This cover to TALES OF SUSPENSE #46 has always struck me as odd. For one things, we don’t actually see the title character in costume–that inset image of Tony STark donning his armor feels like an afterthought to me, an add-on. Additionally, the crimson Dynamo who is so touted here bears only a marginal resemblance to the character design on the interior. If anything, here he looks as though he is wearing a space suit (especially if you imagine it colored white instead of red)–which makes sense, given the missile base environment. So I wonder if this wasn’t an image originally intended for a non-Iron Man issue of TALES OF SUSPENSE or one of the other Marvel fantasy titles that was repurposed here, with the design of this guy being used as the basis for the Crimson Dynamo.
It’s tough to remember given how successful the whole thing eventually became that there was no expectation that the new Marvel heroes were going to be around for any length of time. Conventional wisdom at the time would have indicated that they’d maybe have five years’ worth of life in them if Marvel was lucky, and then tastes would shift again and some other genre would be ascendant. So while editor Stan Lee took a personal interest in one of two key series (and made sure that his name as editor was on everything) in the early days a number of the rank-and-file series were put into the hands of other writers. And to a one, none of these others really clicked with what was making the Marvel approach resonate. One of those was Robert Bernstein, who wrote a number of early Iron Man stories under the pseudonym of R Berns so that his DC editor Mort Weisinger wouldn’t realize that he was moonlighting for the competition. Bernstein was a competent enough craftsman of the era, but he wasn’t especially invested in any of it. It was a job, a paycheck. And so, he wrote his stories much the same way he did his work for other companies. Consequently, there are oddly dissonant moments in them in terms of their “Marvel-ness.”
Artwork on this story was handled in full by Don Heck. Heck and Jack Kirby had been trading stories back and forth on the feature since its inception, with Heck inking one or two of the King’s efforts along the way. Heck’s work really defined the series and the character at this point, and while he wasn’t anywhere near as dynamic or innovative as Kirby was, his Milton Caniff-inspired style is on fine display here. Heck was always at his best when he inked himself. Looking at the page above, I’d be willing to bet that Bernstein had written a different exchange between Happy Hogan ad Pepper Potts in that last panel, and editor Lee changed it. The rhythm of that gag is pure Lee, and those balloons evidence some extra, empty space, as though initially drawn to contain more copy than they do.
The story is a Cold War pot-boiler, although it has a troubling climax that we’ll talk about in a few minutes. In the Kremlin, Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev (unnamed, but the resemblance is unmissable, especially for readers of the period) goes to see one of his leading scientists, Vanko, who has developed an electrical battlesuit and calls himself the Crimson Dynamo. The Premier dispatches the Dynamo to the United States to commit acts of sabotage against Tony Stark’s defense plants. (Khrushchev fears that the Dynamo may use his powers to wrest power for himself, and wants him at arm’s length. At first, the Dynamo strikes from hiding, but after Iron Man prevents some of his attempts at sabotage from coming off, Vanko throws caution to the win and confronts the Golden Avenger directly. Bernstein wrote this story full script, as opposed to the Marvel style that would develop where an artist would draw a story from just a plot. But consequently, it’s paced a lot more like a Weisinger tale, with each panel a picture book-like snapshot of a moment, disconnected from the ones around it, and with every action explained in copy.
After a few pages of bloodless dancing around in which the Dynamo and Iron Man demonstrate the different capabilities of their respective armor, Iron Man finishes the conflict with a ruse that’s a bit morally dubious. He uses his electronic equipment to create a fake recording of Khrushchev telling his underlings that the dynamo is to be killed when he returns–because all Communists are treacherous, you know. Vanko hears this, and he’s only too happy to take Iron Man up on his offer of asylum. He defects, leaving his life, his friends and family behind. And all because Iron Man deceived him. This is presented as a great victory, because who wouldn’t want to live in the free United States, after all? But it strikes me as seriously dirty pool on Iron Man’s part. It would have been one thing if the message had been genuine–but the text makes it absolutely clear that it isn’t. So who’s the treacherous one now?
That Iron Man adventure only took up 13 pages, leaving space for a pair of short 5-page fantasy stories that had been TALES OF SUSPENSE’s stock-in-trade for years. The first one is another great little Stan Lee/Steve Ditko collaboration–their stories were always the best in the line, largely due to Ditko’s atmospheric artwork. In this one, a traveler who believes that he encountered living gargoyles while in remote African is convinced by a noted authority that he must have imagined the encounter due to his long time away from civilization. The twist, of course, is that the authority figure is secretly a gargoyle in disguise himself. These stories are, in their way, like watching performances of Shakespeare: you know all of the basic story beats and language ahead of time, so each one succeeds or fails based on that particular performance.
The final story is a relatively rare job both penciled and inked by Marvel production man Sol Brodsky. Brodsky was more valuable to Stan Lee in making corrections and dealing with production issues than he was as an artist, so his talents were only called upon when things were in a jam (or occasionally, to keep him happy, I suspect.) It’s about a down-on-his-luck reporter who saves the life of an alien. The alien tries to reward him by giving him a flashlight, but hoping for untold riches, the reporter refuses it. In the end, the confused but accepting alien relents and goes on his way, using the flashlight to draw himself back across the universe through the use of “cosmos-light”. It’s a simple morality play about being arrogant and not judging things by their appearance, and a variation of this idea must have been used a dozen times over the course of a few years in the pre-hero Marvel fantasy books.