Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tales of Suspense featuring the Power of Iron Man #54 (June, 1964)

"The Mandarin's Revenge" 
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Don Heck
Synopsis: We begin with Iron Man flying around town in a new armor variant - instead of the "flip up faceplate" style he's now riveted the face to the helmet to form a solid piece. This is Mark II Mod 1 by my count. He gets an urgent call from Pepper asking him to find Tony to come in to Stark HQ. 
There's a big emphasis on power saving in this issue - Iron Man switches from transistor powered flight to rocket skates often to save power. Arriving at Stark Industries, Pepper tells Tony he's wanted at the Pentagon. Even though it would be totally reasonable for Pepper to come as his secretary and Happy to drive him there, he blows them both off under the auspices of keeping them safe and goes there himself as Iron Man.
This is a major dick move, and even he seems to recognize that, thinking to himself that he can't get too close to Pepper because of his dangerous life, but also feeling jealous of the attentions Happy puts on Pepper, in a standard Marvel Comics romance melodrama subplot. It's at this point that you wish he'd just come clean with everybody, it'd make things a lot easier.
Anyways, at the Pentagon it turns out that remote control surveillance missiles designed by Stark for recon in Vietnam have been flying off course and crashing. Tony denies the Reds have anything that can shoot them down, so the military brass figures the missiles are defective. Tony won't accept that answer, so he heads to Vietnam by strapping himself in the Iron Man suit to an ICBM!
Arriving in 'Nam, as Tony Stark he offers to oversee the launch of one of his "observer missiles". On the scope they see it be pulled off course and disappear -- Tony realizes this happens in fact right at the stronghold of the Mandarin! Y'know, in Red China. 
A quick flashback to ToS #50 later, Tony is driving a Jeep right to the Mandarin's stronghold, rationalizing that if he goes as Iron Man that the defenses will be up, but that he can get inside if he allows himself to be caught as Tony Stark. How he manages to drive a Jeep from Vietnam deep into Red China without anything else happening to him is left totally unexplained.
The Mandarin's guards take Tony prisoner, but when they try to examine his attache case it goes all From Russia With Love on them and explodes with sleeping gas, giving Tony an opportunity to suit up and bust through a wall to take on the Mandarin as Iron Man.
They battle for the rest of the story, as the Mandarin offers Iron Man a seat at his right hand and he turns it down, so the Mandarin throws electrical traps and missiles at the Golden Avenger, and even comes at him with a sword (drawn as a generic scimitar rather than anything appropriately Chinese). 
Finally the Mandarin hits him with a Black Light beam from one of his rings (think the Darkness spell in D&D) and unable to see anything, Iron Man is trapped when a bunch of metal bolas wrap around him, trapping him in metal cables suspended between electric dynamos.
Iron Man is trapped and at the Mandarin's mercy...
My Thoughts: The awaited follow-up to ToS #50 is a good clash between Iron Man and Mandarin, even if it's light on substance. The most striking thing reading it is just what an unreasonable dick Tony is to Pepper and Happy. It makes no sense -- why even have them on the payroll if you aren't going to let them do their jobs? What's more, Tony's interior monologue shows that he knows he's being a dick. This is an example of Stan falling on old tropes and then trying to seem sophisticated by lampshading it. You see it again in the fight with Mandarin. Stan writes Iron Man as very quick witted and snarky, with lots of snappy banter. He writes Mandarin with very melodramatic stereotypical villain dialogue. I think Stan really enjoyed that kind of bombastic villain monologuing, but he hangs the lampshade on it by having Iron Man quip about how corny it is. Whether that comes off as knowingly funny or undercutting his own writing is up to you.
The Art: One thing that the simple story really helps is the art. Heck gets a full 6/13 pages for the battle with the Mandarin, so he gets to use large panels and more open layouts. It's not Kirby level dynamic, but it still feels exciting and impactful, bringing home the idea that fighting the Mandarin is a big deal.
The Story: The story? What story? It's just an excuse to get us a rematch between Iron Man and the Mandarin, this time spread into two parts so we can have a more exciting fight scene! Other than continuing the Tony/Pepper/Happy romantic subplot, there's not much to the story this month, which otherwise hangs on old movie serial tropes. Get captured, get to the villain's lair, bust out, fight, get captured again, cliffhanger!

