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.
[00:03:35] Iadonisi’s wonderful chapter is from this book
[00:04:48] The Mandarin and Fu Manchu side-by-side
[00:20:04] Shang-Chi’s re-writing of The Mandarin (I haven’t read this piece because I will only be seeing the movie today, but Slate has generally strong coverage)
[00:21:52] The iconic Moira Rose of Schitt’s Creek
Episode 12 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, also known as Iron Man.
This episode we’ll be talking about Tales of Suspense #50. Its cover date is February 1, 1964. We join Tony in the castle of “a madman.” A man in a golden throne, wearing resplendent robes of green and purple, is shooting some kind of ray out of his hand toward Iron Man. In the background, a sea of soldiers in blue are charging down a ramp. To the right of the throne, we see the weapons and hands of even more soldiers coming from the other side. Iron Man looks to be surrounded.
If this sounds vaguely racist to you…well, buckle in folks. It’s going to get a whole lot worse. So the teaser page features a close up shot of The Mandarin, who expresses his pity for Iron Man. The latter doesn’t even know The Mandarin exists, while Iron Man is apparently at the top of The Mandarin’s list of enemies to eliminate! The caption next to his head refers to The Mandarin as “the most feared Oriental of all time” operating out of the “remote vastness of Red China.” I’m going to say a lot more about all of this shortly, but the other element on the page is a text book with a plea from the team behind the comics. We should not read this particular issue, they tell us, if we’re in a hurry. It should instead be read slowly, savoured, so that we can fully experience the drama and excitement of encountering such a fearful new villain.
As someone whose job for a long time was studying rhetoric—how people go about persuading people to do, think, and feel particular things—this was an interesting move. It reveals some intriguing assumptions about how people normally read comics, of course, because it seems to suggest that left un-addressed, the reader will devour the content as quickly as possible. And it then makes this equation between the quality of a work of art and the need to linger over it. It might be fine at other times to rush through, but not now, not when there’s so much to notice and feel and think about. We can of course challenge a lot about these assumptions—the idea that reading something quickly means one is feeling less, or that higher-quality should always increase the time one spends encountering something are both pretty huge generalizations. But they’re still revealing! In some ways it made me think about Dean Pelton from Community, who is always comparing his school to ‘real’ Universities. Like it felt like the implicit comparison here was to longer works of fiction like novels.
We’ve talked in previous episodes about the bad reputation comics had at this point in terms of morality issues. But I also wonder if this text box, on top of obviously being promotional, is also responding to what would have been a virtually unchecked hierarchy at the time between other narrative forms and comics. The plea for readers to slow down, in other words, might be taken in part as a plea for comics themselves to be treated seriously as an art form.
Doing the Readings
And hey, I am all for that! However, treating comics seriously also means holding them accountable. So let’s talk about the racist smorgasbord that is this first couple of pages. I’ll be relying heavily here on Richard A. Iadonisi’s “Fu Manchu Meets Maklu-4: The Mandarin and Racial Stereotypes,” which is from a wonderful collection I will link to in the show notes. This chapter is brilliant and incredibly methodical in the way it outlines the range of stereotypes, both positive and negative, that the Mandarin upholds. We’ll definitely be coming back to it in later episodes when we encounter The Mandarin again.
For now, we need to set up some of the key terms and ideas of the piece, because we already get a lot of them here in the cover. So the dominant term of the piece, the umbrella stereotype under which all the other ones fall, is the notion of Yellow Peril. Initially this term was specifically used to refer to the rise of Japan as a military power; however, Iadonisi argues it’s almost shocking how quickly it became a much broader and more troubling representation of a general fear on the part of British and American societies that Orientals would one day unite and take over the world.
Dr. Fu Manchu, star of a series of novels by English author Sax Rohmer, was one of the first personifications of the collections of stereotypes that Yellow Peril signified. And visually, we absolutely see elements of this character in the Mandarin, particularly in his facial hair. (I’ll provide side-by-side images in the show notes for context.) According to Iadonisi what’s unique about the Mandarin is in part the sheer volume of stereotypes that are packed into this one character.
I won’t review all of the stereotypes Iadonisi reviews, but I will identify a few that are particularly important in this issue. The first is the linking of The Mandarin to Genghis Khan. Ignoring the irony of the fact that Khan was Mongol and not Chinese, this became a really common stereotype, as did the associated idea of an ‘undifferentiated crush of humanity.’ We see this, Iadonisi notes, right on the first page with all the identical-looking soldiers closing in on Tony.
