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.
[00:07:05] The Donnybrook Fair
[00:11:28] Some background on Johnson’s go-to motto, “Let us reason together”
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 #58. Its cover date is October 10 1964, and it features perhaps our most unexpected battle yet: Iron Man versus Captain America. And it certainly knows what we’re here for! The accompanying text on the cover page asks why these two allies would be locked in combat with one another, then boldly notes that it’s mainly because they want us to buy the comic! I found this pretty charming really. Capitalism is the worst, obvs, but until the revolution comes we’ll all have to concern ourselves with making a profit and all that other nonsense, so I appreciate the baldness of the salesmanship here. One other thing I really enjoyed about this cover was the art. Specifically, the way that Iron Man is drawn you can’t see any of Tony’s facial features under the faceplate at all. They’re shaded almost completely black. Not only does this contrast nicely with the hyper-visibility of Captain America’s chiseled jawline here, but it also makes Iron Man appear really foreboding, stripped almost entirely of any sense of humanity.
The teaser page is a kind of hilarious juxtaposition. We see Iron Man underwater, testing a breathing apparatus. He’s also decided to drive a killer shark he has encountered back into the open sea, so we get a charming and hilarious shot of Iron Man’s arms wrapped around a toothy beast he insists on calling cuddles. I don’t honestly know why this made me cackle quite as hard as it did, but something about going from the fight with Captain America to Tony doing the hug and fly…or float, I guess, with a shark just did me in.
Anyway, as the narrative proper begins, we see Tony exiting the water having successfully taken Cuddles wherever he has apparently decided is appropriate. He’s on his way back to his factory, but it turns out there’s something a little shady going on underneath him. We see two fellows being smuggled to shore on a boat. One wears a long purple coat, tan hat and a white mask covering his face, and the other is in green pants and orange furs. Their names, it transpires, are Kraven the Hunter and Chameleon, and they are fresh out of an encounter with Spider-Man which resulted in their having been deported. Wikipedia also informs me they are half-brothers.
They are back in the United States now, though they can’t quite agree what to do next. Chameleon, who seems to be the more cautious of the two, notes that they are close to Tony Stark’s munitions factory and that they will want to tread carefully. Kraven, a man apparently imbued with the speed and strength of jungle cats, has no interest in being careful. So of course, he’s the one who immediately runs into Shellhead himself, and is quickly captured.
Iron Man drags off our leopard-print loving friend, but he misses Kraven’s accomplice. Chameleon, who has successfully hidden himself behind a rock (and I feel like there’s a joke they should have just leaned into here about him blending in with his surroundings), watches the scene below and vows to prove himself superior to his sibling by defeating Iron Man.
And speaking of bold prints, Happy Hogan is excited to show off a new outfit at the office. It’s a yellow suit coat with red and green checks, and it’s…I mean, yes it’s a little tacky, but honestly it’s not even close to the most painful fashion choice we’ve seen in these comics so far. Pepper, however, disagrees. She dramatically insists that Happy freeze in place and not step closer until she has a chance to don her sunglasses, therefore protecting herself from being blinded by the loudness of the piece. Thankfully, this latest round of heterosexual hi-jinx is brought to an abrupt end by the entrance of Captain America, who limps into the Stark Industries offices in a ripped suit, demanding to see Iron Man.
Speaking of our friend Shellhead, he’s about to remove the suit when he receives an alert signal. So Tony returns to the office still in the suit, and leads Captain America to his office to hear his story. Cap describes wandering through town that morning and stopping once he heard a cry for help. He came across an older gentleman, who instructed Cap not to go after the two figures he could see running away until the man could explain. So Cap leaned in, ready to receive this old timer’s wisdom…and was hit with some kind of paralyzing vapour. It also knocked him out.
Our pal Cap woke strapped to a device that looks a lot like the headpiece that the Cybermen wear in Doctor who. And he wasn’t alone! Next to him in an identical device was Chameleon! The machine, it turns out, was something called an “electronic thought transference machine” which essentially allowed Chameleon to access all of Cap’s memories and plan the greatest impersonation of all time! Cap did manage a daring escape, which involved taking down two of Chameleon’s men and leaping from a sixth story window, with the aim of informing the Avengers of what had happened before his identity could be mistaken.
Now of course, the man sitting across from Tony Stark is not in fact Captain America, and they do a good job of telegraphing that. The story is ridiculous, and while I’m not super familiar with the Captain America comics, the overly dramatized style of narration doesn’t really feel like something I would expect from him. There are some details that feel like they stretch the boundaries of believability in terms of Tony falling for this, especially the question of body shape. I feel like even wearing the Cap suit, would it not be somewhat obvious that the Chameleon does not have the Dorito-shape of a super-soldier? We’ll come back to this later, because some of these issues with Tony’s interpretation of Cap are very much a part of the narrative, but there are still some areas that I struggle with in terms of believability.
