Truth, Continuity, and the Invincible Iron Man Annual

Posted by Jennifer

The Mandarin, Iron Man’s primary villain, is a problematic character. Created in the early 1960s, he bears the racist mark of his Yellow Peril origins, and with so many strikes against him, from his name to his physical character design to his particular brand of villainy, he’s nearly impossible to use well in modern comics, where the weak excuses once used to justify the racism of his existence hold no water at all.

I don’t think Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man Annual completely solves this problem. In fact, I don’t think it even does as good a job of re-imagining a Yellow Peril character as I’ve seen accomplished in other comics — Jeff Parker’s Agents of Atlas and Fraction and Ed Brubaker’s Immortal Iron Fist in particular. But what the Annual does do, and very successfully at that, is illustrate the fluidity of the continuity of superhero comics — the very fluidity that allows characters like the Mandarin to be updated at all.

The central conceit of the Annual is this: the Mandarin, looking to make a movie to glorify himself, kidnaps a renowned director and his girlfriend and forces the director to make a movie about the Mandarin’s “life story.” The director, Jun Shan, is Chinese, as is every other character in the story, which goes a long way toward mitigating the racist aspects of the central character. This is not the story of a white hero fighting an Asian caricature, as most Mandarin stories have been; instead, it’s the story of a Chinese hero fighting a villainous caricature who is also Chinese.

This basic setup reminded me of Jonathan Hickman’s story in the recent Astonishing Tales anthology, in which New Mutants Cannonball and Sunspot were captured by villain Mojo and forced to make films to please him. The two stories are almost polar opposites in terms of tone — the Mojo story is a comedy, while the Annual is most definitely a tragedy — but they’re alike in that they both serve as fascinating meta-commentary on superhero comics. In the Mojo story, this meta-commentary is more blatant — Cannonball and Sunspot direct a parody of Marvel’s Civil War story set during the actual American Civil War — but the Invincible Iron Man Annual, in its own way, is just as incisive.

When Jun is kidnapped by the Mandarin, the Mandarin’s first act is to throw acid on his face to demonstrate his control of the situation. This blinds Jun in one eye, forcing him to wear an eyepatch for the rest of the story. While the obvious comparison is to Tony Stark’s superhero origin (kidnapped, injured, and forced to work for the enemy), I was struck by the similarity to another comic entirely: Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek’s Marvels, the story of Phil Sheldon, a civilian photojournalist who captures superhero events in the Marvel Universe as they happen. Both men are outsiders who observe the events of superhero comics from behind the lens of a camera; both men are half-blinded for their troubles. But while Phil Sheldon observed heroes, Jun Shan observes a villain who is trying to present himself as a hero, and that makes the story a bit twistier.

As the Mandarin begins to relate his story to the terrified Jun, describing his childhood in loving detail, it becomes immediately apparent that he’s lying. In his version of events, he’s the son of an English woman of noble birth and a warrior descendant of Genghis Khan, raised in the finest boarding schools, and separated from his parents by their untimely death in a car crash. Carmine Giandomenico’s art, on the other hand, shows the real story: his mother was the last white prostitute in a Chinese brothel, his father is unknown, and he was forced to work in the brothel throughout his childhood.

From a character standpoint, the Mandarin’s revision of facts is fascinating. After all, the story he chooses — boarding schools, rich parents who die in a car crash — is Tony Stark’s backstory. The narrative here is intensely interested in exploring the Mandarin’s particular connection to Tony Stark and the ways he views him — while he expresses his hatred openly, and even kills an actor in an Iron Man suit out of anger, moments like this reveal the jealousy that underlies his villainy. However, while the character work is good, what really stands out to me is the nature of the Mandarin’s revision of history and how it relates to comic book writers’ own revisions and retcons.

Superhero comics as an art form must constantly rejuvenate themselves, walking a perpetual tightrope between respecting the past and making the stories accessible for the future. As such, origins must be updated (Vietnam becomes Desert Storm, for instance), racist and sexist histories must be revised, and characters must never grow older, despite having fought battles for untold numbers of years.

