Tales of Suspense #71 – 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.
Episode 35 Notes
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 #71. Its cover date is December 1, 1965. And this week Iron Man has nabbed the no-longer shared front page. Under a somber caption reading “What price victory?”, the image features Iron Man reaching out to punch Titanium Man, a blow powerful enough to knock the much bigger man in the much larger suit backward. In case we’ve forgotten what might be giving Tony the motivation to exert such strength, we see behind him the seemingly lifeless body of Happy Hogan, who was injured last issue bringing Iron Man a device he needed to succeed in his televised battle against his Communist foe.
On the splash page, we’re presented with a much larger version of the same caption, this time in blood-red letters surrounded by a bubble made of sharp edges. Below, Titanium Man taunts Iron Man about the loss of his friend, and brags that communism will soon be proven to be the superior method of governance. We get both a thought bubble and a series of speech bubbles from Tony in response, a strategy I really like. Internally, Tony is thinking that Happy cannot have died in vain. His shoulders are slumped, his arms at his side. But externally, he warns Titanium Man that he should only worry about defending himself, because nothing can save him now. I’ve said it before, but I really do love these moments where get access to Tony’s thoughts as well as his dialogue. One of the privileges of a written piece like a comic versus something like a film is that we have ready and immediate access to a character’s private thoughts, so I like instances where the writers and artists take the opportunity to exploit that by demonstrating contrasts or tensions between a character’s public and private lives.
Alright, let’s head right into the story. Unlike last week, where we got a gentle recap of what had happened in the previous issue, this time we jump right into the middle of the fight. Literally. The first panel features Titanium Man sending a shatter-blast ray at Iron Man, whose smaller, lighter armour confounds his enemy by also managing to take the blow seemingly without sustaining any major damage. Now that he has his enemy off-kilter, Tony amps things up, speeding around Titanium Man while calling him ‘comrade’ and reminding him that the world is watching. Outraged, Titanium Man sends another blast at Iron Man, and feels smugly satisfied as he appears to fall from the sky, hurtling uncontrollably toward the ground.
But of course, Tony was just faking, taking a bit of a page out of his opponent’s book from the previous issue. Once he gets close enough to Titanium Man, Tony takes the opportunity to send a transistor blast at Bullski. The image tries to show just how powerful the blast is by illuminating Titanium Man completely with golden light, making him look almost like the pure gold version of the Iron Man armour. It’s a great shot, and one that sort of plays visually with the resemblance between the two characters. There is then a completely hilarious scene where Iron Man chases Titanium Man, who is trying and failing to run in his super huge and bulky suit. I don’t know why I found this quite so hilarious, except that I’ve been playing the LEGO Star Wars game recently and the way Bullski runs reminds me a lot of how C3PO does. But anyway, Iron Man of course catches up, grabbing Bullski around the neck and demanding that he not turn his back on Tony.
Iron Man then proceeds to give a speech that sounds a lot more like Captain America. He goes on about how bullies and tyrants all make the same mistake, showing their strength and expecting their enemies to fall to the wayside. But Iron Man, he declares, is not afraid of men like Bullski, which makes him the worst kind of enemy! Like, it’s a fine speech with a decent enough sentiment, don’t get me wrong. But for me it just didn’t feel like the big victorious moment it was probably supposed to, because it didn’t really sound like how Tony Stark would go about expressing this sentiment. Maybe it also felt a little bit unsatisfying, too, because it makes the conflict into something so generic. Like if you are an American at this point in history who genuinely believes in resisting everything the United States had positioned itself against during the Cold War, then wouldn’t you be able to offer a more specific critique of everything Bullski represents than just ‘meany?’ I’m being picky, I know, but it’s because I’ve loved this arc so much and this is the first time where I personally find that it stumbles a little bit at the level of writing.
But anyway. After that little bit of elocution, Iron Man goes back to doing what he does best: recklessly indulging his danger kink and mildly suicidal tendencies. In this instance, Tony notes that he’s using his transistor energy a bit too quickly, but that it’s worth it, especially when he imagines Happy being there to see it. He shoots Titanium Man with some kind of energy gun thing that sends negative particles of ionic energy at the guy’s suit, which weaken it and drain its protective qualities. As Bullski panics, thinking to himself that he is facing scientific weapons he could never have imagined, we zoom out for a panel to the watching audience. It’s a super cool piece of art. Viewers from both sides of the Iron Curtain are depicted in the same frame, rooting on their respective champions and offering armchair commentary on the match that feels virtually identical to the kinds of stuff people would say if they were watching today. And this is another moment that really highlights the way this battle is playing out like a sporting event, which is something we talked about at length in the previous episode.
