Tales of Suspense #60 – 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.
[00:05:42] Non pay-walled version of The Superhero as Labor: The Corporate Secret Identity
[00:10:06] Tony’s first psychic schism spanned several issues, culminating in his near-death meeting with Happy Hogan in Tales of Suspense #45
[00:012:08] Heathcliff, brooding anti-hero of Wuthering Heights
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 #60. Its cover date is December 10 1964. Our dual cover is mostly taken up by Captain America, but we do get a very intriguing image of our pal Hawkeye. He is firing an arrow at Iron Man, whose back is to him as he faces down several guards with guns pointed at him. The caption reads “Iron Man: Wanted for Murder.” I seriously could not be more stoked about this. What a cool evolution to have gone from Tony Stark wishing himself dead and Iron Man alive to Iron Man being suspected of his murder!
And if I was thrilled by the cover, the splash page just puts me totally over the top. We get an image of Iron Man holding a clear tube containing a pint-sized version of Tony Stark. The latter declares “I can never be Anthony Stark again! I must remain Iron man forever!” It’s just a fantastic piece of art. We get a close, head-on view of the Iron Man headpiece, meaning we see Tony’s startlingly blue eyes for the first time in a while. (In recent issues, I’m guessing just for reasons of time, he’s been drawn in the armour with the eye slits appearing black.) The Tony who is trapped in the tube is also drawn with his shirt halfway unbuttoned. This leaves the chest plate visible, highlighting even further how inescapable his fate is. In a lot of ways, the struggle I’ve had with the Iron Man comics so far is that they don’t always seem to know who they really think Tony is, and how much they want us to take his psychological traumas and struggles as seriously as some of the other characters of the time. And it’s possible that this will be another instance of them sort of gesturing to these issues and then going back to the status quo. But I think there’s a thoughtfulness to the approach embodied by this splash page that suggests otherwise, as does the fact that the storyline is spanning over multiple issues.
Readers Like You
I wanted to stop here for our Readers Like You segment. I know I’ve been giving broader prompts lately, but this time I wanted to have a more specific conversation. So this is easily my favourite splash page we’ve encountered so far. But there’s a lot to choose from. So what are some of yours? Any favourites (or least favourites) you’ve seen? Share them on Twitter, Tumblr, or Discord!
Alright, so let’s see where we’re heading. We begin shortly after where we left things off in the previous issue: Tony is trapped in the suit and terrified to take it off. His chest plate now needs the extra boost of power he can only get by wearing the full armour rather than just the plate, and Tony is frightened that if he attempts to extract himself from it, he will pass out or even die before finding a way to provide that additional power. This seems, honestly, like a pretty sensible fear, but as frustrated as he is by the situation, Tony appears even more angry at himself for being afraid. In any case, he declares himself a prisoner of his own creation.
While Tony mourns his life outside the suit, Pepper and Happy are on a hunt. They have once again borrowed one of Tony’s cars, and they’re driving through the city checking all his favourite haunts. Because we will never make it through an issue without some kind of gesture towards the love triangle that will not die, Happy observes Pepper’s clear distress over the loss of her boss and thinks to himself that he has no chance with her if she cares this ugh for Tony. And like, not to be on my usual bisexual high-horse, but does Happy not know he also cares that much about Tony, and that they could therefore just exist as a lovely little poly triad? No, of course he doesn’t, but I do, darn it!
When their search proves fruitless, they decide to head back to the office where Iron Man is still there, and still far too chill for their liking. A furious Pepper interrogates Iron Man, demanding to know where Tony said he was going. This ends up stumping Tony, because he knows that they’ll be able to disprove any specific locations he names instantly. So he claims that Tony indicates his destination was top-secret. Pepper, fearless and wonderful as ever, voices her suspicion that Iron Man himself is the one who may have harmed Tony. Happy then rushes to prove his own devotion by threatening the guy in the unimaginably strong, weaponized suit of armour.
In typical Tony Stark fashion, he is touched to be threatened with violence by the people he loves. And he decides to try to put their minds at ease by writing a note from…well, Tony Stark. While he’s in the office, he also decides to take some money out of the safe. Naturally, he’s in the middle of doing so when Pepper and Happy, accompanied by the police, come in and assume he’s robbing his employer.