Stark Science: It's cool that a lot of the tech stuff in this issue focuses on Tony trying to conserve power, mainly because it means that when he runs out of juice at a key moment as Iron Man it feels earned instead of pulled out of Stan's ass. 
The main bit of Stark tech this ish is these "observer missiles". Now, in a modern story these would be spy satellites, and indeed they are in Joe Casey's modern retelling of these issues in Enter the Mandarin. Observer missiles are a kind of weirder idea, and an interesting way of Stark making weapons that aren't offensive in nature. Now, the reason Stan went this route instead of the more reasonable recon satellites is that the existence of such satellites was top secret until 1972, when info on the original US Corona program which had been in place since 1959 was released to the public.
The Mandarin's rings continue to be unexplained, their nature hinted to be technological but still uncertain. 
The idea of Iron Man strapping himself to an ICBM for speedy travel to Vietnam is hilarious and impractical, but actually more believable than the spyplane flight he took to China in ToS #50. 
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Mark II Mod 1 armor, ditching the pointy hinged faceplate for a one piece helmet, establishing more or less a baseline for Iron Man's appearance from now on. At the moment Heck draws it with visible rivets between the red and gold segments and also down the middle of the face. We'll see how long that detail lasts. This issue was adapted into Enter the Mandarin #4-5, by Joe Casey and Eric Canete. I strongly recommend this excellent series.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tales of Suspense featuring The Power of Iron Man #53 (May, 1964)

"The Black Widow Strikes Again!"
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Don Rico (as "N. Korok")
Art: Don Heck
Synopsis: Tony's been working on an anti-gravity device for months with no success. He decides to try arranging the circuits of the device at random and it just happens to work! However an accident results in the wires fusing, meaning Tony will never be able to analyse the circuit patterns and figure out how it worked!
Tony presents his new invention at the Pentagon the next day, but the brass aren't pleased to hear it can't be replicated. Somehow, a newspaper photographer sneaks into the presentation and takes pictures, and then gets out and gets them to the press! Like, the Pentagon allows this!
So the Russians hear about the fantastic new weapon of the Americans, and so does the exiled Russian spy, Natasha Romanov, aka The Black Widow.
Natasha figures stealing the anti-gravity machine might earn her ticket home, and so she shows up at Stark Industries all sultry and sexy and batting her eyelashes like "I'm so sorry I tried to kill you last time, I want to redeem myself, really!" and then she gases Tony and steals the anti-grav device and Pepper's so ready to bust out an "I told you so!"
In her hotel room, Natasha somehow makes an Trans-Atlantic phone call direct to the Kremlin (seriously, the CIA wouldn't be ALL over that shit?) and tells Khrushchev she's got the anti-gravity device. Khrushchev orders her to use the device to destroy Stark and Iron Man.
And so with Stark's loyalty being questioned for allowing the device to fall into Soviet hands, the Black Widow begins her reign of destruction, using the anti-grav device to destroy Stark Industries industrial factories and production plants. Iron Man always arrives too late, and never knows where she will strike next.
Meanwhile, Black Widow is joined by two more Russian agents - Igor and Stansky, who have been ordered to "assist" her in stealing all the gold from Fort Knox!
Stansky wants to try out the device, and uses it to lift up a car, just as Iron Man happens to be flying by and spots it! So he busts into their... apartment?.. and they tussle, but Natasha uses the anti-grav device to collapse the building around Iron Man, while the Russians escape (somehow?).
Luckily, Iron Man survives because his armour is super tough, although presumably everyone else in the building died?  Anyways, Natasha and the others hightail it to Kentucky to rob Fort Knox, using the anti-grav device to lift up the mountain the gold is buried under which... wait... what? Stan, have you ever been to Kentucky? Ever seen Fort Knox? And even with the mountain lifted up, how would you get the gold out...??
Anyways, US army tanks show up like WTF but Natasha just anti-gravs 'em. Luckily, Iron Man shows up, because he was able to track the Soviets by adjusting his radar to the frequency of the anti-grav device (why didn't you do that before??) and so he rescues the tanks, then shoots a "photon electric charge" at the anti-grav device which "destroys the output" of the device. 
