Sunday, 22 July 2018

Iron Man: A Red and Yellow Future

IRON MAN'S GOLDEN ARMOURED RUN ENDED with the November 1963 issue of Tales of Suspense. Stan Lee had realised that his grand superhero adventure of the early Silver Age was in danger of foundering. He'd started drafting in some old Atlas alumni to (re)build to same sort of operation he'd presided over during the Atlas years. But the stories, by former Atlas and Charlton staff writer Ernie Hart and Atlas and DC scripter Robert Bernstein, seemed flat and lifeless compared to Stan's own writing efforts and they had to go.

Tales of Suspense 47 was the final outing for Iron Man's golden armour, a design pretty clunky even by 1963's standards. Even while Don Heck was trying to make the armour lighter and more manoeuvrable in the interior art, Kirby continued to draw the same clumsy tank-like armour on all the covers. Small wonder Lee brought in Ditko for the makeover (and mentioned it on the cover).
In taking over the writing of the Marvel b-titles, Stan also brought a little something extra to each book. In Strange Tales, he added Dr Strange as a regular feature; in Tales to Astonish, Stan changed Ant-Man to Giant Man; in Journey into Mystery he added Tales of Asgard as a secondary feature; and in Tales of Suspense, he had Ditko design Iron Man a new, red-and-yellow armour. He also added Tales of the Watcher as a back-up strip, but I barely even noticed that.

In anticipation of the changes he was planning on Iron Man, Stan needed Steve Ditko. I think he saw Don Heck as a capable storyteller, but not a designer. The Kirby look for Iron Man wasn't working - at least, not for Stan - so he went to his next best designer. He moved Don Heck temporarily off Iron Man onto Thor and suspended Strange Tales' Dr Strange for a couple of months to free up Ditko's time for Iron Man.

The Melter is an interesting foe for Iron Man, but I don't think Stan made it clear enough that the melting beam liquifies iron (and only iron) without raising the temperature. Also, I'm not seeing a great deal of Steve Ditko art here, as Heck's style is overtaking any Ditko pencils.
For "Iron Man Battles the Melter", it doesn't appear to me that Steve Ditko contributed more than the barest of layouts. I don't think Ditko was responsible for The Melter's costume either. It has the distinct look of a Heck design. And, of course, it was business as usual with the clunky yellow armour. Kirby's cover depicted Iron Man without a chin again, though in the interior art, Heck (presumably) has given the Golden Avenger's helmet a distinct curve into the neck. It does look better, but even as a kid, I wondered how Stark got the helmet over his head.

Though Kirby's "chinless" Iron Man looked more like a robot, it did make sense from a practical point of view. Don Heck's version, though sleeker and more modern-looking, does make you wonder how Stark got his head through the helmet's narrow neck hole.
There's some other nice touches in the story's art. Heck renders a couple of panels in silhouette. I'm pretty sure it was Heck, as I don't recall that was trick Ditko used in any of his Spider-Man or Dr Strange art.

Is Don Heck the inker just saving himself some time by blocking in the figures in Ditko's pencils in black ink? Or was this a deliberate design decision by Ditko. I'm leaning towards the former.
Also apparent in this issue is how Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts have a bit more to do. Stan gives them quite a few lines of dialogue and even begins to refine the relationship between them.

Compare and contrast: the introduction of Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts as scripted by Robert Bernstein in Tales of Suspense 45, and, on the right, Happy and Pepper as dialogued by Stan Lee in ToS47.
But best of all is Stan Lee's peppy script. The dialogue is just so much better here than it was in the Robert Bernstein issues. Stan's humour and grasp of characterisation shine through and though there isn't much to choose between the content of say, the Happy-Pepper verbal jousting, Stan just does the whole bickering schtick so much better, but also in a good-natured way.

Even at the end of this tale, Stan wasn't giving anything away about what lay ahead. But big changes were coming to Iron Man in the very next issue.

The cover gives away the big surprise inside this issue ... Iron Man gets new-look armour. It's one of the few times the two versions of the armour have appeared in the same comic and on the same cover.
Tales of Suspense 48 (Dec 1963) was quite a landmark issue. Not for the first time, Stan overturned a Kirby design that wasn't, for whatever reason, working for Stan. In my view, Lee was right to get rid of the heavy, lumbering Kirby-designed golden armour. It was a 1959 Cadillac for a 1963 world - big and heavy and energy-inefficient. Having Steve Ditko do the work made sense. He'd redesigned Kirby's original drawings for Spider-Man to make the character sleeker and less bulky, it made sense to see if he could do the same thing for Iron Man.

The New Iron Man Battles the Mysterious Mr Pain - Stark's newest foe is a classic piece of eccentric Ditko design, looking more like a Dr Strange villain than someone Iron Man should be fighting. What is the point of the pointy head-dress?
The villain, Mr Doll, has taken some flack from fan circles for being anything but "a truly different super-villain". Some have compared him to The Fantastic Four's Puppet Master, but in fact the two have quite different powers. The Puppet Master uses his puppets to mind-control his victims while Mr Doll - originally called "Mr Pain" - uses his doll to cause harm to his victims in much the same way as a Voodoo houngan. He's not the best supervillain Stan's ever come up with, but he's not the worst either. Mr Doll would probably have been more interesting as Mr Pain. It's a much darker idea, and there has been some speculation that the name change was enforced by the Comics Code, though there's no confirmation of that which I could find.

Only Steve Ditko would spread a scene of Iron Man putting on his armour over three pages ... and only Ditko could make it work. Despite the slightly unsuitable inking of Dick Ayers, this is still a milestone moment in the development of Marvel Comics. And this version of the armour is still my favourite.
But the key reason to use a villain who's powers depend on using the hero's likeness against him is to catalyse the change in Stark's Iron Man armour. Stark reasons that if he alters his Iron Man appearance, Mr Doll's powers won't work against him. It's pretty flawed as far as the logic goes. Stark has already seen Mr Doll alter his magic doll to switch the pain from millionaire victim Charleston Carter to Iron Man. Nevertheless, the side benefit is that the new armour is lighter, stronger and, most importantly, far more modern-looking than the golden version. This armour, with its distinctive hinged faceplate with pointy "bat-ears", is easily my favourite of the red-and-yellow armours. Just why Stan allowed it to be changed just a few issues later is anyone's guess.