Doing the Readings
Now I want to stop here for our Doing the Readings segment. As I said last time, since we have some time to really dig into the secret identity trope in a multi-issue arc like this one, we’re going to take on multiple theorizations of this particular trope. I should note that I’m not trying to make all these theories add up to a single holistic story about what the secret identity storyline means. We can take or leave bits and pieces of each of them as we see fit. My only real aim in terms of which one I bring up when is simply relevance.
So today, for instance, we’re dealing with some of the ways that Tony’s dual identity is now impacting his place of business. It therefore seems like a great time to check out Greg M. Smith’s “The Superhero As Labor: The Corporate Secret Identity.” This is a chapter from a collection called The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero, which contains some really great work. Smith’s chapter begins by outlining some of the most common theorizations of the dual identity trope, several of which we have explored or will get into. One element he finds missing in a lot of scholarship about this particular storyline, though, is an analysis of what he calls the “corporate professional.” Citing not only Iron Man but Superman, Daredevil and Flash, Smith argues it is significant that many of the superheroes whose storylines involve this secret, dual identity are professionals who are part of larger organizations.
There’s a few reasons for this, Smith says. It’s partly a matter of narrative expedience, because these secret identities often allow protagonists to work at hubs of information. There’s also a certain degree of what he calls career aspiration; the example Smith gives is that the comics present working at a major metropolitan newspaper as an achievable goal for a young farm kid in Nebraska. But most significantly, Smith claims that the dual identity is often tied to a professional role because there’s a tension but also a deep sense of continuity between the individualistic superhero and the so-called Organization Man—the middle class corporate labourer who finds a sense of belonging within the bonds of a corporate social network.
Let’s cover the tension first, since it’s probably the most self-evident. So the Organization Man is bound by rules. He has to focus on the greater good, and part of doing that within a corporate context is abiding by the procedures, methods, and ethos of whatever one’s organization is. The superhero, of course, operates outside these structures. He usually works on his own, working for the benefit of society while also existing to some extent outside of it.
Now if this sounds a lot like our conversation about nationalism last week, it should. There’s a lot of common threads. The dual identity often boils down to some variation of the individual versus the social, and how the hero copes with the challenges of trying to balance an emphasis on each.
But what Smith says that I find particularly compelling is that it’s the similarities between the Organization Man and the superhero that he finds noteworthy. Both tend to be aligned with a sort of bootstrap capitalist ethos of equating exceptional work with exceptional effects. In other words, if you just work harder, you’ll achieve greatness.
In terms of work styles, both the superhero and the Organization Man must work in a context of constant interruption. Think about how often Iron Man has to rush away because Tony Stark is needed somewhere, or vice versa. The superhero is not supervised by anyone and the hours are utterly unpredictable. Likewise, a professional worker (unlike someone in, say, a factory who must be in a particular place at a particular time) has a certain amount of freedom and flexibility in their schedule. However, this comes at the expense of often having to interrupt one task to complete another.
Perhaps most importantly, they both also experience a certain degree of powerlessness. So just like large corporate structures are known for valuing labourers that perform focused, specific parts of a task, the superhero also has moments where he too risks losing himself in his quest to serve the greater good.
Ultimately, then, Smith says that the reader does not have to choose between what he calls the official hero and the outlaw hero. Superhero comics use the dual identity trope to combine them. “They are not irreconcilable options,” Smith writes, “they coexist (at times complementarily, at times uneasily) as irreversibly linked aspects of the same pursuit.”
I think these are really valuable insights, and I particularly like that Smith emphasis the continuities between the two figures, because I think it tells us a lot about how we might engage with and understand this storyline. Think about what’s happening to Tony now. He’s stuck performing the role of the outlaw Iron Man when the context is demanding that he function within the boundaries of the Organization Man. And while his exact circumstances are of course unique, it would always seem to be the fundamental risk of any dual identity type set-up that the character starts to lose a sense of balance or stability, allowing one side of themselves to become dominant even when circumstances call for the other ‘side’ of themselves to take the lead.
