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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, July 8, 2016

NEAR MYTHS: "THE ORIGIN OF THE MANDARIN" (TALES OF SUSPENSE #62. 1965)



In my previous essay I mentioned that of all the early Iron Man foes, only the Mandarin attained "epic status." This status was entirely built upon the type of racial-- not necessarily racist-- myth-motifs that editor/writer Stan Lee and artist Don Heck brought together for the character's early Silver Age appearances. None of the early Mandarin stories are mythcomics, as they tend to be structured as fast-paced thrill-rides, usually forcing the armored avenger to plumb the depths of his Oriental opponent's gadget-filled hideouts.

The principal myth-motif Lee borrowed stems from the late books in Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu series. When the series began in 1912, the author modeled his Asian villain on the upheavals of the Boxer Rebellion, and Fu's desire was to restore China to its former power, while implicitly keeping its culture and social stratifications unchanged. Over time, it became clear that Chinese Communism had destroyed "Old China" more thoroughly than any colonial invaders ever could have, and thus in the late Rohmer books, Fu Manchu was just as often in conflict with the Chinese Communists as with Nayland Smith.

This racial /political myth of a conflict between Old and New China appeared next in Atlas Comics' 4-issue YELLOW CLAW series. Neither Lee nor Heck was creatively involved with the unsuccessful series. However, since Lee did edit the title, it's probable that he remembered how the titular villain frequently embarrassed the Chinese Communists, showing New China to be thoroughly inferior to his scientific wizardry. The Mandarin's first appearance in TALES OF SUSPENSE #50 reflects the same pleasure at seeing modern Communists terrified by the spectre of aristocratic China.




The villain's first appearance doesn't have much else to offer, except that, as the above scene shows, Iron Man's initial encounter with the Mandarin comes about not because the masked menace has done anything, well, menacing, but because the U.S. government is nervous about what he MIGHT do. For superhero comics of the period, which usually asserted that only the bad guy struck first, this was a very atypical "pre-emptive strike."

The story from SUSPENSE #62 is actually the second of two parts, the first part ending when the Mandarin captures his armor-clad enemy, and the only part of the story that shows a strong mythic consciousness is the Mandarin's origin, which he narrates to his helpless foe.

I mentioned before that the Mandarin, like earlier models, incarnated "aristocratic China," and nowhere is that more apparent than in "Origin." The villain doesn't disclose his original given name, but claims that his father was descended from Genghis Khan. In addition, the Asian villain also states that his mother was "a high born Englishwoman." Both parents perish on the day of the Mandarin's birth, and he claims that the displeasure of the Chinese gods caused his father to perish beneath a fallen idol, while his mother then passed of a "broken heart." The infant is then raised by his sole living relative, his father's sister-- but she wants her brother's fortune for herself. She considers leaving the child in the care of poor parents, so that the aunt can have the inheritance and the future Mandarin will be raised "as a peasant." Yet, the moment she thinks of doing this, a chandelier almost hits her-- and so she decides to raise her nephew with an eye to making him hate all humankind, the way she does. Admittedly, Lee's script suggests a characterization of the Chinese people as overly superstitious-- and yet, the overall effect of the story is to agree; that the Mandarin has been marked as having a special destiny.

Most of the family fortune goes to schooling the young nobleman in "the sciences of the world, the arts of warfare, and the subtle crafts of villainy." But the proto-Mandarin and his aunt neglect to pay their taxes to the new regime, and so they're turned out into the street. The aunt immediately pops off, and the nobleman wanders from place to place, refusing to toil for his food like a low-born citizen. To his good fortune, before he can starve, he trespasses on the fearsome "Valley of the Spirits," showing a lordly, fearless attitude toward the spirits.

What he meets isn't precisely a spirit, though it does have the semblance of a dragon, long the symbol of Chinese imperial power.




He learns that the "dragon" is actually the remains of a dead alien, and he taps the long-dead creature's machines to master a level of super-science beyond the level of humankind. Thus he rises to his position as having sovereignty over his own little kingdom in China. The origin-story ends, and so does the overall story's claim to mythic status.




Neither Lee nor Heck ascribe any symbolic import to the villain's most recognizable feature: the ten rings from which he projects an array of super-forces. Additionally, the Mandarin's hands are not as "claw-like" as one sees in most "Yellow Peril" comics. In this essay I advanced a hypothesis as to why Asian claw-fingers became so prevalent in American imagery of these villains.

I think it worth pointing out that the widespread icon of the Asian with Clawlike Fingers may have come about as a Western response to the Chinese custom of incredibly long fingernails. For the Chinese long fingernails signified an aristocrat's freedom from the necessities of manual labor, but many Westerners, whether actively racist or not, plainly found the image off-putting and so evolved their own reading of this icon.

By the mid-60's, I believe editor Lee was trying where he could to eliminate imagery that seemed overtly racist. For instance, though one online reference claims that the Mandarin was drawn with "buck teeth," the Mandarin suffers from an overbite in only two panels of his first appearance, and never again. Yet the visual idea of the rings does call attention to the fingers-- even though they're neither claw-like nor long-nailed-- so that the rings' presence may owe something to an earlier and no longer acceptable image.



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