Episode 021-Tales of Suspense #59


Show Notes

[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.

[00:04:21] On why we don’t call women-identifying people females

[00:14:06] Matthew J. Costello, Secret Identity Crisis: Comic Books & The Unmasking of Cold War America

Episode Script

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.

Plot Summary

This episode we’ll be talking about Tales of Suspense #59. Its cover date is November 10 1964. Our cover page features a dual set of stars: for the second time in as many weeks, Iron Man is sharing the cover with Captain America! Unlike last week, however, the two are not facing off as adversaries. Instead, beginning this week, the two are going to be co-stars in Tales of Suspense. From this point until Tales of Suspense ends, it will now function as a ‘split-book’ featuring individual narratives of each character.

We won’t be dealing with the Cap stories on this podcast—though I would certainly be open to other seasons of the show performing similar character studies. However, it is interesting to reflect on the significance of this shift. Of course, it’s partially a sales tactic. Pairing a legacy character together with a futuristic cyborg is a way to appeal to what might otherwise be two distinct audiences.

Ideologically, it also hits on a theme we’re going to be talking about a lot today, which is the way that Iron Man and Captain America sharing a cover implies a shared purpose or set of goals. Now of course, that might seem like a given since both men are members of the Avengers. But I think it matters that on top of the team up, we’re being given the solo stories of these two specific members as part of a single issue. For me, it implies—or at least signals hope for—an alignment between the national interests embodied by Captain America and the more individualistic model symbolized by Tony Stark.

We’re going to back to this at length over the next couple of episodes, but I wanted to mention it up front because I think it’s important to realize on how many levels this attempt to unify the personal and the national is operating on. It’s not just content, though like I said we’ll talk about that when we dig into the details of the story this week. It’s also shaping the very structure of the way those stories are told.

For now onto the next page. I’ve been calling this pull page illustration a teaser, but I learned this week during my research that it’s usually called a splash page! At first I felt embarrassed by this and considered just slipping the correct terminology in without calling attention to my own error, but then I remembered again that the whole point of this show was for us to have the opportunity to learn and grow together as readers. So there it is!

Anyway, our splash page features Iron Man mid-battle with a someone who is riding a winged horse and wearing blue and purple armour. It’s also full of promises, all beginning with the word ‘never.’ Most of them are the usual Marvel promotional fare—you know, never have we had such a tough villain or such fantastic action. The only one that really stood out to me was a promise that the story would tug on our heartstrings. This one felt a little different from the rest. While Marvel often does end up making me feel things, they don’t usually advertise based on those feelings unless they’re things like excitement or suspense. So I’m definitely intrigued!

As we begin the narrative proper, we’re with that same flying horse, which is circling around a penitentiary. The caption informs us that the beast is searching for one specific cell, which it finds. The inmate it was looking for takes a gun that they refer to as a dissolvo-ray from its saddle bag. After escaping the prison, the character, who refers to himself in third person as The Black Knight, vows revenge on the Avengers, who are apparently the reason he was imprisoned in the first place.

Speaking of which, we then transition over to find the Avengers at their HQ. Wasp has apparently irritated everyone by taking too long to get ready. In response, Captain America delivers by far my least favourite line:  “The trouble with girls is—they all act like females.” Now, first and foremost, this is a PSA to never refer to any human as a ‘female.’ I’ll link to several articles that will explain why not in extended detail, but essentially it reduces anyone who identifies as a woman to a specific set of biological characteristics linked to reproduction. Not only does this exclude trans women, but it also utterly neglects women’s humanity. There’s a reason most people who call women ‘females’ now do it as an insult, and it’s because it’s dehumanizing.

On top of that, the line doesn’t even make sense? Like, if we replace ‘females’ with ‘women,’ the line reads ‘the trouble with girls is—they all act like women.’ What does that actually mean? It’s nonsense. Is Captain America really complaining about the fact that being on a team with a bunch of men does not mean that all the behaviours Wasp has spent a lifetime having socialized into her instantly disappear? Ugh. This disgusted me so much that I strongly considered making an MCU Captain America-style PSA where I yelled at him for ever speaking these words. But then I realized that this would probably mean I wouldn’t have time to record the actual episode and, well, then said video would be meaningless.

