Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Carmine Di Giandomenico
I bought this issue because I generally like Matt Fraction’s work, I love Carmine Di Giandomenico’s art and I wanted to see how something I thumbed through on the shelf went on my iPhone. Yeah, I don’t have an iPad, so I wanted to see how it went in the small format. I’m not bothered about not having a paper copy of this issue as it’s not usually on my pull list. I downloaded the first of the comic, which was broken into three for digital distribution, and was prepared to not purchase anymore if it didn’t hook me.
The issue opens with a crowd watching a movie. The movie is called Pinghai Bay and centres on a very minor Iron Fist of days gone by that Fraction created along with Brubaker in their run on that title. It’s a nice throwaway little wink that fits perfectly within the story being told. The director of the film, Jun Shan, is accepting the Golden Dragon award for best film and he is with his gorgeous film star wife, Chuntao, celebrating in tranquillity afterwards. This peaceful scene is invaded by the Mandarin when he kidnaps them both.
It seems that the Mandarin wants this masterful director to turn out a movie based on his life. The director shows instant character by asking, while in shackles and having just had his hood removed, what happens if he refuses. The Mandarin whirls into an instant anger and smashes a champagne glass against his face. It makes a sizzling noise and scars Jun quite badly so I’m to assume that the set up had the glass full of some sort of acid right from the start. Jun has half his face disfigured, and certainly loses that line but the Mandarin doesn’t care one bit. He even drops my favourite line of; “You’ve probably lost sight in one eye. It didn’t stop John Ford.” That’s pretty nasty yet made me laugh out loud. It felt like instantly the Mandarin was getting the Fraction treatment. This guy was more in keeping with Newman Xeno from Casanova than he was a standard Marvel villain. Mandarin threatens the eyes of Chuntao, which are not needed to make the film, and then tells Jun to sleep on it.
The main narrative then kicks in as Jun interviews the Mandarin about his life. We can instantly see the delusion and pomp in Mandarin’s eyes but then Di Giandomenico shows us in brutal detail what exactly did happen in the nascent years of this villain. Mandarin paints a flippant and structured picture, completely neglecting to mention the whorehouses, the violence, the uncertainty. I instantly wondered if the Mandarin even remembered what he had actually been through of if he had finally, after much repetition, convinced himself that all was fine, and always would be. You can see the demented aspect within this character and it works perfectly to make for an unsettling antagonist.
Jun says he needs more than just conversations, he needs locations, that sort of thing, so he is allowed out to do research but only for short amounts of time. How Jun manages to actually get back to the Mandarin’s real town of birth and find out these real stories baffles me, the Mandarin should have been all over this treacherous plot seeing as how he was taking such a massive interest in the guidance of the film but it is a necessary set up that needs to have Jun find out some aspects of the truth behind this mad man. I almost got a feel through the many small panels that the team wanted to make this feel a little like Reds in the interviews and the exposition. It works pretty well to get lots of often conflicting story onto the page.
Fraction works to make the conversation between Jun and the Mandarin cross cut with what actually happened as well as showing what he is filming and then what he is finding out from the few real sources he can track down. It’s great splicing of scenes and shows a more cinematic influence to the entire issue in both plot and layout. Because the issue has over 60 pages of actual content, Fraction is able to slip a fair bit of information and story into it all and it ends up reading almost like an OGN rather than just as issue. Fraction has even stated that he wrote over a 100 script pages just to get the entire thing right, which is absolutely insane of him to do. I only hope that the script is included in an omnibus or collection somewhere along the line, maybe even for free on his website.
As the film continues to be made we see the Mandarin as becoming more of a deluded and petulant child. He’s presented as being exceptionally petty and dumb, when it comes to matters concerning himself and his image, and he slowly tries to take control of the film. This becomes problematically important when the role of Tony Stark, his nemesis, comes into play. Mandarin insists on casting the actor for the role, and he chooses a slimy little man who is on the pudgy side. We are seeing the world through the eyes of the Mandarin and we can understand how removed from reality he is when it comes to himself. He says that Stark was, and still is, a heroin dealer and he gets them to create an Iron Man armour that is more like some kind of manga monster than it is any representation of what can be seen by anyone with access to the free press as all. Then, to make matters worse, the Mandarin steps into the scene because the fight isn’t going right. He used his real rings to pummel and punish this actor for what must be a lifetime of hatred and self-loathing that manifests against the man who so often brings him down. It’s a sad and brutal scene and we can understand right there that the Mandarin doesn’t care if anyone else makes it out alive or not. This is his story and they’re all replaceable wallpaper in each and every shot.
