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building up the bold new threat of the Mandarin, the most feared man in all of Red China and in no way a rip-off of an outdated racial stereotype character.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.

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