Tales of Suspense #70 – 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.
[00:02:20] Robet Edelman and Christopher Young, Eds. The Whole World Was Watching: Sport in the Cold War
[00:08:12] Women as tomatoes in 20s slang
[00:11:23] Swearing in The Good Place
[00:14:01] Gandalf arriving at Helm’s Deep
[00:17:53] Even Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men
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 #70. Its cover date is November 1, 1965. For the first time since Captain America joined the Tales of Suspense squad, our cover features a single image rather than trying to cover both stories. I think this is a really smart decision. We’ve talked before about the fact that if both characters were depicted on the cover then there needed to be some kind of visual tie between them. Otherwise, they end up sort of distracting from one another.
This week’s cover happens to feature Captain America, so I won’t go into depth about its contents. There is a caption on the bottom left side of the page that is the one element tied to Iron Man. It reads: Fight on…the world is watching.
Doing the Readings
We’re going to stop really early in this particular episode for our Doing the Readings segment. You’ll remember, or maybe you won’t because you don’t have to memorize the show in order to follow it, that last week we talked about the importance of television as the primary medium of the Cold War. We talked about the immediacy and intimacy of television, the way it brought the conflict into people’s homes to an unprecedented level.
This week I want to focus more specifically on the role of sports. Because in many ways, this entire storyline with Iron Man and Titanium Man plays out very much like the sporting events that became crucial contests during the Cold War. Now of course, we know from the very existence of events like the Olympics that there are ties between nationalism and sports. However, this took on whole other levels during the Cold War.
In The Whole World Was Watching, Robert Edelman describes sports as a critical source of symbolic capital in this period. He writes that they “produced easily measured results from which governments and their citizens could drawn rapid conclusions”, fed a sense of personal and collective loyalty, and inspired the kinds of fitness that were useful preparation for military service. In short, Edelman argues that sports were a key instance of what Joseph Nye called soft power. Compared to its opposite, hard power, which is the type of actions we are inclined to recognize as power including physical force or threats of violence, coercion, all that fun stuff, soft power is about a gentler and more manipulative kind of persuasion. It’s about persuading others to take your side not because you order or command it, but because they have come to identify with you. Put super simply, we can think about hard power and soft power as bad cop and good cop respectively. Both are trying to reach the same end goal—in the case of the Cold War, persuading people that one socio-political ideology is superior to another—but they are using different methods to get there. Hard power is basically fork around find out, and soft power is hey, I’m not like a regular nation, I’m a cool nation!
All of this is to say that on top of representing the general media strategies of the era by having several issues devoted to a televised contest, this storyline is also representative of the particular way that global conflicts played out through sport. It’s interesting, of course, that they’re putting Iron Man in this particular position. I can’t say that I’ve ever necessarily associated superheroes with sports before. But of course it marked sense when you stop and think about it. As fictional representatives of their nations, representatives who tend to be known for their physical feats of strength, superheroes of this era are sort of the ideal sportsman but turned up to eleven.
This storyline does also do something interesting in terms of interrupting some of the narratives Americans at the time had about their communist foes. While it is now widely known that the US government was heavily involved in various sporting efforts—including the time that they had a championship stripped from Muhammad Ali for criticizing the war in Vietnam—many Americans at the time believed that one of the key distinctions between themselves and the USSR was that American athletes operated independently from the government. So by having Tony—a man who has direct tie to the government, and who is being surveilled closely by a sitting Senator—take part in this event, the comic is actually doing something somewhat radical by recognizing that yes in fact, this cultural war is directly tied to the same forces carrying out the other branches of the conflict. More on this later, but I wanted to set the stage so to speak.
The splash page, captioned with the same words from the cover, depicts the moment we ended with last time. Iron Man, having been led onto ground he did not realize was rigged ahead of time with land mines, is reeling, back bowed as the ground underneath him explodes. Titanium Man stands in the background, surveying the scene from behind the mask that completely covers his face.
The first few pages of the issue offer a recap of Tales of Suspense #70. I’ll gloss over it since I think you’ll have picked most of it up from context by now, but we have our two gladiators, Iron Man and Titanium Man, fighting it out in a televised battle between democracy and communism respectively. Titanium Man, a Russian agent out to prove the superiority of communism and earn himself a release from the work camp he has been assigned to supervise, is brutal and clearly, from the land mine trick, not above playing dirty. And speaking of playing dirty, we also met one of Tony’s ex’s, a Countess Stephanie de la Spiroza, last week. She’s in town to watch the fight, and when she failed to reconnect with Tony, she vowed to take her revenge.
