Saturday, September 06, 2014

Marvels: Tales of Suspense #50

"The Hands of the Mandarin!" by Stan Lee & Don Heck
(February 1964)

I've said before that I was never the world's biggest fan of Iron Man. I've never read very much of it, and I'm not necessarily enjoying it now. I see a lot of unrealized potential in it, but as things go, he's probably tied with Ant-Man/Giant-Man for my least favorite main character in the Marvel Universe. So I'm not really sure of the character's history.

I think of the Mandarin as sort of the great Iron Man villain. I don't know if that's the consensus or not, but it does help that most of the Iron Man stories I've read feature the Mandarin. So it's very interesting to go back and see his introduction in the comics. Other than the Crimson Dynamo, I don't really think there's been a truly good Iron Man villain, but in a race between the two, this issue puts Mandarin in a firm lead.

I was a little worried, given the time period and the tenor of earlier issues (particularly Iron Man's origin), about what the stereotyping would be like. With the Mandarin being more or less a Fu Manchu expy, I was prepared for any number of "Yellow Peril" tropes, but this story mostly avoids them. Mandarin isn't offensively colored yellow or drawn with buck teeth and slanty eyes (for the most part; there are some instances), and he doesn't speak in that broken pidgin English that offends my eyes. (Not every Chinese character here is so lucky, sadly. All of their dialogue is written out properly, but sometimes their faces are so crude it's like watching Clutch Cargo.)

The Mandarin is a character there are only rumors about, but he exists, living in a fortress that appears to be a masterpiece of technology. He's referred to as a scientific genius, and he wears a ring on each finger (and both thumbs) that each seem to have different uses. This issue doesn't delve into the rings as much as it does into Mandarin's scientific knowledge, and the combination of the supernatural and the scientific is really, really interesting. Modern for the time. Mandarin also has no political ties, refusing to share his knowledge of nuclear technology with Red China because he cares little for the causes of nations, preparing instead to conquer the entire world for himself. The Chinese government appears to fear him, and he's cultivated the mystique of a dangerous sorcerer.

The US government finally begins hearing whispers of the Mandarin and sends in Iron Man to investigate. But Iron Man is captured quickly and a recon mission becomes a confrontation. Iron Man makes a summary judgment, as he's wont to do:

Though his power is draining quickly because of a short circuit in the suit, Iron Man fights the Mandarin. But they're pretty evenly matched, and both have a quick command of technology. The Mandarin's rings are kind of tantalizing; Tony guesses that each ring is a different weapon, but are they technological or magical? Everything the Mandarin does that implies a command of sorcery is dismissed and explained away by Tony, who refuses to believe there are supernatural explanations in the world, despite the fact that he knows an actual god of mythology and he once traveled back in time by magic.

Iron Man falls prey to the rings, felled by a paralysis ray. When he comes to, the Mandarin challenges him to a karate match, but as he proves, his mastery of karate is so powerful that he can snap iron. His transistors weakening, Iron Man is no match for the Mandarin, who comes close to defeating him. Iron Man only wins by doing some quick back-of-the-envelope math--or in this case, back-of-the-glove, since he uses the calculator in his wrist--to calculate the precise angle to block the Mandarin's blow. When he does, not only does Iron Man's armor not break, but the pain of the missed blow knocks the Mandarin unconscious. Not wanting to hang around for a rematch, Iron Man escapes and returns to the United States.

Stray observations:

:: Nothing against Steve Ditko, of course, but it is nice to see Don Heck back on the art after a few issues away. This is his first time drawing the cool new Mark III armor. I love a lot of the art, but I don't love those Chinese stereotypes. Can we just drop those? I promise people will get that they're Chinese if you say they are.

:: The Mandarin, to a Chinese military general introducing himself: "Spare me such petty trivia! Your identities do not interest me!"

:: There's a whole subplot in here involving Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan going out on the town together. Pepper's angry that Tony didn't notice her new hair, which is admittedly pretty nice. (I just love Heck's fashionable ladies.)

Though it still does bother me that Stan thinks this is all women do... You could easily take Pepper Potts, the Wasp, Jane Foster, or even Sue Storm and swap them out for Millie the Model and the characters would be pretty much the same.

Anyway, she goes out with Happy because she's bored and frustrated that no one's paying any attention to her. But then she gets upset because she realizes Tony will never make the move on her she's so desperate for if he thinks she and Happy are a couple.

Well, the supporting characters have to do something, I guess.

:: There's also a bit where, because he's heading into China as Iron Man, Tony has to cancel a dinner arrangement with one of his factory foremen, Bill. Bill is offended that Tony doesn't want to hang out with the common people and tells him so, at which point Happy punches Bill right in the face. Tony then dresses down Happy and tells him that anyone who works for him can speak freely.

This was a very enjoyable issue, easily the best Iron Man story so far. I feel like this is truly the first time Iron Man has had a foe who matches him in every way. I've said before that the reason I love Spider-Man's villains is that they've all come close to killing him; they're capable of defeating him, and that adds suspense to his stories. Even with some of the things he's been menaced with (the Melter, Mister Doll, Crimson Dynamo), this is the first time that Iron Man's victory didn't seem inevitable. With the Mandarin, they've given Iron Man a nemesis on par with Doctor Doom or Doctor Octopus, and I can't wait to see him return and really challenge Iron Man again.

Next Marvels: The Black Knight!

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