John Dunbar re-reads Iron Man (Tales of Suspense 39-99)

He's Tony Stark, a cool exec with a heart of steel.  He's a founding Avenger, often called the Golden Avenger.  He debuted in Tales of Suspense 39, cover-dated March 1963.  Today he's arguably considered an A-lister, largely thanks to the trilogy of Iron Man movies starring Robert Downey Junior, as well as being a major part of the two Avengers movies (Avengers 2: Age of Ultron in theatres now - shameless plugs dept.).  In the comics themselves, he may not have been the biggest star, but he's consistently been a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe for decades.

This reading project will cover the Iron Man stories featured in Tales of Suspense 39-99.

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Thanks, everyone, for all of your posts so far.  I hope you'll keep commenting as I keep re-reading them.

Unless something in the real world happens (knock wood!) I'm here until Tony starts drinking. After that I make no promises.

Tales of Suspense 40 (April 1963)

"Iron Man versus Gargantus!"

Plot - Stan Lee / Script - Robert Bernstein (as R. Berns) / Art - J. Kirby / Inking - D. Heck / Lettering - John Duffy (as Duffi)

Cover by Jack Kirby and Don Heck

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Anthony Stark leads three lives.  As a brilliant scientist, he wins awards and aids the military due to the amazing things he can do with, you guessed it, transistors.  As a millionaire playboy, he dates a bevy of beautiful and famous women.  His third life is a secret one, where he helps humanity as Iron Man.  He must constantly wear the iron chest plate part of the suit to keep his heart beating, and the chest plate needs constant recharging.

One night he takes a beautiful woman named Marion to a circus.  During the show, the Circus of Crime the big cats break loose, and people run for safety.  Tony tells his date to continue to head for the street while he makes a call to the police, but it's merely an excuse to change to Iron Man.  The suit is in his attache-ayyy case, always attache-ayyyed to him.  The case has a "secret, x-ray proof compartment containing all the parts for my Iron Man uniform in collapsible form", and "everything -- thanks to my knowledge of microscopic transistors -- can be unfolded and elongated into many times its original carrying size!"  Whew, that's handy.

The felines don't give Iron Man much trouble, but the reaction of the crowd to his armor does - it terrifies women and children.  He decides to re-design it so it only terrifies criminals as they are a cowardly superstitious lot but not good people.  He asks Marion what she thinks, and she suggests if Iron Man is a modern knight in shining armor, his suit should be gold, not an "awful drab grey"  He sees her to the airport, and he promises to see her next Saturday, when she flies in from Granville.  In his lab, he adds a coat of "untarnishable gold paint" to his armor.

The following Saurday, Marion doesn't show up at the airport.  Stark learns Granville shut down its airport three days earlier, and no planes land or leave from there.  A wall has been erected around the town, no one gets in or out.  Stark decides to investigate as Iron Man, and is told by the authorities their hands are tied - the town can legally do what they want, and breaking in would be breaking the law.  Iron Man decides to dig his way in anyway.

He tunnels his way in and encounters some townspeople (who look like Clark Kent and Lois Lane), and asks them what is going on.  They say they cannot answer, by order of Gargantus, and if they disobey, they die, and then a large group attacks Iron Man.  Shrugging it off, he goes looking for Gargantus, and finds more townspeople erecting a statue of Gargantus, a giant Neanderthal, which they all bow down to.  IM figures they are under a spell and decides to break it by shock treatment - by pushing a ten ton truck into the statue.  It smashes into bits, but the townspeople are unfazed.  IM decides he must find Gargantus, and broadcasts a challenge to him.  After some trash talk, Gargantus appears.  Growling, he comes at IM, who thinks the gigantic monster is trying to hypnotize him, as "his enormous eyes are like mirrors reflecting the sun".

Suddenly, IM notices the sun is blocked by a huge cloud.  He grabs a flag on a pole to test a theory, and as he suspected, the flag ripples in the breeze.  He entices Gargantus into chasing him, until he is prepared to stop him.  He throws three magnets, powered up by transistors (natch), one on each side of Gargantus and one behind him.  The magnets pull him apart - because, as IM suspected, Gargantus was a robot!  The trance of the townspeople is broken.

Iron Man uses a searchlight on his chestplate to reveal a flying saucer hiding with the dark cloud, which isn't a real cloud at all.  He realized when there was no sunlight reflecting from Gargantus' eyes, the mass hypnosis was being done mechanically; also, by testing the wind with the flag, he realized the cloud was fake.  The aliens in the saucer realize their ship will be destroyed by IM's magnets as Gargantus was, as man is far more advanced than when their ancestors came to Earth 80,000 years ago.  They say mankind is now too intelligent to be conquered, and they flee.  Iron Man also destroys the wall around the town to allow authorities to enter, and the next day, as Tony Stark, reunites with Marion.

