If someone---me, for example---ever decided to make the Silver-Age Iron Man series into a romantic comedy, that would be the title: The Happy Pursuit of Pepper, starring Jack Carson and Shirley Patterson, with James Craig as “Tony Stark”.
Of course, the original screenplay---Tales of Suspense # 45-91---would need a re-write. All that super-hero and super-villain business clutters up the story, so most of it would get the axe. The battle scenes would go over budget, anyway. We’re not making Gone with the Wind here, just a nice little B-movie about a guy, a girl, and their boss.
Once all that extraneous super-hero stuff is cut out, it’s easy to see the story of Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts follows a simple, time-honoured cinematic formula.
Boy Meets Girl
We meet them both in Tales of Suspense # 45 (Sep., 1963)
Harold “Happy” Hogan was an ex-pug boxer. “Ex-“ because he had never won a bout. He had the muscle and the speed, but he lacked the instinct. Whenever Hogan had had an opponent on the ropes, he could not bring himself to finish him off. The guys down at Stillman’s Gym had given him the nickname “Happy” as a gag, since he wore a perpetual hang-dog look on his face.
As first presented to the readership, Happy Hogan lacked in formal education and was somewhat rough around the edges. But he was courageous, honest, and possessed a strong streak of integrity. It was these qualities which led to his involvement with Tony Stark, when he freed the playboy industrialist from the wreckage of a burning racecar. For saving his life, Stark offered Happy a cheque for $50,000. Happy turned it down, telling Stark that what he really needed was a steady job.
Done. Stark hired Hogan as his chauffeur.
Virginia “Pepper” Potts was Tony Stark’s executive secretary. She didn’t look like what you’d expect a playboy’s secretary to look like. She was skinny, mousey-looking, with a bouffant hair-do and a dusting of freckles on her nose. The freckles were why everyone called her “Pepper”. But professionally, she was exactly what a C.E.O. required---bright, efficient, and organised.
Oh, and she had a crush on her boss.
The moment Happy’s new job brings him into contact with Stark's secretary, the big lug is smitten. Pepper possesses all the qualities Happy doesn’t---he’s overbearing and something of a lunkhead; she’s prissy and well-read. That doesn’t stop Hap from going over for her in a big way. Unfortunately, Pepper reacts to that with the same expression you get when you look at something you’ve just scraped off the bottom of your shoe.
Not the most original of starting concepts. But there was something endearing about watching the relationship between Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts evolve.
Even in those days, the old "opposites who initially hate each other but eventually fall in love" schtick was old, but Stan Lee managed to make it sound fresh and it worked. Part of the reason for that was because of the interesting twists that Lee would throw into the mix:
Happy was infatuated with Pepper.
Pepper had adoring eyes only for Tony Stark.
And Stark, that keen judge of men, was oblivious to both how Pepper felt about him or how Happy felt about Pepper.
Lee’s plots got a lot of mileage out of this triangle; with the hidden nuances, he could have let it go on for years before it got stale. But instead, Lee propelled the situation forward by having the characters develop in unexpected ways.
Because of his need to be able to freely operate as Iron Man, Tony Stark rarely has Happy drive him anywhere. This gives the forlorn-faced ex-pug plenty of time to hang around the outer office and make passes at Pepper. As far as making any headway, though---well, there is a coarse but descriptive saying, having to do with a bodily function and a rope, and as far as the prim Miss Potts is concerned, that’s precisely what Happy is doing.
She doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his inept efforts to win her over, and never misses a chance to shoot him down.
Being constantly underfoot has one benefit for Happy. Eventually, Pepper sees how devoted he is to Tony Stark and, in that, she grudgingly accepts that he is not a total loser. She begins to tolerate him more and more. In fact, their private cold war has thawed to the point where Pepper agrees to be Happy’s date at the annual Stark Industries Employees’ Banquet, in Tales of Suspense # 50 (Feb., 1964). Mainly because Tony Stark is out of the country on business (actually, fighting for his life against the Mandarin, as Iron Man) and she figures Happy is better than no date at all.
As far as Hap is concerned, though, it’s still one step up from nothing, and he comes dangerously close to cracking a smile. Sadly, it’s a short-lived optimism---because Stan Lee was getting ready to toss a curve ball over the plate.
Boy Loses Girl
It’s around this time when Tony Stark finally tumbles to the fact that his secretary is carrying a Giant-Man-sized torch for him (with a jealous streak to match). The millionaire industrialist takes it with mild humour and nothing more, it seems. Certainly, it doesn’t telegraph the next development.
In the opening pages of Tales of Suspense # 54 (Jun., 1964), Stark is ordered to report to the Pentagon. Happy and Pepper are surprised when he tells them to stay behind and mind the plant.
“I’d like to be with Pepper always,” thinks Stark. “But I dare not expose her to the dangers that Iron Man must face!”
It’s the first inkling that Tony has romantic feelings for Pepper, and it comes out of nowhere, with no foreshadowing. In fact, it’s tucked away so inconspicuously, a reader might have missed it, especially since nothing more is made of it for the rest of the story. Another hint is dropped in the next issue, when Tony escorts Pepper on a moonlight stroll.
