100 Greatest Comics of 20th Century– Tales of Suspense #39 – The First Appearance of Iron Man

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    I came across a list of the 100 Greatest Comic Books of the 20th Century on the CBR forums and thought that is a list that should be put to the test. To that end I will read and review every comic on that list and report to you faithful readers as to exactly why this comic book should be recognized as a piece of comic book history.


    Tales of Suspense #39
    Marvel Comics
    (March 1963)
    Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby

    Tales of Suspense #1-38 were published under Atlas Comics and ran from January 1959 until August 1962 before falling under the Marvel banner. It showcased science-fiction mystery/suspense stories written mostly by Stan Lee. Until…


    who? Who? WHO?

    Who? Or what, is the newest, most breath-taking, most sensational super-hero of all…?
    He lives!
    He walks!
    He Conquers!

    From the talented bull-pen where the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor and your other favorite super-heroes were born!

    I love that Tales of Suspense logo! It’s a true classic. Iron Man’s design here is just awesome too: All retro-robot with a ready to rumble pose. I mean he lives, walks, AND conquers?! I don’t know what the deal is, so many question marks and exclamation points! But this looks badass.

    Apparently Stan Lee wanted to challenge himself by creating the embodiment of capitalism, a dyed-in-the-wool businessman who profits from weapons sold to the Military to fight an unpopular war. In the dawn of the swinging Sixties, this seems like a pretty bold move, creating a character that’s specifically made not to be liked, and have him develop and grow so you understand him more on his tragic heroic journey. This is the real magic of the early Marvel comics, not just staying relevant in a topsy-turvy time in America, but to provoke the readership a bit, challenge them, make them work and understand different viewpoints. (Maybe that’s why their villains have always been so popular…)


    Bam! We open up with the awesome title page! Something very vaginal about the cleaved rock and here he’s presented with text that makes him come across more like a monster. It seems there was more of the mechanical monster in the original concept. But now he’s declared Invincible, and over there on the left we have our lineup: Stan The Man, Larry Lieber (Stan’s younger brother), Don Heck, and Art Simek (with Kirby as cover-artist and character-designer).


    We jump in on Anthony Stark at his lab (where we hear mention of commies from a guard in the first panel), as he demonstrates the power of his transistor, a device that despite its size makes other devices a thousand times stronger. And that should solve the problem in Vietnam. Wait, what?

    And that sidebar basically answers the question as to who Iron Man is. But yeah, okay, who is Anthony Stark?



    He’s Tony Stark when he’s a man about town and it seems like he’s got it all, that douche. Rich, smart, and dreamy like Rock Hudson? What a bastard. Then, to contrast we cut to Vietnamese Communists, specifically Wong-Chu, the Red Guerilla Tyrant!


    Tony Stark meanwhile is out in the jungles of Vietnam making sure the arms he delivered work efficiently, which they do, but he triggers a claymore and well, BAROOM!

    Wong-Chu wants a weapon, and so he makes a deal with Tony, who knows he’s got to use his own genius behind enemy lines in a Vietcong base to save his own skin. Thankfully they toss in Professor Yinsen, who becomes Tony’s Asian mentor here. The master gets to help craft his masterpiece with the internal power of Stark’s transistors. A blending of East and West technologies which creates something more remarkable than either could conceive.


    At the final moments of Tony’s life, just before the shrapnel reaches his heart and kills him, he jumps into the iron body as Prof. Yinsen hits the generator and runs off to stall Wong-Chu. His sacrifice is the impetus of Iron Man’s birth, and Tony Stark’s second chance at life. I just love that he’s lying on the table like Frankenstein’s monster right there. Also, I find it interesting that the death of Yinsen happens off panel.


    Then rush out to kick ass, right?! Well, not really, it’s actually a lot harder to walk around in a giant metal bodysuit than you’d think. I love this. It’s human and fallible, showing the hero at his weakest, while also at his strongest potential-wise. Sets things up to be badass, but can he pull it together, can he operate that tin can and save himself?


    So yeah, another page and no fighting, just a dreadful realization. Self-doubt, self-pity, and fear all set in and suddenly he’s vulnerable and unsure of himself. So he hides out and uses gadgets to stealthily sneak around until the soldiers leave the lab.


    Then Wong-Chu is back to tossing people around to cheer himself up, but Iron Man saunters up in a trench coat, dramatically making his entrance backlit by moonlight. Then Iron Man just walks up and picks Wong-Chu up, spins him around, before tossing him away. That seemed pretty simple in the end.


    The guards all fire their weapons, but you know, metal suit and all, and then with a little reverse magnetism Iron Man disarms all the soldiers. Then he uses electrical interference to block the loudspeaker and then broadcasts his own voice back at Wong-Chu to spook him and his troops.


    A mini-buzzsaw helps Iron Man cut into the office wall, which gives Wong-Chu an opening to take the initiative and stop Iron Man…with a filing cabinet…full of rocks. Of course this drains Iron Man’s batteries enough that he’s barely got the juice to end this. So he just shoots a stream of oil from his suit and ignites it, exploding the ammo dump and I assume everybody in the vicinity.


    Trapped inside the suit, Iron Man is more a monster, a prisoner inside this lo-fi technological chassis. Though rather than brute force, it was gadgets and technology that saved his life. That and ruthless annihilation of his enemies. And then, in the grand tradition of all brooding monstrous heroes, he dons his trench coat and hat, and walks off into the distance, full of mystery and angst.

    (Notice the sound effect up there says bar room. A hint of things to come or subliminal coincidence?)

    All in all not unlike the modern retelling of Iron Man’s origin, though now we’ve substituted Middle East terrorists for the Communist Vietcong, and the suit from the get-go is much more firepower and asskicking. Also, it seems like they were going to stress more the trapped in the iron body aspect than in the long run, but I guess that idea of not being able to survive without technology is more an internalized drama, since he’s still the same old playboy on the outside.

    The cover price for this 36 page comic book (of which the Iron Man tale is a meaty 14 pages) is an even 12 cents, in 1963, but today you’ll need about $144,000 for a Near Mint/Mint copy.

    If you’d like to read this comic I’d suggest purchasing either the Iron Man Omnibus vol. 1 or Marvel Masterworks: The Invincible Iron Man Vol. 1 from Marvel Comics.


    Kurt Christenson also sometimes dons a trench coat and fedora and stalks the city streets wondering what destiny awaits him, sending out messages at @KurtChristenson.

    Comics, Review