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.
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.
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.|
|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.|
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.|
|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?|
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?|
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.|
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.
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.
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.|
|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.|
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.
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?|
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.|
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.
WHO THE HECK IS MATT FOX?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.|
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.
BACK TO IRON MANTales 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.|
|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.|
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.|
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!