Meanwhile, another member of the audience is not paying much attention to the match at all. Pepper Potts stands outside an ambulance which apparently contains Happy Hogan, who is still clinging to life. She isn’t being allowed to go with him, because he has apparently slipped into a coma and the paramedics want to be able to focus on just keeping him alive. Meanwhile Senator Byrd, always with the big picture, complains about how awful it is that Tony Stark still isn’t here, even though one of his closest friends has been gravely injured. He does, however, offer Pepper the use of his car while he stays at the fight grounds in case Tony does show up.
Back in the arena, Tony is in pursuit of Titanium Man, who seems to be on the run. But it turns out that he is leading Iron Man toward one last trap: it turns out that one of the boulders is concealing a massive rocket launcher, which is aimed directly at Tony. And now we finally learn what the mysterious device that Tony built last issue, which Happy has been wounded delivering, does. As the rocket zeroes in on Iron Man, he uses his reverser and I think sends the rocket back at his opponent. While Tony gloats, the narrator asks us to imagine the face of fear that Bullski must be wearing on the inside of the suit. He’s exhausted all of his tricks, and Iron Man is still standing…plus, he’s super mad.
And now Tony aims the reverser at its intended target: Titanium Man himself. As he takes aim, he explains to his target, and to us readers, that the device reverses the energy output of whatever it is used on, including the Titanium Man armour itself. This effectively renders the suit immobile and useless to Bullski. But before Tony asks him to give up, he’s going to make a bit of a show out of announcing his victory. He lifts Bullski above his head and spins him, joking about how this may earn his opponent a demonstration on the Ed Sullivan show. And I won’t belabour this point since we already talked at length about the importance of TV in a previous episode, but it’s definitely worth noting this reference. While they have referred to specific political figures, it’s really rare for us to see particular figures in popular culture brought up. So it’s definitely important to the creative team behind the story that readers are connecting their own viewing habits with the idea of watching this imagined battle.
Iron Man then sends Titanium Man hurtling toward one of the stadium’s boulders, which he crashes right through. He then picks Titanium Man up and, with a crack about burping him, holds him upside down. And I will say that this scene does a great job of showing rather than telling us about the scope and scale of Tony’s anger about Happy. He’s always been quippy, of course, but he’s absolutely relentless in this scene, never letting up for a second even though he’s inflicting all of this somewhat humiliating damage on someone who is unable to fight back.
But finally, Tony appears to have had enough, and he uses a variation on the same move that he used to solicit a surrender from Titanium Man’s late countryman, Crimson Dynamo. He takes to the sky and then threatens to drop Bullski. And much like Vanko, Bullski knows when he is beaten. He immediately and repeatedly offers his surrender, which is captured for worldwide viewing audiences. To his credit, Tony does make good on the offer to end the fight, but not without delivering one final blow: after depositing Bullski back on the ground, he removes his foe’s helmet, making him ‘lose face’ in a way that would have been way funnier had the joke not been quite so explicitly spelled out in the dialogue.
Still holding the Titanium Man helmet as a souvenir, Iron Man shakes hands with Senator Byrd. While the Senator wants to offer congratulations and a victory parade, however, Iron Man just wants to know where Happy Hogan’s body has been taken. Upon learning that his friend is still alive, Tony immediately takes off, leaving Byrd ironically wondering why a ‘real man’ like this couldn’t be the head of Stark Industries instead of ‘heartless moustached playboy’ Tony Stark.