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My rating: 6/10

Meh.  Not the most exciting or original plot in the world, to put it mildly, but I found it somewhat entertaining all the same.  

I liked that even though it's briefly mentioned Stark has to wear the chestplate, there's no "poor me" ... at all.  No explanation of why just the chestplate, as last issue implied he couldn't take off all the entire armor.  

A lot of setup was used just to switch the color of the suit from grey to gold.  I thought the suit was just as ugly despite the new coat of paint.  We'll have to wait until #48 to get red and yellow armor.

This is a 13 page story, and it takes 8 pages before Iron Man gets to Granville, and Gargantus doesn't show up until page 10.  But bonus points to IM for using his brain to figure out Gargantus is a robot, being powered by something else.

I decided to let the "transistors can do anything" business slide.  If I don't, I probably will give up on this re-read (just kidding).  I also gave a free pass to the town of Granville keeping state and federal authorities out of the enclosed town, and those bodies being okay with that.

Robert Bernstein, listed in the story as R. Berns, worked at DC, mainly on Superman, which really showed on his Thor work.  I like his work better here.  I'm sure the panel on page 8 with the Clark and Lois lookalikes is an in-joke; it got a chuckle out of me.

I'm guessing Kirby mostly did breakdowns, as most of the art looks like pure Don Heck to me, or at least Heck doing heavy inks.

Many of these early Iron Man stories are lacking, particularly until Tony gets his supporting cast. Not terrible, just really, really mediocre.

Notice the mad scientist with the shrinking ray story, which we only see the ending of. Knowing how these stories work, no doubt there was an earlier encounter where the guy succeeded in shrinking him, causing him to look for the right frequency to block his ray. This is almost like a pre-Avengers Iron Man meets Ant-Man story, if Ant-Man was a villain. So what happened to this guy? Why don't we ever see him (or the Dr. Strange that shows up in the next issue) again?

Randy Jackson said:

Many of these early Iron Man stories are lacking, particularly until Tony gets his supporting cast. Not terrible, just really, really mediocre.

I agree.  If you've read the early Thor stories from Journey Into Mystery, there are some real stinkers in there, and Thor doesn't really have a supporting cast beyond Jane Foster until the Asgardians appear more frequently.  With Iron Man, we're still a few issues away from Happy and Pepper, who are wonderful characters that add a lot of charm to the series.

It looked like they were trying to make a supporting cast member, but Marion just disappears after this story without being given a chance to develop as a character. The next issue will do the same thing with Carla Strange. (Then again nobody ever really did anything with Victoria Bentley in Dr. Strange either.)

Ron M. said:

Notice the mad scientist with the shrinking ray story, which we only see the ending of. Knowing how these stories work, no doubt there was an earlier encounter where the guy succeeded in shrinking him, causing him to look for the right frequency to block his ray. This is almost like a pre-Avengers Iron Man meets Ant-Man story, if Ant-Man was a villain. So what happened to this guy? Why don't we ever see him (or the Dr. Strange that shows up in the next issue) again?

My guess is that they may have thought having a villain that to similar to Ant-Man would be confusing, either that or no one was clamouring for the return of a run of the mill mad scientist.  It was only one panel, and he wasn't that interesting, imo.

As for the villainous Dr. Strange, I'll address your point when I do my review.

Most villains (or heroes) aren't that interesting if you only see two or three panels of them. This is like in the old Timely days where a hero would get one or two stories then vanish forever. Goodman didn't give us time to decide if we liked the guy or not. Hey, Fiery Mask looks goo-whoops! He's gone!

I'll have more to say about Dr. Strange after his issue is reviewed.

The Gargantus story, like Thor's "Stone Men from Saturn" story, makes me think that they were nervous about alienating the existing monster-stories readership.

They were easing into superheroes while still featuring monsters and alien invaders. The cover of Fantastic Four #1 featured a huge monster, plus a hero who is a monster. Then Hulk #1 has another hero who is a monster. The early covers for Ant-Man and even Spider-Man leaned toward the dark and moody with fantastic images that would have appealed to the previous readers.

There was also the fear that making their superheroes too much like DC's could cause their distributor to drop them, so they disguised them as monster comics until they were sure that wasn't going to happen.

And better monsters and aliens than villains like the Protector and the Executioner and the Red Barbarian, who we'll see in a couple of issues.

Tales of Suspense 41 (May 1963)

"The Stronghold of Doctor Strange!"