Okay, so now that we’re all caught up, let’s dive right into this week’s story. So Tony survives the first blast due to the strength of the suit, but sensibly things that he doesn’t want to face many more. However, Titanium Man begins sending impulse blasts toward the ground, which risk triggering more of the devices. Tony hesitates to fly away, mainly because he worries he will look like he is retreating. Which honestly feels like a bizarre concern to me. Like I would expect someone who had the capability to fly to use that to escape a bunch of land mines? It seems like just good strategy?
However, apparently I am just not invested enough in toxic masculinity, because as the scenes flashes over to the crowd, it plays out just as he thought. The spectators immediately assume Iron Man is retreating, aware that he is beaten. But then, of course, he turns around and prepares to face off against his foe once more.
Titanium Man is feeling pretty confident, and he taunts Tony about handing the United States the worst propaganda defeat they’ve ever suffered. And though Tony is quick to remind him that he hasn’t been beaten yet, things are not looking good. When he tries to take flight to attempt a dive bomb, he finds out that his jet boots was damaged in the minefield. As such, he’s not able to fly particularly quickly Orr with much precision. This allows Titanium Man to use radar rings—steel rings that use radar to find and encircle their victim, and then tighten, shrinking until the target cannot move.
Iron Man is forced toward the ground. And as Tony thinks to himself that he should have stuck to “wine, women, and song,” a woman from his past emerges as if on cue. That’s right, the countess is wandering the fair grounds in search of Tony Stark, who of course is nowhere to be found. When she checks with Happy and Pepper, they of course have no idea where their employer is. Once the Countess has moved on, Happy calls her a “cold tomato.” One website about 20s slang I found indicated that women used to be referred to as tomatoes, and I guess that clears things up a little bit since Happy is at that point critiquing the Countess for caring about where her ex is while Iron Man is in peril, I guess that tracks. But I maintain that cold tomato is a super weird and random bit of slang that should definitely be freed from the confines of gender and applied to all. Perhaps it shall one day take shirt form on the podcast merch store. Then again, maybe the market for cold tomato shirts is more limited than I’m assuming. Hmm. Something to think on. Anyway, the whole episode again makes Pepper and Happy reflect on Tony’s absence, but their attention is soon drawn back to the screen.
So Tony decides that regardless of how much his power sources will be drained, he has no choice but to use them to free himself from the trap Titanium Man has caught him in. His effort is eventually rewarded, as the rings re-expand and Tony is able to free himself. He needs to recharge, though, so he sends what he calls a “chemical bath” shooting at titanium man.
Meanwhile, the Countess is still trying to hunt down Tony. She arrives at his lab, but quickly realizes he isn’t there. What is there, though, is a small device that she assumes is a ‘silly new transistor.’ She decides to take it and force Tony to come after her by leaving behind a sign that she is the one in possession of his property. And I’m of two minds about this whole bit of the storyline. On one hand, as a person capable of being tremendously, absurdly petty, I appreciated the silliness of Countess Stephanie’s attention-seeking behaviour here. At the same time, I did wish that we’d ever encountered her before if she was going to play a pretty critical role in a major storyline. Even a couple of mentions of her calls going unreturned or something would have gone a long way toward making this seem less kind of random.
Anyhoo, back on the battlefield whatever combination of chemicals Tony has used has caused the Titanium Man armour to be engulfed by flames. This gives Tony enough time to manage a quick recharge, but when his opponent is still rolling around on the dirt once he’s done, Tony starts to worry that maybe the chemicals he used were too potent. He doesn’t want any of his attacks to prove fatal, which of course connects to that theme we’ve talked about before where Cold War America was represented as more kind and merciful than those they were fighting against.
