to break out amongst the team. A lot of this conversation and subseuqnet battle happens, by the way, on single-coloured backgrounds, which made me wonder if maybe there was a reason they couldn’t or didn’t want to depict much of the interior of the school. Or maybe this is just the growing pains of a company learning what it means to bring a whole bunch of franchises together. But regardless, the scene still does a good job of getting across that these people all know one another and their respective powers really well.
Meanwhile, Tony is back in the lab, finishing his suit repairs. Once he’s done so he celebrates the fact that now he can go back to being “just plain ol’ Tony Stark again, the average ordinary ever-lovin’ millionaire playboy industrialist!” And let me be clear, I love me some cheesy Tony, but there’s something a little extra stiff and absurd about the dialogue in this issue. Like after this line I genuinely wondered whether maybe Tony had actually been effected by the radiation too? But perhaps the more charitable way to read the sequence is that it sets up a sort of contrast between Tony and Angel. Mutants are mutants all the time and therefore always living under a cloud of suspicion and fear, and while Tony and Iron Man are one to a certain degree, Tony is allowed to conceal parts of his identity when he wants to.
We then cut back to the school, where Angel eventually succeeds at leaving, determined to go off and find the bad kids to hang out with. Professor Xavier, who followed the entire exchange mentally, tries to summon Angel back, but he’s no longer afraid, he says, of the dude who can make his voice force its way into someone’s mind. Which. I don’t know, dude, doesn’t seem like a good choice to me? This causes Xavier to have a kind of internal crisis, where he wonders if maybe the school is doomed to churn out bad guys and needs to be shut down. The team persuades him instead to try to track down Angel, and this is when the Professor decides to call for help, in the form of the Avengers!
Readers Like You
So, my reading notes from this moment are basically an incoherent mess of like ‘oh dang I didn’t know the team came together so early oh dang I thought I had more time!’ Plus a lot of other curse words I can’t say on an allegedly clean show.
But again, I really tried to come back to the throughline of this show, and the fact that I started the show with the idea that being a new reader is a feature, not a bug. So I’m rollin with it! My plan is to essentially do what I would have done if I encountered this information for the first time not in the context of putting a podcast together, which would be to then go back and catch up on The Avengers. Thankfully, it hadn’t been running for that long at this point, so that will be relatively easy to do. The advantage of that is that I think it probably mirrors the way a lot of folks at the time would have encountered this information too—finding out that their solo fave was in a team up and rushing off to find those issues.
So that’s my idea about how to proceed—to go back and spend a couple of episodes catching up with The Avengers. However, I would really love to hear from you, folks. Would you prefer to stick with Iron Man’s solo journey for now, and come back to the Avengers once we hit a more natural breaking point? Would you want to stick with Iron Man’s solo journeys for the foreseeable future, even, and have a separate season devoted to some of the team ups? I’m really really interested in how you’re feeling, so on top of putting out this call in the Readers Like You segment, I’ll also be putting a poll up on Twitter. Let me know where you want to go from here!
In the short term, where we’ll be going is back to the story, though, so let’s do that! So for various reasons—Bruce Banner is sciencing, Thor is in his other identity and is doctor-ing, Giant Man and Wasp are on a date, the Avengers are mostly too busy to respond to Professor X’s cry for help. The only one who does end up hearing it? Iron Man!
Or, more precisely, Tony Stark, who hears the message through a transceiver in his chest plate. He’s in a room with Happy as this happens, but he manages to convince the poor guy he’s just hearing things. And I return once more to the fact that Tony’s hidden identity is the world’s worst secret and no one will convince me that my headcanon of everyone already knowing and pretending they don’t just to shield his ego isn’t true. Pepper, who absolutely knows, responds to Happy’s threats to quit after being sent away by pointing out that he never does any work anyway. He hits on her, and she invites him to go join the foreign legion. And seriously, heterosexuals, I will ask again: ARE YOU OKAY? IS THIS SERIOUSLY SOMETHING YOU WOULD HAVE CONSIDERED ROMANTIC, EVEN AT THE TIME? WHY?
