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.
0:01:32] Didn’t Iron Man reform Crimson Dynamo before? Why yes!
[00:06:00] Tony Stark, the posterboy of failing 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 Ma
This episode we’ll be talking about Tales of Suspense #52. Its cover date is April 1964, and our cover page promises the return of one familiar frenemy, and the introduction of another! Specifically, we see Iron Man battling Crimson Dynamo, who when we last saw him had pledged himself as an ally to the United States, defecting against the USSR. In a doorway behind them stands a woman in an emerald blue dress and grey furs: The Black Widow. And just in case the description of her on the first page as “the gorgeous new menace” is not enough, the teaser reminds us again that this woman is hawt. The Black Widow, it says, is ‘breathtaking.’ Alert, everyone! Alert! There is an attractive woman in this issue!
The larger image on the page is of Iron Man doubled over in pain, demanding to know why his BFF the Crimson Dynamo would betray him. And just in case having Tony asking the question is too ambiguous, the teaser also contains a caption structured as a Q&A. “Didn’t Iron Man reform Crimson Dynamo before?” It demands. Yep, and to find out why they’re at odds again, we’ll just have to read on!
In some cases I’ve commented before that it feels like the artwork and the text are not quite trusting one another. In this case, though, the repetition actually reminded me of teaching. In my previous life as a university instructor, I was told that if you really wanted students to remember something, you needed to have it in at least three different places, ideally in three different forms. So if you want them to know the penalty for late submissions, for instance, you put it in the syllabus, but you also maybe make an online quiz about course policies, and then a TikTok with the same information. To me, this repetition felt like it was sort of teaching readers how to engage with comics: showing them how to ask the right questions, not only to build suspense, but so that they start to learn how to do some of this for themselves.
In that sense, I actually think this teaser page is pretty clever. Comics had of course been around for a while by this point, but its readership was pretty young, and I imagine there was a fair amount of turnover; in other words, they were picking up new readers all the time. Encouraging fans to recognize recurring characters, to ask questions, to be engaged as readers, I mean it’s not al that different from what I used to do in English classrooms. There’s a reason comics have been around for as long as they have, and that they have such devoted and passionate readerships. Well, there’s more than one reason, actually, but I would argue that the way that comics from this era were willing to do this kind of work to instruct and direct readers is absolutely part of it.
So the narrative proper begins with the Crimson Dynamo moving through a dark Stark Industries, cloaked in shadow. He absolutely looks like he’s doing something shady. And it’s hardly reassuring when he moves into what is described as a top secret weapons research area. He has pledged himself, he says, to fathoming the secret of the laser light, and he does not intend to fail! This sounds somewhat mystical, but this particular panel contains a caption with an editors note.
The Science Division
That note describes a “laser light,” composed of parallel photon rays. If such a source could be safely handled, the editor argues, it would be the perfect weapon! Now, you will recall if you’ve been with me for long in this show that I definitely do not have a strong science background. However, the framing of this as an editor’s note definitely suggested some kind of legitimacy, so off I went!
Does this technology exist? Has it progressed since the moment that this comic was written? Well, yes and no. Photon weapons would fall under the general category of what are called directed energy weapons; that’s essentially just a fancy way of saying weapon that uses highly focused energy. In short, there’s been a lot of development in this area ands also very little. There’s a ton of research going on in the US, and across the world, and some weapons and programs are advanced enough that they should be online in the next several years.
However, many of them are still in the experimental stage. And we definitely are not anywhere close to something like what Vanko is suggesting, for a couple of reasons. The first is power: these kinds of weapons would require massive amounts of power for something to operate. So especially for something like a photon gun, the size of the power source you would need to carry on you would make it pretty prohibitive. But without that kind of power, you’re basically talking about nothing more than a super fancy laser pointer.
The so-called blooming effect is also a major issue. Laser beams are diffused and refracted super easily, so they pretty much always need to be mounted on a platform for stability, and it’s still really hard even then to create an unbroken beam. While the comic stresses that it’s the handling of the ray that would be the problem, in reality it’s actually the diffusion—which the editor frames as a problem that’s already solved—which has actually prevented this kind of weaponry from being a reality thus far.
