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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TALES OF SUSPENSE 56 (AUGUST 1964)

"The Uncanny Unicorn!"

Written with consummate skill by: Stan Lee!
Illustrated with blazing drama by: Don Heck!
Lettered with bloodshot eyes by: S. Rosen!

Cover by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers
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Iron Man is in Tony Stark's private lab, and he is feeling sorry for himself.  Stark is tired of being Iron Man, tired of wearing a chest plate 24 hours a day, and tired of living on borrowed time.  He feels his wealth and good looks ultimately mean nothing if he can't live a normal life.  In frustration, he pounds on the walls, and the commotion draws the attention of Pepper, Happy, and other employees.  They ask if he is okay, but he tells them quite sharply to leave him alone.

Tony decides he will give up being Iron Man and start living it up.  He emerges from his lab all smiles.  He tells Pepper to get him his little black book, and smiles when he finds the name he wants.  He then tells Happy to bring his new Jag out front.  When Happy asks where he is driving him, Tony snaps at him that he doesn't need a chaperone on a date, and furthermore, if the car has a speck of dust on it, Happy is fired.  Pepper wonders why Tony is acting this way, as he has never spoken to them like that before, and also if he needed a date, she's right there.

Just then, the Avengers call, looking for Iron Man.  Tony tells her to say he sent Iron Man away, on a long vacation.  The Wasp states they need him because there is a new menace in town, and the other Avengers are all on their own cases, but Pepper replies she can't help them.  The new menace is a weird armored figure who calls himself the Unicorn, and ironically, he's about to attack Tony Stark's munitions factory.  Meanwhile, Tony is out on the town with a beautiful blonde named Pamela; Tony nearly calls her "Pepper".

The Unicorn wants to destroy Stark's plant, and also confront Iron Man and prove his superiority to him.  He starts sabotaging the factory and demands the fleeing employees tell Iron Man about him.  Happy confronts the armored villain but the Unicorn casually tosses him aside.  Happy regroups and attacks again, angering the Unicorn, and he ends up injuring Happy severely.  He also takes Pepper as a hostage.

Stark's plant manager finally tracks Tony down by phone and lets him know what happened to Happy and Pepper.  Tony races to the hospital and tells the doctor to give Happy everything he needs, hang the cost.  The doctor upbraids Tony, telling him they do everything they can for every patient, and all his money can't help Happy now.

The Unicorn is holding Pepper somewhere in Long Island, and tells her she is the bait to lure Iron Man there.  He tells her his origin: that his suit was designed by the original Crimson Dynamo before he defected to the West, and that he trained for years for this mission.  He claims his suit is more powerful than Iron Man's armor.  The power horn on his head fires a ray that can destroy anything, it can raise anything magnetically regardless of weight, and can generate a defensive energy field that can withstand the force of one thousand tons of TNT.  Pepper replies that Iron Man's enemies always think they are unbeatable, but he has never been defeated yet.

Tony goes back to his plant, and chides himself for being self-centered before.  He vows to make the Unicorn pay for kidnapping Pepper.  He uses a new invention he calls a black light tracer to track the Unicorn's movements.  He comments that the trail was almost too easy to find and follow.  He locates the house where Pepper is being held and attacks the Unicorn.  They skirmish for a bit, and when he gets the upper hand, Iron Man gets Pepper to safety.  He flies her back to the Stark factory, unaware the Unicorn has followed them.

Pepper calls the hospital and relays the news to IM that Happy is still in a coma.  He tells her to keep him informed of any changes to Happy's condition, and prepares to go after the Unicorn.  However, the villain has been in the factory for several minutes and has hidden a bomb inside, timed to go off in 15 minutes.  He confronts Iron Man and tells him about the bomb.  IM tries to get the Unicorn to reveal the location as they battle but it is a stalemate, and the Unicorn taunts him:

Not only will my bomb destroy your entire factory, your entire life's work ... but what about the people inside??  People such as your lovely secretary??  She is not wearing armor such as you and I are!

Iron Man tells the Unicorn he's won and pleads with him to deactivate the bomb.  The Unicorn makes him promise to let him take him on a plane bound for the Iron Curtain, and Iron Man agrees.  The bomb is defused, and Iron Man boards the plane as agreed with the Unicorn and his cohorts,  But once they are in the air, Iron Man points out he never said what he would do once he entered the plane.  He smashes the windows out and starts tearing the plane apart.  The Unicorn's henchmen grab parachutes and jump to safety, and the Unicorn himself manages to escape capture.

