Marvel Comics in its early years were affected by the Cold War. The Fantastic Four got their powers because they were trying to beat the Soviets into space. One of the earliest Spider-Man stories involved a villain stealing U.S. defense secrets for the Soviets and trying to pin the blame on Spidey.
However, no Marvel character seemed more tied to the Cold War than Iron Man, the armored alter ego of industrialist Anthony Stark. Time and again, Stan Lee & Co. turned to Cold War themes for Iron Man’s adventures.
A broader audience first discovered Iron Man in the 2008 movie with Robert Downey Jr. It was set in the present, so the Cold War origins were forgotten. Here, we take a closer look at the character’s Cold War origins.
Iron Man Is Born, Tales of Suspense No. 39.
Plot: Stan Lee Script: Larry Lieber Art: Don Heck. Iron Man armor design: Jack Kirby (uncredited in the issue but noted in the 2008 movie)
Synopsis: We’re introduced to Anthony Stark, brilliant scientist and inventor who’s also a handsome playboy. Stark and his company design the most advanced, high-technology weapons for the U.S. military. In the opening, Stark shows how his “tiny transistors” boost the power of a small magnet by “a thousandfold” and tear apart a vault door.
Duly impressed, the brass sends Stark to Vietnam to study the situation there. The notion is that the “tiny transistors” could help miniaturize weapons that could be easily transported in the jungle. Fate intervenes, however, when after a demonstration Stark is felled by a booby trap. He’s captured by Wong-Chu “the Red guerilla tyrant.” Stark has shrapnel near his heart that will kill him within a week.
Stark teams up with another captured scientist, Professor Yinsen, and builds the first version of his Iron Man armor that will both be a powerful weapon and keep Stark’s heart beating. As in the 2008 movie, the Yinsen of this 1963 story sacrifices himself to ensure Stark can power up the Iron Man armor.
Iron Man routs Wong-Chu’s men. Wong-Chu, being a very sore loser, tries to order that other (unseen) prisoners be executed. Iron Man kills him (not very common in comics of the day for a hero) by igniting an ammo dump. The explosion ensures Wong-Chu won’t live to see his orders carried out. Iron Man frees the prisoners and departs, unsure of what lays ahead.
Analysis: All of this is contained with 13 pages. While crude by today’s comics standards, the story moves. Don Heck was new to super hero comics (he had drawn romance and science fiction stories for Marvel) and was never the fan favorite that other Marvel artists such as Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko became. The 2008 movie shifted locales to the Middle East. Even without the Cold War references, the film stayed faithful to the basic concepts embedded in the 1963 original.
Trapped By the Red Barbarian. Tales of Suspense No. 42
Plot: Stan Lee Script: Robert Bernstein (as R. Berns) Arts: Don Heck
Synopsis: After a few issues of science fiction (opponents including aliens controlling a giant robot and a mad scientist trying to take over the world), Iron Man is back in Cold War land. Iron Man captures some Soviet spies who are trying to steal “America’s newest atom bomb.”
Iron Man isn’t content. He wants the Red Barbarian, the person who has organized this spy ring. We’re told the Red Barbarian operates out of “a Red satellite country.” The Barbarian is extremely angry and wants to steal the plans to Tony Stark’s latest weapon systems. A disguise expert known only as “the Actor” offers his service.
By this time, Stark has invented the fiction that Iron Man is a bodyguard who works for him. Eventually, the Actor fails but learns the secret that Tony Star is Iron Man. “The Red Barbarian will forgive me when I tell him Anthony Stark is Iron Man!” the Actor thinks to himself. He couldn’t be more wrong. The Red Barbarian executes the Actor.
Analysis: A forgettable opponent but this story establishes how the Soviets and other Eastern Bloc nations fear Stark and the weapons he produces for the U.S. The Actor, in introducing himself to the Red Barbarian, disguises himself as “Comrade K” (as the Barbarian calls him), and is drawn clearly to resemble Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader at the time.
The Crimson Dynamo, Tales of Suspense No. 46.
Plot: Stan Lee Script: Robert Bernstein (as R. Berns) Art: Don Heck
Synopsis: Khrushchev (not named though readers are told if we don’t recognize him he’s “the ‘Mr. Big’ of the Iron Curtain”) visits Professor Vanko. The Big K fears Vanko but the scientist is too valuable to liquidate.
Vanko has built his own electronic suit of armor. Before long, the Crimson Dynamo is taking on Iron Man in a fight in the U.S. Iron Man manages to record a Soviet transmission from a submarine monitoring the battle. The recording includes instructions (apparently from the Big K) that Vanko is to be killed the moment he returns. “I cannot take any changes of the Crimson Dynamo being more popular than I! So Vanko must be liquidated!”
Nobody ever said Vanko was a dummy. He promptly defects and provides U.S. authorities information about Soviet spy rings. As the story ends, Khrushchev is hurling objects at a couple of his military officers. “Next time I shall bury Iron Man!” the Big K vows.
