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.
[00:02:43] Katharina Wiedlack, “Ballerina with PTSD: Imagining Russia in Contemporary Black Widow Comics.”
[00:04:05] Last week’s discussion of The Crimson Dynamo
[00:10:48] Bill’s debut episode
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 #53. Its cover date is May 1964, and our cover knows what we’re here for! We get Natasha, front and…well, not quite centre, in a beautiful blue dress with her usual veiled hat and furs. She appears to be somehow causing a bunch of tanks to float over the head of Iron Man. He’s drawn in the air, his eyes cast upward, and even though it makes complete sense that he would be tracking where the flying tanks are, the pose almost makes him look like a swooning damsel. Like Natasha is on the ground, in control, feet planted, and Tony is in the air. Usually his ability to fly often means that he’s both literally and metaphorically above his opponents. But here he only seems capable of reacting rather than remaining several steps ahead like usual.
This theme continues on the next page. The Widow’s name gets more real estate on here than Iron Man’s does, which I don’t think has ever happened before. Iron Man’s pose is more confident—he’s flying upward toward the viewer—but the caption notes that he is fighting for his life against his own weapon. A weapon being wielded by the Widow in a smaller image in the corner of the page.
Doing the Readings
Now, the ‘Natasha is hot’ count is already at two based on just these two pages, but rather than just roll my eyes about it this time, I decided to do some research. And that means we’ve arrived already at a doing the readings segment!
Now I will note upfront that I was a little disappointed by what’s out there about Natasha. There’s a lot about the MCU, which is of course expected, but what is out there about the comics often boils down to essentially arguments about whether or not her representation is feminist. And if you know me at all, you know I care very much about topics like gender and representation, but that particular question just strikes me as not the most compelling one to ask about comics Natasha? Like, of course she’s probably not feminist by a lot of contemporary standards? She was written by a bunch of dudes in the sixties.
I did, however, find a really great open access article that did some great work on all this emphasis on Natasha’s appearance. For most Soviet antagonists in the comics, the author notes that there’s a sort of correlation between outward appearance and personality. Basically, the good ol’ trope of the ugly villain: think of all the emphasis on Kruschev being short and fat, for example, or of the brainless brutality of Boris in the previous issue. With Natasha, though, we get something different. “Her hourglass figure, long legs, cat eyes, and petite nose conform,” Katharina Wiedlack writes, “to the beauty standards of the 1960s” (2). Even before we start getting much information about her background, therefore, audiences are positioned to recognize that there is something significant and redeemable about Natasha. Wiedlack argues that her attractiveness comes to stand in for, or at least work in tandem with, the traumas we are already getting hints she has faced under the Soviet regime. I’d say one of the biggest hints we’ve already gotten about this early on is Tony’s repeated emphasis on the fact that he feels there is fundamental mismatch between Natasha’s appearance and her personality. He’s constantly noting that she’s beautiful but cold, or stunning on the outside and empty on the inside, all that kind of stuff.
So yes I think this is all true, and we’ll definitely cone back to the trauma stuff more once we find out more about the Widow, because I think it’s a really valuable connective force between she and Tony. However, I also think that this account leaves out a crucial figure we just talked about last week: The Crimson Dynamo. Because we already had a redeemed Soviet figure, no? So the question becomes what is gained by replacing one character with another of a very similar background. Well, put simply, she’s a woman. I argued last week of course that the Crimson Dynamo storyline was ultimately a tragic kind of love story, and I would stand by that claim 100%. In fact, I think that’s why he had to go. Whether consciously or not, I think there was a kind of realization that the story they wanted to tell couldn’t be told with two men, at least not in the 60s and not by these particular authors and writers. So Dynamo, a man sort of neutral in appearance but of good heart, is replaced by Natasha. She is both more of a threat to Tony, because her appearance plays to his own weaknesses, but there is obviously much more of a potential for a realized romantic and/or sexual relationship between them, so the payoff is also more substantial.