The next day, Tony and Pepper visit Happy in the hospital.  Despite his many injuries, he is in good spirits, and Pepper sheds happy tears that he is on the road to recovery.  Tony wonders if Happy and Pepper are growing closer.  He feels maybe it is for the best, as he accepts he will never have a normal life, because he can never give up the mission fate has chosen for him.  He can never rest while menaces like the Unicorn threaten the land that he loves.
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My rating: 7/10

This is a pretty good yarn.  We have a new villain who impresses, despite having a name that doesn't exactly inspire fear and a costume that doesn't quite leave one awestruck.  But the Unicorn does have an impactful set of powers, and at this point any foe who can battle Iron Man to a stalemate does deserve some respect.  The story is well plotted; Tony's pity party at the beginning is uncharacteristic but wholly believable.  He's been pretty stoic since his introduction, but this was a good reminder that he was dealt a pretty lousy hand in life when he became Iron Man in Tales of Suspense # 39.  His outburst and subsequent decision to quit being Iron Man sets everything in motion - the sabotage at the factory, Happy's injuries, Pepper's abduction.  Even blowing off the Avengers will have repercussions in Avengers # 7, as Iron Man will get suspended for a week for not answering the team's call.  That little bit of cross continuity, coming on the heels of the infamous Avengers/FF crossover, gets a cheer from me.

One Tony gets his head straight, things really get moving and readers get a barn burner.  Iron Man has a couple of new gadgets added to his armor's repertoire, but the part I enjoyed the most was Tony using his brain to prevent the bomb from destroying his factory.  He followed his promise strictly to the letter - he gave his word he would get on the plane but never promised to stay on it.  It's a good contrast to the time where Cap gave his word to surrender to the Red Skull and kept it, endangering the world rather than break his word to his scumbag Nazi arch-foe.  I said it before, if Cap had punched the Skull in the face, no one would have thought lesser of him.

It seems like the Unicorn was destined for a bigger role in the series, but that never came to be.  When he taunted Iron Man about destroying the factory, to me it seems clear he's figured out Tony is Iron Man.  He refers to the factory as "your entire life's work" and to Pepper as "your lovely secretary".  He holds his own in a one-on-one battle with Iron Man, escaping to fight another day.  However, his next two appearances are in Fantastic Four Annual # 3 - Reed and Sue's wedding, where just about every hero and villain created by 1965 showed up, and X-Men # 22 and 23, where he's part of a group working for Count Nefaria, alongside losers like the Eel and the Porcupine.  He won't face Iron Man again until 1968, there is never any hint again he knows Tony is Iron Man, and he never becomes an A-List super-villain.  Lost potential, in my opinion.

Artwise, this was not Don Heck's finest work, in my opinion.  He was certainly capable of good work but some panels seem rushed to me.  Yes, Tony is dashing and Pepper is lovely in their appearances in this story, but in several panels it was difficult to tell what was going on, and in others there were shadows for no good reason, which screamed shortcut to me.  The cover is done well, with the sharp colors of the characters having a nice contrast to the muted black and white style background.  Kirby draws both a powerful Iron Man as well as the Unicorn.  The only weakness of the cover is that Kirby here could not match Heck when it comes to drawing Pepper.  

I suspect the cover blurb about "an insight into Iron Man's character that you've never known before" is referring to Tony's final thought balloon.  As I said before, he was dealt a lousy hand in Vietnam that lead him to becoming Iron Man.  However, he's resolved not to dwell in self-pity.  I like that and hope he sticks with it.  The ending is also interesting for another reason - Happy and Pepper are being slowly pushed together, and Tony seems alright with it, and again not in a self-pitying way.

NEXT: HAWKEYE THE MYSTIC MARKSMAN!

I strongly suspect that Stan didn't intend to have it appear that the Unicorn really knew that Iron Man and Tony Stark were one and the same but that is exactly what the dialogue indicates.  I wonder if any astute readers at the time noted that and if Stan came up with an explanation to wriggle out of that gaff.  I suppose if there had been much positive reader response to the Unicorn he would have been back to face off against Shellhead again much sooner but at least when he finally did come back he got a much better costume, even if it still didn't boost him into serious consideration for the Super-Villain Hall of Fame.  

Bit of an irony for Tony in that he still had the reputation as the great ladies man but due to the chest plate he had to wear at all times he couldn't seriously woo any woman and at any rate he was most interested in Pepper but felt she would be better off with his chauffeur.  Yep, Stan was remembering that he wanted readers to feel some sympathy for the poor armored filthy rich arms manufacturer with the bad heart.