The mountain falls again, but Iron Man swoops in and saves the Russians from certain death, leaving the Black Widow amazed at a man who would risk his life to save others.
The spies are arrested by MPs, while Stark still finds himself criticized by the military authorities.
My Thoughts: Last month's team of Stan Lee and the two Dons returns to bring us a second tale of the Black Widow. Frankly, it's just all right. It's a gimmick driven tale that doesn't make much effort to develop its characters. Natasha doesn't get much to do besides use her feminine wiles to take advantage of Tony. One thing that is made clear however, is that she still can't go home. That was the most promising element of last month's ending - this enemy alien alone in a foreign land, but this month didn't do much with it.
The Art: Another fine effort from Heck this month, with Pepper and Natasha looking smokin' hot as usual, Tony his usual suave self, but as usual the action is a little stiff and uninvolved. Stan's constant captioning is actually pretty useful because Heck's panels and compositions actually make it hard to ascertain just what Iron Man is doing in some of the fight sequences. i mean, the artwork is good, but Heck's sense of movement and action need work.
The Story: Cut and dried stuff this month. Tony invents something, villain steals it, Iron Man gets it back. Simple as i comes. The Fort Knox thing at the end is kind've crazy considering Goldfinger wouldn't come out for a few more months so I can't even accuse Stan of ripping off the zeitgeist again like that awful Cleopatra issue. But yeah, the whole thing just feels perfunctory. 
It also continues to feel weird that Stan keeps using Khrushchev as a villain in these issues, the same way one would expect Hitler to be used in WWII propaganda comics. I mean, not only was Khrushchev one of the more liberal Soviet leaders, instituting reforms and trying to thaw relations with the West, but by this point in 1964 the Communist party leaders were actively plotting to get rid of him and replace him with a more hardline leader -- not that Lee would know that, of course.
Stark Science: Gravity is one of the four fundamental forces of nature, but we don't really know a lot about it,  because of the limitations of reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics. It is theorized that the attractive force of gravity results from the exchange of gravitons between atoms, similar to the way electromagnetic forces result from the exchange of photons. Presumably anti-gravity could be generated by anti-gravitons, but this is all highly theoretical and would probably take an absurd amount of energy. Luckily Stan lampshades all that by having Stark create the anti-gravity device by accident and then making it impossible to replicate so he doesn't have to deal with any repurcussions of Stark inventing it. 
As for the "photon electric charge" Iron Man uses to short circuit the box, heck your guess is as good as mine. I mean, those are all words, all science-y sounding words, but Stan's operating on the Star Trek technobabble means of basically having this stuff be all so advanced that it just needs to sound technical because no one can really call him on it. 
Stan's biggest science flub in this issue is Fort Knox. There are no mountains there! The bullion depository is not buried under a mountain! It's Kentucky, Stan. And then, of course, there's the old problem of how three Soviet spies, even with an anti-gravity device, were going to remove the largest gold reserve in the United States. As James Bond once said, "15 billion dollars in gold bullion weighs 10,500 tons. Sixty men would take twelve days to load it onto 200 trucks."
In other words, the Fort Knox thing is the stupidest part of a story about a Russian femme fatale stealing an anti-gravity machine from a billionaire in a flying metal suit.
Notes and Trivia:  After this, Iron Man would next appear in The Fantastic Four #25-26, leading right into The Avengers #5-6, in which the Hulk battles the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, then teams up with the Avengers against the Lava Men, before the Avengers battle Baron Zemo and the Masters of Evil, which includes Iron Man's old nemesis The Melter. It is in The Avengers #6 that Iron Man begins wearing the new helmet which will properly debut in his own series next issue. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Tales of Suspense #52 (April, 1964)

"The Crimson Dynamo Strikes Again!"
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Don Rico (as "N. Korok")
Art: Don Heck
Synopsis: Last we saw Anton Vanko, the brilliant Russian scientist had defected to America and become an employee of Tony Stark.  Now he works tirelessly developing the new "laser light", which if it could be perfected would be a powerful new weapon for Stark's defense contracts.
Vanko believes he can test the last using his Crimson Dynamo armour, but the weapon is still unstable and Stark has to rescue him at the last moment, trying to convince the Russian that he does not need to sacrifice his life to redeem himself.
