[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:00:50] The Mandarin’s first appearance
[00:03:35] Blog post on the armour re-design as a series of backward moves
[00:04:14] Discussion of the larger eye-slits, introduced in Tales of Suspense #48
[00:06:42] Disco Janet!
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 #54. Its cover date is June 1964, and the cover promises the return of Marvel’s “most talked about new villain.” Which, I mean, I guess I did have a lot to say about the Mandarin last time around, though I doubt that commentary about how much the character is basically a personification of the racist trope of Yellow Peril is what this caption meant.
Our cover image features Iron Man attempting to ascend a set of stairs, presumably the ones leading to the throne we saw The Mandarin sitting on last time. Tony’s armoured head is obscured by a green beam emerging form one of The Mandarin’s similarly coloured rings, and this isn’t a coincidence. It’s an attempt on the part of the artistic team to obscure a new helmet, which the caption promises is “a real doozy.” Now, slightly undercutting the excitement of this big reveal is the fact that the image in the top left corner of the comic features a close up shot of the new headpiece…but you know what, we’re just going to ignore that and let the artists and writers of this one have their moment, okay? I feel like with how critical I tend to be of Mandarin-related issues, I owe them that at least.
I did find the tone of that little text box interesting though. It compares Tony’s constant switching up of his armour to women’s hair. Now, as someone who has had like two hair cuts since the pandemic started I would definitely argue with that one. But what I find actually interesting about the comparison is that when new armour is introduced, it’s often framed either as a matter of public relations (as in the initial switch from silver to gold), or an attempt to make the armour more practical and deadly (as in the switch from gold to the bi-coloured red and gold we have now.) So framing this as essentially an aesthetic choice in the caption suggested a kind of playfulness and awareness that I often find lacking when it comes to the suit.
The slight weirdness with tone continues on the next page. Tony is depicted flying through the air past a sea of admirers. Life as Iron Man isn’t all fun an glamour, it tells us, for poor Tony has to fly above the crowds to prevent being ‘mobbed.’ And in this case, he’s receiving a call from Pepper mid-flight, asking Iron Man to locate Tony, who is needed back at Stark Industries. Tony mentally quips that this shouldn’t be hard given that Tony Stark is the one under what he calls “this iron bikini.” Again, it’s not that I’m wholly against a version of Tony that doesn’t take things quite so seriously, but it’s just…odd. This shift in both characterization and narrative voice is kind of coming out of nowhere.
The Evolution of the Armour
We also get a full shot of the new faceplate on this page, so that brings us to our Evolution of the Armour segment. In short, this was…a weird change to make a big deal about, to be honest. Basically what’s happened, and I’ll include a side-by-side of the helmets in the show notes, is that the sides of the helmet, which previously had an almost wing-like look, have been flattened out. The eye slits have gotten narrower. And there are visible rivets which surround the top of the eyes and then go in a straight line down the centre.
I will first recognize that practically, some of these moves are weird. A blog which I will link to in the show notes speculated that since the previous faceplate seemed to be welded, the riveted version would surely be less secure, and potentially more likely to develop issues with rust. There will be an explanation later about the supposedly strategic implications of the redesign, but they don’t really answer these concerns.
So I’m inclined to read these as more symbolic adjustments. I’ll introduce three potential readings of the changes, and we can keep track of them as the issue progresses. So the first has to do with the eye stuff. You might remember back when we moved from the solid gold suit to this one that Tony made a big deal out of the fact that having larger eye slits made it possible for his enemies to see his fierce expressions and hopefully be filled with fear and intimidation. At the time, I suggested that this was essentially an argument in favour of emotional transparency—that unlike the Soviets, for whom deception and manipulation are depicted as basically constant, even among allies, the Americans are being represented as fundamentally honest people. So by shifting the dimensions of the eye slits yet again, perhaps we’re getting a recognition that transparency it isn’t always possible, or useful. That might fit with some of the tonal shifts, which seem to be moving us more toward a kind of slick irony than previous issues.
