Saturday, August 24, 2013

Tales of Suspense #39 (March, 1963)

By early 1963, the Marvel Age of Comics had exploded - a revolution in Silver Age storytelling masterminded by writer Stan Lee and a cadre of talented artists led by Jack Kirby. Joining the resurgence of the superhero genre in 1961 with the groundbreaking The Fantastic Four, they soon followed their success with The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, and characters Thor and Ant-Man appearing in old anthology series Journey Into Mystery and Tales to Astonish.

The key to Marvel's storytelling success was a more "mature" style of characterization mixed with ongoing story-arcs and serialized subplots populated with flawed, human characters that appealed to an older (read: teenage) readership compared to the Distinguished Competition. Always seeking to push boundaries and try new things, Stan Lee decided to create a character that would be purposely designed not to appeal to Marvel's teenage, liberal, counter-culture audience... and make the readers like him anyway. And so the idea came for a billionaire, alcoholic, warmongering, arms manufacturing, womanizing, capitalist industrialist superhero powered by technology... IRON MAN! Due to a bizarre publishing situation that limited how many books Marvel could put out in a year, many new characters debuted and were published in shorter 13-page stories in anthology series... and so Iron Man made his debut in March 1963 in the pages of sci-fi/monster anthology Tales of Suspense.

"Iron Man is Born!"
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Artist: Don Heck
Synopsis: Millionaire industrialist Anthony Stark is a 1960s Howard Hughes: a brilliant genius scientist inventor bachelor playboy with lucrative military contracts supplying the United States Army with new military technology. 
In 1963 the United States had 16,000 military personnel in Vietnam assisting the South Vietnamese troops in their war against the communist north and the Viet Cong guerillas, but had yet to actually send in combat troops -- these were merely "advisors". Inside the the US Defense Perimeter, Stark has arrived to give a demonstration of his new "transistors" -- transistors are electronic signal amplifiers designed to give a higher controlled output than the controlled input signal, but Stark's are immensely more powerful (to an exaggeratedly ridiculous extent) than regular models: by applying one to a magnet he can smash a steel vault (what?!) and so the US army believes they can be used to create immensely powerful weapons to give to the South.
Meanwhile Viet Cong guerillas led by Wong-Chu continue a reign of terror through the villages of the South -- Wong-Chu is a sadistic tyrant who gives villages a chance to free themselves if a single man can defeat him in hand-to-hand combat -- but none ever do.
Stark accompanies the South Vietnamese troops through the jungle to ensure his new weapons function properly, but while the transistor mortars (small as a flashlight!) are super effective, the company falls prey to tripmines and are taken out in the explosion. Stark is captuerd by Wong-Chu's guerillas, who recognize the famous American weapons designer.
Wong-Chu's doctors reveal that shrapnel from the mine has lodged itself near his heart and will soon find it's way into his heart and kill him. Wong-Chu tells Stark that his surgeons can save him... if he will build weapons for the guerillas. Stark is smart enough to realize that this is a bluff, that if the doctors could save him they would've done it already, and that he'll be dead in a matter of days.
Stark decides to spend his time and the resources Wong-Chu has given him to instead build a weapon for himself, to prolong his life and to destroy Wong-Chu. In this he is assisted by the famous Professor Yinsen, a brilliant physicist whom the Reds kidnapped years ago. With Yinsen's help, Stark designs and builds the Iron Man, a cast iron suit of armour packed full of transistorized gadgets and an electromagnet in the chest plate to keep the shrapnel out of his heart. 
Eventually the guerillas realize that Stark and Yinsen aren't building any weapons, and send some troops to investigate. Yinsen straps Stark into the armour, but it'll take some time for their generator to cycle enough power into its batteries for it to operate. Realizing the need to stall, Yinsen heads out into the hallways to confront the soldiers -- and all Tony can do is lie in the armour as it powers up and listen as Yinsen is gunned down... dying just to help Tony live.
The armour fully charged IRON MAN stands up, takes a step forward... and falls flat on his face. It takes Tony a while to get used to controlling the armour, whose transistorized circuits are controlled by electric impulses from his brain -- but once he does he's ready to take on Wong-Chu! Tony also realizes that so long as the sharpnel is in his body... he'll never be able to take the armour off. 
Tony finds Wong-Chu in the courtyard about to fight another villager -- when he is challenge to one on one combat with IRON MAN! With the power of technology Iron Man is able to easily defeat Wong-Chu and his troops, achieving victory by dowsing their ammo dump in oil and then lighting it aflame, causing a huge explosion that presumably kills all the Viet Cong.
Protected by his iron armour, Stark puts on a fedora and trenchcoat (a hilarious sight) and sets off into the jungle for a long trek back to civilization...
My Thoughts: Like many people, I became a fan of Iron Man after his absolutely excellent 2008 debut feature film starring Robert Downey, Junior. I've been a reader of Marvel Comics ever since I was a kid, but I'd never really been into Iron Man -- my favourites were Spider-Man and the X-Men. The first time I really became aware of Iron Man was in the Civil War cross-over event, where he was portrayed as a liberal artist's idea of a straw-man Bush-era Republican: an oppressive, Orwellian, "for the greater good and national security" destroyer of human rights and civil liberties. In other words, not a very likeable character. But Civil War raised the character's visibility in the Marvel Universe enough that it more or less directly led to the production of the movie, which was immensely succesful and lead to the current renaissance of excellent Marvel Studios motion pictures we're currently enjoying.
