Monday, December 30, 2013

Tales of Suspense #52 (April, 1964)

"The Crimson Dynamo Strikes Again!"
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Don Rico (as "N. Korok")
Art: Don Heck
Synopsis: Last we saw Anton Vanko, the brilliant Russian scientist had defected to America and become an employee of Tony Stark.  Now he works tirelessly developing the new "laser light", which if it could be perfected would be a powerful new weapon for Stark's defense contracts.
Vanko believes he can test the last using his Crimson Dynamo armour, but the weapon is still unstable and Stark has to rescue him at the last moment, trying to convince the Russian that he does not need to sacrifice his life to redeem himself.
Meanwhile, in Soviet Russia, Khruschev wants Vanko so dead, that he calls in his top spies to "eliminate" him -- Boris, a hulking brute, and Natasha, a beautiful femme fatale otherwise known as the Black Widow. Yes, two Russian spies named Boris and Natasha -- get it? Get it?? 
Anyways, the plan is for the Black Widow to seduce Tony Stark while Boris finds and kills Vanko. Thus, they are dropped off in New York by a secret Soviet spy sub, and show up at Stark's munitions plant in Flushing claiming to be science teachers from Soviet Ukraine (so, still should be pretty suspicious and probably not allowed anywhere near a munitions plant in America in 1964) -- so of course Stark agrees to give them a full tour of the plant.
Natasha manages to distract Stark with her sultry Russian hotness in order to give Boris a chance to find Vanko. Boris paralyses Vanko with a ray gun Vanko himself had designed, then kidnaps him and steals the Crimson Dynamo armour -- Boris seeks to use the armor to destroy Stark and Iron Man both  and thus become a national hero back in the USSR.
He starts using the armor to blow up the plant, which causes Stark and Natasha to come rushing back from the swanky nightclub they'd apparently gone off to when the plot wasn't looking.
In the smoke and confusion of the firefighters and security men, Stark changes to Iron Man and discovers Boris in the Crimson Dynamo armour, causing him to believe Vanko has betrayed him. Boris zaps Iron Man with an electrical charge which shorts out his systems, and takes him back to the sub where he lies prisoner along with Vanko. 
Luckily, the Russkies were foolish enough to leave Iron Man locked in a room with a power outlet, and thus one extension cord and charging period later he's back to full power, rescuing Vanko, smashing up the sub, and heading back to Flushing.
Back at the factory, Iron Man confronts the Crimson Dynamo and the two do battle. However, the Crimson Dynamo has the upper hand on Iron Man, and so in that moment Anton Vanko grabs the laser prototype, firing it at the Crimson Dynamo, destroying both of them in the unstable surge of energy that follows, giving his life to the ideals of freedom.
In the excitement of the explosion, the Black Widow escapes justice, but with her true identity revealed to the authorities she is a fugitive in America, and with the failure of her mission she can never return to the Soviet Union, and thus she must wander the country in constant fear of discovery.
My Thoughts:  Amazing what small beginnings big things can have, isn't it? In this issue, we are introduced to Natasha Romanov, aka the Black Widow. Today we all know Black Widow as a badass member of the Avengers with flaming red hair played Scarlet Johansson in a skintight catsuit on the big movie screens, but in this initial story she's an dark auburn haired femme fatale cliché with a name that's essentially an early 60s pop culture reference joke. She has very little role in the story beyond distracting Stark, and yet Stan still gives her a cool, mysterious personality and an interesting ending that highlights the tragic lonliness of the life of a spy. 
Even though she's not the focus of the story (which is the return of the Crimson Dynamo and the death of Anton Vanko), she manages to steal the show.
The Art:  Good stuff from Don Heck this month. I don't really get Black Widow's fur boa or her veiled hat but I guess this was early 60s visual shorthand for "femme fatale" the same way a black catsuit became visual shorthand for "badass spy". Good action panels in this issue, but my favourite element of Heck's art is the human one, the expressions on his characters. Most affecting of all is the look on Tony's face when his friend sacrifices his life for what he believes in. Heck's art really sells the melodrama of the moment.
The Story: While the meat of the plot is the two Russian spies and the stealing of the armour and the action and the fights, the meat of the drama is Anton Vanko. Convinced somewhat conveniently to defect to America in the closing panels of ToS #46, Vanko is now trying to redeem himself for past sins and develop weapons for the American military complex. But it's also clear he has a bit of a death wish, given that he wants to dangerously testfire a deadly weapon at himself (while wearing his armour) even when Tony explains that it is totally not necessary.
It's an interesting philosophical difference between Tony and his friend -- Stark believes one can redeem themself and become a hero without the need for sacrifice and loss, while Vanko clearly believes the only path to redemption is in death for the sake of others. Even though Vanko has defected to the capitalist side, his philosophical values remain rooted in communist thinking.
What I'm saying is that with all these elements in play and with only thirteen pages to play with, Stan delivers a very compelling tale. In this, he is helped along by former Timely/Atlas/Marvel writer Don Rico, operating under the pseudonym of "N. Korok" because by the early 60s Rico's comics career was largely over and he had become a successful paperback writer, likely writing the script for this and next month's issue as a favour to Stan.
Stark Science: Light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, or "laser" technology, had been under serious development since 1957 in both the US and the USSR, in conjuction with other radiation emission technologies such as masers and rasers. In the US, a legal battle between Gordon Gould and Bell Labs had been raging since 1960 over intellectual ownership of the technology. The first functional laser was developed at Hughes Research Laboratories in California in 1960 (Howard Hughes of course being one of the primary inspirations for Tony Stark).
Most lasers are dangerous because fired into human eyes their strong light can be blinding, but what Vanko is working on here is a high powered laser to burn through solid objects, a very 1960s sci-fi kind of laser such as in the movie "Goldfinger", which has persisted as a pop culture idea to this day.  The first laser was capable of burning through a Gillette rasor blade, and class 4 industrial lasers today can burn skin. However, truely effective laser weapons are still beyond the capability of modern technology largely due to the immense power such weapons would require.
Boris fires a "jet paralyser" gun at Vanko, which sprays "magnetic artificial fibers" which wrap around the target and immobilizes them. Needless to say, this is all comic book scientific mumbo jumbo, a lot of impressive sounding words put together to say a gun that fires a net at a dude.
Iron Man's batteries must be hella efficient to recharge to full power in such a short amount of time from the power of a Soviet submarine -- also, he must have a voltage adapter somewhere in that suit of his to transform the 220V power used in Europe to his American 120V system.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Black Widow, first and last appearance of the second Crimson Dynamo, death of Anton Vanko.
This issue was adapted into issue #3 of Enter the Mandarin.