Tales of Suspense #51 – 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.
[00:19:10] The long-awaited Discord!
Episode 13 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 #51. Its cover date is March 1964. And this week, as I joked last week, we’ll be dealing with a villain that would have been more topical if I could have managed to get to him sooner: The Scarecrow! He is pictured on the cover being interrupted mid-robbery by Iron Man. While many would be frightened to encounter Iron Man’s grumpy face, the caption tells us, The Scarecrow isn’t trembling! What strange powers does he possess?
The teaser page also features a robbery. This time Iron Man is in flight, and below stands a man in a green checked suit jacket and purple pants and hat, who appears to be robbing the box office of a revue. A caption echoes what it assumes will be reader’s criticism, which is ‘how could a scarecrow give Iron Man trouble?’ and promises we will find out. They’re actually doing something pretty clever with this teaser page which we’ll get to in a minute, but I also first wanted to mention the cutesy little credits at the bottom of the teaser page. We have our writer, credited as Stan (when does he sleep?) Lee, our illustrator Don (when does he eat) Heck, and our letterer Don (when will he learn to spell?) Heck. This obvious was a cute little thing, and it did manage to drag a smile out of me on a grumpy afternoon that involved my toddler informing my parter and I that he did not wish to be part of our family anymore because we wouldn’t give him extra Halloween candy. However, on a serious note, it was striking to me that the culture of glorifying overwork in the creative industry was present even at this moment. The whole bragging about never eating and sleeping is still really common in a lot of professions, including academia where I spent most of my professional life, but I think moments like these are really important historical artifacts in this regard because they show us that this attitude toward labour didn’t just suddenly emerge as if from a vacuum. They have a history. They come from somewhere. And it’s important to recognize those legacies so we can disrupt them! So if you want to pop some brags into your replies on social media about how much you’ve eaten or slept lately, I would love to hear them, comrades!
Alright, so the thing that’s kind of cool about this teaser page is that rather than showing us an out of context battle scene that’ll come three quarters of the way through the issue, we follow Iron Man and our robber right from this scene and into the main body of the narrative. So our well-dressed robber friend runs into the theatre he was just trying to rob. Iron Man follows, but thinks to himself that since he is indoors and surrounded by bystanders, he must modulate his speed in order to ensure no one ends up injured. So he kind of hovers above the guy, who goes running pas the orchestra pit. Onstage, a contortionist whose stage name is The Uncanny Umberto, thinks to himself that it’ll be fantastic publicity for his show if he is able to catch our fugitive before Iron Man does!
I honestly assumed this was going to be some kind of cautionary tale about how only rich, handsome millionaires should do vigilante justice, but it actually works! Contortionist guy rolls himself into a tiny ball and then gets in the thief’s path, tripping him. He even gets out a decent one-liner: “Strrrrike! You’re out!” Really, not a bad showing for an amateur.
And Iron Man thinks to too! He congratulates Umberto, and makes an off-hand comment about how they’re all lucky Umberto is on the side of the law. Naturally, Umberto immediately goes “WOAH WHAT IF I DID CRIME?” And he carries through on this thought incredibly quickly. Like he walks home from the theatre, sees the Scarecrow disguise in the window, buys it, and then decides to steal the trained crows of a fellow performer.
More on that in just a moment, but I did want to go back to what I said about the cleverness of the teaser. Because it’s not only unique that we follow the scene from the teaser right into the main narrative. There’s also a kind of bait and switch where we’re set up to think that the person robbing the theatre is the scarecrow. But he’s not! It’s a little thing, but it really felt like a show of confidence and invention that the writer and artists were willing to take expectations that they themselves have had a hand in establishing as the norm (we see the villain on the cover and teaser page), and subvert them. Good job, team!
Alright, so as I said, Umberto has decided that the one thing missing from his current plan of doing crime is not being gay, which is the obvious solution, but…getting birds. (Get birds do crime just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but whatever! Now that I’m saying it, I’ve made myself want the first piece of merchandise from this show to be a shirt reading ‘Get birds, do crime.’) So he breaks into his pal Thornton’s place—Thornton is old and, as all olds are known to do, sleeps all the time—and steals his trained crows. Thornton was going to retire after this anyway, so it’s all good.
Back in Umberto’s own apartment, the crows are picking up theft quickly. As they hold a bunch of jewelry, Umberto checks out the society pages, and comes across a picture of Tony Stark out with a couple of film stars. (Speaking of which, when do we get more Tony on dates storylines? We went from feast to famine on that front!) This leads to Umberto realizing that Tony probably isn’t home a lot, and thus makes a fantastic target for a robbery.
