Iron Man is Born: Tales of Suspense #38-39

Welcome to Marvel Librarian. Having missed out on comics in my formative years, I’m reading Silver Age Marvel comics for the first time, and writing about their highs, lows, and general weirdness.

Tales of Suspense #38 "The Teen-Ager Who Ruled the World"

Marvel, at one point, had way more near-identical anthology books than I ever would have suspected. Here’s another one of them, Tales of Suspense, that is just one issue away from being subsumed by the Great Superheroing of ‘63.

Now I want to see an old-timey anthology comic where the characters within realize that they’re about to be destroyed to make way for a marketable superhero.

As you might have guessed from the cover, this one opens with a genie lamenting that it has been ages since he’s been summoned to Earth. He longs for a human to summon him so he can make him regret the things he wished for.

Meanwhile, in a classroom, we have this guy, complaining that all of the world’s leaders are lame-brains and that he could run everything far better. I think we’ve all been in class with this person. If they want an unsympathetic character so that we can root for the evil genie, it’s a good choice.

The boy, Bill, and his friends cut through a construction site on the way home from school, and stumble across the lamp half-buried in the sand. Bill jokingly rubs the lamp and summons the genie, who is several stories tall, a visual flourish I like. The genie tells Bill up front that he can have all of the wishes he wants but that he will inevitably regret them, which is at least more straightforward than you might expect an evil genie to be.

Bill is the kind of Reddit-posting know-it-all who pays no attention to that sort of thing, and decides that this is his chance to show how he could run the world better than anyone. He wishes to be king of the world, and as his first action, he wants to end poverty – which is surprisingly noble, to be honest. Unfortunately, the way he wants to go about it is to drop a bunch of money on everyone.

That’s obviously not really going to work, but it is a little frustrating that the comic is taking the shallow stance that hey, we need poor people to be farmers, or else no one would farm. That’s also not really how economics works.

Bill’s next wish is to eliminate all disease. This results in basically nobody dying – I guess dying from old age also counts as an illness? What about injuries? 

Anyway, with no death, the population increases and causes food and land shortages. The weird part about this sequence is that this all seems to happen basically instantaneously, instead of taking at least a generation or so like you might expect. And you’d think that this wish wouldn’t be all that hard to amend to make it a little better – “people can’t die from disease, except for dying painlessly of old age,” for example. 
I mean, obviously, nothing is actually going to work out because it’s an evil genie, but I like to make my evil genies work for their ironic comeuppances.

Bill decides to try getting rid of all weapons so that no one can wage war. This time, however, he anticipates a likely outcome of his wish: people will just be able to make more weapons. So instead, he wishes for everyone’s weapons to be taken away except for the US military’s.

I think this panel pretty much speaks for itself. But it gets better.

The United States certainly is well known for never using military force against weaker countries. Yup.

This is why we need to teach actual history in schools.

Anyway, the boys bicker, and they realize that they actually aren’t doing a very good job of running the world. Bill wishes to undo all of his wishes and dismisses the genie. The genie states the moral of this story: “It is far easier to criticize than do.”

And that’s a decent enough moral, but I’m not really sure how well it applies when 1)  the boys gave up on their more noble goals immediately when faced with any kind of a consequence instead of trying to come up with a solution and 2) the genie basically stated up front that there was no favorable outcome to any of this.

But Bill decides to be less of a loudmouth in class, so I guess that’s a happy ending.

This next story is about a guy who studies philosophy. Everyone makes fun of him for not studying a more practical field. 

Then, aliens! A spaceship comes from the sky, and a bunch of old men with white hair come out. They say they’re seeking refuge from the bloodthirsty space pirates, who shoot on sight. The army decides the aliens must be trustworthy, in a radical departure from everything we know about both the comic book military and the real life military, and allow the aliens to hide.

Meanwhile, the philosophy major searches the aliens’ ship and finds that — gasp! — these guys are the real space pirates, and the scary-looking aliens they warned the Earthlings about are actually the police pursuing them. When the “space pirates” land, Philosophy Guy goes up to talk to them, and reveals this deception.

Look, I’m not going to knock studying philosophy in general, but I don’t think you need an actual degree in philosophy to understand that people aren’t trustworthy just because they look like wise old men. Also, he only figured this out because for some reason the spaceship just randomly dropped one of the pictures they were using to study the Earth.

This next one’s about a rotten, greedy businessman who buys a suspiciously cheap Ironic Mirror from a corner store. He soon discovers that whenever he curses one of his competitors, they end up trapped in the mirror. Soon, he has a mirror chock full of 60s businessmen, and his fortunes are soaring.

I guess it’s convenient that no one thinks to investigate him as the source of all these rich and powerful men suddenly disappearing, considering he’s the one benefitting the most from it. It seems like it might be hard to hide the ornate gold mirror with frantic men pounding on it from the inside.

He does eventually get investigated for tax fraud. He considers sending the IRS agents inside of the mirror, but realizes that the government will just keep sending more. Instead, he wishes that no one would bother him any more, and finds himself on the other side of the mirror, alone.

But enough of all that! Now it’s time for what the public really wants: superheroes. 

It’s kind of crazy to look at this, honestly. In my opinion, this cover is just straight-up bad. The original Iron Man design looks bland and uninspired, the pastel green background clashes with the other colors used, and nothing about this makes me very interested to see what the Iron Man is. 

