Saturday, August 24, 2013

Tales of Suspense #40 (April, 1963)

"Iron Man versus Gargantus!"
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Robert Bernstein
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Don Heck
Synopsis: Our story opens with a short summary of the life of Tony Stark, who lives "three lives": He's a genius scientist who develops military technology for the US army (the ridiculous example given being "transistor" powered rocket skates for infantry -- the most useless thing ever if they're going to be deployed in Vietnam) but he's also a millionaire playboy constantly dating movie stars and society debutantes. He can't let anyone get close to him, however, because he must constantly wear an iron chest plate containing an electromagnet to keep pieces of shrapnel from digging into his heart -- and he must periodically charge the plate by plugging into wall sockets! This is because Tony Stark's third life, of course, is as IRON MAN -- who for no reason at all has become a superhero, fighting mobsters and mad scientists on a regular basis. 
On a date to the circus with a woman named Marion, the jungle cats get loose of their cage and so Tony absconds to change into Iron Man to deal with the menace. The cast iron metal in the Iron Man suit is apparently collapseable and foldable "thanks to my knowledge of micro-transistors" (which makes no sense) and thus he carries it around in his attaché case.
Changed into Iron Man, he makes quick work of the cats, but when changes back to Tony Stark and meets with Marion she remarks that Iron Man looks just as terrifying as a monster in his big ugly grey suit. She suggests that if he's going to be like a modern day knight in shining armour, he should dress the part and look heroic. 
Tony takes her suggestion and spraypaints the armour with "untarnishable" gold paint, somehow this doesn't lead to Marion instantly figuring out Tony's secret identity. Marion makes plans to meet Tony that Saturday, but her plane from Granville never arrives. Upon reading a damned newspaper, Tony discovers that Granville has shut itself off from the outside world with a wall. 
Looks like a job for Iron Man, and so with a miniature transistorized drill he burrows under the wall and pops up in the town, where the populace immediately begins attacking him! They all seem to be under a kind of mass hypnosis, and have taken to worshipping a being called Gargantus, who resembles a giant Neanderthal. 
Iron Man calls out Gargantus to fight, when the beast tries to hypnotize him by reflecting bright light from his eyes at Tony (this is not how hypnotic induction works). However Tony realizes something is up because there's a dark cloud covering the sun so there's nothing for his eyes to reflect -- and the cloud isn't moving despite there being a strong breeze. 
From this Tony realizes what's up and throws out three top-hat transistor powered magnets at Gargantus, pulling his body apart and revealing him to have been a robot all along. With the Gargantus robot destroyed the people in the town come out of their hypnosis, wondering what's been happening. Iron Man directs his searchlight (emitted from the circle on his chest where we are used to his unibeam coming from) up to the dark cloud, revealing it to be a... flying saucer!
Yes, turns out aliens from outer space built Gargantus as a plan to rule the Earth, based on their mistaken assumption that humanity was still like it was the last time they visited 80,000 years ago -- seeing that humanity has evolved and has protectors like Iron Man, they decide to leave and never come back. Iron Man deduced this all from his realization that Gargantus was emitting the hypnotic light from within himself, leading to a fit of crime-fighting apophenia so extreme I'm sure even Silver Age Batman would be impressed.
Tony is reunited with Marion and jokes to himself that no one has ever gone to so much trouble to find out what happened to a date.
My Thoughts: Seriously? What the fuck was this? Maybe it's the thirteen page limit, maybe it's the fact that the Iron Man feature is still fairly new, but this really feels like a story more in line with the old Atlas Comics "monsters and aliens" style of doing things than a real follow up to "Iron Man is Born". The opening of the story is actually pretty good, setting up the status quo for the feature, but something about seeing Iron Man doing, well, any of the things he does in this issue just rubs me the wrong way. Gangsters? Circus animals? A robot neanderthal built by aliens? Marvel Comics made its name by having better stories than what DC was publishing at the same time, but this story feels like just the kind of by-the-numbers nonsensical gibberish you'd find in a 1963 Batman or Superman.
I'm disappointed that we don't really pick off from where the last issue left off. We don't see how Tony got back to America, how he realized he only needed the chest piece to survive, and most importantly we don't get ANY reason as to why he then decides to start fighting crime as Iron Man. We just get a montage of sequences and references to offpanel adventures that establishes that since we last saw him yep, he decided to start superheroing because... he can, I guess? It's as if Stan figured since he was clearly a superhero, what does he need with motivation? Forgetting that in the superhero game the hero's motivation is often what sets them apart and defines what makes sense for them to fight -- we can see the problem with this hands-off approach here. What is cool, however, is Stan realizing that Tony would likely improve and modify his armour as time went on and technology improved, rather than just stick with the version he built in Vietnam. The "Golden Avenger" look that debuts here will be the first of many, many, variations on the armour.
The Art:  This time we got Don Heck inking over Jack Kirby. It's not a bad combination, actually. Kirby's dynamite in the "superhero" action scenes, with powerful layouts, while Heck appears to be redrawing Kirby heavily in the civillian scenes, delivering more "attractive" looking people more in line with the way the characters looked last issue. As a team it really works for the book, keeping Stark looking suave and handsome but Iron Man looking powerful and dynamic. Gargantus is obviously a Kirby design, he's like a non-rocky version of The Thing, but the aliens are very generic and weak -- little green men in a cliché flying saucer. Oy.
The Story: The Kirby art almost makes this thing readable, but on a story level it really fails. It spends the first couple of pages giving us the new status quo, then a few pages on the adventure that inspires Iron Man to repaint his armour, and so when we finally get to Gargantus we only have seven pages left, just over half the story. And once we do the whole thing just falls apart on any kind of sense-making level. You can see they are still ironing out the kinks in the Marvel Bullpen, sort've taking a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach, but it doesn't excuse how lame this is. I mean, at least Stan realized that a giant hypnotizing Neanderthal trying to take over the world is a little farfetched -- but were generic UFO aliens the best explanation you could muster? And the fact that Iron Man deduces it all so easily just because Gargantus tried to hypnotise him on a cloudy day? And everyone reacts to "oh, it was just aliens" as if that was the most reasonable thing in the world when really you think that would be waaay freakier. Once again Stan's plot is scripted by someone else, this time Robert Bernstein, who's credited as "R. Berns" for probably much the same reason we don't call the man "Stanley Lieber". Bernstein was actually the main writer of the Silver Age Aquaman and a really talented guy, but his script here is just workmanlike, doing an amiable job of fleshing out Stan's plots and Jack's pencils, but nothing more.
Stark Science: Stan's misunderstanding and exaggeration of "transistors" continues here, and with Bernstein's help they basically just become magic -- I have no idea how electrical current amplifiers, even miniaturized, can cause solid metal to become foldable and collapseable. Other gadgets introduced on the suit this issue are pretty standard: public address speakers, a drill, the ability to electrify the skin of the suit, etc. 
I have no idea where Stan got the idea that hypnosis works by the hypnotist reflecting light from their eyes into the eyes of their subject. Classical hypnotic induction actually works by getting the subject to focus on a bright object so that their mind is focused while their eyes and sense actually wear out from the strain.
Notes and Trivia: Based on a suggestion from a girlfriend, Tony spraypaints the Mark I gold, beginning the "Golden Avenger" look for Iron Man (although he won't be an Avenger for five more months). The suit also gains a metal miniskirt that goes unremarked upon, completing the look of the MARK I MOD 1.

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