Saturday, 25 August 2018

Iron Man: Rivetting Stuff

IRON MAN'S THIRD ARMOUR REDESIGN in fifteen months was, in my view, a bit of a backwards step. I thought Steve Ditko's makeover for the first Red-And-Yellow suit, in Tales of Suspense 48 (Dec 1963), was brilliant - no improvements needed. But just six months later,  Don Heck redesigned the armour - or more accurately - the headpiece - yet again, this time giving Iron Man a line of rivets down his face.

The four faces of Iron Man, from Tales of Suspense 39, 43, 48 and 54. That's quite an evolution in a little over a year. And I'm actually not mad about the Don Heck "Rivet-Face" version. Was Heck just trying to come up with something that was easier to draw? Or did Stan think this was an improvement?
I think the design change Iron Man's faceplate was supposed to be a surprise to readers, the cover blurb certainly gives that impression. But for whatever reason, the Marvel production department included the upgraded mask on the corner box figure of Iron Man on the cover of Tales of Suspense 54 (Jun 1964).

"Wait till you see Iron Man's new protective head mask!" shouts Stan's coverline for Tales of Suspense 54. But of course, we didn't need to wait ... we just had to glance at the top left of the cover and see the new faceplate in the Marvel trademark box.
"The Mandarin's Revenge" is a bit misleading as a title for the story inside. Stark does indeed meet The Mandarin in this adventure, but not until page 7 of the 13-page story. And no revenge is actually meted out. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Pentagon officials are concerned that Stark's observer missiles, deployed over Vietnam to track enemy troop movements, are falling out of the sky like flies. They blame Stark for supplying faulty technology. Yet Stark knows there's nothing wrong with the missiles. They're being brought down by some Sinister Force. And there's only one person in that part of the world that could be responsible. The Mandarin.

Someone's knocking Tony Stark's "observer missiles" out of the sky ... and it doesn't appear to be Dr Doom. Only one way to discover the culprit. Go to Vietnam and knock on a few castle gates.
It is a little surprising that the US military will allow their most valuable weapons manufacturer to jaunt over the border - illegally - into China to face a dangerous saboteur without an escort, but let's not dwell on that. Stark's plan to allow himself to be captured in his civilian identity might just work.

Inevitably, Stark is grabbed by The Mandarin's guards, who foolishly try to open his attache case and get a face-full of sleep gas for their troubles. Stark changes to Iron Man and crashes through a wall and advances menacingly towards The Mandarin - the Mandarin's rings can't stop Iron Man, the despot's electrical devices can't stop The Golden Avenger, not even The Mandarin's "karate" kicks can stop Iron Man. Swords, rockets ... no dice. In the end it's unbreakable steel bands that trap Iron Man and leave him helpless until the next instalment.

I strongly suspect this splash page was Heck's pitch to Stan to change the faceplate of the Iron Man armour. For surely only Heck would want to get rid of the Ditko-designed mask that Stark was wearing up till this point and replace it with this easier-to-draw version.
There are a couple of other interesting things about Iron Man's first two-part adventure, other than the fact of The Mandarin being old Shellhead's first recurring villain. The first is that after Steve Ditko's three pages introducing Iron Man's new-look armour back in Tales of Suspense 48, Heck doesn't spend even one panel on Stark re-designing his Iron Man helmet. He leaves Stan to explain it away in a bit of dialogue.

It's almost as though either Don Heck decided to change Iron Man's helmet himself - though that does seem unlikely, as Stan was a pretty tough editor - or Stan simply forgot to direct Heck to include a scene of Stark re-designed the armour's headpiece, and had to fudge the transition in the dialogue.
Then there's Stark's sudden interest in Pepper Potts. Up till this point, Pepper has been portrayed as having a bit of a schoolgirl crush on Stark and he's at best mildly amused by it, and reacting by engineering dates for her with Happy Hogan. Yet in this story, out of the blue, he acquires a romantic interest in his secretary. Stan would build on this as time went by, but this is where we saw it first.