Jun becomes certain that he must present the truth in his film. He knows it just might kill him but he hopes for the best anyway. He assembles this film behind the Mandarin’s back and then shows it at the ridiculously pushed forward release date that the Mandarin dictated as things progressed. Jun plans to escape at the same time as the screening. There is one interesting moment where the Mandarin questions where Jun is at the start of the screening and when he’s not there he is upset because Jun should be there to receive the glory with him. It’s such an interesting mind set for this crazed loon, and after what we’ve seen him do there’s no other way to explain him. The screening and the escape both don’t go quite so well, and I was filled, again, with the feeling of watching a movie as Jun effects his plan to leave the Mandarin’s ringed clasp and take his wife with him.
In the end, we see the Mandarin for the sad and spoiled man that he is. Nothing is ever good enough and usually it is someone else’s fault. He’s a man who has become to believe his own truth, the myth he has perpetuated, and I was going to use a great quote from an Aussie movie, “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?”, but then Fractions drops that line on us anyway. This is what the Mandarin is, tales for around the campfire and mostly told by himself and sadly the narrator has started to believe his own hype. The villains who truly believe in themselves as the heroes are always the most dangerous ones because arguing against false logic can be so hard, and dangerous. All he wants is to be immortalised and remembered and by the end of this story he certainly hasn’t achieved that.
It is then interesting to note that there’s a name missing from this entire story, apart from the comics’ title and an actor playing him, and that’s the real Iron Man himself. He doesn’t appear for one single panel and it makes you sad that all of this could occur behind his back. He doesn’t come in to save the day in the end, he probably doesn’t even know the day occurred. Heroes can’t be everywhere at once and instead the common people have to make their choices accordingly. Jun makes his and he is victorious, in a way, in the end but at what cost?
This story seems like one big set up to make the Mandarin a worthy and different villain for the future of the Iron Man title and I think it works. It makes him a little too idiotic in certain scenes but mostly he comes across as a man with too much power at his fingertips, literally, and it’s completely gone to his head. He’s detached from reality, even his own. I’ll be interested to see where Fraction takes this, it’s certainly got potential.
Why Marvel wants to experiment on a digital day and date release of a comic that doesn’t feature a hero in it at all kind of baffles me. Sure, this is a pretty good comic. It’s standalone and it’s got lots of great things in the right places but it doesn’t showcase the man in the armour, the man possibly a lot of people would have blindly paid to see. This might come across as disingenuous from Marvel and turn people away, or they might look past this and just enjoy the fantastic writing and artwork on offer. I don’t know, I think it will differ wildly from customer to customer. I also think having to offer the issue in three parts will have turned off a lot of potential customers. As you can see, I reviewed the entire story so I did indeed go in and buy the second and third instalments, but it think for the casual public it might have worked better had this been a standalone story that could have been absorbed in one transaction.
I hope this sells well enough to warrant Marvel offering a few more day and date releases. I like the digital option because I believe I can use it to pick up certain issues that I’m interested in reading but know I don’t need to own. The Heroic Age one shot is up for about half the price it would cost me at my LCS. I didn’t buy it on the shelves but I honestly think I’ll pick up the digital copy just to get the chance to read it. This is where digital comics will fit for me. Those fence sitting titles that I can never really commit to.
Verdict – Buy It. Either way that you take this issue in I think it’s pretty good value. It’s 3 issue’s worth of content for the price of one and a half issues, roughly. That’s pretty good and not only is it quantity but it is also a pretty high standard of quality. I hope Di Giandomenico continues to get plenty of work as I always seem to love his style. And I hope people enjoy the redefinition of the Mandarin for this new age. This one time of a floppy can be your one stop shop for the definitive history of the man with the rings. And much like a good movie, I think this’ll work for repeated viewings.