Iron Man and the Avengers: The Comics Issues that Introduced them All

Iron Man first appeared in Marvel Comics’ Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963). The issue would become one of the most valuable comics of the Silver Age with an estimated value of $70,000-plus.

On May 3, the “Iron Man 3” will hit movie theaters like a repulsor ray blast and has the potential to become one of the box office triumphs of 2013.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you know the villain this time around is the mysterious Mandarin. But did you know the Mandarin’s first appearance in comic books was back in 1964 as one of Iron Man’s earliest villains?

In fact, a lot of things happened in Iron Man’s early years in the comics that have a big influence on the superheroes in recent movies, including a certain super team whose much-anticipated second movie will be released in summer of 2015 and whose villain also first appeared in the pages of an Iron Man comic book. With those things in mind, let’s take a look at the early Iron Man and some of his most significant—and valuable—comic books.

As most comic book fans know, Iron Man first appeared in Marvel Comics’ Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963). Marvel’s editor and chief writer Stan Lee came up with the idea of brilliant playboy billionaire industrialist inventor Tony Stark who would design an iron suit to protect his injured heart and in the process give him super powers. However, with deadlines looming, Lee handed off the writing chores for the premier issue to Larry Lieber, Stan’s younger brother, who also wrote the origin stories of Thor and Ant-Man (who later became Giant-Man/Goliath).

As designed by cover artist Jack Kirby—in the early years, Marvel’s comic book covers were always done first, followed by the interior art—Iron Man’s costume was gray and bulky, making him look like a robot. The interior penciling was done by veteran artist Don Heck.

It was Stan Lee’s decision to make the early Iron Man a Cold War warrior battling the evil of Communism. In the premier issue, inventor Stark is testing experimental transistor-powered weapons in the jungles of Vietnam when he’s injured by an explosive booby trap and taken prisoner by the Communists. Although injured by a piece of shrapnel that is working its way toward his heart, the Communists task him with developing new weapons for themselves. Instead, he secretly constructs a transistorized armored suit that also serves as a pacemaker to keep his injured heart beating. As super-powered Iron Man, he defeats the Communists and escapes, but must always wear his iron chest plate, which must be electrically recharged on a regular basis, or he will die.

In his second appearance in Tales of Suspense #40 (April 1963) Iron Man’s armor changes from gray to gold.

Issue #45 introduced two new characters to the Iron man mythos – Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan.

The decision to make Stark a wealthy military industrialist was an interesting one, seeing as most comics of the day were aimed at young people, who at the time were mostly anti-war and certainly did not support the war-profiting munitions industry. Although Stark invented weapons, he was also working for the good guys, and his good looks—Heck made him look like a young Howard Hughes—combined with his precarious health condition, made him an instant hit, especially with the female fans. Soon, Tales of Suspense, originally launched in 1959 as an anthology suspense/sci-fi comic, would become one of Marvel’s bestsellers. And issue #39 would become one of the most valuable comics of the Silver Age, with an estimated value of $70,000-plus today in top condition.

In his second appearance (Tales of Suspense #40, April 1963) Iron Man’s armor changes from gray to gold, although it still has that bulky robotic look. Scripted by Ray Burns, the story featured a forgettable bad guy named Gargantus, with cover art by Kirby (inked by Heck) and interior art by Heck. Heck would continue to be Iron Man’s main artist for the next two years.

In issue #45 (September 1963) Lee and co-writer Robert Bernstein introduced two new characters to the Iron Man mythos—Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan. Pepper, Stark’s red-haired secretary, is in love with her employer, who harbors similar feelings, but hides them due to his injured heart and dual identity. The character is played by Gwyneth Paltrow in the Iron Man movies.

In Avengers #1 (September 1963) Iron Man became one of the founding members of Marvel’s newest super team. The comic is ranked in the top 100 of the world’s most valuable comics with an estimated value of $50,000-plus.

In issue #48, Iron Man finally gets his streamlined red and gold armor, which surprised the “great Mister Doll!”

Tales of Suspense #50 (February 1964) featured the first appearance of the mysterious Mandarin, the villain in the Avengers 2 movie slated for opening in the summer of 2015.

Happy Hogan is a former boxer who saves Stark’s life and becomes his chauffeur and personal assistant in issue #45. As originally written, his character is smitten by Pepper Potts, who responds to his awkward advances with caustic remarks. Drawn by Don Heck, Happy has cauliflower ears from his boxing career and a perpetually sad expression. He’s played by actor/director Jon Favreau in the Iron Man films.

That same month—September 1963—Iron Man became one of the founding members of Marvel’s new super team, the Avengers. In issue #1 (September 1963) Iron Man, alongside Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man and the Wasp, battled Thor’s evil brother Loki. Written by Stan Lee and featuring artwork by Jack Kirby, the comic is ranked in the top 100 of the world’s most valuable comics with an estimated value of $50,000-plus.

