Sunday, August 25, 2013

Tales of Suspense #42 (June, 1963)

"Trapped by the Red Barbarian"
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Robert Bernstein
Artist: Don Heck
Synopsis: Iron Man stops a communist spy ring from stealing an American A-bomb through some ridiculous magnetism tricks, and gives the captured spies to the FBI
As Tony Stark, he returns to his factory where he is working on a disintegrator ray for the US army capable of wiping out tanks, walls, perhaps even cities instantaneously - it's clearly the most powerful weapon ever developed and makes nuclear weapons look like firecrackers, oh and did I mention it can be installed in a flashlight casing and is totally handheld and portable?
Instead of reflecting on the horrors of science and technology, Stark and the army are mostly just worried about what will happen if the Reds get their hands on the plans.

Meanwhile, "in a Red Satellite country", the Red Barbarian, the leader of the communist spy network in America, sits hearing reports from his subordinates (in reality Soviet foreign intelligence was controlled by the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, led at this time by Aleksandr Sakharovsky). They tell him of Stark's new weapon and he wants them to go steal the plans, but no one can get into Stark's factory because it's so heavily guarded by the US Army.

There is one agent who can do it, however: The Actor! A master of disguise so talented he is able to even fool the Red Barbarian into thinking he's Nikita Khruschev! The Actor proposes that he disguise himself as Stark, get into the factory and then steal the plans. 
The Actor successfully makes it to the US and gets Stark away from the factory by faking a summons to the Pentagon. However, while he is rooting around Stark's office he discovers spare Iron Man parts and makes the obvious deductions. He decides to sit on the knowledge so he can use it in the future to spare himself in case of some blunder or change in fortune. Leaving with the plans, he sets some assassins to kill Stark when he returns.
However the assassins are no match for Iron Man, and they are quickly defeated and spill the beans about the Actor's plans. Then Iron Man figures the only way to beat the Actor's plane to it's destination is to travel by ROCKET and this is either ridiculous or ridiculously awesome, I'm not sure which. It certainly makes it the most expensive counter-intelligence mission of all time - such a flight would've cost something like $24 million to execute (about $176 million in modern dollars).
After being launched into orbit, the command capsule seperates and is guided into Red territory by US radio control, somehow not being shot down by the Soviets or detected by their radar. He catches the Actor in his car and traps him, heading to the Red Barbarian's headquarters (presumably he got the location from the Actor?)
Reaching the Red Barbarian, Iron Man pretends to be the Actor pretending to be Iron Man, and shows the Red Barbarian an attaché case which he claims contains the plans, which he claims cannot be opened for another four hours due to a timelock which would explode a miniature A-bomb if tampered with. "The Actor" tells the Red Barbarian he will change out of his Iron Man costume and return in four hours with the plans, which Red Barbarian seems to think is totally reasonable.
Iron Man then returns to The Actor and lets him go, then flies off to "the nearest Western country." The Actor heads to the Barbarian and begins explaining how Iron Man took the plans from him but it doesn't matter because he knows Iron Man is really Tony Stark, but the Barbarian thinks the Actor is trying to trick him, he thinks the Actor went off and delivered the plans himself in the interim and took all the glory and is trying to stall the Barbarian finding out. 
So he orders the Actor killed. The End.
My Thoughts: So, it's not great, but this is actually a huge improvement over the past two issues. Espionage, international intrigue, fighting against communist enemies, these feel like natural things to find in an Iron Man story based on the set-up and premise. The Red Barbarian isn't a great villain, he's pretty generic actually (Soviet general, he just looks kinda caveman-ish in appearance), but he also feels like a villain I wouldn't mind seeing again and perhaps seeing develop into something better (the Red Skull was pretty shallow to begin with after all). Although I have to wonder why Stan Lee decided to make up a new Soviet spy who's a master of disguise character when he already had one?
The Art: Don Heck is back on solo art duties and I like it. The soul of the feature is in Heck, I think. I mean, I like Kirby as much as the next guy but the more of him you put into Iron Man and less of Heck and the thing became very awkward and generic feeling. Heck draws Iron Man's world of high-class international intrigue very well. Despite being a romance artist, or more likely because of that background, Heck brings Tony Stark to life, whereas I haven't been really satisfied with Kirby's version. Good art this time around, is what I'm saying.
The Story: It's a pretty standard story with a pretty standard structure but at least it's competent, which puts it miles above the last two issues. We get right into the action, even opening with a kind of James Bond esque "end of the last mission" sequence (even though the Bond movies hadn't even started doing that at this point) and then we get a nice focused plot. I can forgive it's somewhat generic and shallow nature because after all it's only thirteen pages. My only nitpick is the disintegrator ray -- what happened with it? Did Stark perfect it? That's a pretty devastating loose end to leave! Stan has had a bad habit, as seen in my Stark Science section, of having Tony invent all kinds of really over the top gadgets to cement his reputation as a genius, but then forget about them soon after and never deal with any real repurcussions from them. And why the heck isn't the Actor the Chameleon? I mean, "The Actor" has gotta be among the worst villain names ever, and even at this early stage Stan was already laying the groundwork for the unified Marvel universe in his other books.
Stark Science: First up, early on Iron Man uses super-powered "transistorized" magnets to lift up the guns of some crooks, but when asked why he himself isn't affected explains that his armour is made up of alloys that reject magnetic attraction. Which means Tony must've changed the composition of his armour since IRON is pretty fucking magnetic. It's also a weird exchange because it shows that Stan Lee does understand that NOT EVERYTHING IS MAGNETIC, which isn't what you'd think from reading most of his other comics.
Tony's disintegrator ray is science fiction to an insane degree, as mentioned earlier. It's basically a ray of light that just annihilates stuff. It's totally outside the way the laws of physics work and if it existed it would drastically change the balance of power and totally fall under the "too dangerous to ever use" category.
As mentioned earlier, using a rocket to send just one man over the Iron Curtain is the most expensive and least subtle counter-intelligence method ever.

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