Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Immortal Iron Fist, Vol. 2: The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven

Marvel Comics, 2008, 204 pages, paperback, $ 17.99

Writers: Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker
Artists: David Aja, Roy Allan Martinez, Scott Koblish, Kano, Javier Pulido, Tonci Zonjic, Clay Mann, Stefano Gaudiano, Jelena Kevic Djurdjevic, Howard Chaykin, Dan Brereton
Colorists: Matt Hollingsworth, June Chung, David Aja, Javier Rodríguez, Paul Mounts, Edgar Delgado, Jelena Kevic Djurdjevic 
Letterer: Artmonkeys Studios
Cover artist: Kaare Andrews

(The book reprints The Immortal Iron Fist #8-14 and The Immortal Iron Fist Annual #1, published by Marvel Comics in 2007 and 2008.)

Much of the reason why this book doesn’t work is summarized at the beginning of the fifth chapter: “I came here to fight in a kung-fu tournament,” Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, muses, “and instead I find myself in a revolution.” The line is so succinct an observation of what’s wrong with the story that it might as well be meta-commentary.

For one thing, there is little to no set-up for the “revolution” part that takes center stage in the penultimate chapter and serves as a vehicle for the big resolution. Up to that point, everything is about a big, cool kung-fu tournament between – take a deep breath – the Immortal Weapons of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven, of whom Iron Fist is one. And, then, all of a sudden, the story switches gears and asks the reader to be invested in a world whose social and political situation is hinted at here and there, but never really explored. We don’t get to see any of the people living in it, other than as nondescript extras in the background of the arena matches. It’s never clear why anyone living in the place would want a revolution, for that matter. We’re told that the fate of the Seven Cities it at stake, but the story never attempts to make us care, or to explain what’s so great about the Seven Cities.

As if all of this weren’t disjointed enough as it is, the book takes a detour after the second chapter, for no other reason than because the pages of an Annual had to be filled that month. It’s mostly concerned with the past of Orson Randall, Danny’s immediate predecessor as the Iron Fist, who played a major role in the first volume. As such, it’s inoffensive enough; its connection to what’s going on in the rest of this book is flimsy at best, however.

What ultimately kills any suspense, though, is the fact that none of the characters amount to more than ink on a page. The contestants in the tournament are a bunch of largely indistinguishable, emotionally aloof delivery mechanisms for taunts and one-liners. The present leader of the city of K’un-Lun is evidently meant to be a despot, but unfortunately, he never gets to be overly despotic. In fact, he never gets be much of anything at all. He wears a mask, stands around and. Talks. Like. This. A. Lot. Beyond seeming a bit prickly, though, he remains a blank. His opponent, who’s disguised as a servant girl for most of the story, has a little more screen time, but not enough to be a real character. It makes no difference that she doesn’t have a name; I’m sure I couldn’t remember it anyway, even if she did. There are Lei-Kung, Iron Fist’s old mentor, and Xao, the big villain in the story, but neither of them gets room to breathe, and they remain one-note stereotypes throughout. What do any of these characters want, and why do they want it? Being told by the script is not a substitute for character development.

The story is populated by martial-arts types who first beat each other up because they happen to be in a kung-fu tournament, and then proceed to aligning each other on two sides because the plot requires them to fight out a “revolution.” And the protagonist is no exception to that, unfortunately. There’s no real sense of what anything in the story means to Iron Fist. He does this and that, goes here and there, as the plot requires it. But we never learn what he wants or what his motivation is. There’s a flicker of resonance when Danny exchanges a few lines with his girlfriend – one page out of over two hundred, which never pays off or goes anywhere.

The story’s disjointed quality is also reflected by the artwork. Individually, the artists can mostly keep up with the level of quality established in the first book, but obviously, there are a lot more of them this time around, and the division of labor doesn’t work quite as well here. David Aja’s art is exceptional when he actually draws the story, but his level of involvement seems to be decreasing with every chapter, and by the big finale he’s left the series entirely. Unlike in the first volume, where different styles were used to differentiate between present-day scenes and flashback episodes, in this book they are all over the place. In the first few chapters, there’s an attempt to continue the practice, but two thirds into the story, the various styles seem entirely random.

Still, there are some things the creators do well here. Thematically, everything seems to be about families and generational conflict; even though the story isn’t quite at the point where it says something particularly insightful about those things, at least it demonstrates a degree of focus by continuously hitting that point. And Danny’s foil Davos gets a complete arc, for all that’s worth – again, there is no moment that allows you to get into the character and what makes him tick, but at least he comes full circle, which is more than can be said for anybody else in the book.

The story’s bold narrative style and literal kick-ass attitude get the pop martial-arts spirit across, and the artwork is mostly very good and never less than serviceable. It’s the sort of book I want to like, because it’s unique and very energetic in its approach to the material. But when you get down to it, a lot of what’s going on here seems arbitrary rather than deliberate, and there is no substance to connect all the kung-fu moves, cool moments and artistic styles and turn them into something more than the sum of their parts. The ingredients all seem to be there, and you can see ways in which they could come together, in theory; but in practice, they never quite do. The whole thing still seems several steps removed from a proper story with proper characters.

Grade: C-

1 comment:

Sandy said...

I agree. I really, really wanted to like this book. But I think the writers made a big mistake by setting the reader up for a great kung fu tournament -- we even see the proposed order of the battles, and learn about the rules of what happens after the winner of the individual battles is declared -- but then they quickly go completely off the rails into the revolution plot (which, as you say, is very poorly developed). I didn't care about the revolution, I wanted to see some kung fu tournament kick-ass, and to see how the characters develop through those battles and use strategy and all that. I can see a glimmer of a great idea in there, but it just didn't work out.