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.
[00:04:40] Ann Shmeising, Disability, Deformity and Disease in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales
[00:05:36] Jan Grue, “The Problem of the Supercrip: Representation and Misrepresentation of Disability”
[00:06:04] José Alaniz, Death, Disability the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond
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 #56. Its cover date is August 1964, and it promises an exciting new villain: the Uncanny Unicorn! Our newest foe is pictured on the cover in a suit of green and orange. The orange portion has a chest plate that actually resembles the Iron Man armour a little bit. It then extends up into a headpiece with an almost beaked nose and a horn-like apparatus that serves as the ‘horn.’ From it is jutting a yellow beam that is hitting Iron Man, who stands across from him, shielding a woman in a blue dress who lies prone on the floor.
What I really like about this cover is that the background is all done in black and white. It’s a great effect that really draws attention to the colours in both of their respective suits, and especially the energy beam that the Unicorn is hitting Iron Man with. Unlike previous covers, though, which have stressed the novelty or threat posed by new villains, this one advertises that the story will give us new insights into Tony’s character. Which I am absolutely here for, so it’s basically like they’re speaking directly to me.
The teaser page that follows gives us a pretty good hint as to the nature of this character development: Iron Man stands alone in this one, angry and grieving. Because you see, he doesn’t want to be Iron Man anymore. He doesn’t want the suit, or the chest-plate, he doesn’t like the idea that he lives on borrowed time. He’s sick of all of it, and in his rage he appears to be breaking some stuff.
I LOVE this as an arc for him. I do wish it had been set up a little better; other than his newly developed feelings for Pepper, I don’t feel like we’ve gotten a sense of precisely why he would suddenly be struggling. But part of me also likes the randomness, too, because there isn’t always a clear inciting incident that can make dealing with disability or chronic illness particularly challenging on one day. Sometimes it just is. So I’m happy to continue and see where this is heading!
It turns out that Tony’s breakdown is happening in real time, meaning that the narrative picks up right from where the teaser page left off. He’s in his private lab, throwing and breaking things as he works through his frustration about never being able to relax or lead what he refers to as a normal life. Some of these sounds are visible outside the door to his lab, where several Stark Industries employees including Happy and Pepper are gathered, listening with concern and confusion. What could be making Tony this upset?
Happy reminds everyone that Tony is never to be disturbed in his private lab under any circumstances, but Pepper is convinced to call him via intercom to check in. Tony, midway through a rant about how all the ladies want him but it doesn’t matter, is furious at being interrupted. He snaps at Pepper to mind her own business and get back to work.
And then he continues his downward spiral. No one can help him or extend his life by repairing his heart, Tony says. He is doomed to spend half his time as Iron Man and half as Tony Stark. Both are envied, but Tony himself is the unhappiest man alive. This is a lengthy panel in which Tony’s head is in his hands. The faceplate is still on, but it’s very possible that he’s crying in the suit.
Doing the Readings
And that brings us to a lengthy doing the readings segment. Because there’s a lot to say about what’s going on here, and some fantastic scholarship that will really help to frame our conversation. So let’s start by laying out a very important term for our purposes: supercrip.
Coined by sociologist Rebecca Chopp, supercrip refers essentially to stories about disability that make temporarily abled people comfortable. The supercrip is empowered, never hampered, by their disability. They are able to compensate for their condition to an extraordinary degree, and are often held up as figures of inspiration both to other folks with disabilities, and to temporarily abled bodied folks.
This figure of the supercrip has received a lot of rightful critique in the past. Ann Schmiesing argues that not only is the supercrip an exploitative representation, it also “distracts from the daily reality of most disabled people.” In other words, when we hold up and celebrate examples of disability that stress how they can be ‘overcome,’ we leave no room for narratives of struggle or pain or really any negative experience. There’s also no space left open for calls for the kinds of broader, systemic changes that would make life easier for those with disabilities. The supercrip is therefore a conservative figure in the sense that it implies the disabled subject needs to change to fit the world around them rather than individuals or systems adapting to accommodate a range of embodied realities .