Tony, happily oblivious to this mean-spirited bickering disguised as flirting, changes into the Iron Man suit. He blames himself for what happened to Angel, it transpires, so he’s not going to try to contact the other Avengers. Instead, he will handle this himself! He will, he says, “undo the harm that’s been done…or die trying!”
That’s right my friends. Tony might be in a slightly better place in terms of mental health these days, but that definitely does not mean he’s not determined to immediately threaten to get himself killed at the earliest possible opportunity.
Doing the Readings
In seriousness, though, Sean Howe’s book also noted that one of the things all of these team-ups forced the folks at Marvel to do was really firm up a sense of who the characters were as individuals. Here and over the past few issues with the suit re-design and all of that, it feels like the decision they have come to is very much aligned with that Samuel Beckett quote which is really often abused and oversimplified: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Now, yes, before anyone points it out, that quote has become the darling of Silicon Valley, and the irony of that is that the rest of that quote is much darker. But when it comes to Tony, I think the entire thing actually applies. So in full, that selection from Beckett reads: “First the body. No. First the place. No. First both. Now either. Now the other. Sick of the either try the other. Sick of it back sick of the either. So on. Somehow on. Till sick of both. Throw up and go. Where neither. Till sick of there. Throw up and back. The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none. Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.”
See? It’s dark! But what I like about this as a way to read Tony is that both the optimistic and the deeply pessimistic, bordering on nihilistic, aspects of the quote apply. For me, what’s great about Tony Stark as a character is that he is constantly messing up. And yes, it is absolutely important to remember that white men are provided a space to fail and are given more chances to fail again and fail better in ways that most of the rest of us are not. But I still think there’s something valuable and novel, especially for the time, about this man being forced to confront his own vulnerabilities and failings, often in a really embodied and visceral kind of way.
Alright, so while Tony is suiting up, Angel is flying around and doing stuff like stealing TNT from strangers and blowing it up in the air, basically trying anything he can to try to get the bad mutants to notice him. (I really liked how young this approach felt. Teenagers often don’t feel like teenagers when adults write them, but this idea that he’s basically waving his arms going ‘Hey guys I’m baaaad now see I’m so baaaaad I’m totally cool like you! Guys? Guys?’ felt very authentic to me.) Anyway, it doesn’t work, because the evil mutants remember that this guy was on the good mutant team about five minutes ago and assume it was a trap.
Iron Man, after conferring with the police and asking them to stay back, goes in. Angel again takes off and starts doing a bunch of stunt flying that Tony can’t keep up with. Tony, seemingly in a despairing way, notes that he will never be able to be as nimble in the air as Angel. To add insult to injury, Angel then grabs Iron Man by the legs, forcing him to turn in mid-air, and sends him flying toward the ground. Tony briefly gains the advantage by shutting off his jets entirely, and he is able to seal the two of them behind a locked metal door at La Guardia, which is specifically named for some reason I do not entirely know.
Somehow, though, Tony has neglected to note the existence off a side door in this hangar, and Angel takes off. Angel proceeds to seal him inside a different hangar, and while I can feel the way that this whole thing was probably supposed to play really cinematically, it doesn’t quite land for me. (Get it? Airport? Land? No? Fine.)
So Tony escapes by activating his arm power pack, which we are shown a cross-section of. I feel like one of the other points this issue is trying to hit really hard is how impressive his tech is, even though visually in this case it’s sort of a bunch of squiggles in a box. Iron Man sees Angel on top of one of the Towers, again pleading for the cool kids to come and play with him, and we get a close up of Tony’s face as he decides that he will most definitely place his own life at risk because he feels certain that some part of Angel must still be good.
So he takes off, maximum speed and power engaged, flying toward Angel. Angel taunts that his jet boots must once again be out of power, and it would seem unforgivably silly of Tony to make the same mistake twice. Except it appears that’s exactly what’s happening! As he flies them both higher and higher, the jet boots are again overtaxed. Tony can’t stay in the air any longer.
