[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:10:55] Non pay-walled version of The Superhero as Labor: The Corporate Secret Identity
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 #63. Its cover date is March 10, 1965. Our cover page is…honestly a bit of a mess. There’s a letter in this particular issue complaining about the visual and narrative effects of having Iron Man and Captain America split the cover, and in this case I honestly agree with the letter writer. To me, a shared cover should follow the rules of something like double-casting on Broadway—which is the practice of having the same performer play multiple parts.While also originally a response to a shortage of talent, double casting is now often used to highlight continuities and contrasts between particular characters. And they were so close to being able to pull something like that off! Last week’s issue featured the origin story of what is arguably Iron Man’s most notable villain: The Mandarin. This week’s issue promises to explore Captain America’s origins. Now see that? That would have been a cool pairing: what makes a hero, what makes a villain. Even though they’re separate stories, they would have informed and reflected on one another in some interesting ways. Instead, what we get is…kind of a mess. While Steve Rogers tears through his clothes after transforming into Cap on the left side of the page, the right side features Iron Man being hovered over by a large figure in a green cloak we are told is named The Phantom.
The splash page is effectively a copy of the cover, only one given more space. Here, Iron Man appears to be in some kind of warehouse—perhaps his own factory. He wonders how he can fight a villain he cannot see, and indeed rather than the more solid looking version of the Phantom from the cover, this illustration depicts him as essentially a large shadow.
Right away the other thing I realized upon encountering these first couple of pages was that this had to be the end of the “Tony trapped in the Iron Man armour” storyline. Our standalone villains like The Phantom tend to be transitional figures, allowing Iron Man and his readers a breath in between more sustained and developed plot events. I guess given some of what we talked about last week in terms of the comic resolving the ‘Who is Tony’ question by comparing him to the Mandarin I shouldn’t be that surprised. But I do feel a little disappointed if that’s indeed where we’re heading.
I’ve also been extremely wrong before, so I guess maybe we should get started with the actual story before I start ranting about other, better ways this story might have resolved. Alright, so Iron Man walks into Stark Industries. Pepper tells someone on the phone that he has just returned, which makes him complain that she makes it sound as if he has just returned from the corner store. It was a funny little line, and I’m really kind of enjoying the way that Pepper and Iron Man’s relationship is growing into this kind of snippy, antagonistic thing. Especially with how fawning they sometimes have her act around Tony, it’s a nice shift.
The person on the phone is Dr. Birch, who is apparently the head of the new products division. He wants to speak to Iron Man about getting some more equipment. However, Iron Man decides he has much more important things to do, and it kind of sounds like he tells Pepper to pretty much say exactly that. This felt like a bit of a confusing scene to me. In the past, Tony has always been depicted as a pretty decent boss even despite the trouble that he and Iron Man collectively tend to attract. I know he’s obviously under some pretty substantial stress here, but given that that’s almost always the case, what’s with the ‘tude?
Iron Man retreats to his office, bitterly remarking on the lack of warmth in his welcome from his two closest friends. Once the door closes, Happy snarks that given that Iron Man allowed Tony Stark to get killed, he’s lucky their behaviour toward him isn’t worse. This cues Pepper to begin crying and staring at a picture of Tony she apparently keeps on her desk, causing Happy to wonder if he himself will ever come out from behind Tony’s shadow to function as a serious love interest.
Meanwhile, Tony is in his lab. Apparently on his way home from dealing with The Mandarin, he got an idea! Since what his heart needs is more power, he’s realized that he can simply modify a master transistor and triple its power output. If this works, he’ll be able to go back to wearing just the chest plate under his street clothes. They do draw the testing phase out for several panels, which felt like a smart move. We see Tony anxiously watching the clock as he waits out the first five minutes, which he says is the most crucial. And a lot of the panels are close-ups of his face. Given how much time we’ve spent staring at the Iron Man faceplate that felt like a great artistic decision. Finally, the five minutes passes, and Tony pronounces himself alive again.
I still feel like as a conclusion to a multi-issue arc, it’s a little bit underwhelming. Other than just sheer drama, for which this storyline was great, I don’t feel like I have a clear sense of what has changed for Tony as a result of having undergone this experience.
Readers Like You
But rather than have me rant too much on this topic, I wanted to stop here for our Readers Like You segment. For those of you who have been listening for most or all of the ‘Tony is trapped as Iron Man’ arc, how did this feel for you as a conclusion to that story? Was it satisfying? Did you imagine it happening differently? Let me know! So far I haven’t heard much from you all, and though I’m cool with continuing to chat into the void, I would also love to start incorporating voices and views other than my own.