What does this have to do with superheroes, you might ask? Well, a lot of superheroes, including our friend Tony, are also supercrips! Indeed, Jan Grue argues that superhero narratives “[take impairment] vitalism to its logical conclusion: there is no injury without benefit, and no impairment without corresponding ability.” In other words, we never get a superhero whose disability is only an impediment to their efforts. Instead, their heroism is directly tied both to whatever embodied or psychological trauma they have faced, and their ability to overcome it.
Jose Alaniz, whose work I discussed in one of my earliest episodes and remains easily one of my favourite texts every written about superheroes, importantly notes that while the Silver Age of comics ushered in an unprecedented focus on disability and bodily difference, that did not necessarily yield a fundamental shift in how these bodies and experiences were actually represented. In fact, he argues that the fundamental basis of comics is “an always-erased though always-already implied disabled/dying/dead body” (25).
This is really important, and worth pausing over, because we fairly often equate visibility with power and progression. And it’s not that this is never the case. Many of us who are marginalized in various ways have encountered the empowerment of feeling ‘seen,’ and, by contrast, the pain of being refused that kind of visibility. The problem is that particularly when we’re talking about disability, the emphasis on visibility is inherently a limiting one given that many forms of embodied difference are not necessarily visible.
Moreover the fact that disability gains increased visibility in comics during this period does not necessarily mean that the supercrip and all its problems go away. Instead, if we follow Alaniz’s logic, these embodied experiences are depicted largely to make the hero that much more heroic, because they now must overcome not just external obstacles, but their own bodies and minds in order to maintain their ‘super’ titles.
Alright, so how does all of this help us understand what’s going on with Tony right now? Well, I think in a lot of ways we’re witnessing him struggle to be super—not just superheroic, but supercrip. He’s giving voice to the stresses and tribulations of having to at once be shaped in a fundamental way by the trauma his body endured while also constantly living up to the demand to overcome and thus erase that same trauma as a condition of his everyday reality. In that respect, I think that however this storyline ends up resolving, this entire sequence is an incredibly important one. It doesn’t undo the supercrip trope or its problems, of course, not by any stretch. But it does at least kind of de-naturalize it. What I mean by that is that we at least witness our protagonist struggling to meet these demands, framing them as an effort and a burden rather than something that just comes easily to him.
Alight, let’s keep going with our plot then. So in a visual bit of irony that I really love, the faceplate comes up as Tony makes a decision to essentially wear a different mask. Because his new plan is to quit being Iron Man, abandon the Avengers, and basically live out his days in as much hedonistic bliss as he can. Emboldened by this new idea, he throws the suit off, sticks his head out the door, and demands that Pepper bring him his little black book! He also asks Happy for the car, and rudely claims when Happy asks where he’ll be driving Tony, that he doesn’t need supervision on a date. He also threatens to fire Happy if there is any dust on the car. Which. HOW DARE!
Naturally, this is the moment when the Avengers call, seeking out Iron Man. Overhearing Pepper on the phone with them, Tony instructs her to say that he’s sent Iron Man off on a long vacation. Wasp, Thor and Giant Man try to protest, explaining that there is a new villain in town, but by then it’s already a bit too late! For our new villain has just blasted his way through the outer wall of Stark Industries’ munitions factory.
As the Avengers ponder what the deal is with Iron Man’s absence, we see Tony on a date at a swanky club, almost calling the woman with him by Pepper’s name instead of her own. Meanwhile, the Unicorn is sneaking through SI, annoyed that Iron Man is nowhere in sight and that he might therefore miss a big showdown with our armoured hero.
Instead, therefore, we get our 847th villain deciding to sabotage Stark Industries instead, all while calling out Iron Man for a challenge. When Happy and Pepper learn of his attacks, Happy rushes out to fight the Unicorn, planning to serve as a kind of warm up to the main event. However, the Unicorn is irritated by what he perceives as a time-wasting fight with an underling, and he proceeds to absolutely kick the crap out of Happy Hogan. At one point, Pepper tries to intervene by calling the police, but Unicorn has cut the lines. With no one around strong enough to stop him, Unicorn uses his power-horn to launch a devastating attack on Happy.