Marvels completely ignores this necessity — in fact, it actively rejects it. Phil Sheldon and his family age in real time over the course of the superheroes’ origins, from the Golden Age of the World War II era through the Silver Age of the 1960s. This works, to a point, but, had the story continued past the Silver Age, problems would have arisen. The heroes would have had to age; characters created in later decades could not be written as their peers. Even the recent sequel, Eye of the Camera, had to fudge dates and ages in order to include 1970s storylines in the narrative. Sheldon, in Ross and Busiek’s imagination, was observing an objective and immutable truth, and therefore everything had to fit together realistically and naturally. For a self-contained, out-of-continuity miniseries, that worked just fine. But for modern, in-continuity superhero comics like those Matt Fraction writes, this is an impossible, and even undesirable, goal.

So Jun Shan does not document hard fact, like Phil Sheldon does. Instead, he’s forced to document the Mandarin’s wholly fabricated life story, a life story that frequently contradicts itself even as the Mandarin tells it. And even in his quest for hard fact — a quest he attempts to carry out by talking to villagers who knew the Mandarin and filming a second, “truer” movie behind the Mandarin’s back — he’s faced with the limits of filmmaking, of recreating history accurately in a world where so many other factors (supervillain or otherwise) influence what you can and cannot include in your art. This mirrors Fraction’s own difficulties with taking an old character and trying to remain true to the spirit of his origin while simultaneously revising him for modern use.

In fact, most of the scenes of “truth” in the comic — the art that’s found between the panels of the Mandarin’s made-up story — have never been seen in a comic before. The recounting of Iron Man’s origin in particular matches up more with the movies, complete with a “Robert Downey Jr. in tanktop and arc reactor forging iron” panel. And while the movie origin is similar to the one used in past comics, this is the first time the movie version of the origin has been introduced in its entirety to the comicsverse. The “truth” that Jun finds and films, therefore, is just as much a revision of history, meta-textually, as the history that the Mandarin himself recounts. “Truth,” Jun says, “is just the story that gets told loudest and last.” His tone is disdainful, but as far as superhero comics go, he’s absolutely right.

At one crucial point, Jun snaps at the Mandarin, “There’s what we hear — what we know — and what you choose to tell us. That’s it. That’s all.” The Mandarin, while angered, does not disagree. For while the Mandarin is clearly the villain of this piece, he’s also just as much a stand-in for Fraction himself, and all comic book writers, as Jun is. “But Tony Stark is alive!” Jun protests, when the Mandarin claims they’ll be filming his death. “Not in my film,” the Mandarin replies. “In my film he dies. Get used to the idea.” And so, too, must readers “get used to the idea” of all of the revisions in this and every other comic. Even when they don’t make sense. Even when, as Jun colorfully notes, “the timeline of this guy’s lives looks like a Mondrian painting.” Because in the world of comics, there is no one truth, no objective facts for the Phil Sheldons of the world to document. There is only the story the creators choose to tell, the revisions they choose to make at any given time.

It’s up to the editors — and the fans, voting with their wallets — to decide if those revisions are more akin to the Mandarin’s insane version of his life history, or Fraction’s thoughtful, considered reinterpretation.

By Jennifer Smith
Twitter: throughthebrush

  • This is a really perceptive, well-argued essay.

    The comic fell kind of flat for me — I could appreciate the craft but the story didn’t connect with me. Partly because, like you said, I’ve seen better Yellow Peril revisions lately in “Atlas” and “Iron Fist,” and I thought the Knaufs did a good job with with the last use of the Mandarin in an Iron Man title.

    But this essay has a lot of insight into what the comic did accomplish and gave me something to think about. Thanks!

  • Monica

    Really nice analysis. I passed up this comic because it centered on the Mandarin, and I’ve very rarely enjoyed stories focused on him because of the racist tones the writers can’t quite shake even after fifty years. It’s too solidly built into his character concept. But the way you’ve described the structure of the story, it sounds more like a character study of a human villain rather than a character study of a racist stereotype, so that’s good. And Jun sounds like a good POV character. I might have to go give this a chance.

  • @Caroline Thanks! Like I said, I don’t think it’s the best reinterpretation, but I liked the issue for what it did manage to do well.

    @Monica Thank you! It’s not a perfect comment, but I did think it was interesting that they placed the Mandarin in the middle of an entirely-Chinese milieu, which certainly makes it different than most Mandarin stories. I can’t promise that it doesn’t still fail on some levels, but I’d be really interested in your thoughts if you do wind up checking it out.