Jack Kirby doesn't quite get Ditko's design for Iron Man's new armour. Here, the hinged faceplate is drawn as though it's actually part of the  headpiece, again begging the question, how would Tony Stark put the Iron Man helmet on?
Stan used Tales of Suspense 49 (Jan 1964, on sale 8 Oct 1963) to showcase Iron Man's new abilities and give a high-profile plug to his new team book The Uncanny X-Men. In fact, he gives The X-Men the lion's share of the action, devoting a third of the story's 18 pages to Professor X and his band of merry mutants. The trigger for the tale is The X-Men's Angel flying into a danger zone above one of Stark's factories where a nuclear explosion is about to detonate. Quite why he wants to detonate an atomic device in one of his own weapons facilities isn't explained. 

Flying along, minding his own business, The X-Man Angel blunders into Tony Stark's atomic explosion. But the biggest mystery for me isn't, "Why is Tony Stark carrying out nuclear tests in a built-up area?" but rather, "How does Iron Man know The Angel's a youngster?"
Because radiation is the cause of everything in these early Marvel stories, this time the nuclear energy turns The Angel bad, at least temporarily. So Iron Man spends the rest of the issue chasing Warren Worthington around the skies over upstate New York. And when The Angel quits the X-Men to go join the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (who wouldn't appear in The X-Men for another two months), Professor X doesn't seem able to discover what The Angel's problem is, despite his not-inconsiderable telepathic powers.

Who's bad? It's funny what a bit of exposure to radiation can do: give you super-powers, take your super-powers away, make you evil ... the list is endless.
Iron Man finally has to engineer a death plunge from several miles up in order to snap The Angel out of his evilness. The story ends with The Angel recovering from his bout of bad behaviour and saving Iron Man at the last second. Everyone parts friends with The Angel assuring Iron Man that "if you even need help ... no matter how deadly the trouble ... call on me ... call on The X-Men". Yet, when The Avengers desperately needed to find the Hulk  later the same month in Avengers 3 (Jan 1964), Professor X - unchallenged by the Angel - is curtly dismissive of Iron Man's request for help.

Avengers 3: When the superteam have to find The Hulk, Iron Man approaches each of the other Marvel superheroes looking for aid. Despite The Angel's promise in Tales of Suspense 49, The X-Men are no help at all. (Thanks to George Chambers for the heads-up.)
That promise was a distant memory by the next time Iron Man encountered the mutant team, in X-Men 9 (Jan 1965), but at this point in Marvel history, Stan and Jack weren't letting pesky continuity get in the way of a good superteam battle.

X-Men 9 (Jan 1965): Not only does The Angel forget his promise to Iron Man provide help whenever asked, he doesn't seem to remember Iron Man either - though in all fairness, Iron Man doesn't seem to remember The Angel. They all just want to have a Kirby scrap, for no apparent reason.
All's well that ends well, and everything was safely back to normal in time for X-Men 3 (Jan 1964, on sale 5 Nov 1963) and for Tales of Suspense 50 (Jan 1964, on sale 12 Nov 1963), which featured a brand-new villain.

In the back-end of Tales of Suspense 49 was another Marvel cross-over, unheralded on the cover. Stan began framing some of his old-school fantasy tales with a narration by The Watcher ("by special arrangement with the Fantastic Four magazine.") What seems especially strange is that Stan had prefaced the Iron Man story in this issue with the editorial message, "The Angel and The X-Men appear in this story through the courtesy of the editors of The X-Men magazine! The Avengers are depicted briefly on these pages by the spacial arrangement with the copyright owners of The Avengers magazine!" So what was Stan's point here? He's making it seem as though The X-Men and The Avengers are published by different companies, despite the fact that by this point all Marvel Comics were labelled as "Marvel Comics" in the cover corner box. So he wasn't fooling the readers. It's an odd conceit, and I cannot fathom a reason for it.

Omnipotent intergalactic demi-god The Watcher waves cheerily to the reader before relating an inconsequential tale of the passive conquering of the human race by aliens called the Sneepers. He then breaks his own code of non-interference by urging the humans not to allow this avoidable disaster to come to pass. I think I'd have preferred "Tales of Happy Hogan".
The first Watcher tale, "The Saga of the Sneepers" is barely distinguishable from the pre-hero five-pagers Stan was filling Tales of Suspense with before Iron Man and, back in the 1960s, I'd gloss over these with barely a second glance. This one has a plot by Stan and script and pencils by Larry Leiber, with George Roussos (as "G. Bell") finishing up on inks.

The first of Iron Man's truly memorable opponents was The Mandarin, a bargain basement imitator of Fu Manchu, The Mandarin followed in the footsteps of such knock offs as Wu Fang and Marvel's own Yellow Claw.
Tales of Suspense 50's "Caught in the Clutches of The Hands of the Mandarin" - despite being one of the more tautological story titles of the period - did introduce an enduring villain to the Iron Man cast. Okay, he was a low-rent Fu Manchu, but the gimmick of the rings was pretty cool. Where DC's Green Lantern had one all-powerful ring, The Mandarin had ten! I mean, what chance would Iron Man have against that?

Despite being seriously out-gunned by The Mandarin, Iron Man somehow manages to temporarily disable the warlord and escape China with his life. There would be other, more challenging battles ahead.
Iron Man gets involved when the CIA asks him to investigate a Chinese warlord The Manadarin, who is feared even by the Red Chinese government. Without really knowing what he's up against, Stark blunders straight in and is almost immediately at the mercy of the self-styled descendant of Genghis Khan. Overall the battle is inconclusive and though Iron Man temporarily defeats The Mandarin, he barely manages to escape in time to rendezvous with his CIA pickup plane and the irritated Mandarin lives to fight another day.

