Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin

Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin
by Joe Casey, Eric Canete, and Dave Stewart
Marvel Comics, 2008.

Garrett Martin: Iron Man was one of my favorite superheroes as a kid, even though I never liked his comic. "Human robot that shoots lasers" has an utterly primal appeal for young boys. He was the best figure in the old Secret Wars toy line, and was one of the big reasons I bought a random issue of West Coast Avengers at the Quik Stop back when I was nine, with the first of maybe a half-million quarters I'd drop on comics over the next twenty-plus years. But his own title always bored the hell out of me, and as I got more and more into comics I cared about the character less and less. I really like what they've done with Tony Stark over the last couple of years (at least when he's portrayed more sympathetically and with some nuance by writers like Brubaker, Fraction, and Bendis, and not as the mustache-twiddler you see elsewhere), but Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin is the first shellhead-specific comic I've read since whatever issues of his own title tied into Operation Galactic Storm back in '92. It's another one of Joe Casey's head-first dives into nostalgia and ancient continuity, and like Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, it's enjoyable and well-made and probably completely superfluous. But so, had you ever read an Iron Man comic before? Had you even heard of the character before the movie was announced? And did you know his primary arch-rival was a potentially offensive racial stereotype?

Hillary Brown: Ooookay. I don't know if it's a good thing or not that I didn't read your initial take on this six-issue series before I dove into (and finished) it. Basically, I've done a little research after the fact to discover that it's a retelling of a very early Iron Man arc, and that helps to some extent, but I still sort of hated it. I mean, it pretty much combines the storytelling skills and character development of an old comic book with the shitty digital coloring and annoyingly blurry/sketchy art of a new comic (not to mention the political comprehension of a 13-year-old). I really wanted to like it. I dig Iron Man. I've never read an Iron Man-only book, just The Order and some things like New Avengers in which he appears, but the character is interesting. It's just that this book doesn't really do anything with him. The repeated emphasis on the fact that no one knows Tony Stark is Iron Man is pretty silly, and his vaunted intelligence doesn't come into play in any real way. I mean, he makes new armor, but why? What's different and/or better about it? I see that his armor is continually calculating this and that, but it's not very comprehensible or interesting. The Mandarin's powers coming from rings isn't clear until the intro to the second issue unless you know the original story. And the debate that's set up between American military might and freedom (albeit with a few bits of skepticism) and "ancient Chinese secret" is pretty laughable and insulting. Is all of this too harsh? Maybe. I didn't completely hate it while I was reading it, but the lack of any real twist or conclusion or exposition or character evolution or interesting dialogue or creative fights added up to a lot of irritation on my part.

GM: Yeah, old-school superhero stuff is kinda what Joe Casey does whenever he writes for Marvel. This was basically a six-issue retelling of a 30-page story from 1964, and although it's not nearly as antiquated as the original, it definitely reads differently than the typical modern-day superhero comic. And maybe it's because I've read about 30 Marvel Essential books over the last 2 years, but I didn't have too much of a problem with the moldy storytelling. Many of the character problems you have (the emphasis on the alter ego, the lack of emphasis on Stark's intelligence, etc) can be chalked up to the book's calculated nostalgia. Even the political aspect is a barely updated rehash of the original's 1950's / early '60's view of American rightness. Shit, other than the "creative fights" bit, every complaint you voice in your final sentence can partially be explained away as purposeful homage / genre exercise. Characters didn't really evolve under Stan Lee so much as stay exactly the same for years at a time before suddenly changing ever so slightly when a new status quo was deemed necessary. But the thing is, like I said, old Iron Man comics were boring, and probably don't deserve being paid tribute to in this way. The appeal in those old Marvel comics rests in the action, Lee's dialogue and hucksterism, and, most importantly, the huge crazy ideas that pop up in comics like Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, and The Mighty Thor. Iron Man never had a genius artist like Kirby, Ditko, or Steranko to generate those ideas, and so the book and Lee's breezy words were stuck with the good but uninspired art of Don Heck. Even the original Mandarin storyline, which is probably the best in Essential Iron Man Volume 1, is somewhat dull and lackluster. So maybe it's not the best idea to update it in a fairly faithful fashion?

HB: And at least the old books have beautiful art. I'm pretty sure
you're wrong about Kirby not being an Iron Man artist (In fact, he at least did the cover for the Mandarin's first appearance. Even if I'm not nuts about the lack of character development in old books, they have an excuse and they have something to make up for it, as well as plenty of exposition (often to excess, but it's clear what the heck is going on, as opposed to the Crimson Dynamo showing up randomly and confusing the heck out of someone like me, who has to google him). Basically, yes, either they need to put a warning on the cover ("Dudes, only buy this book if you know the original story and would like to see it expanded upon a little") or they perhaps shouldn't have bothered with this series at all. I did enjoy the many ads for cakes featuring Iron Man, though, which brings up another point. Is it a nostalgia-fest or is it an attempt to introduce Iron Man to new, young audiences? The ads (Spiderman pajamas, costumes, watches, pretty much everything else you can think of) certainly make it seem like the latter, but maybe it's just trying to reach both audiences at the same time.

