reading superheroes

Like unto a thing of iron

There’s a lot of buzz around right now about Hawkeye, the new Marvel series about the ordinary-guy member of the Avengers. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m very interested in what I hear and I’m certain to buy it when it’s out in trade paperback form.

One reason I’m so certain about that is that I’ve read the previous series from the team of Matt Fraction (artist) and David Aja (artist) – 2007’s The Immortal Iron Fist, which remains one of my favourite superhero works of the last ten years. It’s a book for anyone who loves pulp adventure, martial arts and superheroics, and if you haven’t read it by now then I’m going to tell you exactly why you should.

Iron Fist is a Marvel superhero created in the 1970s, a time when Marvel were taking more risks with their characters and trying to tie burgeoning genres like science fiction, blacksploitation and martial arts into their superhero titles. Enter Danny Rand, the Iron Fist (named after a technique in a kung-fu movie Roy Thomas watched) – a young American trained in martial arts in the mystical city of K’un-L’un. Becoming the city’s champion after defeating a dragon (and gaining the power of its chi), Rand comes to New York to confront his father’s killer; eventually he inherits his father’s fortune and becomes a billionaire superhero for hire. Or, more accurately, a B-list character that wandered in and out of back-up features and supporting appearances, along with partner and friend Luke Cage/Power Man, for the next 30 years.

But then Brian Michael Bendis became Marvel’s head writing honcho, and he propelled Luke Cage into a major role with the Avengers. And with like in the limelight, the chance to reinvigorate Iron Fist opened up for a new creative team – Fraction, Aja and co-writer Ed Brubaker.

When approaching an established character, a new team has three main duties – keep what works, throw out what doesn’t, bring in something new. And Immortal Iron Fist does all three. Danny Rand feels penned in by his duties running Rand Industries, preferring to play superhero with his buddy Luke, until someone new smashes into his life – grizzled, pistol-packing pulp adventurer Orson Randall, the Iron Fist of the 1920s! Thrown into action against Hydra, Danny learns that he’s only the most recent champion of K’un-L’un, heir to a legacy of heroes from every era (and pulp adventure genre) – and that he must now fight in a cross-dimensional tournament against other martial arts warriors, the other Immortal Weapons of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven.

In order to save K’un-L’un – and himself – Danny has to learn entirely new ways to use his chi powers, discover more of the legacy of the Iron Fist, uncover the secret intrigues of the Capital Cities, and beat the crap out of a whole lot of Hydra badguys in an epic storyline that lasts for more than a year of issues. 

One reason why the series is so cool is that Brubaker and Fraction said ‘well, this character comes from a different genre, so let’s explore that genre – and what the hell, a bunch of other genres as well, just because it would rock.’ So Immortal Iron Fist largely eschews superhero fights and gets back into crazy kung-fu action against dozens of mooks and evil martial artists. Then the storyline brings in 1920s two-gun pulp heroes, then steam-powered Victorian superscience, high wuxia fantasy, war action, horror, more, more, more! Pretty much every old-school pulp genre gets a look in at some point, with I guess the exception of Buck Rogers-style sci-fi; hell, one issue has Frankenstein and gun-toting Western saloon gals. It’s a kitchen-sink act that could collapse at any point if not supported by a solid foundation of character, a playfully-intelligent energy and the constant genre strand of balls-out kung-fu fantasy.

Danny Rand emerges as an engaging and likeable character, someone called to do the right thing but who still has fun doing it, trying to find a balance between the traditions of K’un-L’un and his streak of American independence – an everyman who just happens to be a kung-fu billionaire with a blacksploitation cyborg girlfriend. Brubaker and Fraction do virtuoso work here, keeping the energy and tension high, exploring their expanded world with light exposition and knowing when to pull back and let the art do the work.

So let’s talk about the art. David Aja leaves after 9 issues, but creates a style and tone that shapes the artists that follow. Aja’s work is gritty without being grungy, with realistic body shapes and movements captured by a soft pencil line and hard black shadows. It’s a complete break from the more open, over-the-top depictions of Iron Fist in the 1990s, and reminiscent of artists like Dave Mazzucchelli or Michael Lark. His breakthrough technique is to zoom in on elements of the action with pop-out panels and circles, showcasing a specific kick, flip or facial expression, like photographs that capture instants and are then scattered across a table.

After he leaves the series a variety of artists carry the torch, most notably Travel Foreman, whose scratchy, distorted pencils bring a touch of grotesquerie and continue to separate the series from traditional superheroics. Other artists are more traditionally four-colour, which isn’t bad but does dilute the visual identity. On the other hand, there are also guest pencils from legends like Russ Heath and Dan Brereton, which are not exactly bad things, and Aja does come back a few times to contribute here and there.

(But we do lose those striking covers with their wonderful use of whitespace. That’s a shame.)

Brubaker and Fraction leave after 16 issues, which take up the first three trade paperbacks. Their successor is crime writer Duane Swierczynski, backed up by Foreman and a number of other artists. His run over the next year isn’t as distinctive or energetic as what came before but is still worth reading. It largely leaves behind the pulp genre play to focus on martial arts fantasy, as Danny battles a creature that preys upon Iron Fists and descends with the rest of the Immortal Weapons into the terrible Eighth City to fight demons and monsters.

Still, the series ended due to low sales, as do most Marvel comics that aren’t about Avengers or X-Men; there was one last mini-series about the various Immortal Weapons, which was fun but nothing spectacular, and it left Iron Fist and his supporting cast with a slightly bigger presence in the Marvel Universe. Which is a bonus.

Five years after Immortal Iron Fist, Fraction has risen as one of Marvel’s big-name writers, with a reputation for unconventional story ideas and a willingness to look outside superheroes for tone and voice. The seeds of that are here, in the adventures of Danny Rand, Orson Randall and all the other Iron Fists past and future – adventures that brim with ideas, with energy and with a joyous love of the pulp genres.

It’s a really, really fun comic. You should buy the trades (or the omnibus collections) and read the fuck out of them.

2 replies on “Like unto a thing of iron”

Internet just ate an earlier attempt to comment on this, so I’ll give a precis for a much longer rambling;

What I really enjoy about Brubaker & Fraction’s run is the sense of legacy. Danny Rand could be near-indistinguishable from other rich white superpowered dudes (Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, etc.), even if most of them wouldn’t wear bright yellow masks and ballet slippers. What lifts the story here is the exploration of the history of the Iron Fist, and how Orson and Danny take such different paths to embracing and rejecting their personal legacy, and that of the K’un-L’un.

Plus, y’know, Fat Cobra. That guy rocks.

That’s a really interesting point – and a noteworthy point of difference, since legacy isn’t a theme that comes up as often or strongly in Marvel titles as it does over at DC.

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