Shiny Shelf

Invincible Iron Man Annual #1

By Stephen Lavington on 22 July 2010

Yes, fine, it’s not actually about Iron Man, who doesn’t personally appear within its pages, but then ‘Invincible Mandarin Annual’ just sounds a bit silly.

However, if you can get over that fact, this is a nicely warped and darkly (very darkly at times) humourous take on the back-story of one of the most well-known of Iron Man villains.

That said, my version of “well-known” is perhaps very different from most Iron Man readers as I approach with a knowledge based purely on the movies and the 1960s cartoon series. As such I have vivid memories of the Mandarin as a cackling Fu Manchu wannabe – lacking in menace but over-flowing with offensive racial stereo-typing.

From my perspective therefore it’s not a surprise to see the character getting a reboot, and this forms the basis for a gripping and overall successful story that avoids being a simple origin tale while manages a sly commentary on the nature of canon and comic-book character biographies.

The core concept is that the Mandarin wants to tell the story of his life as producer of his own biopic, and hires (i.e. kidnaps) a world-famous director (along with his wife) to helm the project. The director, while researching the project becomes sceptical of the version of events as related by its subject and looks to subvert the project, revealing the truth behind the Mandarin’s roots.

There are several elements at work here, the origin, the filmmaker’s story and the ‘film-within-a-comic-book’ as we see glimpses of the film as it is made. This helps build a picture of the Mandarin as mix of spoiled playboy, delusional psychopath and megalomaniacal dictator with a distinctly Stalinist view of revising the past.

A recent edition of the ‘House to Astonish’ podcast described the new Mandarin as a comic-book Kim Jong-il and this is a near-perfect description. As ruler of a slice of land, Mandarin is comparable with Dr Doom, but has come by his immense power without effort (he nicked his rings off a half-dead alien) rather than by careful study and diligent hard-work. The result is a capricious monster who wants his every whim satisfied and who apparently lives in a dream world, destroying without thought anything that questions this fantasy.

On paper this is conveyed perfectly. Mandarin piles lie upon lie without a second thought. This creates a neat escape route for writer Matt backstop from any inconveniently contradictory backstories by painting the character as a compulsive fantastist. Who is to say that previous origin stories were anything other than fabrications conjured up based on whatever was useful for the villain at the time?

It is difficult to see exactly where Iron Man fits into all this as he does not make an appearance here (save as a grotesque caricature for one scene of the Mandarin’s movie).

Once again it’s difficult to improve on the ‘House to Astonish’ take, which is that Iron Man is the one force able to interrupt the Mandarin’s fantasies. Simply by not being defeated,and so by failing to follow the Mandarin’s narrative, Iron Man defies him, by his very existence he is an obstacle to the villain’s version of events – this is enough to make him an arch-enemy.

It’s a compelling and original idea. It’s also communicated in a well-drawn book and through a story that is strong enough to stand on its own legs. I’d certainly be interested to see where the Mandarin goes from here.

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By Stephen Lavington

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