"When multi-billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, inventor extraordinaire, dons his solar-charged, steel-mesh armor, he becomes a high-tech warrior - the world's greatest human fighting machine! Stan Lee presents... the Invincible Iron Man!" Ahem. Iron Man: Dragon Seed Saga collects together issues #270-275 of the famous Marvel comic and reprints a story arc that had our hero battling his greatest ever nemesis - The Mandarin. "From a castle deep in the remote vastness of Red China comes the most mysterious, the most feared oriental of all time! Some claim he has lived for many centuries. Others claim he is far more than human! But no one knows the true power of the evil genius of the East - the dreaded Mandarin!" The Mandarin was first introduced in Tales of Suspense #50 and wears flowing robes and a cape and looks like a Chinese version of Emperor Ming from Flash Gordon. A bit camp to be honest but you wouldn't say that to his face. The Mandarin is like a sort of mystical shaman with incredible power that derives from ten magical rings he found in a downed alien spacecraft (what a stroke of luck!) and with this alien magic/technology at his fingertips (almost literally of course as he wears the rings) he is always plotting to take over China and then the world. Tends to stumble over the China bit though so the world has managed to stay safe from his clutches so far. One day maybe. The Chinese authorities are understandably terrified of the Mandarin and his possible grab for power and in Dragon Seed Saga attempt to exploit a vulnerable Tony Stark to get Iron Man to stop the villain's nefarious plans for Chinese and possible world domination. They are more concerned about the Chinese part of that equation obviously. They probably wouldn't lose any sleep if the Mandarin, for example, took over Belgium. Not sure why he would want to do that but you never know. Maybe he likes waffles. By the way, Tony Stark pretends that Iron Man is his bodyguard so if you want the services of Iron Man you ask Tony Stark - despite the fact that Tony Stark IS Iron Man. I hope that makes sense.
But Tony Stark has been the recent victim of corporate and industrial sabotage from an unknown source (although he has his suspicions). This being a comic they haven't stolen some blueprints or a few micro chips from Stark Enterprises but staged an attack on his nervous system with a virus so they have complete control of his body! I hate it when that happens. Stark only has control of his body by wearing the Iron Man suit but this is clearly untenable as he can't spend his whole life in a suit of armour - however high-tech it might be. He creates a "neuro-net electromesh" to go over his skin and give him some degree of control and the appearance of normality (for board meetings etc) but even this is a great strain on Stark and takes its toll. He therefore arranges to go to China to consult with the beautiful and brilliant neurologist and bio-engineer Dr Su Yin. The Chinese have only agreed to the meeting though on condition that they get "services" in return. The services are of course that Iron Man defeats the Mandarin for them. Matters are further complicated though by Tony Stark being unable to be Iron Man due to his condition. His assistant Jim Rhodes is donning the armour instead and although an apprehensive Stark refuses him permission to go into action he does so anyway. Rhodes bites off far more than he can chew when he realises the Mandarin's mysterious new mentor Chen Hsu (little old man smoking a pipe on a floating cloud) has awakened the mighty dragon Fin Fang Foom. Rhodes also seems to be a bit claustrophobic and nervous in the suit. A claustrophobic Iron Man is like a steeplejack who is scared of heights. Not an ideal situation. Chen Hsu has a nefarious scheme of his own and is far more powerful than anyone suspects. Both Iron Man and the Mandarin could be in very big trouble indeed.
Iron Man made his first appearance in 1963 and for many years was one of the slightly lesser known Marvel characters until the 2008 Robert Downey Jr big budget Hollywood film. The comic is about a suave billionaire who has invented an incredible powered suit of armour festooned with space age weapons. Once in the armour he is effectively a superhero. I always loved the actual character of Iron Man with his stoic robotic visage and his alter-go was always sort of interesting. Whereas Peter Parker has down to earth problems like worrying about money, work or his Aunt May, Tony Stark is one of the richest men in the world and drawn to look like Timothy Dalton in Flash Gordon. His problems revolve around corporate skullduggery, health (he is a recovering alcoholic), and the constant pursuit of technological excellence and innovation to stay one step ahead of his business rivals and Iron Man's enemies. Dragon Seed Saga has a lot of promise (return of the Mandarin, giant dragons, battle for China etc) but the potential is negated by the scratchy art by Paul Ryan and too many dull panels of a tuxedoed Stark being shown around hotel rooms and offices by his Chinese hosts. In my experience mainstream American comics are never brilliant at depicting other nations (I have a Spider-Man comic where he's in England and everything is shrouded in fog with gas lights and old thatched inns like something out of the 1890s!) and veer towards stereotypes. This is a very Marvel Comic depiction of China and not one to be taken terribly seriously. A land of mystical wizards and sleeping dragons lurking in caves. Daylight is submerged in darkness and high above the sky is blue. Mighty rivers cut into the country as mountains rise to the heavens. Light and noise take on supernatural energies as time and space collapses. Cobwebs sparkle in the mist and blinding saucers of light jump from tree to tree. I'm exaggerating of course. The art is too prosaic to ever really bring the book to life in vivid fashion.