The tale runs a shortened 13 pages and I have to wonder if there was a reason for that, since the Iron Man stories had been 18 pages since issue 47. Certainly by ending the story in such an inconclusive way, it seems Stan had designs on bringing the Mandarin back, even at this early stage. And, of course, that would turn out to be the case. And it's great to see the great Don Heck back on pencils and inks, as the story looks once more like classic Iron Man. Certainly Ditko's input on the previous issues was invaluable, but I don't think I'd have liked to see him continue on the title.

Stan and Don also contrive to change Pepper Potts' appearance to make her more of a glamour girl than she was when first introduced. It's not beyond possibility that this was Heck's idea, as the artist was especially known for drawing attractive women characters.
Also in this story, Stan gets Don Heck to give Pepper Potts a makeover, making her far prettier. I suppose this was to make for a more convincing love triangle between Stark, Pepper and Happy ... not that it was ever convincing in the first place. Because of the shorter Iron Man story, the issue is rounded out with two fantasy tales; "Them!", a fourth wall tale in which a man believes he's being hounded by fictional characters, but turns out to be a fictional character himself, and a Tales of the Watcher "Journey's End" in which a nerd finds paradise on a hidden alien planet.

It's strange that Stan chose his two best sellers to advertise in Tales of Suspense 50. Wouldn't it have made more sense to try to bolster the lower-selling anthology titles like Journey into Mystery?
Also included for the first time, two full-page Marvel house ads for Amazing Spider-Man 9 and Fantastic Four 23 (both Feb 1964, on sale 12 Nov 1963), titles that were selling significantly better than Tales of Suspense's 188,000 copies a month average.

"The Scarecrow! What strange power does he possess?" shouts Stan's cover line for Tales of Suspense 51.  The answer is, "None!" Unlike Batman's eponymous foe over at DC Comics, this Scarecrow doesn't actually scare anyone, being an escape artist turned cat-burglar with no actual power at all.
Tales of Suspense 51 (Mar 1964) featured a decidedly unmemorable villain, especially when compared to The Mandarin. The Scarecrow is a bottom-of-the-bill vaudeville escape artist (did they still even have vaudeville by 1964?), Ebenezer Laughton (using the stage name "Uncanny Umberto"), who gets a great idea to turn to crime. So he steals a costume and three trained crows and sets himself up as a costumed second-story man. What isn't explained is how Laughton manages to contact the Communist Cuban authorities in order to sell them the secret plans he's stolen from Tony Stark.

A genuinely forgettable story, and mercifully brief at 13 pages ... with one bright spot, where Pepper Potts gets rid of one of Stark's snooty girlfriends, with a view to landing a date with Stark herself.

Stan's characterisation of Pepper Potts is straight out of a 1963 coffee commercial, but at least he was making an effort to portray a feisty, strong female character, even if he wasn't quite there yet.
It's probably not terribly politically correct by today's standards, and Stan's handling of the character is a little condescending, and owes more to Millie the Model than it does to the mainstream Marvel superhero style of storytelling, but these tales are a product of their era and should be taken within that context.

The issue is rounded out with another Tales of the Watcher and a five-page fantasy tale, also written and drawn by Larry Lieber and embellished by the decidedly eccentric Matt Fox.

Tales of Suspense 51 was Matt Fox's last inking job for Marvel, working over Larry Lieber pencils. He dropped away as the fantasy tales were phased out of the fantasy titles. His style would have been especially unsuitable for the kind of superhero stories Stan was publishing.


Matthew Fox was born in 1906, making him one of the older artists working for Marvel's predecessor Atlas Comics during the 1950s. Fox had earlier enjoyed a stint as a cover artist on the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales, from 1943 to 1951. 

It wasn't just Fox's comic art that was eccentric, his cover paintings for the legendary Weird Tales also featured some extremely odd-looking aliens.
By the end of the 1940s Weird Tales was struggling and Fox was getting fewer cover painting commissions, so he found other work, starting with a five-page strip for the Atlas title, Adventures into Weird Worlds 10 (Sep 1952). He also contributed some Weird Tales style covers to Chilling Tales (Youthful Comics) before concentrating most of his efforts on Atlas.

Matt Fox's comics career was patchy. Considering how little work he actually did for Atlas/Marvel and other publishers, he wouldn't have been able to live on so few jobs. It's been said that he also worked in advertising, but I haven't been able to uncover any further details on that.
At Atlas, he provided finishing art for just 21 stories between 1951 and 1958, his final Atlas tale appearing in Journey into Mystery 49 (Nov 1958). He dropped out of sight for a few years, returning to Marvel with art for the story, "The Man Who Wouldn't Die" in Journey into Mystery 93 (Jun 1963). He would ink another 16 short fantasy tales for early 1960s Marvel anthology titles, his last work appearing in Tales of Suspense 51 (Mar 1964).

While Matt Fox may have had his fans, by virtue of the sheer quirkiness of his work, Larry Lieber - whose pencils Fox often inked - wasn't one of them. "I hated his stuff because I struggled with drawing," Lieber told Roy Thomas in an interview for Alter Ego, "and I was trying to make the drawings look as real as humanly possible, and I had a tough time. I remember I once had Don Heck inking me on a five-page western, and I remember saying, 'My God, he's good at making my stuff look better than it is,' and he was. Matt Fox - if my stuff was a little stiff, he made it even stiffer; he made it look like wood cuttings!"

Matt Fox died in 1988.


Tales of Suspense 52 (Apr 1964) was a considerable improvement over issue 51, featuring the return of one of my favourites, The Crimson Dynamo, and the introduction of an important Marvel character who would go on to enjoy a long career and a fascinating backstory - The Black Widow.

How can this be? Didn't The Crimson Dynamo reform at the end of his last appearance and count Tony Stark as a friend and ally? All is not what it seems in this issue of Tales of Suspense.
It was established at the end of Tales of Suspense 46 that Ivan Vanko, The Crimson Dynamo and former Soviet saboteur, switches sides and goes to work for Tony Stark. And that would have worked out just fine if the Russians hadn't decided to assign notorious spy The Black Widow to assassinate Venko for daring to defect. And while they're at it, they can just take out Tony Stark and his "bodyguard" Iron Man, as well.

