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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Tony Stark

Eisenhower and Kennedy

Eisenhower warned about the War Machine. He called it the military industrial complex, and three days before handing the Oval Office to Kennedy, he said we must guard against its acquisition of unwarranted influence and the disastrous rise of its misplaced power.

Stan Lee wasn’t listening.

Or if he was, he took it as a challenge.

“I gave myself a dare,” says Lee. “The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military. . .  So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army . . .  I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats . . .”

Thanks, Stan.


Marvel later retooled Iron Man into a literal War Machine with James Rhodes, a high tech soldier taking orders in the military’s chain of command, something Tony Stark weapons manufacturer steered clear of.

War Machine

But Tony wasn’t the first Iron Man.

Neither was the 1939 Bozo the Iron Man. George Brenner built him for Quality Comics. Originally a mad scientist’s robot minion, he was dubbed “Bozo” by Hugh Hazzard, the playboy detective who ended his crime spree and reprogrammed him into a sidekick. DC pulled his plug in 1956 when they bought Quality.

Bozo the Iron Man

Stan Lee pulled the name off the scrap heap and handed it to Marvel second-string artist Don Heck in 1962. Bozo was big enough for Hugh to crawl inside, but Heck drew a modern-day knight in a suit of electromagnetic armor. Like the Tin Man of Oz, he also has heart problems. Remove the chest plate, and Tony’s stops. Heck liked to draw the playboy industrialist sitting around hotel rooms, plugged into wall jacks as he unglamorously recharged.

He eventually upgraded to an implant, which makes him a cyborg too. Like the Automaton.  The first movie cyborg, from Harry Houdini’s 1920 silent serial The Master Mystery. A mad scientist removes his brain and wires it into a robot. It was supposed to be a scary, Frankenstein-like monster, but based on the photo stills, the costume designer could have worked for Sesame Street.

The Automaton

Also, the cyborg thing is a hoax. The Automaton is just a clunky metal suit, same as Heck’s, before Steve Ditko refurbished it.

If the 1920s seem like a long leap to find the original Iron Man, then charge your rocket boots. Next stop is the 1590s.

Edmund SpenserFaerie Queene

The first Man of Iron was soldered by Edmund Spenser in his epic poem The Faerie Queene:

“His name was Talus, made of yron mould,
Immoueable, resistlesse, without end.”

If you’re rusty on Renaissance English, that’s “iron mold,” “immovable,” and “resistless,” all War Machine synonyms.  Talus’ other superpowers include speed (“him pursew’d so light, / As that it seem’d aboue the ground he went”), invulnerability (though a bad guy “streight at him with all his force did go,” Talus was “mou’d no more therewith, then when a rocke / Is lightly stricken with some stones throw”), and strength (“But to him leaping, lent him such a knocke, / That on the ground he layd him like a senseless blocke”). And that’s just from his first adventure.

Like Bozo, this yron man is also a sidekick. The executive half of Spencer’s dynamic duo is Artegall, the Knight of Justice. Talus originally worked for his mentor guru Astraea, “to execute her stedfast doome,” before she “willed him with Artegall to wend, / And doe what euer thing he did intend.” She also gives Artgall a nifty sword “Tempered with Adamant,” same as Wolverine’s claws. Together “They two enough t’encounter an whole Regiment.”

But Art prefers words over swords. He’s a diplomat at heart. He throws a Solomon-like puzzle at a serial killer squire to expose his guilt, and talks a tyrannical Gyant into recognizing the flawed logic in its false hero rhetoric. Of course all this word-mincing is made possible by his trusty page who carries “an yron flale,” the proverbial big stick for Art’s foreign policy.

It’s the dogged Talus who has to hunt down and retrieve the rogue squire (“Him in his iron paw he seized had”), and then “forced him” to obey Art’s punishment: to wear the murdered Lady’s head around his neck like an albatross.

Thanks, Talus. Good boy.

Pages of Justice are also handy for castle storming (“at the length he has yrent the door”), mob dispersal (“hid themselves in holes and bushes from his view”), and executions (“And down the rock him throwing, in the sea he drouned”). He has no qualms dispatching women either (“Over the Castle wall adowne her cast, / And there her drowned in the durty mud”). In fact, he has no qualms of any kind. It doesn’t matter if his target offers prayers, cash or sex, “he was nothing mou’d, nor tempted” and “Withouten pitty of her goodly hew.”