After fifteen months of dating supermodels and actresses like a stoat, Tony Stark suddenly and inexplicably develops a romantic interest in his freckly secretary Pepper Potts. It's a little at odds with his established character, but romantic sub-plots seemed de rigeur for Stan's superhero books around this time.
Another first in this story is Iron Man referring to the blasts he projects from his hands as a "Magnetic Repellant" ray. He's used the repellant power of magnetism before, starting with issue 48 of Tales of Suspense, but the concept had always been less focussed - Iron Man used a hand-held device in ToS48 and radiated magnetic waves from his armour to break his fall in ToS49. After ToS54, Stan would refine this quite quickly in the more familiar Repulsor ray, and have Stark share the technology with other Marvel good guys like SHIELD, where the Repulsor rays were used in Nick Fury's flying Ferrari and later in keeping the Heli-Carrier aloft. 

Iron Man called the blasts from his gauntlets a "Magnetic Repellent". This would morph quite quickly into the now-familiar Repulsor ray, and Stark would later modify his armour's jet boots to use Repulsor technology rather than the less efficient jet fans.
The story closes with Iron Man helpless at the hands of the Mandarin, all trussed up with steel bands and refusing to beg for mercy. "I'll show you how an American faces death! I'll show that nothing can shatter the faith of a man who fights for freedom!" thinks Iron Man to himself, with steely resolve. And the readers would have to come back next month to find out how Iron Man escapes for [spoiler!] escape he will.

Tales of Suspense 55 featured one of those symbolic covers - a bit like X-Men 4, which came out a couple of months earlier - where the villain was show as a giant, looming menacingly over the hero. We all know that The Mandarin isn't actually thirty feet tall, don't we? Except this time, we'd be wrong ...
Tales of Suspense 55 (July 1964) gave us the 13-page second part of The Mandarin's Missile Crisis, titled "No One Escapes the Mandarin". The story picks up exactly where we left off last time, with Iron Man trussed up in The Mandarin's "unbreakable steel bands". The resolution to this inescapable death trap is a bit of a cop-out, brokered via the Mandarin's ability to see Stark's face beneath the Iron Man helmet. "Why are you smiling?" asks the Fu Manchu wannabe. "Because I know something you don't know," smirks Iron Man back at him.

Not only can The Mandarin see Iron Man smiling beneath his metal mask, but he can also apparently grow to thirty feet in height (as depicted on this issue's cover). Yet despite all these tricks, The Mandarin is not a match for Iron Man, giving lie to the story title, "No One Escapes The Mandarin!"
Iron Man then continues, "Why shouldn't I smile? While you waste time with me, Anthony Stark has probably found out where you keep your anti-missile missiles - and he could be destroying them this very minute." It doesn't occur to The Mandarin that Iron Man could be lying, and he hurries off to find out what Stark is up to, giving Iron Man the respite he needs to free himself. Iron Man follows and, discovering where The Mandarin controls his missile-snatching technology from, destroys the controls and recovers his missiles.

At the end of the story, Pepper seems a bit too happy to see Tony Stark and Happy is none-too-happy about it. Stan is still developing this new love triangle on the book and it'd be a few issues before he found the right note.
When Stark gets back from his adventures, he finds that Happy has struggled, in his absence, to keep Stark Industries on an even keel. And Stark's interest in Pepper hasn't diminished ... even Happy notices and remarks on it.

Since the beginning of the Iron Man series in Tales of Suspense, the page count has risen and fallen almost randomly. Click on the graph above to enlarge.
Interestingly, the final caption box announces that the page count on the Iron Man stories will be increased to 18 pages from next issue. However, this isn't really a new idea. The story-length on the Iron Man tales had risen and fallen all the way through the series. Once Captain America became a regular in Suspense, there wouldn't be room for 18-page Iron Man tales, but this wasn't something Stan saw coming at this point.

And right on the heels of the main story, there's a handy three page guide to Iron Man, presumably for late-comers. As I've mentioned before, Marvel Comics were gaining sales during this period, and many readers were late to the party. Stan has mentioned more than once that in the early days of the Marvel superhero comics, there was a large upswing in fan letters, many of which were asking for back issues. And in the later letter columns, Stan would regularly remind readers that the Marvel offices didn't have space to store supplies of their earlier issues.

