Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man first lived, walked, and conquered in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, published in March 1963 and brought to life by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck. Since then, ol’ shellhead has gone through numerous different armours, served on Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, struggled with alcoholism, swapped places with his teenaged younger self, fought against and imprisoned his fellow heroes, featured in numerous videogames and cartoons, and shot into mainstream superstardom thanks to am iconic, career-defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr.
Story Title: Iron Man is Born!
Published: March 1963
Writers: Stan Lee and Larry Lieber
Artist: Don Heck
Long before Robert Downey Jr. uttered that unforgettable line, “I am Iron Man”, Stan Lee’s original idea behind creating Iron Man was to take a concept his readers would hate (a rich, military industrialist), throw in a little inspiration from Howard Hughes, toss in a little vulnerability and personal tragedy, and make him a character they would root for.
Although Lee intended to write Iron Man’s debut, mounting deadlines saw him turn to his younger brother, Larry Lieber, to flesh out this concept. Though artist Don Heck drew the interior artwork, the cover art (which posits the question “Who? Who? Who?” and depicts Iron Man’s awesome, super chunky grey armour) was done by the legendary Jack Kirby. Stark and his armoured alter-ego was initially a whimsical, Errol Flynn-type anti-communist who existed, largely, for Lee to comment on both industrialism and the Cold War, and debuted in the pages of Tales of Suspense, a title known for including science-fiction mystery and (fittingly) suspense stories.
“Iron Man is Born!” begins in “a secluded area somewhere in the U.S. perimeter” where Anthony Stark is demonstrating the power and awesome potential of his “tiny transistors”. Though the General is initially unimpressed with Stark’s grandstanding, with just a flick of a switch, Stark’s transistor technology increases the power of even the smallest magnet a thousandfold to tear open even a heavily-sealed vault door in an impressive demonstration of the technology he believes to be “capable of solving [the] problem in Vietnam”.
Having introduced us to Stark’s impressive technological genius, the story then spends the next couple of panels giving us a glimpse into the type of character Stark is. A rich, handsome, glamorous playboy, Stark is seemingly lusted after by every woman who lays eyes on him and is both a sophisticate, millionaire bachelor and a scientist who wants for nothing, is capable of getting, making, or having anything he wants, and who is one of the premier hot-shotters in the U.S.
We’re then introduced to the tyrannical Wong-Chu , a stereotypical “Yellow Peril” menace who has mercilessly dominated the majority of South Vietnam, bringing village after village to its knees and besting all who dare challenge him in single combat and plundering without compassion. Wong-Chu and his “Red Guerrillas” vastly outnumber the stationed U.S. forces and have the advantage of being able to navigate through the dense jungle, which keeps the U.S. military’s heavy weapons and armaments at bay. Considering it’s Vietnam and we all know how messed up that particular conflict was, it’s a bit odd that the army would rather employ Stark’s transistor technology (as groundbreaking as it apparently is) to solve this problem rather than, I dunno, simply burning the jungle.
However, while wandering around in the jungle for apparently little other reason than to deliver exposition, Stark triggers an unseen booby trap and is captured by the Red Guerrillas while he lies wounded. At the Guerrilla chief’s headquarters, their physician reveals that Stark is in critical condition; shrapnel near his heart makes it impossible for them to operate and Stark will be dead within about a week. Undeterred, Wong-Chu decides to coerce Stark into using what little time he has left to make weapons for them instead. Immediately sensing Wong-Chu’s deception, Stark agrees to their terms if only to use their resources in one last, desperate attempt to keep himself from dying. Considering he has untold pieces of shrapnel lodged in his chest and is, apparently, in critical condition and mere days away from death, Stark is rather spirited, able to stand, walk around, and work himself around the clock with only the looming threat of his impending demise working against him rather than, you know, agonising pain.
On the second day, Wong-Chu bring Stark an assistant, the aged Professor Yinsen, a man whom Stark recognises and seems to idolise after studying Yinsen’s texts while in college. Stark shares his plans with Yinsen and they work together to complete Stark’s imaginative solution to his problem: a mighty electronic body powered by Stark’s transistor technology. This massive iron frame is specifically crafted to replicate all the natural movements of a man and to work in conjunct with Stark’s transistors to both keep him alive and grant him freedom of movement. With Stark’s conditioning worsening as time goes on, Yinsen presents him with the iron chest-plate to applies it, and the remainder of the suit, to Stark’s body. However, after powering up the generator, Yinsen selflessly rushes out to keep Wong-Chu’s forces at bay while Stark lies motionless and helpless.