And it’s as if the comics gods of forty years ago have heard me, because we transition to the arrival of Veronica Vogue in Tony’s office. (What a name!) She asks Pepper to alert Tony to her arrival, calling her ‘my good woman.’ While I am admittedly not totally up on my 1960s slang, I don’t take this phrasing as a massive insult. Pepper, who is likely just looking for a reason to be offended, does. She therefore tells Veronica that Tony is out of town. Veronica, deeply offended to have been stood up, storms off. When Tony inquires as to her absence later, specifically asking after a gorgeous willowy blonde, Pepper claims not to have seen her, rationalizing this to herself by mentally arguing that Veronica was clearly not a natural blonde, so she wasn’t really lying. Tony, for his part, realizes that Pepper is probably lying, but decides he’s cool with it because he was getting a bit bored of Veronica anyway.
Dear Straight People
Alright, I promised it last week, and I’m here to deliver! Welcome to Dear Straight People where I, a super queer person, deliver helpful and loving advice to fictional heterosexuals about whom I am lovingly concerned.
Okay, let’s talk, Pepper. Look, I get it. You are beautiful, especially this week in this stunning green dress with a leopard print collar look you have going. You are an absolute snack, and it is utterly absurd that Tony doesn’t fall at your feet at literally every opportunity. You are also living within a context where secretaries are in a horrible double-bind of being overtly sexualized while also mocked and disregarded as legitimate love interests. It sucks. And trust me, I don’t like it either.
And hey, maybe you were even onto the fact that your so-called dreamboat boss was not actually that into the girl that he was seeing. Maybe it felt like you were doing him a favour by interfering in and potentially ending that relationship. But here’s the thing: that was still his choice to make. And not only is it kind of gross and problematic to try to strip someone’s agency away from them just because you think you can make the better choice, but you also stepped into a horrible and very common trap by doing this guy’s emotional labour for him. If he wants to break up with Veronica because he is bored, or because she won’t change her last name (if you’re listening Veronica NEVER CHANGE THAT NAME), let him do it! If you start off a relationship by managing someone else’s feelings for them, then that dynamic will just persist and all of a sudden you’re looking at a lifetime with someone who constantly lets themselves off the emotional hook because they know you’ll handle it for them.
I’m sure this is the first of many conversations we’ll have, Pepper. I love you and want you to succeed.
Okay, back to our plot. And I literally don’t care how silly anything else that happens is because I finally get to see Happy Hogan actually being a chauffeur, and it is just as charming as I thought it would be, friends! He’s wearing a cute little purple hat and matching coat. And a bow tie! A freaking bow-tie! I started an Instagram for this show even though I am already juggling way too much on the social media front entirely so that I could swoon in delight over this image.
The good news is, Happy’s total cuteness is rewarded. Because Tony, robbed of a date for the evening, decides instead to play poker with Happy, who is absolutely thrilled by this development. However, when they arrive at Tony’s apartment, they find the place has been ransacked! And this was the point where I decided that The Scarecrow is in fact my most hated villain, because you robbed Happy of his date with Tony? How dare?!
Happy and Tony quickly realize the robber is still in the house, too. Specifically, they find the man trying to enter Tony’ wall safe. Happy rushes in, determined to defend Tony’s honour and get his date night back. However, our contortionist friend leaps up, wraps his ankles around Happy’s head, and flips him all the way onto his back in a move that made me weirdly nostalgic for watching professional wrestling as a kid. Happy, even in defeated, retained his title of King of my Heart by yelling “this is extremely mortifyin’” on his way down.
Tony, meanwhile, takes advantage of the fight to slip out of the room and into the Iron Man armour. The Scarecrow takes off and hides behind a locked door. Tony assumes this is out of fear, and simply punches his way through the door, but that’s when the trained crows emerge! They come out carrying some kind of burlap-looking drapery, and then wrap the cord around Iron Man. Tony is disoriented and surprised enough by the whole thing that he falls over, but he’s relatively quick to free himself.
Iron Man sees the crows who trapped him flying out the window and into the sky. And let me be clear, his vision is not obscured. It is quite clearly just the crows. They’re not carrying anyone or anything, there is nothing remotely ambiguous about the shot. But somehow he decides the only logical explanation for the fact that he can’t immediately see Scarecrow is that the villain has escaped with them. That’s right, one of the smartest people in the Marvel universe is outwitted not by communist spies or massive, spectacular weapons. No, he’s outwitted by a bunch of birds and a dude who literally bought the first costume he saw after deciding to go evil.
