Tales of Suspense #58 – 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.
[00:03:00] Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance
[00:03:19] Robert Genter, “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”: Cold War Culture and the Birth of Marvel Comics.” The Journal of Popular Culture 40.3 (December 2007): pp. 953-978. [This one is paywalled, but let me know if you want access.]
[00:06:20] Kate Bishop on the Hawkeye branding problem
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.
Before we proceed, I also wanted to apologize quickly. I didn’t intend to take a break from the show over the holiday, but then my partner was in a car accident over the break. She’s doing just fine, but things have been a bit extra full of chaos around these parts. But I am back to a regular posting schedule now, and excited to get back into things. So let’s go!
This episode we’ll be talking about Tales of Suspense #57. Its cover date is September 1, 1964, and while it would have been even more timely a couple of weeks ago, it’s still very exciting to meet the sensational Hawkeye! The cover image depicts multiple illustrations of Hawkeye surrounding Iron Man. A massive text box in the centre wonders how one man with a bow and arrow could possibly harm ‘ol Shell-head.’ And if that’s not a genuinely intriguing enough question, we’re promised the return of an old friend: turns out Hawkeye will be meeting up with Black Widow!
Interestingly, after making all these thrilling promises, the teaser page doesn’t feature either character. Instead, we begin with a text box noting that it’s been a while since we saw a story involving Iron Man saving someone’s life! So that’s where we’re beginning: Iron Man, flying a Stark Industries employee away from a falling vat of molten steel. He even manages one of my favourite quips so far: “you’re not allowed to take hot showers on company time!” In seriousness, for me this text box verged on breaking the fourth wall a bit in terms of pointing out what kinds of stories the comics have been telling lately. But it was nice to see him operating a bit more at the ground level after a few battles that have felt more ideological than anything else.
The main story picks up right where the teaser left off: Iron Man being thanked by the grateful employee he saved, whose name is Parker. Happy, displaying his typically terrible sense of timing, decides this is the moment to focus on his heterosexual problems. Specifically, he corners Iron Man and asks if he would be willing to put in a good word for Happy regarding Pepper.
As he changes out of the armour in his office, Tony ponders this. He feels jealous, but with an amount of emotional self-awareness that’s moderately impressive given the time period, he recognizes that this isn’t fair, particularly since he isn’t in a position to date Pepper himself. The only reasoning he cites is the chest plate, and honestly I’m starting to find that explanation a bit flimsy.
Reading the Romance
This brings us to a new segment I am calling Reading the Romance after Radway’s famous study of romance novels. We’ve talked in past episodes about the two potential readings of Tony’s unwillingness to engage in a romantic or sexual relationship. From a disability perspective, I talked about the ways that this fits into the highly ableist tendency to assume a sort of asexuality on the part of disabled folks. One of our readings also noted that this is a kind of trope in post Cold War material, whereby questioning of larger systems often takes the form of a rejection of heteronormative institutions like marriage. The emphasis on the chest plate would seem to suggest the latter is more at stake in scenes like this one, but the love triangle material also makes me wonder if there’s a way this storyline sees these two sides of the equation—a discussion of ability and a partial rejection of structures like marriage and family—working together.
Here’s what I mean. By giving us a love triangle, the comic is inviting an explicit comparison between Happy and Tony, yes? Happy is often presented as an almost comedically inferior option next to rich, handsome, brilliant Tony Stark. So the ‘explanation’ of Tony’s wound as the only reason he and Pepper can’t be together would seem to hold. And especially in the earlier issues where he was really struggling with the trauma of that wound and doing stuff like not charging the chestplate, which I argued as a kind of symbolic form of self-harm, I’d even accept this as a thoughtful representation of the ways that our sexual embodiment is necessarily tied to our other experiences of what it means to be a body. However! Tony has been doing way better. The chest plate can be re-charged almost instantly. And I in no way believe that Pepper, upon learning of this injury, would be unable or unwilling to stay with him.
So I’m actually more inclined at this point to read Tony’s injury as a sort of inciting incident that leads him to question not just his body but the various structures—including marriage—that usually make white, cis-male bodies believe themselves to be untouchable. In other words, once he was traumatized in one particular aspect of his life and had to start looking beyond the normative ways of being in the world in order to stay alive, I think Tony then becomes open to other ways of living his life outside the prescribed set of scripts.
More on that later! For now, let’s rejoin Tony, who has gotten himself into a bit of a pickle. See, he went and said the D-word—date—to Pepper, who immediately assumed her dreams had come true and hugged Tony with glee just as Happy walked in. So Tony decides to take her to the least romantic spot he can think of: Coney Island! (And has this man seen no teen dramas? Is the midway not the spot of all budding romances?)
Anyway, they stop to see a show of archery put on by—you guessed it—the amazing Hawkeye. The real event, though, turns out to be the flying pinwheel going out of control during the archer’s show! Tony excuses himself, claiming he needs to call the factory, and soon Iron Man emerges to save the day, basically with brute force. He also overhears someone asking how Iron Man got there so quickly, allowing him to make a plan for his explanation to Pepper.
Our archer friend, like everyone else, is watching. But unlike the rest of the audience, he isn’t thrilled by Iron Man’s antics. In fact, he’s pretty grumpy. He’s the greatest marksman in the world, and he’s tired of being passed over! After deciding that the only difference between himself and Iron Man is gimmicks and costumes—turns out Kate Bishop is right about branding after all!—Hawkeye decides to make some changes in his life. The caption box immediately refers to him as a villain, which honestly feels like kind of a mistake. Why not preserve some sense of tension over how his trajectory will go, especially when his only crime so far is wanting to be appreciated for his skill?