Alright, so those are some initial thoughts on Natasha. Let’s get back to the story. We join Tony in his lab, where he is testing an anti-gravity device he doesn’t fully remember making. And I love this as an opening. It’s like all the best and worst of this character rolled up into a single storytelling beat. Seriously, really great.
So Happy looks up as the device starts to work and is alarmed that the heavy item Tony has just caused to float may drop on his head. (And I mean, on one hand I want to say have a little more faith in your boss, but also dude doesn’t remember making the thing in the first place, so Happy is probably on the right track.) Anyway, he tackles Tony in part of his endless bid to save our protagonist from himself. In the process, the wires of the device get fused, which is going to make it even harder for Tony to duplicate the device.
Nonetheless, in true academic fashion (seriously, this gave me flashbacks to writing conference papers on the plane), Tony decides to pitch this device he doesn’t fully understand and can’t replicate to the Pentagon. They are super psyched about the whole thing, especially when Tony gives a demonstration and manages to get some tanks floating in the air. Tony, however, is less psyched, especially when a member of the press manages to sneak in and get images of the device and its effects. However, he supposes that no one will be able to copy the device when Tony himself can’t even do it.
Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain, Kruschev reviews the images and bemoans the absence of the Black Widow, whom he suspects would have been perfect for the job of stealing this technology…if only he could find her! Naturally, that brings us back to Natasha, wearing a green dress and a little black bob. She is thinking along similar lines to Kruschev, and hopes that by stealing the technology, she will get back in the good graces of her superiors. Her plot will begin, she decides, by sending a tender little note to Tony, designed to prey on his thoroughly American weakness: sympathy.
The next day, Tony receives the note and has Pepper call the hotel and summon Natasha. Pepper is extremely upset about the whole thing, and expresses it in a way that feels like no one involved with these comics had ever spoken to a real human woman ever. Happy tries to reassure her, and by reassure her I mean he tries to use another low point in her life to hit on her, and she insults him in return. Truly the stuff great literature is made of…as long as the genre is like, heterosexual self-help or something.
While all this is going on, Natasha is playing up the sympathy angle in Tony’s office. Crying, apologies, the whole works. Tony responds by assuring her that everyone makes mistakes…and then proceeds to show her anti-gravity device and exactly what it does. So as Natasha watches stuff levitate, she decides to go the opposite direction: she collapses to the floor, pretending to faint. This gives her a chance to dive into her purse and pull out a can of paralyzingly gas disguised as hair spray.
This allows her to pick up the device, use it to move a wall, and walk on out of Tony’s office. He remains prone on the floor, unable to move or call out for help. Pepper, however, remains in possession of the one brain cell in SI, and she realizes after a while that Tony and Natasha have been alone for too long. She walks in, finds Tony, and calls for help. She’s highly displeased when Happy is the only one who answers her call, but by then Tony is starting to stir. He inquires after Natasha, but the only sign of her whereabouts is the security guard she encountered on her way out,
So Tony gets to work. We see him back in his office, changing into the suit. He made a mistake with Natasha, he admits to himself, but Tony wanted to pretend to trust her to find out what she wanted, and he simply never expected her to move so fast. However, he’s confident that Iron Man will prove a much more challenging opponent for her. After all, he recalls, he was able to defeat Boris in the previous issue, and he allowed Natasha to escape partially because…yep, you guessed it, she’s a hottie. (Our count is now at four, by the way.)
In possession of a weapon that could guarantee her safe return to her home country, Natasha immediately…goes looking for jewelry. Because she’s a woman, you see. And we needs us them shiny things. She then makes a call to Kruschev, who immediately promises her forgiveness while having the source of the call traced. He also demands that she promise to eliminate both Tony Stark and Iron Man prior to her return.
Meanwhile, the folks in Washington are hella mad at Tony. And honestly, while government and military people often end up looking a little silly in these comics, I am 100% on their side with this one. Pepper, meanwhile, is outraged that anyone would dare question Tony’s loyalty. One thing I did notice in this scene is that her hair is suddenly arranged in the same bin as Natasha’s. I honestly feel unclear if the intent there is that she’s trying to mimic Natasha to try to get Tony’s attention, or if they just didn’t feel like coming up with multiple women’s hairstyles. But it’s funny regardless.