But what’s our model, friends? Not the darker stuff about throwing up and everything, but the cheesy part of Beckett? Fail better. Tony quivers, and then begins to fall, and even he thinks that maybe he was wrong about Angel’s potential. In a thoroughly human kind of moment, Tony notes that he wishes he had some kind of witty last words, but all he can think of to say is help. And this moment of vulnerability and honesty? It’s what saves him.
A crowd of anxious spectaors watches, helpless and scared. Tony wishes that the could have said goodbye to Pepper and Happy—damn right you should be wishing that! And then we cut to Angel, who is having second thoughts. Instead of closing his eyes and waiting for the inevitable end of Iron Man, he decides that he cannot and will not be a spectator.
Tony, seeing Angel start to pursue, slows his own descent as best he can using the magnetic repellors in the gloves—the very ones he wouldn’t have thought to use if, you know, this same thing hadn’t happened 15 pages ago. Fail better, see?
So Angel just barely manages to catch him, and in so doing proves to the waiting police that he is not in fact evil. Iron Man vouches for him anyway, blaming the temporary personality change on weapons testing at Tony Stark’s facility. Angel reunites with his X-Men pals, and shakes hands with Iron Man, promising a potential crossover—I mean, assuring him that the X-Men would be happy to help if they are ever needed.
Professor X, relieved he does not have to shut down the school after all, reaches out mentally to Iron Man, promising that one day he will repay him for risking his life for a member of the X-Men. For one moment I thought this moment of mental contact might mean he would be the first to openly acknowledge Tony’s identity, but apparently his telepathy doesn’t work that way, because he only calls Tony “whoever you are.” Tony therefore plans his return to Happy and Pepper, whom he notes might have allowed the entire factory to be stolen while they argued about which of them was Tony’s most alert assistant.
And that’s it! Our final caption does not tell us what’s actually happening in the next issue, but does allude to Iron Man rising in popularity polls throughout the nation! While I know it was based on things like sales and fan mail, or maybe on nothing at all, this claim still gave me several minutes of joy as I imagined Marvel employees being forced to conduct national polling on comic heroes like we do politicians. “Excuse me sir, but do you have some time to talk about the Iron Man this evening?”
Why yes, sir, I do! Specifically, I have time to talk about the bisexuality metre for this week’s episode! I mean, maybe it’s just that even being near the X-Men raises anyone’s rating, but I’m inclined to be charitable to Tony here. The emphasis on failure, which Halberstam notes us queers have turned into a literal art form, felt like the return of some of the chaotic bisexual energy that was so lacking last week. And all the emphasis on multiple selves and Tony remembering that his found family is awesome in the moments leading up to what he thinks might be his death…yeah okay, I can afford to be generous. Let’s give our boy an 8/10.
Overall, though, what do we make of this issue? I mean, I think in a lot of ways I appreciate it mostly as an early experiment. Both of the teams mentioned (The Avengers and the X-Men) were recent inventions. And the idea that all these people lived in the same universe and could therefore interact was also, Sean Howe notes, a pretty new and novel one. So on that front alone I’m pretty willing to overlook some of the ways that it felt like the narrative of the issue itself might have suffered a little bit.
Did it get me excited to read the X-Men? Eh. Honestly I know that being ambivalent toward the X-Men is enough to get my gay street cred revoked on site. And I don’t really know why I’ve never really connected with the idea of them, even while recognizing on abstract level what’s valuable about their story. I would certainly be happy to see them show up again in the Avengers or Iron Man comics so they can change my mind, though!
If you want to yell at me for how wrong I am, or say gentle and kind things, you are always welcome to reach out. I continue to be behind on setting up the Discord server, but it is still in the works.
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Please tune in next week, where Tony will…
-Well, that’s up to you! Do we want to see Tony face off on a solo mission against the Mandarin, where we will undoubtedly spend some time chatting about anti-Asian racism?
-Do we want to find out what he’s been up to with the Avengers?
-Let me know!
Until next time, thanks for listening. This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!