On Iron Man in 1963, by Stan Lee, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby

Why should we care about Tony Stark? More importantly, why should we pity him? The Reds have done for his heart, it’s true, and he can never remove the super-scientific chest plate that ensures that it keeps beating. But even given that undeniable tragedy, Stark’s life shows little sign, at first, of being a compellingly lamentable one. While most of his fellow first-wave Marvel super-heroes were made to constantly suffer for the privileges of their power, Stark initially seemed to have sidestepped anything more debilitating than a considerable measure of inconvenience. Nothing that he’s shown suffering during his debut year of 1963 comes anywhere close to matching the weight of Peter Parker and Steve Rogers’s guilt, the irreversible physical disadvantages of Matt Murdock and Donald Blake, the perpetual trauma of Bruce Banner and Ben Grimm, or indeed, even the socially-excluding label of the different that, at times, afflicted most of the Fantastic Four. Of all Stark’s feature-carrying peers, only Johnny Storm, Hank Pym, and Janet van Dyne might be said to have been, at first, less marked by angst-inspiring ill-fortune, and tellingly, none of their strips managed to capture a lasting, significant audience. As with the Human Torch, Ant-Man, and the Wasp, Stark’s life was initially far more enabled than diminished by his transformation into a super-hero, with the costs of his crippling injury seeming remarkably limited compared to the advantages that the Iron Man armour brought him and his country. Impossibly rich, a cornerstone of the Republic, the recipient of constant applause and reward for his private and public achievements; the Tony Stark who first appeared in Tales of Suspense appeared to have far more going for him than 99.9% of American citizens ever would. Why would anyone feel particularly worried for a man who was as privileged and powerful as he was?

And yet, when Stark drives his futuristic sports car past a typical and resentful white American couple struggling to change a tire in Tales of Suspense #47, there’s no doubt that it’s the “millionaire playboy in (the) custom-built sports car” that we’re supposed to feel kinship with. “Nothing to do but cruise around all in that $10,000 toy, looking for things to spend his money on… Boy, some guys have got it made,” declares an unsympathetic, uninformed observer. The implication is that they’ve actually got a far easier life than he has, and that all his conspicuous consumption, front-page fame and social influence are little compensation for his terrible responsibilities.

As absurd as it might sound, it is worth asking just how terrible a physical burden Tony Stark was bearing in 1963. Not one of his three writers in that year – Stan Lee, Robert Bernstein, and Larry Lieber – had Stark express any more substantial a concern about his general health beyond the inconvenience of needing to regularly charge his armour. In truth, only twice in the eight of his adventures that followed his calamitous mission to Vietnam saw Stark in the slightest bit incapacitated by his weak heart, and in each case, the cause was his own lack of care. In Tales of Suspense #44, Stark visited a “Cairo night spot” and indulged in champagne and the spectacle of belly dancing, forgetting as he did so that he’d not re-charged his breast plate. In the subsequent issue, Stark had placed himself behind the wheel of a racing car without remembering – “in his anxiety to get to the track” – to make sure that he’d powered up his life-prolonging armour. The consequences of each careless act were almost catastrophic and, in the second example, quite unforgivable too, since Stark had put the lives of fellow competitors and spectators alike at serious risk as he crashed and became trapped in a blazing wreck. How odd then that his writers presented each case with an absolute lack of criticism matched to a generous measure of sympathy, as if Stark was far more the victim than the author of these misfortunes. Yet, tale after tale established just how little Stark’s reliance upon his chest plate actually affected his life. “Just as other men plug in their electric shaver for their morning or evening shave,” he declared in Tales of Suspense #40, “I must constantly charge up this plate which gives continued life to my heart.” It sounds like a fearsome business, and yet the process was shown to be so painless and convenient that Stark could recharge himself from a bathroom shaver socket while he stood and waited. As far as disabilities go, it was a chronic and yet hardly life-undermining problem, and it inevitably raises the question of why we should be expected to immediately forgive Stark for his own recklessly self-destructive behaviour.