Alright, so that’s option one. Now let’s talk about the rivets. Why expose rivets, or any kind of machinic properties? Well, because you want to draw attention to the fact of it having been made. It’s sort of the opposite of the kind of realism that people are often striving for with AI, the masking of the artificial. Here, the rivets draw attention to the helmet, and the suit more broadly, as an object. Something that has been made. To me this suggests that perhaps the comics are really trying to re-emphasize the divide between Tony Stark and Iron Man. Not internally, not like when he was dealing with that kind of psychic split in earlier issues, but in terms of their personas. Aesthetically, Iron Man is supposedly everything Tony Stark is not—except for that one complicating factor of his chest plate. His heart. Which we’ll be talking a lot about this episode!
Finally, the other factor I should mention has do to with that streamlining, and the new nickname for Iron Man which is forced upon us in this issue. The cover refers to Tony as ‘ol’ bullet head.’ Which…yeah, thanks, I hate it. But the smoothing out of the headpiece does very much go along with that description, suggesting that maybe we’re going to be getting more of an emphasis on Iron Man as a weapon in future issues.
So those are our options. I generated this list before I actually read the rest of the issue, so let’s now see what happens!
Alright, so Tony is shown returning to SI, wondering if Pepper ever suspects that he and Iron Man are one and the same. According to my head canon, there is no way she doesn’t, but I’ll definitely be interested to see how this plays out. As he wonders, he arrives at the hidden tunnels under SI and roller skates through them to save transistor power.
That’s right my friends! The roller skates are back! I have missed them so much, I can’t even tell you. I basically wish Iron Man was skating all the time. I imagine him like Disco Janet from The Good Place, but with armour.
Sadly it isn’t long before Tony is back in his office, removing the armour. He exposits for us that the new helmet design is lighter and more flexible, and we get a close up of him putting all the parts of the suit away in his attaché case. After referring to himself as Bullet Head again (seriously, stop trying to make this happen!) Tony emerges from his private office. Happy and Pepper are waiting, and the latter informs him that he is wanted at the Pentagon.
She offers to join him, and that’s when a huge bomb is dropped on all of us: though Tony refuses her company, he thinks to himself in a yellow-shaded thought bubble that he would “like to be with Pepper always”, but that he doesn’t want to expose her to the dangers of life with Iron Man.
WHAT?! I just. I have. So. Many. Questions. Are we supposed to believe this is a new development on his end? If so, what’s the source? Our most immediate adventures have all involved Black Widow, so it’s possible I suppose that encountering a woman he was physically attracted to but emotionally kind of repulsed by made him realize that Pepper offers many of the same perks (right down to the hair colour) with none of the complications. But then the natural question is why we didn’t see this transition happen.
The other option is that we’re supposed to believe that Tony has felt this way for Pepper all along. Honestly I’m betting that was the intention here, but I have a really hard time swallowing it. We’ve seen Tony be so profoundly thoughtless and cruel to Pepper. And sure, one could potentially argue this is about pushing her away from Iron Man like Tony said, but when we first meet her I don’t feel like we get the sense that this dynamic between them is as recent as Iron Man’s arrival.
Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with this yet at all. So let’s continue. Pepper tries to push back against being excluded from the trip, talking about her new luggage and her ability to take excellent notes, and Tony basically dismisses the value of her labour by saying he’ll just record the sessions. Happy eagerly offers to drive, and is likewise perturbed when Tony dismisses that too. Especially because Tony won’t even let Happy use the time to keep inappropriately hitting on Pepper. Instead, Tony will be sending Happy, a chauffeur, out to do some factory inspections. When Happy correctly points out that this is hardly in his job description, Tony basically tells him it is now and stomps out.
In his office, donning the suit once more, Tony admits the truth about his frankly outrageous reactions to both of them: he’s jealous. He suspects an actual romance is developing between them (which, again, straight people, I HAVE QUESTIONS) Again, though, he emphasizes the fact that his role as Iron Man, and his related health problems mean he has no right to this feeling. Time to suppress it, like every healthy version of masculinity. Hooray!
So off Tony flies, and then skates, to Washington. That’s right, two roller-skating scenes in one episodes! Basically all my holiday wishes—or at least one very specific one—are being answered in a single issue. Tony makes it to the Capitol in an hour, where he learns that the observer missiles he has sold the government to use in Vietnam have been struggling as of late. They all manage to take only a few images before either crashing or disappearing.
