By: Matt Fraction (writer), Carmine Di Giandomenico (art), Matt Wilson (colors) & Joe Caramanga (letters)

The Story: The life and times of the Mandarin, as seen by a film-maker working under considerable duress.

What’s Good: I don’t want to pile on Matt Fraction’s normal artists (on both Invincible Iron Man and Uncanny X-Men), but it is really nice to see him paired with an artist that isn’t distractingly bad.  Fraction is an enjoyable writer, but if he has a weakness it is that he does a little too much “talking heads” and it is hard to really pay attention to what he’s doing with the writing when the art is bad.  That is fixed here.  The art from Di Giandomenico is quite good and fits well with the story, allowing us to really appreciate the story that Fraction is telling.

As for the story, I quite liked that too.  By having a villain force a film-maker to create a story chronicling the life of the Mandarin, we get an origin story for a classic Iron Man villain without it reading like a Wikipedia entry.  Fraction and Di Giandomenico do a great job of showing what a deluded megalomaniac the Mandarin is by pairing the Mandarin’s narration of HIS image of his life (“My mother was of English nobility”) with panels showing the truth (his mother was a prostitute and he was born in a brothel).  As the issue unfolds, the Mandarin becomes more and more unglued and his obsession with Tony Stark combines with his loose grip on reality to make him a scary villain indeed.  I can’t wait to see more of this character in the on-going series.

This is also a comic where you are getting your money’s worth.  This comic was also made available on the same day via the Marvel iPhone/iPad app, but it is split into 3 volumes.  How can you split a comic book into three volumes, you ask?  Well…. this puppy is 68 pages long!! Wrap you mind around that.  I’ve bought trade paperbacks that weigh less. So…please don’t whine about the $4.99 price.

What’s Not So Good: For a comic called Invincible Iron Man Annual, there is shockingly little Iron Man (or Tony Stark).  We only see Iron Man in a few panels of the Mandarin’s flashback to Tony Stark’s escape from the cave (in a scene that harkens back to the first Iron Man movie) and later as an outrageous movie prop.  From a comics fan standpoint, I don’t mind that, but I do wonder why Marvel chose this issue to experiment with same day digital release.  We keep hearing that digital comics aren’t really targeted at us hardcore fans, but isn’t the casual fan going to feel tricked when there is no Iron Man in the Invincible Iron Man Annual?

Conclusion: A very solid grounding for one of Iron Man’s classic villains.  I doubt Marvel will need to do another “origin of the Mandarin” for a LONG time.  Bonus points that you can fend off muggers with this weighty tome!

Grade: B

– Dean Stell