Likewise, the fact that the Mandarin wants to conquer is important and tied to this idea of Yellow Peril. Now yes, lots of villains want to be powerful, but Iadonisi compares The Mandarin to someone like Crimson Dynamo, noting that while many of other communist agents are ultimately cogs in a larger machine, The Mandarin is “an agency rather than an agent, [and] thus at odds with Communism.” We’ll come back to this point later in the episode, because it’s super important and useful as a way to make sense of this particular issue.
But the other stereotype mentioned in the chapter that I wanted to bring up now was this idea of The Mandarin as “secretive.” Iadonisi suggests this descriptor is a very loaded one, tied to this idea of the inscrutable Oriental. It’s not enough for there to be a good kind of science embodied by Tony and a bad kind of science embodied by The Mandarin; the latter must be constantly Othered by linking his power to magic and mysticism.
Okay, I know that was a lot of heavier stuff right off the top, but I think to not address this right away when so many of these stereotypes are glaringly present in the opening pages would be a mistake. For now, let’s continue though.
Alright, so we get a caption that’s basically more of a lot of stuff we just talked about. It informs us that the Mandarin’s name has been spoken only in whispers, that he’s a kind of fearful legend in the West. In China, however, he is an even more fearful and real figure! A staff member referring to himself as “this lowly one” is begging the Mandarin’s forgiveness for interrupting his work. However, he’s been forced to do so because several high ranking military officials are there to see him.
The Mandarin is super upset that they came without invitation, but he still uses what seem to be the multi-coloured rings on his fingers to a lower a drawbridge. The officials are sufficiently wowed by this, and they worry on their way up what will happen to them if they don’t receive The Mandarin’s favour. They have come, it transpires, to beg The Mandarin to share his ‘atomic knowledge.’ And if you thought The Mandarin was mad before, that’s nothing to his reaction now. He’s absolutely outraged that the government wants him to share knowledge, speaking with scorn of the ‘Red Masters’ and vowing that he will never help anyone. The world, instead, will grovel at his feet. The soldiers do not argue this point. They take off from the castle as quickly as they can, clearly relieved to still be alive.
So obviously a lot of elements of what we just covered in the previous segment. Most notably, we have this figure of a Communist nation who appears entirely disinterested in Communism itself! His only investment is a much more individualistic kind of power, one linked to the imagery and ideology of conquering.
Meanwhile, Iron Man is receiving a briefing about The Mandarin at a meeting in the Pentagon. He doesn’t know the dude, he says, but he’d be happy to do some recon work and find out more. First, though, he has to stop by Stark Industries as Tony Stark. There, he remembers that his investigation of the Mandarin will necessitate Tony’s missing out on a party they are throwing for the Stark Industry employees. He no sooner realizes this then Bill, a cheery fellow in a purple suit and blue shirt, stops him in the hallway to tell Tony how much he’s looking forward to the event. Poor Bill! I mean, company events with all my co-workers and bosses are my idea of hell, but more power to you, buddy!
If Bill is doomed to be disappointed, however, that’s nothing compared to poor Pepper. She has a new hairdo and makeup, and she’s wearing a super cute dress which seems to be the exact same shade of yellow/gold as what we see in the Iron Man Suit. She’s really looking forward to showing all this off for Tony. While her complaints are thus far entirely internal, however, Bill is mad. Like, I have to assume at this point Bill has a deep and undying devotion for the shrimp ring at the company party and he’s worried that without Tony there they’ll be demoted to chips and dip or something, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone quite this upset about their boss not showing up to a company party.
Bill speculates that maybe Tony is sending Happy—his ‘flunky’—instead because he thinks himself far too important to hang out with his lowly employees. Tony protests that this isn’t fair, but before the conversation can proceed any further, an outraged Happy punches Bill in the nose, ranting about how Tony is the world’s greatest boss and how even dare Bill suggest otherwise.
Honestly, this moment felt super out of character for Happy? Despite my jokes about staning him it’s not that I think he’s a perfect character, but one of the core elements of his character as they’ve established it is that he’s not by nature a violent person. This was key to why his boxing career failed. I just don’t buy that he would go around punching someone, and especially for such sycophantic reasons? Like he complains about Tony as a boss all the time?
Anyway, it’s all a little bit clumsy. However, the reason behind the inclusion of the scene seems clear: it’s setting up a contrast between Tony and The Mandarin. Tony informs Happy that his employees are welcome to speak to him any way they would like, and that fists will never be used to settle arguments at his factories. Compare that to the terrified reverence with which The Mandarin is treated by his subordinates—even when they are members of his own government. Tony is very much being set up as the voice of democracy here while The Mandarin serves as a symbol of authoritarian brutality.
Pepper, meanwhile, has had enough of all of this. When the heck is anyone going to notice how hot she looks, she wants to know? She even devoted a lot of time to covering up her freckles! And I’m never going to shame other humans for whatever beauty routine makes them feel like their best self, but it does feel a bit sad to think that this aspect of Pepper’s aesthetic which I love and think of as central to her look is something she feels she needs to cover up.
