Here’s another issue that I got out of one of those 3-Bags that toy stores and department stores carried in the 1970s. The books therein were always about nine months old once those bags hit the racks, which was a godsend for me, as they provided a way in which I could get my hands on some recent back issues of the Marvel titles that I had only just then started following. (The DC 3-Bags of the time were of small value to me for that same reason–I’d most often have already bought any DC books from whatever assortment when they had originally gone on sale. ) I had only just started reading IRON MAN but this was a special 100th issue, and that fact made it seem important–as did this Jim Starlin cover calling out the anniversary in huge stonelike letters. This was still before the point when centennial issues would be jumped up in size and price and made oversized, but it was still something to celebrate.
The story inside wasn’t especially milestone-oriented, though. It was just the wrap-up to Iron Man’s current adventure, and while it featured the Mandarin (at this point probably Shell-Head’s most recurring arch-foe) it didn’t do anything so noteworthy with him or with the Iron Man/Mandarin dynamic in the way that later centennial issues would have tried to do. But it was a solid comic. Writer Bill Mantlo had helped to bring IRON MAN out of the doldrums of the previous couple of years and was just beginning to find his stride here. It’s maybe hard to remember in these days when Iron Man is a household word, but throughout much of the 1970s particularly, IRON MAN often seemed like a title that nobody especially wanted to work on. It was out of step with the zeitgeist and treated as second tier if not third tier. (At one point, it was almost combined into a split book with DAREDEVIL, which also suffered for much of this period.) But Mantlo seemed invested in making the series his own, and hit it with more focus and enthusiasm than he maybe brought to a lot of his one-off fill-in jobs.
The artwork was still being done by George Tuska, who was a semi-regular contributor to the book for many years. Tuska had been a comic book artist since the 1940s–his work on Lev Gleason’s CRIME DOES NOT PAY being something of a break-out assignment for him. John Romita in particular loved Tuska’s work, going back to the days when Johnny wasn’t yet drawing comic books, only reading them. There was always a bit of a reserve to Tuska’s super hero figures, a bit of awkwardness, and a strange single-toothed goofiness to some of his faces. But he understood the sort of melodrama that Stan Lee had made the hallmark of the Marvel style, and so while he wasn’t necessarily a fan favorite artist, he was a dependable professional who could deliver a quality product time and time again.
Let’s talk about the Mandarin a little bit for a second. Even by 1978 he was showing his age, a relic of the era of the “Yellow Peril” of the early 20th Century (even though he’d only been conceived in the 1960s.) As a major villain, he left something to be desired, if for no other reason than that he was such a terrible racial caricature. It’s no great surprise why the next creative team on IRON MAN, David Micheline, Bob Layton and John Romita Jr, avoided using him at all–he was simply ill-conceived. But over the years, many have tried and failed to re-imagine him into being something more substantial. (I’m no exception to this either, having done a few Mandarin stories in my time editing IRON MAN) Here, Mantlo is attempting to also do just that, using the Mandarin’s death and resurrection as a way to hopefully cast aside some of the racist portrayal of the past. Unfortunately, that racism is so strongly baked into the character that I just don’t think there’s truly any way to divorce him from it. And sadly, he was just about the best enemy Iron Man had to his name in the late 1970s.
Much like the Melter issue we looked at a couple of weeks back, the story this issue is actually a bit of a rehash/remix of a few Stan Lee/Gene Colan Iron Man stories from TALES OF SUSPENSE back in the 1960s as well. When we come in, Iron Man has journeyed to China to rescue Michael O’Brien, the brother of the original Guardsman, who had been abducted by the Mandarin while he was wearing Tony Stark’s stolen armor. But the real Golden Avenger had come to his rescue, clad in an earlier suit of armor, and now, having dispatched O’Brien back to the United States in the older suit, he engages in a frontal attack on the Mandarin’s castle headquarters, fighting his way past the evil mastermind’s guards.
The meat of the issue is simply an extended fight sequence between Iron man and the Mandarin, in which the armored Avenger is able to survive and best each of the Mandarin’s deadly weapons in turn. The Mandarin had been behind a number of unfortunate happenings that had been plaguing Stark International in the days before this–and even as this battle is happening, in Washington DC, the Mandarin’s agents are about to smear Tony Stark with falsified records proving that he sold the United States substandard weapons systems while offering the Iron Man armor for sale to America’s enemies. For all that Iron Man has trounced the Mandarin, there doesn’t seem to be any way he can prevent this from happening, being thousands of miles away.
But it turns out that Jonathan Rich, the guy we’d been led to believe was the Mandarin’s operative all along, wasn’t–it was his assistant who was doing the Mandarin’s dirty work. We also learn that Stark and Rich had cooked up this bogus reveal of the supposed evidence to draw the true culprit out. So Tony Stark’s reputation is salvaged once more, and the Mandarin is foiled. And that’s really about all she wrote for this one. Having beaten the Mandarin (but not killed him–super heroes didn’t do things like that in 1978 by and large) Iron Man simply jets away, to begin his long journey back home. It isn’t a great story–in some respects, it’s barely a story at all–but it’s entertaining enough. It only really feels like a letdown because of the expectation that’s been built up around centennial issues in the years since. But you can kind of see why IRON MAN wasn’t performing better during this time. The concept for the character was still good, but the stories he was being featured in weren’t especially well-crafted or interesting.