[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:10:16] The Personal is Political
[00:10:55] Fred MacDonald, “The Cold War As Entertainment in ‘Fifties Television” (paywalled, but as usual, let me know if you want a copy)
[00:12:36] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
[00:17:52] Gender and performativity
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 week we’re talking about Tales of Suspense #69. Its cover date is September 1, 1965. And our cover image depicts Iron Man in perhaps one of the most vulnerable positions we’ve ever seen him in. He is kneeling on the ground, one arm looking like it’s coming up to protect his head while the other presses against the ground in what looks like an unsuccessful attempt to stand. Above him looms a truly massive figure in a green metal suit that the caption informs us is Titanium Man. His hands are outstretched, and while the angle the two men are at is also playing with scale, the dude really is massive. Like one of his hands looks like it would cover most of Iron Man’s torso.
Where this cover gets really interesting, though, is in the bottom right corner. The image of our two metal-covered gladiators is surrounded by a thick grey border that turns out to be the outline of a TV screen—you know, back when televisions had those thick frames around the screen so that things like buttons and speakers could be included. So this fight is apparently being televised. Huddled around the screen watching is a group of concerned-looking people, their mouths hanging open in disbelief presumably at the peril that Iron Man has found himself in.
Other than the small rectangle at the bottom of the page devoted to the Captain America portion of the comic—which definitely was not made to work with the rest of the cover and feels like a huge distraction—this is easily my favourite cover page to date. It’s incredibly clever in its use of space, taking you on a real journey from the moment where you’re first concerned with the dominant image of the fight and then slowly realize as you make your way down the page that it is being mediated through a television screen. I am also a huge sucker for moments where the comics really deal with the role of the media, especially in these clever sort of meta textual ways. There’s a also a dialogue-based bit of caption above Iron Man’s head reading “If I must die, let it be with honor!” This part was fine, though honestly it kind of felt unnecessary. I think the reader could be trusted to know from the combination of the fight imagery and the reactions of the people we see watching to realize that Iron Man is in some real danger here. But that’s a pretty small complaint in an image I otherwise just love.
The splash page follows the trend we’ve seen in the last couple of issues now of repeating that same caption about dying with honour. Underneath these words, we see Tony Stark, wearing all of the Iron Man armour except the helmet. He’s in the lab, apparently trying to perfect a “sub-minitature reverser.” If I am supposed to recognize that bit of tech by name, I’m sorry to tell you dear listeners that I am failing you miserably, because the name feels like even more hand-wavey than usual. But that’s fine, because in true Tony fashion he lasts one panel into the main narrative before he is using the tech to ironically claim that it’s a good distraction from thinking about his mess of a love-life…you know, as he talks aloud to himself about his mess of a love life. Oh Tony. Specifically today he’s thinking about the fact that his heart could stop at any minute means he can never tell Pepper about his feelings for her.
In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy sort of moment, Tony then proceeds to slump down into a chair for a re-charge that he very nearly didn’t allow himself in time. Some of you will of course be sick of me saying this by now, but there are basically three main reasons that Tony’s chest-plate tends to get low. The first is that the comic is preparing us for new tech, usually suit upgrades, by implying that there are weaknesses in the current version that must be eliminated for Iron Man to survive and thrive. The second is as a way to show us that Tony’s current problem—usually, it’s a physical encounter—is particularly challenging and/or time-consuming. Third, and I would say probably most frequent to date, are the instances where Tony forgetting to charge the chest-plate herald an ongoing mental or emotional struggle. These things can of course happen in combination, it’s not always just one, but there is usually a dominant factor we can identify. In this particular instance, we’ve already been told pretty explicitly what it is: Tony isn’t taking adequate care of himself because he is mourning the loss of a potential relationship with Pepper. To me that suggests that we’re sort of coming up upon a climax, one way or the other, of the love triangle storyline. Something has to give, because it is starting to take a noticeable toll on Tony’s health, and there’s only so long that can be sustained.
