Issue: Tales of Suspense #39
Name: Iron Man is Born!
Published: March 1963
Writer: Stan Lee and Larry Lieber
Artist: Don Heck
Letterer: Art Simek
The Good: Iron Man aka Tony Stark, Professor Yinsen
The Bad: Wong-Chu, Commie Warriors
The story begins at the U.S. Defense Perimeter where in the lab of Anthony Stark we see the wonders of transistors as they power a magnet to crack open a vault door. We soon learn that this Tony Stark is a millionaire playboy and scientist who’s life is about to take a turn for the worse. Meanwhile, around the world in South Vietnam a warlord, Wong-Chu, has risen to power through physical challenges and mighty strength. He’s taken over numerous villages and the millionaire Stark is helping the army take him down by making smaller equipment powered by his transistors. In the field observing his weapons, Tony trips a booby trap and is severely injured and taken captive by Wong-Chu. The warlord finds out he’s a weapon specialist and demands Tony build him weapons before he’ll grant him access to doctors to save his life.
Tony has other ideas. Instead of building weapons for the warlord, he begins work on a suit that will keep him alive and grant him the ability to defeat Wong-Chu. When Professor Yinsen is captured and thrown in with Tony, Stark asks the professor’s help in building the suit and as the two of them are nearing completion, the warning goes off indicating Wong-Chu is on his way. To give Tony the time he needs to finish, Yinsen runs outside and sacrifices himself as Tony puts on the suit and becomes Iron Man. But he needs time to master the suit’s use and so as the commies break into his lab, Iron Man uses transistor powered air-pressure jets to soar into the air and avoid detection.
Meanwhile, Wong-Chu is pissed so to let off some steam he does his usual wrestling thing but this time, he’s challenged by Iron Man. Tony easily throws down Wong-Chu who demands his guards kill the iron suited man, but the bullets just bounce off. And when they shoot grenades and bazookas at him he reverses the charge on his magnetic turbo-insulator and repels the incoming projectiles. He’s clearly too much for the guards so Wong-Chu gets on his loud speaker to tell his entire army to attack, but Iron Man takes control of the speaker and tells the warriors to flee into the jungle. In desperation, Wong-Chu tries to escape and kill all his prisoners but Iron Man squirts a jet of lubricant at him and lights it on fire. We only see the explosion but I think that’s the end of Wong-Chu. With the prisoners free and his batteries recharged, Iron Man heads off into the jungle and into further Tales of Suspense.
What did I learn:
- Transistor powered weapons are pretty powerful, almost as powerful as those powered by magnets (see other early 60 Marvel comics).
- I think the most important tech designed in this issue are the batteries that recharge in seconds just by standing still.
- Hopefully Stark will devise a transistor operated hatch so he can go to the bathroom if he’s gonna be stuck in that suit.
This is the classic Iron Man origin story and a pretty decent issue. Actually, it’s only part of the issue as Iron Man didn’t rate a full comic to himself yet which is good for a first introduction. I wonder if they had kept Hulk in these small portions perhaps he would have stuck around longer, but this story is just about the right length for what Stan and Leiber want to convey.
One thought that comes to me from this issue is that it looks like Tony Stark may have been planned to stay in the armor over the long term based on how it keeps him alive, but I’m glad they make adjustments as the character develops down the road. Of course as he’s making armor in the field and under such a short time deadline, he can be excused from developing a way for him to get in and out of the suit, but I definitely like the armor. Transistors (not magnets this time) for the win!
I also find it interesting that instead of a generic “commie” antagonist, this issue focuses on a particular place and time – Vietnam. So far in the Silver Age issues there hasn’t been too much mention about specific conflicts in the real world, but this issue is definitely tied in to the 1960s. Sure there are plenty of ill-informed juxtapositions of Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese cultures all thrown into the bad guy and Professor Yinsen, but I think Stan and Lieber were just focused on giving the story an authentic “asian” feel for the time. In 1963, there weren’t too many teenagers who knew much about Asia other than it was a place where the commies were fighting freedom loving people.
I’ve read some people complain about racism in this issue but I disagree. The fact that Professor Yinsen gave his life to save Stark is profound and clearly shows the honor, dedication, and self-sacrafice of a character of asian heritage. The respect that Tony has for Yinsen is clearly portrayed and he even calls the professor the “greatest physicist of all”. Finally, the fact that Stark trusts him to collaborate on the Iron Man suit can not possibly be considered derogatory and it surely doesn’t depict racism to me. There certainly are some insensitive aspects though, particularly in the dialog, but that’s far from racist in my view from 2017.
On the whole, I think this was a good issue and a good introduction to Iron Man. Even though the story was only 13 pages long, Stan and company really put a good story together and it was well drawn and paced. Definitely a step up from some of the last few issues of 1963 and in my view, the best of the year so far.