Pepper screams as she witnesses this. Unicorn finds her, deduces who she is based on her presence in the executive offices, and decides to take her hostage in an attempt to get Iron Man to come out of the woodwork. Happy, meanwhile, is being shipped to the hospital via ambulance, and we see the paramedics debating whether or not he will live. As they do, Happy mumbles out pleas for Iron Man to save Pepper, which is just about one of the saddest things I’ve read in these comics so far.
Tony, still on his date, receives a phone call about Happy’s condition and Pepper’s having been abducted. He immediately proceeds to abandon his date and head to the hospital. Tony demands that Happy receive the best medical care his money can buy, and is quickly reprimanded by a doctor who assures him that they give everyone the best care possible, and that his money has no value within the walls of the hospital. Which, it’s a beautiful idea, but certainly for a contemporary reader it’s a laughable claim to make about the American medical system. (If anyone listening has insights about how things were in the 60s, since I ran out of time to look this up, I’d be happy to hear them!)
A distraught Tony leaves the hospital and wanders around stewing in guilt. Somewhere during this rant he also claims to have not realized how he felt for Pepper, which honestly just feels silly. But okay. We then transition to Pepper and Unicorn, waiting for Iron Man’s arrival. He helpfully fills her and us in on his backstory while they wait. Turns out the Unicorn suit was made by our friend Vanko before he defected to the United States. He also provides an overview of his powers. His horn can lift objects regardless of their weight; can destroy pretty much any material, and can reflect and destroy incoming missiles. It also has an energy shield that would allow him to withstand massive explosions without harm.
It seems honestly pretty silly that Vanko didn’t keep this suit for himself. That said, it seems clear that they didn’t want the Unicorn to be a monster of the week type villain. He needed to have ties to the Cold War, and Vanko is the only one we’ve seen with the power and intellect to create something like this. So alright.
Tony, meanwhile, is suiting up. He uses one of my favourite tools to date, a black light tracer that allows him to follow Unicorn based on where the molecules in the air have been disturbed. And he finds him, a little too easily Tony thinks, but naturally instead of stopping to reflect on why that might be, he just crashes through the side of the building.
There’s some standard fighting, which honestly isn’t different or unique enough to describe in a lot of detail. Eventually, Tony realizes that Unicorn’s suit is almost as tricked out as his own, and uses a reverser-ray to hurl back Unicorn’s attacks. This succeeds in knocking him out, and allows Tony to get Pepper safely out of harm’s way. There’s a lovely scene of them flying silhouetted in the air, which honestly looked really Superman-esque.
Now, instead of taking this poor woman home to recover from just having been kidnapped, he takes her back to work. You know, the site of her recent traumatic experience, and a place that has clearly encountered some security issues. This turns out to be a bad idea for more reasons than one, because it turns out that Tony doesn’t yet realize that Unicorn is also able to fly. (I don’t totally get how this is true, simply because how would he have followed the path that Tony followed earlier without that ability?)
Anyway, the Unicorn shows up at SI, hides a bomb, and then quickly informs Iron Man that it’s there and set to go off at midnight. He demands that Iron Man surrender and return to the Soviet Union as Unicorn’s prisoner. Tony brags that his armour will protect him, and somehow needs it spelled out for him that this will not be the case for all of his machinery and weapons, or for Pepper—you know, the woman he professes to love and who he literally just brought back here.
While Tony continues thinking this through, The Unicorn continues attacking. His suit can also melt stuff, it turns out, and honestly this is starting to feel like the strongest villain we’ve encountered somehow? The suit seems like an amalgamation of a lot of our previous villains and their tech (The Melter’s melting, that stolen ray gun Natasha used to float things, the power bolts it shoots, etc.) I’m not sure why someone who’s clearly kind of a rando despite being distantly connected to someone we know is being given quite this much power, to be honest.
But anyway. After Tony tries and fails to locate the bomb using his sonar, he decides the only option left to him is to do as Unicorn says. So he promises to board a plane destined for the Iron Curtain—and that wording is very important—and demands that the bomb be turned off. Unicorn does so, and Iron Man follows him onto the plane bound for the USSR.