Speaking of which, after re-charging Tony is forced to abandon his work on the reverser in favour of heading into Stark Industries, where Pepper and Happy are busy discussing their plans for that evening. Tony offers them the use of his limousine if they’ll just stop talking about it and get some work done, and Pepper for some reason responds to this proposal be inviting Tony along on the date? Happy is pretty annoyed by this, which, fair, but Tony turns down the offer, saving me from dying of second-hand embarrassment by having to read such a scene.
In a transition that was honestly so abrupt and jarring in terms of content that it was funny, we then transition to work-camp in Siberia. A new commissar named Bullski has just arrived, and the place is abuzz about this fellow. Turns out, shock of all shocks, that he is reputed to be particularly brutal and merciless. Bullski quickly confirms these rumours, sweeping into the science division and demanding that the captive members of the lab be forced to work for three extra hours per day. He then proceeds to crush an iron pipe with his bare hand—get it, he’s breaking iron? Which, it’s fine, but I do miss the days where entire hams were getting thrown around. The symbolism is cleaner and clearer but not nearly as fun.
Turns out our pal is especially crabby because he’s angry at having been transferred to the camp rather than working on more high-profile projects. So he has decided to make a name for himself in a different way: by taking out Iron Man. In a story that mirrors comic-Tony’s own origins, he summons several of the captive scientists and engineers, and tells them that if they complete a special project for him, he will ensure they are freed. Unlike Tony, the men fall for it and immediately set to work creating a titanium suit of armour. They even use Crimson Dynamo’s old lab, a lovely echo and a reminder of what we talked about during the MCU episodes: Tony never really leaves his past behind.
The suit, the scientists warn Bullski, is not going to be as small as the Iron Man armour. But he’s not worried, because he will hold up a larger and heavier suit with the sheer power of his masculinity—err, I mean, the height and muscle mass he apparently has on Iron Man. While he waits for construction of his suit to be complete, Bullski sits down to study his enemy, watching hours worth of footage of Iron Man and adding clever commentary like “Bah! I am almost twice his size!” and “I bet my groin plate will be bigger than his!” Okay, I made that last one up but honestly it’s pretty heavily implied.
After a few days, the suit is finished. It’s everything that the scientists promised, but Bullski of course does not hold up his end of the bargain. We’ve been shown repeatedly in the past that the Communist ranks are filled with paranoia and distrust, so instead of releasing the prisoners who worked on the suit as promised, Bullski instead has them sent to a different camp without a science division so they can never duplicate what they have done for him. He is also warned again that the massive titanium suit will be hard to maneuver in, but he remains entirely unconcerned.
There is then an interesting sort of fantasy sequence where Bullski envisions himself as Titanium Man, defeating Iron Man. We don’t usually get into the heads of our villains in this much detail, and in some ways it felt like a waste, only because there isn’t anything necessarily specific or unique about what Bullski imagines. His fantasy is of the basic “smash smash win win” variety. Really the only notable thing is that he seems to be a more sincere believer in the Communist cause, envisioning himself as the defeater of democracy and master of the communist world.
But what’s important, I think, about this sequence is that it’s so intensely visual, and Bullski, it turns out, does not want to just defeat Iron Man. He wants to be seen doing it, as loudly and publicly as possible. And so he sends Tony Stark a telegram challenging Iron Man to a fight. In case his opponent is considering turning him down, Titanium Man has also sent a copy of the message to the world’s press. This poses rather a problem for Tony. It turns out that he has recently left the Avengers in large part because his chest plate has been increasingly unreliable. The last thing he really wants is to be fighting for America on a global stage.
As Pepper and Happy both wonder about the source of Tony’s seeming hesitation to inform Iron Man of the challenge, Senator Byrd is even less sympathetic. Upon learning that Iron Man has not yet accepted Titanium Man’s challenge, Byrd assumes Tony doesn’t want to lose his bodyguard. He sends off a letter, presumably demanding that Iron Man participate in the contest. And so Tony works through the night, trying to find a way to ensure his chest plate will make it through at least one more battle.
