[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]
The early 1990s era of Iron Man is something I enjoy despite its flaws, mostly because it was such a big part of my comic book collecting origins. The Modular Armor was brought to television as the base design of Iron Man: The Animated Series, which was one of the most influential shows in my childhood. When I was twelve, the very first back issue I ever bought was a copy of Iron Man #300 -- the Modular Armor’s debut. The issues from Iron Man, War Machine, and Force Works that form the newly collected Iron Man/War Machine: Hands of the Mandarin crossover show the Iron Man franchise right before its utter collapse.
At its core, Hands of the Mandarin consists of two stories: the Mandarin taking over China with the aid of an extraterrestrial weapon, and Iron Man and War Machine reconciling after a long period of mistrust and anger. The rift between Tony Stark and Jim Rhodes has a deep history, demonstrated by flashbacks to everything from Rhodey’s first appearance and his first tenure as Iron Man to the Armor Wars and the events of the War Machine trade. At the end of that book, Rhodey cut ties with Tony for not being in the loop about his faking his death. Now roaming the world as the violent vigilante War Machine, Rhodey needs Tony’s help to fix his armor -- by force, if necessary.
Meanwhile, the Mandarin lost badly to Iron Man in John Byrne’s classic Dragon Seed Saga (featuring Fin Fang Foom as one of the titular dragons). He’s now found a device called the Heart of Darkness, which rebuilt the hands he lost in the previous story with dragon-like claws and has increased his power immensely. Additionally, he’s gained a new philosophy on life, choosing magic over technology; his plan is to rid the world of technology entirely and rule over a new Dark Ages. It’s a bit of a departure from his old methods, but the Mandarin has always been a character in need to a purpose since the fall of Communism.
If the story had just been about Iron Man, War Machine and the Mandarin, then Hands of the Mandarin would have been a great success. Unfortunately, there was a third title in the Iron Man franchise which caused problems. Under the leadership of Iron Man and the Scarlet Witch, the West Coast Avengers decided to become a “proactive team” called Force Works. If the name and concept bring the infamous Extreme Justice to mind, it’s worth noting that the two titles were contemporaries. The Force Works parts of the crossover suffer from traditional '90s team book problems, such as uninspiring roster choices, combative members, and a lack of strong leadership.
The Scarlet Witch leads the team ... unless Iron Man is present, or unless U.S. Agent decides to go off and do his own thing. Supposedly, Wanda is more powerful than before, but her characterization is next to nonexistent. Julia Carpenter, the second Spider-Woman, also brings little to Force Works; it was disheartening to learn this since Julia was one of my favorite characters on the Iron Man cartoon. Even more depressing is U.S. Agent’s decline from a misguided anti-hero into a juiced-up goon.
Rounding out the team is Century, a spindly alien who has an odd verbal quirk of speaking in synonyms when trying to sound out concepts in English. Century has an interesting subplot in Hands of the Mandarin involving the theft of his staff, which makes him relive the memories of other people. This plot point is unfortunately not answered within the pages of this trade. Incidentally, his staff is called Parallax, proving that that word was the bane of comics in the '90s.
Most of the Force Works material consists of the team engaging in what '90s grim and gritty teams did best -- attacking a fortified base, in this case the Mandarin’s castle. It gets extremely spread out because extra pieces of the crossover were published in the Marvel Comics Presents anthology series. These short stories are told from the point of view of Force Works’s members but do little except pad out the story. Worse still, they take room away from what could have been important linking sequences, such as the rather abrupt ending. In a silly move, Marvel had an editorial policy banning curse words to make them feel more “mature” than upstart companies like Image and Dark Horse. As a result, people are told to “go to Hades” numerous times.
The biggest problem in Hands of the Mandarin is the art. The War Machine issues won the artist lottery with Gabriel Gecko (an alias of Hulk artist Gabriel Hardman) and Geoff Senior (known for his work on Transformers). Their art is a little above the '90s standard with far more consistent proportions and clearer action. Tom Morgan’s Iron Man work is full-on early Image, but still somewhat readable through the heavy lines.
Once again, Force Works is where it really falls apart, with numerous errors in proportions and even botched coloring, such as Scarlet Witch’s hair being colored purple many times. However, the absolute worst comes in the Marvel Comics Presents short stories. There’s a thin line between “art you dislike” and “bad art” The artwork in these short stories is so incredibly sloppy and poorly done that I think they should not have been published without heavy editing. There are points where Century’s face tattoos jut off from his face like horns, and others where U.S. Agent has a full-blown case of Liefeld’s Disease.
It may sound like I hated Iron Man/War Machine: Hands of the Mandarin but I’m really accepting of its flaws. There’s a great story buried under a veneer of bad artwork, and the Mandarin, Tony, Rhodey and even Century get some good character development. If you’re willing to accept exposure to early '90s artwork ranging from acceptable to utterly horrifying, you’ll find something to like here.