This volume is a nice change of pace from the past few multi-volume epics that were the series’ stock-in-trade. Instead we have a collection of three extra-sized issue-length stories (and a short eight-pager) that showcase Tony Stark’s past, present and future. We also get to see what his “archnemesis” The Mandarin has been doing with his spare time.
I put the quotes around archnemesis when I talk about The Mandarin because even though everyone seems to think that’s what he is to Iron Man, to the point where he should be in the third movie, I just don’t see it. A good archnemesis reflects the hero’s defining characteristics back at him -- see Batman & the Joker -- and The Mandarin doesn’t really do that here. We see that the source of his power is a set of rings he stole from a dying alien (the similarity to “Green Lantern” is purely coincidental, I’m sure) and he uses them to force an award-winning filmmaker to tell the story of his life. Though this is all done to spite Tony Stark, it all boils down to petty vindictiveness. While he wants to destroy everything that Tony stands for, it’s not because he opposes the man’s worldview or wants to destroy his ideals, The Mandarin just can’t stand the fact that this man has foiled his plans time and time again. That’s B-level supervillainy right there, but we’ll probably see him in “Iron Man 3” because there’s really no one else in the character’s rogues gallery that has such stature.
The Mandarin’s failings as an archnemesis aside, “The Story of My Life” is actually pretty great. His above-mentioned pettiness and vindictiveness is played up to great effect here as he constantly meddles with the director’s vision and micromanages it to the point where the man’s creativity is extinguished. I’ve read elsewhere that this story can be seen as a metaphor for writer Matt Fraction’s tenure on “Uncanny X-Men,” and after reading this... I’d say it’s plausible. Even if he is part of the B-list, The Mandarin comes across as a fearsome presence and a villain who you want to see receive his comeuppance. Though the tragic ending doesn’t quite deliver that, it’s still a fitting end to the story.
Next up is “What it Was Like, What Happened, and What It’s Like Now,” which was originally published as issue #500.1 of the series. The “point one” issues were designed to be “jumping on” points for every Marvel series, and while this one doesn’t quite manage that, it still winds up being a superb summation of Tony’s life so far. Presented as his anniversary speech to a local Alcoholic’s Anonymous chapter, the story doesn’t just serve as a mere recap, but it also allows Fraction to show not just how his life was influenced by booze, girls, and technological discovery, but how these things came to be a part of his life as well. The immense confidence the writer displays in his storytelling here draws you in from the beginning and shows further proof that the man knows Tony Stark better than anyone else. It’s also proof of the great working relationship Fraction has with artist Salvador Larroca as he subtly changes his style to bring Tony’s past to life and make this monologue into a satisfying visual treat.
“How I Met Your Mother” is the story of how Tony’s parents, Howard and Maria, met. It’s illustrated by Howard Chaykin and is fun little caper. There’s really not much more to be said about it.
“The New Iron Age” marked the re-numbering of the series with issue #500, and it’s really confusing to read at first. It starts out with Tony meeting up with Peter Parker to track down a weapon of mass destruction that the two were working on together. From there it jumps to the year 2052 where the world has gone to hell as The Mandarin has usurped Stark’s technology to rule the world and turned the man himself into his personal valet. While Tony’s daughter Ginny leads the resistance, his son Howard has been turned into a “War Machine” raider unit and sent to take her out. The purpose of this alternate future is a mystery for the majority of the story, especially as Iron Man and Spider-Man go and beat up the followers of Stilt-Man to get the stolen technology back. It doesn’t become clear until the very end how things tie together, but when they do... I have to admit that I was impressed. The future was effectively Tony’s greatest fear brought to life while the present-day sequences laid the seeds for how he was going to deal with it. That was a gutsy storytelling move that could’ve backfired, but holding back the full understanding of these events actually made the story even more memorable in my opinion.
Even if these stories don’t advance the story that Fraction has been telling since the first volume, they’re still great character pieces that showcase his command of the character and his enemies. “My Monsters” was a good change of pace, and definitely one of the better volumes of this series. We’re heading into crossover territory soon, so I hope that this isn’t the last good volume we’ll see for a while.