There's a lot of sound an fury in this story, but essentially, we meet the Black Widow who fails to destroy the defector Ivan (The Crimson Dynamo) Venko, and is forced to flee for her life, hunted by both the American and Russian authorities.
With her ox-like "assistant" Boris, Madame Natasha fetches up at Stark's factory and manages to bluff her way into a meeting with Stark. Oddly, Stark doesn't seem in the slightest bit suspicious of this unknown Russian woman who looks like a movie star. In fact, Stark acts a little bit creepy around her, uttering howlers like, "If there's a moon out, lady, you'll find out how I feel about you, too!" Meanwhile, as Tony acts like an amorous schoolboy, Boris snoops around the factory and finds Venko. He quickly subdues the defector and delivers him to a nearby Soviet submarine, then returns to the factory and puts on Venko's armour. His disguise fools Iron Man and Boris is able to defeat the Golden Avenger and also bring him to the Russian submarine. But Iron Man revives and rescues Venko. There's a final showdown at the factory, and Venko sacrifices himself to defeat The Boris Dynamo. The Black Widow, having failed her communist masters, escapes to an uncertain future in the confusion.

Stan Lee must have liked the idea of The Black Widow quite a lot, because she returned the month following her initial appearance to menace Iron Man and Tony Stark anew, this time with a stolen anti-gravity device. Also, Stan had the masthead altered to reduce the size of "Tales of Suspense" and enlarge the Iron Man lettering. Perhaps with a view to changing the title of the book at some point?
The next issue of Tales of Suspense, 53 (May 1964), is pretty much Part Two of the story, "The Black Widow Strikes Again!", this time scripted by veteran Atlas editor Don Rico, probably helping Stan out of a deadline crunch.

We know Madame Natasha - The Black Widow - is a bad girl, because she smokes ... with a long cigarette holder! And Tony Stark becomes as dumb as a rock around her.
The story is every bit as chaotic as the last one, but that's not a negative. There's loads going on in just 13 pages, but the central plot revolves around Madame Natasha trying to redeem herself with the Soviet government by stealing Tony Stark's anti-gravity device. Little does she know that the treacherous Russians have no intention of forgiving her. Much floating hardware later, the device is deactivated by Iron Man's "Proton Gun" and poor Natasha is back to square one.

My only real quibble with this issue is the way Tony Stark acts out-of-character towards Madame Natasha. It's already been well-established that Stark allows only the shallowest relationships with the women he dates because of his critical heart condition (and probably also because he has to wear a metal chest plate that would raise questions the moment he took his shirt off). Yet here he is, his tongue hanging out like a randy labrador just because The Black Widow is beautiful? I don't buy it.

Stan might have made it work if he'd explained, perhaps in some thought balloons, that Stark was especially drawn to her by some factor other than her looks. But that probably wasn't his intention, as he'd later give Madame Natasha a different love interest that would be instrumental in her changing the course of her life.

But that's a story for next time, when I cover the remainder of the Iron Man red-and-yellow solo stories.

Next: Move Over Iron Man!

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Iron Man: The Golden Years

IRON MAN WAS MARVEL'S SEVENTH superhero series, debuting in Tales of Suspense 39 (Mar 1963, on sale 10 Dec 1962). Editor Stan Lee had taken to introducing his new cast of costumed characters in the existing monster titles, after Publisher Martin Goodman had been burned by the failure of The Hulk's own title earlier that year. Given how averse Goodman was to spending money unnecessarily - new titles had to be registered with the US Postal Service and there was a cost attached - he'd decreed "no new titles" until Marvel's new characters proved themselves.

Iron Man was originally coloured grey, presumably to make it obvious his suit was made of iron, but it didn't take Stan long to figure out that this would make the comic a bit drab ... so he did something about it in the following issue.
So after The Fantastic Four and The Hulk, Stan's new creations were assigned to the fantasy books: Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy and Thor in Journey into Mystery (both Aug 1962), then The Human Torch in Strange Tales 101 and Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish 35 (both Sep 1962). By the time 1963 rolled round, the sales were improving on all the Marvel books, so Goodman gave the green light to reinstate The Amazing Spider-Man (in his own title), then add Sgt Fury, The Avengers, The X-Men and Daredevil to the roster.

The original spidermen, perched high above the New York City streets. By adding the hyphen, Stan made the expression different from its common usage and in the process created a term that could be trademarked.
What I'd noticed, even back then, was that Stan was using familiar terms for the names of his new superheroes. The expression "spiderman" was in common use in New York - it was the name given to the guys who worked on the skyscrapers, precariously working hundreds of feet above the Manhattan sidewalks. Thor, of course was already familiar to any schoolkid as the Viking God of Thunder. Daredevil was also a term in common usage, and "iron man" was often used to describe a particularly strong or tough sportsman.

Was Stan being especially clever by choosing names that were already familiar to his youthful audience, or was he just reacting positively when a familiar term he could use as a superhero name popped into his head? I guess we'll never know for sure, but it occurs to me that there's a pattern here and patterns are usually deliberate.

What I do know is that Stan, like any other creator, wasn't creating in a vacuum. Let's not get dragged in to another discussion here about who did what back in the early 1960s Marvel offices and allow that Stan, as editor, got to make the decisions about what characters were called, what they looked like and whether they were published or not. Probably with a bit of interference from Goodman. So it's extremely likely that Stan was getting inspiration from what he saw going on around him in magazines, newspapers and in movies and on television. I'm pretty sure he's said as much in various interviews.

The other thing he was consciously doing was building a line of super-characters who each had some defining flaw. With the Fantastic Four it was that they argued with each other - and with Ben Grimm in particular, it was that he just wanted to be human and not a monster. Spider-Man had the worst luck ever in his private life, dealing with bullying at school and caring for his sickly aunt, whose poor health was likely a result of the murder of her husband, Ben Parker. The Hulk was a tragic combination of Frankenstein's monster and Jekyll-and-Hyde, Daredevil's blind ... well, you get the idea.

