Tales of Suspense #68 – Invincible Iron-Pod
[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:12:42] Joshua M. Leone, “Drawing Invisible Wounds: War Comics and the Treatment of Trauma” [This one is behind a paywall, but if you’re interested in reading it let me know.]
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.
Thanks to those of you who tuned in for the two-part series that compared the origin stories of comics Tony and MCU Tony. They were a ton of fun to record, and there were more of you listening and downloading than ever before, so that’s super exciting! Definitely excited to give it a try again down the road, probably around the time that it’ll make sense to chat about Iron Man 2. For now, though, we’ll be going back to our regular format and dealing exclusively with the comics. This week we’re talking about Tales of Suspense #68. Its cover date is August 1, 1965. The cover image is mostly taken up by Iron Man’s co-star Captain America this week, but the small shot we do get of our protagonist is definitely a provocative one. Iron Man is kneeling in the middle of a field, his head held in his hands. Above him, a gold plane soars through the sky. And the caption reads “If a man be mad!”
Our splash page features a larger version of the same text. Below, three monstrous figures—one blue, one green, and one red, loom over the figure of Tony Stark. Tony isn’t kneeling in this particular image, nor is the armour, but his hands are once more on his head, and he is surrounded by more text than I think we’ve seen on a splash page to date. I won’t read it all aloud, but essentially, Tony is struggling with the fact that as a scientist who knows and understands the material, he does not know the first thing about coping with what might be an emotional or mental problem. He is also concerned about his legacy, specifically the idea that succumbing to something non-physical would be to go out with the proverbial whimper rather than a bang.
Right away there’s a level of hyperbole here that’s interesting. What I mean is that pretty much instantly I’m assuming from the heavy-handed emphasis on Stark’s emotional and mental well-being that he is in fact fine in that regard. But there’s also a level of…I don’t want to call it ret-conning, which is when the current version of a story retroactively makes changes to older ones. But a lot of the tension of this storyline essentially relies on the fact that Tony has, up until this precise moment, been entirely well on a mental and emotional state. Like, my immediate reaction to “if a man be mad” is like…Tony, sweetie, really? If? Leaving aside the ableist language, we have been shown multiple times and ways that this character is traumatized and struggling. Even as recently as last week we’ve seen him trying to come to terms with losing the woman he loves to a beloved friend and coworker because he doesn’t feel he can sustain a romantic and/or sexual relationship due to the physical trauma he endured.
But hey, maybe I’m going to be pleasantly surprised. For now, let’s keep going. So the first caption makes a kind of cute little bit of wordplay (yep, I’m an English major and a nerd, of course I love wordplay), comparing the loving embrace of Happy’s arms to the…arms-manufacturing industry? Yeah, okay, it doesn’t totally hold together very well, but I like that they went for it. Anyway, all of this is to say that Happy and Pepper, recently reunited after Happy’s brief stint in Ireland, are hugging as Tony enters the office. The dynamics between the three of them don’t appear to have changed all that much. We get a thought bubble of Tony thinking about how much he wishes Pepper were hugging him instead; Happy likewise thinks about how Pepper would rather have Tony, and how he was foolish to return. Not only has the situation not improved, it’s actually reaching new heights of melodrama. At one point Happy thinks to himself “I suffer every time she even looks at him.” And like. Happy, I get it. We’ve all been jealous of the rich dude in the fancy suits stealing our ladies. But also like…Tony is her boss? Of course she’s going to look at him? And if it’s so unbearable that she do so, perhaps you shouldn’t have come back from Ireland just yet?
(Listeners, please know it kills me to speak to Happy thusly. I love him so. But if anyone is going to take a downturn in terms of mental health this week, it might be me if I have to endure this love triangle without even a sense that the dynamics are shifting or evolving. I mean come on!)
Okay. So Happy apologizes for his outburst and for ditching out on work. Tony of course forgives him because he’s not a monster. Pepper then informs Tony that he’s received a letter from his cousin, Morgan. Now yes, some of you will be familiar with that name for different, MCU related reasons, but in the comics Morgan is Tony’s cousin, who we learn is the “black sheep” of the Stark family.