Again, I want to stress that especially since we fairly recently went through a multi-issue arc involving the technology of the suit and the chest plate needing improvements, this one feels entirely like a kind of allegory for Tony’s romantic heartbreak. Other than the most obvious symbolism—you know, the faltering chestplate as a representation of a broken heart—it’s somewhat of an odd choice. But I do think there are some interesting implications. Remember back during the weeks we spent on Secret Identity stuff, where we talked about how the dual identity trope seems to set up all these binaries but actually kind of collapses them, or at least shows them in a constantly perilous state? Having Tony’s own heartbreak literalize itself through problems with the suit would seem to take that logic a step further, suggesting that Iron Man cannot operate at full capacity if Tony Stark is this deeply unhappy. It’s now a famous feminist maxim that the personal is political, but remember that we’re talking about masculinity in the 60s. The notion that Tony could conceivably fail his country because he is so distressed by his personal life is actually kind of revelatory.
Doing the Readings
And speaking of nationalism and all the things wrapped up in it, let’s stop here for a Doing the Readings segment so we can talk about television. Because it’s hugely important that unlike the majority of Iron Man’s other fights, which have often been semi-public but on a far smaller scale, this particular drama is going to play out on screens on both side of the Iron Curtain.
The Cold War, Fred MacDonald notes, is popularly referred to as America’s first “television war.” This is not because there is something uniquely televisable about that particular conflict. Honestly, it’s more a matter of historical coincidence than anything. TV becomes popular and affordable to the majority of American homeowners right at the same moment that tensions in the conflict really began to escalate. As a result, TV became the primary vehicle through which a lot of people received updates about the war.
Important, the War and its broader ideological stakes were not just transmitted through things like news and documentaries. What MacDonald calls the more “ambiguous qualities” of the conflict—especially the emotional stakes—were communicated through other types of fiction-based programming. It was often these kinds of shows that were the most effective in creating the kind of intense fear and paranoia we often associate with this time period, because unlike something like the news where there was still a line between fact and fiction that was not supposed to be crossed, other shows were free to dramatize the conflict without attention to the accuracy of their representation. The war itself therefore became a source of entertainment, but in a kind of cyclical way because that entertainment then became a crucial battleground on which the war for what President Lyndon Johnson called people’s “hearts and minds” was fought.
Comics are in a sort of interesting position as far as their role. Like television, images are a key method by which their narratives are conveyed. And to some extent I think certain this era of comics falls into some of the same patterns as their televised counterparts in terms of oversimplifying and fear-mongering. But if one accepts Scott McCloud’s famous argument that comics readers are put in a uniquely active role in terms of making meaning with and alongside the comics artists and writers, then it’s possible that there is more space that opens up with comics representation for interpretations that go against the prescribed political and social views of the time. In other words, it might be the case that comics allow the reader to make meanings out of even the most patriotic and dogmatic storylines that are in tension with those positions.
Leaving aside comics themselves as sort of a meta-level of this story, one thing we can definitely take away from all of this is that the battle with Titanium Man is mostly remarkable because of it being broadcast in this way. And I think the comic does a good job of emphasizing that by presenting us with a villain who would otherwise be almost completely unremarkable. Yes, he’s big, but we’ve seen big before. We’ve also seen Russian guys try to duplicate and improve upon the technology of the Iron Man armour. And there’s nothing really noteworthy about Bullski as a person, either. He’s a standard issue brute. But the second that he and Tony are elevated onto this televised national stage, then their conflict becomes something else entirely.
Alright. So Tony has found himself backed into a corner. As the sun begins to rise after a long night of brainstorming, he finally realizes what he needs to do to achieve at least a temporary fix for the armour. We never actually find out what it is—we cut from him having his aha moment to finishing the tech. It won’t be a permanent fix, he says, but it should be enough to get him through this one fight.
