More than five years before Iron Man appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics, a previous character with the name starred in a story.
The first character named Iron Man in the comics wasn’t Tony Stark. Instead, more than five years before the iconic Marvel character debuted, another Iron Man appeared. Before Marvel Comics was Marvel Comics (the publisher was known as Atlas Comics at the time), a short story starred an Iron Man who was different than the Avengers’ hero most readers are familiar with.
Iron Man (Tony Stark) first debuted in Tales of Suspense #39 (1963) and was co-created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby. Stark was a founding member of the Avengers and would eventually star in his own solo adventures. Iron Man’s popularity exploded much later in his existence following the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Robert Downey Jr.’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the character. Stark was a Marvel Comics creation, as he debuted after Timely Comics became Atlas Comics, which would later become Marvel Comics in the early 60s and start focusing on superhero comics.
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In Uncanny Tales #52 (1957) from then-Atlas Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee and penciled by Pete Morisi, the short story “Inside the Iron Man,” takes place in the future of 1984, where the West is the middle of a war. A brilliant inventor named Howard Harris proposes sending in his robot as a spy, so it can send transmissions from the East back to them. The plan is a success, as the robot listens in on the Russians, providing valuable information to Howard and the military that helps them plan an attack that devastates opposing forces. After the robot is caught, Howard uses a decoy of himself to make them believe they’ve actually caught him, while the robot gathers more information as it’s transmitters detect voices even locked away deep underground while in prison.
There are a few striking similarities between this Iron Man and the more popular one. First, the inventor’s name is Howard – which is Tony Stark’s father’s name. Now, it’s Howard Harris, but it’s fair to wonder if his dad was named after the original inventor. Secondly, Howard’s job is building robots for the military, something Tony is all-to-familiar with. Lastly, Tony Stark and Howard Harris share a striking resemblance to movie star Howard Hughes. Even if there’s no deep-seated connection, the number of coincidences is surprising.
Ultimately, this Iron Man predated the most famous version by more than five years. And while time has certainly forgotten Howard Harris and his singular adventure during a futuristic (at the time) Cold War, he’s clearly a key part of the first Iron Man story from Atlas Comics, the publisher that would become Marvel Comics. His existence is a fun piece of comic history.
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