We see him fashioning a costume of blue and purple, including a mask he pretty much says he’s only wearing because other superheroes do it. We also get a bit of backstory. Hawkeye doesn’t have any superpowers, it turns out, but he does have a deadly sense of accuracy, and some pretty fancy arrows that include things like suction tips he can use to get up on the roof of a building.
So…he does! Only to see the end of what looks like a jewelry store robbery. Hawkeye disrupts the thief’s exit, but doesn’t manage to capture the guy. The jewels do get left beyond the in the scuffle, but Hawkeye is then discovered at the scene of the crime with all the stolen merchandise. Realizing how bad this looks, Hawkeye flees the scene and is picked up by none other than….Black Widow!
Natasha, you’ll remember, is hot. Hot enough that any episode involving her must include a running tally of how many times we’re told how attractive she is. So naturally, Hawkeye is eager to hop into her car and help her with whatever scheme she has going on.
So she takes him back to an estate her Communist comrades have set up for her, and leads him down into the basement where there’s a lab stocked with all kinds of material. Hawkeye immediately zeroes in on a book he says contains information that will help him make amazing arrows, and the Widow is happy to share…for the small price that he help her take out Iron Man while leaving Tony Stark alive and untouched.
Tony, meanwhile, has decided to go for it with Pepper. He’s going to give her a do-over of the previous night’s date, and he even admits that it’s possible he’s in love with her. In fact, he’s so eager to go ask her out again that he very nearly leaves his private office still wearing half the Iron Man armour! Which is a very cute little moment, and a lovely symbol of the way he wishes he could bring those aspects of his identity together in order to build a relationship with Pepper.
However, he walks into the office just as Happy is asking Pepper out on a date—and she’s accepting, determined to prove to Tony that he is not her only option. And disaster is striking for poor Tony on more than one front. Hawkeye is in the middle of breaking into SI. He shoots off an explosive arrow, determined to catch Iron Man’s attention so that he can slay the big bad and return to the ‘damsel’ Black Widow. Hawkeye compares this to a fairy tale, which we’ll come back to in a minute.
So Hawkeye shoots Iron Man with arrows that have suction cups covered in some kind of chemical, rust-causing agent. Tony quickly hides and begins removing the damaged armour, and as Hawkeye picks it up with the aim of analyzing them in the lab, Tony changes into another suit hidden in a different part of the factory.
By the time he finds one missing piece, however, Hawkeye is on the move. So Iron man pursues, shooting a repulsor at Hawkeye’s car. Turns out the archer is now out of rusting arrows (and my dude what would you not stock up on those before a fight with Iron Man?), but he does have other tricks up his sleeve. When Iron Man tries a dive, he shoots him with an arrow out of which bursts a bunch of nylon string. They aren’t strong enough to hold Iron Man for long, though. Tony quickly escapes and eventually sends Hawkeye off the pier and into the water below. He doesn’t leave him there long, because Iron Man wants answers, but he does make the mistake of turning his back on Hawkeye as he goes to retrieve the piece of his armour that Hawkeye had taken from the factory.
That gives Hawkeye enough time to load his demolition arrow, which he and the Widow made together. He fires, believing he is going to bring about the end of Iron Man. And? Not so much. It ricochets off Iron Man, but hurls toward the Widow, who screams for help. Hawkeye quickly abandons the fight, picking Natasha up in his arms and fleeing on a nearby boat. Iron Man wants to follow, especially once he realizes there is something familiar about the outline of a woman he can see in the shadows, but by the time he has managed to recover from the impact of the blast, the fog is too thick.
So instead he returns to his empty factory—Pepper and Happy are still at the movies, the text explains, though honestly I don’t feel like I need an explanation for why they’re not at work in the middle of the night?—and wanders the beach. The caption describes him as “one of the most tragic heroes the world has ever known.” And…..yeah I don’t know about that. I mean, it’s not quite as outrageous as when my toddler declares himself the most wrong child who has ever lived because I peeled his banana the wrong way, but still, even taking into account the context that one really feels like an oversell.
That said, I do want to return to the contrast that I think is set up here between Tony and Hawkeye. One, I argued earlier, appears to be starting to re-think social scripts, not just around ability, but in other areas including romance and sexuality. Hawkeye, meanwhile, is leaning into the fairytale romance story. There’s a wonderful bit of irony around the fact that he doesn’t see that it’s he who is the damsel and the Widow who is the swashbuckling hero, but even putting that aside, we get two very different portraits of contemporary masculinity and its views on relationships here. No one really ‘won’ in the sense that Hawkeye and Widow got away but their plans were foiled, so I guess the fate of all mankind will have to continue to hang in the balance!
So, what do we think? I really liked this one. It wasn’t really the introduction I expected to Hawkeye, but I did really enjoy it. And I love the idea of Natasha as the scheming mastermind and Hawkeye as her Himbo assistant.
I do feel a little exhausted by the romance storyline at this point so I hope they lean a little less hard on that one for a few issues. Alternatively, if they really want me to buy into how tragic a hero Tony is, I’d love to deal a little more directly with some of what’s holding him back from this relationship rather than romance sort of standing in for all of these other forms of trauma and negotiation with the complexities of the post-War world.
In terms of our bisexuality metre, I’m going to give Tony a 6 on this one. Part of me wants to go higher because even if he’s doing it in gross ways, he is willing to at least think about what it would mean to live a life outside conventional scripts. But Tony doesn’t ultimately have a lot of agency here, particularly since he would have asked Pepper out for real if it hadn’t been for Happy’s unfortunate timing.
Readers Like You
What do you think though, listeners? Have you had any insights you want to share about Tony, Pepper, or anything else to do with the comics over the break? Why not check in! Hop onto the Discord. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
And join us next week where
-Iron Man will battle…Captain America? Well this should be fun!
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!