Saturday, September 7, 2013

Tales of Suspense #47 (November, 1963)

"Iron Man Battles the Melter!"
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Steve Ditko
Inks: Don Heck
Synopsis: In recent army demonstrations, Stark tanks have been failing, falling apart. Looking into the problem personally, Tony Stark is attacked by a costumed saboteur called The Melter, whose melting ray has been causing the sabotage.
In a flashback, it is revealed that the Melter is in actuality Bruno Horgan, a former competitor of Stark's.
Horgan's military technology used inferior materials and ultimately his defense contracts were taken away and given to Stark. As he was closing down his factories and plants, Horgan accidentally discovered a ray that melts iron instantly (but doesn't seem to affect other materials - it's not just an intense heat ray, but seems to affect iron atoms directly). 
Horgan figures that the power to melt iron at will makes him invinicibly powerful and so creates a costume and mask so he can "plunder at will". As The Melter, he begins his attacks on Stark's factories so to get back at him and the US army both.
The Melter leaves Stark alive for some reason, and so when Stark awakes he returns to his office and changes into Iron Man in order to fight him. The Melter takes out the generators for Stark's plant, and when Iron Man attempts to intervene the Melter melts his armour's arm, so the Golden Avenger is forced to make a hasty retreat -- however he smashes the factory's steam pipe on the way out, forcing the Melter to retreat as well.
Changed back to Stark, he inspects the damage and orders his men to work around the clock at triple pay to repair the damage. Meanwhile, Tony puts all his other commitments on hold so he can work on a way to defeat the Melter. Tony knows that if the beam were to melt his mask, or his chest plate, during battle it would be disastrous. But he's not helpless, he's "got the greatest weapon in the world... a human brain!"
However, even Tony Stark can't ignore a summons to Washington, where he learns that the brass believe Tony has made up the Melter as an excuse for why his production has fallen behind. And if production is not straightened out, he'll lose his cushy government contracts!
Stark is called back to Flushing for an emergency at the plant. The Melter is attacking again, threatening Pepper and Happy and the lives of everyone else at the plant. 
However this time when he attacks Iron Man... nothing happens! The Melter flees but Iron Man knows the plant's layout far better and confronts him at every turn. The terrified Melter melts the floor beneath his feet and flees into the water mains beneath the plant.
Without knowing if the Melter is alive or dead, Tony changes out of his suit -- now made of "tough extruded  aluminum"! Soon he's back to giving orders to his employee - and Happy wonders if things are better or worse when everything's back to "normal"!
My Thoughts: The third of three great stories in a row, this story is helped out immensely by it's longer, 18-page length, by the face that Stan is actually scripting as well as plotting, and by introducing a villain who, like the Crimson Dynamo, is unique and feels specific to Iron Man in both motivation and method. This is really the first Iron Man story where I can feel the personalities of the characters coming through, and you really appreciate the addition of Pepper and Happy to the cast. Also, like the last two stories, I really enjoy that we see how the villain threatens both Iron Man and Tony Stark, giving him ample motivation to defeat him. This story feels like the culmination of the promise of the previous two -- it's the first really good Iron Man story.
The Art: Pencils here are being handled by one of my all-time favourite comics artists - Steve Ditko! Ditko was one of Stan's main collaborators in the early days of Marvel, an amazingly idiosyncratic artist with a very quirky style all his own, very unique from that of Jack Kirby's. To this day, "Kirby or Ditko?" is a question much akin to "Beatles or Rolling Stones?" or "Pepsi or Coke?" At the time of this issue, Ditko was eight issues into a 38 issue run on Amazing Spider-Man, a character he co-created with Lee, and was also illustrated the adventures of Dr. Strange in Strange Tales. Eventually Ditko would have a falling out with Lee and leave Marvel to create characters such as Blue Beetle, The Question, The Creeper, and Hawk and Dove over at DC. About midway through the 1960s Ditko discovered the works of Ayn Rand and became an ardent Objectivist, a belief system that began to heavily influence his art. 
I'm not sure if Ditko had discovered Objectivism by 1963, but it doesn't appear so as it's values hadn't begun influencing his storytelling yet. Either way, I love Ditko's work in this issue and I wish he had become a regular artist for Iron Man -- he might've stayed at Marvel longer, as Tony Stark is almost an ideal Objectivist hero, basically Hank Rearden in an iron suit! 
Ditko's style is often described as "quirky", his faces have great expressive qualities which reveal a lot of character and his panels are often very dynamic and effective while working solely on variations of a regular six-panel grid layout. He's being inked by Don Heck, presumably to lend a feeling of continuity to the feature similar to Heck's inking of Jack Kirby - but while Heck keeps the cast on model and recognizable, his inking doesn't temper Ditko's essential flavour as much as it tempered Kirby's -- it's still very clearly Ditko.
The Story: By presenting a simply one-villain tale in 18 pages Stan is able to expand on his scenarios more and give more characterization. This is the first Iron Man script Stan's written himself, and as such it feels much more "alive", with that classic trademark Marvel characterization. Happy, Pepper and Tony grow from one-dimensional characters to, well, two-dimensional characters. All their essential qualities were already there, but Stan lets them shine. Iron Man develops a sense of humour, in the style of the standard Marvel "mock the villain" gags. The Melter, like Jack Frost and Crimson Dynamo, feels like the kind of villain Iron Man should be fighting - a technologically based villain with a mission to destroy Stark, which brings in Iron Man to defend.
 My absolute favourite element of the whole story however has to be that Stark explicitly is depicted as outthinking the villain -- using his mind, described as his greatest weapon, to conquer his foe. That is absolutely what Iron Man stories should be about and what Tony Stark represents as a hero: the triumph of reason and rational values. And Stan even remembers to let the Melter get away so he can return as a villain in the future! Excellent.
Stark Science: The Melter's melting ray is just one of those piece of hogwash comic book science we have to accept - somehow it can heat up iron particles to 1538 Celsius (2800 Fahrenheit) without affecting anything else -- for example it doesn't light Stark's arm on fire when it melts his armour. It also clearly affects alloys of iron in addition to pure iron, as we know that the armour is an iron alloy that is (somehow) non-magnetic (which is ridiculous). So yeah, the ray only affects iron and nothing else, which is ridiculous but we just gotta buy it.
Which is why Tony's able to beat it by simply building his armour out of something other than iron, in this case extruded aluminium. Which is kind've a terrible replacement choice -- aluminium is very malleable much weaker than iron. There's a reason we make pop cans out of aluminium and not tanks. But I guess it got the job done. Although, does this make him Aluminum Man now?
Notes and Trivia:  First Iron Man story written solely by Stan Lee, Stark debuts the MARK I MOD 3 armour out of aluminium, first Iron Man armour not actually made of iron.

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