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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It was rather amazing how fast KIrby could draw a story, and usually very well, although IMO his artwork looked much better in the mid-60s when the number of pages he was drawing each month was reduced.  His style did take a turn for the craggier during his last year with Marvel.

I think the movement of Kirby's art in that direction may have been played down for a period by the inkers, to the art's benefit. Joe Sinnott supplied a slick finish; Vince Colletta Colletta-ised his shadows and eliminated some of his squiggles; Frank Giacoia prettified the art (and Don Heck's when he inked The Avengers); Syd Shores imposed a Syd Shores look. Contrast the issues of Thor inked by Bill Everett (mostly from that final year).

THE STORY THUS FAR

John Dunbar (the mod of maple) said:

Tales of Suspense 54 (June 1964)

"The Mandarin's Revenge!"

Written (in his magic Marvel manner) by: Stan Lee / Drawn (in his flaming flashing fashion) by: Don Heck / Lettered (in his smooth subtle style) by: Art Simek

Cover by Jack Kirby and Don Heck
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Iron Man is flying above a crowded street when he gets a call from Pepper Potts.  She tells him Tony Stark is urgently needed at his factory but no one can find him.  She orders him to locate Stark immediately.  He wonders if Pepper suspects Stark and his "mysterious bodyguard, Iron Man" are one and the same.  He enters a secret tunnel under his factory which leads to his private office, and changes to Tony Stark.  He leaves his office and greets Pepper and Happy.  She tells him that he is wanted at the Pentagon and hints he should take her along.  He declines, saying she is needed at the factory, but thinks to himself he doesn't want to expose her to the dangers faced by Iron Man.  Happy asks which car he wants to drive him to Washington in, but Tony says Iron man will drive him there.  When Happy says he will stay and keep Pepper company, Tony says he needs him to do an inspection tour of his other plants.  Happy protests but Tony states his orders stand.  In his office, as he changes to Iron Man, Tony admits to himself he is jealous of Happy and Pepper growing closer, as he worries their bickering is a game and they are developing a romance.

As Iron Man, he heads for Washington, flying at first, and also roller skating part of the way to allow his transistors to recharge.  At the pentagon, Tony is informed that his new observer missiles being used in Vietnam to take pictures behind enemy lines are all either crashing or disappearing.  Tony is puzzled, as he says his technology is faster than anything the Communists use.  He promises to go to Vietnam and investigate personally.  As Iron Man he hitches a ride on a long range test rocket to get there.  Later as Tony Stark, he arrives at an American missile base and watches one of his observer missiles being launched.  The missile soon slows down and changes course, and Tony realizes this is due to some outside force, and since they are in the Far East, it could only be the Mandarin.  He thinks back to their first encounter, remembering how dangerous a foe he was.  He knows if he attacks as Iron Man, he'll be destroyed by the Mandarin's electronic defenses.  He decides to head to the Mandarin's castle as Tony Stark and allow himself to be captured to get inside the Mandarin's fortress.

Stark heads to the castle in a jeep and is stopped outside of it by a heavy iron gate.  The Mandarin's guards grab his attache case and try to open it with their guns.  Stark had expected this and opening the case releases a sleeping gas.  In the confusion, he changes to Iron Man and bursts through a castle wall.  The Mandarin is waiting for him and attacks with his rings and other traps.  Iron Man fights back and evades the attacks, even powering through them.  The Mandarin is impressed enough to offer Iron Man an alliance, saying together they can rule the world.  Iron Man rejects the offer without hesitation, enraging the Mandarin.  Iron Man realizes his transistors are weakening as the Mandarin attacks with a sword while claiming no swordsman alive is his equal.  IM is now on the defensive and using up a lot of his jet power doing it.  He repels an attack of miniature rockets, but worries his power will be gone in minutes.  He thinks to himself that he has to find out how the Mandarin is destroying the observer missiles, and he also has to find a way to neutralize the Mandarin's powers.

The Mandarin then uses a ring to attack Iron Man with a beam of black light.  IM can't see anything and then the Mandarin traps him with unbreakable steel bands.  The Mandarin gloats and tells Iron Man it's all over.  Tony is worried that this is indeed the end, and regrets how cold he was to Happy and Pepper when he last saw them.  He vows to never give up as long as he is breathing, but if this is his finish, he's determined to go out bravely.
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My rating: 8/10

After a few mediocre outings, we get one of the best stories since the series began.  Tony Stark is in fine form here, using his brains as well as his iron armor against the person who is easily his most dangerous foe yet.  Instead of being dumbed down to advance the plot, as he was in the last two issues with the Black Widow, Tony uses his smarts to get into the Mandarin's stronghold.  It was a dangerous plan, but Tony should be written as a brilliant risk taker.  The battle was well done too.  I think Stan and Don should have stuck to the power rings and the death traps as I feel even in these early days the armor should be able to withstand karate and a sword.  The Mandarin could be the best gun slinger in the world too, but bullets from an ordinary pistol shouldn't affect Iron Man's armor - and Iron Man shouldn't be in any danger from a sword or a karate chop.

