With twenty pages of story packaged in a manner to appeal to new readers, "Iron Man" #23.NOW by Kieron Gillen and Luke Ross kicks off the "Rings of the Mandarin" story in which Malekith makes a bold play for the rings of the Mandarin. Yes, Tony Stark and Malekith share staples in this issue, making it appear to be an ideal introduction to fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The premise is strong and the characters are recognizable, but Gillen ensures readers have all the background they need about Iron Man and Malekith. The writer steps out of the way and affords each character the opportunity to identify and describe himself through a series of caption boxes. At points, the writing feels a little heavy-handed and overly self-aware, but makes sense for a comic conceived to draw new readers. Beyond introductions, Gillen manages to fit quite a bit of story into this issue as the rings of the Mandarin continue to seek out new wielders. While the premise is not unlike that of the rings of fallen Green Lanterns seeking out replacements for their sectors, the results in "Iron Man" #23.NOW are far more brutal, especially when greed creeps in and Malekith, not satisified with simply being Mandarin Four, decides to seek out the other rings. Gillen also manages to jam in scenes with the Bride, Dark Angel, Arno Stark and Red Peril.
Throughout "Iron Man" #23.NOW, Luke Ross' artwork is solid and concise, but lacks the pizzazz "Iron Man" is known for. His characters lack a wide range of expression, with most faces falling between unimpressed and not amused. It's not that Ross' overall style is bad; rather, that the artwork -- through a combination of Ross' lines and Guru e-FX's garishly bold coloring -- lacks futuristic initiative fitting the titular character. In fact, the most striking visual of "Iron Man" #23.NOW is, unfortunately, the most out of place image in this issue. Goosed up by colors that enhance the projected holographic appearance and anchored by heads-up text display from letterer Joe Caramagna, the most impressive piece in this comic book is the panel showcasing the four rings already in Malekith's possession.
The rationale Tony Stark provides for not involving Thor doesn't hold water for me, making the predicament seem even more precarious with Iron Man meddling in what should be determined between the denizens of the other Nine Realms. Clearly, Gillen wants to give Iron Man a fair fight against the Mandarin ring-enhanced Malekith, but "Iron Man" #23.NOW seems to be going out of its way to deliver a story torn from the pages of 1989's "Acts of Vengeance." The two characters have a brief encounter in this issue, but there's a reason this installment is labeled "Part One."