Meanwhile, in Soviet Russia, Khruschev wants Vanko so dead, that he calls in his top spies to "eliminate" him -- Boris, a hulking brute, and Natasha, a beautiful femme fatale otherwise known as the Black Widow. Yes, two Russian spies named Boris and Natasha -- get it? Get it?? 
Anyways, the plan is for the Black Widow to seduce Tony Stark while Boris finds and kills Vanko. Thus, they are dropped off in New York by a secret Soviet spy sub, and show up at Stark's munitions plant in Flushing claiming to be science teachers from Soviet Ukraine (so, still should be pretty suspicious and probably not allowed anywhere near a munitions plant in America in 1964) -- so of course Stark agrees to give them a full tour of the plant.
Natasha manages to distract Stark with her sultry Russian hotness in order to give Boris a chance to find Vanko. Boris paralyses Vanko with a ray gun Vanko himself had designed, then kidnaps him and steals the Crimson Dynamo armour -- Boris seeks to use the armor to destroy Stark and Iron Man both  and thus become a national hero back in the USSR.
He starts using the armor to blow up the plant, which causes Stark and Natasha to come rushing back from the swanky nightclub they'd apparently gone off to when the plot wasn't looking.
In the smoke and confusion of the firefighters and security men, Stark changes to Iron Man and discovers Boris in the Crimson Dynamo armour, causing him to believe Vanko has betrayed him. Boris zaps Iron Man with an electrical charge which shorts out his systems, and takes him back to the sub where he lies prisoner along with Vanko. 
Luckily, the Russkies were foolish enough to leave Iron Man locked in a room with a power outlet, and thus one extension cord and charging period later he's back to full power, rescuing Vanko, smashing up the sub, and heading back to Flushing.
Back at the factory, Iron Man confronts the Crimson Dynamo and the two do battle. However, the Crimson Dynamo has the upper hand on Iron Man, and so in that moment Anton Vanko grabs the laser prototype, firing it at the Crimson Dynamo, destroying both of them in the unstable surge of energy that follows, giving his life to the ideals of freedom.
In the excitement of the explosion, the Black Widow escapes justice, but with her true identity revealed to the authorities she is a fugitive in America, and with the failure of her mission she can never return to the Soviet Union, and thus she must wander the country in constant fear of discovery.
My Thoughts:  Amazing what small beginnings big things can have, isn't it? In this issue, we are introduced to Natasha Romanov, aka the Black Widow. Today we all know Black Widow as a badass member of the Avengers with flaming red hair played Scarlet Johansson in a skintight catsuit on the big movie screens, but in this initial story she's an dark auburn haired femme fatale cliché with a name that's essentially an early 60s pop culture reference joke. She has very little role in the story beyond distracting Stark, and yet Stan still gives her a cool, mysterious personality and an interesting ending that highlights the tragic lonliness of the life of a spy. 
Even though she's not the focus of the story (which is the return of the Crimson Dynamo and the death of Anton Vanko), she manages to steal the show.
The Art:  Good stuff from Don Heck this month. I don't really get Black Widow's fur boa or her veiled hat but I guess this was early 60s visual shorthand for "femme fatale" the same way a black catsuit became visual shorthand for "badass spy". Good action panels in this issue, but my favourite element of Heck's art is the human one, the expressions on his characters. Most affecting of all is the look on Tony's face when his friend sacrifices his life for what he believes in. Heck's art really sells the melodrama of the moment.
The Story: While the meat of the plot is the two Russian spies and the stealing of the armour and the action and the fights, the meat of the drama is Anton Vanko. Convinced somewhat conveniently to defect to America in the closing panels of ToS #46, Vanko is now trying to redeem himself for past sins and develop weapons for the American military complex. But it's also clear he has a bit of a death wish, given that he wants to dangerously testfire a deadly weapon at himself (while wearing his armour) even when Tony explains that it is totally not necessary.
It's an interesting philosophical difference between Tony and his friend -- Stark believes one can redeem themself and become a hero without the need for sacrifice and loss, while Vanko clearly believes the only path to redemption is in death for the sake of others. Even though Vanko has defected to the capitalist side, his philosophical values remain rooted in communist thinking.
