[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:07:48] Weaponizing incompetence
[00:09:33] That Don’t Impress Me Much
[00:11:15] “The Mandarin and Racial Stereotypes” in The Ages of Iron Man: Essays on the Armored Avenger in Changing Times
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 #55.Its cover date is June 1964, and it’s a continuation from part one of the story arc which we started last time. The cover image features a giant-sized Mandarin looming over a tiny Iron Man. The former’s hand is raised, ready to deliver a crushing blow, and the large caption to the right promises that no one escapes The Mandarin! We’re also promised a five-page information section at the end, which I’ll be very interested to see what’s included.
The teaser page features Iron Man right where we left him: captured, tied up, and with transistors that have been nearly drained. However, our friend Shell Head is smiling. This greatly disturbs the Mandarin, who is very offended by the idea that his foe might not be taking him seriously. Via thought bubble, however, Tony informs us that he is bluffing. Specifically, he is betting his life on the fact that the Mandarin doesn’t know that Iron Man and Tony Stark are the same person. How will this help him, you ask? Well, let’s find out!
The main narrative continues right from this moment, where Iron Man brags that Tony Stark is probably off somewhere destroying The Mandarin’s “anti-missile missiles…” which, I feel like there’s gotta be a better way to say that, but okay. The Mandarin, who has forgotten all about the other intruder in his castle, falls for the bait. He calls Iron Man a fool for reminding him and then takes off after securing the cables holding Iron Man using one of the Ten Rings.
Turns out that this is precisely what Iron Man needed. See, the suit contains a miniature generator that simply needed time to be able to recharge the transistors. Once it’s gotten that time, he is able to break free of the cables, smash through the heavy door of the room he was locked in, and go flying off after The Mandarin.
As he does, we get an extended flashback to the previous issue. Stylistically, I noticed that the borders around each of the flashback panels were curved rather than straight. Especially given how long the flashback is here, that felt like a useful stylistic cue to the reader. So in this scene, we’re reminded that the US government thinks Tony’s design is at fault for the fact that his spy missiles keep going down. However, it turns out that The Mandarin has been behind it all. So Tony got himself captured—as Tony Stark rather than Iron Man—and then used the sleeping gas in his attache case to drug the guards and get the suit on. Thus began an epic battle of snark and, you know, fighting stuff, which had led to Tony being captured at the end of the previous issue.
Structurally, it really felt like this should have come before the scene were broke out of the cables, if only because it sort of undercuts any sense of tension by ending back at that scene again. But in any case, we have Iron Man now flying silently behind the Mandarin, hoping somewhere of strategic value. This very nearly doesn’t happen. Iron Man’s jet boots are silent, but The Mandarin still ‘senses’ a presence (because it’s been too long, I guess, since we were reminded that the man is mystical.)
Nonetheless, he does end up taking Iron Man all the way to massive, domed room containing all of the Stark Industries missiles he has captured so far. The Mandarin looks around for Tony Stark for a while, all while Iron Man hides behind a concrete pillar. Just as The Mandarin has satisfied himself that Tony Stark is nowhere around, though, he receives an alert that another missile has been launched. We get confirmation of this from a brief flash over to the US base, where the allied forces determine that they can’t wait any longer for Tony Stark. As the missile launches, they hope to themselves that at least some of what Tony made isn’t defective.
Thankfully, The Mandarin thoughtfully explains to himself, aloud even though he believes he is alone in the room, that his interceptor ray will collect the missile and return it to the Castle. This is when Iron Man strikes. He manages to destroy the ray, but it turns out that he’s too late. Apparently once started, the ray runs on automatic relays. So nothing will stop it now.
In response to this news, Iron Man leaves the room through the window. The Mandarin celebrates, certain this is an act of cowardice. But it turns out that Tony is heading for the missile. He uses his body to knock it off course, and therefore out of the reach of the ray. However, this means that Iron Man is the one who ends up caught in the interceptor ray and returned to the Mandarin’s stronghold. It’s powerful enough that he can’t manage to resist it, though Iron Man is able to grab a piece of the masonry on his way in and launch it at ray’s power plant.