At first, you’ll remember, this is what Tony wanted. When he had his first psychic schism and basically started wishing he could kill Tony Stark and just live as the ever-stronger, ever more superior Iron Man, this might have been his dream scenario. So what’s changed? Well, even though I find the love triangle storyline irritating, this is where his feelings for Pepper becoming really important. What’s changed is that this character has gone from embodying that post WWII style masculinity that wanted to reject structures like marriage and family to wishing he could embrace them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I hate that the reason we’ve been given about why his feelings for Pepper change are that she got a makeover. Hate it. But I do find the suggestion that love is ultimately what allows Tony to achieve a kind of internal balance between the part of him that is Iron Man and the part of him that is Tony Stark really interesting. We’ll get lots more on that week when the bisexuality metre and the doing the readings segments join forces, so stay tuned for that!
Iron Man is able to dismiss this concern by noting that the safe has clearly not been forced, therefore suggesting that his employer has given him permission to access the safe at will. He also offers up the note, which he claims to have found inside it, which of course uses the same secret mission line and indicates that Tony wishes Iron Man to be left in charge. This defence does not quite go as intended, however. The police take the note for analysis and quickly realize there are no fingerprints on it, and that the writing is “oddly shaky.” The culprit for both of these issues is, of course, that Tony forgot to take the glove off to write the note. It’s exactly the kind of mistake someone under severe stress would make, and I just felt terrible for him here.
Seeing no other way out, Iron Man flies through the window. The police, showing a lot of consistency between their approach then and their approach now, quickly realize that shooting at a rich white man without any proof that he’s committed a crime is likely to be an issue. So Iron Man escapes without harm and winds up standing on cliff at sunset, looking like a futuristic Heathcliff. He doesn’t get a chance to brood for long, though. He quickly realizes that he’s due soon for an Avenger’s meeting, so he calls to make his excuses. Thor grants him permission to be absent, though he does make Iron Man promise he hasn’t betrayed Tony Stark. Honestly, Tony is so messed up at this point that I sort of expected him to say something self-depreciating and easily misinterpreted in response, but for once he doesn’t opt for chaos.
Speaking of wonderful chaos, we then join Black Widow and Hawkeye, who are hearing about Tony Stark’s recent disappearance over the radio. Natasha, thrilled by the news, immediately begins making plans for Hawkeye (who she still refers to by his stage name rather than any more personal identifiers) to break into Stark Industries and steal plans for his newest weapons. He hesitates at what he refers to as treason, but Natasha claims to be serving no cause but that of international peace and…well, he buys it. Because did you know Natasha is good looking?
So the next thing we see is of course Hawkeye breaking in. He’s still feeling conflicted about the whole thing, and thinks about how he wanted to use his gifts to serve the world. But he goes forward with the plan, and is immediately spotted by a security guard. The guards stop firing when he nears Tony’s office, initially assuming he will be cornered, but of course Pepper is inside, and Clint decides to take her hostage.
Or, to be more precise, he decides to try. He first forces Pepper to open the door to Tony’s private lab, but he’s unable to understand how any of the machinery inside works, and there are no printed plans anywhere to be found. In a bit of ret-conning that was only a little eye-rolley, Pepper claims that Tony keeps most of his important plans in his mind. Privately, she worries that this will also lead to his torture if he is being held captive somewhere, but she shows none of this fear to Hawkeye. Seriously, she’s fantastic through this entire scene.
His next move is to try to convince her to have a car ordered to facilitate his escape. She refuses, but is overheard via a communication device in the room that is apparently live and transmitting to the police, and Happy, who are waiting outside. Happy, of course worried for Pepper’s safety, begs the police to just allow Hawkeye the car.
Meanwhile, Iron Man gets a call about the situation at SI from Giant Man. The latter offers the support of the Avengers, which Tony turns down. This then leads to a set of alternating scenes. So we see Iron Man headed for SI just as the Black Widow is doing the same, intending to offer her support to Hawkeye. Only one of them actually makes it there. Because while Iron Man literally crashes his way into SI, the Widow is apprehended by a team of folks led by Sergei Amkov, who we are told is head of the Iron Curtain spy system in North America. And Sergei wants a word or several.
Unaware of these developments, Hawkeye and Iron Man enter into a face off. There’s the usual fight stuff; Hawkeye fires some arrows, Iron Man taunts him about not being fast enough. He also uses a large piece of steel to shield Pepper and allow her to escape the room. Hawkeye then changes tactics. He takes off and fires a power-blast arrow at the chains holding one of SI’s newest rockets: Uranus II. No, I’m not kidding. Like, they’re just handing this stuff personally to me at this point.
