[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:06:45] The rise and decline of psychoanalysis and the anti-psychiatry movement
[00:20:40] Marvel 616
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.
This episode we’ll be talking about Tales of Suspense #67. Its cover date is July 1, 1965, and the caption on the cover page promises that we have never seen Iron Man take on so many foes at once. But it’s not just any band of villains ol’ Shell Head is confronting. All the figures surrounding him look familiar, because they are all folks we have seen Iron Man face off against in the past. Some of them—the recognizable pink marshmallow form of the Crimson Dynamo, most notably—are now dead, so something strange is definitely afoot here.
Our splash page gives us more of the same—we see Iron Man lining up against the Dynamo and Gargantus among others—but it also starts to give us a valuable hints about what’s going on here. Specifically, we see a man standing over Iron Man and his foes, his hand raised as if he’s conducting the scene. The caption refers to him as the ‘Deadly Dream-Maker,’ and notes that his is the most startling power of all.
So it looks like we’ll be heading into dreamland, my friend! And I have to say, I bet Tony Stark’s subconscious is a truly fascinating, if utterly ridiculous, place. So I’m pretty excited for this one.
Alright, so we begin our story with Pepper Potts, crying over a framed photograph of Happy Hogan she keeps on her desk. Right away it’s recognizable as a nice callback to similar scenes where she cried over Tony’s photograph when she believed him to be missing and then dead. Standing behind her, Iron Man wonders aloud why she misses him so much—you know, given how brutal Happy and Pepper’s exchanges often were. Honestly, it’s a fair question, and something many of you will remember me complaining about a lot in the build up to this storyline, but Pepper is extremely unimpressed. She turns things around, blaming Iron Man for refusing to step aside and let Happy conduct the test on the submarine.Iron Man again pretty fairly points out that Happy would have died if he had been on the submarine since it, you know, blew up in the previous issue.
With no real answer to that, Pepper focuses only on the fact that Iron Man also said that the decision wasn’t his anyway, it was Tony’s. Having unsuccessfully accused Iron Man of kidnapping and murdering Tony in the past, she now accuses him of using hypnosis to control Tony—which is, of course, a fun bit of foreshadowing as to what’s coming. I should note, by the way, that I’m not the only who finds Pepper and Happy’s treatment of Iron Man a little weird. I’ve been chatting with folks on Tumblr who are similarly a bit confounded by how they can make all these accusations, be categorically proven wrong, and still hold all this animosity towards him. I mean I still find it in fun in some ways that they feel so differently about two sides of the same guy, but yeah. Not cool Pepper. I mean she seriously calls him Rasputin at one point.
Tony, meanwhile, is getting dizzy. He thinks to himself that it’s due to a need to recharge, but I totally prefer to read this as that he hates it so much when Pepper is mad at him that his body physically rebels. No one will convince me otherwise!
While this drama plays out at Stark Industries, Happy is at the airport and on his way to Ireland. There’s a very on the nose scene where he carries his briefcase toward the plane while referring to himself as ‘excess baggage.’ Even when it’s a little bit heavy-handed, it’s feels like this is a particularly literary issue. Anyway, as Happy flies away, we get sort of a recap of this thought process. He’s leaving because the woman he loves—Pepper—is in love with Tony Stark and Happy believes that he will always come in second place. He’s also frustrated by his work situation. Tony so rarely lets him do the job he was hired to do, driving, and this has made Happy convinced that he was being kept around solely out of gratitude.
While Happy bitterly thinks that they’ve probably forgotten him already, Tony—or rather Iron Man, because he is somewhat befuddlingly still in the suit—is already on the move, ready to go get his man back! Except he’s not the only one who has a plan. In what a caption tells us is an abandoned Nazi bunker in Norway, someone else has a lofty ambition of their own: destroying the Avengers! The man behind this ambition has recently named himself Count Nefaria. The caption helpfully lets us know that he originally appeared in an issue of the Avengers comics as the leader of a crime ring called the Maggia. But he’s moved on. Now he wants to become the Master of Dreams!
His first target, as you may or may not have guessed, is Iron Man. So he begins to set the stage of the dreamscape: he recruits the Unicorn and Crimson Dynamo, and places them atop the Brooklyn Bridge. And then he brings in Iron Man. Tony is understandably confused by the whole thing, noting that not only is Crimson Dynamo dead, but they were allies—a fact which Nefaria did not have available to him. Honestly I like that. Already, since only some of Iron Man’s adventures have taken place in public, it’s a bit unclear how and why this person would have so much information about the villains he’s battled. So I like that the comic sort of nods to that here by having him use Crimson Dynamo in a way that does not actually make canonical sense. Plus it ups the emotional stakes to watch Tony battle someone that he liked and, I have previously argued, very possibly loved.
