Now here was a beauty! This issue of TALES OF SUSPENSE features only the 4th appearance of Iron Man, the super hero who took over the title, ushering it into the Marvel Age of Comics. Like every book covered in this feature, I acquired this issue as part of my Windfall Comics purchase, where through dumb luck and being in the right place at the right time, I was able to buy a box full of around 150 Silver Age comics for a mere $50.00 in 1988–meaning each one cost me 33 cents. The back issue prices on TALES OF SUSPENSE weren’t all that high even then, not when compared with series such as AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, FANTASTIC FOUR, AVENGERS or X-MEN. But this was still a hell of a bargain for me. I had read the lead story already in the pages of MARVEL COLLECTORS’ ITEM CLASSICS, so this one was more about me owning the object rather than needing it for the story. But it was cool either way.
As Marvel began to expand into super hero titles, nobody really had any idea of the level of success that the firm was going to have in this expansion (with the possible exception of Jack Kirby, who had a gut-level feel for such things.) So in these early days, editor Stan Lee didn’t even bother with scripting many of the books himself, turning over what he saw as secondary features to a number of other lesser scripters. The elements of the Marvel style hadn’t quite been worked out yet, and so these stories tended to read more like those being peddled by other companies than the combination of action and soap opera that the Marvel titles would thrive on. The writer in this instance was Robert Bernstein, working under the pseudonym of R. Berns in case his employers at DC Comics and elsewhere happened to see the issue. Bernstein did a bunch of work over at DC/National, in particular on the Superman titles edited by Mort Weisinger. He was also a friend of Jack Kirby’s, and the pair would apparently often swap story ideas as they rode the train into the city to visit their respective publishers’ offices. Bernstein was a veteran writer, but he was never quite able to crack the Marvel format (his stories were written full script, for example, rather than in the plot-art-dialogue method that Marvel was beginning to employ more and more across the boards) and so he vanished from the outfit after a year or two at the point when Lee realized that if he wanted the whole of the line to succeed, he had to pretty much script all of it himself.
The early days of Iron Man were a bit chaotic. So far as can be ascertained, Jack Kirby pitched the idea of the character to editor Lee, coming in with a presentation board that outlined the character and concept and showed off what he could do and some ideas for stories. The main board was reworked for the cover to Iron Man’s first appearance in TALES OF SUSPENSE #39. But Lee gave the assignment of the first Iron Man story over to his brother Larry Lieber and artist Don Heck to execute–it was Larry, apparently, who originated the name Tony Stark. As I understand things, publisher Martin Goodman didn’t like the look of the first strip, and its debut was delayed for three months and some retooling was done. What would have been the second Iron Man story (this one plotted and illustrated by Jack Kirby) was shifted to the third position, and a new second installment was crafted in which the Armored Avenger’s armor was painted from its initial dull gray into a gleaming golden finish. Kirby plotted and drew that story as well, mostly. But Heck was back with this fourth story (he had inked Kirby on the second one in order to help keep the look consistent.) For the next few issues, Kirby and Heck would trade duties back and forth, until finally Steve Ditko was brought on board to overhaul the series even further. But that was still in the future when this comic came out.
The story is a decidedly laconic, low energy affair, without much of the charm the early marvel books would bring to the table. It was also steeped in the culture of Cold War Red-Baiting that suffused a number of the early Marvel series. The villain of record in this adventure is the Red barbarian, a Communist General who oversees a vast spy ring that is trying to get its hands on the plans for inventory Tony Stark’s latest weapons project. As the issue opens, we see Iron Man help the FBI take out a bunch of would-be Commie spies. Frustrated, the Red Barbarian sends for his top agent, the master of disguise known as the Actor. He dispatches the Actor to America in order that he might get away with the plans while disguised himself as Tony Stark. In doing so, though, the Actor stumbles across some of the components of iron Man’s armor in among Stark’s things, and realizes with a start that the American industrialist is secretly Iron Man himself!
The Actor intends to use the secret of Iron Man’s identity as a trump card to secure himself power and prestige within the Barbarian’s organization, but he underestimates his foe. Commandeering a missile that’s being tested, Iron Man launches himself behind the Iron Curtain, and intercepts the Actor before he can deliver the Stark plans. Trussing up the Actor 9and having no idea that the spy knows his real identity), Iron Man then proceeds to walk into the Barbarian’s compound posing as the Actor in disguise. He shows the Barbarian that the attaché case the plans are in cannot be opened for several hours and promises to return (why the Barbarian lets him take off with the case again is a mystery–but frankly is the reason why Iron Man went to see the barbarian and didn’t do anything about him,) iron Man then releases the Actor before heading back to America, figuring that the Commies will punish him for having lost the plans. The Actor races to tell the Red barbarian what has happened and the secret of Iron Man’s true identity. But because his boss is a dirty vicious Commie, the Barbarian shoots down the Actor before he can divulge Iron Man’s real identity. The whole story is boiler plate stuff and unremarkable in just about every way. Little wonder that Iron Man struggled to attract enough of an audience to be successful at first.
The lead Iron Man story only occupied the first 13 pages of the magazine, The remainder was devoted to a pair of stand alone suspense tales of the sort that had been TALES OF SUSPENSE’s stock in trade before the switch-over to super heroes began. Probably the best thing in the issue is the next story, one of those little 5-pagers by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko that carried twist endings. Ditko was already head and shoulders among most of his contemporaries in terms of the mood and ambiance of his work, and these short mystery stories suited his skills perfectly. This one’s about a guy who stays overnight in what is purported to be a haunted house in order to prove that ghosts and spooks aren’t real and win $100.00 in a bet. He does so, but is disquieted the next day to discover that the house itself has vanished–it was the ghost! Lee and Ditko would recycle this basic idea for a later Dr. Strange story a year or so later.
The final 5-pager is another one-off suspense story, this one both written and drawn by Larry Lieber (though editor Stan Lee is credited with the plot, as he typically was.) The finish on this one is different from teh norm, as it’s another job that was inked by Matt Fox, who added in a ton of texture work. Lieber didn’t love teh end result of their collaborations, I am told, but I always found them to be more visually interesting than his work inked by a more straightforward hand. The story concerns Conrad Zeno, a criminal who is sentenced to life imprisonment on a penal colony in distant space. When the transport ship he is being shuttled on has to stop for emergency repairs, Zeno makes a break for it, and escapes from his jailers. Or so he thinks. In actuality, the need for repairs is a ruse, and the planet they are on is the Penal Colony. But his way, Zeno can believe he’s got his freedom while still serving out his sentence. Again, pretty basic stuff, even for the time. But entertainingly crafted.