Episode 028-Tales of Suspense #66


Show Notes

00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.

[00:12:16] “Best Summer Ever!”

[00:12:25] Most of the material in this segment is drawn from the notes I took in my intro to philosophy class, tbh. But the Wikipedia entry covers pretty similar ground.

Episode Script

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 comic book appearances made by one Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man.

Plot Summary

This episode we’ll be talking about Tales of Suspense #66. Its cover date is June 10, 1965. And the cover offers us two images without much in the way of context or explanation. On the Iron Man side, we see our hero underwater, being pursued by what look like armoured sea-folks. The splash page (heh, splash, water) introduces us to the leader of the group pursuing Iron Man on the previous page: his name is Attuma. And in this image, he is directing his forces to use both motorized vehicles and what look like some kind of ray guns to fire on Iron Man. In the top right corner, Tony wastes no time letting us know the stakes of this particular encounter: “If I fail,” the blood red letters proclaim, “a world is lost.”

Our story proper begins with Tony above ground, recharging the battery of his chest plate. It’s been a while since we saw him in this pose, and while it’s too early in the narrative for me to have a sense of the significance of the image, it does seem like an interesting place to begin. As the caption reminds us that Tony Stark is a paradox: one of the strongest and weakest men alive. And it turns out he’d also one of the latest men alive! It turns out that Tony has an appointment that afternoon with Senator Byrd. As he rushes to unplug and prepare himself for the meeting, Tony gives us some vital background on Byrd: turns out this particular member of the US government is not a fan of Tony’s. In fact, he would be thrilled to use any excuse, including being kept waiting, to try to terminate his contract and put Stark Industries out of business.

Byrd, a short and round fellow wearing green pants and a checkered brown suit coat while he chews on a cigar, looks strikingly similar to how we’ve seen Russian figures—particularly Kruschev—drawn. (I don’t think that’s necessarily a sign that we’re supposed to read him as a spy or something like that, by the way. I mean, it’s possible, but I think it’s probably more likely that it’s just that short and fat are both generally villainized body types at the point when these comics are written.) After throwing some shade about Tony’s time management skills, Byrd announces he is there to witness the testing of Tony’s transistorized, one-man submarine. He suspects Tony is about to fail, see, and he wants to be around to see it.

As Tony tries to assure the Senator that the test, run by Iron Man, will be a success, Happy Hogan is making other plans. See, he’s tired of watching Pepper stare at Tony with love and admiration, and he’s decided he needs to do something to try to win her over once and for all. And apparently that thing is volunteering to run the submarine test. Which, you know, makes complete sense. He never actually gets to drive Tony’s car, after all, so why not make a go at the submarine instead?

Unfortunately, Tony turns him down flat, and this turns out to be the last straw as far as Happy is concerned. There’s a few panels where he contemplates his value at Stark Industries, calling himself a decoration who does not even get to do the job he is paid to do. The images slowly close in on Happy’s face, until in a shadowed panel, he wonders whether Tony only keeps him around out of some kind of misplaced sense of gratitude for his having saved Tony’s life. And that’s when it happens: Happy Hogan issue an ultimatum. He pilots the submarine, or nothing at all!

And look, on one hand, I do get that there’s subtext going in here, and that we’ve been building to this moment for several issues now. But the idea of someone with absolutely no experience making driving on a submarine their hill to die on is pretty absurd in a way that I don’t totally think the comic intends. But Happy has fully committed, so when Tony reminds him of Byrd’s presence and tries to convince him to discuss the matter later, Happy tenders his resignation and storms out. A distressed Pepper Potts tries to stop him, and then tries to persuade Tony to go after him, but Byrd is increasingly furious about having to wait for this drama to play out. So Tony has little choice but to ‘summon’ Iron Man and get the test going.

I should note, by the way, that the primary complaint that Byrd seems to have against Tony is that he is a ‘playboy.’ Tony bitterly thinks to himself that his failing heart, his role as Iron Man, and his inability to marry due to the previous two factors rather disqualify him from this category, and of course he’s right. Honestly, I don’t feel like we’ve seen enough of Tony even putting on the appearance of doing the playboy thing that these critiques even make sense. But clearly I just miss dating Tony, who is delightfully cheesy and way less annoying than pining Tony.

Anyway, we join Iron Man, Byrd, and several military officials several minutes later for the demonstration. Iron Man tries to recap some of the sub’s key features, emphasizing in particular the benefits offered by its maneuverability, but Byrd cuts him off and pretty much demands he get on with the show. Still, as he gets into the sub, Tony thinks some pretty charitable thoughts toward the guy, calling him a dedicated public official who can’t be blamed for believing what he reads about Tony Stark in the papers. Honestly, this feels more generous than Byrd really warrants, but we’re going to come back to that at length later on.