Alright, so eventually Wasp is forgiven for her biology and the Avengers all take off for some kind of charity event. Easily my favourite detail of this scene is that Giant Man and Wasp both shrink down and ride there in Thor’s hair. And now I can’t stop imagining what it would be like to just live in Thor’s hair. Honestly I might never get big again. Apparently not wanting to be left out, Cap hops on Thor’s back and the group is off! All except for Iron Man. Turns out the team has decided that one Avenger always needs to be available to answer any threats.

Unfortunately, poor Tony doesn’t get to just hang out at Avengers HQ and dream about Thor’s hair. No, turns out there’s an alarm going off at Stark Industries, so off he goes to investigate! The Black Knight, having decided that Stark Industries (and through it, Iron Man) is the most accessible target on the Avengers, is of course attacking the facility.

Tony immediately springs into action. Or, well, he tries to. Before he can give Pepper and Happy any instructions about what they should do next, Tony is suddenly bent double, clutching his chest. Pepper and Happy are of course frantic, and immediately begin making plans to have a doctor brought in. Still focused on protecting his secret identity, Tony doesn’t tell them that his chest plate is apparently malfunctioning. Nor does he want them to call a doctor.

Pepper isn’t having any of that, though, and she runs off to make the call. Tony protests, claiming he simply needs to be left alone, but Happy assumes he’s just delirious and tells her to carry on. (Especially given that the two of them are alone, this felt like a weird moment for Happy not to remember how the two of them met in the first place, with Tony paying Happy to drive him to a hotel room and leave him alone in it. But we’re at least getting some movement on the whole secret identity thing, so I’ll hold my complaints for now.)

Meanwhile, the Black Knight is apparently succeeding in his efforts to cause some pretty serious damage to the plant, because the lights suddenly go out. With Pepper and Happy distracted by this, Tony manages to escape into his office and lock the door behind him. Based on the fact that the lights had just gone down I didn’t think Tony plugging himself in would work, but apparently the two are not on the same circuits or something, because he succeeds at getting power flowing into the chest plate, “not a second too soon!”

Pepper and Happy are still knocking on the door, terrified for Tony, but when we flash back inside the office, he is already suiting up. He’s still weak, though, so he adds some extra transistors and heads into battle. The Black Knight isn’t exactly making himself hard to find, so it isn’t long before the two of them are going at it.

Dispatches from Stark Industries  

Hello, Stark Industries Human Resources Department. It’s me again. Look, I don’t want to be complaining like this okay? But this is getting ridiculous. Today some fella who looks like a walking chess piece riding a flying horse showed up!

Sure, Iron Man got there eventually, and he did his best. When the Knight guy fired rockets at him he barely even seemed to blink. And when he got tied up with some kind of cables he got free of that too. But then the Knight guy, he uses some giant stick and blows a hole in one of the towers! With the kind of stuff we make around here maybe I should be grateful it didn’t immediately blow up or give a bunch of people radiation or something. But what did happen still wasn’t good. The thing collapsed! It coulda taken out three of my colleagues except for Iron Man flyin’ in and catching it. One of the guys says Iron Man even said somethin’ about how he did it because Tony Stark said good help is hard to find.

Honestly, that did mean a lot. Mr. Stark is a pretty decent boss all things considered, and he does seem to appreciate the effort we all put into keepin’ him rich and all. But when is enough going to be enough? The guy attracts more acts of industrial sabotage than I even knew happened in the whole country!

So I am documenting this latest instance, and putting in yet another request. At worst, Stark Industries employees should be subject to major hazard pay. Like the kind that them guys protecting Presidents get. At best, look, Mr. Stark is in it neck-deep with the government, and I know they gotta have access to all kinds of stuff. How about some kind of forcefield around the place? Something to keep us poor saps down here on the ground safe?