In Tales of Suspense #48 (December 1963), Iron Man finally gets his streamlined red and gold armor, thanks to fill-in artist Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man. In issue #49 (January 1964) Iron Man has a crossover adventure with the X-Men, who had just gotten their own comic book four months earlier. Jack Kirby once again did the cover art and Steve Ditko the interior penciling.

Tales of Suspense #50 (February 1964) saw the first ever appearance of the Mandarin. Written by Stan Lee with cover art by Kirby and penciling by Heck, the Mandarin was a Chinese/English megalomaniac wearing a costume party mask, loose robe and 10 power rings he adapted from alien technology found on a crashed spaceship. Although he was constantly trying to conquer the world, he also possessed a strong sense of honor. A genius scientist superhumanly skilled in the martial arts, the Mandarin has been ranked No. 81 on IGN’s top 100 Greatest Comic Book Villains of All Time list.

The Black Widow first appeared in Tales of Suspense #52 (April 1964) as a non-costumed Russian spy.

Hawkeye was a bow and arrow slinging villain when he first appeared in the pages of Tales of Suspense #57 (September 1964). He later became a good guy and joined the Avengers.

Iron Man battled the newly resurrected Captain America in Tales of Suspense #58 (October 1964).

Two other well-known superheroes also made their early debuts in Tales of Suspense. In issue #52 (April 1964), the Black Widow appeared in her first comic book. Created by Stan Lee and co-writer Don Rico, the Black Widow—a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff/Romanova—was a non-costumed Russian spy who later defected to the U.S., became a SHIELD operative and eventually an Avenger. Played by Scarlett Johansson in the films, the Black Widow was ranked the 31st Sexiest Woman in Comics by Comics Buyers Guide.

Hawkeye first appeared as a bow-and-arrow-slinging villain in Tales of Suspense #57 (September 1964). Teaming up with the Black Widow, the two take on Iron Man with predictable results. Hawkeye, whose alter ego is Clint Barton, later became a good guy and joined the Avengers. Played by Jeremy Renner in the movies, Hawkeye is ranked No. 44 on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heroes list.

Other issues of note include #58 (October 1964), where Iron Man battles the newly resurrected Captain America; #59 (November 1964), when Captain America joins him as a regular feature in Tales of Suspense; and #61 (January 1965), in which we first learn the origin of the Mandarin. In issue #73 (January 1966), Gene Colan succeeded Don Heck as the new Iron Man artist. Colan did his first work under the pseudonym Adam Austin because he was still doing freelance work for DC Comics at the time.

In 1968, Marvel was selling 50 million comics annually and decided to expand its superhero line. Characters who had been allotted only half a comic book were given their own titles, including the Incredible Hulk and the Sub-Mariner (who shared Tales To Astonish), Dr. Strange and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (who starred in Strange Tales, Captain America, Iron Man and Tales of Suspense).

Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1 (April 1968) was the first Marvel title published intentionally for only one issue in order to use two half-length stories left over from Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish. Both characters got their own comic books the following month.

Five years after his debut in Tales of Suspense, Iron Man finally got his own comic book in May 1968 with Iron Man #1. Near mint copies of the 12-cent comic have nearly doubled in value since the release of the first Iron Man movie in 2008.

Thanos, the alien villain of the upcoming “Avengers 2” movie, first appeared in Iron Man #55 (February 1973). The value of the comic will no doubt increase as the movie’s summer 2015 opening date approaches.

That, in turn, led to the publishing of a one-shot comic book notable for being the first Marvel title intentionally published for only one issue. Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1 (April 1968) was published solely to use two half-length stories left over from their previous books—Iron Man from Tales of Suspense #99 (March 1968) and the Sub-Mariner from Tales To Astonish #101 (March 1968). The comic features an 11-page Iron Man story credited to Stan Lee and Archie Goodwin, with art by Gene Colan and inker Johnny Craig (of EC Comics fame) and an 11-page Sub-Mariner story co-written by Lee and Roy Thomas with art by Colan.

Iron Man finally made his solo debut in Iron Man #1 (May 1968). Very Fine to Near Mint copies of the 12-cent comic book, written by Archie Goodwin with art by Colan and Craig (who, incidentally, would take over the penciling chores for the next three issues) had been selling for around $500. But prices have been rising steadily since the first Iron Man movie in 2008 and could be headed for the upper stratosphere if the new movie is as good as it looks.

So what about the villain in the upcoming Avengers movie? That would be Thanos, the giant alien who first appeared in Iron Man #55 (February 1973). Co-written by artist Jim Starlin and Mike Friedrich, the comic is steadily increasing in value and there are some in the industry who believe it could rival Iron Man # 1 by the time “Avengers 2” opens. Time will tell.

Ken Hatfield, a former newspaper journalist for more than 20 years with a lifelong interest in military history, is the author of “Heartland Heroes: Remembering WWII,”published by the University of Missouri Press in 2003. He has worked for Manion’s International Auction House for nine years, specializing in American Militaria.

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