John Dunbar said:

Happy confronts the armored villain but the Unicorn casually tosses him aside. Happy regroups and attacks again, angering the Unicorn, and he ends up injuring Happy severely.

We are shown the Unicorn blasting tanks and concrete fortifications the same way he blasted Happy. Since Happy wasn’t torn apart, I assume he can adjust his blast power level.

Tony races to the hospital and tells the doctor to give Happy everything he needs, hang the cost. The doctor upbraids Tony, telling him they do everything they can for every patient, and all his money can't help Happy now.

That’s almost funny. They’re not planning on sending a bill? That's not the American Way!  photo tongue.gif

He claims his suit is more powerful than Iron Man's armor. The power horn on his head fires a ray that can destroy anything, it can raise anything magnetically regardless of weight, and can generate a defensive energy field that can withstand the force of one thousand tons of TNT.

I had forgotten all of the things he could do. And he keeps secret the fact that he can fly. Yet fans lump him in with several of Iron Man’s early foes as being lame. Sounds like later stories didn’t take advantage of his formidability.

He uses a new invention he calls a black light tracer to track the Unicorn's movements.

Just as magical as his transistors

"Not only will my bomb destroy your entire factory, your entire life's work ... but what about the people inside?? People such as your lovely secretary?? She is not wearing armor such as you and I are!"

The phrasing makes it sound like he knows Stark is Iron Man. I think it’s just a scripting or lettering error. He should have said “Stark’s lovely secretary.”

The Unicorn makes him promise to let him take him on a plane bound for the Iron Curtain, and Iron Man agrees.

A couple of times in the story, the Unicorn refers to the Iron Curtain. I’m pretty sure the Soviet Bloc countries didn’t use Winston Churchill’s phrase.

Tony's pity party at the beginning is uncharacteristic but wholly believable.

As Fred noted, he’s a playboy who can never take off his shirt.

Iron Man has a couple of new gadgets added to his armor's repertoire, but the part I enjoyed the most was Tony using his brain to prevent the bomb from destroying his factory. He followed his promise strictly to the letter - he gave his word he would get on the plane but never promised to stay on it

They both keep their promises. Iron Man could have reneged immediately upon the defusing of the bomb and proceeded to whip Unicorn’s butt. I can see that getting him away from the factory was a better idea. Unicorn, on the other hand, could have had a second bomb in the factory. Capturing Iron Man AND destroying the factory would have been a two-fer.

Kirby draws both a powerful Iron Man as well as the Unicorn. The only weakness of the cover is that Kirby here could not match Heck when it comes to drawing Pepper.

Looking at the cover after all this time, I didn’t even realize that was supposed to be Pepper. In general, Kirby’s women were not his strong suit.

If not an abandoned idea as I theorized, then definitely a mistake ... and if so, I wonder how it was explained away, if indeed it was.  Any solutions, Legionairres?

Fred W. Hill said:

I strongly suspect that Stan didn't intend to have it appear that the Unicorn really knew that Iron Man and Tony Stark were one and the same but that is exactly what the dialogue indicates.  I wonder if any astute readers at the time noted that and if Stan came up with an explanation to wriggle out of that gaff.  I suppose if there had been much positive reader response to the Unicorn he would have been back to face off against Shellhead again much sooner but at least when he finally did come back he got a much better costume, even if it still didn't boost him into serious consideration for the Super-Villain Hall of Fame.  

Bit of an irony for Tony in that he still had the reputation as the great ladies man but due to the chest plate he had to wear at all times he couldn't seriously woo any woman and at any rate he was most interested in Pepper but felt she would be better off with his chauffeur.  Yep, Stan was remembering that he wanted readers to feel some sympathy for the poor armored filthy rich arms manufacturer with the bad heart.

Richard Willis said:

John Dunbar said:

Happy confronts the armored villain but the Unicorn casually tosses him aside. Happy regroups and attacks again, angering the Unicorn, and he ends up injuring Happy severely.

We are shown the Unicorn blasting tanks and concrete fortifications the same way he blasted Happy. Since Happy wasn’t torn apart, I assume he can adjust his blast power level.

Tony races to the hospital and tells the doctor to give Happy everything he needs, hang the cost. The doctor upbraids Tony, telling him they do everything they can for every patient, and all his money can't help Happy now.

That’s almost funny. They’re not planning on sending a bill? That's not the American Way!  photo tongue.gif

I suspect that even in the 1960's that was an idealized version of health care.  But Happy would have died without an operation, so there was no question whether or not one would take place.  Tony's money would come in handy in the recovery, and we see a sign of that on the last page - a large private room.

