- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

This chronic feature lets me review what’s recently passed my bloodshot pupils. So pull up a chair, break out the sarcasm filter and welcome to:

Mr. Zad’s Iron Man comic critique

Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin, Nos. 1 to 6 (Marvel Publishing, $2.99 each)

Joe Casey, famed writer of the X-Men universe and co-creator of Ben 10, offers his take on the first meeting of the Golden Avenger and his most formidable foe in a six-issue series soon available in trade paperback.

Taking its cue from the events in the early 1960s issues of Tales of Suspense, specifically Nos. 50 to 55, the story envelops and expands upon the original conflict between Iron Man and the Mandarin. It also offers the same Stan Lee style of villainous pomposity for the Mongolian megalomaniac that will make older readers grin from ear to ear.

In the action, Tony Stark is defined as the braniac playboy billionaire and his own bodyguard superhero when he’s wearing the famed, nearly indestructible armor. Readers also quickly learn about the Mandarin, a descendant of Genghis Khan who finds 10 rings of extraterrestrial origin in the Valley of the Spirits that can give him the power to rule the planet.

Iron Man is first called in by S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division) to assess the Mandarin’s strength, and he nearly dies in the process. The ensuing adventure puts the Mandarin’s plans of world domination into effect, including an assassination attempt on Stark by the villain’s son, no less, while Iron Man attempts to stop him.

Its fun to see characters such as Pepper Potts, Harold “Happy” Hogan, Anton Vanko and the Crimson Dynamo, but the best is watching Tony Stark in his classic early costume once again.

Mr. Casey gives the story a consistently solid pace. He always allows for plenty of exposition to build anticipation for the battles. He is also clearly thrilled to deliver a unending flow of corny diatribes (“I will wrap your corpse in the colors of your flag. Shame and desecration in one decisive gesture.”) from the mouth of the evil egomaniac.

Unfortunately, Eric Canete’s sketchy art style looks more at home on a Cartoon Network comic than in this intense mini-epic. His design of Iron Man’s costume is great, but he presents a too-exaggerated style for the villain.

I have felt Mandarin was more of a calculating and elegant foe rather than the ferocious lunatic now almost beastlike in appearance. I would have loved to have seen a Steve Rude or even Tom “Godland” Scioli on the series.

Mr. Canete’s great covers are another issue. Each is of a classic deco, Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer style that completely overshadows his interior pages.

Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nos. 21 to 27 (Marvel Publishing, $2.99 to $3.99 each)

The latest monthly series story arc devoted to ol’ Shellhead is quite the dramatic opus starring one his most persistent supervillains.

It’s nice to see that creators and fans still appreciate the Mandarin (44 years in comics) as the guy is back, less pompous, but as maniacal and mischievous as ever.

For those unaware of Mr. Stark’s current status in comicdom, he is now head of Nick Fury’s famed government operation and has spent plenty of time uncovering and registering superhumans to the detriment of many friendships.

He also has taken a step toward becoming more of a cyborg by injecting Extremis, a nanotech virus, into his body. Iron Man armor is now part of his biological structure and can ooze out of his pores to cover him at a moment’s notice.

The enhancement is quite the psychological test for Tony, who now finds himself more comfortable hiding in his metallic suit than facing reality as a human.

One of his other current initiatives is to convert superhumans into law enforcement officers and that has brought to light a situation in Omaha, Neb.

The current story line, created by television writer Daniel “Carnivale” Knauf and his son Charles, is a massive conspiracy set in motion by the Mandarin.

Now living under the name Tem Borjigin, he is the head of Prometheus Gentech, a biotech firm in the U.S. heartland that is experimenting with the Extremis virus to create a new super-soldier serum. He wants to harness Extremis as a weapon and cause big trouble.

Although how this has come to pass is a bit insane — let’s forget the fact that the secretary of defense is well aware of Tem and knows he’s Mongolian (obviously the guy has never read an Iron Man comic book), the story is well paced and takes enough twists to keep readers engaged.

The Knaufs also give Stark quite a complex personality, wrought with emotional instability, but he’s still brilliant.

Even though art duties on the seven issues are shared by Butch Guice, Roberto de la Torre and Carlo Pagulayan, their styles are similar enough to make the entire run consistently great. All of the illustrators beautifully capture facial expression and the human form while adding the occasional action splash page to blow away the reader.

Zadzooks! wants to know you exist. Call 202/636-3016; fax 202/269-1853; e-mail jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com or write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002.

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