Alarmed, The Mandarin yells that this will cause the thing to explode, which is precisely what Tony wants, of course. We get a big boom (or rather a Varoom to use the technical term.) And the Mandarin is super, super mad. And it is an impressive transformation. Thus far, the character has been violent but rational in the extreme, even willing to align himself with political regimes whose ideologies he does not truly espouse in order to get what he wants. But the second he’s made angry—really, truly furious—then he abandons all of that. He doesn’t care about power or taking over the world or any of it. All he wants is to destroy Iron Man.
We’ll come back to this moment a little later, because I actually think it’s doing some important—and super problematic work. For now, though, let’s keep going. So The Mandarin uses the disintegration ray on his pinky ring to try to take Iron Man down. Not sure why he didn’t just lead with that, but okay. When that doesn’t work, he takes the floor out from Iron Man. Since Tony doesn’t want to use up too much of the transistors too quickly, he allows himself to fall.
Meanwhile in Long Island, poor Happy Hogan has somehow been put in charge of, like, most of SI? He is currently on the phone with what seems to be weapons development, telling them to flip a plug upside down or something if a coaxial circuits are backfiring. Pepper comes in to bring him yet more paperwork to sign, and refuses to stay behind to help him with any of it. Happy decides he is going to make a break for it, but before he can escape the shackles of bureaucracy, Pepper finds him again, and tells him he’s needed in R&D.
To say Happy’s designs have gone a little bit sideways is…well, putting it mildly. The person Happy speaks to suggests that perhaps they should wait until Tony comes back to make any further changes, and again, how was that not already the protocol? Why would they be having the chauffeur do weapons design? I feel like this storyline exists solely to make Happy look like the inferior option next to Tony, and I dislike it very much. So much in fact that I’ve deemed it time for another edition of Dear Straight People.
Dear Straight People
Hey Pepper. It’s me again. And girl, I get it, okay? Competence is a super hot thing. There’s a reason that despite the fact that I am pretty much against violence of all kinds, all anyone needs to do is show me a scene of Bucky Barnes catching knives in his bare hands and I am ready to bone down. I really do understand.
And yeah, I get that maybe what you’re also hoping to avoid is the kind of guy who weaponizes incompetence. You know the type: they never learned to do laundry, they balk at the thought of changing a diaper, they call caring for their own kids babysitting. I don’t want you to end up with one of those guys either, okay?
But listen, that’s not what’s going on here. Happy isn’t being incompetent because he’s been told his gender will let him be. He’s being incompetent because he literally lacks the competence to perform the tasks being asked of him! So if you decide not to do be with him because he’s kinda gross and always trying to ask you out in the most inappropriate moments, that’s fine. I respect that. But please don’t compare Happy, whose employment is supposed to involve driving a car, and Tony, who has had all the privilege and education he needs to successfully run Stark Industries, and find one of them wanting.
Alright, so back over to Tony, who is falling down on the job in a different way. Specifically, he realizes he’s about to land in a pool of acid. So he decides now is the time to use some of the suit’s power to escape out of the side of the pipe he was going down. He’s also had a bit more time to recharge, so he’s ready to face off against whatever The Mandarin has next!
Or is he? The Mandarin can see Iron Man anywhere in his castle, so he’s quickly able to use one of his rings to make some unidentified heavy stuff—seriously, I think it’s steel tubing, but I’m not entirely sure—fall on Iron Man. The suit protects him, but Tony notes that he cannot survive many similar attacks.
And then he turns around to find that the Mandarin has made himself into a giant! Like easily about twenty five feet tall. But, as Canadian icon Shania Twain would say, that don’t impress Tony much. He is on the Avengers with a guy named Giant Man, after all. So Tony flies at the face of his giant foe, only to go right through him! (It’s a pretty great piece of art.)
Turns out, it was all a mirage. A carefully arranged array of mirrors that only made it look like The Mandarin had multiplied in size. And I probably don’t have to point it out, but I will anyway: see how so many of this guy’s powers are ultimately not powers at all, but illusions? See how the explicit comparison to Giant Man is made so that we’re very clear on the fact that this technology is possible, but it’s just that our Othered foe is not capable of using it? Yep, still lots of racism going on here my friends.