The soap opera stuff with Tony, Pepper, and Happy is one of the strengths of the story as well.  Stan excelled at these little scenes and the back and forth between the characters is almost forgettable but makes for a great panel at the end with Tony regretting how he treated his friends that he may never see again.

The opening page firmly establishes that Iron Man is Tony Stark's employee, something only hinted at before, and Tony himself confirms IM is (somehow) his bodyguard on page 2.  IM was referred to as such by the Black Widow in Suspense 52 in a comment she made in Russia to "Comrade Leader" but that was not brought up again until now.  Looks like Stan took a throwaway line from Don Rico's script for that issue and decides to run with it all the way.  I'm almost certain this is the first scene where Pepper (or anyone else for that matter) contacts IM and addresses him as a Stark Factory employee.

The cover is okay; we've seen better ones.  I think going by the cover blurb, they were trying to generate excitement and interest in (yet another) modification of the armor, but I didn't see the change in the head mask as anything radical or awe inspiring.  There have been a lot of changes in the armor in a short period of time already, and there will be so many more yet to come, this gets a ho-hum out of me.

TALES OF SUSPENSE 55 (July 1964)

"No One Escapes The Mandarin!"

Written by Friendly Stan Lee / Illustrated by Faithful Don Heck / Lettered by Fearless Art Simek

Cover by Jack Kirby and Sol Brodsky
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With his armor's transistors drained of power, Iron Man is a helpless prisoner of the Mandarin.  But he realizes he has one chance. if he can bluff his foe, who doesn't know Tony Stark is also Iron Man.  He taunts the Mandarin that while he has been wasting time dealing with him, Tony Stark has been loose in his castle, and has probably found and destroyed his anti-missile missiles.  The Mandarin takes the bait and goes off in search of Stark.  In only a few moments, the transistors are fully recharged, and Iron Man is free again. He follows the Mandarin, and is able to remain undetected by the villain as his boot jets are noiseless at low power.  He watches the Mandarin enter a large room which holds all of the missiles he has recently captured.  The Mandarin tells Stark to come out of hiding or else his fate will be worse for making him search longer.  But seeing no sign of Stark and believing him helpless, he decides to go back and finish off Iron Man.  Just then, a warning light flashes, alerting the Mandarin another missile is about to be launched in his vicinity.  The Americans have decided they can't wait any longer to hear from Stark.  The Mandarin chortles, stating his interceptor ray can catch anything, regardless of speed, and return it to his castle within an hour.

At that moment, Iron Man bursts in, and blasts the Mandarin.  He starts smashing the interceptor ray's machinery, but the Mandarin gloats that once the ray has started, automatic relays take over and it can't be stopped.  Iron Man flies out a window to try and catch the missile.  He manages to make it veer away from the ray, but gets caught in it himself, and is heading back for the castle.  He grabs a piece of the castle's stone masonry on his way thru a window, and hurls it at the ray's mechanical parts.  He succeeds in destroying the machine, enraging the Mandarin.  He attacks with one of his rings, which houses a disintegrator ray.  Iron Man retreats on foot, and then the floor opens beneath his feet.  He decides not to fly away, but instead will see what awaits him below.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Happy Hogan is filling in for Tony at the factory and is feeling overwhelmed.  He tries to skip out but Pepper puts a quick stop to that.

Back at the Mandarin's castle, Iron Man sees a pool of acid beneath him, and makes an escape from the trap.  The Mandarin can now see his every move, and drops a heavy steel spring like device on him, which pushes him clean thru a floor.  He then see the Mandarin, grown as big as his fellow Avenger Giant-Man, but it's just an illusion.  He next sees several images of a regular sized Mandarin, only one of which is the real deal.  He swings at illusions while the real Mandarin is able to get a few shots in, until Iron Man closes his eyes and lets his armor's sonar find his foe.  He sends the Mandarin reeling with a roundhouse right, and heads for the missile chamber.  A livid Mandarin pursues him, but is too late to stop him from sending back all of the captured missiles.  Furthermore, Iron Man has destroyed all of the equipment that was part of the interceptor ray.  Stating it would take years to rebuild it all, he vows to make Iron Man pay.