Tony and Happy’s respective reactions are telling. Tony awkwardly says she looks so beautiful that he didn’t recognize her. Happy tells her he liked how she looked before. Now, let’s be clear that neither of these is an ideal response. Why can’t anyone just give this woman the validation she is explicitly asking for and tell her she looks nice? But I assume we’re clearly being set up to realize in this moment that Happy is the better choice for Pepper because he loves her for who she really is. I remain concerned for pretty much everyone in this scenario, and very confused about why the three of them can’t just get together in a lovely polyamorous triad.
Thankfully, we transition away from this nightmare and into mainland China, where Iron Man is leaping from a plane. His descent is witnessed by some troops, also depicted with a breathtaking degree of racism. When they do not see a parachute emerge, they assume that the Americans can’t even make those properly and that the soldier has plunged to his death. This allows Tony to make it to the castle with no issues—at least until he encounters the Mandarin’s private guards. (So another instance where the Mandarin and the State are almost entirely disconnected. The national army are completely unable to prevent Tony’s infiltration; only the private security force even know he’s there.)
Even these forces, however, stand little chance against Iron Man. Tony does learn, though, that there is a short circuit somewhere that is causing his energy reserves to fall dangerously low. He has no time to stop and fix it, though, so he must simply plan to be in and out quickly.
The Mandarin, watching Iron Man’s approach, uses a giant ray with some kind of magnetic pull to draw Tony inside the castle. He is deposited in a room where the walls immediately begin to press in on him, and if you think I thought of anything but the trash compactor scene in Star Wars, you are 100% wrong. Tony escapes through a grate in the roof, however, and make it up into the same room where the Mandarin is waiting.
This time, he plans to stun Tony with a paralysis ray! Tony, however, is able to use his chest unit to dispel the ray. He also taunts The Mandarin by referring to him as a weak imitation of Genghis Khan—you know, just in case we didn’t understand the not remotely subtle references being made in the rest of the issue. He then immediately vows, in true Tony Stark fashion, to take the Mandarin out or die trying. And honestly at this point I feel like if Tony doesn’t threaten to kill himself in order to defeat a villain, that’s a clear sign that I just shouldn’t bother taking this person seriously. Like I basically imagine the villains league sitting around and bragging about how many times Tony threatened to get himself killed. “He threatened to die three times in a single battle?” “Pfft, three? Try five!”
The Mandarin uses one of his rings to vanish, causing Tony to refer to him as ‘tricky.’ We then have a standoff between Tony’s utility belt and the Mandarin’s rings. This is a style of artwork we’ve seen before, actually, except that time it was a battle of two belts. This time, however, Iron Man is unsuccessful. The Mandarin uses a green ring that sends a high intensity wave of sound out to meet Tony’s. This ends up turning the sound back on Tony at an amplified volume, and while Tony is recovering from the agony of that, he’s hit again with the paralyzation ray.
As he stands there frozen, he realizes that each of the Mandarin’s Ten Rings must contain a different power, and the Mandarin brags that the mightiest one is yet to be revealed!
But first, back to the comics’ most mighty weapon of all: an under-appreciated Pepper Potts. She’s desperate, you see, because if Tony isn’t going to take her to the employee party, someone has to. (And I just, I still have so many questions about these parties? Would it really be such a faux pas for a single employee to show up sans a date to a work function? Is this really a thing?) Well it is for Pepper, anyway, and you know what they say about desperate times. She calls Happy, who is absolutely delighted and thinks to himself that he hopes Tony takes his time returning. Meanwhile, Pepper monologue has her ranting about how charmless Happy is and how he’s barely better than having no date.
Look, I don’t want to be repetitive, but am I truly supposed to find this romantic? Are they trying for like a Pride and Prejudice style relationship here? Because it isn’t working! Pepper, who is otherwise fantastic, comes off as deeply mean and spiteful anytime Happy is around, while Happy goes from being one of my favourite humans to kind of a pig anytime she’s in his presence. It’s awful and I hate it.
And structurally, I really struggle to understand why the scenes are intercut this way. I am not an expert in comics specifically, but I do have enough of a background in narrative structure more generally to say that when you intercut something like a major fight scene and a romantic sequence, you’reimplying that on some level, the two are related. Either they share similar stakes, or there’s something thematically related about them, or they share a common character…something has to bring these things together. And yes, sometimes there can be comedy in doing this with two scenes that are clearly not on the same level, like someone fighting for their life while someone engages in a deadly struggle to choose a shade of nail polish or something, but this doesn’t feel winking or knowing in the way those kind of juxtapositions usually are. This just felt kind of clumsy.