Plot Summary

Well Mr. X—has filled us in on some of the battle, so thanks for that Mr. X. I’ll pick up where he left off. So while all this is going on with Iron Man, Happy and Pepper are still back outside Tony’s office trying to get in. They’re extremely concerned, bordering on frantic. Happy even tries to go at the door with an axe, but it turns out the entire structure is steel-plated.

So Happy tries to come at the office from the outside. He takes a perilous journey along the outside of the building, several stories up, while Pepper nervously watches on. However, his efforts are witnessed by The Black Knight, who is growing desperate in his attempts to take down the seemingly invulnerable Iron Man. And so he seizes a hostage.

While Iron Man is distracted by the sight of Happy dangling from a rope attached to a flying horse, The Black Knight sends some flying doughnuts at him. And no, that’s not an anti-police joke, although this is a pro-abolition podcast. The dude literally calls these green circular things he sends flying at Iron Man doughnuts. They hit him and cling to the armour, and immediately begin to drain it of power. Not at bad little trick, especially on a day when Iron Man was kind of running on empty to begin with!

Iron Man immediately begins it plunge toward the ground. Thinking he has won, The Black Knight releases his hostage the hard way, leaving Happy to fall to his death. Except Tony’s fall was actually a ploy. See, he figured that if he dove down fast enough, the mechanisms might somehow be affected. (Don’t ask why or how. We must never reveal the laws of doughnut science.) It works, and Iron Man also manages to catch Happy on the way down.

After he drops Happy off, urging him to stop trying to check on Mr. Stark who is probably fine even though he definitely appeared to be dying the last time Happy saw him, Iron Man heads back into the sky. This battle feels like it has been going on for ages, honestly, but this round at least involves an upside-down horse. That’s right, Iron Man’s solution to his Black Knight problem was to fly at the guy, grab his horse by the hooves and flip it over.

The Black Knight of course begins plummeting to the ground. Tony doesn’t appear in a rush to save him, and he even taunts the guy that he but a burr on the horse’s saddle to prevent it from rescuing him. Iron Man is therefore the Black Knight’s only hope, and he won’t help unless his enemy drops the lance which is the source of all his power.

Our medieval friend protests, but eventually decides that being alive is better than the alternative. So he drops the lancet, Iron Man grabs him and drops him off with some waiting police who refer to this offering as being like ‘Christmas in July.’ Which, especially since we didn’t even see any cops on the scene until now, feels like kind of an exaggeration. Like do they even know who this dude is, or are they just assuming that someone in knight cosplay deserves to be arrested?

While I’m left to ponder this, Iron Man races back to his office. However, before he can take off his suit, he comes to a sudden realization: his heart is now requiring the additional boost brought about by the additional transistors. Which means that he doesn’t know if he can take the suit off. He’s worried that if he blacks out due to low power again he may not wake up, but he also doesn’t want to be stuck in the armour forever.

He has very little time to make a decision, so he decides, essentially, to stall. Tony opens the door still dressed as Iron Man and informs Pepper and Happy that Tony has gone out of town and left Iron Man in charge. The two of them are not satisfied by this answer, even when Iron Man grumpily insists that Tony’s earlier bit of ill-health was nothing but a dizzy spell. But, Happy wonders aloud, how can they prove that Iron Man is lying?

As Happy ponders this, Tony leaves us with some questions of his own. If Happy and Pepper are already suspicious, he thinks, what are they going to do when Tony Stark never returns?

Closing Thoughts

And so ends the issue! Look, I’m not going to lie. Podcasting is hard, and over the last couple of issues I’ve struggled to get as excited as I wanted to be especially when the narratives themselves didn’t feel that compelling to me. But this brought me back in such a big way! It had all the things I love. Secret identity stuff, which we’ll get to at length in a minute, Happy and Pepper caring about Tony and vice versa, Stark Industries getting blown up for the millionth time. I just. I LOVE IT SO MUCH YOU GUYS!