Now, of course, anyone else would clearly (a) not turn off the bomb and/or force Iron Man to remove the suit if they were Unicorn, or (b) immediately attack Unicorn once it was off if they were Iron Man. But I think we’re seeing a kind of code of honour thing happening here related to some of what we’ve talked about in terms of the contrast between how the Russians are depicted and how The Mandarin is represented. Despite being enemies, there is generally a mutual respect between the Americans and the Russians, so they both appear to be determined to act honourably.
Of course, that system has limits. Iron Man does get on the plane, but then notes that he didn’t promise to stay on it. He proceeds to smash all the windows in order to ruin the cabin pressurization, and then just starts ripping the plane apart. During this process, he delivers the line “I guess it’s the one thing they forgot to warn you about…I never could control my silly ol’ temper.” And this felt not just silly but wildly out of character for Tony.
But in any case, the plane goes down. Tony notes that he did not see The Unicorn bail out, and wonders if he was disguised as one of the employees on the plane. But of course, The Unicorn can fly, so he has simply escaped the situation unharmed and determined to escape from Iron Man to fight another day.
On our final page, we return to SI. Tony enters just as Pepper is not the phone with the hospital, and they both learn that Happy has made it through his treatment and is expected to recover. Pepper cries tears of joy, and even brings flowers with her to see Happy. (Turns out he has an allergy, but hey, it’s better than the rudeness she usually directs at this guy!) Tony watches the entire thing, wondering if Pepper is playing up her happiness and relief at Happy’s continued existence, or if she is really falling for him. The latter, he thinks to himself, might be the better option, because he is never going to get to give up his role as Iron Man as long as villains like The Unicorn are around.
And that’s it! I had some really, really mixed feelings about this one. But most of them center around the fact that I wish this plot had been drawn out a little longer. I get on one hand that it would be hard to have multiple issues of a comic where Tony isn’t Iron Man. But it would have been nice, instead of rushing right to the worst case scenario of the people directly connected to Tony being put in harm’s way, if he’d had to make the choice to either save or not save random civilians. Especially if he didn’t help, I think seeing him work through the guilt of that would have made for some great drama.
And in terms of the disability stuff we talked about earlier, I think the immediate resolution of the storyline also undermined something that could have been really amazing. Instead of having Tony go right back to super-cripping it up, I would have been really interested in seeing him continue to grapple with what it might mean to just live in his body as it is now rather than constantly focusing on how to overcome it.
Overall though, I’m glad some of this happened at all even if I wish it had taken a bit more time to play out.
And what about our bisexuality metre? I’m going to score Tony fairly high for this one, which might seem unearned, but hear me out. I didn’t talk about gender and sexuality in relation to Tony’s little breakdown in this one, but that was mainly because it felt most pressing to cover the disability stuff in a bit more length.
That said, I think there are absolutely more intersectional ways to read that story. Aliniz’s work actually notes that one of the things at stake in the dual identity trope is often sexuality and romance—that all of those concerns are siphoned off into the ‘everyday person’ side, while the hero side has no time or energy for such trifles. Given how aggressively heterosexual Tony Stark is the second he quits Iron Man in this issue, there certainly seems to be something to that theory. But rather than Iron Man being read as totally separated from that part of Tony, I’m actually inclined in this issue at least to read Iron Man as maybe a representation of Tony’s non-heterosexual desires. Think about, for instance, how sometimes sexualized the view of him putting on his armour is. Think about how he refers to it using feminized terms, like the Iron Bikini. I need to think through this one a little more, but in the meantime, I’m awarding Tony a 9/10. Sorry not sorry!
Readers Like You
That said, if you have a strong disagreement with this rating, or you want to chat about any element of this show, please do let me know! Pop onto the Discord. Send me an email at email@example.com, or connect with me on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod. If you’re enjoying the show, please also make sure to subscribe, share, and/or review.
Happy Holidays to those of you who will be celebrating this week. And a special shout-out to those of you for whom this is a challenging time of year. I hope that no matter how you will be spending the next couple of weeks, you are gentle and kind to yourselves.
I also hope you tune in next week, because my show is finally timed perfectly with pop culture!
-Next week, we’ll meet up with Hawkeye! Hooray!
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!