What I'm saying is that with all these elements in play and with only thirteen pages to play with, Stan delivers a very compelling tale. In this, he is helped along by former Timely/Atlas/Marvel writer Don Rico, operating under the pseudonym of "N. Korok" because by the early 60s Rico's comics career was largely over and he had become a successful paperback writer, likely writing the script for this and next month's issue as a favour to Stan.
Stark Science: Light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, or "laser" technology, had been under serious development since 1957 in both the US and the USSR, in conjuction with other radiation emission technologies such as masers and rasers. In the US, a legal battle between Gordon Gould and Bell Labs had been raging since 1960 over intellectual ownership of the technology. The first functional laser was developed at Hughes Research Laboratories in California in 1960 (Howard Hughes of course being one of the primary inspirations for Tony Stark).
Most lasers are dangerous because fired into human eyes their strong light can be blinding, but what Vanko is working on here is a high powered laser to burn through solid objects, a very 1960s sci-fi kind of laser such as in the movie "Goldfinger", which has persisted as a pop culture idea to this day.  The first laser was capable of burning through a Gillette rasor blade, and class 4 industrial lasers today can burn skin. However, truely effective laser weapons are still beyond the capability of modern technology largely due to the immense power such weapons would require.
Boris fires a "jet paralyser" gun at Vanko, which sprays "magnetic artificial fibers" which wrap around the target and immobilizes them. Needless to say, this is all comic book scientific mumbo jumbo, a lot of impressive sounding words put together to say a gun that fires a net at a dude.
Iron Man's batteries must be hella efficient to recharge to full power in such a short amount of time from the power of a Soviet submarine -- also, he must have a voltage adapter somewhere in that suit of his to transform the 220V power used in Europe to his American 120V system.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of the Black Widow, first and last appearance of the second Crimson Dynamo, death of Anton Vanko.
This issue was adapted into issue #3 of Enter the Mandarin.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Tales of Suspense #51 (March, 1964)

"The Sinister Scarecrow"
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Don Heck
Synopsis: Iron Man is pursuing a thief through a vaudeville theatre when he's assisted by a contortionist called the Uncanny Umberto who figures helping Iron Man collar a crook would be goo publicity. Iron Man makes a remark that he's glad Umberto is on the side of the law with abilities like his, which of course immediately inspires Umberto to abandon his career as a vaudeville contortionist and become a criminal! Which was probably a good move since I can't imagine how he was making a living as a vaudeville performer in the 1960s.
Of course he can't become a criminal without a costume, and so he decides to be a scarecrow after seeing a scarecrow costume in the window of a costume store. Luckily it fits since he's as "flexible as a scarecrow anyway", but can you imagine if the first costume he saw was Sexy Nurse or something?
Then he steals some trained crows from one of the other acts (don't worry, he was retiring) and figures that since they're familiar to him they'll listen to him and act like accomplices like he was in a Disney cartoon or something. Then he decides his first target will be the New York penthouse apartment of Tony Stark (he'd been renting his mansion to the Avengers for a while by now) because Stark is always out with girls so he's an easy target.
Seriously this guy is the most slapdash crook I've ever seen.
Meanwhile a model named Veronica Vogue shows up at Stark Industries to pick up Tony but Pepper lies to her and tells her Tony is out of town. With no one to go out with, Tony has Happy drive him to the apartment, where they find the Scarecrow trying to rob Stark's wallsafe.
Happy starts to fight the Scarecrow, but is outmatched. However it gives Stark the opportunity to change into Iron Man, but Scarecrow stages a diversion and escapes, sending Iron Man on a wild chase by making him follow his trained crows while he slips away.
Scarecrow manages to steal some new weapons plans Stark is designing for the Defense Department, which he plans to ransom from Stark. 
Stark decides to meet Scarecrow at the pier with the money alone (so to best transform into Iron Man), against Happy's objections. However when the Scarecrow shows up he merely steals Stark's briefcase full of money and jumps on a boat headed for Cuba to sell the plans to the Reds as well!
Scarecrow rendezvous with a Cuban gunboat to turn over the plans, but Iron Man shows up, grabs the plans, knocks the Scarecrow and the Cubans into the water and sinks their boat. Scarecrow has his crows tow him on a line to Cuba, an escape that would only take about 40 hours to make, and yet Iron Man lets him go because his transistors are almost out of power. Uh-huh.