So when it came to Iron Man, Stan took the idea of a man with a broken heart and combined it with the technology of the day to come up with something unique ...


One of the big health scares when I was a kid in the 1960s was poliomyelitis, more commonly known as polio. I knew at least one kid on our council estate who'd had it. It wasn't that rare to see children around 1963 wearing leg calipers as a result of the paralysis caused by polio. It was common in the United States too, with no less than President Franklin Roosevelt confined to a wheelchair by the disease.

Stan would have certainly been aware of polio, as it was common in the States from the beginning of the 20th century up until the US polio epidemic of 1952, and beyond.

An unknown polio victim from the 1950s with the characteristic leg-strengthening calipers.
In extreme cases, victims would experience paralysis of the diaphragm and would be unable to breath unaided. This lead to many spending some time in an Emerson mechanical respirator, colloquially know as an Iron Lung. These were terrifying, bulky devices that used external air pressure to deflate and then inflate the sufferer's lungs. Some spent years in such devices and a few companies tried to create less-cumbersome, more portable versions.

Some polio sufferers spent years trapped inside these devices, while the compression machinery did their breathing for them. Though it may seem barbaric by today's standards, the iron lung saved thousands of lives.
I think it's against this background that Stan came up with the idea for Iron Man and handed it to his brother Larry Lieber to script. The idea of damage to the lungs evolved into damage to the heart - a far more dramatic device - but the concept of mechanical help to keep vital physical processes running remained at the core of the idea.

Here's an immensely telling photo I came across while researching this post ... some attempts were made during the 1950s to create a mechanical respirator that wouldn't trap the victim in a hospital room for months or years. Does it remind you of anything?
Once the Unique Selling Point of Iron Man became his broken heart, Stan was able to introduce clever elements that highlighted Tony Stark's plight. For example, Stark was a millionaire playboy who dated an endless string of actresses and super-models, yet became unable to let any of them get close due to his terrible secret. The idea that his precarious health prevented him from pursuing the woman he truly loved - Pepper Potts - added another layer of drama to the mix. So much so that while reading the Iron Man stories as a kid, I'd often skip over the superhero battle sections to find out what was going to happen in Stark's civilian life.


For his first appearance, in Tales of Suspense, Iron Man was coloured grey. I'm guessing this was an attempt by Stan to make it clear to his young audience that the character was indeed literally made of iron. Why he didn't go with a "knight-in-armour" metallic sheen to the suit we'll never know, but it might have more sense to make Iron Man's costume look like shiny metal rather that grey cardboard. Maybe it was something to do with the makeshift nature of the prototype ... but more on that later.

It would have made the character visually more appealing and dynamic if the colourist - probably Stan Goldberg - had made an attempt to colour Iron Man's suit as shiny metal, perhaps white with blue and black highlights, like the later Silver Surfer.
The story opens with a glimpse of the lifestyle of the rich and successful munitions manufacturer Tony Stark. These days, of course, armaments manufacturers are hardly heroes, but in 1963, during the early stages of the United States' involvement in the Viet Nam war, this probably didn't seem such a terrible idea to Stan. I mean, who'd have thought we'd still be talking about this stuff more than fifty years on?

With scant regard for Newtonian physics, Stan has Tony Stark create a magnetic device that can rip the door from a steel safe. Of course the reality is that the table the magnet's attached to would simply fly across the room, drawn to the safe by the magnetic attraction ... but let's not allow the scientific facts to get in the way of a good story.
When we first see Stark, he's demonstrating a high-tech device - a transistor-powered magnet - powerful enough to tear a safe apart from a distance. Transistors were the electronic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s. By the time I was reading comics, transistor radios had all but made valve technology obsolete. I'd had a transistor radio of my own in 1964 that I'd listen to Radio Luxembourg on, with its non-stop pop hits, then Radio Caroline, three years before the launch of BBC's Radio One.

The chestplate created by Tony Stark and Yinsen contains a wealth of technology designed to keep Stark's heart beating. The only thing that bothered me is where did they get the advanced transistors from, in the middle of the Viet Nam jungles?
Once the origin story gets properly under way, we find Stark in the Viet Nam jungles, witnessing a demonstration of the miniature mortars he's created for the US-backed South Vietnamese Infantry. But he's separated from his escort, blunders into a Viet Cong booby trap and is captured, wounded with shrapnel near his heart. Forced to work for communist bully Wong Chu, Stark contrives to create a transistor-powered suit of armour, aided by kindly elderly scientist Professor Yinsen. Yinsen gives his life to keep the communists away from Stark until the suit is fully charged then, look out, Wong Chu ... The armour has the added bonus of keeping his heart beating despite the shrapnel lodged in his chest.

Iron Man's first adversary wasn't so much a villain, more a monster straight out of all those fantasy tales that had been running in Tales of Suspense around this time. It was as though Stan hadn't quite decided on how to run his b-team superhero line. Having it scripted by Robert Bernstein, an alumni of the Mort Weisinger Superman titles, wasn't helping to create a unique approach, either.
With the pesky origin story out of the way, Stan could focus on developing the supporting cast and gallery of villains for his new iron-clad hero. And all-in-all he'd do a better job with Iron Man than he did with Ant-Man. But it would take a few issues to get going. Tales of Suspense 40 (Apr 1963) was a bit of a damp squib as far as the menace Iron Man faced. It was the time-worn plot device of invading aliens using a robot avatar to scare/test the population of Earth before getting their talons dirty. The plotting is credited to Stan Lee and it does have a similar feel to the earlier fantasy tales in Suspense. I didn't think there was anything wrong with Don Heck's and Larry Leiber's work on Tales of Suspense 39, but Stan must have had misgivings, as he got Jack Kirby to lay out his plot with a script by "R.Berns" - in reality DC comics hack Robert Bernstein. This would account for the weak resolution to the story, though it is notable for having the scene in which Tony Stark changes the Iron Man suit from grey to gold - I'm betting money that was a Stan Lee directive.