Why is that the reader of those earliest of Iron Man stories was expected to take Stark’s side and pity him so? The ever-present chest plate must undoubtedly have been a burdensome business, and yet Stark never mentions it causing him any physical inconvenience at all. Having saved him from the bullets of a communist assassination squad in “Trapped by the Red Barbarian,” the ever-present aspect of his armour might even have been considered something of a boon. It certainly did seem to be a remarkably light and unobtrusive support system, given that Stark could wear it under some exceptionally close-cut jackets and even formal white shirts without its presence becoming the slightest bit obvious. Indeed, “beautiful women” could dance with and even embrace Stark without their realising that he’s wearing the top half of a suit of armour. Whether they’re shown cuddled up to him in the front seat of cars or sweetly holding Stark prior to a flight to an alien-controlled city, none of the millionaire’s dates guess a thing. But then, neither does the burly Happy Hogan when he wrestles Stark free from a burning car, though perhaps an adrenalin-rush on account of that unlikely rescuer might account for his not realising quite how heavy his soon-to-be employer was.

The chest plate, it seems, is far more an inconvenience than a burden, but there is a sense that what Stark actually most misses is the license to behave as he wants. Though 1963 passes without his expressing a longing for more intimate pleasures, the scripts do emphasise that Stark has continued to liaise with a substantial number of socially desirable women. It’s hard not to assume that his inability to even remove his shirt in their company must have been a source of considerable and persistent frustration, as indeed it must have been for many of his partners, none of whom ever made it past the stage of polite hand-holding with the man described as “New York’s biggest wolf.” We do see something of his dissatisfaction in Tales of Suspense #40 when he has to decline the offer of a “moonlight swim” with one “Jeanne” and her many attractive friends, but on the whole, Stark seems strangely content with his chaste, and no-doubt gossip-inspiring, love life. Whatever disgruntlement his enforced celibacy must have caused, it’s not something that the character himself alludes to. (It’s a chastening business to come across a scene in Tales of Suspense #38 in which a group of “beautiful, adoring women” refer to Stark as “the dreamiest thing this side of Rock Hudson,” given that the actor himself had been obliged to buy his fame and fortune with the pretence of being a heterosexual lady-killer. He too dated women – in the full glare of publicity – who never managed to make it past first base with him.)

Yet, the impression remains that Stark is being denied the life that he deserves, and in that, there’s no doubt that the stories that featured Iron Man in his first “tin-can” armour carry a suggestion of tragedy that the stories themselves fail to support. We’re clearly supposed to take Stark’s side when he so irresponsibly crashes because of his under-powered armour, just as we’re intended to feel concerned as he lies exhausted on the floor of his luxury Cairo hotel room. No matter what logic might suggest about his own carelessness, the narrative insists that what we’re being shown simply isn’t fair. For Stark to be denied his right to sport and socialise and romance whenever and wherever he wants to is, it seems, a violation of some unstated and yet clearly fiercely-felt right. How can it be, that Stark’s supposed tragedy is that he doesn’t have absolutely everything that he wants in unlimited and unregulated amounts? How much is enough? Yet, his ill-fortune lies not so much in what he’s suffering as a consequence of the injury to his heart, but rather in the fact that his life isn’t perfect. For Stark was, in the context of 1963, a representation of an exceedingly right-wing, American, secular saint. He’s a hero of the free-market as well as a noble opponent of communism, a patriot whose attitude towards the “Commies” and “Reds” is as unconditionally unpleasant as that of any reactionary warmonger of the period.  Stark’s myriad advantages stand as virtue-generating rewards that the uber-capitalist and arch-conservative deserves, it seems, in return for his own efforts. He’s the pinnacle of a pre-counter-culture, pop-pulp dream of what being American involves. He’s the individualistic inventor and the industrialist supreme, the defender of the nation and the generous patron of its more unfortunate citizens too. He’s Edison and Ford and Hughes, and he deserves everything he’s been blessed with because he’s serving the right cause in the right way. No matter how unpleasant this version of Stark can now appear, he was, in the context of the less liberal mainstream of 1963’s America, a paragon whose very existence ought to have guaranteed him endless rewards.

