|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.|
|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.|
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 ...
THE MAN IN THE IRON VESTOne 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.|
|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.|
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.
GOING FOR GOLDFor 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.|
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?|
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.|
|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.|
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.
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.
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.
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.|
|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?|
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.
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.|
|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.|
|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.)|
|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.|
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.|
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.|
WHO THE HECK IS ROBERT BERNSTEIN?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.|
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.|
|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).|
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.
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).
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.|
THE END OF THE GOLDEN ERAWith 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 ...
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