I've condensed several pages in the image above to focus on the thought process behind Stark's changing the look of his armour. Bernstein assigns credit for the idea to Stark's date, Marion. 
The first action sequence in the short 13-page story shows Tony Stark taking a date to the circus. Even at the tender age of ten, I thought this was a pretty cheap move for a multimillionaire, but it's just the kind of scenario a DC writer would come up with. As luck would have it, all the lions escape during the performance and Stark has to transform to Iron Man to save the day. However, the bystanders are shaken by the sight of a grim, grey iron-clad man and Stark makes a note-to-self to do something about softening the armour's appearance. At the end of the scene, Stark's date Marion suggests that gold would be a better colour for the armour and so Stark paints the dull grey suit a sparkling metallic yellow.

It's a seminal moment ... and such a good idea that I now wonder whether Stan hadn't planned it this way all along ... create the character with a dull, monsterish appearance then refine the look really quickly.
The rest of the tale tells how Stark goes looking for Marion and discovers that her home town has been taken over by a monstrous "neanderthal" man called Gargantus. It turns out that Gargantus is a robot drone controlled by aliens orbiting high above Earth. Iron Man uses his physics-defying magnets to rip the robot apart (in reality, the magnets would just fly towards Gargantus and stick to him) and scares the aliens off with the same weapon. The aliens don't seem to know any more about physics than scripter Bernstein does.

The defeat of Gargantus and his alien controllers is a lame plot device. Shaky physics aside, it just feels a bit lazy. A clever idea for the resolution of the story would have made it far more memorable ... though, as I've said before here, Stan and the Bullpen weren't making history here, they were just filling pages.
Overall, it's not quite there yet. The gold armour is a big improvement over the dull grey ... but I still wonder why Stan didn't go with a silver or chrome look. It would have been more appropriate for a character called Iron Man. Maybe he just wanted the character to pop on the newsstands and logic took second priority to that. The next issue wasn't any major improvement.

As good as Kirby's composition is here, his version of Iron Man's armour is heavy-looking and clunky. It doesn't have the feel of up-to-the-minute technology, even by 1963 standards. And Dr Strange is a pretty forgettable villain. Iron Man wouldn't really get interesting until Kirby was no longer contributing.
The next Iron Man tale, in Tales of Suspense 41 (May 1963), gave us a villain called Dr Strange. But the first half of the story is taken up with establishing Tony Stark as a man who can never love, due to his (literally) broken heart and demonstrating Iron Man's powers and explaining how they work.

Another montage from the story, with Stan emphasising again that due to Stark's heart-condition and his dual identity as Iron Man, he can never enjoy a proper Personal Relationship ... which begs the question, Is Tony Stark the world's only platonic playboy?
The rogue scientist villain, Dr Strange, is pretty unmemorable, and the plot device used here is that of Iron Man being mind-controlled to do bad stuff by the villain. Iron Man eventually breaks the mind control but his electrical systems are compromised by Dr Strange and it's left to Strange's "ungrateful" daughter to save Iron Man with a handy flashlight battery.

Looking at this final scene in the story, you have to wonder where Stan Lee the Editor was. That's an awful lot of dialogue crowding the drawings out of the page. At least a third of the over-explanatory text could be cut to make this a more streamlined read.
The laborious scripting is still by Bernstein, the art is again by Jack Kirby, but this time inked by Dick Ayers. I don't think it's a good combination for Iron Man and Ayers' inking in particular seems heavy-handed on this issue. There's no real flair to this material yet and the revolving door of Stark's dates does not yet constitute a supporting cast. Something else needed to happen to get the series up on its feet. Fortunately, Don Heck would be back next issue.

Though it's still Jack Kirby pencils - or more likely layouts - here, it's the inks of Don Heck that are starting to shape Iron Man into the definitive version of the character. It's a real pity about the stock communist villain.
I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a big fan of Don Heck. For me, his version of Iron Man is the defining one. And though it would take him a couple of issues to properly find his feet, he'd go on to create some interesting villains, as well as designing the series' supporting cast of Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan. Tales of Suspense 42 (Jun 1963) gives us the first all Heck art job since issue 39. But sadly Bernstein's script, featuring yet another communist bully-boy, doesn't give Heck much to draw. The convoluted plot has an impersonator-type bad guy, The Actor - not a million miles away from Spider-Man's Chameleon foe - offer to steal important secrets for an unpleasant communist called The Red Barbarian. He'll achieve this by impersonating Tony Stark. During the course of stealing the plans, The Actor chances to discover that Stark is Iron Man. 

Given that The Actor hasn't told any of his henchmen that Iron Man is Tony Stark, why are they telling Iron Man that The Actor impersonated him? The Actor impersonated Tony Stark. Editor Stan ... are you even reading this stuff?
Iron Man doesn't even appear until page 10, too late to stop The Actor's getaway. There follows some shenanigans with Iron Man intercepting - then impersonating - The Actor, to what ends I'm still not quite sure. All in all, just another muddled script from Robert Bernstein, with not enough Iron Man action. It does get better, though, I promise ...

Jack Kirby's cover design here is as strong as ever, with a powerful image of Iron Man front and centre, though there's no great sense of menace. I found it interesting that Kirby's version of Iron Man had no chin, while inside, Don Heck was drawing Iron Man's headgear as curving in under his jaw and into his neck.
Tales of Suspense 43 (Jul 1963) featured another familiar Lee-style plot, re-used from Tales to Astonish 41 and 49. The ruler of a hidden realm is abducting scientists to work on a super-weapon. In this case it's the beautiful Kala, who rules an underground queendom and has designs of conquest on the surface world.

So, if the Netherworlders civilisation is superior to that of the surface dwellers, why would they want to live on the surface, with its terrible weather, pollution, wars and mankind? And if you Netherworlders are all so smart, what do you need Stark's technology for?
When you think about all those Silver Age Marvel stories, it must be pretty crowded down there beneath the Earth's surface, what with the Moleman (FF1, Nov 1961), Tyrannus (Hulk 5, Jan 1963), The Lava Men (Journey into Mystery 97, Oct 1963) and now Kala and her subterranean hordes.

