LAST EDITED ON May-20-08 AT 00:23 AM (EDT)
It's strange to think that, even as the main Iron Man title has spiraled down to depths of lameness surpassing even those of The Crossing and Heroes Reborn over the last couple of years, there's been quite a good crop of fun secondary or out-of-continuity items starring more competently rendered versions of Our Hero. Iron Man and Power Pack, for instance, is hilarious and has not a whiff of Civil War-inspired stupidity (check out, especially, the brief guest appearance by the Titanium Man in issue 3). I've already noted that Iron Man: Hypervelocity somehow managed to be pretty decent. And Marvel Adventures: Iron Man's only real flaw is that it uses the same wretchedly fiddly design for the armor as the main book, with the same ugly-ass helmet and wrong-shaped unibeam. Hell, the Marvel Adventures line as a whole, possibly because it's written for younger readers, comes off much more like what Marvel Comics ought to be like than the actual Marvel Universe these days.
But for my money, the best of the lot is the six-issue Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin mini-series, which just came out in compiled trade paperback form a couple weeks ago.
Enter the Mandarin does something I wasn't entirely sure it was possible to do. It takes a classic Iron Man storyline and re-presents it with the sophistication of modern storytelling and makes it work - because it genuinely is sophistication, not flash. This is a 1960s comic storyline retooled for the mature reader in the real sense of the word "mature", not the comic-book-industry sense that means "there's titties and gore".
What's more, despite the fact that it's a modern retelling of a Cold War story, it has the kind of terrific timelessness that all the best of this kind of stories have. There are cell phones and references to the Internet, and the technology is obviously much more sophisticated than it was in the original version, but it never intrudes on the style, which is gleefully and unapologetically 1960s, right down to Tony's Stark's narrow ties. The best analogy I can think of is that if Max Headroom was (as its subtitle declared) 20 minutes into the future, Enter the Mandarin is 20 minutes into the past.
The story in question is (as the title suggests) Iron Man's first two clashes with his arch-foe, the Mandarin, and the events that occur in between, which originally appeared in Tales of Suspense back in the mid-1960s. For anyone who's read those old comics (which is pretty easy to do; they're available cheap in black-and-white in the first volume of Essential Iron Man, or more expensively as color PDFs on the Invincible Iron Man: The Complete Collection DVD-ROM), this is a brilliant experience, because everything you remember from the Tales of Suspense run is here - not only Iron Man's first and second battles with the Mandarin, but everything that happened in between, including the appearance of the second Crimson Dynamo, the origin of the Scarecrow (the ninth-string Marvel villain, not the third-string DC one), and the transition from the third Iron Man armor (with the striped chest plate and the mask with "horns" on) to the fourth (almost fully evolved into the classic look he'd have throughout the 1970s, except with rivets on the faceplate).
And if you haven't read those old comics, well, it's still a brilliant experience, because while being familiar with the original telling is fun, it's in no way required. Enter the Mandarin nods to the old-timey fans without ever falling into the trap of assuming they're the only ones out there. Better still, writer Joe Casey layers on more story elements, tying the whole thing together into a single narrative and updating it for a modern audience, about as deftly as I've ever seen that kind of thing done. The original Tales of Suspense issues were each a separate story with not much linking them other than the fact that they were issues in an ongoing comic. Casey makes them all part of the same story - essentially making Iron Man's first two fights with the Mandarin and all that happens between them one single incident between the two men, played out with the sort of world-spanning mastermindery that is the Mandarin at his best.
On the hero side, you have Iron Man - the original Iron Man, with Tony Stark as a quite-recognizable homage to Howard Hughes, pencil mustache, occasional flashes of temper, and all - with his strange combination of incredible power and terrible vulnerability. This was back when, if the armor lost power completely or suffered such extensive damage that all its systems failed, Stark would die. The modern touches Casey layers in are most noticeable here - things like Stark's touchy, almost adversarial relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D., and the fact that, when Iron Man takes a serious beating, Tony can't hide the fact that something unpleasant has happened to him from his staff the next day (something he always seemed mysteriously able to do in the old days; he might be in a lot of pain after a fight, but somehow his face never seemed to get bruised).
On the villain side, you have the Mandarin, and... well. The Mandarin. Over the years he's been everything from a subtle and cunning mastermind to a ridiculous Yellow Peril cardboard cutout, just one step shy of stroking his beard and telling Iron Man, "Ohh, so solly, prease," while crushing him with his gravity beam. Here he's... well... magnificently villainous. He makes it quite clear from his first appearance that he doesn't give a damn for the politics of China's current leaders, or in fact for politics at all. Politics imply that someone other than the Mandarin has some say, and that's not how things work in the Mandarin's world. His megalomania is breathtaking - which is just as it should be - but despite the fact that he's clearly out of his ever-lovin' tree, he never becomes a parody of himself, and that, history has shown, is damn hard to do in a Mandarin story. He's both a mastermind and a powerhouse, a perfect adversary for Tony Stark and Iron Man. Wonderful.
Oh, and did I mention how it looks? Here is a gallery featuring the six covers (they used the cover for issue #1, shorn of the obtrusive UPC symbol and credits, for the trade paperback, and the others are featured within, dividing the six chapters). They're all great, but I think my overall favorite is issue #1's; it's so... Rocketeerish. Inside, the art (by the same artist who did the covers, Eric Canete) isn't as refined and Art Deco-y; it has a rougher, two-fisted sort of style that I think really works with a story like this. It might not cut the mustard in a mainstream modern Iron Man story, where everyone's been groomed the last few years to expect Adi Granov's machine-precise digital painting and the like, but the sheer rawness of it is part and parcel of what makes Enter the Mandarin rock and roll so hard. My only real beef is with the lettering: They've chosen a font for the "Iron Man's onboard computer" captions that I think is hard to read.
I am, perhaps, gushing a bit, and rattling on a bit more, but I really cannot recommend this mini highly enough. It's everything that made Iron Man such a great character in the first place, presented with modern production values. Sure, it's got a couple of retcons in it, one of them quite large - what old-story do-over in modern comics doesn't? - but they're so deftly handled that Enter the Mandarin should be provided to new comics writers as the textbook for how you do that kind of thing.
I think - and this is high praise indeed - it might even be a little cooler than the movie. I would love to see it animated someday, Justice League: The New Frontier style. (In fact, now that I mention it, it reminds me a lot of DC: The New Frontier. It bears little direct resemblance, but it is to modern storytelling in Marvel's Golden Age as New Frontier is to DC's Silver Age, if you take my meaning.)
If you love Iron Man - if you even like Iron Man - you need Enter the Mandarin in your library.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Admin
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.