Iron Man was inside one of the missiles, and changes to Tony Stark before it lands.  Moments later, the military arrive and give him a ride back to the base.  Tony then takes an army jet back to Washington, and finds himself back in everyone's good graces for rescuing the missiles.  Later he returns to New York, with Pepper overjoyed to see him, and Happy declaring he had everything under control at the plant.  Tony and Pepper are being driven somewhere by Happy, who gets jealous they are sitting so close together.  He decides to take them on a bumpy country road but ends up having to change a flat tire while Tony and Pepper hold hands and take in the moonlight, leaving Happy wishing he had Tony Stark's soft life.
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My rating:  8/10

A satisfying conclusion to this two-parter.  Lots of fast-paced action from start to finish.  As I said (way back) when I reviewed Suspense #54, it's nice to see Tony use his brain as well as his suit of armor.  The cliffhanger in that issue was a good one - a powerless Iron Man, prisoner of his most dangerous foe - how will he get out of that one?  Tricking the Mandarin into thinking Tony Stark was running loose in his castle and causing havoc was a good way.  The transistors going from depowered to fully charged in a matter of moments was a little too convenient, but I decided long ago to just "Let It Go, Let It Go" in that area.  The transistors do, or fail to do, whatever the plot requires, and the reader just has to deal with that.

The scenes at Stark's factory were a little surprising.  I expected Happy and Pepper would become closer but she was almost downright mean.  Poor Happy was way over his head taking Tony's place and I thought perhaps this is where he and Pepper start to get closer.  No sign of that, and to boot the last page hints at the beginning of a Tony and Pepper romance.

The Mandarin is easily the cream of the crop of Iron Man's rogues gallery, not that he has much competition.  There's a five page feature after this story, "All About Iron Man", and Mandarin is featured alongside such illustrious villains as the Scarecrow, Mr. Doll, and Gargantus.  He's much more dangerous than those guys, and it's on full display here.  The one on one battle between the Mandarin and Iron Man was an inconclusive stalemate, and although he foiled this plan of the Mandarin's, it feels more like Iron Man escaped the villain than defeated him.

I liked Don Heck's art here.  I know he's not everyone's cup of tea but when he gets to ink his own pencils I find the results pleasing.  Tony is handsome, Pepper is gorgeous, and the Mandarin is suitably despicable.

Great cover this time around as well.  It screams that the Mandarin is a menacing foe and that Iron Man is in for one heck of a fight, which was certainly true within the story.

NEXT ISSUE:  THE UNCANNY UNICORN!

One typical Silver Age aspect of the Mandarin I find amusing is that letter M on his costume -- why would a Chinese character have a Latin alphabet character on his costume at all? But then why would Galactus have a big G on his costume?  Another grin and bear it aspect of even the most classic golden four-color oldies.

This won't be the only time the Mandarin decides Stark is Iron Man. This guy might actually succeed if he just paid better attention to what he was doing.

Stan has admitted he had no clue what transistors did and just made stuff up when he used them. I remember later writers trying to figure out exactly how he did those things. Also I remember during those last few stories before Mandarin died that the writer explained what his rings did, then later another note I believe corrected one of them, claiming it had different powers.

It's interesting the Unicorn comes next, since far in the future he'll become a mindless machine serving Mandarin.

Poor Happy. His life will seem to go so smoothly for years, until something bad happens to him. However, they can always bring him back yet again by bringing back the Freak, a villain we haven't seen much of over the years.

Good point. I've seen this version of his costume so many times that I didn't even pay attention to it this time!


Fred W. Hill said:

One typical Silver Age aspect of the Mandarin I find amusing is that letter M on his costume -- why would a Chinese character have a Latin alphabet character on his costume at all? But then why would Galactus have a big G on his costume?  Another grin and bear it aspect of even the most classic golden four-color oldies.

Sorry if I made it look like it in my summary, Ronald, but Mandy didn't learn that Tony is Iron Man in this story.


Ronald Morgan said:

This won't be the only time the Mandarin decides Stark is Iron Man. This guy might actually succeed if he just paid better attention to what he was doing.

Stan has admitted he had no clue what transistors did and just made stuff up when he used them. I remember later writers trying to figure out exactly how he did those things. Also I remember during those last few stories before Mandarin died that the writer explained what his rings did, then later another note I believe corrected one of them, claiming it had different powers.

It's interesting the Unicorn comes next, since far in the future he'll become a mindless machine serving Mandarin.

Poor Happy. His life will seem to go so smoothly for years, until something bad happens to him. However, they can always bring him back yet again by bringing back the Freak, a villain we haven't seen much of over the years.

This was the first issue of Iron Man I read. Probably made me an Iron Fan for life.

Prior to this point the title had been carrying two back-up stories, a non-series tale and a "Tales of the Watcher" one. From this issue the non-series story was dropped. This issue's lead story was still 13 pages, but the issue also had a 4 page "All About Iron Man" feature and a Pepper Potts pin-up, which adds up to 18. The subsequent issues had 18 page lead stories until Captain America's feature started.

The covers carried a large "The Power of Iron Man" logo from #53. (Thor's logo became dominant on Journey into Mystery's covers from its next issue.) So the comic was briefly treated as belonging to Iron Man. It was called "Iron Man" on Avengers #7 p.1 a couple of months after the present issue.

And yet Cap (who had a good #79 waiting for him) will later come by and steal this title from him.

The last panel of the story in Suspense 54 refers to the next issue as Iron Man #55.

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