Plot - Stan Lee / Script - R. Berns / Art - Jack Kirby / Inking - Dick Ayers / Lettering - Marty Epp

Cover by Jack Kirby

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Tony Stark is attending a hospital charity dance, with a beautiful young redhead.  He is called to the front of the room and congratulated for donating $100,000 to the hospital.  Tony announces he has contacted Iron Man and the armored hero will be performing for the hospital's children's ward patients, on live TV.  His date needles him for being a big softie.  Later, when Stark is alone with his date, she asks him if he will ever settle down and get married.  He responds no girl would want an absentee husband, and that's what he would be, between managing his munitions factories around the world, his scientific research, and helping the U.S. defense effort.  He thinks to himself he left out his most important job, being Iron Man, fighting gangsters, enemies of America, and aliens and other menaces.  Not to mention, he has to always wear his armored chest plate, and constantly recharge it, to keep his shrapnel-pierced heart beating.

The next day, he puts on a show for the kids from the hospital.  He hovers in mid-air and juggles seven cars at once.  A cannonball that had smashed through a two foot thick brick wall is fired at him, and he catches it then crushes it to small bits, giving all of the kids a souvenir.  The TV announcer is amazed at his feats, saying only one other person could match the exhibition, the villainous Doctor Strange!  Luckily, that evil genius is behind bars.

At a nearby prison, Strange is in a radio lab.  He had created a gadget from common radio and TV spare parts, which he says will enable him to control Iron Man.  He has to go back to his cell to do it, so he conceals his device and fakes a dizzy spell, and the guards return him.  He thinks back to when he was defeated six months earlier.  He was struck by lightning, allowing his capture, and ever since has faked that he still is suffering from shock, to avoid being put in maximum security.  He turns on his invention, which emits ultra-frequency waves allowing him to mentally enslave Iron Man's brain, and he commands IM to free him from prison, which he easily does.  Strange wants to rule the world, so that he may gain his daughter Carla's love and admiration, and give her whatever she wants.

Hours later, Iron Man is stumbling down a roadside with no memory of what has happened.  He is met by the state police, and they tell him what occurred.  Iron Man vows revenge on Strange.  Weeks go by, and Strange is now on his private island off the U.S. coast.  He tells his daughter his plans, and she doesn't understand why he would threaten the world.  He says it's merely his due as the world's greatest genius.  He introduces his allies, evil scientists and power-mad military men, who wonder why she is aloof to them, but Strange dismisses their queries, as that night they will deliver an ultimatum to the world.

Later that evening, Strange explodes a 200 megaton bomb in outer space.  He contacts the major powers of the world, and threatens to destroy the planet unless all nations surrender to him within 24 hours.  Strange's island is attacked with A-bombs, but to no effect, thanks to a force field he invented that protects the island.  The next morning, Iron Man is launched at the island from a submarine, correctly guessing the force field didn't go underwater.  He burrows through solid rock and reaches Strange's power plant.  Strange and his daughter are talking, and he is shocked to learn she considers him an evil menace, as he states he did everything for her.

Just then, Iron Man bursts into the room, threatening to end Strange's menace by short-circuiting all the electrical equipment there.  Strange thinks he is bluffing, as that would leave Iron Man powerless as well, but Iron Man does what he says, and smashes Strange's generators.  Strange gloats as he stands over a helpless Iron Man, saying his power could be restored by one electrical spark, but there's none left anywhere.  Strange's daughter, Carla, tosses Iron Man a battery powered flashlight, and after breaking it open, Iron Man slowly powers back up.  Strange is baffled that his daughter helped Iron Man, and she replies she only ever wanted a normal life and a normal father, and there's nothing left of him to love.  She asks him to forgive her, which he does, as he flees before Iron Man recovers.  With the force field down, the military come to the island and round up Strange's allies.  Iron Man comforts Carla, and asks her if he can do anything for her.  She tells him to find her father before he can menace mankind again.

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My rating: 3/10

The wonderful cover, pencilled and inked by Kirby, seems to promise a great battle, but this is a rather dull affair.  The battle, such as it is, starts on the next to last page, and is little more than IM disabling Strange's equipment and the villain fleeing before IM powers back up.  Stephen Strange debuts two months later in Strange Tales 110, and this Doctor Strange is never seen again.

Much of the story feels like a Silver Age DC tale, with the opening sequence similar to depictions of Bruce Wayne (millionaire playboy helps out a charity, pretty girl on his arm) and the rest of it much like a Superman story of the era.  Doctor Strange is a Luthor knockoff, and Iron Man entertaining hospital children is practically Superman stock footage.  Writer "R Berns" is Robert Bernstein, who had worked on Superman for some years before coming to Marvel and briefly writing there.

The series badly needs a supporting cast, which would help avoid 2-3 pages of needless recap of what Tony Stark does, and what Iron Man does.  This issue has that, it's very repetitive of the prior two issues.  I'm also keeping my fingers crossed we'll get some interesting villains soon.

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