Basically the guy is a drone.

Dec. 17 airpower summary: Reapers touch enemy forces

Like our Commander-in-Chief, Artegall just has to give the lethal nod. Talus, “swift as swallow” and “strong as Lyon,” is well-suited to Obama’s “light footprint” military strategy. “At the end of the day,” writers David E. Sanger in The New York Times, “Mr. Obama’s favorite way to use force is quickly, secretly and briefly.” The yron drone is his perfect war machine:

“And lastly all that Castle quite he raced,
Euen from the sole of his foundation,
And all the hewen stones thereof defaced,
That there mote be no hope of reparation,
Nor memory thereof to any nation.”

But drones are under fire themselves. In the Showtime series Homeland, they convert a loyal U.S. marine into a Muslim suicide bomber when collateral damage includes 72 children.


Since “for no pitty would he change the course,” a drone like Talus has a tendency of “burning all to ashes,” and so can, according to Ben Emmerson, cause “disproportionate civilian casualties.” Last month, the special investigator for the United Nations Human Rights Council started looking at “drone strikes and other forms of remotely targeted killing” to determine “whether there is a plausible allegation of unlawful killing.”

This could be bad news for Obama, Artegall, Hugh Hazzard, Tony Stark and any other Knights of Justice using heartless Bozos to do their dirty work.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Avengers aren’t wild about Iron Man either. General McChrystal says drones are “hated on a visceral level” and create a “perception of American arrogance.” New Secretary of State John Kerry wants to make sure “American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone.” Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wants a court to oversee targeted killings. Commentator David Brooks, even while lauding Obama’s not so “perfectly clean hands” as a Machiavellian necessity, wants the same. I’m not sure how John O. Brennan, our new CIA director and the man who’s been holding Talus’ leash for the last four years, feels, but protesters shouting at his confirmation hearing were very clear:

“Drones Fly Children Die.”

Feinstein puts the annual number of accidental drone deaths in “single digits.” The war machines have been at it since 2004, so you can do the math. The Council on Foreign Relations counts over 400 total strikes, with a death toll over 3,000, most of them Al Qaeda.

Ed Craun, a colleague in the W&L English department, tells me Talus represents the Law of Retaliation, lex Talonis, the biblical eye-for-an-eye. The merciless shove-it-down-their-throats mentality you would except from a military industrial complex. So Artegall spends Book 5 learning to temper that unwarranted influence. By the end, Artegall still employs his Iron Man for military operations (Ed likens one adventure to a search-and-destroy mission in the caves of Afghanistan), but when the War Machine wants to attack an insolent hag, Artegall reins him in:

“But Talus hearing her so lewdly raile,
And speake so ill of him, that well deserued,
Would her haue chastiz’d with his yron flaile,
If her Sir Artegall had not preserued,
And him forbidden, who his heast obserued.”

Artegall knows when to listen to General Eisenhower.

Does the U.S?

Rise of the Drones by Lev Grossman

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I’m teaching my Superheroes seminar again this Spring term at Washington & Lee University, and Marvel very kindly scheduled The Avengers to fit on the syllabus. So my students and I abandoned our classroom and strolled downtown to our smallville theater. Here’s their analytical verdict.

Ryan Scott: “Though The Avengers features many of today’s biggest film stars and relies upon state-of-the-art special effects, in many ways the film harkens back to the earliest superhero comics, especially in the level of violence carried out by the heroes.  Just as the original Superman of Siegel and Shuster flings his enemies into the sunset, so do the Avengers rack up an impressive body count in the film’s climatic battle.  And just as Bob Kane’s Batman packs a pistol in his first few appearances, so do Captain America, Black Widow, and Nick Fury spend much of the film shooting their enemies.”

Lauren Woodie: “One of the main themes that I have observed in my reading of superhero comics is the superhero’s ability to act above the law. Superman constantly takes the law into his own hands and will sometimes even fight against the police. This theme is highlighted in “The Avengers” mainly by the fact that the Avengers operate under the control of an organization called Shield, which seems to transcend all governments much like the superheroes it encompasses.”