Anyway, Tony decides only Iron Man is going to be able to take down the Widow, so he does something unprecedented: he super-charges the suit in advance! Look at our boy, team, he’s growing up! (For those of you who may not have listened to previous episodes, I have often read Tony’s lack of attention to the suit’s power levels as a kind of representation of his mental health status.) There’s also a panel where he muses on how important the transistors are, powering not just the suit but the chest plate keeping him alive.
Once he’s done pontificating, Tony takes off to meet the Widow. Turns out she’s not too far away! She’s at a Stark Industries factory, causing chaos by levitating a bunch of tanks and other machinery. Iron Man is able to grab them and get them back on solid ground again, though a disgruntled employee notes that it would have been nice if he’d been able to do that around half an hour before, when the Widow’s attacks started.
Dispatches from Stark Industries
This got me thinking about how absolutely wild it would be to work at Stark Industries, and how much everyone there should definitely be getting hazard pay. I have therefore decided to institute a new segment, Dispatches from Stark Industries. It will be hosted by Bill. You may remember Bill as our disgruntled SI employee who was very upset when it looked as if Tony Stark would be skipping the Stark Industries employee party a few issues back.
Now, Bill may not be in on the whole ‘Tony Stark is Iron Man’ deal, but he definitely seems sharp—and bitter—enough to recognize that his workplace is not entirely normal. So I imagine him starting to keep track of what he calls ‘The Incidents’ as part of his plan for an epic complaint to HR:
Alright, this has gone on long enough, Bill’s first entry in his Stark Burn Book reads. My friends, they work at regular jobs. They go in at 9, they sort mail or sell insurance or what have you. The most unusual thing that happens to them is when someone brings in doughnuts for a special Friday treat, or when their gal at the desk wears something extra pretty.
Stark Industries has always been a little different, and that’s what I liked about it at first. Tony Stark is a genius, and he’s always inventing new, amazing ways to keep the good ol’ US of A ahead of the Reds. But lately, things have gotten a little too exciting if you catch my drift. Things melting, blowing up, pilots almost gettin’ killed during routine testing. I’ve taken to calling these The Incidents, and I’ve decided I’m going to keep track of all of them. Just in case.
So today, a dame shows up at one of the factories. She has a piece of tech that Mr. Stark made, something that turns off gravity! Sounds pretty great, right? Sure, until you lose it to someone on the other side. So she makes off with his little device somehow, and all of a sudden there are tanks just floating around the place.
Now I know what you’re thinking: well that’s alright, you have Iron Man on your side now! And sure, that’s great in theory. Except somehow, ever since Mr. Stark hired this guy, I swear the number of Incidents has gone up, not down. Not to mention the guy keeps showing up late! Like today, this dame had an entire building up in the air before Iron Man managed to make an appearance. I mean what was he doing, shining his suit?
Anyway, I have to get back to work for now and hope that everything stays on the ground where it’s supposed to. But I’ll be keeping a real close eye on things here going forward. I like Tony Stark, but I’m not afraid to go to HR if I have to!
Oh Bill. I’m sorry to say I’m sure you’ll have cause to complain again. But for now, back to our story! So that evening, two Soviet soldiers, Igor and Stansky, show up where Natasha is staying. Clearly Kruschev’s tracing of her call worked. They are there to relay some orders: Kruschev is now demanding not only the capture or death of Tony Stark and Iron Man, they also want her to use the stolen tech to break into Fort Knox.
Stansky also wants a special demonstration of the tech in question. However, when they cause a car to float in the air, this ends up catching Iron Man’s attention. He sneaks into their hiding place, and attempts to bluff about the anti-grav machine not working on him. Natasha, of course, doesn’t buy it for a second and immediately hits him with it. So Tony decides to try to bluff again, this time pretending that the ray has completely immobilized him. This time Natasha falls for it, sending in Stansky and Igor to collect Iron Man while he’s helpless. This breaks the connection between Tony and the beam, and he’s freed.