Stan finally stops hedging when Pepper is kidnapped by the villainous Unicorn in Tales to Astonish # 56 (Aug., 1964). With her peril comes Stark’s admission that he is in love with her. “I never realised how I felt about that wonderful, little redhead!”
Hearts-and-flowers time, right? Wrong. In a Stan Lee romance, nothing ever goes so smoothly.
The way Tony figures it, he has two strikes against him: the dangers of his secret life as Iron Man and the risk that his injured heart may fail at any time. Even as he begins to show attention to Pepper, he agonises over whether he is doing the right thing.
Pepper, sensing she finally has a shot at winning Stark, grows more open about how she feels.
And Happy is just miserable about the whole thing. He knows he could never compete with the wealthy, handsome playboy. But out of loyalty to his boss, he suffers in silence.
Ain’t love grand?
Even as Stan Lee tinkered with the emotional intertwining, there was a gradual visual transformation in the characters of Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts, as well, under the pencils of Don Heck.
The more dramatic change was in the appearance of Pepper. Almost overnight, she lost her mousey, wall-flower look and turned into a Titian-hair beauty. (My guess is this was prompted when the sub-plot began to indicate that Stark was attracted to Pepper. Given all the luscious babes that Stark was seen to squire around town, it wouldn’t make sense for him to fall for Pepper unless she were equally glamourous.) Pepper’s new babe-status was explained in Tales of Suspense # 55 (Jul., 1964)---to compete with the gorgeous girls Tony Stark dated, she had her beauty parlour “shoot the works”. (Given her new statuesque figure and the loss of her pug nose, I suspect Pepper had her plastic surgeon “shoot the works”, as well.)
Initially, Don Heck had drawn Happy to fit the appearance of an ex-pug, with cauliflower ears, a flattened nose, and a low brow. And just as Pepper grew gradually more attractive over time, so did Happy. While never gaining the matinée-idol looks of Tony Stark, Happy did transform into a reasonably good-looking chap, in that clean-cut 1960's fashion. His misshapen ears and flattened nose mysteriously disappeared. (He also picked up a few more I.Q. points along the way.)
Boy Wins Girl
Tony walks an emotional highwire for several issues, then Lee takes it to the next level, when Stark finally figures out that Happy is hopelessly in love with Pepper, too. In Tales of Suspense # 63 (Mar., 1965), the millionaire makes a momentous decision:
“I’ve no right to stand in their way! If not for me, Pepper might marry Happy! I don’t dare marry . . . because of my injured heart! Pepper must never know that I love her, too! The only way I can prove my love, is to give her up! To let her find a new life with Happy!”
To that end, Tony announces his engagement---to a debutante from Boston. It does the trick. Pepper rebounds right into Happy’s waiting arms. The big lug doesn’t let any grass grow under his feet, either. In the next issue, he proposes to Pepper. He’s crushed when she gives him the “It’s too soon” speech. Hap realises that she’s still in love with Stark.
For the next six months, Tony, nobly, does everything he can to push Pepper into marrying Happy. He dates a bevy of jet-setting glamour girls. (Curiously, nothing more was made, or said, of his “engagement”.) He leaves Long Island on an extended tour of Stark holdings across the country.
It doesn’t work. At least not the way he wants it to. Pepper gets closer and closer to Happy, but she still won’t extinguish her torch for Stark. It frustrates Happy to no end, until he finally quits---for the span of about a story and half, when his loyalty to Stark brings him back.
The entanglement shifts again in Tales of Suspense # 70 (Oct., 1965). This is the landmark issue in which Happy discovers that Tony Stark is Iron Man---for all the good it does him. In coming to his boss’s aid during his battle against the Titanium Man, Happy is critically injured. Pepper waits at the hospital while Happy undergoes emergency surgery, and she grows disgusted at Stark’s failure to appear, which she takes as lack of concern. (Actually, Stark, as Iron Man, is still going toe-to-toe with the his armoured foe.)
At last, the bloom comes off her feelings for Tony Stark.
In terms of their unspoken romantic competition, Happy, for the first time, runs even with Tony Stark in Pepper’s heart. Lee’s plotting deliberately maintains this status quo for another year and a half
Stan finally decided the matter in Tales of Suspense # 89 (May, 1967). While Stark and Happy are touring a Stark Industries factory, a machinery accident nearly kills them. Pepper rushes to Happy’s side. That tells Stark who she really loves. And Pepper knows it, too.
Two issues later, Happy and Pepper make their final Silver-Age appearances as regular characters in the Iron Man series when they get married, leaving Stark Industries, and the title, in high style.
This was a real crowd-pleaser, and Stan Lee was wise to serve it up to the readers. Most Iron Man fans were rooting for “ordinary joe” Happy to wind up with Pepper. As a character, he had become so likeable that even those readers who preferred Tony and Pepper as an item hated to see Happy left with the short end of the stick. So nobody minded too much when it was dashing playboy Tony Stark who wound up waving good-bye to the happy newlyweds.
Hmmmm---come to think of it, Gene Barry would make a better Tony Stark . . . .