[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:05:24] The Beacon of Amon Dîn, one of my favourite scenes in Return of the King
[00:06:22] Pepper confronting Iron Man
[00:07:38] José Alaniz, Death, Disability and the Superhero
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 #61. Its cover date is January 10 1964. Before we dive right into the action, I figured it would be worth doing a brief recap of the previous couple of issues since we’re right in the middle of a multi-issue storyline. So, following a battle with an otherwise unremarkable villain named the Black Knight, Tony realized that his heart needed more support than the chest plate alone could provide. Specifically, he was concerned that without the extra power in the armour itself, he might pass out or even die before he could figure out another solution. And so he was stuck as Iron Man.
Pepper and Happy, who last saw Tony while he was clutching his chest and in the midst of what probably looked like a heart attack, were extremely suspicious to learn that their boss had supposedly departed, leaving Iron Man in charge. Last issue they even tried to get the police involved, feeling that Iron Man was the most likely cause of Tony Stark’s sudden absence. But after Iron Man saved Pepper from the returning Hawkeye, she had a bit of a change of heart. She still didn’t like the situation, but there was something familiar enough about Iron Man that she found herself wanting to trust him.
Or did she? This issue’s splash page depicts Happy and Pepper entering Tony’s office, where Iron Man is lounging with his feet on the desk, and delivering their collective resignation. Now, I had to stop and laugh here at the idea that of all the people at SI, most of whom are in constant danger of being blown up by various acts of industrial sabotage, it’s these two who are the first to quit. But anyway, they explain that Tony Stark has been gone for a month, and while they might no longer believe Iron Man killed him, they know he was involved in Stark’s disappearance somehow. And so they leave, arm in arm, and Tony mourns the fact that he has no one left to turn to.
Before the two even leave Stark Industries property, they are approached by an inspector who wants to talk with them at police headquarters. They happily oblige, and are thrilled when the questioning starts turning in the direction of Iron Man. Also thrilled? A member of the press, who is looming outside and listening. (He has a ‘Press’ label attached to his hat, which doesn’t seem like the best way to sneak into a police precinct, but hey what do I know?)
The next day, news of Iron Man being under suspicion is the main headline in all the papers. Meanwhile, Tony is in the lab, trying to find a way to free himself from the armour. As he does, he gives us a bit of exposition about why his identity must remain secret. If people knew he was Iron Man, he says, his factories would be under constant attack and his employees in danger.
Wait. Record scratch. Hold the dang phone. Tony Stark are you serious right now? If I did a shot every time someone tried to wreck your factory this would be the drunkest podcast in the history of podcasts. And there were other options available as an explanation! Why not say that Iron Man sometimes operates outside of the law and he doesn’t want Tony Stark and SI implicated in that? Why not say he’s scared that people won’t like Tony Stark if they know he has a metal plate covering his chest? It’s just a super weird rationale to offer when it’s a decision that has a lot of other plausible explanations.
But fine, okay, let’s go with this explanation for now. Speaking of Tony’s employees, we then flash to the next day. Happy is loitering outside Tony’s house, hoping to find some kind of clue as to the location of his erstwhile boss. The place is sure to be deserted, he figures, so what’s the harm? But then he sees some movement in the bedroom.
With no time to put the Iron Man helmet on, Tony is left with no other choice than pulling his bedcovers up to his chest like every actress in every post sex-scene in screen history. He greets Happy, berating him for not believing Iron Man. A delighted Happy immediately runs off to call Pepper, who rushes over to confirm the news for herself. Tony’s options are pretty limited given that he can’t let them see the armour, so he tells them that he’s been ill and Iron Man has been covering for him. As he tries to sell this to the people who know him best, crowds begin to gather outside house, desperate for a glimpse of the laid-up Tony Stark.
Later, we watch Pepper and Happy depart the estate. Tony’s performance hasn’t entirely convinced them of his wellness, and their latest working theory is that perhaps Iron Man is holding Tony prisoner in his home, forcing him to assure his loved ones of his wellness. Tony doesn’t help his case by choosing that moment to wave goodbye to them from the balcony, but it soon transpires that he’ll have bigger problems.
A satellite is circling overhead. Numerous tracking stations on both sides of the Iron Curtain are shown trying to identify it, but it turns out it’s been sent by the Mandarin, who has heard the news that Tony Stark is recovering from an illness at his home. In his fortress, we see The Mandarin use one of his powered rings to set up a complex relay chain that mostly made me thing of that scene in Lord of the Rings where they light the Beacon of Minis Tirith. But sadly, this scene doesn’t end with Virgo Mortenson streaking across the plains. Instead, it eventually strikes that satellite and sends a killer beam right at Tony’s home.
