Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tales of Suspense featuring the Power of Iron Man #54 (June, 1964)

"The Mandarin's Revenge" 
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Don Heck
Synopsis: We begin with Iron Man flying around town in a new armor variant - instead of the "flip up faceplate" style he's now riveted the face to the helmet to form a solid piece. This is Mark II Mod 1 by my count. He gets an urgent call from Pepper asking him to find Tony to come in to Stark HQ. 
There's a big emphasis on power saving in this issue - Iron Man switches from transistor powered flight to rocket skates often to save power. Arriving at Stark Industries, Pepper tells Tony he's wanted at the Pentagon. Even though it would be totally reasonable for Pepper to come as his secretary and Happy to drive him there, he blows them both off under the auspices of keeping them safe and goes there himself as Iron Man.
This is a major dick move, and even he seems to recognize that, thinking to himself that he can't get too close to Pepper because of his dangerous life, but also feeling jealous of the attentions Happy puts on Pepper, in a standard Marvel Comics romance melodrama subplot. It's at this point that you wish he'd just come clean with everybody, it'd make things a lot easier.
Anyways, at the Pentagon it turns out that remote control surveillance missiles designed by Stark for recon in Vietnam have been flying off course and crashing. Tony denies the Reds have anything that can shoot them down, so the military brass figures the missiles are defective. Tony won't accept that answer, so he heads to Vietnam by strapping himself in the Iron Man suit to an ICBM!
Arriving in 'Nam, as Tony Stark he offers to oversee the launch of one of his "observer missiles". On the scope they see it be pulled off course and disappear -- Tony realizes this happens in fact right at the stronghold of the Mandarin! Y'know, in Red China. 
A quick flashback to ToS #50 later, Tony is driving a Jeep right to the Mandarin's stronghold, rationalizing that if he goes as Iron Man that the defenses will be up, but that he can get inside if he allows himself to be caught as Tony Stark. How he manages to drive a Jeep from Vietnam deep into Red China without anything else happening to him is left totally unexplained.
The Mandarin's guards take Tony prisoner, but when they try to examine his attache case it goes all From Russia With Love on them and explodes with sleeping gas, giving Tony an opportunity to suit up and bust through a wall to take on the Mandarin as Iron Man.
They battle for the rest of the story, as the Mandarin offers Iron Man a seat at his right hand and he turns it down, so the Mandarin throws electrical traps and missiles at the Golden Avenger, and even comes at him with a sword (drawn as a generic scimitar rather than anything appropriately Chinese). 
Finally the Mandarin hits him with a Black Light beam from one of his rings (think the Darkness spell in D&D) and unable to see anything, Iron Man is trapped when a bunch of metal bolas wrap around him, trapping him in metal cables suspended between electric dynamos.
Iron Man is trapped and at the Mandarin's mercy...
My Thoughts: The awaited follow-up to ToS #50 is a good clash between Iron Man and Mandarin, even if it's light on substance. The most striking thing reading it is just what an unreasonable dick Tony is to Pepper and Happy. It makes no sense -- why even have them on the payroll if you aren't going to let them do their jobs? What's more, Tony's interior monologue shows that he knows he's being a dick. This is an example of Stan falling on old tropes and then trying to seem sophisticated by lampshading it. You see it again in the fight with Mandarin. Stan writes Iron Man as very quick witted and snarky, with lots of snappy banter. He writes Mandarin with very melodramatic stereotypical villain dialogue. I think Stan really enjoyed that kind of bombastic villain monologuing, but he hangs the lampshade on it by having Iron Man quip about how corny it is. Whether that comes off as knowingly funny or undercutting his own writing is up to you.
The Art: One thing that the simple story really helps is the art. Heck gets a full 6/13 pages for the battle with the Mandarin, so he gets to use large panels and more open layouts. It's not Kirby level dynamic, but it still feels exciting and impactful, bringing home the idea that fighting the Mandarin is a big deal.
The Story: The story? What story? It's just an excuse to get us a rematch between Iron Man and the Mandarin, this time spread into two parts so we can have a more exciting fight scene! Other than continuing the Tony/Pepper/Happy romantic subplot, there's not much to the story this month, which otherwise hangs on old movie serial tropes. Get captured, get to the villain's lair, bust out, fight, get captured again, cliffhanger!

Stark Science: It's cool that a lot of the tech stuff in this issue focuses on Tony trying to conserve power, mainly because it means that when he runs out of juice at a key moment as Iron Man it feels earned instead of pulled out of Stan's ass. 
The main bit of Stark tech this ish is these "observer missiles". Now, in a modern story these would be spy satellites, and indeed they are in Joe Casey's modern retelling of these issues in Enter the Mandarin. Observer missiles are a kind of weirder idea, and an interesting way of Stark making weapons that aren't offensive in nature. Now, the reason Stan went this route instead of the more reasonable recon satellites is that the existence of such satellites was top secret until 1972, when info on the original US Corona program which had been in place since 1959 was released to the public.
The Mandarin's rings continue to be unexplained, their nature hinted to be technological but still uncertain. 
The idea of Iron Man strapping himself to an ICBM for speedy travel to Vietnam is hilarious and impractical, but actually more believable than the spyplane flight he took to China in ToS #50. 
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Mark II Mod 1 armor, ditching the pointy hinged faceplate for a one piece helmet, establishing more or less a baseline for Iron Man's appearance from now on. At the moment Heck draws it with visible rivets between the red and gold segments and also down the middle of the face. We'll see how long that detail lasts. This issue was adapted into Enter the Mandarin #4-5, by Joe Casey and Eric Canete. I strongly recommend this excellent series.

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