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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, July 7, 2016


The Iron Man of the film-world helped spawn the cinematic Superhero Revolution. But when I look back upon Marvel's Iron Man of the Silver Age, I get the sense of a character who just missed being a flop, like Doctor Droom and the many incarnations of Henry Pym.

There had been a few armored Golden Age heroes, but Iron Man boasted a superior concept from the outset: a noble scientist-hero who had invented his armor to save his own life, and then began using it to save other lives and fight crime. In addition, whereas Reed Richards' version of 'science" in FANTASTIC FOUR only rarely suggested the hard labor of engineering, in IRON MAN Tony Stark, despite being a genius, really worked at his profession. I'm not saying that the feature didn't utilize phony technology for the sake of entertainment-- anyone remember the hero's short-lived "reflecting mists?"-- but even fake science can take on mythopoeic status. 

The psychological angle was strong, too, strongly resembling the pattern of Doctor Strange's 1963 origin, in that Tony Stark starts off as "the man who has everything," and has to cope with being a wounded warrior-- though his form of coping would surely reinforce Alfred Adler's notion of "positive compensation." The origin-story itself isn't all that interesting, offering little more than polemics in its opposition of nasty Communists and saintly pro-democracy forces. These political views, not objectionable from a mythopoeic standpoint, never became anything more than knee-jerk postures. Similarly, for the hero's first six adventures, he's largely indistinguishable from any number of Golden Age heroes, in marked contrast to the soap-operatic elements that appear in SPIDER-MAN and FANTASTIC FOUR from the get-go.

The seventh tale, appearing  in TALES OF SUSPENSE #45 (1963) finally got around to giving the feature a couple of supporting characters, secretary Pepper Potts and chauffeur Happy Hogan. By introducing,Pepper and Happy, the feature's editor and writers succeeded in endowing the fabulously rich, fabulously handsome billionaire Stark with a "common touch." The tycoon patently has no friends aside from his two co-workers, and there's no indication that any of his many dates with jet-setting beauties ever came close to being an actual romance.

Despite this improvement, there was the sense that editor Stan Lee-- who also wrote most of the early scripts-- was flailing for a direction for the Golden Avenger (who started out as grey for one issue). In addition, Iron Man didn't boast one of the most stellar rogues' galleries in those days. Although the Mandarin would take on epic status and would remain a world-beater for many years, characters like Jack Frost, the Scarecrow and Mister Doll were somewhat less than stirring. Of the Communist villains, two were slightly better than average: the Crimson Dynamo, who turned on his evil masters and died in defense of democracy, and the Black Widow, originally a road-show Mata Hari who proved popular only after both another reform and a substantial retooling.

The first time Lee seems aware of the dramatic potential of his damaged character appears in TALES OF SUSPENSE #56, which starts out with Iron Man flying into a belated rage at the fact that he can "never lead a normal life."

However, though the story presents a memorable moment of a hero being thoroughly self-centered, Lee chose not to pursue this line of thought as he and Ditko had been doing in the SPIDER-MAN title. Stark gets religion and everything goes back to normal.

The next issue introduces a foeman who might be considered a very loose mirror-image of Stark: the archer Hawkeye. A lot of Iron Man villains were "negative compensation" types who envied Stark's millions and sought to destroy his company or reputation. Hawkeye, a carnival archer whose name is not initially revealed, gets in a snit when Iron Man takes attention away from his act. His solution is to become a superhero himself.

Typical Marvel complications ensue: the newly minted crusader becomes suspected of criminal activity right out of the box. Then, by the wildest of coincidences, he's recruited by the Black Widow, who just happens to be looking for a super-pawn to use against Iron Man. Though the Widow had vamped Stark a few times-- though with no indication that she really cared about him, or vice versa-- Hawkeye fell hard for her charms, and in due time, she reciprocated, once Lee decided to put her on the reformation road. Thus, despite being a loyal American, Hawkeye became a "Commie dupe."

I mention both characters here because they are Iron Man's physical adversaries in issue #60's "Suspected for Murder."  Yet the story's main emphasis is upon Stark's feeling of being trapped in his armor-- which is to say his own compensation-creaton-- a mood aptly reflected by the splash page, which shows Stark imprisoned in a bottle by his alter ego.

This tale was the closest Lee got to exploring in detail Stark's ambivalence toward his double identity. To be sure, it wasn't as impressive as the better Spider-Man stories on the same theme. But since throughout Tony Stark's history the hero had been forced to wear one piece of his armor at all times-- his heart-stimulating chest-plate-- Lee evidently decided that the best way to put the hero through the mill was to make it impossible for him to remove the armor as a whole. He suffers a major heart attack in issue #59, and then finds that he can't take off the armor without risking a fatal incident. In keeping with real incapacitated human beings, Stark is chained to the device that keeps him allive. He even has an existential moment, saying that, "I'm a prisoner of Iron Man-- of my own creation!"

He's also a prisoner of the set-up he's created, in which Iron Man is seen as Stark's hired hand. Tony Stark must disappear to protect his double identity, but when he does so, Pepper and Happy immediately become suspicious of the flunky who seems to know more than he's telling about the boss's disappearance. Pepper and Happy also find the hero in compromising circumstances, and the police interrogate him, though without a corpus delicti, Iron Man can only be "suspected of murder," not formally charged. His Avenger-buddies seem to turn a cold shoulder, since he can't explain things to them either. And even after Hawkeye attacks Stark's factory and after Iron Man drives him off, one of the security guards comes at the hero with Stark's own "anti-armor gun," another case of employee-loyalty that almost kills the employer.

Unfortunately, this installment is the only one that gets the utmost myth-potential out of this double-identity peril. In the ensuing issues Stark does figure a way to get out of his armor without killing himself, not to mention resolving another plot-line in which everyone thinks Stark is dead. I suspect that Lee just didn't feel the impetus to pursue as many tangents as he did in other features, and I can't dismiss the possibility that the feature might've benefited from a different artist than Don Heck. In the Silver Age, Iron Man, despite great potential in many areas, never managed to "upgrade" itself beyond the level of decent formula.

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