- Iron Man’s initial origin didn’t quite fit the mold of a traditional superhero, with a bulky armor that made him look like he was still in a sci-fi story.
- The debut of Iron Man’s iconic red and gold armor in September 1963 marked a turning point for the character
- The lighter and sleeker design of Iron Man’s new armor made him look more like a traditional superhero
In every Look Back, we examine a comic book issue from 10/25/50/75 years ago (plus a wild card every month with a fifth week in it). This time around, as September is a five-week month, our “wild card” look back sends us back to September 1963 for the debut of Iron Man’s red and gold armor.
It’s important to note that when Marvel launched a superhero line of comics in 1961 with Fantastic Four #1, the company’s most popular comic books were monster and science fiction comic books that were filled with mostly done-in-one stories, with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko likely doing a lot of the plotting of their respective stories in books like Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Journeys Into Mystery.
This is important to note because when you look at the debut stories of a lot of Marvel’s heroes in the early 1960s, a lot of them really look like they could easily just fit into a fantasy/science fiction/horror anthology. Heck, the debut of Ant-Man literally WAS a science fiction story about a guy who shrunk himself down. It wasn’t until his SECOND appearance that Hank Pym actually became a superhero (amusingly, Marvel would later edit some of its old stories from this era and work Hank Pym into them in place of generic scientists). That’s totally fine, but the end result is that some of the early versions of these characters have a slight edge to them that isn’t present when they become more straightforward superheroes.
One of the major examples of this is Iron Man, whose initial origin is excellent, but it doesn’t particularly work well for an ongoing superhero comic feature, until September 1963’s Tales of Suspense #48 got things back on track with a brand-new armor by Steve Ditko.
What was Iron Man’s original status quo?
Iron Man debuted in Tales of Suspense #39 (by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber and Don Heck, with Jack Kirby designing the amror for Iron Man, and perhaps giving Heck some pointers on the story). He is a perfect example of the flawed superheroes of the Marvel Age. Tony Stark is the world’s most famous weapons maker. However, while touring overseas to see how his weapons were doing, he was caught in an explosion and captured by an enemy army (this being the early 1960s, the Asian bad guys are all drawn as pretty racist-looking caricatures). As it turned out, he had shrapnel in his heart and the only thing keeping him alive was a metal contraption that another captured scientist had developed.
They decided to trick their captor by promising to deliver him a weapon he could use, but instead secretly came up with a suit of armor that Tony could wear in order to break them out of the prison (while also powering his heart). Sadly, the armor was not ready when the villains returned, so the other scientist sacrificed himself to buy Tony enough time to finish the armor.
Once it was ready, Tony wiped the floor with the bad guys and returned to the United States, now a hero but a hero who needs a machine to keep his heart ticking. An Iron Man in name and in spirit.
Great story, right? But, well, the end result is that he is in an armor that looks like it was built in a prison workshop!!
Robert Bernstein scripted the next issue, and Jack Kirby did the pencils. I assume Kirby had some say on the plotting, as well, as he quickly updated his design on the armor, with people being scared by the armor…
but the solution was just to paint it golden!!
It’s still the same armor, just gold!!! How is that a step up? I mean, okay, it IS a step up, but how is that ENOUGH of a step up?
Why did Iron Man change his armor?
A couple of interesting points. One, as you might have heard before, the villain in this issue was going to be called Mister Pain, but the Comics Code Authority said no, so he was changed to Mister Doll (I don’t think I ever did that as a Comic Book Legends Revealed, as it’s just not quite THAT interesting)
Two, Jack Kirby drew the cover, so, well, do we really know for sure that Kirby DIDN’T do the redesign for this armor? Everyone seems to credit Steve Ditko, and I’ll admit that the design seems more Ditko-esque than Kirby-esque, but Kirby drew the cover, so….I really don’t know for sure that Ditko DID design the armor. But whatever, he’s generally given the credit for the armor.
So, in the issue (by Ditko, Stan Lee and Dick Ayers), Mister Doll is a villain who can control people with voodoo dolls. He uses one on Iron Man, and Iron Man almost dies from the pain…
Tony notes that the biggest problem is that his armor is just too darn HEAVY. So when he has a problem with pain, he falls apart too quickly. So he has to design a lighter armor, and that leads to his greatest discovery, a lightweight armor that is as strong as his old armor…
Check out this freakin’ THREE-PAGE sequence of him putting his new armor on! You KNOW you have a good new idea for an armor when you devote THIS much time to just putting it on!
And…yeah, okay, this is a HUGE step-up.
This new armor is the sign that Iron Man is now truly a superhero. That old armor made him look like he was still in a science fiction story, while now, he feels fresh, and more like a traditional superhero. This basic armor designed lasted for basically 20 years, although obviously it was tweaked, the helmet in particular.
Okay, so Mister Doll almost kills him again, but the lighter album allows him to hold tight, and fight the pain. He then defeats Mister Doll by using a laser to cut the dolls from an Iron Man doll into a mold of Mister Doll himself!!.
This armor was such a huge change for the character.
If you folks have any suggestions for October (or any other later months) 2013, 1998, 1973 and 1948 comic books for me to spotlight, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! Here is the guide, though, for the cover dates of books so that you can make suggestions for books that actually came out in the correct month. Generally speaking, the traditional amount of time between the cover date and the release date of a comic book throughout most of comic history has been two months (it was three months at times, but not during the times we’re discussing here). So the comic books will have a cover date that is two months ahead of the actual release date (so October for a book that came out in August). Obviously, it is easier to tell when a book from 10 years ago was released, since there was internet coverage of books back then.
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