For now, let’s stick with Iron Man, who is facing a new challenge: a sonar alarm is going off. Something is ahead of him! And that something turns out to have spotted him too. We see two armed figures with blue skin drawing weapons and firing at the submarine. They just miss, but Tony decides it isn’t worth it to continue jeopardizing the sub, so he yeets himself out into the ocean instead to go take a closer look. Turns out our underwater pals were a bit tetchy about anyone getting too close because they’re guarding a massive weapon that is pointed at the surface. And their leader is none other than Attuma, whom the caption helpful informs us has appeared before Tales to Astonish. We also get a bit of backstory, which I deeply appreciate: turns out he’s a renegade from Atlantis, a guy whose primary aim at all times is conquest.  

Turns out our friend Attuma has been working on this weapon for months, and his plan honestly is kind of impressive. He’s going to send a metal called nautilium to the surface, where it will fuse with the oxygen in the atmosphere and make the air denser and more moist. (Ugh, thanks a lot for making me say the word moist on air, Attuma. You are automatically my most hated villain forever and ever.) So by changing the composition of the air, humans will have a difficult time breathing, and Attuma’s crew—who will of course be fine to breathe the air on Earth—will only spare those who agree to be enslaved. The most terrible part? They’ll have to wear helmets that are legit upside down fishbowls. They’re so silly that they actually somehow manage to look a bit high fashion in a contemporary context. Like some kind of comment on how our own air is increasingly not breathable for large segments of the population.

Oh dear. See what happens when these comics are kind of light on content? I have to start legit just making stuff up. Okay. So having been helpfully provided with a kind of elevator pitch of Attuma’s plan for world domination, Iron Man is then spotted by his troops, who immediately begin opening fire. They appear to have some kind of underwater…tank, things? Tony decides to take out one of those while his repulsors are still at full power, but that just makes Attuma super mad. He demands that his troops bring out the pincers, which are…just as silly as they sound. Like it’s a giant tank thing with four or five grabby things at the end. I always make it a point to script and record this show sober because comics are honestly silly enough already, but this was around the point where I started strongly considering drinking.

Okay, so Tony grabs the claw-like things coming off the one ship, kind of twists them around, and somehow uses them to take down another patrol vehicle. Seeing that he and his forces can’t match Iron Man for speed, Attuma decides to go for force instead, but the infantry troops he tries to send in are nearly crushed by the massive boulder Iron Man fires at and sends flying in their direction. So it seems Attuma must take care of this problem himself!

He fires some kind of heat ray at Iron Man, and Tony reports being able to feel it through the armour. However, he’s able to use the repulsors on his boots to send the burning water back at his opponent. After he’s forced to do a backflip to avoid another shot from the ray, Tony comes to the conclusion he comes to a startling amount: he’s just gonna have to spin around really fast. No, I’m serious. He just starts circling around and around Attuma, his entire aim being to make the guy pass out before he does.

And look. As you can probably tell, I found this tactic hilarious and silly. But in this particular instance, it actually kind of worked for me that it was. It’s easy for me to forget sometimes that despite having close affiliations with the military, Tony himself is effectively a civilian. He’s familiar with weaponry of course, but especially going up against someone like Attuma, it makes complete sense that he is tactically outmatched and resorting to increasingly desperate maneuvers.

The spinning, as you might imagine, is not effective. And it’s actually a bit counterproductive because it turns out to be draining the transistors too quickly. So it’s very odd to Tony that Attuma takes off running. Being, as we just discussed, rather out of his league strategically, it’s probably not surprising that Tony’s decision to give chase backfires. He begins to run out of oxygen, since the suit only contains enough for 30 minutes and he has been underwater for almost that long already, and then things get worse: Attuma lures him into a prison made of radioactive beams.

Honestly, this felt like it would have been a good stopping point for a multi-issue arc: Tony, trapped in an underwater prison with dwindling oxygen supplies while a massive weapon stands poised to fire on Earth. Like, I sort of feel like the stakes that have been established here are stronger than the structure of the narrative wants to let them be. They need to wrap this up in one issue so they’re going to, but yeah. For me it does feel like a bit of a disservice, to the point where I really started to wonder if a version of this storyline might have been a solid replacement to the Mandarin’s part of the ‘Tony stuck in the Iron Man armor’ arc.

But alas. For now, Tony is able to use the spotlight on his chest plate to refract the beams keeping him trapped. He makes it back to his sub, replaces the oxygen tank in the suit with a fresh one, and then decides that his prototype submarine has a higher purpose than making him a lot of money: he’s going to need to use it to blow up the weapon that Attuma is preparing to fire. And so that’s exactly what he does: he locks the sub’s controls and sends it hurtling toward the gun, which is successfully destroyed.

Back on land, the group watching heard the explosion, and Byrd wants to know what exactly Tony Stark managed to screw up. Realizing he can’t tell the truth about what has just happened, Iron Man basically accepts the premise of this critique, saying only that Tony will need to review the design and re-test. Byrd storms off, ranting about how Stark will never receive another government contract. Meanwhile, Pepper is still furious about Happy’s departure, and is now turning to Iron Man for aid. In the last frame, Tony grips the faceplate with both hands, frustrated and overwhelmed.