For now, though, back into the world of pretend science, which honestly is much more my speed. So based on the teaser and title page, we assumed until this moment that Vanko had already turned ‘bad’ again. However, the third panel on the page reveals Tony watching him, proudly noting that Vanko is still at SI long after others have left for the day. The only reason Tony ends up interfering at all is when he realizes that Vanko is about to use himself as a guinea pig for the technology.
Tony dives into the lab and berates Vanko for taking chances with his life. Vanko, meanwhile, is in despair. He wants, he says, to repay the United States for their protection, and he’s devastated that he has failed thus far. Tony, basically echoing that Beckett quote we discussed not long ago about failing better, gives him a pep-talk which essentially amounts to ‘yep, that’s science.’ It’s honestly a really nice and endearing scene from both of them.
We then flashback briefly to the moment where Iron Man convinced Crimson Dynamo to turn on the Soviets. This honestly felt a bit unnecessary given how many times we’ve been given this information, but again I’m feeling a little more forgiving on that front right now. We then move behind the Iron Curtain, back to Kruschev who is described only as “a short pudgy figure.” He is being shown footage of Vanko that confirms his defection to the United States, and Kruschev is unimpressed! He calls in The Black Widow, and a dude named Boris.
In The Widow walks a short while later, wearing a green dress and a matching hat with a little veil. (This turns out to be a wardrobe staple for the Widow, and even if the symbolism of her masking or concealing her face is a bit obvious, I still really love it.) Her partner Boris is invited to walk around the desk to view the footage. And instead? HE PICKS UP THE DESK AND HOLDS IT ABOVE HIS HEAD FOR THE ENTIRETY OF THE CONVERSATION.
And I mean I get that, much like with our ham throwing friend a while back, they are just trying to hit the ‘brutal Russian himbo’ note pretty hard. But combined with how often they feel the need to tell us that The Widow is beautiful, it also just feels like everyone’s gender performativity in this issue has been turned up to 11. To the point of under absurdity.
But anyway, while Boris holds the desk in the air, The Widow takes a close look at the images of their targets, of which there are three: Vanko, Iron Man, and Tony Stark. The Widow is particularly intrigued by the latter, whom she notes is handsome, rich, and smart. They will have a week to take down all three.
Our Russian friends are next seen entering the Stark Industries offices. Pepper and Happy are doing their usual awkward heterosexualing—and yes, I am turning heterosexual into a verb. Happy is asking her out, she is refusing, it’s honestly a relief that the conversation is cut short. Natasha refuses Pepper’s attempt to introduce her, and instead approaches Tony herself, using the cover story that Boris, her brother, is a science teacher in the Ukraine who wishes to learn about the greatness of American technology. Tony wastes no time in thinking about how hot Natasha is. Which, at this point I am officially starting account. We’re at three! But anyway, he volunteers to give she and her brother a personal tour.
Of course, he immediately then wants to ditch Boris. He invites Natasha, who is too lovely to spend all day in a factory (hot count: four), to go out to dinner with him. She accepts the invitation. Which means Tony’s historic dry spell is finally at an end! We finally get to see dating Tony again! He takes Natasha to a super swank club, and she expresses surprise that he is both smart and charming. It’s exactly the kind of thing that men say to women who are both beautiful and intelligent, and I LOVE HER.
Unfortunately, rather than staying with the two of them, we go back to Boris. Who takes the earliest possible opportunity to sneak away rom the tour and into the restricted area where he correctly assumes Vanko will be working. He punches his way through the door, and informs Vanko that if he sabotages Tony’s new secret project, his life will be spared. Vanko categorically refuses, again noting his gratitude to the Americans.
And honestly, that’s starting to feel like a lot? Like, Tony threatened to kill him and then created a false recording of Kruschev. It’s hardly like he saved Vanko’s family dog or something. But of course, the immediate comparison is to Boris, so we’re again getting this emphasis on the brutality of the Communists versus the mercy of the United States.