Let’s stop here for the bisexuality metre. Because look, the heartless thing I get since it looks like Tony didn’t show up or care at all about Iron Man’s fight or the near-death of his friend. But I remain stuck on the way that Byrd is so obsessed with this playboy label, since Tony has been just the opposite for quite a long time now. Like Byrd has baselessly brought up this playboy thing so many times now that the accusation is starting to read almost as the opposite, that if he’s mad about Tony’s sexuality it’s not because he beds so many ladies, but because he is pretty clearly queer-coded in some instances. Yes, before anyone says it, of course that’s how I read him, but I don’t think this is just me projecting. Byrd is at once implying Tony is not a ‘real’ man while also using this label that would typically signify hyper-masculine heterosexual conquests. Maybe what remains unspoken in that seeming contradiction is that Byrd recognizes there is a distance between Stark’s public persona and his actual self that isn’t always as neatly covered-up as it should be.
I do still have my critiques from last time about the way that this storyline with Happy seems determined to kill the homoscial part of the love triangle. Don’t love that. But this thing with Byrd feels just so damn queer-coded, so much about not what Tony is actually doing but the potential for what he could be doing and how that would impact his perceived masculinity, that I can’t help but give this one a pretty high ranking. Let’s go with an 8/10. Not quite as high as the last couple, but pretty respectable, no? Bisexual Tony is on a roll!
Anyhoo, leaving aside the potential for Byrd being mostly just a big homophobe, we then transition over to the hospital, where Pepper and Countess Stephanie are both in the hospital waiting room. While Pepper is also anxious for news about Happy, both women are also waiting on Tony Stark, who has yet to arrive. After being informed that a specialist is being flown in as a kind of last-ditch effort to save Happy, a furious Pepper accuses Countess Stephanie of being the reason that Happy is in this position in the first place. When the Countess fires back, arguing that Tony Stark is responsible for all of this, Pepper is put for the first time in the position of agreeing with a such a negative take on her boss and fixation of the past several years. She’s devastated that Tony isn’t there to be with his potentially dying friend. Perhaps, she thinks, Tony is as heartless and selfish as others seem to view him.
Tony, of course, has just survived a near fatal battle, and is back in his hotel room, recharging the chest plate that nearly did not make it through the fight. He vows, however, to leave for the hospital as soon as he can, noting that every second may count.
While it looks like Tony will be in for some tough negotiations with Pepper, we see Senator Byrd embroiled in a similarly fraught discussion with several Communist officials, all of whom are furious about the outcome of the Iron Man/Titanium Man battle. They attempt to argue that the results are not valid given Happy’s interference—which, honestly, they do sort of have a point—but Byrd also correctly points out that Titanium Man had several illegal traps placed in the battlefield that everyone watching witnesses him use. The Communist squad eventually gives up their attempts to have the results overturned in favour of trying to leave before their respective superiors come after them.
With the results of his battle seemingly finalized, Tony Stark finally arrives at the hospital as himself, ready to see Happy. He embraces Pepper, who tearfully informs him that things are looking grim. Tony spares a second to think to himself that this doesn’t seem simply like the concern of one friend for another, which, ew. It feels gross that he’s thinking for even a second about their love triangle to be honest. But, unafraid to be gross, the Countess cuts in, trying to get Tony’s attention off of Pepper and onto herself. This rather backfires, as Tony tells her to shut up.
After she’s gone, though, Pepper begins asking much harder questions: namely, why Tony wasn’t there to witness the fight or to attend to Happy earlier. He of course has no good answer except for a vague claim about business, and for the first time he sees Pepper give him a look of loathing in response. It’s certainly an interesting reversal. Earlier, of course, Pepper and Happy suspected Iron Man of murdering Tony. Now Pepper appears to be team Iron Man all the way—and of course, Iron Man is supposedly removed from all of these romantic entanglements. Notably, Pepper is wearing a solid yellow dress, which again combined with her hair really ,mirrors the colouring of the armour. So the alignment between them is taking place on a visual level, too. But remember that we’ve established extremely recently that this binary doesn’t really hold. We talked just a couple episodes back about the fact that Tony’s chest plate is starting to fail out of nowhere seems little more than a symbol for his romantic suffering with this love triangle. So ultimately, Iron Man and Tony Stark are never more closely intertwined than in these moments when they seem to be the most distinct in Pepper’s mind.