This is honestly one of the most sensible and easy to follow fight scenes I’ve ever seen. Like it’s still hand wavey science of course, but the internal logic of it feels consistent and clear in a way I really appreciate as someone who doesn’t usually dig fight sequences.
So Natasha’s two supposed allies go running. However, she’s confident she can manage Iron Man alone. She uses the anti-gravity device again with the setting reversed, so Tony is pinned to the ground. She then raises the building, intending for it to fall on Iron Man and trap him once she turns the ray off. However, Tony is able to use the suit’s transistors to prevent this from happening. He has also reset the radar circuit in the suit so that he can track the anti-gravity device.
The Widow, meanwhile, is off to try to cross off another item on her to-do list: break into Fort Knox. Her companions are thinking small, imagining using the device only to get rid of the tanks surrounding the facility. Natasha instead uses it to move the mountain under which the gold is buried! The tanks of course do then attempt to fire on them, but she then levitates them too.
Tony uses the same trick he used in the Widow’s hideout, flying between the ray and its targets and therefore disrupting its power. He can’t stop the tanks from falling, but he manages to slow their descent. And then he turns his attention on the ray, which he vows he is going to get back or die trying. (Uh oh! Tony’s threatening to die! Things are getting serious!)
He sends a proton ray at the device, which for reasons I am not 100% clear on drains it of power. This of course causes the mountain to begin falling back toward the ground. The problem? Igor and Stansky are in danger of being crushed by it! Iron Man takes off to bring them to safety, shocking Natasha who wonders what it is about Americans that they would risk their life to save their enemies. When Igor and Stansky wonder aloud at the same, Iron Man’s snarky reply is “That’s the trouble with you commies! You just don’t dig us!”
In the last two panels of the issue, Iron Man debrief with some local law enforcement. They ask about the device, worried about the fact that Natasha still has it, but Iron Man assures them that it is now completely powerless. The police then mock Tony for having lost the thing in the first place, joking that Tony is lucky he has Iron Man around to correct his mistakes. Tony agrees that it is “a far better thing than anyone suspects.” And that’s it!
So what do we think? I loved this one. Not only do I love Natasha as a character, and I really do, but overall I just found it to be a tight and well-written story. The fight scenes flowed nicely and there was way less of the characters explaining what they were doing to one another than usual, which I really appreciated.
There’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance you have to go through as a contemporary reader in order to be willing to accept the idea of America and capitalism, both embodied by Tony Stark, as the symbol for empathy. I do get that. But from a gendered perspective, I do like the way this reverses the narrative we might expect: rather than a traumatized, damaged man learning to find his softness from a gentle, sympathetic woman, we get the opposite. Natasha is genuinely mystified by Tony’s actions here, and I love the kind of compelling dynamic that sets up for future issues with these two.
As far as the bisexuality metre goes, I would still rate this one pretty high. Even though we don’t hear anything about the Crimson Dynamo in this particular issue, I think that Tony’s history with Vanko still really shapes his responses to Natasha. The one laid the foundation or the skeleton for the other. Of course, it’s a far cry from explicit bisexual representation, but within the context of when this was written, it still feels like a positive step. So let’s give Tony an 8/10 for this one!
Readers Like You
Now, I am recording this over American Thanksgiving. I am not American myself, but I figured I would try to get into the spirit of the season anyway. So tell me, readers, what event, character, storyline, or one-liner are you most grateful for in the Iron Man comics so far? For me, I think it’s probably a tie between Happy Hogan and pretty much the entirety of the Cleopatra issue, but I’ll do some more thinking before I decide!
You have all kinds of options for reaching out to me to answer this, or raise any other questions or comments. I’m still working on getting the Discord up and running, so you’re welcome to check in there. 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, share, and/or review.
Please tune in next week, where Tony will
-Encounter The Mandarin again (oh dear, let’s all prepare ourselves)
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!