There’s certainly not a hint of criticism of Tony Stark, the uber-capitalist, in these first tales. Neither the way that he makes money or the fact that he’s inconceivably wealthy are anything other than celebrated. Starks riches are a taken-for-granted, ethically-sanctioned return for the way in which his genius has been put to the service of both America’s war against communism and its crusade to create an economy driven by heroic initiative and innovation. In Iron Man’s introductory tale, as plotted by Stan Lee and scripted by Larry Lieber, Stark is shown having developed “midget transistors” that “can increase the force of any device a thousandfold!” Not only is this the most incredible achievement but it’s been attained with the purpose of “solving [the military’s] problem in Vietnam.” Economic activity and military aggression, patriotism and wealth creation, are wedded together as the two key aspects of the one greater good from the strip’s very beginning. As such, Stark isn’t simply responding to the demands of the market with his incredible developments but to a specific political purpose too. While in Vietnam, his new miniaturisation techniques are celebrated not as a way of extending wealth and opportunity to the world but as the means by which “heavy artillery” can be hauled into guerrilla-controlled jungle. Stark’s scientific genius and his ideological commitment has ensured that “mortars [that] are no larger or heavier than flashlights” can now be carried “anywhere,” but he’s never considered anything other than a militaristic application of the technology.  By Iron Man’s next appearance, Stark is shown presenting America’s military with “roller skates [that] will enable an entire infantry division to race down a highway at 60 miles an hour.” And when he lists his achievements to an alluring dance partner in “The Stronghold of Doctor Strange,” Stark emphasises his world-saving responsibilities in terms of the “munitions plants all over the world” he oversees and his contributions to the “U.S. defense effort.” It’s an interesting distinction, since it presents industry and politics as being equal partners whose most pressing needs quite naturally coincide. To be a good American is to generate a great deal of capital while enabling the offensive capabilities of the arsenal of democracy. How can it be then that a man who’s done so much and for such fine motives could have had his freedom blighted in even the slightest way by the likes of Ho Chi Minh’s communist irregulars? (Stark’s inventions are here shown to be “atomic naval cannons… able to fire a nuclear salvo more than 500 miles,” a “burp gun [capable of] obliterating pill boxes and block houses as if they had been struck by artillery shells” while firing “artillery shells reduced to the size of .50 calibre machine gun bullets [that] can be fired at the rate of 1000 bullets a moment.” To simply say that Stark used to be a weapons inventor and producer is to seriously underestimate what he created in his time as a servant of the national security state.)

In the first three Iron Man stories, the scenes of Stark’s tireless and brilliant contributions to America’s war both against communism and the mixed economy alike are juxtaposed with sequences in which the inventor’s life as “a sophisticated millionaire playboy whom beautiful women adore” is illustrated. The point is clear; Stark has done more than merely earn the playboy lifestyle and everything that comes with it. He deserves it, and the system has quite naturally recognised his good service accordingly. As such, and in contrast to the other Marvel super-heroes of the period, Stark was not driven into physically opposing “evil” by the arrival of his super-powers and the complications that followed. Stark had already dedicated his life to the war on communism, and all the arrival of the Iron Man armour did was allow him to take a more personal and direct role in the world-wide conflict. As such, his traumatic experiences in Vietnam changed nothing in his character at all except to add a tinge of melancholy and anxiety. He didn’t return from his terrible, if ultimately triumphal, experience in South-East Asia (as modern storytelling dogma would insist was appropiate) with a new outlook on life and a commitment to serve the good at the cost of his own welfare. Stark was a dedicated Cold Warrior long before his run-in with Wong-Chu, and he was exactly the same afterwards, albeit armed with repulsor rays.

Yet, those despicable communists have denied him the nirvana-on-Earth that his dedication to patriotic capitalism should have earned him, and it’s as if the baleful influence of Marxism is being shown eating into the peace of mind and security of even America’s most deserving and privileged citizens. The Reds can’t win, but they can eat away their enemy’s peace of mind and undermine the simplest pleasures of life. In that, Stark’s tragedy is not that he’s had to suffer and learn from the experience but that he’s been denied the ownership of absolutely anything he wants. It’s not as if he’s been prevented from seeking out any of the opportunities that a typical white, heterosexual American of the period might regard as their birthright. Stark could, for example, decide to search for a trustworthy woman to marry, giving himself all the security, comfort, and satisfactions of a love-affair without the concern of being outed by a casual, unreliable lover. But marriage is, it seems at first, for the little people, and Stark never refers to it even in his thoughts as an option. He’s a Lothario because that’s what extraordinary American men earn the right to be, and it seems he can’t – and shouldn’t have to – think of any other way of living. Similarly, Stark’s right to break the law is presented as his just deserves. When Iron Man on his roller skates tears past traffic cops while shattering the speed limit, they make not the slightest effort to stop him. They couldn’t reach him, for one, and they don’t want to anyway, “let him alone. He knows what he’s doing,” they declare, as if the rule of law is for lesser mortals, as Stark himself appears to believe too.

