Last of the sinister Orientals?

IRON MAN: Beneath the Armor by Andy Mangel was a guide to the Golden Avenger released to tie in with the first Iron Man film. It does a very good job chronicling the efforts of multiple writers and artists to keep Iron Man interesting year after year, and to constantly update Iron Man’s armor so he stays technologically sophisticated.
I considered writing about all of that, but instead, I’ll focus on just one aspect: Iron Man’s arch-enemy, the Mandarin.
First, some background. When Sax Rohmer created Fu Manchu in 1913, he established the archetype of all “sinister Orientals” (as they used to be called) for the next 50 years. There had been Chinese villains before but none of them had been as successful and memorable, and pretty much every Asian criminal mastermind that followed would owe something to Fu Manchu (including Marvel’s Yellow Claw, the Golden Age Claw and Johnny Quest‘s Dr. Zinn and the Shadow’s Shiwah Khan).
Of all his imitators, the Mandarin was the most successful—not because he’s that great a character, but because as a prominent Marvel Comics villain, he’s been able to build up many more appearances over a much longer time than anyone else (the Yellow Claw has made a few, but hasn’t had a regular, long-running series like Iron Man for a base).
The Mandarin is a classic sinister Asian mastermind. He works separately of the Chinese government; is ruthless, evil and cunning; and has mysterious powers unavailable to ordinary mortals. Plus, he’s a descendant of Genghis Khan (a standard genealogy used to explain the urge to conquer the world) and half-English. In times past, having a nonwhite villain as a halfbreed was another way to establish his bonafides (because he combines the sinister cunning of the “lower” race with the superior bloodline of the white man!) but since Stan Lee never did anything with the idea, I’m guessing he was just using it by rote.
As Iron Man’s archfoe, it’s inevitable he’d be used again and again as long as Shellhead’s around—but how do you make such a stereotype palatable?
•Deny the problem. John Byrne brushed it off by asserting to Mangel that “if he’s a stereotype, so is Tony Stark.” I’m not sure in what universe “white billionaire industrialist” is as much of a stereotype as “sinister Chinese warlord” but it ain’t this one. Plus, of course, there are hundreds of other white characters besides Tony Stark; at the time Byrne made this argument, semiregular Asian characters included fellow sinister Orientals Fu Manchu and Yellow Claw and martial artist Shang Chi. As I’ve noted before, that makes a difference.
•Try another stereotype. One story arc had the Mandarin turn to Eastern mysticism on the grounds that science is so … Western. Whereas Chinese people are all mystical and cosmic and wise and stuff like that.
•Break the mold. During their run on the title, David Michelinie and Bob Layton portrayed the Mandarin as a modern-day businessman, a high-tech industrialist very much like Tony Stark. I really like that idea (I admit I missed those issues so I can’t review the execution); fans didn’t, so it didn’t take.
•Give him some personality. The Iron Man cartoon of a year or so back presented a teenage Mandarin to correspond with the teenage Tony Stark. The Mandarin has replaced his uncle as leader of one of the Chinese triads (using holograms to conceal this fact) and sets out to find the “Makluan rings” (the adult Mandarin’s main weapons). This involves going to Tony’s school and befriending him—as he’s looking for the rings too—and even though he comes down on the bad guy side, being at least a little uncomfortable about betraying people he’d come to like.
It’s been a while since I looked at Iron Man so I can’t speak as to Mandy’s current handling. I have a strong suspicion they haven’t broken much fresh ground.


Filed under Comics, Reading

7 responses to “Last of the sinister Orientals?

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