But anyway, a furious Iron Man departs after instructing Pepper and Happy to ensure that Captain America receives the best possible care. He reaches the mansion and immediately finds the real Captain America, whom he naturally believes to be the fake. Cap greets him cheerfully, and is visibly confused when Iron Man begins ranting about how serious a crime it is to impersonate an Avenger. Cap initially believes this to be some kind of joke, and is pulling his punches with Iron Man while he waits to learn what the punchline is. After a particularly hard hit from Iron Man, Cap does hit him with shield and then make his way to the roof.
Iron Man pursues, taunting ‘Chameleon’ about running away. Cap insists that he is simply waiting for Iron Man to come to his senses, and begs him to talk over whatever the problem is. It’s a pretty fun chase scene, and includes one sequence where Cap is running across some wires that Iron Man then electrifies. Eventually, Cap stops trying to avoid a fight. He delivers a solid kick to Iron Man’s chest. His opponent immediately crumples, which Cap notes with confusion.
It turns out, of course, that with all the excitement that morning, Iron Man neglected to recharge his chest device, so the suit did not have enough power to resist the impact of Cap’s assault. He therefore allows himself to fall to the ground, using his jets as brakes at the last moment. Cap watches Iron Man retreat, and decides firmly that the whole thing must have been a prank, because the Iron Man he knows would never have walked away from a fight. He also refers to their interaction as a donnybrook, which is turns out is a term for uproar and disorder derived from the Donnybrook Fair. Running from the 13th century into the 1850s, this event gradually morphed from a fair to a site of entertainment and general wilding. So I basically choose to envision this as like medieval burning man or Coachella.
Meanwhile, Pepper and Happy go to Tony’s office to check on Captain America only to find, gasp, that he’s gone! Pepper sends out a red alert to Iron Man, but Tony is too busy recharging to answer. So Pepper takes off, intending to go to Tony’s town house in the hopes of encountering Iron Man there. Turns out a newly recharged Iron Man is flying through the streets in pursuit of Captain America. There is an interesting moment when we flash back to Pepper and Happy in the car, because they realize that there’s an Iron Man tracer beam in the car of Tony’s that they have borrowed. However, they quickly decide this makes sense since Tony might need to find Iron Man in a hurry. This is fair and doesn’t feel like a really contrived instance where they should have realized, but darn it I am ready for someone in Tony’s immediate circle to find out!
Meanwhile, we turn our attention back to Steve Rogers, a man not hiding his identity even though Iron Man believes he is. Steve realizes that he’s still being pursued, and ducks into a construction power station. The watchman there shoots at him, then has a fanboy heart attack when he realizes who it is that has broken into his site. Iron Man follows, referring to Cap again as Chameleon, and Steve begins to ironically wonder if in fact this is the real Iron Man. (And just in case we as readers don’t recognize this irony, the caption helpfully informs us this is so.)
After a brief and not that witty exchange, Cap sends Iron Man through a trapdoor and into a pit into which gravel is also dumped. But of course, this isn’t enough to keep Iron Man down for long, and he escapes the pit vowing to stop handling the fake Captain America with kid-gloves.
Meanwhile, Happy and Pepper are in hot pursuit. As Iron Man finds himself in a room full of cement mixers, they enter the site, though they are struggling to see anything through the haze of fine cement dust. Stumbling around almost blindly, Happy is edging dangerously close to the gravel pit when…he’s saved! By Captain America.
And it is this act of bravery and mercy that makes Tony realize that Chameleon would likely never save the life of an innocent man like Happy. Before he can get to the bottom of this mystery, however, he hears Pepper cry out. Turns out she has wound up stumbling into a sand pit. Happy vows to help, but in his lovable oafish kind of way ends up leaning on a water valve and making matters worse. Meanwhile, Iron Man pulls Pepper to safety. She furiously begins to rail on Happy, but is forced to cut this rant short when they are all nearly grabbed by a steam shovel.
Happy refers to the day as being “worse than the Perils of Pauline,” which the Internet informs me is a 1947 musical featuring an aspiring actress who ends up falling in love with the handsome but pompous owner and manager of a theatrical troupe. (Sound familiar?)
Iron Man punches the steam shovel into submission, but quickly realizes the larger issue is that someone must have been driving it. Turns out someone else agrees! It’s Giant Man, who has Chameleon in his custody. Turns out the ants had a gossip chain going about the Cap versus Iron Man fight, and when Giant Man got word, he came out to investigate. Steve is horribly offended that Iron Man could have mistaken this guy for him, which makes my Steve/Tony shipping heart skip a couple beats.