"All About Iron Man" does what it says on the tin ... provides a condensed guide to Iron Man's powers, the Tony Stark identity and supporting cast in just four pages. Stan would include a similar guide to Giant-Man two months later in Tales to Astonish 59.
There are a couple of examples of Stan providing catch-up features for readers who were less familiar with Iron Man and Giant-Man than they would have been with Superman and Batman during 1964. I can't recall such features in Journey into Mystery or Strange Tales, but this sort of "How it works" piece would also be a feature of some of the Marvel annuals. And the Marvel Tales and Marvel Collectors' Item Classic titles were a more organised attempt to provide back-story for readers who'd missed the initial Marvel issues.

Oh, and Tales of Suspense 55 was also the issue in which Don Heck (or maybe Stan) got rid of the little row of rivets down the centre of Iron Man's faceplate.

"Iron Man has never been more exciting, or more dramatic, than in his never-to-be-forgotten battle with The Uncanny Unicorn!" Yes he has, Stan. On many occasions.
It was interesting that Stan decided to up the story-length in Tales of Suspense 56 (Aug 1964) ... for if ever there was a villain that deserved five pages less, it was The Unicorn.

There are elements to the story that are great. The opening scene in which Stark blows a gasket because he's tired of being cooped up in a metal chest plate has a ring of truth to it. Then, when he decides to be a selfish twat (for a change of pace), Happy Hogan is hospitalised and Pepper is kidnapped by the villain, The Unicorn. Stan also includes a flashback in which we see that The Unicorn's "Power Horn" was created by Ivan Vanko, The Crimson Dynamo, which is a neat bit of fledgling continuity.

For me, Tales of Suspense 56 is the least memorable of the 1964 issues - mostly because The Unicorn is such an uninteresting villain ... mediocre powers, sketchy backstory and no sign of any real motivation for battling Iron Man. I'm thinking deadline crisis filler issue; how about you?
As for the Unicorn himself ... well, he's just a bit dull. The costume is clunky and his power is a bit limited. The idea that he can only direct the force beam in his headpiece by turning is head would be handicap enough, but the rigid neckbrace approach to the costume means that he would have to turn his whole body to direct the power beam. Not the best design to come from the otherwise great Don Heck, and definitely not deserving of the allotted 18 pages. Luckily, the following month's Suspense was a big improvement, and introduced an important new supervillain.

It does seem likely that Stan had some considerable confidence in his new character judging by the multiple images on the cover and the tone of the cover-copy. This is also the first Don Heck art on a Suspense cover for quite some time, after a long run of Jack Kirby-pencilled covers.
Tales of Suspense 57 (Sept 1964) featured the return of the deadly Soviet agent The Black Widow, and this time she had a new ally. We first see Clint Barton - unnamed in this story - as a sideshow marksman, failing to impress the Coney Island crowd. Witnessing Iron Man preventing a fairground ride accident, Hawkeye decides that he too can have adulation if he becomes a superhero. But his first case, a botched jewel robbery, ends with him mistaken by police for the robber and forced to flee. 

With his deadly aim and trick arrows, Hawkeye made for an unusual villain, in that he really wanted to be a superhero. But circumstances conspired against him, and he ended up in the thrall of the beautiful but deadly Black Widow, who set him against Iron Man for her own purposes. Any similarity to DC's Green Arrow is purely coincidental.
By no small coincidence, the glamorous Black Widow is driving past at just the right moment and helps Hawkeye escape the cops. And that's pretty much the end for our Hawkeye, as he falls under the alluring spell of the Red spy and becomes entangled in The Widow's plot to exact her revenge on Iron Man.

Whether it was the increased page count, or a flair for the dramatic on Don Heck's part, this story included some rather large frames, at a time when most Marvel pages consisted of six or more panels per page ... even Jack Kirby's. How about the neat way Heck's layout in page 17 above shows cause and effect in the first two panels. Pretty cool, eh?
There follows an eight-page battle in which Hawkeye's trick arrows almost get the better of Iron Man and it's Hawkeye's coup de grace on his armoured foe that catches The Black Widow in an explosion, and renders the beautiful Russian spy unconscious. Just when he has Iron Man beaten, Hawkeye scoops up the woman he loves and gets the heck out of Dodge. 

