Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Immortal Iron Fist, Vol. 1: The Last Iron Fist Story

Marvel Comics, 2007, 146 pages, paperback, $ 14.99

Writers: Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction
Artists: David Aja, Travel Foreman, Derek Fridolfs, Russ Heath, John Severin, Sal Buscema, Tom Palmer 
Colorists: Matt Hollingsworth, Dean White, Laura Martin 
Letterer: Dave Lanphear

(The book reprints The Immortal Iron Fist #1-6 and material from Civil War: Choosing Sides #1, published by Marvel Comics in 2006 and 2007.)

It’s not hard to see why The Immortal Iron Fist quickly gained cult status when it debuted two years ago. A revamp of Marvel’s 1970s kung-fu superhero by two critically acclaimed writers and an illustrious group of artists including promising newcomers as well as reputable old hands, the comic was on track to become one of those low-selling but critically acclaimed niche books right from the start, barring some unforeseen catastrophe.

And a catastrophe this certainly isn’t. Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction—no strangers to imbuing their work with elements from all corners of popular culture—eagerly embrace the trappings borrowed from 1970s martial-arts films, add some more of their own and crank the whole thing up. “My name is Daniel Rand,” the Iron Fist soliloquizes, “and my arsenal of kung fu is rich and deep.” He goes on to kick and punch his way through an army of uniformed goons in a vast, long abandoned Manhattan subway station.

As in every good kung-fu action piece, we also learn what, precisely, is in that arsenal. The “strike of the silkworm’s tooth,” the “tiger scratch (2nd stance)” and the “drunken wasp sting” are just three of many poetically charged moves to break goggles and jaws, send teeth flying across the room and thunder-kick opponents through the windows of an old train that’s conveniently parked close by. The environment created by the story and its locations is fully geared towards delivering those things, and the book is very good at doing that.

The creators have also added another component, one that wasn’t there before: Their Daniel Rand, contrary to earlier versions, is just the latest in a long dynasty of Iron Fists—“sixty-six men and women” in all, we are told. It’s another well-hung trope to add to a concept that’s fairly busy with them to begin with: Iron Fist isn’t just a well-to-do businessman who lost his parents under tragic circumstances and was taken in by the inhabitants of a mystical city in the Himalayas before beginning to moonlight as a masked vigilante anymore – now he’s also part of a long lineage of masked vigilantes, to boot.

That said, to the writers’ credit, the concept actually works reasonably well for Iron Fist. The book could have done without the scenes devoted to the 13th, 16th and 19th century Iron Fists, which don’t really add anything other than some cool images, but the introduction of Orson Randall certainly pays off. Daniel Rand’s immediate predecessor, Randall fought on the side of the allies in World War I, went missing in 1933 and now pops up in Daniel’s life with secret knowledge, a mission and hordes of shady villains in pursuit.

Randall, in contrast to Daniel, doesn’t just borrow a lot of pulp tropes; he is the archetypal pulp hero. He hails from a much grittier age, as a number of flashbacks demonstrate: One episode, set in 1916, has him jumping and running through a labyrinth of corpses in the trenches of the Western front; another, dated ten years later, shows him beating up a journalist while he’s doped up on opium in a French whorehouse; and in a third one, finally, he’s playing drinking games in a remote Nepalese gin-mill. Randall’s attire is functional rather than flashy, and he relies on automatic firearms as much as on his hand-to-hand combat skills.

Randall’s presence pretty much carries the book—which it has to, unfortunately, because its supposed protagonist remains a blank throughout. Who is Daniel Rand? Well, he’s the head of billion-dollar corporation he seems utterly clueless about; and yet, his ignorance and detachment when it comes to business matters evidently don’t stop him from arbitrarily dismissing major deals on a whim. He’s sometimes portrayed as an accomplished and disciplined martial-arts practitioner, sometimes as an immature slacker who doesn’t really know himself, much less his pedigree or the world around him.

That’s not to say that he couldn’t be all those things, mind you, but the story never makes any attempt to reconcile them or shape them into something tangible. Rand’s interaction with Jeryn Hogarth, who runs his company for him, and with his former partner Luke Cage, as well as the question what exactly his relationship to Misty Knight is, at least suggest some potential inroads towards a better definition, but none of them are explored.

The book’s big find is, of course, Spaniard David Aja, its principle illustrator. A comic that lives from rainy-night mass brawls on the rooftops of Manhattan, in office buildings and in a vast Victorian-styled subway station very much depends on an artist who can deliver on the martial-arts moves as well as on the lush backgrounds and the appropriate mood. Mr. Aja is more than up to the task. I’m not a big expert on kung-fu moves, as you are no doubt disappointed to learn, but they do look kinetic, fluid and credible here, and they are staged against backgrounds and from perspectives that are frequently breathtaking. The same can be said for Mr. Aja’s admirable grasp on body language and facial expressions; its tremendously fun and exciting to look at the stories told by his images alone, even in conversation scenes.

Still, The Immortal Iron Fist doesn’t quite live up to its laurels, as a package. It’s a hyperkinetic martial-arts superhero extravaganza with crisp dialogue and fantastic artwork, and it certainly deserves credit for aspiring—and largely succeeding—to stand out from the pack in a number of ways. But ultimately, it lacks substance. The supposed protagonist is all over the place as a character, and I don’t really care about anything he does or experiences. This lack of a strong leading man is somewhat compensated for by the introduction of Orson Randall, but it still remains glaring. The comic’s arsenal of kung-fu may be rich and deep indeed; its ch’i, however, is weak.

Grade: B-

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