Anyway, the glass shatters, and Tony notes that he’s grateful he has his ‘iron bikini’ to protect him from the falling shards. And then he turns around, look behind him and…more tricks! Specifically, Iron Man is staring down seven copies of The Mandarin, and he has a very limited amount of time to figure out which one is the authentic one before he is beaten.
Turns out that he’s able to manage this by closing his eyes and letting his sonar lead him to the real thing. He gets one solid punch in on The Mandarin and then takes off, determined to make it to the missile chamber. The Mandarin gives chase, but by the time he arrives, it’s too late: Iron Man has sent the captured missile back where they belong, and he has destroyed the intercept ray, which will take years to rebuild. He’s also left a little note: better luck next time, Mandy.
Doing the Readings
And this brings us back to our book chapter from a few weeks ago, Iadonisi’s “The Mandarin and Racial Stereotypes.” That’s right, it’s time for Doing the Readings!
After it became clear that the Americans were struggling in both Korea and Vietnam, Iadonisi says, we saw the re-emergence of a specific racist trope, largely because Americans found it comforting. That trope was that of the asexual or feminized Asian man.
Even though The Mandarin is depicted as someone of enormous power, we also get a hint of that for the first time in this issue. Not only in the feminized address of Mandy, but in the lengthy fingernails we saw on the teaser cover. I would personally add to this analysis that we can’t overlook the role emotion plays in this issue.
The Mandarin was pretty firmly on control, or at least very evenly matched, with Iron Man for most of these issues. In fact, I think last issue was the first time where we ended on a cliffhanger where we didn’t know if Tony would manage to defeat his opponent or not. When and why did things start to go downhill? Well, I would argue it was the second that his priorities changed. The moment he went from acting as someone who wanted to collect power and control the world to someone whose sole purpose was to destroy Iron Man, he became a character acting based on emotion rather than logic. And especially in the 1960s, this essentially means he was acting like a woman. You see, we feminine creatures are driven solely by the feels, don’t you know?
Now what’s interesting to me about the kind of intersectional violence going on here—and by that I mean the way that the racism toward the character now has an added layer of gender-based discrimination happening—is that it’s happening right as Tony is realizing his feelings for Pepper. At first I wondered if this was even a kind of contradiction. But the more I considered it, the more I felt like this might be a kind of intentional juxtaposition. Because while Tony loves Pepper, he is not with her allegedly because he wants to keep her entirely isolated from the part of his life that is Iron Man.
We might even be headed for another kind of psychic split between Tony and Iron Man. Except this time it feels less like it’s about ability or self-worth as connected to that, and more about the character trying to ciphon off all of his feeling and humanity—his feminized self, if we want to use the binary logic from earlier—into Tony Stark, while keeping all his brutal, masculinist qualities for Iron Man. We’ll have to see how that plays out in future issues!
For now, let’s wrap this up, shall we? So Iron Man flies back to the base, changes into his Tony Stark gear, and asks the soldiers for a lift in their Jeep. Once back in Washington he is promptly congratulated for fixing the issue with the missiles. And really, the extent to which the government runs hot and cold on Tony is absolutely hilarious. I know that’s the point, and we’ve talked before about how the same Cold War paranoia that was so devastating within the Soviet ranks is prevalent here too. But it really is quite well done. Like imagine that he actually just had made a mistake with these missiles? Imagine not being able to ever fail at anything without it being immediately assumed that you’re a traitor or something. Yikes.
Anyway, after stopping by in Washington, Tony arrives home to greet Pepper and Happy. The former, he thinks to himself, looks more gorgeous than ever, and he cuddles up close to her in the back seat while Happy drives them. Irritated by this, Happy contrives to make their journey as bumpy as possible, but this plan fails when he manages to puncture the tire. Pepper and Tony leave him to fix the tire alone, wandering off to ‘look at the moon’ while Happy fumes about how it must be nice to have the soft life of Tony Stark.
And truly, it is a crappy thing Tony is doing. He practically pushed those two together, and now that he’s decided he wants Pepper for himself he’s practically flaunting it in front of Happy? That earns him a solid ‘No, Tony!’ from me.