And up until the 2008 movie Iron Man, he wasn’t really that well-known or popular outside of superhero fans. He was widely considered a B-lister compared to the likes of Spider-Man and Wolverine. Iron Man was a risky choice for starting off a superhero franchise, and the star of the movie, Robert Downey Jr., was likewise considered a huge risk due to his past struggles with addiction.

And yet, here we are.

Honestly, this cover makes it seem more like Iron Man is going to be the villain of the piece, especially if you’re expecting the story to work like the typical fare of Marvel anthology books.

And here’s Tony Stark, genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. While plenty about Tony would change over the years, this description of him applies from the very first pages he appears in.

The first thing Tony does in this book is to demonstrate to the military his new invention, involving magnets and transistors. By Marvel comics logic, that means it’s completely unstoppable. Tony comments that his invention is “capable of solving [the military’s] problem in Vietnam,” and we get our first hint of the main problem with this comic.

You see, the MCU film Iron Man featured Tony Stark getting captured by Middle Eastern terrorists who did not belong to any real-world terrorist group. They represented a simplistic, Bush-era view of terrorism, and were carefully crafted to get the idea across without being too offensive.

This comic, however, immediately namedrops the Vietnam War, and on the very next page we get to see the Vietnamese, portrayed just as sensitively as you might expect a 1960s comic to do.

I’m going to mostly gloss over this part because there’s a lot of caricatures and honestly, it’s not too different from the movie you’ve probably seen. Tony Stark tours Vietnam, gets caught in an explosion, and gets captured by the enemy. Soon, the shrapnel from the explosion will reach his heart and kill him, but until then, his captors force him to make weapons for them.

Instead of building weapons, Tony secretly makes an Iron Man suit in a cave with a box of scraps. In both the movie and this comic, he’s assisted by another captive engineer, Professor Yinsen. Tony makes a suit that can both keep the shrapnel out of his heart and facilitate his escape from the warlord’s camp. At the last second, he’s discovered, and Yinsen sacrifices himself to buy Tony enough time to start up the suit.

Unsurprisingly, I think this sequence is handled a little better in the movie. Tony, in the suit, hears Yinsen’s sacrifice and vows that it will not be in vain. The warlord and his troops try to break down the door as Tony quickly tries to acclimate to his new iron body.

In the MCU, the only thing Tony needs to keep himself alive is the small, cool-looking arc reactor over his heart. Here, they try to play up Tony as a tragic hero by making it so that he thinks he needs to wear the entire iron suit for the rest of his life. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – why would he need that helmet, for example? – and it gets ditched pretty quickly in favor of Tony having only to wear his chest plate everywhere.

When the warlord breaks into the room, Tony doesn’t attack him and escape. Instead, he uses suction cup hands to stick to the ceiling and hide, like one of those stuffed Garfield toys you used to see on cars. You’d think they’d notice a huge metal man stuck to the ceiling, but apparently not.

The warlord orders his lackeys to go search for Stark while he engages in his favorite pastime, standing around in the middle of his camp and yelling FIGHT ME. Tony steps up to the challenge, and in his Iron Man suit, he makes short work of the enemy. The warlord flees and nearly defeats Tony with a filing cabinet full of rocks.

The warlord orders the execution of all his prisoners as he flees into the jungle. Tony waits until he passes the ammo dump, and blows it up, in a particularly brutal end to one of these books.
Just like Thor became the headlining feature of Journey into Mystery and the Human Torch took over Strange Tales,Tales of Suspense is going to feature Iron Man as its A-story from now on. We’ll see the concept get retooled considerably, though. This dull gray suit doesn’t last even one more issue.

Here’s the protagonists of the next short tale. Look, it’s great to appreciate nature, but the kind of person who is like “I don’t engage in your superficial entertainments, because I find a richer satisfaction in beholding the wonders of nature!” is pretty obnoxious. Especially when I’m in the middle of reading a superhero comic.

It’s kind of like philosophy guy from the last issue. It’s great to study philosophy. It’s irritating to pretend that you needed years of philosophy study to understand “what if these aliens disguised as nice old men are actually… bad?”

Scientists have discovered that the sun is burning out, and soon it will go cold and everything on Earth will die. Instead of tearing ourselves apart, humanity apparently has it together enough to build enough rockets to get everyone off-planet, which makes the protagonists’ disdainful views on their fellow humans even more out of place. They stay behind when the rockets depart because they can’t bear to leave the Earth.

In their final days, they wander the abandoned cities and wait for the end, when suddenly a star explodes in the sky. Instead of killing them, it becomes a new sun, and the Earth is saved. And the couples’ name is *sigh* Adam and Eve.

But enough about them, it’s time for GUNDAR!

This is the story of a then-contemporary sailor who gets stranded on a desert island. He is found by a group of Vikings. They explain that they were once the crew of a ship under the command of a cruel captain, Gundar, who would kill his men merely for asking questions. They mutinied against Gundar, and even though he fought fiercely, were successful. As they cast Gundar out of the ship, his last words were to curse them all.

As a result of this curse, they became shipwrecked onto this remote island, and are unable to leave or die until Gundar lifts the curse. Luckily for them, the sailor who just washed ashore is also named Gundar, one of the descendants of the original captain, and he lifts the curse and sets them free. The last panel sees Gundar waving down a boat to rescue himself.

Next time on Marvel Librarian! Is he strong? Listen, bub, he’s got radioactive blood. Look out, here comes the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man.