Back in the States, Tony needs to do something with two tickets to a Broadway show he was going to attend with Veronica, and Pepper is hoping he'll ask her but instead he gives them to her and Happy so they can go together!  Meanwhile, Scarecrow plots revenge on the Cuban shore.
My Thoughts: In the previous issue, Iron Man battled one of his greatest foes for the first time. In this issue, he fights a Batman villain. 
Well, to be fair, while the Scarecrow is best known today as a member of Batman's Rogues Gallery, that character hadn't appeared in a comic since 1943, and wouldn't appear again until 1967, so using the persona again wouldn't have confused any kids of te time, it just demonstrates Stan Lee scraping the bottom of the barrel for villain ideas. I mean, the comic tries it's best to justify that a guy wearing burlap and straw who can do gymnastics really well is a worthy adversary for a genius in powered armour, but it really never takes. 
The Art: Good stuff from Don Heck this issue, although at times the backgrounds get a little vague and stylized and Tony's penthouse suite seems to be made up of a lot of non-descript Kirbyesque machinery for no reason. Pepper's looking more and more glamourous with each appearance.
The Story: The Scarecrow is a lousy villain. His motivation to become a supercriminal seems to be simply because we need one this issue, and the whole adventure feels very perfunctory. Stealing Stark plans to sell to Cubans is a good idea and rings topical to when this comic was published, but it's also very similar to recent issues and Stan could've used a character like the Chameleon who's already established as a Soviet spy. On the whole the issue isn't bad, so much as it is ho-hum and utterly forgettable between last issue (first Mandarin) and next issue (first Black Widow).
Stark Science: We learn that the Mk II armour can stand up to small arms fire but would have a problem with machine guns, and that it's flight power is limited by the transistorized batteries such that flying to Cuba from New York is out of the question.
Honestly the most scientifically dubious thing in this issue is the Scarecrow's trained birds. Crows are very intelligent birds, but they are also stubborn and independant and are not easily trained at all. So the fact that our villain has taken crows someone else has trained to perform vaudeville tricks and is using them to commit crimes and steal precise things and do a whole bunch of exact stuff seemingly via telepathy from him (like flying him to Cuba), is kind've ridiculous.
Notes and Trivia: The first appearance of the Marvel Comics version of the Scarecrow, who will go on to menace other Marvel heroes but never will get that revenge on Iron Man he's contemplating. 
While fighting Iron Man, the Scarecrow mentions that it's widely known Stark employs the Golden Avenger as a bodyguard. While past villains have noticed that Iron Man is always around to protect Stark's stuff, I believe this is the first time the idea of him being explicitly employed as Stark's bodyguard has been mentioned.
This issue's story would be adapted into issues #2 and #3 of Enter the Mandarin.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tales of Suspense #50 (February, 1964)

Classic Marvel comics overhype themselves so much on their covers that it can sometimes be hard to tell which issues actually are important milestones and which issues are utter trash.
Well, hold on to your hats, merry Marvelites, because this truly is "another mighty milestone in this, the Marvel Age of Comics!"

"The Hands of the Mandarin!"
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Don Heck
Synopsis:  Our story opens with a pageload of Stan Lee hyperbole building up the bold new threat of the Mandarin, the most feared man in all of Red China and in no way a rip-off of an outdated racial stereotype character.
In his castle in Red China, he is visited by soldiers in the Red Chinese army, who request that he share his atomic science secrets with them so that the communist government can possess the bomb, as well as share with them the secret of his power rings -- ten rings he wears on each finger that seem to grant him magical abilities.
The Mandarin refuses, he serves no man and shall one day rule the world for himself, and so the Red Chinese soldiers flee in terror from his castle.
Meanwhile, back in America, the CIA have requested that Iron Man fly a dangerous reconaissance spy mission into Red China to gather information about the Mandarin, whom the CIA perceive as a threat but do not know much about.