Alright, anyway, back to Tony and the Mandarin. The latter electrifies the walls of the room they are in, so that Tony is unable to leave, and then he decides to unleash his deadly…karate skills? Yeah, this is the heart of what our book chapter from earlier was saying. This guy has done the almost impossible and out-scienced Iron Man. The power of the Ten Rings appears to be more than a match for the Iron Man armour. But instead of taking him down with those, the audience instead has to be reminded that the Mandarin is an Other by invoking karate, and having him use that skill set to try to take Tony down.
Tony realizes in the midst of this fight that while he was immobile, the Mandarin somehow messed with the transistors in the suit so that he would come across as much stronger than he was. (So not only is he using a ‘mystical’ fighting style, it’s also an illusion of sorts.) Desperate, knowing his enemy is about to deliver a final killing blow, Tony stops and pulls out a weapon of his own…
A CALCULATOR. That’s right, friends, the suit has a built in slide-rule calculator, and Tony stops and starts doing some math, muttering about angles and velocity and percentages. This is easily one of my all-time favourite fight scene moments. It turns out not to have been entirely a feint either—Tony was buying time, yes, but he was genuinely doing calculations related to how he should orient his body so that when The Mandarin brought his arm down for that last blow—it was at the wrong angle, which left the Mandarin’s arm in debilitating pain, allowing Tony to escape.
And run he does, back to the pick-up plane which is waiting for him. And he’s back just in time to be surrounded by a bunch of guys all telling her how hot she is while Happy skulks in a corner, positive she’s just trying to make him jealous. When Tony arrives just as an employee calls him ‘nuts’ for not having asked Pepper out, Happy quickly invites him to join he and Pepper at their table. Pepper is dismayed, because this makes it sound like she and Pepper are an item, and Tony is too much of a gentleman to ask out someone who is taken. Happy, meanwhile, is worried that Tony himself may be angry that he’s lost Pepper to his chauffeur.
And Tony? Tony’s mind is back with the Mandarin, who is manspreading on his throne like a true villain, plotting his next move.
Doing the Readings Part Two
Let’s go back to Doing the Readings, because there’s a couple of other things we should wrap up about the Mandarin. The first is actually in regards to his name! The Mandarin, Iadonisi tells us, is a title from Imperial China, referring to a bureaucrat. It’s no coincidence, Iadonisi says, that at precisely the moment when Communist China was asserting itself as a legitimate threat on the global stage, we get a villain’s name that brings us back to the days when “China and its resources were being apportioned to Western Powers.”
Ultimately, then, I think it would be fair to suggest that while Tony has thus far spent a lot more time in battle against forces from the USSR, the ‘true’ enemy (in the sense of being depicted as truly evil and irredeemable) is China. I mean, think even about the differing fates of The Crimson Dynamo and the Mandarin. The former turns out to have been a generally decent dude just trapped in a bad system. By the end of the comic, Tony’s arm is around him and they’re besties. This suggests that while Communism is a threat, the actual people within it are still fundamentally good. But there’s no redeeming The Mandarin in this issue, and I suspect not in any issues to come. Because the United States at this moment in time is more afraid of China than anything else.
Look, team, I’m sorry to be a bit of a downer. I wanted to be into this, and I do know (without spoilers because I have not yet seen the movie since it was not safe for me to be in a theatre where I live) that Shang-Chi does some really important work to re-write this story. And honestly, I think that thinking about that process of re-writing and re-telling going on in contemporary adaptations of these stories is probably one of the only reasons to read them now. Especially in the current moment with Anti-Asian hatred and violence still at such a high, there is no point other than critique and discussions about how to change and reclaim the story to spend much time talking about it.
I can’t even do a bisexuality metre. Not only because the racism made sexytimes the last thing on my mind, but also because the entire storyline with Pepper and Happy just sort of made me sad for pretty much everyone. Sorry, team!
Readers Like You
But we do have a readers like you segment! This was, in case it’s not clear, my least favourite of the comics so far. And that got me thinking: what is your least favourite comic you have encountered, Iron Man or otherwise? Send in a screenshot or quote that exemplifies what you despise about it!
And while you’re at it, you may have noticed that this comic was somewhat light on special segments. I already have one new one in mind, a relationship counselling sort of segment where I re-write Pepper and Happy’s conversations so that they represent an actually healthy, mutually respectful relationship. But if you have other ideas for segments you want to hear, please let me know!
And while you’re at it, come talk to me about anything else you want! 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
-Battle a villain that would have been more timely a couple of weeks ago, The Scarecrow!
-And I will: try to limit the number of ‘Crowening’/Schitt’s Creek references to under five (no promises)
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!