So Iron Man battles both his dream opponents, throwing Crimson Dynamo over the side of the bridge and and hitting Unicorn with his repulsor ray. He’s aware right away, though, that something is off. He found it too easy to take down Crimson Dynamo, and the Unicorn’s movements were far too slow to be accurate. He concludes that this must have been a dream, a fact which seems to be confirmed when he wakes up shortly thereafter still re-charging the chest plate. And this is when we get the upping of the stakes, because we return to Count Nefaria long enough to learn that if Iron Man dies in these dreams, he will perish in real life!
And this seems like as a good a time as any for the return of our Iron Psychology segment, if only to talk about the curious absence of the kinds of psychological elements we might expect in this kind of a storyline. I mean, dreams and their interpretations are sort of famously one of the pillars on which the entire discipline of psychoanalysis was built! And at this point in history, psychoanalytic methods were still sort of at their peak. By the 1970s and 1980s, developments in psychopharmacology, the recognition that a number of conditions once considered purely psychological actually had other origins, and the rise of the anti-psychiatry movement had radically shifted the status of psychoanalysis. By 1965 when this was published we were starting to see some of these changes happening, but I would definitely not say they were widespread enough at this point to account for what’s happening here.
So when I saw the first couple of pages of this issue, I immediately assumed that we were going to be talking about how and why particular figures from Tony’s past emerge when he’s in this dream space.
Honestly, I probably still will be doing that to some degree, because I’m a resistant reader and I also think there is some deliberation beyond which characters return in these scenes. But equally notable to me is the fact that the comic seems to be deliberately trying to foreclose this kind of reading. The villains that appear are entirely selected by Count Nefaria, so we’re not supposed to think they are any kind of reflection on Tony’s relationship to his past battles. Nefaria also selects the settings, so ditto for the fact that Tony and his pals were just UP ON A BRIDGE. You know, symbolically sort of an important type of space when ascribing meaning to space. Ultimately, the comic really seems to want to divorce Tony Stark’s dreams entirely from Stark himself, rendering what might be one of the most intimate and personal things are our minds do entirely random.
And I mean, it so easily could have been different. Especially since we get so little information about how Nefaria’s manipulation of dreams actually work, it would have been fine to say that he sets up a sot of general narrative structure but lets Tony’s mind fill in the details. Or that he somehow is able to search through Tony’s mind and memories, searching for the options that are going to produce the most meaning or effect.
Since the comics haven’t shied away in the past from dealing with psychology as an important component of characterization, we have to then wonder what it is that they were trying to avoid by refusing to deal with dreams as something highly specific to an individual and their experiences. In all likelihood, there’s more than one answer, and some of them are probably somewhat practical and boring. For instance, I imagine that when it came to deciding which villains to include, a lot came down to achieving balance between picking folks readers would find recognizable but not too recognizable. For instance, we can’t have Black Widow or The Mandarin show up here, because then that would presumably create complications down the road when we encounter these folks again. So the people who are there needed to either be dead, or memorable but one-off characters that readers are unlikely to come across again in the near future.
I would also imagine that it would be easy for a storyline like this to open up all kinds of potential plotholes in terms of why someone with access to Iron Man’s mind and especially his memories wouldn’t then find out who the man under the mask is.
But I don’t think these considerations are all that motivated the way this storyline was written. In some ways, this felt to me like a knowing refusal to engage with Iron Man on a psychological level. And I say Iron Man and not Tony Stark rather deliberately here. I’m not arguing in favour of the kind of psychic split we saw between them earlier in the comics, but I do think that the comic kind of wants to have it both ways in terms of giving Iron Man a past that can be mined by his enemies for the creation of these dreams while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge that there might be aspects of Tony’s psychological makeup that are unique to the persona he puts on as Iron Man. In other words, the comic almost seems to imagine Tony’s mind when he inhabits the armour as a blank slate onto which pretty much anything can be projected as long as it bears some resemblance to past events. I guess we get some pushback with that in the moments that Tony recognizes are incongruent, but even those are pretty practical and external details about the fighting styles or allegiances of the villains.