Iron Man is able to catch it and carefully set it down, though it costs him dearly in terms of energy reserves. In what is becoming the next go-to villain move, Hawkeye then tries to get Iron Man into some heavy bondage using an arrow that wraps him in heavy steel cables. Though Tony manages to escape that too, Hawkeye is smart enough to realize that he must be running out of power. (I do really appreciate, by the way, that we’re getting a little bit more depth and nuance to his depiction in this issue. He’s smart, and even while his loyalty to Natasha is trumping everything, he has at least been conflicted.)
He sends another arrow Iron Man’s way, one that sends off a blinding flash of light. This ploy works, but lacking any other arrows he thinks will be sufficient to actually take Iron Man down, Hawkeye opts for escape instead. He uses a suction cup arrow to attach himself to a low-flying jet, not realizing that it contains Natasha who is being taken back behind the Iron Curtain.
Back at SI, Iron Man is once again staring down the barrel of several weapons, including a proton gun Tony invented himself. This time, though, Iron Man has an ally in the form of Pepper Potts. She reminds everyone that Iron Man saved her life, and that he might be Tony’s best chance of survival. As Iron Man takes off, finding it too hard to witness the pain in Pepper’s expression, Happy and Pepper debate whether she did the right thing. She says that there’s something about Iron Man she wants to trust, something she can’t quite explain…and dear THOR DOES THIS MEAN SHE IS FINALLY GOING TO FIGURE IT OUT?
Our final panel features Tony Stark back in his private lab, trying to find a way to escape the suit that is keeping him alive while also holding him prisoner.
And that is as good a time as any for our bisexuality metre! Like I said, we’re going to be spending a lot of time on this next week. But I do think it’s important to do one this week, and to be slightly more serious about it than I often am, because this storyline that Iron Man is suspected of killing Tony Stark has obvious and important connections to sexual identity.
Fairly often, when LGBTQIA+ folks come out to their families and especially their parents, the latter’s reaction is framed in terms of grief. The child they imagined having is gone, and so the parent feels they have to mourn this fictional child before they can go on loving the real version. As a queer person, a daughter, and a parent myself, I have mixed and complicated feelings about this narrative as most people do. On one hand, I think that even though we know these narratives we have about who are kids are or will be to be always already fictional, that doesn’t necessarily make them any less powerful. Fantasies can be an incredible source of connection and meaning, and giving someone a bit of grace when that is taken from them is, to my view, not inherently a bad thing, especially if the parent has otherwise been a kind and supportive force in that child’s life.
However, there’s also a hugely damaging implication to this narrative, because it often renders the queer kid the source and object of the parent’s grief. In other words, rather than feeling like the parent is mourning just a fantasy of their own creation, both parent and child can end up feeling like the queer kid has murdered the straight version of themselves. And I think that’s why this particular storyline hits me so hard. If we think about Tony Stark as not just holding up Stark Industries as an organization, but also as a kind of embodiment of presumed heterosexuality as a structuring force of society, the idea that Iron Man is believed to be his murderer fits precisely the narrative I was just talking about to a tee.
Okay not actually to a tee. It’s not a perfect analogy. Unlike with the heterosexual fantasy-child parents of queer kids have to let go of, there is an actual Tony Stark who is actually being mourned by his friends and colleagues here. But the fact that Iron Man is being accused not just of failing to protect Tony but of murdering him himself does align reflect that narrative of loss and grief and misplaced blame closely enough that I can only award this issue another 10/10 on the bisexuality metre.
It’s probably clear that I loved this issue. Ultimately I’m in these stories primarily for exactly this kind of character development. This is the kind of stuff that gets me through fight scenes I don’t care about and sexism that makes me do a whole body cringe.
Let me know what you thought, though! Drop me a line on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod, or by email at email@example.com I also keep swearing to host more structured events on the Discord, and I swear I’ll set one of those up again soon. If you’re enjoying the show, please also make sure to subscribe, share, and/or review.
And join us next week where
-Continue part three of this arc, this time featuring The Mandarin (oh no don’t ruin something perfect Marvel…) Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!