So Tony, displaying all the sensitivity of a spork, just walks on out of his office with no notice or warning. Naturally, everyone freaks. Happy springs out of his seat yelling about how Tony is dead, and Pepper actually faints, believing she has perhaps lost her mind in the face of her grief. As Tony surveys her lying in Happy’s arms, he reflects that he must indeed keep his love for her a secret because of his heart. So he informs them both that he is engaged to be married.
And look, I honestly don’t know what else to say about the love triangle that will not die. It’s silly, especially since we’ve already had this conversation before. Tony has said in the past that there’s no way he can be with Pepper only to turn around and flirt with her. I guess he’s trying to be more decisive by pushing the fake fiancé angle, but I still feel sort of exhausted by the whole thing. But anyway, yeah, he claims that he’s been with the fiancé on her family yacht this whole time, without any access to the news (and therefore to the claims that he had been killed in the attack on his home.)
We are spared seeing Happy and Pepper react any further to this extremely flimsy narrative by shifting focus to the rest of the factory. News of Tony’s return is announced over the PA system, and we see the employees celebrating, clapping one another on the shoulders and declaring Tony “too rich to die.” Which, I know that at the time that was probably supposed to be a funny line, but it’s depressingly realistic in today’s context. Insert long, depressed Marxist sigh here.
Our friend Birch, the one who had called the office earlier and been dismissed, immediately approaches Tony wanting to discuss those same equipment requests from earlier. But Tony, too, sends him off, citing more urgent concerns. Said concerns involve taking a tour of the plant to get an update on operations, all the while wondering if he has made the right decision regarding Pepper. She’s behaving differently toward Happy already, he observes, and he mourns what might have been. But just when the reader might, as the caption reads, “start believing they bought a love magazine by mistake,” we transition to another part of the factory. A man in a mask and cloak is planting a time bomb, which detonates a short while later.
Tony comes in as Iron Man, and quickly realizes it’s an instance of sabotage. The area that was attacked, you see, is fireproofed, so only high intensity explosive could have caused this kind of damage. So Iron Man goes in, the place still smoking, and finds a piece of the original incendiary device—which Tony recognizes as his own creation.
Given the evidence, he decides the saboteur will almost certainly strike again soon. And they do! Four incidents in as many days, in fact. And a lot of people are unhappy about it. The head of the union (OMG TEAM I WANT TO MAKE SI UNION SHIRTS SOMEONE STOP ME), the police, and the government (who are once again threatening to pull their contracts with Stark Industries.) Iron Man is therefore trying to track down the Phantom before the next attack, and he nearly succeeds.
But then, in his hurried desperation, he winds up getting tricked by a booby trap which allows the Phantom to escape. And before he can resume the chase, he’s told that there is a union delegation awaiting Tony Stark. The union leader, Adams, has what are honestly some pretty legitimate complaints which actually remind me a lot of our own Mr. X’s litany of concerns regarding the safety of SI employees. And honestly, Tony has no real answer for them. Like, Adams is made out to be a bit unreasonable I guess, but once he leaves Tony thinks to himself that of course the man is right, it’s just that a strike (which is the action Adams is threatening if the Phantom isn’t caught) will ruin Tony.
Again, this whole issue has just felt slightly out of character for Tony. That’s not a charge I throw around lightly, because it’s become a frequent and overused accusations especially in fan spaces when people are displeased about something. And look, of course I want Tony’s company to have decent labour practices. That’s not a secret to anyone who has listened to this show for more than about five minutes. But so does Tony! It was only a couple of episodes ago, when he was still trapped in the armour, that he thought to himself that one of the reasons he could never let anyone know that Tony Stark is Iron Man would be the risk it would place his employees in. Now all of a sudden he’s mad that his employees might strike because they don’t want to get killed? Boo. Just boo.
Doing the Readings
This scene, and the entire storyline really, also got me thinking about the article we talked about a couple of weeks ago, Greg Smith’s work. As a refresher, that piece talked about how an important and often neglected aspect of the dual identity trope is the fact that many superheroes hold middle-class, professional jobs as part of large corporations.
In a lot of ways, I think this particular issue demonstrates the necessary tension between what Smith calls the Organization Man—especially when the man in question is the owner of the organization ad not just a cog in it—the superhero, and any kind of meaningful labour movement. Now, we wouldn’t necessarily think that’s the case, right? Sure, maybe Tony Stark is a bit of a square, but Iron Man serves his community in secret, sacrificing his health, the woman he loves, and who knows what else in the name of keeping others safe. What would be more leftist than that kind of masochism, amirite?