What I loved about the character I saw played by RDJ in movies was he was a hero who really reflected some of my own values and stood out from the crowd of superhero tropes: a hero who enjoyed being heroic, who chose to be heroic, who solved problems with his mind and with science and technology, a heroic capitalist, a heroic industrialist, who fought for himself and the people and ideals he held dear, who fought to protect his ideas, his creations from falling into the wrong hands, and a hero who didn't lie to the people around him and instead reveled in revealing his heroism to the world. 
I enjoyed the Iron Man movies so much it turned me on to the comics. I started in the usual places: Extremis, Demon in a Bottle, the Armor Wars, and the more I read the more I got into it. And so we arrive here, with the first of my retrospective review series of the original Iron Man stories, starting from his beginning in Tales of Suspense.
Even in thirteen pages, it's pretty amazing to see how much of the modern concept is here. Although it's set forty years earlier and in Vietnam, the origin is still pretty much exactly the same as the one presented in the movie -- although here Stark must wear the entire suit to save his heart, the ARC reactor being an invention of the movie universe.
The Art: The iconic cover of this issue is by Jack "The King" Kirby, and as was standard practice at the time at Marvel the cover was done before the interior art and so Kirby designed Stark's Mark I grey Iron Man armour. For coming up with the look of the original armour, Kirby is often awarded a co-creator credit on the character. The interior art is by Don Heck, a veteran artist from the Atlas Comics days (the 1950s precursor of Marvel), who was most known for his strengths as a romance comics artist. This background in romance makes his depiction of superhero action a little awkward and not as powerful as Kirby's, but on the other hand it makes Heck perfect for portraying the handsome Tony Stark and his jetsetting lifestyle as an international playboy. Stark looks exactly like a comic book Howard Hughes -- or at least, the Howard Hughes of thirty years earlier when he was a dashingly handsome Clark Gable lookalike with a pencil moustache. What struck me looking at the art this time around was it's relative "photorealism" by 1963 standards, as well as it's scratchy line-work. It looks unusual for a superhero book, but if you've ever read Millie the Model or other Silver Age Marvel or Atlas romance comics, you'll find the style very familiar.
The Story: In the early days of the Marvel Comics revolution, Stan Lee was writing basically all of the company's output. By '63 he had co-created and was writing Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, Journey into Mystery, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes, and other series. So while Lee created the concept of Tony Stark and Iron Man, developed the character, and plotted his origin story, he was too busy and overworked to actually script the issue. So his brother, Larry Lieber, stepped in and took over the scripting duties. While I'll give Stan immense credit for coming up with the character and his fantastic origin story, there's not much I can say about his brother's script. In thirteen pages you have to cram a lot of story in a very small space -- the script does an amazing job of it, communicating everything it needs to without ever feeling unnecessarily rushed. The pacing is great, but in this short space there's not a lot of room for character. Stan often does a great job of putting in characterizing details in his dialogue, but Larry goes for the more standard route of giving us almost purely plot-driven dialogue. It's fine, it does the job, it's not bad, per se, but I gotta give Stan more credit for the successful elements of the story than his brother -- who because of his scripting duties on this first story also often gets credit as a co-creator of Iron Man. 
Lee's plot contains many elements that mark it as following the successful formula of the early Marvel comics. Although Tony Stark seems more like a DC hero on the surface (handsome, wealthy, genius-level intellect), the addition of the heart problem, the fact that he needs to wear the suit or he'll die, is the classic note of ironic tragedy that Lee had already used to great effect in almost all his previous Marvel Age creations. Although by 1963 it seemed clear the superhero trend was back to stay, it's also worth noting that this origin story keeps things fairly simple and has an ending that is fairly ambigous -- for all we know, the series could've become something like the Hulk, with the bulky disguised Iron Man wandering the world, searching for a way to remove his armour/the shrapnel without killing himself and getting in adventures. Not the way things went, but the fact that Lee doesn't set up the status quo of the series in this story, instead leaving it open for him to decide later, is a mark of how clever he was at playing the trends of the time and giving himself space and room to adapt to them.
Stark Science: Much is made in this story of transistors, but it's pretty clear that Stan and Larry had only the most basic understanding of the technology. Transistors in the early sixties were electrical components that amplified current, so that small changes in input voltage produced large changes in output voltage, allowing complex mechanical devices to be built in smaller and more efficient packages, allowing for devices such as radios, televisions, speakers, and much later the microchip and personal computers. All the Lieber brothers seem to get out of that is "small input, large output, for use in miniaturization", so we get mortars the size of flashlights, and magnets and air pressure jets that can cause the Mark I armour to fly and smash through steel doors. In my favourite moment, Stark slaps a transistor onto an ordinary U-magnet giving it the ability to deflect rockets being fired at him! I mean, I know Stark's a genius, but you still need electrical input and output for a transistor to function! 
Attachments seen in the Mark I suit include suction cups in the hands, air-pressure jets in the feet (no repulsors yet!), and a flamethrower.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Tony Stark/Iron Man, Yinsen and Wong-Chu, debut of the Iron Man armour, MARK I.

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