The police arrive a short time later, and while Chameleon is plotting what he’ll do after his short prison sentence is over, Wasp (who came in with Giant Man) has bigger concerns. Specifically, Pepper’s hair. When Pepper learns it’s a mess, she takes off at a run, and it’s just such a transparently sexist and silly exchange! This is the first time we’ve seen these two fantastic women interact in the Iron Man comics, and that’s what they can come with? One of them making fun of the other’s hair after they just made it through a near-death experience? GAH.
It also undercuts what is clearly intended to be a thoughtful and poignant last frame. We see Tony, still in the armour, crouched and considering later that night. He’s disappointed in himself that he fell for the Chameleon’s trick, and determined not to allow himself to be overly-confident in his armour in the future. He also quotes President Johnson’s favoured motto, “Let us reason together.”
Doing the Readings
As a Canadian and a godless heathen, I was unfamiliar with this motto, so that means it’s time for a doing the readings segment! Turns out this quote, derived originally from the Bible, was indeed one Johnson loved. He was first referred to it by a former Senator after Johnson, in a fit of rage, told the head of a power company with whom he was disagreeing to go to hell. Johnson took this feedback to heart, using the quote in a number of speeches and remarks. The source I read argued that in fact the quote is perhaps the best possible reflection of Johnson’s ideas about government, which he believed functioned best via reasoned debate until a consensus was reached. And sometimes it even worked! Johnson apparently instructed steel industry officials and union leaders to reason together to avoid a strike, and basically locked them in a room until they came to an agreement.
Of course, this might sound laughable in our current polarized political climate. And even at the time, this approach had limitations. Those who disagreed with Johnson were often framed as being against reason or ‘unreasonable,’ a familiar critique to anyone who identifies as a woman, who is queer or racialized or disabled, basically marginalized in any capacity. This actually really reminded me of theorist Sara Ahmed’s argument about complaint. Ahmed describes how those who voice complaints, who describe systemic problems, often then become framed as the problem. In a lot of ways, this emphasis on reasoning together similarly assumes and prescribes a boundary on what counts as reasonable, and therefore who can be together in this way.
Now it might sound like I’ve just let this kind of get away from me, and admittedly I sometimes do that. But I actually think the context and limitations of this quote tell us a lot about where the Iron Man comics are at politically at this particular moment in history. Think about the other references to sitting American presidents we have seen so far: specifically, all those quippy “Does Kennedy tell Kruschev?” remarks. There’s an incredible smugness to the nationalism in a lot of the early Iron Man comics. While we saw Tony struggle in personal and embodied ways, the nation itself appeared unshakable. Solid. Gentle, fair, but unwavering.
And now our first reference to Johnson comes in the form of this particular quote, this plea for reason and for unity—but only within certain limits. Rather than a comparison based on an already-forgone conclusion (that conclusion being USA! USA!), the only implied enemy here is within the borders of there nation itself. Indeed, given that Tony spends most of the issue trying to beat up Captain America that’s pretty obvious! For me, this really speaks both to the immediate national trauma of Kennedy’s assassination as well as the broader civil unrest shaping political and social discourse at the time this comic was published.
So what do we make of this one? Honestly, I love Cap and was super excited when I saw the cover of this particular issue, but I ended up feeling just kind of ‘eh’ about it. Like it was fine, and other than the Wasp/Pepper exchange I had no major grievances with the storyline itself. But on the whole I found the narrative and the characterization just sort of bland. There wasn’t a moment that really stood out to me. Part of that might be because I was not familiar with the villains from the Spider-Man comics, and in that case it’s perhaps a good bit of cross-marketing. But honestly I’m used to feeling like I’m probably missing something when reading comics, so I doubt it’s that. I think perhaps it’s that the very last frame was the one that was most compelling to me, but that moment of reflection was really rushed and under-developed compared to the extended sequences of Tony just chasing Cap around the city.
The elements that were most interesting to me were easily the identity stuff—this notion that Steve and Tony both end up feeling unsure of who their teammate is and how to tell if they’re authentic or not is genuinely a pretty cool storyline. But in this case, it felt like a lot of telling rather than showing happening. Like instead of pointing out the irony of Cap losing his confidence about whether he’s dealing with the real Iron Man or not, why not show us how he tries to make that determination? What kinds of questions would we ask? What tells would he look for in the way Iron Man fights or talks? Ultimately, Tony found his answer when Cap saved Happy’s life, but I feel like we never really got a sense of the reverse: what makes Iron Man identifiable as himself?
Which brings us to our bisexuality metre. Now, when it comes to the MCU I ship Iron Man and Captain America pretty hard. And there was some promise to their dynamic here, like the way that Cap was so unwilling to fight Iron Man until he had basically no other choice. And secret identity stuff almost always makes me want to award a pretty high bisexuality metre. But to be honest, like the rest of the issue, I just felt kind of…fine about it all. I can’t muster more than about a 6 for this week. Sorry team!
Readers Like You
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-Iron Man will battle the Black Knight
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!