As to why they would choose to imagine the character that way, I imagine that a lot of it comes down to what I would call the invisible line of mental health in Silver Age comics. Marvel of course becomes famous during this era for presenting superheroes as fallible and psychologically complex people, and I’m not trying to take that away from their legacy. Even with just Iron Man we’ve already seen him reckon with all kinds of physical and emotional traumas, sometimes in ways I found pretty impressively nuanced, especially for the time period. But I think especially at this point there was a kind of line that superheroes were not permitted to cross between what we might call an episodic view of mental health challenges versus a more sustained and continuous struggle. The latter is not only harder to convey in a serialized narrative like a comic, but recognizing the extent and continued influence of the traumas characters like Iron Man have undergone might also raise bigger questions than I think the comics were prepared or even interested in dealing with. Questions like: if their existence is so predicated on and often perpetuating trauma, should superheroes exist at all?
Okay, that was a long segeuway, I know, but I think we sort of had to deal in some length with what the comic isn’t doing before we could talk about what it does do. So after his brief stay in dreamland, Tony as Iron Man returns to the Stark Industries offices, where Pepper has just received some flowers. They’re from Happy, and this leads her to go on a long and rather uncharitable rant where she compares Iron Man to Happy, calling the former cold, robotic and unfeeling, and the latter warm and kind. (She also called him all kinds of super uncomplimentary stuff as recently as a few issues ago, but I guess it seems forgiveable that in a context where Pepper is afraid this guy has been driven away forever, she is sort of idealizing him.)
Seeing how devastated the woman he loves is, Tony takes off, attaching himself to a plane that takes him most of the way to Ireland. And soon he arrives at the Hogan residence…STILL IN THE IRON MAN ARMOUR.
Team, when I first read this I thought it was ridiculous. I was already noticing how little time he had spent out of the armour even back at Stark Industries, which just ended up antagonizing Pepper. The fact that he shows up to try to win back Happy as Iron Man rather than Tony Stark—you know, the guy who Happy knows to be his friend? At first it seemed like one of the silliest narrative conceits I’d maybe ever seen in these comics.
But in part because of a lovely conversation I had with a listener on Tumblr this week, I’m also really inclined to read Tony’s refusal to get out of the suit—which he was just trapped in, you’ll recall, so you’d really think he would welcome the chance to be Tony Stark again—as an expression of shame. In this instance I think he’s wearing the Iron Man armour because he wishes what Pepper accuses him of is true. He wishes he felt nothing. He wishes that he could turn all of the complicated messy business of having feelings more complex than lust off. But he can’t. We saw that in the issue where he tried and failed to go back to being carefree playboy Tony Stark. So instead he puts on the armour and basically cosplays as the person he wishes he could be right at that moment.
As you might imagine, Happy does not take Iron Man’s arrival well. He demands that Tony leave, and takes off with his grandfather who is ranting about how he’d heard the streets in America were paved with gold, but not that the men were made of Iron. While Tony contemplates his next move, our pal Count Nefaria, villain name Dream Maker, strikes again. This time, Tony finds himself dealing not only with Crimson Dynamo—hmm, I wonder why the man he loved keeps haunting him, hmm it’s a mystery—but also with Jack Frost (our pal with the freezing powers) and Gargantus, the giant cave man from very early days who turned out to be a robot sent to Earth by an alien race.
What follows is honestly a pretty fun fight to read. Even though I’m not usually one for these scenes, I have a special spot in my heart for bits where we see people with different powers team up and try to use their collective talents to their advantage. So we see stuff like Jack Frost turning the ground under Iron Man’s feet to ice while he tries to fight off a giant boulder being hurled at him by Gargantus. At one point during all of this, it occurs to Tony that since he knows he’s dreaming, he could just stop resisting. After all, it’s not like his life is truly at stake…right?
But even in dreams, it turns out Tony Stark is just too stubborn to quit. Which isn’t to say the team of baddies makes it easy for him. The Melter and the Black Knight both show up. The latter importantly cues Tony to the fact that he’s in a dream, which Tony rightly notes is a weird thing for someone you’re dreaming about to do. Instead of trying to wake himself, though, Tony just decides to go hard on the whole battle, figuring what does he have to lose? He smoke bombs the Black Knight in a piece of art that looked really cool in execution. (I’ll make sure to put it in the show notes.) Then he melts the ice that remains stuck to his boots, allowing him to fly again.