Doing the Readings

Honestly I can’t say much more without going into some of the secret identity stuff, though, and I really want to take our time to dig into it. So we’re going to do a special multi-episode version of Doing the Readings over the next couple of episodes, where we’ll investigate different theorizations around the secret identity trope in comic books.

First up, Matthew J. Costello’s Secret Identity Crisis: Comic Books & The Unmasking of Cold War America. This is a fantastic book. Academic prose can sometimes be not just dense but stylistically….well, rough. But this text is both pretty smart and super readable. In it, Costello details the ways in which the thematic and stylistic preoccupations of comics during the Cold War reflected American culture back to itself.

The 50s, he explained, involved the creation of an ideology called liberal consensus. There’s a whole chapter that explains precisely what is meant by this term, but the super quick and dirty version is that American national identity was structured around a shared fantasy of what it meant to be American—think about the power and weight of terms like freedom, for example. What’s really important to realize is that despite the word consensus, it’s not that everyone actually agreed on or even knew precisely what some of the go-to facets of American self-identity actually meant. What was important is that most people believed they knew, and that this was something they shared with their neighbours.

The 60s, and especially the late 60s, was very much about the unravelling of this consensus. Costello argues that the identity consensus eventually devolves into an identity crisis. Americans effectively lost a shared vocabulary or sense of community. Many therefore turned inward, focusing on the personal rather than the communal. Eventually, this leads to a kind of schism, because the aims and values of individual people did not always match up very well with the fragments of the consensus regarding what they thought America was.

And right in the thick of this comes superheroes and their dual identities! Why no kidding, right? A crucial symbolic marker of the superhero’s identity issues, Costello notes, is their costumes. They serve a whole bunch of purposes. For one, they’re a marker of character development. And we’ve certainly seen that with Iron Man. Think about the many iterations of the suit we have already seen, and the ways in which changes to it (or Tony’s approach to it) are often representative of shifts within him individually.

Costumes also mark the superhero as having something in common with other superheroes. So they’re at once alienating in the sense that they make the hero visibly different from the average person, but they also make them part of a different, if smaller, kind of sub cultural group.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the costume is a liberalization of the identity crisis going on between public and private identity. Just like what it means to be a citizen of a nation does not always neatly align itself with what it means to be an individual, what it means for our protagonist to function as Iron Man is often not entirely in concert with what it means for him to be Tony Stark. The armour is therefore a boundary between them, but one which is constantly failing to keep these two identities actually separate.

Readers Like You

So what does it mean for Tony to potentially be stuck in the Iron Man armour? I mean, I have thoughts. I always have thoughts. But I actually want to turn this question over to you for some discussion. Remember that this is not the first time we’ve sort of seen this threat of Tony being stuck in the armour. We were actually introduced to Iron Man this way. His very first appearance in Tales of Suspense 39 ended with him walking off still in the armour, covered by a trench coat and hat, wondering if he would ever get to be human again.

And now this foreboding threat is being revisited. What does it tell us about where this comic is at (and perhaps by extension where the American psyche was at) that we’re back in this place now, with Tony confined at least for now to the armour?

Bisexuality Metre

I suppose we should also do a bisexuality metre. I say I suppose not because I’m not thrilled, but because how can I even contain myself about how bisexual all of this is? I mean, Tony is literally trapped a suit that shields him from the world but which also hides his true self. I can’t even. 10/10. A million out of 10.

Closing Notes

I will not be permitting any disagreement about my ranking for this, the perfect bisexual issue. However, if you want to agree with me, or have anything else to say about the show, please do let me know! Pop onto the Discord. Send me an email at invincibleironpod@gmail.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.

And join us next week where

-We will get the fallout from all of this, which include Iron Man being suspected of murder. Seriously, I’ll try to contain myself, but it will be hard.

Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!