Now obviously, our friend is still in the apartment. However, so is Happy Hogan, and the latter wants a chance to redeem himself! He finds Scarecrow rifling through Tony’s stuff and tries to capture him, but Scarecrow decides he has found what he is looking for, and he takes off with a pile of papers. The crows do in fact break his fall when he leaps from the building, but as that would be clearly visible, I stand by my previous assessment that Tony is a little off his game this week.
Speaking of, the crows continue to outwit our hero. They break off from their formation of three, forcing Tony to recognize that he can’t follow in three different directions at the same time. Meanwhile, the Scarecrow has arrived home and is realizing that what he stole is some plans—specifically, for new transistor-powered weapons that Tony wants to make. The Scrarecrow decides to offer to sell them back to Tony, and in a truly silly but funny flex, has the crows carry the phone to him.
Tony arrives back at his penthouse just in time to receive the call. Happy is outraged that his boss intends to go to this meeting, but Tony is quick to note that he won’t go himself—he’ll send Iron Man. After a disappointed Happy, apparently realizing their date is truly never going to happen, leaves, Tony gets down to business. We see him stuff a mysterious gadget, which looks as non-description and square-like as the other examples of technology we’ve seen in the last couple of episodes, into a briefcase.
Despite his promise to Happy, he shows up for the supposed trade as Tony Stark, which he explains (aloud, because this secret identity thing remains the least secretive thing to ever happen) by noting that the Scarecrow would likely run if he encountered Iron Man. Scarecrow shows up, accepts the briefcase, and notes that it is only the first of many payments he will expect in exchange for the plans. And then he takes off, using the birds as sort of sentient bondage for Tony in an image I will definitely put on Instagram because it’s hilarious. Scarecrow then leaps onto a waiting motorboat and takes off, to somewhere he says he will be safe.
Tony seems, at most, vaguely annoyed by this. I mean, the guy doesn’t even promise to get himself killed in the effort of defeating Scarecrow, so we know how seriously to take this guy. Tony suits up and follows Scarecrow to a Cuban gunboat, with which he has planned a rendevouz.
By Castro’s Beard and Doing the Readings
And this brings us to a segment I am calling, for this week, By Castro’s Beard. Now, it’s shockingly hard to find research about this particular issue, partly because it’s just so silly. I mean, this guy has gone from vaudeville performer to small time crook to Communist spy in a hilariously short amount of time. The whole thing is just ridiculous.
But if we’re thinking about Cuba as another front on the Cold War, this storyline is at least useful because it gives us a sense of how seriously popular media was treating the various enemies of the United States during the Cold War. Last week we talked about how, while we spent a lot more time with Russia, the combined hatred of communism and overt racism and so-called ‘yellow peril’ meant that China is depicted as by far the most frightening Cold War enemy. So where does Cuba fit in all of this? I mean, judging by the context in which we encounter them here, they’re not being treated very seriously. They’re relying for their intelligence on dudes like Scarecrow, for goodness sake.
One bit of reading I did do for this week was not at all about the comic, but did provide a great overview of the hostilities between Cuba and the United States. (I’ll link to it in the show notes.) In short, it argued that part of the reason that tensions between the two nations went on for so much longer than the Cold War itself was that the Cold War was really just a small chapter in a much longer history. While folks like Castro obviously made use of Communist talking points, the author of this piece argues that ultimately, the Cuban position was a broader struggle against US imperialism, which had been a threat for a long time before the Cold War, and
Now it’s interesting, because in some ways one would think the fact that these issues were rooted in something so much deeper would mean that Cuba would be represented as a more serious threat. But there was still a pretty genuine belief at this point that the trade sanctions against Cuba would bring about the end of Castro’s leadership. So I think the very thing that Cubans were fighting against—the idea that they were essentially a tool and would eventually be annexed by one nation or another—is precisely the reason that their cause is not treated with more gravitas here.
Alright, back to the gunboat. So Scarecrow boards, and hands over the briefcase, which he is assured the “bearded one” will pay handsomely for. However, before they can make off with their bounty, the briefcase goes flying out of the Cuban soldier’s hands! Because it belongs, Tony grandly announces “to America!” Which, barf. I’ve never found him so simplistically and nauseatingly patriotic before. 0/10.
The other Cuban soldiers try to shoot Tony, but the bullets bounce harmlessly away. And in case you’re thinking Tony is about to deploy some super awesome bit of tech? No, the thing in the suitcase was just the magnet he used to get the briefcase to come to him. All he does with the Cubans and Scarecrow is throw them in the water. (Again, on top of the silliness factor, I think this tells us a lot about how little the US thought of Cuba as a credible threat.) The scene does yield an almost catty Tony, who pulls out a drill that he jokes he will use to make ventilation holes in the boat. Except, oh no! He drilled too deep and broke the ship! Oh drat. Seriously, 100% more of this kind of Tony please. I like it way more than when he just explains why he’s so smart and what he’s doing to me.
The Scarecrow, however, is able to escape with the help of his bird friends. They pull him to shore—Cuban shore, that is. Tony wants to go after him, but doesn’t want to get shot out of the sky, plus he’s running out of power in his jet boots. So home he goes. And speaking of not taking people seriously, Tony decides to get back at Pepper for the stunt she pulled earlier. He brings up tickets to the event he was planning to attend with Veronica, raising Pepper’s hopes that he will attend with her. Instead, he offers them to she and Happy. A furious Pepper mentally threatens to get back at Tony, perhaps by falling for Happy. And as a person who can sometimes find spite super motivational, I did enjoy the idea that she would force herself to fall for a man she despises purely to win this bizarre little game between she and Tony. But mostly, I remained saddened by the straight antics in these comics.
In our last panel, we encounter the Scarecrow one last time. He’s brooding on the shores of Cuba, “a man without a country” and, I mean, not to belittle his struggle, but I am pretty sure Tony is going to forget about him like…next week. Could he not just sneak back into the country? Anyway, he promises that he’s never going to underestimate Iron Man again, and that’s where we leave it for this week!
So what do we make of this issue? I mean, not a whole lot. I didn’t actively despise it the way I felt about The Mandarin’s representation. It was some light-hearted, fluffy fun, and I do enjoy these moments when you can see the folks at Marvel just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. In some ways, I would draw a lot of parallels between these comics and the structure of The X-Files. For those who aren’t familiar with the show, it worked with a kind of hybrid structure where there would be some episodes that were very ‘monster of the week.’ Mulder and Scully would investigate, wrap the case up, and for the most part we never heard from anyone else in that episode again. And then other weeks would be called Mythos or Conspiracy weeks. Those episodes would focus on the larger mysteries of the show, the questions and characters and themes that the show wanted to revisit and build upon.
As a structure for comics, I think something like that can be harder to pull off sometimes because of the question of scale. Like if Tony can defeat some of the more impressive villains that we are clearly meant to take more seriously, then how does he not seem a little absurd when he gets even momentarily delayed by someone like Scarecrow?
At the same time, though, the constantly heightening stakes of something like that MCU got kind of exhausting for me after a while. The good thing about monster of the week type stories is that they’re a way to sort of let off steam and have some fun, and in that way I think issues like this, or the one with Cleopatra, they do accomplish that kind of function. I’ll be interested to see if and when we get more of these kinds of stories.
And now for the bisexuality metre. You know, I don’t know if I’ve ever been back and forth about a bisexuality metre quite as much as this week’s. In some ways this was an excessively and annoyingly straight issue. However, there was also something pretty chaotic bisexual about Tony ignoring the advances of one person (Pepper), inviting another (Happy) on a date, only to end up trying to set them up with one another. For that alone I will give Tony a solid 6/10 in this particular issue.
Readers Like You
Now let’s talk Readers Like You for a minute. I’m still happy to hear from you about the poll I put out last time, about whether you want to keep going as I have been with the solo comics, or if we should start working some issues of Avengers in there too.
I also wanted to announce that I have finally put a Discord together! It’s still a work in progress, much like the podcast website, but I’m really excited about this. My hope is that over time, we can use Discord as a lot of things: a book club, for those of you who are reading the comics along with me and want the chance to chat; a resource-sharing forum, where we can trade information specific to the Iron Man comics, and maybe even more generally some stuff about how to read comics for those of you who are really new; and, of course, we can use the Discord server to debrief episodes of the podcast, too. There’s a lot of potential to turn this space into whatever we want it to be, and I really hope you’ll join me there!
You can also still reach out in all the other ways too: 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, share, and/or review.
Please tune in next week, where Tony will
-Encounter Black Widow!
-Honestly my notes just say BLACK WIDOW BLACK WIDOW in huge capital letters. Like I think there was something about Crimson Dynamo, but I saw we were finally meeting Natasha and pretty much stopped caring about other stuff.
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!