Tony is vexed. Vexed! He doesn’t believe that the Communists have the technology to take down his weapons with that kind of speed, and he promises to go investigate immediately. So off he flies. This time, Tony hitches a ride to the ‘Far East’ on a long range ICBM. This is safe, he says, because he has a built in oxygen mask and flexible armour. And flying this way means he’ll be saving his transistor power. Wait, is that twice in two issues our boy has thought ahead about the suit power, a symbol of his physical and mental health? Well I’ll be!
And then he’s back into Tony Stark gear. The costume changes this issue truly have been numerous, friends. He arrives at a base where they are testing his observer missiles, and he invited to watch its progress via a radio telescope. So Tony watches, and witnesses as the weapon is pulled down by what seems to be an invisible beam. And the beam in question? Well it just happens to be right around the stronghold of The Mandarin!
The next page contains what is essentially an extended flashback to the last time we encountered the character, in Tales of Suspense #50. We’re reminded that The Mandarin nearly defeated Iron Man, both with the power of his magical rings, each of which contains a different power. He is also a master of karate, and might easily have shattered the Iron Man armour had Tony made the wrong move.
Doing the Readings
This brings us to a Doing the Readings segment..sort of. Because, I’m not going to harp as much on the Yellow Peril thing this time, simply because nothing has really changed since the last time we talked about this. The depiction of this character is fundamentally racist, and plays into the Yellow Peril trope, which depicts Asian characters as both mystical and devious—the real enemies of the Cold War but also beyond it. I’ll make sure to repost the name of the
On the latter note, one thing I do want to draw our attention to is actually the contrast between this issue and the previous two. I suggested that the two issue long arc involving both The Crimson Dynamo and The Black Widow depicted the relationship between each of those characters and Tony—and therefore the US and the Soviet Union, in the vein of a tragic love affair. Following that story up with this one really highlights the contrast between the two. Technically, of course, they’re both affiliated with Communist nations, but as you might remember, it’s suggested in the previous issue (and in this one shortly) that The Mandarin really has no love for Communism. He wants power, pure and simple. While the Russians are essentially depicted as having been misled and then trapped into a bad system by a few power hungry himbos, the Mandarin does not seem capable of redemption and love in the same way because the only systemic affiliation he has is a race-based one full of horrifically negative stereotypes.
Okay, there’s our downer for this episode. So Tony, realizing that going in as Iron Man is going to be ineffective, decides to instead get himself pretend-captured by The Mandarin’s forces. So he drives over in his little Jeep, with his little pipe, and he threatens to die protecting his missiles if need be. (Yep, he’s threatening to off himself in the first half of the issue, y’all! It’s serious!)
As he nears the compound, a gate falls down almost right ahead of him. With no time to break, Tony smashes headlong into it while the Mandarin watches and laughs.
Tony wakes to find the villain’s security team trying to open his attaché case. Thankfully, he planned for this. The case releases a sleeping gas, and while Tony has a chemically treated cloth to cover his mouth with, the others do not. This allows him to then slip into the suit and crash through the wall of the Mandarin’s castle.
And thus begins what I can only refer to as the battle of the snark. And by that I mean that Iron Man goes quippy on us. He has a reply to everything. When the Mandarin uses a ring to collapse a stone wall on top of him, Tony describes the massive pieces as “overgrown pebbles.” When the Mandarin makes a typical villainous remark about destroying him, Tony calls him a “cornball” and says he should join a “villain’s union.” No matter what this guy says or does, Tony has a quip and a countermove ready.
Eventually, The Mandarin tires of the back and forth. He’s also confused and perhaps impressed by the way that, unlike those who tremble in front of him, Iron Man continues to defy him. He therefore switches tactics and tries to convince Tony to join him. Unimpressed by this offer, Iron Man calls him a rattlesnake and refuses. However, Iron Man is in trouble. In a thought bubble he reveals that his transistors are starting to weaken, and that he needs to find a way to recharge.
This is when The Mandarin goes for a sword. Immediately this stood out to me because of all the comparisons that these comics originally wanted to make between Iron Man and old fashioned knights. If we needed any more of an indication that this man is the true enemy, I feel like it’s handed to us right here.
He calls this an honourable death, almost a gift he is giving to Tony. And he of course also brags about what a great swordsman he is, causing Tony to counter with “You’re a real modest Marvin! Is there anything you can’t do? How’s your knitting for instance?”
