[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:08:21] Wikipedia’s entry on Western comics
[00:13:56] In the commentary on Iron Man (2008), Lee says “”of all the comic books we published at Marvel, we got more fan mail for Iron Man from women, from females, than any other title … We didn’t get much fan mail from girls, but whenever we did, the letter was usually addressed to Iron Man.”
[00:14:28] This is a good primer on the evolution of the Supernatural fandom and its divisive series finale
Hello and welcome to Invincible Iron Pod, the unofficial and not remotely connected to Marvel in any capacity podcast. My name is Megan, and in each episode of this show I will be reading and commenting on at least one of the over 2000 the comic book appearances made by one Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man.
This episode we’ll be talking about Tales of Suspense #64. Its cover date is April 10, 1965. Our cover page features the promised return of Hawkeye and Black Widow. The former has his customary bow and arrow, and he’s firing at Iron Man. Meanwhile, on Tony’s other side, the Widow appears to be somehow attached to the ceiling, and holding some kind of wire or rope to try to restrain him. She’s also in a new outfit, a checkered indigo little number with a matching blue mask. The colour choice seems notable. Our communist characters are often drawn in colours associated with the regime—namely, blacks and reds—so I wonder if the blue suggests that her trip behind the Iron Curtain might have impacted her allegiances.
On the splash page, we get Tony on his own. He’s in the lab, which the caption notes is near the site of the New York World’s fair (so I have to assume that’s information that will become relevant at one point or another.) He’s performing an unspecified test on the Iron Man helmet, the strength of which he reminds us is directly tied to his own longevity. Other than the potential foreshadowing about the World Fair, this felt like a strangely generic splash page, though I guess sometimes one can imagine the splash functioning a bit like the ‘previously on’ for a television show, reminding new or casual readers of basic information.
The narrative proper begins with a panel I kind of loved: a partial shot of a pair of legs moving through the city. Their owner claims to have waited a long time for this moment. We then see the same figure from a wider shot as she climbs the outside of a towering apartment building. Between her climbing skis, she brags to…herself, apparently, and the long nylon cord attached to a suction cup that she shoots from her wrist, she can now enter any building she wishes.
In a building across the way, Hawkeye has successfully tested a new acid-spraying arrow. Before he can celebrate, though, Natasha comes crashing through his window. The two lovers embrace, happy to be reunited, though Hawkeye is confused. He had assumed Natasha had deserted him after she was forced to go back behind the Iron Curtain in Tales of Suspense #60. Turns out she was taken to the “Comrade Leader” (interesting that they’ve stopped using specific names of political figures). Initially she assumed she was about to be executed, but it turned out that despite her recent failures, the Communists had decided she was more valuable to them alive. So Natasha was tasked with one last mission: to finally defeat Iron Man.
Natasha attempted to refuse, claiming to be done serving the Communist cause. However, her parents are being held essentially as collateral to ensure her compliance. Once she agreed, she was given her new costume. This included boots with suction cups that would allow her to walk on any surface, even hanging upside down from a ceiling. We see her testing the boots, and the nylon line fastened to her wrist. It’s a nice parallel to the splash page actually—both Natasha and Tony improving their tools and technology.
After the tests proved successful, Natasha was sent back to the United States to complete her mission, and that brings us back to the present. Hawkeye is conflicted. He wants to help her, but he also has real issues with being a traitor to his country. Once again, Natasha sidesteps this concern, arguing that he’s not doing anything of the sort. He would just be inflicting violence on a single individual: Iron Man. We’re left unsure to what extent Hawkeye actually believes this line of reasoning, but he is absolutely unwilling to risk losing Natasha again.
We then transition to another pair of…lovers, I guess? Happy and Pepper are out for a drive, and he decides that despite the fact that their actually being in a relationship is extremely new (recent enough that we’ve never actually seen them on an outing that they both agreed was a date, Tony’s recent engagement might mean they should also start thinking about getting married. Pepper, thankfully for them both, says no. Although her reasoning is much more related to her continued feelings for Tony than it is about the general ridiculousness of them getting married so soon after they became an item.
Before this awkward conversation can get more awkward, the two of them suddenly encounter a bright flash of light. Unable to see, Happy crashes the car and loses consciousness. However, Pepper is conscious, and recognizes Hawkeye and a woman in costume she correctly assumes is Natasha. Pepper is instructed to follow them and that no harm will come to she and Happy. Hawkeye helpfully exposits that having hostages will be the safest way to take on Iron Man.
Almost immediately Natasha makes the call to Tony, demanding that Iron Man come in alone in exchange for Happy and Pepper’s safe return. Pepper bravely makes a grab for the phone, warning Tony that Hawkeye is also present, and that the entire situation is a trap. However, it turns out she has played right into her captors hands; Widow and Hawkeye wanted her to do precisely that in order to ensure Iron Man would take their threats seriously.
At a railroad yard a few miles from the bay, Hawkeye, Widow, and their team prepare for Iron Man’s arrival. Natasha is extremely confident that they’ve effectively neutralized Iron Man’s powers because Tony Stark will not want their captors hurt. So naturally, things are about to go sideways. And indeed they do, because it’s not Iron Man who arrives…it’s Tony Stark.
