How is it that the villain that comic fans consider Iron Man’s chief adversary is one that isn’t a technology-laden rival like Shellhead’s other foes but someone that seems like he stepped right out of Chinese mysticism and magic? It’s the dichotomy; the same reason the very organized and methodical Batman finds his most pressing battles against the anarchistic Joker.
Created back in 1964 in the height of the Cold War, the Mandarin was introduced early on in Iron Man’s fledgling run as the lead star in Tales of Suspense. And after just over a dozen issues, he cemented himself as a more-than-worthy rival for Stark — both in the boardroom and on the battlefield. While other villains might incessantly pester heroes over the years, the Mandarin’s ventures have been few and far between — but each an immense occasion for Iron Man or whomever he chose to face.
At one time considered to be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, the Mandarin steps out of Asian history books and into power when he acquired ten seemingly magic rings from a crashed spaceship from an alien race which Fin Fang Foom is a part of. Unlike the similar origin of Hal Jordan, the Mandarin finds these rings and seeks power — and gets it, conquering China and on some occasions the world. With Iron Man 3 just weeks away and the Mandarin’s big screen debut coming with it, we look back and retell the biggest and best stories of this character from Marvel’s library.
Essential Iron Man Vol. 1: Not all of this tome is Mandarin-related, but it’s the most accessible and cheapest place to find two essential Mandarin issues — his debut in Tales of Suspense #50 and his first origin in Tales of Suspense #62. These two mid-1960s stories by Stan Lee and Don Heck expertly carved out a mystical adversaries with powers far different than the tech-minded Tony Stark, but with similar levels of ambition which put them at odds with one another. These two stories have been told and re-told numerous times (two of which are features below), but these earliest versions are the beginning of the story.
Invincible Iron Man Annual #1: After some time out of the spotlight, Matt Fraction and guest artist Carmine Di Giandomenico deliver one of the best single-issue stories in recent memory here when they retell the Mandarin’s origins from the inspired vantage point of the character trying to orchestrate his own biographical movie. Full of pomposity and megalomania, it reminds me a bit of the rumored controlling nature of Kim Jong Il combined with the theatrics of Laurence Olivier. This unique perspective allows them to play fast and loose with some atrophied elements of Mandarin’s first origin, making subsequent inconsistencies part of his domineering goal to re-write history.
Iron Man: The Dragon Seed Saga: This ain’t Batman: Year One, but nearly 50 years of infrequent Mandarin stories this rises to the top as one of the most definitive of the lot. Written by John Byrne with art by Paul Ryan, this six-issue story-arc sees Stark heading to China to heal his aging body (akin to Doctor Strange on his path to redemption), but instead of the Ancient One Stark finds a cure from a man who will only give it to him if he finally, definitively beats the Mandarin. This story goes to delve into the alien origins of the Mandarin’s rings and its ties to the race of dragons whom Fin Fang Foom is a part of — a key part of his story going forward.
Iron Man: Revenge of the Mandarin: This seven-issue excerpt from Kurt Busiek’s long-forgotten run on Iron Man sees him and artists Sean Chen and Patrick Zircher re-establish the Mandarin as Iron Man’s chief nemesis and builds him up as a legitimate threat to the world and other heroes including the Avengers and Russia’s Winter Guard. The Mandarin appearances are limited two the first three issues, but the other stories are good Iron Man stories on their own.
Iron Man: Enter The Mandarin: I first came to know the Mandarin from his Acts of Vengeance-era crossover into Uncanny X-Men, but it’s this 2007 miniseries that really sealed the deal for Mandarin as one of my favorite comic book villains and this one of my favorite super-hero books in modern times. Joe Casey and Eric Canete re-team after years apart and do a an expansive six-issue retelling of Iron Man and the Mandarin’s first meeting from Tales of Suspense #60. Canete captures the odd but alluring conflict of fighting styles between Iron Man’s armored suit and the Mandarin’s seemingly mystical rings, and Casey wears his love of this Marvel era on his sleeve (and in his scripts). Largely overlooked as it came out in the build up to the first Iron Man movie and in the waves of Warren Ellis and Matt Fraction’s runs on the comic series, I’d argue sextet of issue is quintessential to get to know the Mandarin and darn-good Iron Man stories on their own.