In our final series of panels, the specialist who is going to perform unnamed surgery on Happy arrives and shortly thereafter begins to operate. While Happy does survive the treatment, he isn’t in good shape. The doctor sends both Tony and Pepper home, and Pepper is quick to depart the hospital before Tony can try to join her. Seated before a fire, Tony thinks to himself that in some ways he has what he always wanted—Pepper hating him, and presumably therefore distanced from the knowledge and associated dangers of his role as Iron Man. But of course, the reality of having the woman he loves hate him is not at all pleasant. Still, Tony gives himself a bit of a reality check by thinking about Happy, and vows to keep his heart “as cold as the armour [he] wear[s]—forever.”
Before we start in on some global comments about the content of the story, I did want to do a Zooming In segment and talk about the visuals of this issue, because they’re incredibly strong. One of the things I absolutely loved was the emphasis on shade and shadow, light and dark. It’s just used in so many ways. On page 4, some of the figures in the crowd are depicted in full colour while others are shown in blue, which helps provide a sense of the scale of the crowd. Because in that scene we’re also hearing from people rooting for both Iron Man and Titanium Man, I also liked the way that the colour suggested political differentiation in the group as well.
The next use of that blue colouring is in the scene where Tony is laying on the bed, recharging after yet another close call during the fight with Titanium Man. In this instance, there’s not a lot of mystery to the significance here—the room is dark because Tony is in an extremely dark place, forced to remain tethered to the wall while he knows his friend is potentially dying in hospital. But I think I just found it really affecting, in part because most of this storyline has involved seeing Iron Man in front of the bright lights of the cameras. So to now see him in private, barely distinguishable from the darkness that’s kind of swallowing him whole is just a really great way to show someone who is experiencing the highest of highs and the lowest of lows almost simultaneously.
And finally, that scene second from last where Tony is seated in front of the fire. Here, Tony is entirely in yellow while the rest of the room not illuminated by the light is in blue. In this instance, the use of shading and light almost reminded me of a lightbulb going off above someone’s head. Tony is reaching this moment of true understanding, realizing that in accidentally alienating Pepper he has done what he’s said he wants all along and achieved some distance between them. But of course, as we said, he doesn’t actually want that at all. So there’s a real connection here between the light and the dark that are coexisting in the panel—between understanding and a deep sadness that every academic knows well.
So, it seems as though while the battle between Iron Man and Titanium Man is over, the repercussions are going to last much longer. This delights me. You may or may not remember that the last time we had a multi-issue arc like this was when Tony was stuck in the Iron Man suit. And while I loved that storyline a lot, one of the things I did not enjoy was how quickly everyone involved seemed to forget about what had happened. That doesn’t seem like it’ll be possible here, especially if and when Happy wakes up and presumably remembers that his boss and Iron Man are the same dude.
Again I really can’t sing the praises of this overall arc highly enough. It felt like everyone brought their A-game on pretty much every level. The art was fantastic, the writing was great, even the stuff I don’t usually like worked for me this time. Like, it was basically a three issue long fight scene, I should have hated it! But they did such a great job of choreographing the major beats of that battle, and ensuring that the stakes on every level, from the very personal to the global and political, were both high and clear. Just really, really strong stuff.
I know this was a shorter episode, and that was largely in part because there wasn’t a lot that really needed research or closer examination in this case. A lot of the threads we talked about before—the role of television, the sports metaphor—they were all still present here, and we were just kind of getting their payoff. One of the things I really loved about the resolution of the sporting storyline in particular was that everyone was playing dirty. Like it wasn’t just that Titanium Man and his comrades were planting all these traps and Iron Man was playing a clean game. He had a non-combatant enter the ring and give him something, and even though we know he built it himself, that easily could have not been the case. I liked how this mirrored how dirty and ridiculous some of the behind the scenes stuff at these actual international sporting events was. Just really smart, really nuanced storytelling.
Readers Like You/Sign-Off
Of course, you may disagree about any or all of this. Maybe you’re a Countess Stephanie stan and you feel I’ve done her wrong. Perhaps you’ve been waiting 35 episodes for Happy Hogan to finally get his, and you’re upset to have his death potentially stolen from you. But of course, myself and the world will never know unless you tell us! So reach out on Tumblr or Twitter both @InvinciblePod, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And while you’re at it, consider being an everyday superhero and taking a couple minutes to rate, review, and/or share.
And tune in next week, where
-We’ll get the fallout from Iron Man’s battle with Titanium Man, and Tony Stark’s battle with…well, everyone!
Until then, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod.