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Foggy Ruins of Time – Which Brady Bunch Actress Was Pepper Potts Based On?

This is the second in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of pieces giving you the cultural context behind certain comic book characters/behaviors. You know, the sort of then-topical references that have faded into the “foggy ruins of time.”

It’s basically like Meta-Messages, except that this is about references in old comics that have nothing to do with other comics, but rather the popular culture of the time. To wit, twenty years from now, a college senior watching episodes of Seinfeld will likely miss a lot of the then-topical pop culture humor (like the very specific references in “The Understudy” to the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal). Here is an archive of all the Foggy Ruins of Time installments so far.

Today we look at the sitcom heritage of Iron Man’s secretary, Pepper Potts!

Along with Tony Stark’s chauffeur/bodyguard, Happy Hogan, Virginia “Pepper” Potts made her debut in 1963′s Tales of Suspense #45, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Don Heck.

(note that Tony calls her “Kitty” in the above panel – he called her Pepper just a page earlier in the issue and she’s Pepper on the cover of the issue, so likely it’s a pet name or else Stan Lee just made a typo)

Pepper, the loyal secretary who has a crush on her womanizing boss, was specifically modeled after a 1950′s sitcom character.

Don Heck modeled her after Ann B. Davis’ character of Schultzy from the Bob Cummings Show…

The Bob Cummings Show was an acclaimed sitcom that ran for five years in the late 1950s. And before she played Alice on the Brady Bunch, Davis played Schultzy, the secretary of Bob Cummings’ womanizing photographer character (also called Bob). For the last four years of the show, both Cummings and Davis were nominated for Emmy Awards each year, with Davis winning the Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy award in 1958 and 1959!

The show was later syndicated as Love That Bob…

Davis then went on to appear as the housekeeper Alice on the popular family sitcom, The Brady Bunch.

For whatever reason, someone (Lee, perhaps?) decided that Heck’s design on Pepper was TOO Schultzy, so just five issues after she debuted, in Tales of Suspense #50, Pepper got a makeover…

And that’s how she has looked, more or less, ever since.

Thanks to Andy Mangels’ Iron Man: Beneath the Armor for the information about Heck modeling Pepper after Schultzy!

EDITED TO ADD: Our condolences to the friends and family of Ann B. Davis, who passed away on June 1, 2014.

25 Comments

Impressive. This has got to have the highest degree of difficulty of any of your running features.

The more that I think about it, Stan Lee was a pretty amazing manager. Very few of his creations debuted in their most iconic state. They consistently improved because Lee was perfectly happy to tinker with them, or (more to the point) let his bullpen do the tinkering. By contrast, DC strips of the same period debuted in a much more finished state.

As a result, the Silver Age Marvel mid-listers have had happier print runs than the DCs. They have also had much more embarrassing side journeys.

Okay, that explains the physical change, but what about the name change? Tony calls her Kitty in panel three of the first page you include, was that just Stan forgetting a name again? If not, what was her last name when her first name was Kitty?

Pepper doesn’t really come off all that well in those scenen.

Her name was always Pepper Potts (it was even on the cover of her first appearance) and she is called Pepper early in the issue.

So either it is a screw-up by Lee (very believable) or just a pet-name for her (less believable but sadly still believable). I dunno which one.

Stan seemed to have problems keeping his names straight, even with the added help of alliteration. We got Peter Palmer, Bob Banner, and apparently Virginia Potts had more than one nickname.

Every time someone criticizes Favreau for giving himself the Happy role in the Iron Man films, he should pull out an issue from this era to show what unavoidably perfect casting it is.

Wow, going from Ann B. Davis to Gwynneth Paltrow is quite a transformation.

You know, it’s no wonder Pepper was so unsuccessfull with romance if she was looking for a Rock Hudson-type.

Dean’s observation about how Marvel’s characters fluctuated before finding their iconic foms reminds me of Betty Brant’s first appearance as an ultra-glamourous type with an elaborate coiffure and false eyelashes, before she quickly morphed into the moderately attractive girl-next-door that she’s been ever since (and which Ditko was far more suited for).

Yeah, I wonder how they would have pulled off the unveiling of Mary Jane with Ditko still on the book.

@Ed, it was the 1960s and Stark’s character was womanizing and condescending. “Kitten” was something you often heard from that archetype in the fiction of the day directed towards a woman.

Interesting. I don’t know much about the early days of Iron Man, so it looks to me like Kitty and Pepper are supposed to be two different people.

This is a fun column Brian. There are tons of comics from 1985 or earlier with references that a good chunk of younger readers would have no context for.

Another early re-imagining was Gwen Stacy. She was an arrogant vixen in the early issues, before becoming the sweet innocent most people know her as.

Wow! Who knew Pepper was such a prissy bitch? I mean she’s introduced to a new co-worker and her first reaction is “Geez you are ugly!” ??