Mihai Cirstea: “To viewers like myself, who are not avid followers of the superhero genre, The Avengers was successfully appealing because of its constant humor that lightens up the heavier comic book influences. The scene that I found particularly amusing was when the Hulk smashes Loki back and forth against the floor like a rag doll. Stark’s humor, of course, also adds levity to the movie with his constant sarcasm. These moments of humor reminded me of the Superman comics, in which Siegel often offset the heavy plot with a snarky quip from his hero.”

Marie Spear: “To my surprise, I found that I had to stop myself from reading into all the different tropes and traits we have looked at class while watching The Avengers so that I could focus on the fun happening onscreen. I like how the director was able to bring in heavy undertones like god vs. science, such as with Thor, or the struggle of dual identities, and still have the movie be a ton of fun. My only criticism is that it is a little too long.”

Anna DiBenedetto: “Whedon’s The Avengers takes a comical stance on the powerful and almighty superhero triumph.  After the Hulk and Thor have a battle against one another on the starship, in a later scene, after they have both teamed up to defeat the flying, bad fish, they are standing over the dead corpse.  Then after a moment of silence, the Hulk punches out his left hand and sends Thor flying away.”

Paul Nguyen:  “The foremost appeal was the action and hilarity, but besides that, there was an intriguing use of superheroes of many types. None fell into the shadow of another. Captain America’s patriotism was well emphasized as well as his physical prowess. Thor’s god-like presence was well felt, but his obvious superiority to the others did not overshadow the overall awesomeness of the Avengers. Iron Man’s wittiness came through well. Hulk’s violent hilarity was strong, especially in his thrashing of Loki. It was about the superheroes as a whole rather than a single superior superhero.”

Anna Dorsett: “The Avengers, while thoroughly entertaining, does not skim over the darker portions of a superhero’s struggle. Dr. Banner, for example, overcomes his inner struggle and finds balance with his human self and super human self with the acceptance and support of the Avengers- he, as a human, found a positive purpose for his destructive power, which he formerly despised. Each character has incredible power, but also a weakness within- some form of humanity that works against them to give the storyline more drama and make the character more relatable. It’s a great thing to watch.”

Nick Lehotsky: “The Avengers proves entertaining, reflecting the reversed tropes seen in superheroes like Hancock. The indifferent, often aggressive attitude society maintains towards these “freaks” because of their massive property damage and pseudo-celebrity attitudes [I’m looking at you, Tony Stark] still resonates with audiences. It is as if we are continually perplexed by the superhero’s interactions with our society, and the hope that they shall always continue saving humanity. The Avengers is just what it is promised to be-a witty, action packed, Marvel stamped [via Disney] money making monster. I just hope the sequel provides more character depth.”

Adele Irwin: “I found the relationship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to be the most intriguing. Each as individuals are likable characters with level headedness, senses of humor, and scientific intellect. Their friendship within the Avengers is appealing because they bond before the entire group comes together. Rarely have alliances between Superheroes been seen up to this point in our reading, making the collaboration between these two characters within the Avengers group entertaining and original to me, taking the superhero trope of selflessness to an entire new level.”

Shannon Nollet: “The Avengers, unlike some of the earlier superhero stories, gives a female a strong role. Not only is the Black Widow human, but she is able to fight the aliens just as well, if not better, than her male companions. No longer are the women simply the damsel in distress or doting love-interest. In Whedon’s The Avengers, women fully take part in the action.”

Chris Levy: “Each character has a well-defined fatal flaw, and these flaws almost lead to the failure of their mission. Tony Stark has major humility issues, threatening his ability to work with the others. Captain America’s long slumber has caused him to be somewhat outdated. Thor is not mortal, and thus does not truly understand human behavior. As the Hulk, Dr. Banner’s flaw is obvious, while the Black Widow struggles to put her dark past behind her. These characters are superhuman, yet still struggle with flaws like every other human.”

Zabriawn Smith: “My favorite character and message was Captain America. The time capsule jokes by Tony Stark were hilarious, but when it came time to battle it the old stars and stripes that led the way. I enjoyed the theme of returning to roots to move forward. He had a lot more edge than he did in the comics; seeing Captain America allow one of his teammates push his buttons was startling and eye-opening.”

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