And can I just say how psyched I am that we’re finally going to meet someone Tony is related to? I mean I get that his parents do not seem to be around and I’m assuming we’ll get to that eventually, and maybe shows like Succession have trained me overly well to expect that all rich, white people have like sprawling, codependent families. But it’s nice for the comics to finally be acknowledging that Tony didn’t emerge from the ether fully-formed, even if Morgan is apparently a bit of disappointment. The comics are quick to specify via thought bubble that he’s had all the same opportunities and privilege as Tony, he’s just squandered them.
We then transition over to Morgan himself, who is struggling to pay back a gambling debt—hence the letter to Tony. The man he owes the money to turns out to be familiar! It’s Count Nefaria. When we last saw him, he was messing around with Tony’s dreams. I assumed that the last panel in that issue depicted him dead, but apparently he survived the explosion that destroyed his dream machine thing, and he’s now hanging out in Monte Carlo. Nefaria is sceptical about Morgan’s alleged relationship to Tony, but he decides to take advantage of it just on the off chance that it’s true. He offers to essentially set Morgan up for life he will help him take down his wealthy, famous cousin. And Morgan, who is the one out of the two of them who appreciates the finer things in life, agrees!
And so Morgan journeys out to visit Tony, who rolls out the red carpet, inviting his cousin to take a tour of Stark Industries with Happy. The next day, we see Tony driving home in a rush, late for a dinner date with a cover girl. (Gasp! What’s this? A mention of dating Tony? Even though he’s clearly not going to make it to this date, I am SUPER HAPPY ABOUT THIS, PEOPLE.) Then he sees a shiny gold rocket just sitting there in the middle of the road. He briefly considers meeting up with his date instead, but instead he decides to wait until the CIA can arrive to hand off the device. Watching from a nearby bush, Morgan celebrates—but a bit prematurely, as it turns out. Because Tony decides that if the device is active, there might not be time to wait for the government to arrive.
Instead, he goes in himself as Iron Man. Seeing a strange glow emitted by the rocket, he uses the suit’s Geiger counter, but determines it isn’t radioactive. So he steps inside…and finds a giant thermonuclear device, set to a timer that is already counting down. For once, Tony does the healthy, safe thing and decides to alert a bomb squad instead of like, deactivating the thing himself.
Only problem is that when the bomb squad shows up fifteen minutes later, the entire rocket has vanished. By that point, Tony has changed back into his regular clothes, and is being lambasted by the police. Matters only get worse when Tony sees what he identifies as a spaceman standing behind one of the officers. All of them head off and begin to search the woods, but of course, nothing is found. Tony realizes he’ll never convince these men of what he saw, but thinks to himself that he is certain of what he witnessed.
Meanwhile, Count Nefaria stands a hundred yards away with what he calls a Visio-projector, which I assume is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a device that can make people see things that aren’t there. The scene with Tony actually entering the rocket makes it feel like we were owed even a bit more of an explanation about how this tech words, since presumably making an image that someone can physically interact with would be even more complex. But the most we get is a shot of Nefaria holding what looks like a glowing yellow spotlight kind of a thing.
Tony spends the rest of the night and into the next day trying to figure out what’s going on. We see him test the suit to make sure there wasn’t some kind of malfunction. When that reveals nothing, he flies over the scene from the night before in search of clues. Nothing, though it does give him a chance to complain about how he should probably never bother calling back the woman he was supposed to be out with the night before.
Frustrated, Tony returns to the office where Pepper and Happy are endearingly holding up fliers for different vacation options. Seems they’ve heard about Tony’s supposed hallucinations, and are trying to gently encourage him to take some time away to regroup. Later that day Happy also tries to steer the press away from Stark Industries. However, Tony sees a giant flying ship in the air right at that moment and decides to vindicate himself by calling the press right into his office instead. Which, I mean, if he’s even the slightest bit worried he might be losing his grip on reality, why not, like, check with Pepper or Happy first? Make sure the spaceship is actually there before calling the media in?
But, natch, Tony instead calls everyone in and, when they can’t see anything, rambles about how there was a giant ship suspended in midair just a few moments ago. While normally we don’t see the thoughts of characters except our protagonist and particularly important side-characters, here we see the press’s verbal and non-verbal responses as they muse about how Tony is supposed to be the one protecting them, and how perhaps his level of genius is always accompanied by some degree of mental instability. It’s kind of a gutting scene, in part because it’s still so timely and accurate in terms of how mental illness is approached.
