If there were a singular character that sums up the bleak, muddy years of the mid-’90s, that character may be Century.
Created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning 20 years before they redefined Guardians of the Galaxy, Century was introduced in Force Works #1, and is the obvious product of a major publisher trying to come to terms with their industry being redirected by a bunch of youngsters over at Image — he’s got inexplicable chains and skulls worked into his costume design. He’s got pointless eye tattoos. He’s got what I can only assume is wispy, greasy flowing long hair. You might even be amazed to find out that he has a ‘mysterious past’, by which I mean ‘no one bothered to invest time into said past.’ He is everything that Marvel Comics believed an early Image character to be.
Though Abnett and Lanning were only 30-ish at the time, Century is the comic book equivalent to your parents trying to figure out how to use the phrase “on fleek”.
In In the Hands of Evil, Iron Man’s newest Epic Collection, we’re subjected not just to Century but a prime example of the middling, misguided ‘we can be hip too, right?’ culture that was running rampant in Big Two superhero books in 1994 and 1995. Everywhere are inflated masculinity and muscles, strained crossovers, two-dimensional characters. Nary a scowl or grimace has gone unillustrated. Personal stakes have all but been removed from characters lives, as has agency.
Only a year away from declaring bankruptcy, Marvel Comics needed help, and this Epic Collection offers an illustration of why — the final 50 or so pages of the volume are a “collector’s preview” that lays out a lot of hyperbolic information about the lofty (and failed) plans to breathe financial life into the Iron Man line of books, including information about the line of action figures from Toy Biz (for which Century seems to have been expressly created). Toy Biz was but one of the financial ties Marvel had made in the preceding yes that led them down their profit-hemorrhaging path. Century, plastic or otherwise, wasn’t going to fix those problems.
The fact that material from four different titles (Iron Man, War Machine, Force Works, and Marvel Comics Presents) is required for this book to be understood is yet another illustration of the faulty workings of the company at the time. After the success in the late ’80s and early ’90s of title-spanning crossovers over in the X-Books (X-Tinction Agenda, X-Cutioner’s Song, Fatal Attractions), it seemed that the only way to increase sales — particularly for books like Marvel Comics Presents, which was distinctly dropping in quality with every issue — was to latch books to one another in an effort to increase buoyancy.
Hands of the Mandarin, ostensibly a six-part crossover in the three major books, is one of the least interesting crossovers I’ve ever encountered. The story could have been told in the pages of any one of the titles alone, given that the active players are all teammates or spinoff characters from Iron Man who might, at any point, play the same sort of supporting role they find themselves playing here.
More damningly, it feels as if very little happens over the course of the six issues: Mandarin hatches a big plan to take over the world and reduce it to the technology-free world of the past. It then takes six issues for Iron Man, War Machine, Scarlet Witch, Spider-Woman, U.S.Agent, and our boy Century to make any progress in doing a single thing about this.
This barely gets us through half of the volume. What follows isn’t nearly as trying as the crossover, but it still lacks both conviction and sense. Even as Arad made moves to make Iron Man action figure-worthy by insisting on fancy armor clip-ons, reappearances of chromed, toy-ready armored villains, and the insinuation of other supporting cast members, writer Len Kaminski seems dead-set on railing against a child-friendly book. Stories are dedicated to serious adult concerns, such as Tony Stark’s alcoholism, the looming mortality that plagues even Captain America, and the tragic reality of Alzheimer’s, none of which really calls out to the youthful imagination.
In the Hands of Evil is a book better used as illumination of the company’s bleakest years than it is as an entertaining read. It’s for the completist historians among us only. And, of course, for big fans of Century.
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