And so Titanium Man receives his answer. And Tony, in a feat of unprecedented mental wellness, invites Pepper and Happy down to witness the battle. Like, really? He’s recognizing that he needs and loves these people even beyond their recent romantic entanglements? YAY! So off everyone goes to Alberia, a fictional neutral site where the showdown is to take place. I had assumed we’d be on some kind of strictly controlled military base, but instead the comic compares the atmosphere to that of a carnival, complete with rides and colourful tents and the like.
Turns out the fight has become a kind of whose-who for society folks, and we all know what that means…Tony’s exes. That’s right, things are about to get messy. Pepper runs into Countess la Spiroza—my word processor just tried to correct that to Spinoza by the way, which would be an amazing academic/fannish crossover that will keep my mind entertained for days—who she informs Happy is one of Tony’s ‘old flames.’ She’s furious when the two appear to reconnect, but when she propositions him, Tony declines in favour of going back to inspect the armour. We don’t seem to have heard the last from the Countess, however, because she vows to seek her revenge as she watches him drive away.
And finally dawn arrives, and it’s time for the heavy metal showdown: Iron Man versus Titanium Man. Tony is initially pretty cocky, calling Titanium Man “sweetie” and taunting him about how much faster Tony can move in his smaller armour. But this is one of those moments where the thought bubbles are used really effectively, because even as he’s saying all of this stuff, Tony is quickly getting nervous. His hits on the Titanium Man armour just are not causing enough damage. And then matters get a lot worse pretty quickly. Titanium Man keeps sending blast after blast at Iron Man, which confuses Tony because they both know he’s able to move quickly enough to evade them. But it turns out the real plan all along was for Titanium Man to drive Iron Man into a minefield that had been prepared ahead of time.
This, obviously, triggers a massive explosion. In the last image of the issue, Happy and Pepper watch on in horror. The latter is surprised to have seen Iron Man so successfully tricked, while the former wonders why Tony isn’t there to watch. Doesn’t he care about Iron Man?
Team, this was SO GOOD. It had literally everything I like, and some things I didn’t even know I needed. Complicated mental and emotional dynamics? Check. Messy bisexual drama? Check. Thoughtful and compelling meditations on the role of the media in then-contemporary warfare? Check again! Top it all off with a cliffhanger ending and we have a storyline I am mega invested in.
Like all multi-issue arcs, a lot will of course depend on how things resolve here. But I think we’re heading toward some resolution of a lot of stuff—the love triangle, Tony’s heartbroken musing and corresponding problems with the suit, maybe even some secret identity reveals. Or maybe resolution is too strong a word, but I do think we’re finally getting some forward movement in several storylines that have kind of felt stuck for quite a while now, and I am really, really excited about it.
And since my enjoyment of an episode is often directly related to how high the bisexuality metre ranking is, you will probably be unsurprised to learn that I would rate this one pretty high. And it’s not just the messiness with the Countess, although that is of course a factor. Sexuality, gender and performativity are concepts that are so incredibly intertwined. By performativity, by the way, I don’t mean that these things aren’t felt very deeply or that they don’t have material impacts on people’s lives. What I (and decades of gender and sexuality studies scholars) mean by this is that what it means to live in these categories of man, woman, gay, straight, whatever, is that they are given meaning primarily in a social context—by how they are performed by and for other people.
And this issue is in some ways about nothing but performativity on pretty much every scale from the intensely personal to the broadly national and international. And as I said when I was talking about Tony’s broken heart/chestplate, one of the most compelling things about that for me is the way that all these different levels and scales of performance are becoming collapsed in Tony’s life. Really, this whole issue is just bisexual gold. 10/10.
Readers Like You
Speaking of which, let’s talk Readers Like You for a second. Because I’ve been thinking lately about ways to monetize the podcast in ways that actually make sense and add value for you as listeners. And one of those has been to think about stuff like merchandise. What would we think of something like a Bisexual Metre shirt, or enamel pin? Are there other kinds of merch you’d like?
Let me know! And as always, if you have any other 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
-We’ll see the conclusion of the Iron Man versus Titanium Man match, and Tony will fight to keep his perfect 10/10 bisexuality metre rating in tact two weeks in a row.
Until then, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!