Tony goes over to check on Bullski, who is of course faking. Turns out he just wanted Iron Man in close range, because his suit is both larger and stronger than Tony’s. He basically gets Iron Man into a headlock, all the while bragging about how Iron Man has been felled by his own compassion. Things are, in short, looking bad for Tony. And the only person more unimpressed by that than Iron Man himself is, of course, Senator Byrd. He’s ranting about how he will definitely be blaming Tony Stark if Iron Man is defeated. Someone around him asks why since the two are obviously separate entities (lol), but Byrd argues that it was Tony Stark’s responsibility to ensure Iron Man was properly outfitted for this fight. Which, honestly, is one of the more sensible reasons that the US government has ever threatened to be mad at Tony, so I’ll allow it even though he’s obviously being a catty bench. (Yes, that’s right, I’ve decided that I will keep the show clean by using the Good Place system of swearing.)
Tony, meanwhile, is less worried about his suit—which he notes can withstand Titanium Man’s blows fairly easily—and moreso about his heart, which may give out under the strain. His intent is basically to stall until the fifteen minute break, during which he intends to slip the new sub-miniature device he made into his suit. Except…he left it in his hotel room, and we of course know that the Countess is now in possession of it.
Turns out that other than the ace-in-the-hole device, Titanium Man is thinking along similar lines. Iron Man has proved far more resourceful than persistent than he expected, and Bullski intends to use the break to regroup and come up with a new strategy for defeating his democratic foe. The round ends with a long single-panel depicting the two men facing off. The tides are beginning to turn; Tony is thinking to himself that his tactics are confusing and maybe even frightening Bullski, and Bullski seems to confirm this by saying that he now understands why Iron Man is so feared and awed.
Senator Byrd, Pepper, and Happy are all waiting to talk to Iron Man, but he doesn’t stop to chat. He flies back to his room, and of course finds out that the Countess has taken his device. She left behind her handkerchief, so Tony knows who has the technology he so desperately needs. He changes his jet boots, so that he has two that are now functioning, and returns to the grounds where he immediately grabs Happy and sets him a crucial task: find Countess Stephanie, and retrieve the stolen technology.
Happy isn’t exactly thrilled—remember that he and Iron Man have historically had some ups and down—but he of course does as he has been directed to do. And as he drives, Happy begins to accept a truth that has been creeping up on him for a while now: that Tony Stark is Iron Man. He doesn’t have too long to reflect on this realization, because he manages to follow the Countess and retrieve the device. He returns to the fight grounds, but it’s too late. The next round of Iron Man versus Titanium Man has started.
And Happy? Well he has no intention of allowing a little thing like that to stop him. A terrified Pepper protests that he will be killed if he enters the arena, and Happy realizes that she must truly care for him if she is this worried about his fate.
Meanwhile, a different kind of drama entirely is playing out inside. Iron Man and Titanium Man are at it again, and Tony is struggling. The pain in his chest is becoming debilitating, and when he sends a blast of his photon gun at his opponent only to see that it inflicts little to no damage on Titanium Man, Tony begins to wonder if this is really the end.
And then, in a scene that reminded me a lot of Gandalf and the Rohirrim showing up at the battle of Helm’s Deep, we see the figure of Happy Hogan standing atop the high cliff-like structure that encircles the arena. His arm is raised victoriously in the air as he informs Iron Man that he has succeeded at his task. Like Pepper, Tony’s primary concern at this point is Happy’s safety, and he demands that Happy leave before he’s injured.
Seeing this, Titanium Man tries to take advantage of his foe’s distraction and sends a molecular scrambler at Iron Man. Tony ducks…but the ray ricochets and ends up hitting Happy Hogan square in the chest. We don’t actually see the extent of the physical damage, but Happy in particular is certain that the wound is fatal. He demands that Iron Man take the device from him, and that he not concern himself with calling a doctor for someone who has “had it.” And besides, Happy says, it’s worth it to know in the end that he is the man who Pepper truly loves.
And then, in what might be his dying moments, Happy calls Iron Man “boss,” confirming to Tony for the first time that someone in his inner circle knows about his secret identity.
I admit that because I know enough about comics to know how impermanent death and seeming death can be, I’m not entirely certain I believe that Happy is no longer with us. Maybe I’m just in a bit of denial too, because I genuinely love Happy Hogan a lot. But regardless of what’s going to happen in the future, this is a genuinely devastating scene on so many levels. For Happy, who is potentially dying right at the moment when he might find romantic contentment. For Tony, who otherwise would have been able to share the terrible secret of Iron Man with someone. And, of course, for Pepper.