This is the moment where I started to feel like two things were happening. First, Tony is often fighting people that he either respects (Black Widow, for instance) or completely disregards (our everyday stooges.) The Mandarin doesn’t fit neatly into either of these categories, so in some ways the shift in tone reflects that.
But I also wonder if it’s related to some of what’s at stake in the suit re-design, which I talked about earlier. Specifically, I think we might read Tony’s uptake in snark as marking a turn in his development. He’s moving away from a kind of cynical earnestness, basically Captain America but with a sharper edge. And he’s embracing a darker kind of irony that seems fitting in the post JFK-assasination, rising civil unrest world. Or at least that’s my best guess; the only real test, of course, will be to see what happens in the next few issues.
Right, fighting. They’re still fighting. Did I mention I’m not that into fight scenes? So The Mandarin hurls the sword at Iron Man, who is forced to use up a lot of his remaining power stores to counter the weapon with his transistors. Iron Man then takes off down a set of stairs and chucks something that looks to be a heavy piece of ceramic at The Mandarin. Our foe counters by launching some miniature attack rockets. Tony is again forced to counter by using some of the suit’s little remaining power. And I actually really loved this panel, which I’ll make sure to include in the show notes, because it uses dialogue and thought bubbles to really highlight the distance between Iron Man’s bravado and his interior experience of what’s happening.
Then The Mandarin breaks out what he calls a black light ring beam. This covers the room, or at least Tony, in such total darkness even the light from the chest unit is pretty much useless against it. The Mandarin then wraps Iron Man up in a bunch of unbreakable steel bands, and it’s another pretty cool piece of art. I still despise the racism of this issue, but I at least feel like visually and at the level of story it’s less frustrating.
So Tony hangs there, suspended in all these bands, and thinks to himself that while he could break them easily if the suit were at full power, he doesn’t dare use it and drain the armour completely. Just to ensure what seems like a clear victory, The Mandarin also brings down a bunch of dynamos from the ceiling and aims them at Iron Man. He invites his enemy to say his prayers.
And Tony? Tony thinks of Pepper, and of Happy. He spends what he thinks might be his last moments regretting how he treated them. However, he’s not going to go down entirely defeated. If he is to die, he thinks, he will do so as an American, for whom nothing can shatter the faith that it takes to fight for freedom. And we end on a cliffhanger, the caption promising that we’ll find out what happens next issue because it just wasn’t worth rushing such an epic conclusion.
So what do we think? Are Tony’s last thoughts maybe in tension with the argument I just tried to make about a more cynical patriotism? Maybe, but maybe not. I don’t think the ironic turn necessarily means a wholesale rejection of the nation. In fact, I think in this respect it’s important that his loving Pepper comes up in this particular issue. It’s not about not loving things, whether people or countries. The nationalism we’re getting now just feels a bit…wounded. More jaded, more self-aware, but still dying, at the end of the day, to have something to believe in wholeheartedly again.
Honestly, though, this was a weird one. The sudden introduction of Pepper as a serious love interest rather than a joke, the suit changes, all the snark, I don’t think I’ll fully know how to take some of them until we’re a few issues down the line. But I’m definitely interested in seeing what directions things go!
Likewise, this feels like a super hard one to give a bisexuality metre ranking to. On one hand, we finally actually have Tony thinking and talking about romance and sex again for the first time in a while. But because it feels like it came out of nowhere, and it’s so wrapped up in these questions of how he’s thinking about his own identity these days, I’m not quite sure how to respond to any of it.
So I’m going to do something unprecedented. I’m going to not assign this one a bisexuality metre ranking today, with the intention of reading part two of the story and assigning a single ranking to the entire narrative.
Readers Like You
But just because I’m suspending judgement on some of these matters doesn’t mean you have to! That’s right, it’s Readers Like You time! What did you make of our new and improved Tony? Did you have a favourite quippy one-liner? Do you have strong feelings about the new faceplate? Are you the person who can convince me that Pepper and Happy’s potential love story is charming and delightful rather than full of way too much spite for otherwise wonderful characters? Let me know!
You have all kinds of options for reaching out to me to answer this, or raise any other questions or comments. Now that some of you may have a bit more time over the holiday break, now would be the perfect time to check in over at the Discord! 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
-Try to find a way out of this mess he’s in!
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!