The earliest incarnation of Stark is nothing but an expression of the folk-belief that business acumen harnessed to technological brilliance is an expression of virtuous as well as market-friendly qualities. It’s therefore quite natural that, in addition to his military, scientific, and financial endeavours, Stark’s also involved in “research … on medical problems,” having developed a “flesh-healing serum,” as well contributing to an understanding of “space” problems.  He’s the living embodiment of caring capitalism, and his ability to perceive the best qualities even among people who he barely knows results in his hiring the out-of-work, working-class Happy Hogan. The great man creates his own methods for encouraging social mobility, and though Stark is, at first, only interested in women who appear to come from the higher ranks of the bourgeoisie, he’s open to sponsoring the Russian defector Varko every bit as much as the ex-boxer Hogan. Stark even gives up his time to entertain “hospital kids” with a demonstration of automobile-juggling, a sign that the good-hearted intentions of the truly deserving rich are inexhaustible. Indeed, Stark is even gracious enough to police his own class in order to track down members who are unworthy of their privileges, a programme of elite self-policing that results in Bruno “The Melter” Horgan being revealed as a criminally cost-cutting defence contractor. But then, Horgan was surely easily spotted, given that “Bruno” is very much not a W.A.S.P. name, and the man himself is anything but suave and handsome.

It must have become obvious to Stan Lee by the autumn of 1963 that Iron Man lacked a lead who the audience could fully engage with. Though the jingoism and racism of the portrayal of communism and its adherents was to remain for a significant time yet, the portrayal of America’s super-capitalist was soon profoundly re-worked. In the December issue of Tales of Suspense, Lee had Stark gloomily declare that his chest plate need “recharging more and more often,” a complication that necessitated a change to a lighter and less power-hungry set of armour. What had once been an inconvenience was now degenerating into a seriously challenging condition. Two months later, Stark was described by one of his factory floor workers as a “boss (who) can’t be bothered wasting time with us poor stooges,” which served as the first sign that class conflict was possible even in Iron Man’s world. (Stark, of course, was being misjudged, and he established himself as an unselfish friend of the working classes by lambasting Hogan when he lashed out at his employer’s accuser.) By August 1964, Stark was even shown demonstrating some profoundly insensitive behaviour that reflected poorly upon the markers of class and wealth that had previously stood as evidence of his moral superiority. Overwhelmed by the uncertainty as to when his heart might give out and frustrated by his inability to “lead a normal life,” Stark appeared at the hospital within which a super-villain-beaten Happy Hogan was being treated and loftily harangued his employee’s doctor:

Stark: See that he gets whatever he needs. Money is no object. He must have the best of everything.

Doctor: Mr. Stark, we give all our patients the best care. Each life is important to us. Your money can’t help him now.

It’s the first substantial sign in the strip that Stark’s advantages can be a signifier of elitism and intolerance instead of honour and integrity. And so, instead of Stark dominating the scene in the hospital with the absolute authority of a captain of industry and a warrior of the City on the Hill, it’s the egalitarian-minded public servant who’s given the moral high ground. It’s a moment that marks how radically the strip was changing, as Stark was becoming reinvented as a strangely classless and profoundly unhappy individual, separated more and more from the ethical absolutes of his profoundly reactionary beginnings while withdrawing more and more from his fellow members of the elite. Soon, it would be possible, with the right light, to view Stark as a representative of the people rather than their rulers, albeit one who arrived at that status through some incredibly unlikely twists of fate.

Stark’s unquestionable status of one of America’s entitled elite had begun its ever-shifting process of adaptation. No longer an unquestionable Master of the Universe, Stark had even developed an inexpressible and overwhelming love for his at-best middle class secretary Pepper Potts. “Normal life” for Stark now no longer meant the excesses of the most extravagant kind but a doomed love triangle between himself, his man-of-the-people bodyguard, and his P.A. Stark as the ultimate expression of capitalist entitlement was no more, and his life began to be one that really did appear to be more pain and duty than satisfaction and reward. By December 1965, the closing text of the Iron Man story in Tales of Suspense #72 could convincingly declare that the world was mistaken to envy the wealthy, handsome Stark. There were no more country parties and few executive sports cars, and the police, government, and military alike had all had reason to doubt Stark’s motives and achievements. Even the man’s irresistible success with the ladies had disappeared into the background of the strip.

The improbable had been achieved. A man who really did have almost everything had been piece-by-piece transformed into one of the most pitiful and yet admirable pillars of the Marvel Universe, and all his privileges and achievements had been made to seem scant reward indeed for what had become of his life. As the months and years passed, even those damnable Reds would no longer be defined as reprehensible gangsters simply because of their politics.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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