He claims his suit is more powerful than Iron Man's armor. The power horn on his head fires a ray that can destroy anything, it can raise anything magnetically regardless of weight, and can generate a defensive energy field that can withstand the force of one thousand tons of TNT.

I had forgotten all of the things he could do. And he keeps secret the fact that he can fly. Yet fans lump him in with several of Iron Man’s early foes as being lame. Sounds like later stories didn’t take advantage of his formidability.

I think he gets lumped in as being lame for a few reasons.  As I said, it takes years for him to have a rematch with Iron Man, and in subsequent appearances he's usually a henchman or a pawn, as well there's the whole mental breakdown thing.  Plus in the last 35 years or so, "Unicorn" is going to evoke thoughts of My Little Pony.  And then there's that eyesore of a costume, an ugly monstrosity similar to the Melter's first outfit; it doesn't look like an armored suit to me at all.

He uses a new invention he calls a black light tracer to track the Unicorn's movements.

Just as magical as his transistors

"Not only will my bomb destroy your entire factory, your entire life's work ... but what about the people inside?? People such as your lovely secretary?? She is not wearing armor such as you and I are!"

The phrasing makes it sound like he knows Stark is Iron Man. I think it’s just a scripting or lettering error. He should have said “Stark’s lovely secretary.”

He also refers to the plant as "your entire factory, your entire life's work" - that would be a reference to Tony as well.

The Unicorn makes him promise to let him take him on a plane bound for the Iron Curtain, and Iron Man agrees.

A couple of times in the story, the Unicorn refers to the Iron Curtain. I’m pretty sure the Soviet Bloc countries didn’t use Winston Churchill’s phrase.

Tony's pity party at the beginning is uncharacteristic but wholly believable.

As Fred noted, he’s a playboy who can never take off his shirt.

Iron Man has a couple of new gadgets added to his armor's repertoire, but the part I enjoyed the most was Tony using his brain to prevent the bomb from destroying his factory. He followed his promise strictly to the letter - he gave his word he would get on the plane but never promised to stay on it

They both keep their promises. Iron Man could have reneged immediately upon the defusing of the bomb and proceeded to whip Unicorn’s butt. I can see that getting him away from the factory was a better idea. Unicorn, on the other hand, could have had a second bomb in the factory. Capturing Iron Man AND destroying the factory would have been a two-fer.

Kirby draws both a powerful Iron Man as well as the Unicorn. The only weakness of the cover is that Kirby here could not match Heck when it comes to drawing Pepper.

Looking at the cover after all this time, I didn’t even realize that was supposed to be Pepper. In general, Kirby’s women were not his strong suit.

Kirby's Pepper looks a lot like his version of Jane Foster to me.

John Dunbar said:

I think he gets lumped in as being lame for a few reasons. As I said, it takes years for him to have a rematch with Iron Man, and in subsequent appearances he's usually a henchman or a pawn, as well there's the whole mental breakdown thing. Plus in the last 35 years or so, "Unicorn" is going to evoke thoughts of My Little Pony. And then there's that eyesore of a costume, an ugly monstrosity similar to the Melter's first outfit; it doesn't look like an armored suit to me at all.


One further thing about the name "Unicorn" - from the Super Mega Monkey site, in the discussion of this issue, a commentator named Omar Karindu said:

The whole "unicorns are pretty and friendly" idea is of relatively recent vintage; until modern times, the legend was that the unicorn was an untamable beast, sort of a wild Bronco that could also stab you to death with its horn. The idea was that only a "pure" (virgin) maiden could induce a unicorn to calm down, allowing the big strong men to kill it.

Certainly in concept, I never considered the Unicorn lame and when I first heard of him in the early '70s he seemed to have potential but in execution he was a pawn of the Mandarin with serious health issues and oddly Mandy & the Unicorn were paralleled by the Leader & the Rhino over in the Hulk of that same period.  Eventually, the Unicorn's health recovered, as is the norm for most baddies, but he never rose above grade C status, either as a flunky for more upper status baddies or in plots of his own that Shellhead would unravel within one issue.

John Dunbar (the mod of maple) said:

The whole "unicorns are pretty and friendly" idea is of relatively recent vintage; until modern times, the legend was that the unicorn was an untamable beast, sort of a wild Bronco that could also stab you to death with its horn. The idea was that only a "pure" (virgin) maiden could induce a unicorn to calm down, allowing the big strong men to kill it.

The unicorn story that will never leave my mind is this one, which is posted here in its entirely

The Silken-Swift by Theodore Sturgeon

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