Being stuck in the armour turns out to be good for something, however, because Tony receives an alert about the incoming attack. He manages to escape the house seconds before it hits, leaving colossal damage in its wake.
As the news hits the wires, Pepper and Happy return to the house to find it in ruins. Specifically, a firefighter informs them that anyone in the bedroom would never have had a chance of survival. Iron Man attempts to comfort the pair, but of course fails because they’re furious he was unable to protect the man he was sworn to protect. It’s a great panel, one I will definitely put in the show notes, because its use of colour is phenomenal. Iron Man, in his usual red and gold, stands gripping Pepper’s arm. She’s wearing a yellow coat and of course has her usual famous red hair, so they look like mirror images of one another. It’s a really lovely detail that speaks, I think, to how deeply connected they are.
We know this as readers, but Pepper of course does not, at least not consciously. So we see her the next day at the police station. She’s convinced that Iron Man not only failed to protect Tony Stark, but that he might have been the source of the ray that supposedly ended his life. However, the case is now out of the hands of the local police: Washington is taking over the investigation.
While Pepper rages through her grief, Happy takes a different approach. We see him wandering the Long Island Shoreline, a favoured spot of Tony’s, talking to himself. Iron Man, who has inherited Stark Industries, has offered both Happy and Pepper their jobs back. And Happy’s only rival for the romantic affections of one Pepper Potts is now dead. He should, he thinks, be as happy as his nickname suggests. But he’s not. Happy is devastated, and in a nice reversal of the usual gender tropes, it’s Happy who we see shedding tears for Tony.
Doing the Readings/Bisexuality Metre
And this seems like as good a time as any for the promised and joyous union of Doing the Readings and the Bisexuality Metre!
Now, those of you who have been with me since the beginning might remember I promised we’d becoming back to José Alanizs’ book, Death, Disability and the Superhero a lot, and this is another of those occasions. In the introduction, Alaniz lays out a kind of scholarly lineage of the dual identity trope, beginning with Umbert Eco. In his famous 1962 essay “The Myth of Superman,” Eco argues that superheroes have to function somewhat outside of time by embodying ideals and archetypes considered timeless. But they also have to have to work as modern romantic ideals at the same time. This leads to what Alaniz calls “an odd relational calculus,” which sees the fusion of an “erotically potent but inaccessible super-body counterbalanced by a nebbish or emotionally immature alter ego.” This superhero, ultimately, is trapped in a state just human enough to want and be wanted, and just super enough to never truly realize those aspirations.
But that doesn’t mean the balance between these two elements is stable, and this is where the secret identity trope becomes really essential. The drama of the secret identity, which almost always involves a romantic sub-plot like the one we’ve seen in the Iron Man comics, depicts masculinity itself as highly anxious and unstable, constantly under threat of collapsing altogether.
So where do Tony Stark and Iron Man fall in this scheme? Well, here’s where things get really interesting for me. I spoke a little bit last time about how what seems to have initially prompted the change that brought Tony from hating himself and revering Iron Man to almost the reverse is love—specifically, his having having fallen for Pepper. But I think his relationship with Happy is equally important. It’s Happy he met at his psychic lowest, when he had just crashed a race car and was near death. Happy has also been put in a damsel-in-distress style position for Tony to rescue nearly as often as Pepper has. I think that really matters, and not just because I like reading bisexual subtext into things. Instability and collapse can breed anxiety, yes, but they can also engender possibility, and one of the possibilities I see emerging from Tony’s conflicted masculinity is an opening up of romantic and sexual attraction outside the strictly heterosexual. And it’s not just Happy, either. Think about Ivan Vanko, whose relationship with Tony I spoke about at length as embodying many of the traits of a romantic tragedy.
This is not to say that Pepper is unimportant, though. I actually think it’s incredibly important that she exists, and that Tony holds affection for her at the same time as attaching himself to men in various ways. Because there are a lot of harmful mistruths about male bisexuality that still circulate, the most popular of which is the notion that bisexual men are really just secretly gay but not quite comfortable enough to be fully out yet. Which is of course nonsense. So I really like that out of this moment of intense anxiety about what it means to be a man and how a superhero both embodies and disrupts that definition, we get someone like Tony Stark who very much seems capable of feeling love and attraction for people of multiple genders.