The villains are trying to coordinate in the face of this continued to resistance, but it isn’t going well. Jack Frost accidentally freezes Black Knight, and Tony manages to take down Gargantus using a well-placed kick and the giant’s own momentum. Next he takes down Jack Frost, and then sets his sights on Crimson Dynamo yet again. The latter, though, predicts that Iron Man must be running low on power…and indeed he is. But in an extremely lazy parable about the superiority of American manufacturing, he ends up outlasting the Dynamo because his suit, unlike those made in unnamed other nations, does not sacrifice quality for efficiency in cost and speed of production.
Outrage that his plan has not worked, or just because this little burst of nationalism is super annoying, Dream Maker tries to add more power to his machine. However, he ends up overloading it and the thing explodes, apparently killing the most compelling villain I feel like we’ve seen in a while. Tony, meanwhile, wakes up again back in Ireland where one problem has apparently solved itself. Happy has been convinced to return to the United States by no less than Pepper Potts, the person who he clearly should have been talking to from the start.
We end with a panel featuring the lifeless body of the Dream Maker. The caption notes that while Tony has apparently made a mistake when it comes to his attempts to reunite Pepper and Happy, he fought and won a crucial battle he didn’t even know he was fighting in this issue.
Which, again, I would have found this so much more compelling if it were openly talking about mental health. Like the idea of this as an invisible fight that someone can be fighting without even knowing they’re doing it? That’s kind of a cool and powerful metaphor for how some folks, myself included, experiences mental health struggles.
So where does this leave us? Well, to some degree this was another issue for me where I felt like the hook was so cool that it was kind of wasted on a single-issue arc. Like how cool would it have been to have seen this guy haunting Iron Man’s dreams for days or even weeks? What if Tony realized slowly what was going on by waking up with a burn that matched a wound he’d gotten in dream-land or something? What if this made him afraid to go to sleep, desperate enough to try to science his way out of the need for rest altogether? Again, I recognized that a serialized comic often relies on discreet stories, but I do feel like there were a lot of opportunities to turn this really interesting storyline into something more developed.
That said, for me it at least didn’t feel entirely like last week where the villain and the tension felt too big for the issue they were in. This still worked for me as a contained narrative, I just would have liked to have seen it expanded because I really love the idea of exploring Iron Man’s dreams.
Readers Like You
And that brings us to our Readers Like You segment, because I would actually really love to know what characters, battles, or settings you wish we did or could explore in Tony Stark dreamland. There’s so many options! Personally, I think it would be fun for Tony to work through some of his similarities with particular villains—the Mandarin is perhaps the most obvious option—by dreaming that he himself goes bad. Of course, Tony dreaming of like a wild night of passion with Happy and Pepper wouldn’t be out of line either.
And that brings us, of course, to the bisexuality metre! This was an interesting one, because it’s an issue that is in so many ways attempting to pretend—or show us that Tony is pretending, or both—that Iron Man has no interior life. And given that Tony spends almost the entire issue in the suit, that would seem to zero out our bisexuality metre. But I mean, we saw Vanko, a guy I continue to insist Tony loved, twice. Plus the entire premise of Tony chasing after Happy while being too ashamed to actually do so openly and therefore showing up in the Iron Man armour instead…yeah, I’m going to have to insist that there was a lot going on under the surface with this one, and award Tony an 8/10 for this outing.
Readers Like You (Reprise) and Sign-Off
Now in addition to our usual sign off, I want to talk at a bit more length about what’s coming up next. The last couple of weeks I mentioned I was thinking about kind of pausing for an episode and doing some comparative stuff with 2008’s Iron Man, the film which not only offered an adaptation of Tony Stark’s origin story but which also jumpstarted the multi-billion dollar franchise that came to be known as the MCU. I asked for your input, and took some time to consider on my own. And I’ve decided let’s go for it! Not only will it be fun to start thinking about how the Tony Stark on the page compares to the one on the screen, but I think we’ve come far enough in the comics that it will also be useful to sort of remind ourselves what’s happened so far.
If you have any topics you specifically want to see covered on this episode, or any questions you want answered, this would be a great time to drop me a line on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod, or by email at email@example.com. I also ask that if you’re enjoying the show, you take a few minutes to do at least one of those things that every podcast you listen to asks you to do, which is annoying but they really are important: Share. Subscribe. Rate. Review. Indie podcasters like me are especially reliant on this kind of stuff, so I would really appreciate you helping me get the word out!
And join us next week where
-We’ll talk MCU versus Marvel 616
Until then, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!