It's pretty good going, even for Tony Stark, to be able to recreate Iron Man's armour overnight, right under the unsuspecting noses of the Netherworlders. If I'd been scripting it, I'd made sure Stark brought his attache case with him.
Needless to say, Tony Stark outwits the ambitious ruler by agreeing to create a weapon, but instead building another Iron Man suit overnight. He makes pretty short work of the queen's soldiers and grabs her, clippering (!) his way to the surface to give Kala a taste of what life on the surface would be like. It's not to her liking.

I think we can all agree that Tony Stark is an engineering genius, but atomic powered scissors? Really? Robert Bernstein was responsible for some complete nonsense in these early Marvels.
"Kala, Queen of the Netherworld" is another journeyman effort by Robert Bernstein. The biggest surprise about Stan's brief "writers for hire" period in 1962/3 was that he put up with obviously sub-standard writing for as long as he did. The story did benefit from Jack Kirby's pacing, as he supplied at least layouts for Don Heck's finished art, but it creaks pretty badly.

Straight out of the ending of Lost Horizon (1937). When Kala leaves her idyllic underground kingdom and is exposed to the nasty surface air, it does nothing for her complexion. (BTW - note how Don Heck's given Iron Man a chin here.)
Sadly we still had another few issues of this material to wade through before we got to the good stuff. In the meantime, it was the Bernstein business as usual ...

Even though Queen Cleopatra is being dragged up into the air by a metal demon, she seems to be quite happy at the prospect. The original art had Cleo looking alarmed but, for some reason, Stan had her expression altered to a smily one.
Tales of Suspense 44 (Aug 1963) pits Iron Man against another iron-willed female ruler, this time the legendary Cleopatra, in the story "The Mad Pharoah" ... the notorious mis-spelling of Pharaoh is Stan's. The story tells how Tony Stark is called in to help with an archeological dig in Egypt. He recommends Iron Man's services to help excavate the tomb of the "Mad Pharoah", Hatap. 

In Tales of Suspense 44, Iron Man (with a chin) has some more digging to do, but this time uses a diamond tipped drill, a big improvement over the atomic scissors. He then makes short work of defeating The Mad Pharoah's armies and still has time to make Cleopatra, convincingly beautiful in Don Heck's art, fall in love with him. All-in-all, a good day's work for Tony Stark.
However, during the night, the revived Hatap kidnaps Stark and transports him back to ancient Egypt to help Hatap usurp the throne of Queen Cleopatra. Of course, as Iron Man, Stark has no such intention and joins the battle on the side of Queen Cleo. With Hatap dispatched it only remains for Stark to return to his own era, which is pretty easy as Hatap's magic simply wears off and Iron Man fades away to the 20th Century.

Here's an unaltered version of the ToS 44 cover, published by Alan Class in the mid-1960s in the UK. You can see that Cleopatra looks more scared here, and the lettering in the jaggy box is different from the US version. Click on image to enlarge.
It is one of the better stories in Robert Bernstein's run, though not by much, and Don Heck was really beginning to find his rhythm with this tale, turning in the finest job of his run on the title so far.

This would have been the first all-Don Heck cover for an Iron Man Tales of Suspense, but something must have gone wrong, because Stan had the production department cut up a stat of the first page of the Kala story from Suspense 43 and paste that in to this cover art. I'd love to see what Heck's original art might look like, but I guess we'll never know. I've included the source Kirby artwork below.
The big change in Tales of Suspense 45 (Sep 1963) was that Stan - I presume - decided that Tony Stark need a supporting cast. This made a lot of sense from a story-telling point of view as now Stark would have someone to talk to. And by introducing a male and a female assistant for the millionaire munitions manufacturer, there would be fun to be had from the inevitable love triangle.

The first 12 pages of "The Icy Fingers of Jack Frost" were devoted to introducing and establishing the personalities of new supporting characters Happy Hogan - an ex-boxer hired as Stark's driver/bodyguard - and Pepper Potts, Stark's already in-post but unseen personal assistant.
However, the villain was very weak and ranked pretty low on the originality scale as well. Fortunately, he didn't show up till page 12 and as I've said before, at the time I had more interest in Stark's civilian life than in his battles as Iron Man, so spending the first two thirds of the page count introducing Happy Hogan and Petter Potts was fine with me.

Here's the source of the Iron Man figure for the cover of Suspense 45 ... and just for fun, I've mocked up what the original artwork for the cover might have looked like if Heck's Iron Man figure hadn't been edited out. I kind of like it better ... click on image to enlarge.
The other big change is that the Iron Man story has been expanded from the 13 pages of previous issues to a colossal 18 pages in this issue. So despite the workmanlike scripts by Robert Bernstein, the character must have been proving popular enough with the readers for Stan to scrap one of the fantasy back-up stories to make more room for Iron Man. It would drop back down to 13 pages for just the next issue, then go back to 18 pages with Tales of Suspense 47.

Tales of Suspense 46 was by far the best of the Robert Bernstein stories, featuring the villain who would become friend and ally to Tony Stark and Iron Man, The Crimson Dynamo. The Kirby version of the Dynamo on the cover doesn't do justice to the way Don Heck drew him inside.
Tales of Suspense 46 (Oct 1963) had Robert Bernstein's last Iron Man story, and, in all fairness, he goes out on a high note, with the introduction of a terrific villain, The Crimson Dynamo, a communist counterpart to Iron Man. It begins when Soviet scientist Anton Vanko builds an electrically-powered suit of armour with the aim of defeating Iron Man and in the process humiliating the United States. But Russian premiere Nikita Khrushchev plans to allow The Crimson Dynamo to liquidate Iron Man, then kill Vanko to prevent him taking over the USSR.

The best thing about this story was Don Heck's terrific design for The Crimson Dynamo, my favourite villain of The Golden Years, but also the fact that rather than being sent home defeated and in chains, Anton Vanko is recruited by Tony Stark as a valuable addition to the US research programme.
After a series of mysterious sabotage incidents at the Stark plant, Iron Man gets to confront the culprit - The Crimson Dynamo - and battle him one-on-one. It doesn't take Iron Man long, courtesy of his superior armour, to trap The Dynamo, and convince him that the Soviets will kill him the moment he returns to Russia. The story ends with Iron Man and The Dynamo friends and Khrushchev hopping mad that he's been outwitted ... again.