The other thing we should talk about in a very much related way is gendered identity. I mentioned before the way that Tony himself is often positioned as a kind of swooning heroine; one of the other articles I brought up specifically thinks about how often he lays prone while the chest plate recharges. That tension around the chest plate has now of course culminated in a Tony unable to remove not just the plate but the entire Iron Man suit. What does that suggest? Again, I think something kind of radical especially for the moment it’s written. I think there’s a kind of circuit being depicted between the need for power (often read as a kind of inherently masculine thing) and the experience of being physically and emotionally confined. In other words, the hyper-masculinity symbolized by Iron Man is a kind of trap. Tony’s embodied reality won’t allow him to escape the suit entirely, but what we see him trying to negotiate now is how to form a kind of balance or hybrid similar to his sexual identity.
Some of how I ultimately read this will of course come down to how this storyline resolves. And at the same time as I think there’s some really progressive potential here, I also think returning to the Mandarin at this moment also suggests a wariness and an anxiety about that potential. We’ve already talked before about the ways that the Mandarin is often depicted in a feminized and Othering way precisely to solidify the superiority of white masculinity. But that doesn’t mean the potential wasn’t there, and if I’m returning to some of the questions I started this podcast with about why a lot of queer, BIPOC , disabled, and otherwise marginalized folks connect with Iron Man, I think moments like these are a huge part of why.
Alright. Back to business. So while Happy mourns, Tony is trying to pinpoint the source of the ray that nearly took his life. Once he narrows it down to ‘The Orient,’ he realizes that his attacker must have been the Mandarin. Cue the most hilariously dated moment in history: we see Iron Man, disguised as an extremely burly bearded man, board a plane wearing a heavy grey overcoat. The flight attendants chat amongst one another about how the guy won’t remove his coat despite how warm it is, but he’s soon a cause of conversation for a much different reason: as the plane passes over Asia, the bearded guy opens the emergency escape door and leaps out.
The Mandarin has anticipated being found out, and he’s waiting for Iron Man. He uses one of his rings, a green one covered in multiple vertical lines, which triggers a beam to shoot out from the castle. It begins pulling Iron Man toward the rocks below. He is able to activate his thrusters at the last minute before falling to his death, but he realizes that he’s still seeing flashes of light behind his eyes. Turns out we haven’t yet managed to cover all the squares on anti-Asian racist bingo. That’s right, he’s being hypnotized! Eventually, he winds up in front of a giant robot named Koto. However, under hypnotic influence, Tony believes him to be a man, more giant and powerful than Giant Man.
He loses his will to fight, and is carried, unconscious, like a rag doll before the Mandarin, who instructs Koto to take himself to the dungeons and dismantle himself. (Seems like sort of a waste, but okay?) Tony wakes, once again in bondage. But although The Mandarin brags that he could end Iron Man’s life at time with the push of a button, he wants to have a chat. Specifically, he’s decided to use this moment to fill Iron Man in on his origin story. That’s right! We’re going to find out how The Mandarin got his powers, and I bet it’s going to be super unproblematic!
I say I bet because that’s actually the end of the story this week! In a lot of ways it felt like a sort of bridging issue. It moved a bunch of players where they needed to be—Pepper and Happy believing Tony is dead, Iron Man in the clutches of his greatest rival—but it didn’t really have much of an arc on its own.
That’s probably not the only reason I don’t feel all that satisfied. Ultimately, I think it’s sort of a distraction from what I think is particularly compelling about this entire secret identity storyline, which is sort of working through who Tony Stark actually is. Of course many superheroes are defined in large part by who their enemies are—would we really know who Steve Rogers was without knowing that he opposed the Nazis?—but by answering the question ‘who is Tony Stark’ by saying ‘not the Mandarin,’ the storyline effectively resolves by centering white supremacy and anti-Asian racism. And I think that ultimately cheapens a lot of what’s really great about the character—specifically his willingness to see nuance in a lot of situations where other heroes might reduce matters to simple binaries of good and evil.
This was a shorter episode, and I did consider combining it with the next issue. But ultimately it felt like it might be useful to mirror the experience of what it would have been like to read these issues in real time—after all, the cliffhanger of finding out The Mandarin’s origin story and Iron Man’s presumed escape wouldn’t be nearly as frustrating if we went straight there without a pause.
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
-We’ll find out more about The Mandarin, and then I’ll watch Shang-Chi to cleanse my palette
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!