[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:03:16] Ian Gordon, “Writing to Superman: Towards and Understanding of the Social Networks of Comic-Book Fans”
[00:09:41] The Mandarin and the Yellow Peril Trope
[00:10:05] Tales of Suspense #40
[00:12:50] The Republic of Formosa
[00:18:14] Episode 023 on dual identity as a site of possibility and foreclosure
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 #62. Its cover date is February 10, 1965. And our cover page assures us it will keep the promise made by last week’s issue: we’re going to learn about The Mandarin’s origin story. It’s probably unsurprising, then, that The Mandarin looms large on the cover, his oversized upper body overshadowing his castle while he reaches out for Iron Man. Our armoured hero has his arms raised above him in self-defense.
On the splash page that follows, Iron Man’s arms are raised again, though this time because he’s still tied to the same large wheel that we left him in last week. A caption reminds us that while the world believes Tony Stark to be dead and Iron Man to be mysteriously absent, both are being held captive. Iron Man thinks to himself that keeping the Mandarin speaking is the best way to try to ensure his survival. And the Mandarin is thrilled to have an audience restrained by titanium bonds and unable to escape. There’s one more audience to his narrative named on the splash page, too: comics readers, who we are told wrote demanding to know the Mandarin’s background.
And that means it’s time for a quick Marvellous segment. It’s been a while since we had one of these, so as a refresher, this segment deals with the history and context of Marvel as a company.
A few issues back, Tales of Suspense started printing reader letters, and responses from the team at Marvel. I haven’t remarked on them yet mainly because my original intention had been to wait until we were through this story arc. But regardless of how accurate the claim is, there is an explicit link being made here between content and audience reception. In other words, the comic is being marketed explicitly based on the fact that readers apparently wanted this story to be told. So I don’t think we really can go much further without considering the implications of the letters section.
One important thing to remember about being a fan at the point where these comics were being written is how much more work it was to create connection and community with other fans. Many of us, including myself, have experienced what it’s like to be the one in a group of friends obsessed with something that either no one else likes, or they engage with casually but not to the same degree. It stinks! And part of what made the rise of things like message boards, e-mail list-serves and, eventually, social media so powerful for fandom was the ability to quickly and easily find people who cared about the exact same things as you.
If the link I’m trying to draw between something as massive as, say, Tumblr, and the letter pages of comic books seem like a stretch, while I’m at least not alone out here on this limb. Ian Gordon refers to letter pages as “a rudimentary form of social network,” a way in which readers forged connection and community with other readers. But Megan, you say, how would reading about how Lynne just started reading Iron Man and loved it actually allow anyone to then form a community with her? Well, fandom in the 60s was, shall we say, a rather more open and trusting place. Letter pages often included not just the full names of the writers, but also their mailing addresses. So if I felt compelled to write a letter to Lynne and tell her how excited I was that she, too, was on the Shellhead train, then I could go ahead and do that!
Of course, in the polarized fandom age of today, this particular kind of intimacy might seem unthinkable. A great many of the people who exist in fan spaces online may choose never to even link those activities to their ‘real life’ name, let alone their address. (And in fact, kids, I beg of you, if you’re listening: don’t give people online your address just because they also claim to ship the same folks as you.) But we are talking both about a community that involved far different rules of engagement than contemporary fandom, and a much smaller readership than we’d be discussing now.
Now, the letters of course had other functions too, because fans weren’t just talking to each other. They were trying to talk to the creators of the comics. We of course do get printed replies to the letters that are published, which is one form of creator/fan dialogue that these sections foster. But equally important, I think, is the other kind of conversation that that very first mention of the letters in this issue evoked for me. By telling us that we are getting The Mandarin’s story because 500 people—yes, there is a specific number provided, and who knows if it’s true or not—asked for it, then what is being communicated is that there is a direct relationship between the stated desires of fans and the content of the comics. That might not sound revolutionary, and of course any successful brand has to demonstrate some willingness to make their customers feel heard. But what I find interesting about this particular claim is the extent of the argument. There’s no attempt to balance fan (and by extension commercial) interest with something like artistic integrity. The writers and artists are not saying something like ‘it’s finally the right moment for us to share this story you have requested so often.’ It’s just “you asked, here it is.”
