Thursday, August 29, 2013

Tales of Suspense #44 (August, 1963)

The Mad Pharoah”
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Robert Bernstein
Artist: Don Heck
Synopsis: Tony Stark is travelling to Egypt and while the gossip columnists think it may be to start some international romance, he is actually visiting an archeologist friend of his to assist with a dig.
When he arrives the archeologist explains that they are searching for the tomb of King Hatap, who was known as the “Mad Pharaoh” for his knowledge of black magic and his ruthless crimes. They know it's in the general area but not the precise location and hope Stark can use his technological expertise to pinpoint the location so they don't waste time digging around to find it.
Stark suggests they call his... friend... Iron Man to assist due to his many technological gadgets. Which are all Stark gadgets anyway, so why Tony feels the need to “call Iron Man in Cairo” and then return in costume eludes me.
At least until we find out that Tony is spending his time in Cairo gambling at the casino, drinking champagne and watching belly dancers. However his chest plate is running out of charge and so he hurries back to recharge it, nearly drained. He damns the need for the chest plate to keep him alive and needing to keep his Iron Man identity a secret, which... wait, why is Tony keeping his identity a secret, anyway? There's basically no reason for it other than that he's a superhero and it's a trope of superheroes.
Anyways, he returns to the dig site as Iron Man and uses portable transistorized fluoroscope goggles to see through the tomb walls and locate Hatap's burial chamber, digging to it easily with a supercharged diamond drill (all the workers must be pissed. They probably aren't being paid now).
They find Hatap's mummy but the archeologist notes that it's very peculiarly embalmed. The next day, it's missing! They search for who the thief may be, but Stark is cornered by a strange figure... it's Hatap himself, somehow still alive after 2,000 years!
Hatap explains that he had led a rebellion against Cleopatra, but his forces were defeated (wait, so if he was a rebel, how was he a king and a pharaoh?). But he faked his death by ingesting a serum which placed him in suspended animation for two millennia. Now he is going to travel back in time to defeat Cleopatra with Stark's help!
Hatap transports them back in time using a golden charm (you rub it twice and it takes you back two millennia apparently) and as much as crazy bullshit ancient Egyptian magic shouldn't really be in an Iron Man comic, it totally works and the two find themselves in ~31 BC or so.
Tony rolls down a sand dune out of sight of Hatap and changes into Iron Man (because of course he brought the attaché case). When Iron Man flies up into the sky Hatap believes that this strange armoured demon has killed Stark and flees into the desert.
Instead of, I dunno, attacking Hatap and trying to get the golden charm so he can return to his own time, Iron Man flies off to meet Cleopatra. Because, hey, why not?
She's being attacked by Roman forces (presumably Octavian's) but Iron Man shows no regard for the temporal prime directive and promptly wipes them out to ingratiate himself to the queen. Iron Man is regarded as a saviour from the gods, and Cleopatra offers for him to stay with her as her consort (wasn't she married to Marc Antony at this point, with like three kids?). Iron Man offers simply to destroy Hatap's forces, which are even now marshalling against her.
Iron Man easily devastates Hatap's army because, y'know, he's a dude in a powered armour from 2000 years in the future. He grabs the golden charm from Hatap, who trips and falls on an upturned sword, killing himself.
Despite Cleopatra's protestations that her heart belongs only to him, Iron Man rubs the charm and returns to the present. As Tony resumes examining the tombs with his archeologist friend, they discover odd hieroglyphics depicting Cleopatra embracing a golden armoured figure.
Returning to America, Tony attends the gala premiere of the movie Cleopatra. When reporters question him whether he would've been able to woo the “Siren of the Nile”. Stark replies that “stranger things have happened.” 
My Thoughts: A valid question might be "why the hell is Iron Man travelling back in time and falling in love with Cleopatra, like a bad Silver Age DC comic?" The answer, of course, is to be found in the ending of our tale when Tony goes to the movies. 20th Century Fox's megaepic, Cleopatra, was released that summer. The most expensive motion picture ever made to that point, it starred Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and was definitely the most hyped film of the early 1960s. It nearly bankrupted the studio and was so costly that it only made back half it's budget... despite being the number one box-office hit of 1963! It's an overlong, overambitious, ridiculously over-the-top movie - so as much as Stan Lee jumping on the bandwagon strikes me as terribly unoriginal for the "Marvel Age of Comics", at least he kept it short at thirteen pages.
The Art: Heck is back by himself this issue, and his work is really great to behold. When I first encountered Heck's work I didn't like the style of it, but seeing it in these early Iron Men stories I've really taken a liking to it. It's almost completely different from the Kirby style that quickly became the "house style" of Marvel, but in that lies it's charm to me in a way. Even with it's somewhat "scratchy" nature, it feels refined and stylized in a way that fits the world of Tony Stark. Heck's Cleopatra is beautiful, his Hatap mad and evil, his Stark is handsome and dashing. That being said I prefer the way Kirby renders Iron Man himself. Heck's version is okay, but it just lacks a certain mechanical oomph that Kirby delivers. 
If this story were done today I would take Heck down a peg or two for rendering the Egyptians in styles and clothing from 13,00 years earlier than the time period the story takes place in -- Cleopatra's Egypt was a Hellenized society, so more likely everyone would be going around in white togas instead of crazy King Tut get-ups. But pretty much every cultural depiction of Ancient Egypt makes this mistake, taking 3,000 years of Egyptian history and culture and compressing it like it all happened at the same time. Even the Cleopatra movie this comic is desperately trying to cash in on does this.
The Story: Why did Hatap's serum put him suspended animation for 2,000 years? What would be the use of that, strategically? Why not a few days or a few weeks til the heat died down? If he had a magic fuckin' time travel charm on him the whole time, why not travel back in time and kill Cleopatra when she was a baby? Why is he rebelling against her, anyways? Was he actually a pharaoh or just some crazy usurper? How was Stark supposed to make advanced future weapons for him with Iron Age technology? How did Hatap know Stark was a weapons designer anyway? If the charm can transport multiple people, why not transport an army to the future, steal the weapons, and then come back? Why does Stark worry about maintaining his secret identity in 31 BC? And yet not worry about violating the timeline at all, using all kinds of modern weapons to destroy Roman and Egyptian armies? And how is Stark able to speak to Hatap and Cleopatra, who would be speaking Koine Greek? (Granted almost everyone always ignores language differences in time travel stories).
Wait, I'm not supposed to be analysing this so carefully, am I? Stan just wanted to do a comic where Cleopatra falls in love with Iron Man because there was a movie out.
It's still nonsense.
Stark Science: Iron Man can see through walls with fluoroscope goggles - a fluoroscope is a device used to view x-rays in real-time, so it's use here is consistent and fits with Stark's penchant for miniaturization - the idea that it would let Stark see through stone walls is scientifically hilarious but consistent with the standard comic book (mis)understanding of how x-rays work. Likewise Iron Man's diamond drill fits the standard Stark gadgets introduced so far -- tiny and overpowered. Iron Man's other gadgets in this issue are pretty lowkey mechanical devices: a small rotor he can attach to propel himself through water, wheels he can attach to roll while lying down (an awesome idea), etc.
The idea that an Egyptian "pharoah" from the first century BC could make suspended animation serums and time travel devices is ludicrous, but "magic is real, but only in ancient societies" is another common comics trope and the "potion that only makes you seem dead" is as well, as much as I dislike seeing such things in an Iron Man comic.  

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