He has an offer: a selection of weapons plans in exchange for the freedom of his friends. While Vladimir, the arms expert of team Black Widow and Hawkeye, begins leading Tony away to investigate what he’s brought, Tony manages to drop a small clip from his belt buckle. It releases a thick cloud of smoke, blinding everyone in the vicinity, allowing Tony just enough time to slip into the suitcase armour and begin kicking butt. The dudes he’s fighting do have armour piercing bullets, but of course they announce this fact loudly enough that Iron Man goes right ahead and bends the rifle barrels themselves instead. He also calls the guys ‘true commie tintypes,’ which did actually make me laugh a bit.
Once he’s dispensed with the goons, Iron Man heads off in pursuit of Hawkeye and Widow. Hawkeye uses an arrow with something he calls a boomerang activator. It circles around and around Iron Man, picking up speed and making a piercing sound that’s extremely painful to hear. With Iron Man distracted, Natasha urges her companion to finish things off by sending a power-blast arrow his way. And I will say that I’m a huge fan of Hawkeye’s arrow collection. It doesn’t feel gimmicky in the way I often find villain gadgets do, I think because we’ve spent enough time with him that we’ve actually gotten to see him generating them and imagining what other ones might be useful. Just proves, really, that the hand-wavey science becomes a lot less noticeable when there’s actual character developing going on behind it!
Anyway, Tony is in a lot of pain, but he has the presence of mind to grab the arrow with one hand and then touch his other to the train tracks Hawkeye is standing on. This sends a current down the line and brings Hawkeye to his knees. While I suspect Natasha might normally like him there, at the moment she has other plans, so she chastises him to get up and finish Iron Man while the latter is still stunned. Unfortunately for them both, Hawkeye is out of commission for the time being.
So Natasha hops on top of a handcar, pumps it until it is running at full speed, and sends it rolling away towards Iron Man. Tony of course intends to just get out of the way, but that’s before he realizes that Pepper and Happy are directly behind him, and that they undoubtedly be crushed if he isn’t there to intervene.
I should stop here for a moment and acknowledge how incredibly Western-inspired this entire storyline is, right down to the fact that our damsels in distress, Happy and Pepper, are tied to the train tracks. In some ways, it’s a bit of a surprising move. Yes, Westerns and comics are both genre fiction of a kind, but up until this point Iron Man has had an lot more in common with science fiction type narratives than it has with Westerns. What gives?
Well, it’s first worth noting that comics and Westerns had enjoyed several fruitful crossovers before. Timely Comics, which eventually became Marvel, published the Masked Raider, the first Western hero featured in a comic book, in 1939, and they would go on to become quite popular in the years that followed. Interestingly, the rise of Westerns somewhat corresponded with the decline in the same period of superhero comics. And during the rise of the Silver Age, when superheroes with more complexity and moral grayness became popular, Westerns saw a sharp decline in their readerships. So there would seem to be a way in which the heroism offered in Westerns and that which is presented in superhero stories was fundamentally incompatible for a lot of readers.
So why are we getting what amounts to a cowboy version of Iron Man in this particular issue? Well, I mean, it’s fun. Like the only thing that would have made it better is if they had found a way to put a cowboy hat on top of the armor’s helmet. More seriously, though, I think what’s really useful about this moment is that it sort of capture a transitional stage that the American socio-political landscape was undergoing right at this moment. We weren’t at the height of the civil unrest which would follow several years later, but nor were we back in the ‘Does Kennedy tell Kruschev?’ kind of smug nationalism either. So for me this feels like a bit of an attempt on the part of the authors and artists to try to work through why these two visions of America and Americans can’t be compatible.
It’s a sensible question, really. As genres, the Western and the American superhero comic are under-girded by some pretty similar thematic and ideological preoccupations. The outsider, working outside the law proper but with his own code, bringing justice and security to the American people by defending them from both internal and external threats. The emphasis on specialized weapons and technique. But while superhero comics adapted to the complexity and ambiguity of Americans’ shifting sense of self, the Romantic view of American history offered by Westerns appeared increasingly out of touch to a lot of people. There were attempts to modernize the genre using similar strategies to what had worked so well for superheroes, but most of these efforts were short lived.
Why? I mean, this is just me speculating, this isn’t based on anything I could find in research. But my best guess is that while the superhero has to remain somewhat timeless, which we discussed a few weeks ago in relation to the Eco essay, they are also easier to update. The Western relies on a lot of things remaining static—not just the hero, but the settings, the social relations they reflect, the kinds of masculinity they privilege. I mean, it’s in the very name, right? If we’re not in the West, or if the West doesn’t signify something wild, untamed, and brutal, then how could it be a Western?
I do like that Marvel tried this. Not because the mashup of Iron Man and Western totally works, but precisely because it doesn’t. Sometimes these moments tell us just as much about the moment a piece of art was produced in as the instances where something seems precisely of its time. Even now, what it means to be American is an ongoing negotiation which is often complex, fraught, and contradictory. Of course comics, so invested in upholding and celebrating the nation, reflect that!