Back at his factory in Flushing, Tony tells "Bill", the head of the factory's employee's association, that he'll be unable to attend the employee's dinner that night, but that he's appointed Happy Hogan to go in his place. Bill grumbles about how the boss can't be bothered to associate with the hired hands, and Happy decks him one for the comment. Tony gives Happy a stern dressing down for this impulsive action, and apologizes to Bill -- at which point Pepper Potts becomes very annoyed that she's been standing there this whole time and no one's noticed her make-over! With a new hair-do, colour, and make-up, she's gone from a Peggy Olson to a Joan Holloway! Tony admits he didn't even notice her, while Happy remarks he liked her better the old way.
Flying over mainland China, a US spy jet drops Iron Man into enemy territory. Approaching the Mandarin's castle, he's jumped by the warlord's private guard, but of course they are no match for Iron Man!
Seeing Iron Man's  approach on one of his monitors, the Mandarin draws him into the castle with a magnetic beam, depositing Iron Man in an empty room where... the walls are closing in!
Flying out through an air vent, Iron Man finds himself in the control room of the Mandarin, where an epic battle of abilities begin, as the two exchange a flurry of beams, rays, and waves until finally the Mandarin locks Iron Man with a paralysis ray!
Back in the States, Pepper is so desperate for a date to the employee's dinner... she actually asks Happy!! The chauffeur figures that without the boss there to "cramp my style" he can "really operate!"
His transistor power weakened by the effort to escape the Mandarin's paralysis ray, Iron Man finds himself at the mercy of the Chinese sorceror, who reveals that he had weakened the hero to the point where he could indulge in his favourite pasttime... karate! (An odd choice for a Chinese aristocrat, wouldn't kung fu be more appropriate? Oh right, it's the early 60s, Stan Lee wouldn't have heard of kung fu).
The Mandarin proves to be remarkably strong, capable of breaking iron bars with a karate chop, making him a formidable opponent for Iron Man, who resorts to using a wrist-installed calculator to calculate the ideal angles to block the Mandarin's blow -- the pain of hitting Iron Man's armour at the wrong angle causes the Mandarin to pass out, and so Iron Man beats a hasty escape, meeting up with his pick-up plane back to the states.
Somehow this all happens within a space of a day, because Tony Stark shows up in his tux for that employee's dinner after all, charming the girls -- while all the men have been charmed by Pepper! Happy is afraid that Tony will steal Pepper from him, while Pepper is afraid that Tony will never ask her out if he thinks she's dating Pepper! Oh, the soap opera!
But back in Red China, the "Oriental menace" of the Mandarin plots his next move, his revenge against Iron Man!!
My Thoughts: So here it is, the debut of The Mandarin -- Iron Man's archnemesis! His Lex Luthor, his Joker, his Moriarty, his Red Skull, his Green Goblin, his Fu Manchu --
Right, so here's the thing about the Mandarin. He's a really, really great villain. Even in this introductory story, you can see the elements that make him the best antagonist for Iron Man. Stark's science versus Mandarin's "magic", capitalism versus communism, freedom versus dictatorship, etc. Not only that, but of all the villains Iron Man's met so far, Mandarin has the most personality, the most pizzazz, the most threat -- but then, he's borrowing a lot of that characterization from Fu Manchu.
Okay, so he's a good character in an exciting story, but the fact of the matter is that he's a rip-off, and the character he's a rip-off of is a notorious "Yellow Peril" racist caricature stereotype. So does that make the Mandarin a racist caricature stereotype? Well, yes it does. But does that make him a bad character?
I'd argue no, no more than Fu Manchu is a bad character. Fu Manchu was created by Sax Rohmer as a menacing "supervillain", in many ways the first of his kind, playing on the fears of the "Yellow Peril" common in the early 20th century. Patterning his villain after the fears of his readers makes him no different than any other effective author, while his creation proved immensely popular -- spawning radio shows, comic strips and books, film serials, and features. Fu Manchu was also immensely influential on the pulp magazine writers and comic writers of the time, defining in many ways the character of the "criminal mastermind" and thus the supervillain - no Sax Rohmer, no Walter Gibson, no Ian Fleming, etc.
Well, Stan Lee was a teenager at the height of Fu Manchu's popularity, and was a big fan of Sax Rohmer, and had apparently always wanted to create an "inscrutable" Asian villain as an homage. So in that way, I can't say that the Mandarin was coming from an evil place in terms of racism. Maybe a lazy place in that he's not so much "inspired" by Fu Manchu as he's a direct copy, but I don't think it's an evil one.
