“The awful thing about life is this,” as Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game put it: “everyone has their reasons.” That’s the premise behind two excellent superhero comics published this week, neither of which actually have any superheroes in them. Action Comics #890, Paul Cornell and Pete Woods’ first issue of their run, and Matt Fraction and Carmine Di Giandomenico’s Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 respectively star Lex Luthor and the Mandarin; they’re both about (beringed) villains who want most of all to be understood as heroes, trying to rewrite the narratives of how they’re understood.
In the case of Fraction’s story, that’s literal. The plot involves the Mandarin kidnapping a famous film director and forcing him to make a hagiographical bio-pic about his life and times. The director, naturally, discovers that nearly everything the Mandarin insists on including is a lie to cover up a horrible or embarrassing reality–which also patches up the character’s messy past continuity. Fraction’s Mandarin is unequivocally a monster, a Stalinesque maniac, a craven bastard whose delusions of grandeur have no basis in reality, and who is only obeyed because he can kill everyone in the room with a thought. He has no particular ideology other than his own greatness, and he sees rewriting history as his prerogative and everyone else’s duty.
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You can read the Iron Man Annual as a commentary on making art for a patron who insists on controlling the work at every step: “being told how to play in the sandbox,” as Fraction recently put it. (There’s a pointed scene where the Mandarin is viewing daily rushes of the film, and making impossibly vague demands, on pain of death: “There should be more people. It should feel bigger. The whole sequence should be more elegant.” Anyone who’s ever done creative work for a frustrating client knows how that one goes.) But it’s also a story about how power shapes stories about itself, and suppresses or absorbs counter-narratives. Fraction’s entire Iron Man run so far has been dealing with political and economic power, and self-made men (and their families) trying to win power by being more ingenious than each other. In the Mandarin, he’s got a character who gained his power by brute force, and in fact uses brute force rather than ingenuity to expand his zone of dominance. (This might, in fact, be a story about how the Mandarin fails at using ideology as a tool.) It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out in the ongoing series.
If the favorite book of Fraction’s Mandarin has to be The Art of War, the favorite book of Cornell’s Luthor is definitely The Fountainhead. This isn’t a villain spotlight, like the Iron Man Annual: Lex Luthor is the protagonist of Cornell and Woods’ Action Comics, at least in the sense that he’d probably approve of the way he’s presented in it. (Making him the star of the book, for that matter, is a clever way of dealing with the rumored mandate that Superman continue to stay out of Action during the “Grounded” storyline in Superman.) They basically take the same tack as Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s fine 2005 miniseries Lex Luthor: Man of Steel: that Luthor is in fact a great mind, of sorts, that he legitimately believes that he is a great champion of humanity, and that the idea of “humanity” is explicitly and genuinely his ideology. Luthor is all for people on the whole–he just thinks he’s the best one.
Everything he does is something he understands to be for the greater good, but his monstrous ego and total absence of compassion constantly make him confuse public-minded virtue with his own glory. This week’s Action has a terrific scene of Lex’s fantasy tableau: triumphant, the superheroes humbled before him, Superman in chains admitting that he was wrong. As Blackest Night spelled out and this issue elaborates on, what Luthor really wants is to be Superman. That miniseries set up Luthor as an Orange Lantern–a sort of avatar of avarice–which provides an in-story excuse for this particular egomaniac to grapple with his desires. The comedic hook of Cornell’s story is that not only is Luthor a little embarrassed by them, but he barely understands how deep they go in him.
Fraction’s Mandarin, on the other hand, feels no such compunctions: as far as he’s concerned, his whim is universal law. That distinction sets up the best jokes in both comics, which concern both villains’ attitudes toward dissent. The Mandarin demands perpetual compliance, even when he’s directly contradicting incontrovertible facts. Lex strongly prefers toadies, but finds it useful to have somebody around him to offer an alternate perspective, as long as he’s still totally in control: “that will be especially useful when I’m becoming a god in space,” he notes. He’d like to rule the world, of course, but he’d prefer it to be the world’s idea.
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