Hawkeye must have been a hit with readers because just about as soon as he could, Stan would bring the maverick archer back, along with The Black Widow, in Tales of Suspense 60, just three months later. But first, Iron Man had the obligatory Battle Issue to deal with.

Tales of Suspense 58 (Oct 1964) would be the last to feature Iron Man as the star attraction. Starting with Suspense 59, he'd share the spotlight with fellow Avenger Captain America, a run I've covered in an earlier blog entry. But first, in the time-honoured tradition of Marvel superhero mash-ups, the two would have to slug it out in an epic-length story ... well, it seemed epic-length to me back in 1964.

It's hard to describe just how excited I was to see this comic advertised in the other Marvels of the period. I wouldn't track a copy down until 1966 or so, but it wasn't for lack of trying. My copy (above) you can see is a pence edition, so some did make it through the T&P blockade.
Tales of Suspense 58 (Oct 1964) was a pretty important one for my ten-year-old self. It was a tricky one for me to get hold of back in 1965, as it was one of the issues caught up in the Great Thorpe & Porter Distribution Snafu of 1964. I would later track down a copy after I'd already read the later Jack Kirby Cap stories in Suspense, so at the time, I wasn't mad about Don Heck's version of Captain America.

Again, Don Heck is using big panels on the page to maximise the impact of the battle scenes. I also really liked the way Sam Rosen rendered the Captain America logo in a Stars-and-Stripes motif, something that wouldn't be adopted on the Suspense covers until some time after the Captain America series started.
The plot's a little contrived ... After their defeat in Amazing Spider-Man 15, Kraven the Hunter and his partner-in-crime The Chameleon sneak back into the U.S. only to be apprehended by Iron Man. The Golden Avenger drags Kraven off to jail, but fails to notice The Chameleon skulking in the shadows. Out of the blue, The Chameleon gets the idea to impersonate Captain America and foment a battle between Iron Man and the real Cap. If I had to choose another hero to trick Iron Man into fighting (for no good reason), I'd probably choose Thor, who'd have a better chance of beating the armoured guy ... but then Thor wasn't going to be co-starring in the next issue of Suspense, was he?

It all comes out in the wash, though, when fellow Avenger Giant-Man shows up to explain to Iron Man that he's been fighting the real Captain America and not an impersonator as he'd first thought. It quite key that it was Giant-Man who does the big Reveal as he was busy the same month over in Tales to Astonish, having his own Battle Issue with another Avenger, The Incredible Hulk.

And for the first time since the beginning of Don Heck's work on Iron Man he's inked here by Dick Ayers, an embellisher I've never thought terribly well-suited to Heck's fine pencils. I'm guessing this was to free up some of Heck's time for taking over as penciller on The Avengers with issue 9 (also Oct 1964), where he was inked by Ayers as well, but for what it's worth, I've always preferred Heck inked by Heck.

From Tales of Suspense 59 onwards, the page count of the Iron Man stories would drop back down to 13 pages, with the Captain America solo stories - drawn by Jack Kirby - taking up the remaining 10 pages of story space. I couldn't have been happier, as I've always rated Cap as my all-time fave Marvel character, especially when illustrated by his co-originator, Jack Kirby.

Tales of Suspense 59 was one of those Marvel issues denied to UK readers because of the dispute between Martin Goodman and Thorpe & Porter distributors. It would be a few years after 1964 before I'd find one of these, but it's a milestone issue and one of my all-time favourites.
I'll take a look at the Iron Man stories in the "split" Tales of Suspense another time, as I wouldn't want Iron Man to outstay his welcome here.

Next time I want to return to the earliest days of Marvel Comics. I was reading my old chum Kid Robson's blog in which he revisits the old Stan versus Jack and Steve issue. I was astonished at how many readers still cite the Jack Kirby interview in Comics Journal 134 (Feb 1990) as hard evidence of Stan Lee's "perfidy". So I want to take a closer look at the interview to assess how much of it is reliable testimony.

Next: Follow the Money!