I want to stop here quickly for a new segment I’m going to call zooming in. This segment will essentially involve close analysis of a few panels or images, with emphasis on their visual elements. I tend not to call a huge amount of attention to specific things on the page, mostly because I want folks to be able to follow the show and the narrative of the comic even if they don’t have it sitting in front of them. But we’re also talking about a visual medium, so sometimes this kind of discussion is important. I’ll screenshot the panels that I’m talking about and place them in the show notes, so feel free to look there if you need or want to.
Alright, so at the bottom of page 6, we have a series of three panels. In the first, we get an image of Tony front and centre. He’s surrounded by thought bubbles, one from a judgy reporter, and one from Happy, who is feeling guilty about the fact that his romantic rival for Pepper appears to be unravelling before his eyes. On the other side, we see count Nefaria on the roof to the building, holding his projector thingy and celebrating as he overhears reporters on their way out of the building gossiping about Tony’s mental health.
In between these two images we get a panel of Tony. He’s seated at his desk, head between his hands, and for the first time we see him really starting to wonder if everyone around him is right. Maybe there’s no alternative explanation for the fact that he’s seeing things no one else is. This panel is notably smaller than the ones on either side, and my first instinct upon seeing that and realizing how crucial this moment is was to feel like that was a mistake. This should have been a full page image, one where we could see every line on Tony’s face, the bruises under his eyes from a lack of sleep.
But after reflecting on it, I actually felt like this series did something way more interesting in terms of conveying a thematic idea through use of space. This entire scene is claustrophobic as heck. I mean even in that first panel on the left that I talked about, other people’s words are enclosing Tony, bracketing him on either side like bookends. And the panels enact that on an even bigger scale. It almost feels like the images on the left and right are condensing the one in the centre, forcing Tony to become smaller as what other people think of him starts to shape more and more of how he understands himself.
Doing the Readings
And this leads us really nicely, actually, into our Doing the Readings segment. Now obviously, some of the older comics in particular say and do some questionable things in relation to mental health, and the Iron Man comics are by no means an exception to that. But comics are also capable of doing some really unique and important things in terms of representing mental health and trauma, in large part because they are a hybrid medium featuring images and text in sequence.
Joshua Leone points out in a 2017 article that this format allows comics based on traumatic experiences to “represent that which is typically unrepresentable.” Trauma and injury , Leone points out, can often yield a disrupted sense of identity. They lead a person to have to learn to think differently—about themselves, their bodies, and the roadmap of the life that is ahead of them. Much of this bewildering struggle is invisible. It’s not the struggle we see. That’s why Leone says comics are so important. Graphic narratives, he says, “draw trauma—a phenomenon characterized by its unspeakability, invisibility, and silence—onto the open spaces of the comics page” (244). And they do so through a unique combination of words and images that allows for an alternative approach to depicting bodies and minds undergoing immense stress, a kind of storytelling that is different than what we would be able to get through a narrative presented exclusively in words or images.
Now, Tony Stark is not, of course, a soldier. And the traumas that he has undergone are not directly related to the mental illness plot of this particular issue. But here’s why I think it’s actually really important that a plot that might otherwise seem like a standalone, villain of the week kind of thing is brought about by Count Nefaria, someone we’ve seen before: I think this storyline, and the previous one where Nefaria messed around in Tony’s dreams, is very much about the other traumas Tony has endured. This is how this stuff works. For a lot of people trauma doesn’t happen on a linear timeline, it works by forcing us to encounter it again and again and again, often in moments we don’t expect.
Now, do I think this is intentional? Am I retracting what I said a couple of weeks ago about the invisible line of mental health representation in superhero comics? No, not necessarily. But it sort of ends up working out anyway, because the comics show us at once the complexity of drawing and writing what can’t always be seen at the same time as there’s only so far they’re willing to go with that. Overall, there’s a lot of really interesting and conflicting stuff going on in this issue.
Okay, let’s keep going. So we find ourselves next in DC, where Senator Byrd is learning the news of Tony Stark’s apparent instability. He decides he’s going to put an immediate resolution before the senate which will propose stripping Tony Stark of all his governmental weapons contracts. Meanwhile, Morgan is setting out to make things even worse for our hero. He uses an isospheric echo ray to send some kind of image up into the sky…except it turns out that Morgan isn’t the only one talking!