Doing the Readings

Okay, so I want to stop here for our Doing the Readings segment. I searched for quite a long time for any scholarly resources about the representation of Atlantis and Atlanteans in comics, and I turned up surprisingly little. To the point where I sort of forgot that academics is no longer what I do for a living and started sketching the outline of an article of my own.

Instead of following that path, though, we’re going to work with a more general outline based on the mythical elements of Atlantis. So the city of course originally comes to us via Plato, and it’s sort of like when fandom takes a minor side character and elevates them into a cult favourite. Like Atlantis is not initially a big deal, it’s just basically Plato making up a fictional place that attacks but fails to defeat Plato’s ideal state. It’s supposed to be a kind of clumsy metaphor for a nation that got a bit too cocky and paid the price, not unlike when the premier of my own province declared the start of the ‘best summer ever’ last year, right before a massive spike in Covid cases.

Whoops, got to real again. Okay, so instead of just being forgotten, Atlantis ends up taking on a life of its own. It figures heavily in a lot of Utopian literature, and even wound up figuring heavily in some pseudo-scientific investigations later on. Atlantis has lived a life, that’s all I’m really saying.

So what’s it doing here? Why, in the wake of, among other things, a love triangle and a recent near-strike at Stark Industries, are we now finding Iron Man under the sea? To get the obvious but still true out of the way, I think this is just a monster of the week kind of thing. At this point in history it’s basically impossible to send an American protagonist to space without invoking the Cold War—specifically, the space race—so in some ways the only option left if you want a relatively apolitically issue is to go under the Earth instead.

But at the same time I don’t think this is apolitical at all, and in that sense I think we’re going back to the mythic Atlantis here rather than its many weird afterlives. If Atlantis is essentially a symbol of hubris, then think about what Tony has just done: when faced with the choice to redeem himself personally in the eyes of folks like Byrd (and make a ton of money in doing so), he instead chooses to destroy the literal vehicle that would have taken him to fame and fortune in favour of saving as many lives as possible.

Now look. I know that the bar for cis white guys is historically pretty low. And I’m not trying to heap praise upon someone who is able to turn down money and notoriety in part because he already has access to them. At the same time, though, I think many of us now live in a context where we know that it doesn’t really matter how much the one percenters of the world already have; they’ll still choose accumulating more wealth, more power, more influence over aiding others. In that sense, I think Tony’s actions here are still significant, and still depicting an understanding of capitalism and capitalists that is fundamentally different from the one we have now.

Byrd’s role is also crucial when we think about what the spectre of Atlantis is doing in this issue. Remember that I said Atlantis functions as a kind of straw man for Plato to prove that his vision of the perfect state is the best? Here, I think we’re starting to see some fissures between Iron Man and the State which are really important.

Now let me be clear: I do not expect to pick up next issue and find Tony at a civil rights rally or something. In a lot of ways, this comic’s relationship with critiquing the nation-state (at least the American nation-state) seems to be one step forward and three steps back. It wants America to be worth admiring and defending, but Tony’s continued run-ins with the government and the military, and especially their continued willingness to always believe the worst in him, suggest at least that even if the US, like Plato’s ideal state, is too strong to successfully defeat, there are questions worth asking about its methods and its ideologies.

Bisexuality Metre

So where does this leave us for the bisexuality metre? Surprisingly high, actually. Between Tony’s disaster battle tactics and his willingness to anger the government in favour of the greater good, I was already inclined to be generous. And when we add to that the fact that it’s Happy, not Pepper, that Tony is clearly going to have to go after in the next issue, well, I think there were some promising bits of bisexual subtext in this one. 7/10 to you, Mr. Stark!

Concluding Thoughts

Now were does all of this leave us? Truly, I was pretty split on this one. As an individual issue, I felt that the story had strong stakes which were sort of wasted, which I talked about earlier. But ultimately I suspect that the value of this particular issue will be as a kind of transitional piece. For instance, we spent so much time on Byrd and his issues with Tony this time that I feel like a more sustained storyline detailing the tensions between he and the government must be coming. Likewise, I think (I hope, I pray) that this storyline with Happy leaving is bringing us near the conclusion of the love triangle. (No one tell me if I’m wrong, okay, I want to have some hope.)

So would it be at the top of my re-read pile if I were going through these comics again? No, but I think depending on what happens next this issue might begin to take on different significance in hindsight.

Readers Like You and Sign-Off

Finally, let’s talk Readers Like You. Last time I mentioned that I was considering doing a special episode basically comparing the origin stories of Tony Stark in the MCU versus the one we have been offered in the comics thus far. Since the show is picking up more listeners every week, which is super exciting, I wanted to give us another week so that anyone who wishes to can weigh in.  

If you have thoughts about how you want to spend our time next episode, or anything else you want to tell me about this episode or the show in general, please drop me a line on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod, or by email at invincibleironpod@gmail.com If you’re enjoying the show, please also make sure to subscribe, share, and/or review!

And join us next week where

-…well, you tell me! We’ll either be journeying forward in time to 2008, or we’ll be watching Iron Man re-encounter a number of his most famous enemies in Tales of Suspense #67. Either way it’ll be a blast, and I hope you’ll join me.

Until then, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!