So after Vanko refuses, Boris shoots him with a weapon called a jet paralyzer, which uses magnetic fibres almost like a rope to immobilize Vanko. He sets up a recording of Vanko lecturing, and then exits the room with Vanko’s body in a bag. Somehow, the security guard is satisfied that this rando taking a tour has been tasked to carry a body-shaped item by Vanko, and he doesn’t want to interrupt Vanko’s lecture to verify. I really hope this dude is fired!
But anyway, Boris is delighted with himself, because he is able to bring Vanko back alive to the waiting submarine, and no one anticipated that. He also has the Crimson Dynamo suit, so he returns secretly to the SI plant. And be begins what he terms a ‘one man sabotage’ against Tony Stark.
By Lenin’s Beard
It’s definitely notable how many variations we have seen on this storyline, and that brings us to our By Lenin’s Beard segment. And I think it tells us a huge amount about the nature of the Cold War. We’ve talked before about the fact that the Communists are always figured as people who could never build this stuff themselves, only interfere with it. But I think it’s equally important to realize how little America seems to have an identity in this conflict outside of capitalist ideology. Even in a fantasy capacity, the kinds of strikes they imagine to be utterly devastating are not violence against American people, but against property. Against finance.
Importantly, the only other quality demonstrated to be particularly American up to this point is mercy—like Tony’s approach to Vanko. It’s telling, of course, that there’s never any tension depicted between the two: capitalism and mercy. In some ways, that’s one of the things that feels the most dated to me about these comics. In the current moment the veil is kind of off. America has largely stopped pretending that it privileges the limiting of suffering over profit. However, at this point, there appears to be a sincere belief that the two can co-exist.
Case in point: in the next scene, Tony receives news about the sabotage. He is still out with Natasha, and while she internally celebrates his apparent panic, he is thinking to himself how cold she is for being unmoved by all this ‘excitement.’ In other words, her absence of sympathy bothers him. This is an interesting moment of intersection between gender and politics, too. Tony fails to recognize she is a double-agent only because he reads her response in terms of her failing to act appropriately as a woman rather than thinking about it reflecting her ideological loyalties.
Tony rushes back to Stark Industries and changes into the suit. By now a massive fire is blazing in the lab, but the suit is apparently fireproof, so Tony is able to get inside, and he finds Boris, whom he assumes to be Vanko, in the suit. Relieved to find Vanko alive and assuming he is there to try to ensure the survival of the laser ray, Iron Man offers to help carry it out. When he lifts it, Boris hits him in the back with an electrical charge that immediately begins draining energy from the suit. He then picks Iron Man up, with the plan to escape and explain to anyone who might see that he is rescuing Iron Man.
Boris brings him back to the sub, and everyone is delighted to have a helpless Iron Man in front of them. Crucially, none of them try to take off the faceplate, which feels quite silly. And it doesn’t feel like it would have been that hard to add a moment where they try but there’s some kind of lock engaged that they can’t get around even with the power to the suit drained. But anyway, Tony eventually wakes and realizes he has to recharge—fast. Eventually, he is able to hook the suit up to a the current that is powering a lightbulb. He also has another lightbulb moment: he sees Vanko lying on the table next to him and realizes that he was not in fact betrayed.
So Tony rips off the netting stuff, grabs Vanko, and they fly away, breaking right through the side of the submarine. There’s a cute scene where he and Vanko bicker—Vanko is worried the suit isn’t powerful enough to carry them both, and Tony is deeply offended by the very idea that it wouldn’t. They also exchange some valuable information, too. Vanko informs Tony the man in the suit is Boris. They return to Stark Industires, find the man in question, and Tony crashes his way into the building.