In a contemporary context, we might call something like that fan service, and there are a lot of folks who actually really look down on that. People want to feel heard, yes, but they also like to believe that the artist has in mind some unique vision that is only theirs, which they could never be convinced to sway from. So a statement like this, which basically says hey, you asked and proved there was a market so here it is, I find it kind of cool. Not because I think the market should always dictate what stories get told—eew, no—but because it’s the kind of thing only so-called ‘low’ art can do, to openly acknowledge the role of commercial interest, and undermine the Romanticization of how art gets made.
Whoops. That went on longer than intended. And it’s something we’ll definitely come back to, because I always do take a quick scan of the letters that are printed and some of them will be worth talking about. But for now, let’s back to our pals Iron Man and the Mandarin.
The latter wastes no time confirming every stereotype ever by revealing that his Father was a direct descendant of Ghenghis Khan. (It’s apparently not enough that their interest in world domination is shared. We reeeeally need that blood relation.) However, it turns out that dear old Dad married a woman beneath him, an English woman. In apparent punishment for this crime, an idol toppled on his Dad shortly after The Mandarin was born, killing him instantly. Mom, as women are wont to do in science fiction, comics, and fantasy, then died soon after, presumably because she correctly assumed she had no narrative function without a husband.
The Mandarin was taken in by his paternal aunt. She hated him, because otherwise she would have inherited all of the wealthy family’s stuff. However, when she even considered abandoning him in another village, something nearly toppled on her. That’s right! Another omen! So instead of getting rid of the kid, she decides she’s going to train him in her image, teach him to hate everyone and everything. And it turned out not to be too hard, especially when the two of them were kicked out of their home once the family money disappeared.
Once again sensing she was of no more use to a male character, the aunt (whom he literally refers to as “the female” in one panel) died the next day. The Mandarin was left to wander the streets, too proud to work as those around him insisted he must do to avoid starvation.
Instead, he journeyed toward the Valley of Spirits, a place he’d heard whispers of as a child. While there he encountered the bones of a dragon…but that wasn’t all. In his surprise upon finding the dragons’s remains, The Mandarin stumbled and fell into the valley below, where he comes across a spaceship, hidden and perfectly preserved. Turns out our dragon pal was actually an intelligent alien named Axonn-Karr who had been exploring other planets. The Mandarin put on a helmet thing which turned out to transmit thoughts and memories. So The Mandarin is able to watch as our explorer sets out in a search for intelligent life, and eventually winds up on Earth. However, his form understandably freaks some people out, and Axonn-Karr is hunted down and wounded, until he eventually perished in the same cave where The Mandarin now stood.
And the ship still had more to offer. The Mandarin searched for the source of its power and eventually came upon the ten rings. He took the rings, the helmet back to his castle and studied them both until he knew their every secret. This allowed him to fortify the castle and eventually master the power of each of the rings, which he then used to enslave the local population.
Heroes and Villains
And now is time for a new segment which I’m calling Heroes and Villains. Basically I want to use this space to think through some of the classic villains of the Iron Man stories, and what they ultimately suggest about the protagonist. Now, I want to first note again that what is primarily at stake any time we are dealing with The Mandarin is anxiety about the cultural status and influence of whiteness. This is something I have discussed at length, and today’s conversation will build on that. So I’ll make sure to provide links in the show notes to previous episodes where I’ve broken down the Yellow Peril trope and explained how The Mandarin as a character aligns with and embodies everything that was freaking North Americans out about Asia at this point in history.