And this is where things go kind of…uh, well. So there’s a spaceship in the sky, and this time it isn’t a fiction. We see some green beings from the moon, who look sort of like Frankenstein but with tusks, get off the ship. I wasn’t sure at first if this was still somehow something that Count Nefaria had designed—I mean, they’re both named after cheese. Literally, the two named characters are Gouda and Edam, which made me genuinely lol so kudos to the creative team for that one. But it transpires that our cheesy pals are 100% real, and once they see Iron Man, they set their sights on destroying him. You see, the people of Earth are set to launch another rocket in the direction of the moon, so these folks are out to stop them.
At first, Tony tries to lure them in the direction of the nearest military base in order to clear his name. But he quickly realizes that he won’t make it there before they catch up to him, so he decides to take the aliens on by himself. For their part, our moon-based friends are surprised by Iron Man’s strength and agility, using a ton of similes to compare his muscles to iron, his speed to that of shooting stars…you get the drift. Apparently things on the moon are super poetic.
The fight that ensues is kind of extended and dull, and it involves Tony doing more of his “American manufacturing is superior” bit which is seriously getting so old so fast. He does also rant about how it would be nice if the Avengers were there to help out, which felt like a very necessary acknowledgement of the limitations of having separate narratives for teams and individuals. Finally, the visitors from the moon believe they have beaten Iron Man once he’s hit with a blast from one of their blast guns, and they prepare to take him to their ship. But Tony is just playing possum, a move he’s very relieved the aliens don’t recognize. Having lured them into close contact, he triggers his ultra beam, which apparently has the intensity of a burning sun. The aliens decide to retreat to their craft.
On their way, however, they hear the sound of someone slipping on a nearby rock. That someone? Morgan Stark, who is very nearly taken hostage. But Tony is able to turn the beam thing into some kind of shield, which the comic caption hilariously compares to the invisible ones you see in commercials for toothpaste. Like I’m not sure why that analogy absolutely killed me, I think because it’s the type of comparison my science-simple self would make and then change later. But it was hilarious.
Anyway, things wrap up fairly neatly after that. Tony gets Morgan to agree to tell the authorities what he witnessed and help clear Tony’s name. This kills Senator Byrd’s attempts to end Stark’s work with the government. Morgan is then promptly sent off back to Monte Carlo, where he is reunited with Count Nefaria. In his last line of the issue, Morgan wishes for his own death rather than having to face explaining his failure to the Count. Meanwhile, Tony stares up at the moon, wishing that all of his troubles could have vanished with the unearthly visitors he drove off earlier that day.
Okay. So like…what even the heck just happened? I can definitely say that while I predicted elements of the plot, I definitely did not see any version of that ending coming. And I’m really split on how to feel about it. Mostly, it was just silly, and I don’t think that’s an inherently bad thing. Personally, I don’t feel like I actually need comics to be super gritty and realistic all the time. There are plenty of mediums for that already. I’m fine for there to be downright goofy stuff that happens sometimes.
In this instance, though, it again feels part of this way that the Iron Man comics both want us to recognize the protagonist’s mental health and legitimize his struggles and at the same time they’re afraid to completely pull the trigger. The comic story of wants to have it both ways but also it’s kind of binary thing to some extent. Like you either do or don’t acknowledge that your main character is traumatized and struggling. When you try this halfway thing…well, you wind up with the kind of narrative incoherence that requires a deuce-a-moon-shin-a in order to achieve resolution.
That said, I have learned my lesson when it comes to Count Nefaria. Hopefully we’ll hear more from him soon, and we’ll get to continue digging into ol’ Shellhead’s…well, Shell head.
Readers Like You
And that brings us to our readers like you segment. Since we appear to have gained another recurring villain, I thought this would be a good time for a poll-type question: who is your favourite recurring villain so far? I’ll give a few options on Twitter, but you’re also welcome to write in with your own if I forget someone. You can also pitch a villain you wish was recurring, or that had an ambiguous ending but you’re hoping to hear more from soon.
And don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the good old bisexuality metre! I mean, for the sheer fact of the return of dating Tony (even if said date does not actually materialize) this was one was going to score highly. And that was before we got to the moment where Tony is distracted from his date by a glowing gold phallus. At this point I am 100% someone at Marvel wrote this stuff specifically for me, and no one will ever convince me otherwise.
As always, if you have any thoughts or feelings about the issue or the show that you want to share, please let me know on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod, or by email at email@example.com . And if you’ve been enjoying the show, please be an everyday superhero and take a few minutes to rate, review, and/or share.
And tune in next week, where
-Iron Man takes on Titanium Man
Until then, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!