Thursday, August 7, 2008

Tales of Suspense 39: Iron Man!

Tales of Suspense 39-Iron Man

Tales of Suspense #39 (1963) Who? Who? Who? You know who!

Karen: Since Iron Man has recently made a splash as a blockbuster movie, we thought it might be fun to go back and read his origin story, from Tales of Suspense #39. As Stan Lee says in his introduction to the tale in Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, the character of Tony Stark was quite different from previous Marvel creations. First, he was a millionaire businessman and jet-setter, as well as a scientific genius. Stan used Howard Hughes as his inspiration, and it shows. Second, Iron Man would have an origin steeped in real world politics, which was also quite unusual for that time. It was 1963, and America was already active in Vietnam. Stark would provide the military with his ‘transistorized’ weapons, to defeat the communists. The Americans were the good guys and the Viet Cong were the bad guys. It was all very cut and dried.

Sharon: Tony looks like a swarthier Errol Flynn: classically handsome…Marvel’s most conventionally handsome, glamorous male at the time. He wasn’t wan or timid like Peter Parker, Don Blake, or Bruce Banner; or bordering on dull like Reed Richards or Hank Pym.

Karen: Yes, Stark was portrayed as a handsome, desirable man. He had that whole “women want him, men want to be him” aura. I think really he was the only Marvel character who was shown as living a glamorous life.

Doug: DC at the time was more likely to publish comics with presidents or celebrities; additionally, their science fiction comics dealt mostly with obscure outer planets rather than the Red Menace.

I, too, read this story from Son of Origins of Marvel Comics. I recall getting it for Christmas the year it came out (1975). A friend of mine had obtained the book some days before, and was telling me about the contents. I vividly recall him saying over the phone, in regard to the cover illustration of ToS #39, “Who? Who?? WHO?”

Sharon: The “Who? Who? WHO?” on the cover—classic. I imagine it was similar to cover copy Marvel (in its Timely/Atlas incarnation) used for its 1950s monster books, but it was probably never used as effectively as it is here!

Doug: I thought it was odd in the preface that Stan commented on how there’d never been a rich businessman as a super-hero before. Ummm – Bruce Wayne? Oliver Queen (Silver Age version)? Maybe Stan meant that Marvel had never done such a character before; that was just strange to read those words.

Sharon: Iron Man allowed Marvel to create the Avengers (six months later). In 1961 Martin Goodman had urged Stan to create a JLA book years; and the result was--famously! --the Fantastic Four (since the fledgling Marvel didn’t have a stable of heroes with which to populate such a team book, Stan’s solution was to create a team from scratch). A couple of years later, Marvel finally had enough heroes to produce a JLA-type team, with Iron Man being the final piece in the puzzle. Of the original Avengers, only the Wasp came after Iron Man (she was introduced in the June 1963 issue of Tales to Astonish), but clearly she was seen just as an adjunct to Ant-Man back then. Once Iron Man was created, six months later Avengers #1 debuted, with a September 1963 cover date.

Karen: The whole premise of Stark building the armor is based upon the shrapnel that is “inching its way” towards his heart. He builds the armor both to keep himself alive and to use as a weapon against his captors. This is Stark’s tragic quality, which all Marvel heroes had to have. One thing that struck me as I read this was how Iron Man was portrayed almost like a movie monster – he certainly comes across more like Frankenstein than Superman!

Doug: The recently-released movie really played this element of the story well. I did think the way they portrayed the hole in Stark’s heart was pretty gross, though! Your analogy of the “Mach-1” suit as Frankenstein is spot-on – I felt the same way, that there was a terrifying quality to the suit. And it makes sense that it’s just a drab, well – iron color! The creators didn’t try to make as believe that out in the jungle there was any shiny red or gold metal laying around!

Sharon: I haven’t seen the movie yet but in regards to the comic book, I love how bulky and crude the armor is—and that’s exactly how it should be, given the circumstances under which it was created.

Karen: I think that is another appealing and somewhat unique aspect to the Iron Man character: the continual evolution of his suit. In the early issues, we go from the bulky dull grey to bulky gold suit, then a huge jump to the streamlined suit. There were minor variations on that suit (ex. the 70’s nose!) for some time. Then when Bob Layton came on board, we got to see a huge variety of suits, many of which were special-purpose: the deep space suit, Hulk-buster suit, stealth suit. It all makes sense, when you’re dealing with a man who is the number one innovator in technology.

Doug: A big kudo to Dashing Donnie Heck (as per Stan) for the artwork in this story. While I have maligned Heck elsewhere for the decline in his skills toward the end of his career, he is really quite good in this story. To be honest, I wish he’d done the art on the Avengers from the get-go; while I certainly appreciate Jack Kirby, for me it was Heck who epitomized the look of the early years of the Avengers.

Sharon: I’m a huge Heck fan; his line is sharp and angular, and he could move a story along. While he had misgivings about doing the Iron Man feature (he was used to working from full scripts and wasn’t sure he could handle the Marvel Method), I feel he was more than adequate for the job (and he would just get better as he illustrated more of Shellhead’s adventures). He does a good job conveying that Tony’s a thinking man. By the way, Kirby created the original Iron Man armor (for the cover) and Heck felt relieved that he—Heck—didn’t have to come up with the character design. Of course, later Ditko redesigned the armor and made it sleeker—again sparing Heck the odious task of creating a look for Tony’s armor!

Doug: I also like that the Iron Man suit doesn’t appear to display super-strength at this early point. Yes, Stark’s able to lift the file cabinet “stuffed with rocks” off of him, but he doesn’t propel it through a stone wall or anything magnificent like that. If I’m not mistaken, when he uses the suction cups to stick himself to the ceiling (pretty strong cups!! 200-pound man + the weight of the suit???), he leaps up but doesn’t fly. If you look at the soles of the boots, they are rugged – there are no propulsion jets as we’ve come to know and love.

Karen: In comparison with the Iron Man film, I would say they do an excellent job of incorporating the important elements of the story into the film. Obviously, we couldn’t have the Vietnamese as villains, so we have vaguely defined Middle-Eastern terrorists instead. But the set up and pay off is the same. Stark is injured, builds the suit with the help of an ally, and then trashes his captors. I think the film gives us a much more layered Tony Stark, as we see an arrogant, selfish man become aware of what harm his creations have done. We see him develop a conscience, all while he perfects his armor. I thought the film perfectly captured that Marvel spirit of the flawed hero.

Doug: Agreed. I also agree with your assessment of Stark’s character in the film, but I think it’s a composite of the many eras of Stark through the years. With the ever-present alcohol throughout the film, I would guess that “Demon in a Bottle” will be a plot device in the sequel. As Rhodey said (as he eyeballed the Mach-2 suit), “Maybe next time.”

Sharon: Looking forward to seeing the film!

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