So today I wanted to actually think about how much the story The Mandarin has just offered resembles one of the very earliest Iron Man adventures! You’ll recall—or you might not, in which case you should definitely go listen—Tales of Suspense #40, which was only our second outing with Tony. In it, Iron Man battles Gargantus, who initially seems to be a kind of prehistoric leftover, but turns out to be a robot being controlled by an alien race who just didn’t realize that Earth had upgraded its humans in the many years since their last visit.
The parallels are sort of striking. In both cases, we start with a figure that appears to represent something ancient—the dragon legend in Chinese culture, and prehistoric man in the case of the Iron Man story. In both cases, it turns out that there’s actually something far more futuristic at stake—the space-travelling dragon and the aliens monitoring Earth using mind-controlling robots. In both cases, then, we have characters who are effectively presented with a choice between past and future, and both notably chose the latter. Tony realizes that Gargantus is not what he seems and is only then able to defeat him, while The Mandarin commits himself to learning about Axonn-Karr and the Ten Rings. Neither of these men, therefore, cleaves to tradition or history at the expense of knowledge or development.
So what ultimately makes them different? Well, a lot ultimately comes down to the source of their power for me. The Mandarin might be willing to embrace the future, but the rings, the primary source of his power, are quite literally alien. They are an external addition to himself, not only in terms of being something he wears as an accessory, but also because they literally are not objects that are of Earth. They are alien in the very literal definition of that term. Iron Man, meanwhile, has his power contained within. Hell, his connection to the suit has become so intimate that he can’t remove it. And, importantly, the suit is something he built himself. So once again, the answer is ultimately, you guessed it, about racism and Yellow Peril. In order to depict an Asian villain as simultaneously terrifying and decidedly less powerful than our hero, The Mandarin’s power has to be alien. It must come from outside of himself, not as an intrinsic trait or even an accomplishment he has earned. The best he can do is manage to wield this force; he can never truly be its source or its master.
So that’s the story! And having related it, The Mandarin is now happy to put Iron Man to death. He intends to do so by using the rings to charge the wheel his foe is tied to to spin faster and faster. While Iron Man is spun to death, The Mandarin announces that he is off to test fire a missile the Chinese government wishes to buy from him. The trick, however, is that the missile is programmed to reach Formosa.
Now I admit I had no idea where Formosa was, or if it even existed. Research informs me, however, that Formosa was a name used to refer to what is now called Taiwan. Initially, the name comes from some Portuguese sailors, who encountered the island in 1542 and declared it ‘Formosa’ or beautiful island. The name was popularly used by a lot of English speakers into the 20th century, and honestly if I had to bet I’d guess this is why this nomenclature is used. However, there is another bit of interesting history that may or may not have been intentionally referred to here. There’s a brief five month stretch in 1895 during which Taiwan had been formally ceded by the Chinese to the Japanese, but had not yet been taken over. During that time, as a symbol of resistance, inhabitants proclaimed the land to be Formosa. Some therefore regard it as the first Asian republic to have been proclaimed.
Now, again, my money is on this being a matter of what the writers and artists grew up learning to call this area. However, even if unintentional, it is kind of interesting that the Mandarin evokes a term with such fraught history here. First a name assigned by a potential colonizing force, then voluntarily taken on as a symbol for short-lived freedom…there’s definitely a lot about struggles over power and domination embedded in this name, and obviously these are themes that are extremely relevant to a character whose entire goal is to amass as much control over the world as he can.
Obviously, our friend Shellhead is not going to let this happen. He is able to move around enough that he can get a diamond-edged blade to emerge from one of the suit’s fingertips. With that, he is able to cut one of the titanium cords holding him to the giant wheel. Rather than promptly escaping, though, Tony instead touches the titanium to his wrist power-pack. This allows him to use the energy generated by the wheel to charge the suit. Yay! Just for funsies, Tony then super-charges the wheel so that it spins so fast it promptly breaks down. And as much as it would clearly benefit the Mandarin to have a spinning death wheel repair guy on speed dial, he does not.