Boris immediately tries to hit Iron man with the same electrical current he used before, but Tony has of course changed his frequency. So the attempt is unsuccessful. Boris threatens to use his physical strength, but Iron Man proceeds to punch him in the face. Which, I get that on one hand Cold War masculinity is fragile and they don’t want Tony to come across as physically weaker than his opponent. But this felt ridiculous. Not only because they are both in metal suits, but also because it seems to run counter to the narrative they’re wanting to tell about Russia being made up mostly of brainless himbos.
However, this moment does give Tony the chance to show off that mercy we were just talking about Vanko encourages Tony to kill Boris while he’s knocked out. However, Tony reminds him, “we don’t play that way.” Unfortunately, Boris uses this little debate as an opportunity to chance his own frequency and hit Tony with another electric charge. He then lifts up the massive machinery that is all part of the laser ray. Before he crushes Iron Man with it, though, Tony is able to use his transistors to lift the machinery and fly it to safety.
He returns, ready to bring an end to Boris, but then Natasha makes her play. She pretends to be trapped under the machinery Tony has just set down. Iron Man is distracted long enough for Boris to hit him with a jet of water, putting him in danger of being short circuited.
This is when Vanko makes his heroic play. He gets Boris’s attention, then pretends to flee. Vanko grabs the laser weapon he’s been working on since the beginning of the comic, the one that is dangerously unstable, and trains it on Boris. The latter is aware of the weapon’s imperfections, and is mostly amused by the threat, which he believes to be a bluff.
I’m going to cover the next part in a fair amount of detail, because it’s kind of touching and beautifully written. Vanko declares that he is more than willing to die for an ideal, and for a country that has been good to him. When Boris declares this “words, words, words,” Vanko replies “not just words, Boris, but deeds!” And he fires, killing himself and Boris. In a panel that is almost entirely red, Natasha is depicted running away in black and white. It’s a brilliant piece of art that I absolutely love. I’ll make sure to put it in the show notes, and on Instagram. We also get a panel featuring Iron Man, mask off, mourning the loss of his friend.
And then he’s back to his life as Tony Stark. We see Tony in the office. Happy informs him that he’s tracked down some information about who Boris’s phone sister actually was, and he wonders if Tony intends to go after her. Tony does not. In a way, he says, he pities The Black Widow: “all that beauty on the outside” (hot count: five) “but inside…nothing!”
We close on an image of Natasha. She’s back in green, wandering the streets of a nameless city in fear. She knows the penalty for failure, you see, and she must keep moving. The caption at the bottom of the panel promises we’ll see her again in the very next issue! Which is a first so far, and definitely suggests Natasha will be important for us. Yay!
And that’s it! This was a heck of an issue, easily one of my favourites thus far. And no surprise, it comes with a pretty high bisexuality metre!
I’ve already discussed the way that loving America and loving capitalism via Tony Stark are figured in these comics are exactly the same thing. So in a lot of ways this issue felt like a tragic love story. One person ‘reforming’ the other. A mistaken instance of betrayal. A brief, dramatic reconciliation, followed by the premature death of one lover. Seriously, it has all the elements of a wonderful, if melodramatic, romance.
And obviously they’re being even more explicit in how they’re teasing a similar dynamic with Natasha. It was really striking how much Tony understood her, the way any desire for revenge that he has is tempered by a realization of how afraid she must now be.
Basically, this issue was bisexual Tony at his best. I loved it. 10/10!
Readers Like You
Which brings us to our readers like you segment. So the , Discord has now been up and running for a week, so I figured it might be time to set up an actual event on it! Natasha, as I said before, returns in next week’s issue, and I’m super psyched about it. So psyched that I’d be up for a live read-through of the comic in advance of the actual episode.
I have no idea if folks are going to be interested, so I won’t make a big event of it this time. My basic plan is to be on the Discord Monday night at around 8:30 MST. I won’t spoil any major discussion points for the podcast, because honestly my first read-through notes are usually way less developed stuff like ‘YES ANOTHER JUMPSUIT’ or “dammit, heterosexuals!’ But if you are interested in reading along with me and sharing your thoughts, I would be thrilled to have you there.
And of course 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
-Run into the Black Widow again
-Plus we’ll meet The Watcher
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!