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The Invincible Iron Man Annual #1
posted August 10, 2010
Matt Fraction, Carmine Di Giandomenico, Matt Wilson
Marvel, comic book, 80 pages, 2010, $4.99
This was writer Matt Fraction's shot at re-establishing the Iron Man villain the Mandarin within the current, Avengers-centric Marvel Universe in which Iron Man villains must now necessarily play a bigger role. Mandarin was the one with the rings on his hands, one per digit, all of which had different powers, and a home base in Marvel's somewhat politically conscious 1960s Far East. This makes him triply problematic. The rings make him more of a little-kid, wish-fulfillment, puzzle-solving character than a thematically forceful modern Marvel bad guy, the link to Cold War communism makes him feel slightly out of date in a post-post Cold War landscape, and he's imbued with echoes of the unfortunate Fu Manchu/Yellow Peril stereotype, something of a unique achievement in that the Marvel Universe has also featured the actual Fu Manchu.
The smartest aspect of the standalone story featured in the annual is that Fraction shifts focus away from the Mandarin/Iron Man battle and places our villain into conflict with a movie director being forced to film the bad guy's life story. The trend within superhero comics since approximately Frank Miller is to build the reputation of key bad guys by having them take it to the superhero to degrees heretofore unseen within that serial comic: the Kingpin's destruction of Daredevil's life and comic book status quo in Born Again
being the obvious example. Eventually, this strategy just changes the context of what the superhero comics reader comes to expect from that kind of villain, and unless extremely creatively employed there's a limit as to how much the savvy reader believes the hero will suffer long-term. Transferring this sort of peril to minor superheroes feels like a red-shirt style cheat and frequently slips into bizarre, snuff-film territory. So Fraction's choice to allow Mandarin to slowly torture and crush the life out of a civilian is smart in that there's no limit to the degree of depravity that can be inflicted on the poor guy. It also reminds the reader that a large part of the superhero formula used to be protecting the innocent as opposed to simply reacting to personal danger, and lets Fraction recast certain heroic principles through how the film director responds.
There are other pleasures, too. Fraction subtle mirrors certain Iron Man tropes with the Mandarin character without going overboard about it: he gives the guy a sexual appetite, there are dandy-ish elements about the way he enjoys the fruits of his material success, he even first appears in a white suit that wouldn't be out of place in Stark's closet, albeit one from 1988. The writer also avoids the more recent cliché of making his arch-villain a noble opponent, a great man broken or misunderstood. Instead, this guy's a full-on creep: nasty and disdainful and cowardly and cruel and, working within this story's themes, quite willing to lie to himself and everyone around him, hoping to change personal history to his advantage by having it taken out back and shot it in the head. In pseudo-pro wrestling parlance, he's a monster heel and
a cowardly heel, and you believe he's a threat while wanting to see him take it in the shorts -- after filling them. Mission accomplished with the re-instituting the super-villain thing. Most readers will leave this comic wanting to see this guy's ass kicked, repeatedly.
It's the thoroughness of that ugly portrayal and Iron Man's total absence from the book that makes this one goddamn oddball choice for a digital trial balloon, which is of course exactly what it became. And yet, all of these factors in play, you still get a Marvel comic that like so many of the new breed operates within the parameters of expectations for an installment of story within Marvel's wider narrative. It's unclear if it's by design or creative limitation, but very few of the modern Marvel comics engender significant new ways of thinking about such books or reading them -- I always get the impression that talented writers like Fraction, Brubaker, Parker, Bendis are serving Marvel rather than using the creative platform to create something of their own the way the best writers of 20 years ago might have approached their gigs. I'm not interested in making that observation a criticism, and it's not how I intend it, although I understand people may take it that way. I think it's a reflection of the times, and the way all of these writers do more personal work elsewhere, rather than it being a referendum on any creator's skill.
What intrigues me is how the general editorial and collective creative mandate permeates these books. Even a book as ultimately weird as this one feels at all times like a Marvel comic: the verbalization of nearly every plot progression, the marbled coloring, a sense of place that never crystallizes into the specific, a lean and planned quality to the sequence of events as we see them. It'd be hideously inappropriate to suggest that Fraction's treatment of creativity here has a sort of fun-house mirror in the creative enterprise as expressed through comics -- just plain wrong, in fact; if there's anything that unites the modern Marvel creative line-up is that the creators seem to love the crap out of working for the company in a real and unaffected way -- but it's hard not to be a little bit more sensitive than usual to such issues once you see them played out in superhero vs. super-villain terms. The annual not only resuscitates an old-school baddie, it suggests there may be a fruitful way to read Iron Man comics in these days where every comics company has some sort of determinant corporate spine: as an ongoing exploration of how business frameworks have an impact on individual achievement.