As the transistors charge up Stark’s suit, he is devastated to hear the sound of his friend being shot and killed and swears vengeance for him. Once the suit is fully charged, Stark’s life is saved; the transistors imbedded in the chest plate are vaguely depicted as being something akin to a life support machine that keeps Stark’s heart beating but we know, from the demonstration of the transistor’s magnetic powers that we saw earlier and from subsequent stories, that the suit is actually keeping the shrapnel at bay to keep Stark from dying. Surprisingly, and somewhat hilariously, Stark struggles to adjust to his new armoured suit, falling and having to take a panel or two to master the awesome power of the suit. Even more surprisingly, as Wong-Chu’s men head towards his cell, Stark has a moment of despair; he sees the oncoming battle as his “greatest test” and wonders if his suit will be up to the task while simultaneously doubting his own humanity and the unknown future that lays ahead of him as he must remain reliant upon, and encased within, his iron suit. It’s a startlingly affecting couple of panels and really shows just how much the experience has affected the formally carefree Stark.
Pragmatic as ever, Stark utilises his “transistor-powered air-pressure jets” to perform a great vertical leap and hides from Wong-Chu’s forces using “suction cups” to cling to the ceiling. After hearing clarification of Yinsen’s death, Stark again swears to make the Red Guerrilla’s pay for killing an innocent, harmless old man as Iron Man. Out in the courtyard, Wong-Chu is celebrating another victory over a hapless villager when Here Comes a New Challenger!! Iron Man approaches Wong-Chu and challenges him to single combat, easily besting him with his transistor-powered strength.
Iron Man’s reinforced metallic shell is even capable of deflecting bullets and, when Wong-Chu orders the use of grenades, Iron Man simply “[reverses] the charge in [a] magnetic turbo-insulator” and “[uses] a top-hat transistor to increase its repelling power a thousandfold” to deflect the incoming projectiles. Wong-Chu is incensed when his men flee from Iron Man’s power and uses a loudspeaker to offer a thousand yen reward to the man who can destroy the metallic menace who threatens his rule; however, Iron Man uses “electrical interference” to drown out Wong-Chu’s words and replace them with an order for the Red Guerrillas to flee in panic.
Though he easily uses his miniature buzz saw to cut through the locked door that hides Wong-Chu, Iron Man is briefly incapacitated when Wong-Chi is able to topple a rock-filled filing cabinet on top of him. Okay…first of all: where did Wong-Chu get the rocks to fill the filing cabinet and, secondly, how was is it he had the strength to push it down the stairs but Iron Man, with all his transistor-powered strength, struggled to lift it off of him? Regardless, Iron Man soon lifts the weight off of him but finds that he has exerted his power levels far too much and cannot pursue Wong-Chu. However, determined to keep the tyrant from slaughtering all of the prisoners in the camp, Iron Man squirts a thin stream of oil towards the ammunition storage building Wong-Chu is running past and ignites it, blowing Wong-Chu to smithereens without hesitation and leaving Stark to ponder his unknown future that lies before him as Iron Man.
“Iron Man is Born!” is quite the snappy little story; Tony Stark is indeed a very different character compared to some of Marvel’s other heroes in that he is a womanising philanthropist. While he’s not shown to be aloof or carefree, the panels depicting him as a billionaire playboy certainly indicate that this is the case; sure, he’s clearly a patriot but he seems to assist the military effort more out of personal pride and to show off his technology rather than out of any real inherent duty to his homeland.
Yet, when captured by the Red Guerrilla’s, Stark comes face-to-face not only with the true extent of the brutality of the Vietnam conflict but also his own mortality; where other Marvel heroes may have faced this threat with a witty remark or a patriotic resolve, Stark instead invests himself in the only thing he really knows: his science and genius. He works tirelessly to construct the Iron Man armour, crafting a sophisticated, life-saving machine out of a smattering of resources and technology, not just to save his own life but also to take Wong-Chu down with him.
Indeed, initially, Stark seems to accept that this will be a suicide mission and that he may very well fail before he can even complete the armour; his motivations turn to revenge after the death of Yinsen, however, and he becomes quite the unlikely hero thanks to the experience of being held prisoner, coming to terms with his mortality, and the unlimited potential of his transistor-powered Iron Man persona. In the end, I actually felt like Stark had a lot in common with Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk in that he is somewhat horrified by the monster he has made himself into; he is not only overwhelmed by the implications of being trapped within the armour but ends the story satisfied with his vengeance but uncertain how the man once known as Tony Stark can continue to live in the world as an Iron Man.
Have you ever read “Iron Man is Born!”? How did you find it as a story and as an origin for ol’ shellhead? What did you think of Tony Stark compared to other Marvel superheroes at the time? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Iron Man so leave a comment below.