We can't change the place of casual racism that characters like Fu Manchu, and thus the Mandarin, came from -- what matters is how these characters are used today. The Mandarin became Iron Man's premiere villain, and writers like John Byrne and Joe Casey have used the character fantastically in recent years, maintaining his Chinese heritage instead of whitewashing it, while not devolving into racial caricature.
The Art: It feels good to have Don Heck back on art duties. As much as I think Steve Ditko could've made an ideal Iron Man artist philosophically, Heck really has a great sense of Tony Stark and his world -- Heck inking Ditko might be ideal, but I would rather keep Heck on Iron Man so I could get all those great Ditko Spider-Man issues. Heck draws The Mandarin as a standard Fu Manchu type, except with the addition of a bizarre mask, and of course his trademark ten rings. Heck also updates Pepper's appearance this issue -- she's a redhead officially now and looking quite glamourous.
The Chinese characters in the story are drawn in a somewhat caricatured way, but it doesn't feel malevolent or negatively stereotyped in nature.
The Story: It's clear that this story was merely meant to introduce the Mandarin, with Lee intending to bring the character back as a regular basis. He knew he'd hit on an archenemy for Iron Man, and so this story is mostly about establishing the Mandarin as a major threat -- we don't get an origin for the character, merely a lot of scenes and dialogue establishing how powerful he is. We don't know the source of his power, whether magic or technology, or what the deal with his ten rings are -- the rings being the main thing distinguishing Mandarin from his inspiration.
What's interesting is that he doesn't even have a specific evil plan -- he's a presence, pre-existing, already powerful. Iron Man wanders in to find out who this Mandarin character is and his victory is simply in getting out alive. It's a good story, but it's also very simplistic, intended as it is merely as an intro, and it's only thirteen pages -- supported by some standard Marvel Comics soap opera love triangle stuff. It's an overture to a series of Mandarin appearances coming up that will climax with Tales of Suspense #55.
These issues would be retold in Joe Casey's Enter the Mandarin mini-series, an excellent story that makes the implicit themes in the battle of Mandarin and Iron Man explicit in very well written dialogue. I love those issues, and I thought about reviewing them alongside the originals here before deciding to stick to publication order -- however for fans of the Mandarin who wish to see his first encounters with Stark told in a more Modern Age style, it's a great book to pick up.
Stark Science: Because Stan doesn't give us an origin or explanation for the Mandarin's power, it's hard to comment on his ten rings, which at this point could be magic, science, or "science so advanced it appears as magic." 
The communists want the Mandarin's atomic research, which implies he's a scientist or technological expert of some kind. Red China's nuclear program had begun research in 1959 after Soviet Russia cut off their support -- they would succeed in detonating their first atom bomb on October 16, 1964.
We discover the Mark II armour's chest mounted "ultra-beam" is capable of dispelling any ray of "less than cosmic intensity", which makes it a pretty powerful defense.
Without commenting on the comic book technological powers of Iron Man and Mandarin, the most implausible element of the whole story is the spyplane that gets Iron Man to the Mandarin's castle. While we aren't given much context on the location of the Mandarin's castle, most of China is in fact just outside the range of the CIA's Lockheed U2 spyplane which would have been used for such an operation, if it had left from and returned to Idlewild Airport as the text suggests. 
But let's assume the U2 makes it, that the Mandarin's Castle is in range (when it most likely isn't) -- Tony is at the Pentagon when the story starts, flies 250 miles to his plant in Flushing (no way of knowing how long that takes), then takes the U2 from Idlewild to China - a journey which even at maximum speed would take the plane 15 hours, then he battles the Mandarin and gets on another plane for another 15 hour U2 flight back to NYC -- all in time to arrive at the employee dinner that was going on the very evening of the day he left!! Even with international time zones and day barriers and such, that seems highly impossible!
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of The Mandarin. First appearance of "post-makeover" Pepper Potts. This issue takes place after The Avengers #3 and #4, in which The Hulk left the team and became a menace alongside the Sub-Mariner, and the Avengers discovered and revived the frozen form of Captain America, who then became the new team leader.
This issue's story was adapted into issues #1 and #2 of Enter the Mandarin.