Yeah, I know, it a) was the 60′s, and b) it’s played for humor (probably inspired by the romance and humor comics popular in those days- Didn’t Stan write some of those?) But it was terribly set-up; maybe if Happy had made his dumb attempt at coming-on FIRST, it might be justified.
Of course the second scene with Potts annoyed because the guys didn’t notice her new looks doesn’t speak well of her either. Yeesh, it’s no wonder Stark remained single! :D

Still, it’s always neat to find out these historical trivia bits. Thanks, Brian! :)

(And for those who don’t know, Pepper and Happy ended up married to each other in the end. Poetic Justice! :D )

“Okay, that explains the physical change, but what about the name change? Tony calls her Kitty in panel three of the first page you include, was that just Stan forgetting a name again? If not, what was her last name when her first name was Kitty?”

The answer ought to be obvious to the continuity-minded. Stark has always been a notorious womanizer. He simply got Pepper mixed up with someone he called “Kitty”–with whom he was probably with the night before.
Do you guys give out no-prizes?

I assume the reason Kurt Busiek had Happy and Pepper divorce during Heroes Return was so that he could get back to this sort of love-hate dynamic, albeit as the sexual tension of exes instead of as people who just get on each other’s nerves. This kind of edge to the character has been lost since, with Pepper being more level-headed and polite ( if extremely co-dependent towards her boss ).

Hugo Sleestak

July 1, 2010 at 6:37 am

@Jack Norris: Never realized that was Favreau playing Happy in the movie! I couldn’t believe what an incredible job they did casting that part – more dead-on true to the old comics than anything else in the film.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that Lee claimed it was the artists decision to make Pepper more attractive and that Lee stated he was against it. His reasoning was that if she’s good looking and Stark goes out with her, it’s no big deal. If she’s not all that, and he goes out with her, it’s a big dramatic moment.

Although it’s hard to imagine an artist being able to overrule the EIC of the whole line. . .but that was the reason he gave.

JVG, if I remember Iron Man: Behind the Armor correctly, Heck said that was his intent from the first–start with her plain, then jazz her up.
Entz, it struck me reading the old Lee/Ditko Spidermans that the unseen MJ looked much more old-style glamor in her outfits (even with her face unseen) than the lively contemporary type Romita gave us.

It seems pretty clear that Tony calling her the wrong name goes hand-in-hand with, and emphasizes the idea of, the panel where she says he doesn’t know she exists. This one doesn’t feel like a Peter Palmer.

Both Pepper and Happy come across badly in this – Pepper for calling someone she has just met “ugly” then being offended when the men don’t notice her big makeover, Happy for slugging a Stark employee for daring to complain. We’ve certainly come a long way re: what is acceptable behaviour.

The evolution of Happy and Pepper’s relationship is everything that was weird about 60′s comics, in a nutshell.

Happy was in love with Pepper at first sight, but Pepper loved Stark. She started dating Happy, though, while openly announcing it was to make Stark jealous and it was better than sitting at home (but only just).

Meanwhile, Stark was pushing them together (even though he loved Pepper too, after her makeover), because “no woman should have to love a man with a bum heart”. Stan was clearly reusing his ideas, because that was the exact same scenario over in Daredevil at the time with Matt, Foggy, Karen, and “being blind”. (And who played Foggy Nelson AND Happy Hogan in the movies? Jon Favreau.)

So then Pepper overnight decided Stark was a cad, but Iron Man was her really shining knight. But she also started having real feelings for Happy almost out of nowhere, and it turned into a genuine love triangle with Happy – Pepper – Stark/Iron Man.

That was ToS #45-88. Then in #89, in a *snap* it was over. Out of nowhere some debris fell on Stark and Happy. When Pepper ran to Happy first, Stark’s thought bubbles psychoanalyzed the whole scenario, thinking “Because she went to Happy, this proves he was her true love all along. It’s over.”

Apparently, Happy and Pepper agreed with the thought bubbles. In #91, Stark mused about how he hadn’t seen the two of them in a few weeks (you know, his two closest friends and employees), before that showed up and announced they had eloped and, apparently, quit Stark Industries behind the scenes. And that was the end of it.

WTF?

RIP, Ann B. Davis.

The first (vol 2) issue of Marvel’s Shadows and Light (1998) featured what I think is the last (or close to the last) Marvel story by Steve Ditko called “A Man’s Reach”, featuring Iron Man. One thing I though was cool is where Steve apparently went back to Don Heck’s original Pepper Potts design, right down to the freckles, when he depicted her. And she was throughout the story, so there’s no mistaking her look.

Which I thought was a good idea. I never cared for the bland fashion plate that Potts became, design-wise.

Most of the general public have no idea whatsoever that Davis inspired pepper potts.Along with Happy,they were mainstays of the iron man cast, and i didnt care for him getting snuffed.

A bit late to the game but I wanted to point out that the debut of Pepper and Happy is scripted by Robert Bernstein, NOT Stan Lee. Thus both the “Kitty” reference and Pepper’s rudeness toward Happy are Bernstein’s doing (though editor Lee should’ve caught the former).

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