Alright, so Iron Man promises to get Pepper and Happy free now that the immediate threat of the handcart is out of the way. But before he’s able to do so, Hawkeye fires another arrow. This one hits the armour and immediately begins to dissolve it! Yep, Hawkeye has some new and improved acid-spray arrows.
Iron Man takes off, using a half-crumbled brick wall to shield himself from any more of Hawkeye’s arrows. While there, he happens to find Black Widow. He complains again about how unfair it is that someone so hot is also so belligerent. And then he steals her gun for good measure. Iron Man also successfully evades another arrow from Hawkeye, but he knows he’s running out of time: most of the armour on his arms have corroded, and he can’t risk being any further exposed.
So he decides to use the same strategy that Hawkeye and Widow have been using on him: going for their weak spots. In Hawkeye’s case, well, that’s the Black Widow herself. Tony fires at Natasha, and Clint completely loses it. His arrows fire in all different directions, and he promptly abandons the fight altogether in favour of getting Natasha out of there. She’s furious, demanding that he go back and finish Iron Man off, but he refuses.
In the closing panels, Iron Man elects not to chase after them, instead racing off to remove his armour before his identity can be discovered. He returns shortly thereafter as Tony Stark, and is immediately embraced by a relieved Pepper. In the background, Happy watches jealously, knowing he will never win against Tony Stark. And Tony, watching Happy, thinks to himself that she is breaking Happy’s heart.
The last thing to note is that the transition caption leading us into the Captain America comics makes a joke we’ve heard quite recently. In case readers suspect they’ve stumbled upon a romance mag by mistake, it promises, the Captain America adventure will offer a thrilled in which there is “not a kiss in a carload.”
Reading the Romance
And if that’s not a chance for another Reading the Romance segment, I don’t know what is! This time, I want us to think less about specific relationships and more about the general status of romance in these comics. Because as I mentioned, we’ve heard this joke about misunderstanding what genre of comic this was extremely recently. Recently enough that we’re getting into what feels like ‘no homo’ kind of territory in terms of the anxiety this seems to reflect.
As I thought about this, I remembered reading somewhere (I’ll try to source it in time for the show notes, but I don’t honestly know off the top of my head right now) Stan Lee commenting that they received a lot more mail from women about Iron Man than they did about any other comics. Women were interested in Tony Stark, and presumably in his romantic life as well as other elements of his adventures. And comments like this suggest to me that this was simultaneously something Marvel wanted to lean into, and something they were tremendously uncomfortable with.
Now, go with me on a tangent for a second, but it actually really reminded me of the television show Supernatural and its evolution in relation to its fandom. When the show started, the producers and creators seemed to believe that its primary audience would be straight young cis-men who would be interested in the adrenaline filled adventures of these two brothers as they hunted down various supernatural beings. Instead, the fandom came to be populated extremely heavily by people whose identities did not fall into those categories: particularly women and LGBTQIA+ folks. And this audience wanted those adventures, but they were also interested in other plot points, especially what seemed to be a clearly queer-coded relationship between one of the male leads and another male guest star who ended up staying on permanently. By the end of the show’s I think 15 years on the air, these were some of the only people still watching! So our creative team is put in this interesting position of having to speak to and try to—somewhat—please an audience they had no intention of speaking to or pleasing in the first place.
I won’t go any further into how that went down, partially because it’s a long and utterly absurd story that could easily take a full episode to fully explain. But my point in making this comparison is that in some ways Iron Man’s simultaneous preoccupation with and rejection of romance feels like a similar situation. They knew women a lot of women were reading Iron Man, and that many of those women happened to care who Tony Stark was dating, so they heavily featured storylines involving these plots points. But at the same time, whether it was because these were not the Iron Man stories the writers and artists were most interested in telling, or because they were afraid they were going to alienate ‘real’ (read: cis- white male) comics fans, there’s also a real disavowal of those storylines happening in almost real time.
These are, of course, symptomatic of much larger issues within the comics industry and community that persist to this day. I had an almost visceral response to this second “oh don’t worry this isn’t a romance magazine” joke because I am very much familiar with what we might call the reluctant address of comics. In other words, I know what it feels like to read a comic, or enter a comic fan space, and feel like yes I am being acknowledged, but only under the condition that whoever is doing that acknowledging—industry execs, other fans, individual artists, whatever—makes it clear that they are not happy about it. It basically undercuts any sense of actual inclusion the second it happens. And it’s rough! So next time, don’t no-romo me, comics! (Yes I know there’s not two ‘o’s in romance. I’m still going with it.)
And on that note, let’s head right into our bisexuality metre for this week. Now, Tony wins some automatic points just based on the Western thing. Like I am inclined to always read cowboys as inherently pretty queer. Add to that the fact that it was not just Pepper, but Happy as well, who was tied to the railroad and begging for help, and I’m inclined to give this issue a fairly decent rating. Let’s give Tony a 7/10, and let’s do so with a real sense of relief. Because these last few issues have been rough on the bisexual front, y’all!
As always, 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
-New and Old Iron Mans Will Face Off
Until next time, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!