Analysis: Ain’t subtle. This is the first, but hardly the last, try the Reds are going to make to come up with their own version of Iron Man.
The Hands of the Mandarin, Tales of Suspense No. 50 Script: Stan Lee Art: Don Heck
Synopsis: Iron Man agrees to travel to China on behalf of the U.S. military to find out more about the Mandarin. We’re shown that the Communist Chinese government fears the Mandarin as well. Iron Man discovers the Mandarin wears 10 rings that each have some kind of power (such as a paralyzer ray) and he’s a fearsome karate expert who can break an iron bar in two.
Eventually, Iron Man gets the better of the villain and escapes. But the Mandarin isn’t the type to forget
Analysis: While the Mandarin is an independent menace, Cold War themes abound. At the time the U.S. and China didn’t have diplomatic relations and the Chinese government authorities or soldiers depicted in the story aren’t sympathetic characters.
The Sinister Scarecrow, Tales of Suspense No. 51. Script: Stan Lee Art: Don Heck
Synopsis: Iron Man’s opponent is a crook who’s a contortionist. The scarecrow steals some Stark Industries secrets and is selling them to the Cubans. The
Plot is foiled and the Scarecrow is stuck in Cuba “a man without a country!”
Analysis: Routine story and forgettable villain but the first time the Cubans are used in the Iron Man universe as a threat.
The Crimson Dynamo Strikes Again! Tales of Suspense No. 52.
Plot: Stan Lee Script: Don Rico (as N. Korok) Art: Don Heck
Synopsis: We’re shown that Professor Vanko is now working for Tony Stark. Meanwhile, Khrushchev, still smarting over Vanko’s defection, orders a new operation against Stark. Natasha, a spy known as the Black Widow, and a man “known as…Boris” are sent to the U.S. The massive Boris incapacitates Vanko and takes the Crimson Dynamo armor while Natasha woos Tony Stark.
Boris, in the Crimson Dynamo armor, overcomes Iron Man. When the hero awakes, he finds himself a prisoner in a Soviet sub, along with Vanko. Iron Man finds a way to recharge his armor and makes short work of the sub and takes Vanko back to his lab. Boris is there and another fight breaks out. Iron Man is down but Vanko uses an untested weapon against Boris. Vanko and Boris are killed in the explosion.
“Poor Vanko!” Iron Man thinks to himself. “He sacrificed his life to provide his loyalty to our nation! He shall never be forgotten.” At the same time, Natasha is free but fearing retribution by her Soviet masters. “I must keep moving…I know too well the penalty for failure.”
Analysis: Natasha would become a major character in the Marvel universe and, before long, would don her own super-hero costume. One suspects Stan Lee knew he had a potential winner because readers wouldn’t wait long for her next appearance.
The Black Widow Strikes Again! Tales of Suspense No. 53.
Plot: Stan Lee Script: Don Rico (as N. Korok) Art: Don Heck
Synopsis: Natasha/Black Widow shows up at Stark Industries with a story saying she’s sorry. Well, Natasha is supposed to be a babe and Stark promptly shows off another wonder weapon (an anti-gravity ray, if it matters). So Natasha promptly steals it. Iron Man must retrieve. He does before Natasha can steal the gold from Fort Knox.. But the Widow is still at large.
Analysis: Apparently the Marvel Universe Fort Knox has geography that doesn’t exactly match our own. At one point, when the anti-gravity ray has lifted a mountain. Iron Man uses a gizmo to nullify the weapon. Iron Man saves some Soviet spies who were about to be crushed by the now falling mountain.
“You saved us!! I …I do not understand!”
Iron Man’s reply: “That’s the trouble with you commies! You just don’t dig us!”
The Uncanny Unicorn, Tales of Suspense No. 56. Script: Stand Lee Art: Don Heck
Synopsis: After a two-part fight with the Mandarin, Tony Stark is back in the U.S. but sick of being Iron Man and wants some time off.
Too bad because the Unicorn, another Soviet villain, is blasting Stark’s factory. It turns out his costume, including a helmet that includes a “power horn,” was designed by the late Professor Vanko before he defected. In the melee, Stark’s aide Happy Hogan is injured.
Stark is sufficiently motivated to don the Iron Man armor. Before Iron Man can beat him, the Unicorn threatens to explode a bomb that will destroy Stark’s entire complex. Iron Man agrees to accompany the Unicorn to the Soviet Bloc. While onboard the aircraft, Iron Man decides to rip the plane apart and the Soviets aboard parachute to safety.
Analysis: How much money have the Soviets spent trying to kill or capture Iron Man/Tony Stark? Evidently money is no object.
Hawkeye, the Marksman! Tales of Suspense No. 57. Script: Stan Lee Art: Don Heck
Synopsis: Madame Natasha is at it again, manipulating a would-be hero calling himself Hawkeye. Hawkeye has no super powers. But he’s a superb marksman with an arrow and has come up with gimmicked arrows. Hawkeye uses the arrows to take on Iron Man (including one that will rust his armor).