Stark notices that in China the people at the top live in luxury while the majority of the population struggle with life but then this is to state the bleeding obvious and true of all nations so you can't exactly give Dragon Seed Saga top marks for insightful social commentary. The comic is far too talky for its own good and suffers from a very serious tone in the first few issues that doesn't make it much fun. When we finally get the Iron Man versus Fing Fang Doom (giant dragon character created years ago by Stan Lee) battles it livens up but the art never really does it justice. There are some double splash pages of Fing Fang Doom and Iron Man fighting - the dragon breathing fire and Iron Man firing repulsor rays (I love comic jargon) in return but the most spectacular of these suffers from a blank white backdrop and the terrified locals who flee below all being shaded in orange. Some of the interiors in the comic are good with plenty of detail but this story need to much bigger, bolder and crisper with its art. You have a giant dragon turning mountains into rubble as it pursues Iron Man and yet it just never feels that exciting. With a more inventive and striking artist this could have featured some amazing panels and splash features. It doesn't help either that the writing is very cliched and pedestrian at times. "Foolish human! You really believe your puny armor was enough to shield you from my power?" Fing Fang Doom says a lot of things like this during the battles. The cleverest thing about the story is the introduction of the mysterious Chen Hsu as a wise tutor to the Mandarin. We quickly gather that Chen Hsu is manipulating the Mandarin and so this immediately makes him a powerful and interesting character. The Mandarin of all people is going to wade out of his depth here and encounter forces that even he doesn't understand. I quite like where they go with the ending.
One other weakness though with the comic is the constant exposition reminding you of previous issues and how they all relate to the story here. Weekly comics do this a lot (or they used to anyway when I bought them growing up) and while a certain amount of backstory and explanation is welcome at times it can become tiresome and interrupt the flow of the story, especially if you are already familiar with what happened in previous issues anyway. The one piece of exposition that was relatively welcome involved the origin of the Mandarin. The writer here has tweaked this tale slightly and at least makes an effort to present the Mandarin as a new and more three dimensional character rather than a stock panto villain. Another aspect I did enjoy was Stark using a "encephalo-band" (wonderful comic gobbleygook!) to sit in his hotel room and remote control the reserve Iron Man suit in battle against the dragon. I suppose it was a nice twist in a way to have Stark incapacitated and having to rely on his technical ingenuity because that is the core essence of the character. He is a superhero through his own brilliance - not because he was bitten by a radioactive spider. I've probably written far more about Iron Man: Dragon Seed Saga than it really deserves to be honest. The potential of an epic fantasy story set in China and pitting Iron Man against two terrifying foes is blundered somewhat by the journeyman art and some dull interludes. I enjoyed some of the action panels and the Mandarin's villain speeches ("The Mandarin does not have others fight his battles for him no matter how powerful they may be! Behold! I only have to focus my will through one of my rings and the mountains themselves become an extension of my power!") but I wasn't terribly impressed on the whole. Iron Man: Dragon Seed Saga runs to about 160 pages and at the time of writing is available for about £10. Definitely not worth that price so wait for a better deal or buy another Iron Man comic instead.
One of the greatest heroes of this era against one of the greatest monsters of the era before! Iron Man's nemesis, the Mandarin, has risen again, his ten rings of power more awesome than before! But the power in his hands hasn't kept him from being a puppet in someone else's, and war with his ironclad enemy may have to take a backseat against ten awakened dragons...one for each ring! Can even two Iron Men handle such a multiple menace? Collects Iron Man #270-275.