Having gained his freedom, Iron Man uses a solar scanner in the suit to find The Mandarin, who is showing off his missile to the Chinese military. They’re delighted, even promising that Mao will be pinning a medal on him in no time. The Mandarin departs the demonstration before it even finishes, which the officials believe to be a sign of his confidence.
Meanwhile, Tony breaks out the knee suction cups. Yes, that’s right, stop everything and listen to what I just said. The Iron Man suit, canonically, has suction cups specifically on the knees. And again, it’s like I’m really starting to feel like I’m being punked. There’s no way someone wasn’t writing this specifically with me in mind, I don’t care that I wasn’t born in the sixties. Oh gosh I don’t even know what I was talking about—oh right. So he attaches himself via the suction cups which are definitely used only for very serious superheroing business, to the missile. This allows him to place a distorter which will send the weapon right back where it came from. And return it does, killing many of the military officials gathered and sending others running, vowing revenge on the Mandarin.
And Iron Man isn’t done. He picks up a giant boulder and throws it into the flight path of the ship The Mandarin was flying away in. They proceed to, as my notes describe, ‘fight like men,’ which involves thrown rocks, some fireballs, and poison. Eventually, The Mandarin succeeds at using a gas that surrounds Iron Man and then solidifies, leaving him almost totally trapped in a cement-like substance.
Just as things seem dire, an unlikely set of heroes intervenes: the Chinese army. They attack The Mandarin, whom they have deemed a traitor, and this buys Tony enough time to break free from the the substance encasing him. Seeing no other options, The Mandarin opts for escape. He uses a beam of black light to plunge Iron Man into total darkness and then charms a flat rock into essentially a flying carpet. (And yes, that comparison is made explicitly in the text. I couldn’t make this kind of crap up.)
Iron Man wants to go after him, but feels The Mandarin has too much of a head start. So he decides to cut and run while he can; in the next panel, we find Iron Man asleep on a military transport jet. The pilots are delighted by his presence, and plan to take pictures to prove he was on board. While Tony sleeps, The Mandarin plots. The last panel of this issue sees him on his usual throne, vowing never to rest until he has defeated his enemy.
So, where does this leave us? In a lot of ways, it’s sort of a circular issue in that nothing really happens. We learn about The Mandarin’s past, and I suppose Iron Man has struck a crucial blow by alienating The Mandarin completely from the Chinese government. However, we’re leaving Tony in essentially the same place he was at by the end of last issue: the world believing that he is dead, while Iron Man is under a cloud of suspicion.
What, then, was the point beyond giving people some apparently much-desired answers about The Mandarin’s backstory? Mostly it goes back to what we talked about earlier. We were shown how similar Iron Man and the Mandarin are so that their most important distinctions are made all the clearer: if The Mandarin is an alien influence in both the literal and metaphorical sense, then Tony is made all the more human by comparison. Now, you might be thinking, we already know he’s the good guy, what’s the point of telling us this?
Well, remember last episode when we talked about how the dual identity trope exposes anxieties and ambiguities about gender and sexuality? In that episode I talked about how at the same time as the dual identity trope opens up certain possibilities, it also always threatens to foreclose them. In a lot of ways, that was how this issue felt to me: like an attempt to stabilize or fix many of the same aspects of identity that have been so in flux over the course of this storyline.
Given what I just said, it probably won’t surprise you that the bisexual metre for this one is pretty low. On top of the fact that we have no romantic or sexual material to work with, we also get some of the Mandarin-typical stuff around masculinity, like his being called Mandy. It all adds up to a pretty conservative version of Tony. I’m therefore going to give this one a 3/10. It’s only getting any marks on the metre because the dual identity stuff is still going on in the background.
Readers Like You
What did you make of this one? If you were going to write a letter to the artists and writers at the time, what would you say? For this week’s Readers Like You segment, let me know!
And if you have any other thoughts about the issue or the show, drop me a line on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 return home and face off against a new villain named The Phantom
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!