Iron Man overcomes Hawkeye but the marksman tries one last trick, an explosive arrow. It bounces off Iron Man but Natasha is caught in the force of the blast. Hawkeye takes Natasha off into the foggy night.
Analysis: Another major character introduction. Hawkeye would eventually become a member of the Avengers, Marvel’s big super hero group.
Suspected of Murder, Tales of Suspense No. 60, Script: Stan Lee Pencils: Don Heck Inks: Dick Ayres
Synopsis: Natasha and Hawkeye make another run at Iron Man. In the middle of an Iron Man/Hawkeye fight, Natasha is seized by Sergei Amkov, head of the Iron Curtain’s North American spy system. She’s to be taken back for interrogation. Hawkeye gets away while Natasha pines away for Hawkeye while flying back to the Soviet Bloc.
Analysis: Story is starting to lay the groundwork for Natasha to eventually disengage from the Soviets.
Hawkeye and the New Black Widow Strike Again! Tales of Suspense No. 64. Script: Stan Lee Pencils: Don Heck Inks: Chic Stone
Synopsis: The Black Widow is reunited with Hawkeye. This time she’s sporting a fancy super hero costume. In flashback, we’re told that Khrushchev, “just before his fall from power,” still had plans for her including the costume that include boots with sticky soles enabling her to walk on almost any surface. Thus, she’s even more like her namesake.
Another fight ensues. The Widow gets hurt and Hawkeye takes her away before Iron Man.
Analysis: These story titles are getting a little monotonous, eh? Natasha now has made her first big step toward being a super hero.
If I Die, Let It Be With Honor!/Fight On! For a World Is Watching!/What Price Victory? Tales of Suspense Nos. 69-71. Script: Stan Lee Pencils: Don Heck Inks: Vince Colletta (No. 69) Mike Esposito (No. 70, as Mickey Demeo) and Wally Wood (No. 71)
Synopsis: The power hungry Boris Bullski has been made commissar of a Siberian work camp. He forces captive scientists to make him a suit of electronic armor. Thus, Titanium Man is born. Bullski issues a public challenge to fight Iron Man to prove the Communist side is superior.
Problem: Tony Stark has been having trouble with the Iron Man armor and he hesitates to take up the challenge. This greatly annoys Senator Byrd in Washington (not to be confused any real-life senator). “Iron Man must accept the challenge! It’s a matter of national pride…and prestige!”
Stark makes a temporary fix and the fight is on, which will take place in an unnamed neutral country. Over the three-part story, Bullski, of course, cheats and Stark aide Happy Hogan (again) is serious injured. This gives Stark the motivation to beat the crap out the Titanium Man.
Analysis: Major event at the end of issue 70 when Happy figures out Tony is Iron Man. And clearly Stan figured he had a winner in Titanium Man because….
The Return of the Titanium Man/By Force of Arms/Victory! Tales of Suspense 81-83. Script: Stan Lee Pencils: Gene Colan Inks: Jack Abel (as Gary Michaels, Nos. 81 and 83) and Frank Giacoia (No. 82)
Synopsis: Since we last saw him, Boris Bullski has taken “special hormone pills” to make him even larger and gotten a new, more powerful suit of armor. As it turns out, Iron Man is heading to Washington where Senator Byrd wants Tony Stark to testify about the secrets of the Iron Man armor.
viewIron Man battles his Communist foe all over Washington in issues 82 and 83. After Titanium Man nearly kills Stark’s beloved secretary Pepper Potts, Iron Man is really mad and begins to shatter his opponent’s armor. Iron Man sends his foe fleeing out to the Atlantic where he thinks a sub will pick him up. But the sub commander will have no part of it. “In our nation’s destiny there is no place for — failures!”
Analysis: Since the last Titanium Man tale, Gene Colan took over as Iron Man’s artist. One suspects Stan Lee invented the bit about the “special hormone” pills when Gene’s art came back showing a much larger Titanium Man (that wasn’t established in issue 81). This story was published in the summer of 1966 but the Soviets are still depicted as being pretty hard-core.
Within the Vastness of Viet Nam!/The Golden Gladiator and the Giant!/The Tragedy and the Triumph!” Tales of Suspense Nos. 92-94. Script: Stan Lee Pencils: Gene Colan Inks: Frank Giacoia (Nos. 92-93) and Dan Adkins (No. 94)
Synopsis: Iron Man is back in Vietnam to help out the U.S. military and take on a mysterious menace called Half Face. It turns out Half Face saved the Titanium Man (though it’s unclear exactly how). The duo are going to destroy a Vietnamese village and make it look like the work of American bombers and secure “our greatest propaganda victory.”
Analysis: Half Face reforms at the end of the story (he thought his wife and child had been killed — turns out they live in the village he had planned to destroy). By this time, it’s 1967 and the situation in Vietnam isn’t as clear cut as once thought. Still, at one point Stark/Iron Man says he has heard that Half Face is “the Commies’ answer to Tony Stark.” Whatever the change in the political situation, Boris Bullski (who looks even larger than in his previous appearance) hasn’t reformed at all.