Iron Man 2's Ivan Vanko was an oddball hybrid of Ivan (The Crimson Dynamo) Vanko and the much later Whiplash character, who worked for The Maggia. I'd rather have seen one or the other ... but then, I'm a purist.
The Vanko character was later appropriated by the Marvel movie Iron Man 2 (2010), when he was synthesised into the Micky Rourke Whiplash character. The original Whiplash was a low-level Stark employee, Mark Scarlotti, who invented a super-strong metal whip and challenged Iron Man in Tales of Suspense 97 (Jan 1968). Combining him with Ivan Vanko, The Crimson Dynamo, resulted in an odd hybrid. I think I'd have preferred that they'd stuck to the original concept and used The Crimson Dynamo as presented in the comics, as he was more interesting character than what we were finally served up with.


Robert Bernstein was born on 23 May 1919. Other than that, not much is known about the early life of this long-time comics writer. 

Robert Bernstein's earliest work in comics was sporadic to say the least. What he was doing for gainful employment between his text story for Fantastic Comics (1940) and his first comic script for Crime Does Not Pay (1946) is anyone's guess.
His earliest known work for a comics publisher was a two-page text story for Fox's Fantastic Comics 9 (Aug 1940), "Diamond Madness". Then after a six year gap, Bernstein scripted "Ghoul's Gold" which appeared in Lev Gleason's massively successful comic, Crime Does Not Pay 43 (Jan 1946). In the first half of 1946, Bernstein bounced around between comics companies like Fawcett and DC, picking up text story writing assignments wherever he could, then in the 1949, sold a string of comic scripts to St John's Hollywood Confessions and Teenage Romances comics.

Bernstein established himself as the main writer for the successful Marvel character The Black Rider at the beginning of the 1950s. So associated with the character was he, that even the Black Rider's appearances in other tiles, like Wild Western, were scripted by Bernstein.
By 1951, Bernstein was working regularly for Atlas, as lead scripter on Black Rider, and selling scripts to Spy Cases and Wild Western. In 1952, he began placing stories with the Quality Comics titles G.I. Combat and Ken Shannon, and Weird Thrillers, published by Ziff-Davis.

Bernstein began contributing scripts to Quality's Blackhawk title by the mid-1950s, then adding G. I. Combat and the EC title Psychoanalysis to his client list.
While Atlas' Spy Cases remained his main client, Bernstein landed some work with EC, writing for the New Direction title Psychoanalysis around 1955, and began contributing scripts to Quality's Blackhawk comic and to Robin Hood Tales. He stayed with Blackhawk when it transitioned to a DC title, and this gave him a foot in the door at the biggest and most successful comics company of the period. The other Quality comic that went over to DC G.I. Combat also used Bernstein's scripts, so pretty quickly, he was writing for Action Comics (Congo Bill/Congorilla), Adventure Comics (Aquaman and Green Arrow) and Lois Lane. He also wrote a couple of Superman stories, creating the villain Metallo, and a few tales for Superboy as well.

Few of Bernstein's stories were cover featured at DC in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but he did write one of my all-time favourite Superboy stories, "Superboy's Big Brother", which introduced Mon-El, drawn by George Papp in Superboy 89 (Jun 1961).
By the beginning of the 1960s, Bernstein was well entrenched at DC, but he still found time to moonlight for Archie Comics - writing scripts for The Fly and Adventures of the Jaguar.

Then at the beginning of 1963 Stan Lee, unhappy with the scripting work his brother Larry Lieber was doing on the Marvel b-titles, hired Bernstein to write Thor in Journey into Mystery 92 (May 1963), The Human Torch in Strange Tales 108 (May 1963) and Iron Man in Tales of Suspense 40 (Apr 1963). Bernstein's tenure lasted just eight months. The most amazing part is that it took Stan that long to realise that Bernstein (and Ernie Hart over on Tales to Astonish) were way worse than Larry could ever be. And it was at that point that Stan took over scripting the Marvel anthology titles himself.

Robert Bernstein contributed an incredible 14 scripts, most of them quite bland, to Marvel's second-tier titles during 1963. He was supposed to be a better option than Stan's brother Larry Lieber, but was unable to provide the spark that Stan was looking for. It's not as though Stan didn't give him ample opportunity, though. Finally, Stan bowed to the inevitable and took on the scripting job himself.
After Marvel, Bernstein would continue to work for Archie Comics and for DC until 1964 ... his last story was the King Superman tale for Action Comics 312 (May 1964), though a Jimmy Olsen story - possibly an inventory script - appeared in Jimmy Olsen 101 (Apr 1967).

Robert Bernstein's comics career stuttered to a halt around 1964. What he did after that is uncertain, but it's likely that his second career as a stager of classical music concerts was making him far more money than writing for comics ever could ... and he wouldn't have to put up with Mort Weisinger's abuse.
A keen fan of classical music, he founded the Roslyn Music Group, which offered soloist and chamber music recitals at Long Island University, giving Bernstein a second career as a music impressario.

Robert Bernstein (left) in 1965 with classical music cronies pianist Géza Anda (centre) and Jerry Schoenbaum (right), head of MGM's classical music division.
Robert Bernstein died of heart failure on 19 December 1988, at his winter home in Delray Beach, Florida, survived by wife Beverly and daughter Alison. He was 69.


With the very next issue of Tales of Suspense, Robert Bernstein was out and Stan Lee took over the scripting of Iron Man himself. Lee also temporarily replaced Heck with Steve Ditko, in preparation for the sweeping changes he would be bringing to the series over the next couple of months ...

At the end of 1964, Stan moved some of his artists around, reassigning Don Heck to Thor for a few months and drafting in Steve Ditko to help with the changes Stan was envisaging for Iron Man. The character was to move into a very important revisionist period.
But all of that can wait till next time, when I take an in-depth look at Iron Man Phase Two.

Next: Red Metal, Yellow Metal ... Red Metal, Yellow Metal