Happy’s death must take place on screen, because we see her react to this moment by screaming and then fainting. Tony, meanwhile, reacts to the loss of his friend—and the knowledge that Happy knew his true identity—by vowing to ensure that his death will not be in vain. He installs the device Happy died for into the Iron Man armour, and then stands before Titanium Man, promising that his eventual victory will all be for his old friend.
I mean…holy shirt. I am feeling so many feelings, team. In some ways, I think this has been my favourite issue of the comics so far. Everything about it is so strong. The fight scenes, which I normally am not even a fan of, are perfect. They make sense; they tell a clear story; and in building on our discussion about sports earlier, it felt so much like watching a major sporting event, even the small touches like when both men are flagging and sort of limping toward the break.
Building on that earlier conversation, too, one of the things I absolutely love about this issue is the way that it connects the cultural aspects of the Cold War to literal life and death consequences. Now of course, no one actually died when the United States and the Soviet Union played hockey in 1980 or something. But like most binaries, the line between hard and soft power—between what we might call the theatre of war and the war of and through theatre—is a porous one. Culture influences politics, and vice versa, and I think this storyline does a fantastic job of dramatizing that relationship.
We’re going to transition to the bisexual metre now, because the one thing I didn’t love about this story has to do with that. Now, I maintain that I’m not positive that Happy Hogan is literally dead. But when it comes to how this impacts Tony’s romantic life, it sort of doesn’t matter if the death is literal or figurative.
What do I mean by that? Well, I’ve made comments before about how love triangle storylines are almost always about bisexuality to some degree or another. I believe I’ve mentioned Eve Sedgewick’s concept of homosociality before, but I’ll go through it again just in case. So the term is introduced in Between Men, a book-length study in which Sedgwick examined literature that seemed to foreground intimate relationships between men while refusing—and often expressing fear or hatred toward—homosexuality. A more contemporary version of the term would be something like bromance, or even “no homo.”. In all these cases, what’s important to recognize is the continuity and connection between homosexuality and homosociality. The latter category is so anxious to disavow any sexual element of the relationship in large part because the lines between these different forms of intimacy can be so incredibly thin.
In narratives that feature heavy homosociality bonding, there is almost always a love triangle. The woman in this configuration often becomes what Sedgewick calls a conduit through which the bonds between the two men are expressed. In other words, their rivalry is not so much about winning the affections of the woman as it is about disguising and sort of redirecting the feelings the two men have toward one another.
Now, I wouldn’t insult the greatness that is Pepper Potts by saying we can apply this perfectly here. I think we’ve gotten enough evidence to support a genuine bond between both she and Happy and she and Tony that exist on their own terms. However, I also think it’s telling and important that we don’t meet Pepper until we meet Happy. We know from context, of course, that she worked for Tony long before he actually knew Happy, but it’s actually through Happy and his introduction to Pepper that we as readers first encounter her. So she is still always to some extent mediated for us by the relationship between these two men. These two men who, by the way, have definite love and deep feeling for one another.
So by having Happy recognize Tony fully for who he is, and having him potentially die for him at the precise same moment as Happy also recognizes that he is the victor in their battle for Pepper’s affections, I see the story giving us the fullest expression of Happy and Tony’s feelings for one another only under the condition that they are immediately dashed—either by Happy’s death, or by his relationship with Pepper turning serious. It’s already kind of a pattern in these comics; the last bi-coded relationship Tony had with a guy was with Crimson Dynamo, who also died tragically. I’m not totally willing to call it a Bury Your Gays kind of trope, because of the complexities of how queer coding is not the same as killing a character explicitly represented as LGBTQIA+. But it’s definitely in that ballpark.
This puts me in a very curious position of therefore wanting to award the same issue a 10/10 and a 0/10 on the bisexual metre. I’m going to go with the former, mainly because my heart is so sore at the mere idea that Happy might be gone forever that I’m going to choose to recognize the beauty that was/is his bond with Tony rather than the way it is being brought to an abrupt, painful end.
Readers Like You/Sign-Off
But hey, maybe I’m way off base. Or maybe I missed something that should have been a part of this, perhaps the most important Bisexual Metre segment in history. If you have thoughts on this, or, you know, potentially the death of a major character, 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 two week long 10/10 bisexuality metre rating in tact.
Until then, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!