Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Marvels: Tales of Suspense #39

"Iron Man Is Born!" by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Don Heck
(March 1963)

Confession time: I've never been that much of an Iron Man fan.

It's not for lack of trying. I've read a number of Iron Man comics over the years, but I've never really gotten much into the character. I would say I'm easily a bigger fan of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man than I am of the actual comic book character. It's not like with Ant-Man, where I just think Ant-Man is impossibly lame and dripping with unrealized potential. I just don't really find anything in Iron Man stories that capture my interest.

I think part of that, here in his first appearance and origin story, is that I've never been very interested in science fiction that's very technological. I think this story qualifies as a kind of harder SF than I really get into. It's honestly just because I've never been mechanically inclined, and when Anthony Stark goes on about transistors and magnets, I can't really, entirely, truly grasp how these things all work together.

The comic sure does try to make you dig Stark, though. He's a scientist, a businessman, a billionaire playboy. Like all scientists in the Marvel Universe, he's developing new tech for the military; this issue focuses on small transistors he's built which, when used with magnets, can rip thick, heavy, iron doors off their hinges. Don't ask me if the science is plausible; I already explained that I have no idea. But, to someone as uneducated in science as I am, it sounds like it could be plausible.

(Side note: even into college--and remember I didn't start college until I was 25--I had the hardest time with science, even as it completely fascinated me. I actually failed one science class in college, and to my utter shame it was planetary science. Dr. Sagan, why hast thou forsaken me?)

Stark (who is not yet called Tony, just as Henry Pym is not yet called Hank and Donald Blake is not yet called Don--all of these formal doctors) thinks his new transistors could help the military solve its "Vietnam problem." The actual mention of Vietnam in a 1963 comic was a shock the first time I read it. But, of course, this is before it all escalated for America, and I don't expect to see it mentioned again any time soon.

Even more, Anthony actually goes to Vietnam to oversee the implementation of his transistors. But he's immediately captured in an exploding booby trap and taken to Wong Chu, "the red guerrilla tyrant." Wong's characterization is indicative of the arrogance the US had towards Vietnam. He's almost no different from the way Marvel has been depicting Chinese communists--fat, evil, barbaric, and colored pale yellow--except that he's somehow less tech savvy (because Vietnam is primitive, I guess) and likes to wrestle his prisoners in order to humiliate them. He's a caricature who speaks in that same comic book pidgin English where apparently Asian men only know so many pronouns and articles, but to Larry Lieber's credit, it's only part of the time. I got the feeling reading this that Larry's heart just wasn't in demonizing people by infantilizing their speech patterns.

(You know, you can also make the case that this was an early example of showing how the US might pay for underestimating Vietnam; Stark just walks right in with bluster and overconfidence and is immediately trapped, bombed, captured and thrown into prison. I don't know if that was the intention, but it's ahead of its time if it was.)

Because of the explosion, Stark now has shrapnel stuck in his body, slowly making its way to his heart, where it will kill him. Wong promises Stark a doctor if he first uses the tools and scrap iron at hand to make him a weapon. (How isn't defined--there doesn't seem to be anything that can be weaponized at hand, which makes sense since Stark's a prisoner--but Wong Chu just wants a weapon.) Anthony agrees, but deduces immediately that Wong doesn't have a doctor who can save him--if he did, he'd just do it now and then force Stark to work for him. So Stark--along with Professor Yinsen, a great physicist of international renown whom Anthony admires and who is also a prisoner--gets the idea to build himself a suit of iron that will be both savior and weapon.

I assume that the idea of a transistor-and-magnet driven chestpiece that will keep the shrapnel away from Stark's heart is inspired by the iron lung; something to keep Stark's heart beating mechanically when it stops being able to do so on its own. It's a neat idea for a science fiction story. There's a whole page (this is an anthology book, so the story's only 13 pages) devoted to the building of the machine, with Stark and Yinsen discussing how the gears and transistors and lubrication will work, and, well, I'm just going with it. Nothing sounds too far-fetched here to my science-class-failing brain. I'm more interested in the personal drama of the two men working against the clock to save Stark's life with their invention.

By the way, Professor Yinsen doesn't speak in pidgin English at all, I guess because he's educated. He doesn't escape that insulting yellow coloring, though. Sadly, he's forced to buy Stark time to power the suit up with his life. But, soon enough, Iron Man is able to make his escape.

The first thing Iron Man does? Trip over his suit. Hey, it's heavy and bulky, what do you want?

But Iron Man wrestles Wong Chu, defeats his men, and eventually blows him up as he's running to murder his own prisoners. Seriously, Iron Man straight up ices the guy in an explosion and watches the flames. I mean, Wong Chu was going to murder a bunch of POWs, but it's unusual for a Marvel origin story to end in a death. Death, Vietnam... this one's got some surprises.

One of the things I don't like about Iron Man at this stage is that everything sort of takes forever to accomplish. I admit this is because I'm reading this story in 2013. Fifty years ago, it was closer to the cutting edge of what was technologically available. Magnet-based tech has already been used in Fantastic Four, but Iron Man's transistors are changing the face of technology and seem to have limitless possibilities. Heck, they're used as such a catch-all here that they stop just short of being magic. (Remember how on Star Trek: Voyager literally any problem could be solved just by throwing nanites at it? This doesn't get that bad.)

But every time Iron Man wants to do something like repel bullets or saw through a door or jam a transmission, he's got to put on some kind of attachment while he's explaining to you the reader exactly what he's doing, because this is all such a new leap in what science is capable of. So, the suit can do a lot of things, but many of them take the form of explanation-filled attachment gadgetry, so it's like the story is taking a lot of little pauses, and it breaks the flow of the action.

But hey, like I said, it's 1963, and it's not like the suit could be computerized. It's big, it's bulky, and the fact that Stark can even move in it is amazing enough. I have no idea how this played to a pre-home computer audience; I've grown up with the things, so I can't say that a mechanical suit that has less capability than an iPhone is really exciting to me. This is just a matter of technology becoming dated; when the technology that's the centerpiece of the story seems like such a relic, it's hard to get into a story that's mainly about how that relic is the wonder of the age. Add that to the racist caricaturing and the whole story feels outdated.

Still, it'll be interesting to see where Stark goes from here, now forced to wear the iron chestpiece all the time. It's going to cut down on his womanizing, that's for sure.


:: According to Marvel Wiki, Wong Chu comes back in an issue of Iron Man in 2000. But that comes across like more retcon continuity wank to me; it's pretty clear here that Stark kills him.

:: Don Heck based Stark's look on Errol Flynn, which makes sense and which is a great look for Stark the playboy. The helmet was also purposely designed to look like a human skull. In an upcoming issue, a woman says she's afraid of Iron Man because of the way he looks, so I guess that's part of the skull aspect.

:: One of the stories in this issue features art by Gene Colan. I don't remember seeing his art in any of the anthology series before now, but until Ant-Man and Thor started, I had mainly only read Amazing Adult Fantasy, which was all Steve Ditko. But it's nice to know Colan is at Marvel.

Next time: Ant-Man crosses dimensions to battle aliens.


bliss_infinte said...

"I just don't really find anything in Iron Man stories that capture my interest."
Ooh boy, are you in for a bumpy ride with this one when Iron Man takes on Cleopatra and The Scarecrow - all on roller-skates no less!

Roger Owen Green said...

My favorite IM storyline involved alcohol. Not a fan of the early stuff either...