This is where Smith’s point about how continuous or consistent The Organization Man and the superhero are really becomes important, I think. For Stark Industries and Iron Man to function, they both need people to be in the factory, sticking to precisely the kind of rigid and unforgiving schedule that neither Iron Man nor Tony Stark have to abide by. Both the corporate leader and the superhero’s very ability to exist is defined, essentially, by corporate risk management ideologies. In other words, they know that a certain number of people are going to be injured, maybe even killed, on any given day as they exchange their labour for payment. And they do what they can to keep those folks safe, but only up to a particular point. Tony realizes almost immediately that the saboteur is going to strike again. But he does not take any measures that would involve limiting the productive capabilities of Stark Industries. It is only the workers themselves who can and eventually do threaten to withdraw their labour, and again, Tony has no real response to their concerns except ‘oh dang, I better hurry up and catch this dude.’
With the clock ticking (the strike will start in 24 hours), Iron Man is back on patrol. His radar sensors pick up the presence of someone, and we do see a panel featuring the Phantom watching Iron Man from overhead, crouched on what looks to be a scaffold. However, when Iron Man hears a noise and tackles the source…it turns out to be Happy. Who is decidedly not impressed. Turns out he was looking for the saboteur too, and as the two scuffle, Happy manages to catch a glimpse of him!
In response, the Phantom throws a bomb at the pair. Iron Man smothers the blast with his glove, and sends Happy packing. He pursues The Phantom to a main control panel, which our villain is just about to destroy. Phantom takes off, leaving behind a suction bomb which Iron Man again smothers. (It’s a cool trick, but twice in as many pages feels pretty repetitive, idk.) Iron Man again gives chase, and we get a series of elongated panels that do a really great job capturing the scope and scale of SI’s plant.
The Phantom, it turns out, is heading for the prototype moon missile. They banter back and forth about whether or not the scaffolding surrounding the missile will be able to bear Iron Man’s weight, and whether there’s enough room in the surrounding area for him to fly. Eventually, Iron Man appears to give up, and the Phantom makes for the capsule on top of the rocket, determined to make his getaway in the first capsule capable of flying independently from the main rocket.
But of course, this plan goes…somewhat awry. Iron Man has flown around from the outside and dislodged the capsule, breaking the control wire and rendering it pretty much useless. We see a shot of Iron Man flying with it in his arms, and honestly it looks like he’s carrying a giant nipple or something. He drops our villain off with the police and jets off to become Tony Stark again. And that leaves him just in time to learn the identity of the Phantom—Birch! That’s right, our villain of the week is upset because he simply wanted to be noticed, but Tony was always too big and important to bother.
In an uncharacteristically moralizing little speech, Tony describes Birch as full of envy, incapable of feeling satisfied no matter what he’s given. One can only assume Tony is really addressing himself here, because otherwise the little lecture borders on ridiculous. And indeed, in the final frame of the comic we see a Tony who is all of these things: full of envy, unable to appreciate what he has. He’s freed himself of the armour, captured a saboteur threatening to destroy his company, but as Pepper and Happy leave for an evening out in a car they’ve borrowed from Tony, all he can feel is regret.
So what do we make of this one? I definitely found it interesting. As those of you who listened to the early episodes of the show might remember, I did not have any intention of rooting for Iron Man when I first started engaging with Marvel content, and this issue was a great reminder why. I mean I dig Tony’s feelings and all that kind of stuff, but when it comes to labour, he is still fundamentally a member of an oppressive class. And I like that moments like this force me to actually sit with my discomfort about what it means to root for him under those circumstances.
I think, too, that it’s especially important to be aware of this kind of representation given that labour in and around the comics industry is still extremely exploitative. I’ll make sure to link to some materials in the show notes about this, but even in a context where capitalism is terrible to almost everyone, comics artists and writers do face some particularly awful challenges. And just like we can look to American comics to tell us something about the socio-political realities of the nation, it’s important to think about how the stories that comics tell about work compare to the reality of actually making them. Something for a special episode maybe?
Wait, I almost forgot the bisexuality metre! I finally got to talk about class beyond just making Lenin’s Beard references, so you understand how I might have been distracted. Okay. Honestly, this is another pretty low one for me. Between the underwhelming resolution of the dual identity stuff and the return, with a vengeance, of the love triangle that will not die, I just didn’t feel like Tony was his best bisexual self in this particular issue. Add to that the fact that labour struggles are necessarily tied to LGBTQIA+ issues, and well…Tony’s only going to get a 2/10 from me. Sorry, Tony! Next time do less staring out windows and complaining about how your workers don’t want to die and more, I don’t know, converting more Russian scientists with the power of your love. (That’s right I’m not over the Vanko thing yet.)
Well, on that somewhat grim note, we’re at the end of the episode! If you have any other thoughts about this specific issue or the show in general, 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
-We will hear from our old friends Hawkeye and Black Widow again.
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!