GM: Kirby was basically the art director for Marvel in the '60's, and did covers and sporadic issues of almost every comic they published at the time. Kirby shares co-creator credit on Iron Man with Lee, Don Heck, and Lee's brother Larry Lieber because he designed the initial suit of armor and (I believe) drew the cover of his first appearance. Heck was the primary Iron Man artist, though, until the late '60's, when Gene Colan and George Tuska both had notable stints. Marvel artists were all basically co-writers at the time, so Heck plotted most of those early Iron Man comics, and shares the creator credit on the Mandarin with only Stan Lee. And since Heck's stories, both in Tales of Suspense/Iron Man and The Avengers, hardly ever match up to anything Kirby or Ditko did with Lee, I think it's safe to say that Heck is one big reason Iron Man's comic wasn't too impressive back then.

Frankly, I don't know what Marvel was angling for with this series. On one hand it makes sense to retell the origin of Iron Man's major arch-rival for newer readers, especially since the movie hints at the Mandarin a bit, but then it doesn't make any sense to present it in this way. It's not a straight-up renewal of '60's superhero narrative, or anything, but it does skew closer to that than the "wide-screen", decompressed style of today. I think Casey was trying to bridge that gap a bit, trying to appeal to newer readers while still paying tribute to the past. Like I said, that's a large part of what Casey does, and usually he does it quite well. But you're right that this comic seems uninterested in winning over readers completely unfamiliar with that past. Between this, last week's DC Universe Zero special, and other recent attempts at widening comics readership, I think it's safe to say that Marvel and DC don't know and maybe don't care to win over new readers. If they were hoping to do that with this series, they didn't do a good job.

HB: Yeah. I want an Iron Man cake a lot more than I want to read anything else by Casey/Canete. I figure whenever I spend more time looking at the ads than at the comic, that's a bad sign (although I am admittedly distracted by advertising). So, let's talk about the art real quick. I'm really not happy with the way Canete fills his panels, with his sketchy line, with the weird, exaggerated way in which he draw characters, and there are a couple of panels that are pretty terrible as far as Asian stereotypes go. I just don't get why you wouldn't shoot for a vintage feel in the art as well as in the storytelling.

GM: Unfortunately readers of the trade paperback won't have all those ads to entertain them.

Canete's art is definitely vexing. I mostly like his character designs, and many individual panels. Everything's kind of flat, which occasionally provides some nice art deco moments and scenes that resemble old Communist propaganda posters. That flatness ruins the action, though, and for every good panel there's at least one more that looks sketchy and rushed. He's got promise, but wasn't a good choice for this series. His covers were excellent, though.

And hey, you seriously shouldn't hold this against Joe Casey. He's written some really great stuff, and
Gødland is a perfect example of superhero homage done right, without being crippled by nostalgia. And as someone who does know and appreciate the material being referenced, I enjoyed Enter The Mandarin for the quick, easy read that it is.

HB: Yeah. The covers are really nice. Kind of art deco and remind me of Tony Harris's stuff.

Have you seen the movie yet or not? I guess we should both go see it and then reconsider how the comic book leads into it.

GM: I've seen it, it's good, and this comic doesn't lead into it at all. There are a couple of references to the Mandarin, but they've been reconceptualized into something very different. It's possible they could be planting seeds for Mandy's appearance in the sequels, but I really doubt the character would be especially faithful to the comic. Although they weren't afraid to let the terrorists be Middle Eastern in the first movie, so perhaps they won't scare easily at potential disquietude over such a stereotypical Asian villain.

So the more you read superhero comics, and the more you realize how thoroughly they're written for long-time readers at this point, do you find yourself less and less interested in the genre? Like it's not worth the effort?

HB: It definitely gets frustrating at times. If I'm in a good mood and I'm intrigued, it makes me want to read everything out there. I can be a bit of a completist in other fields (last summer I read The Song of Roland and three monster-sized Italian epics just to get more background on The Faerie Queene) so why not this one? But if I don't like the comic to begin with, I tend to be annoyed by having to know all the backstory. It should be good upfront, without the need to know. For example, I thought The Order did an excellent job. I knew just enough and I learned just enough to be able to follow what was going on and care. I liked Joss Whedon's X-Men stuff and Bendis's New Avengers decently, as well as the storyline (if not the art) of the latter's Daredevil. But, yes, I suppose I would rather not have to know. I like being able to dive in, and I don't care when people do different things with characters; in fact, I'm pretty intrigued by fresh takes. Whether or not it's worth the effort probably depends on the balance of increased quality to extra effort.


Rich said...

I only read the first issue of this and bailed. Couldn't get into the interior art, and didn't really care about an out-of-continuity nostalgic Iron Man story. Just seemed like fluff for the bookstores when the movie hit.

Those covers though... MARVELOUS.

Jared said...

I think the image you used for this post is a nod to some famous art decco print or other, but it hasn't quite occurred to me yet which's gonna drive me nuts

Jared said...

of course, it also looks a good bit like this:

garrett said...

yeah, it's an homage to the poster for The Rocketeer. surprised neither of us mentioned that.

hillary said...

There's a nice gallery of all six covers here.