But if you think that’s bad, just wait. We still have our five page information spread to come. It starts off fine. We get a review of some of the villain we have met so far. We get to see Tony change into the armour, complete with plenty of cut-away views of what’s going on inside. This is followed by a sort of FAQ page that gives an overview of the suit’s many transistor-powered devices and shows us their location. We’re told why Tony never gets serious with women (he’s living on borrowed time), we learn that the armour is so good at protecting him because it’s made of a kind of chain mail, “like the knights of old.” And we are teased with the answer to the most asked question of all time: Why does Happy never smile? But alas, this will remain a mystery for now.
I was initially super psyched to turn the page after this and see an image of Pepper Potts in a bathing suit posed as a pin up girl. Happy stands behind her with a camera, revealing to the reader that he has been out of film for an hour but has no intention of telling Pepper. And then…then there is our caption. Which I will read in full. “When first introduced in Tales of Suspense, Pepper had been a perky, pug-nosed, freckle-faced imp! But after she realized how Tony Stark feels about glamorous females, Pepper went to her beauty parlour and ‘shot the works!’ Today she’s one of the most gorgeous females in comics…or anywhere else!”
Wow. Just…wow. I think sometimes to be a woman reading through comics, old as well as new, you have to sort of convince yourself that the writers and the artists must be in the joke at least a little. No one could be this regressive about gender, right? So they must just be giving the people what they think they want, all while poking a bit of fun at it? Yeah, this doesn’t feel like that. I can’t really excuse it or even manage to make it funny. The implication that Pepper was not worthy of Tony’s time and attention until she covered up her freckles and changed her hair is just…really, really sad. This woman has shown herself to be loyal and brave and smart and funny and to reduce her in a single panel to her appearance, which entirely determines her worth to those around her, it’s pretty awful. I would say a lot more but most of it would not be permitted on a clean show, TBH.
Readers Like You
So instead, I thought we might be able to do something together in our Readers Like You segment. Using the hashtag #RespectPepperPotts, I’d love to hear about your favourite Pepper moments so far! I’ll make sure to share a few of my own, because I truly do think this is a great character who just needs to get out from under this love triangle she’s apparently going to be stuck in for a while.
I’m also considering using the holiday break to put together a sort of review guide kind of like this one. But instead of insulting Pepper Potts and giving insights into the armour, the aim of this one would be more to provide in-depth coverage of some of the story-arcs, themes, and lingering questions we’ve explored so far. If there’s something you want to see covered, please let me know!
Beyond my outrage about Pepper, what do we make of this issue, or this series of issues if in some ways we’re talking about this one and Tales of Suspense #54 together? I mean, they were fine. Even though I’m still not sure what was up with Tony’s increased snark last issue, I’ll be interested to see if that sticks around. And I felt glad for the Mandarin that he got to be the one positioned as a genuine threat to Tony, enough to constitute a cliffhanger. With all the racist nonsense he endures, he sort of deserves that honestly.
Overall it kind of feels like the comic is finding its feet in some ways. We’re getting more extended narratives focused on the kind of stories the authors and artists seem to really want to tell—namely, Tony as a Cold War hero. Does it pain me to lose some of the weird and random villains we saw earlier? Yes, in part because as I said a few episodes ago, I think those can provide a bit of a break in terms of lowering the stakes and having fun.
And it does seem clear that several things should be coming to a head in future issues: Tony’s complex relationship with the government, and with Black Widow. This cursed love triangle. And perhaps some of the psychological issues I mentioned earlier when we were talking about a new Tony Stark/Iron Man split.
And that brings us to the bisexuality metre. I put off doing this last time because I really didn’t know what to say, and to some extent I still don’t. I do read Tony’s sudden turn toward femininity The Mandarin as a bit of a bisexual panic move (in part because he keeps referring to his own armour under feminized terms.) If we read the love triangle between Happy, Tony, and Pepper as a true triangle—that is, if we accept that there are some feelings between Tony and Happy as well, which I think is fairly clear—we’re also seeing Tony seeming to start trying to shut down that ambiguity by focusing just on Pepper.
So I mean, not all of these developments are good or healthy, but I think they still speak to the complex ways that this character seems to relate to matters of gender and sexuality. I therefore award Tony an 8/10 for these combined issues.
Now as always, you have all kinds of options for reaching out to me to argue about this ranking, or pose any other questions or comments you would like. Check in over at the Discord! You can also 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
-Face off against The Uncanny Unicorn
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!