Magic and tech collide in ‘Iron Man’ arc ‘Rings of the Mandarin

(CBR) In the current “Iron Man” series, writer Kieron Gillen has already taken the globally famous Marvel Comics hero on an extensive tour of duty in outer space, leading to the major revelation that Tony Stark was in fact adopted, and Howard and Maria’s biological son is Arno Stark — a newly revealed character with the same name as alternate future superhero Iron Man 2020.

Tony’s once again out of his comfort zone in the upcoming Luke Ross-illustrated “Rings of the Mandarin” arc, starting with March’s “Iron Man” #23.NOW — part of Marvel’s ongoing “All-New Marvel NOW!” campaign, and one of a select group of print issues that will include a digital collection of the start of its respective volume. This time, Stark’s in the high fantasy realm of Malekith the Accursed, the ruler of the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim recently seen on screen in “Thor: The Dark World” played by Christopher Eccleston, and in comics in “Thor: God of Thunder.” It’s territory that former “Journey Into Mystery” writer Gillen is intimately familiar with; Tony Stark, considerably less so.

While Iron Man nemesis the Mandarin is currently dead as a result of the end of Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s “Invincible Iron Man” run, his powerful rings remain — and one has made its way to Malekith. CBR News talked with Gillen in detail about “Rings of the Mandarin,” how it connects to the events of the series so far, and the story’s Marvel UK tie-in. (Gillen wrote January 2014’s “Revolutionary War: Dark Angel” one-shot, part of the upcoming Marvel event seeing several British creators take on multiple Marvel UK characters.)

CBR News: Kieron, before we get to the “Rings of the Mandarin” arc, I’m curious as to how your life has been in the past six weeks or so since the big Tony Stark revelations in “Iron Man” #17. Are you mostly pleased with how readers have reacted to developments? Have you gotten roughly the amount of “how could you do this, you’ve ruined everything!” that you expected?

Kieron Gillen: I’ve been pleased, actually. There were lots of people impressed with the actual sleight of hand of the story itself, and how its reversals played out, and a realization that this is the sort of change that only adds story possibilities to the character. That was important for me.

Clearly there’s some “you’ve ruined it,” but you get some “you’ve ruined it” from changing how a character changes the way they comb their hair. It’s probably been about the amount I’ve expected — including that the people who are most angry haven’t actually read the book, and aren’t even comic readers generally. The only ugly aspect was being exposed to some people’s interesting bigotry about adopted people. That made me gladder we did it, even. Certainly the feedback from people who were adopted has been universally positive, though I’m probably tempting fate by saying that.

A big part of the “Rings of the Mandarin” hook is that it heavily involves dark elf Malekith. What motivated you to use this character? I’m guessing his higher visibility as a result of “Thor: The Dark World” certainly doesn’t hurt, though surely there was more to it than that.

It certainly doesn’t hurt. “Iron Man versus the villain of this year’s Thor movie” is an easily understandable story idea for people who aren’t reading the book. I’m also a big fan of seeing a hero confront someone who isn’t normally thought of being in their wheelhouse. It’s really me returning towards some of the themes of earlier in the run, specifically the Bride in issue #4. That being Tony’s scientific worldview rubbing up against the supernatural, and exploring that.

In a real basic way, there’s a certain poetry to it as well. Elves famously hate Iron, after all.

Malekith is currently seen in the pages of “Thor: God of Thunder” — does your story here pick up at all from what Jason Aaron and Ron Garney have been doing?

Yes, I pick up Malekith from where Jason and Ron leave him. When I first had the idea of doing a Malekith-centric story, I heard about Jason’s plans. Checking the calendar, I saw where “Thor” finished was basically where my story would be starting. That sort of coincidence makes me smile.

What can you say about Malekith’s specific motivations in this story? Sure, what bad guy wouldn’t want the Mandarin’s rings, but how personal is the stake in this for him? And for as much as you’d like to reveal right now (which may not be at all), how do you see this story as connecting to the larger themes you’ve been exploring throughout your “Iron Man” run

What’s the connection with Stark? It’s tricky to talk about without knowing everything else that’s revealed in “Iron Metropolitan.” I’ve introduced the idea that the Mandarin’s rings appear to be sentient, and are seeking a new owner with some grudge against Stark. Malekith is one of the people who gets a ring.

There’s a little more there, of course, but on some level the someone idiosyncratic, magical-thinking nature of the Elves does feed into it. What manner of elf wouldn’t hate a man of Iron, after all? All elves hate Iron. I’m really pushing the unusual, alien psychology of Malekith. The Elves simply aren’t like us. Tony’s been into space in my run, and I think my elves are at least as alien than anything he met up there.

As I mentioned earlier, this does play with certain themes already working in my run — the boundaries of knowledge, rationality versus belief, science and magic. However, it also feeds in neatly with the other big emotional part of my Iron Man story. Elves are famous for many things, but the stealing of human children is certainly among them.

Obviously, you’re familiar with the high fantasy world of a character like Malekith, but Tony Stark may not be quite as much. What do you like about the contrast between Iron Man and a villain like Malekith?

I think your question understands a lot of what makes the story fun. This sort of thing drives Tony mad. In this case, he gets in a specialist. He could go to Doctor Strange, but Strange doesn’t think like Tony. We get an occultist-hacker character to act as his IT-support in this new world, which is lots of fun. Trying to do an Iron Man spin on magic is a bit part of the appeal for me here.

On that note, Dark Angel from Marvel UK is also featured in “Rings of the Mandarin” — what can you share about how she fits in to this story, and her dynamic with Tony?

Well, not wanting to spoil “Revolutionary War” too much, but suffice to say things are tricky for her in there. She comes out in a very different form than she came in. Basically think of her as a scientist who approaches the mystical with a hacker’s mentality. This isn’t Tony’s strong point.

Luke Ross, recently seen on “Secret Avengers,” is on art for this arc. In what way do you see him as a strong match for what you’ve got planned?

I’ve always loved Luke. He’s great at grounding figures in the real world, and giving them a twist of the uncanny. The dual nature of the story, with our realistic Earth and distant, strange Svartalfheim is key. That I’m playing Tony’s trip to the elf realm like a black-ops mission is another strength. It’s not as if Luke’s not well versed in that mood after “Secret Avengers.”

Also worth mentioning are the covers by Mike Del Mundo, who’s one of my favorite cover artists working today. For my money, his work on “X-Men Legacy” has been the strongest string of comic covers this year, across the whole anglophone medium. Just wildly imaginative, and sets up the mood for what we’re doing.

You wrapped a rather long arc with “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark,” and the current storyline “Iron Metropolitan” is already hinting towards “Rings of the Mandarin,” which starts in March. While you recently announced the impending conclusion of your time on “Young Avengers,” are you thinking long term at this point for “Iron Man”?

I’d say “define long term.” I have stories and plans, and the 2014 is densely populated in my head. As you say, the story of my first year on “Iron Man” was pretty much “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark.” The Mandarins are very much the second year’s central threat. The place where the year leaves Tony is a similar peak to the end of “Secret Origin” too, which sets us up for what’s after that.

“Rings of the Mandarin” by Kieron Gillen and Luke Ross begins in March’s “Iron Man” #23.NOW