Wednesday, December 3, 2014

I’ve Got the Runs: The Immortal Iron Fist by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and David Aja, et al, issues 1-16

Over the past decade, Marvel’s done some of its best work with non-marquee characters, guys like Hawkeye, Daredevil, She-Hulk and the new Ms. Marvel. One could argue that trend started with the Immortal Iron Fist, which paired Captain America writer Ed Brubaker with a pre-#Hawkguy Matt Fraction and David Aja to expand the world(s) of Danny Rand, bagging two Eisner awards (best new series, best writer for Brubaker) along the way. The story they tell operates on a grand scale, spanning history and dimensions, but still feels self-contained, as it avoids the rest of the Marvel Universe at large. Which would make it the perfect story to crib from when it comes time to do that promised Netflix series.

Iron Fist – a rich, white guy who knows kung-fu – is very much a product of the period in which he was created. Roy Thomas and Gil Kane introduced the character in Marvel Premiere #15 in 1974, back when Marvel experimented with a slew of ’sploitation heroes, from the black street-fightin’ man (Luke Cage) to the violent antihero (the Punisher) to the Bruce Lee rip-off (Shang-Chi) to the zombie Six Million Dollar Man (Deathlok).

There’s more than a bit of Bruce Wayne in Iron Fist’s origin, too. His parents die in front of him, he trains with a secret society of martial artists and he returns to his hometown after years away to take over the family business while busting heads in secret. But instead of training an endless string of boys wonder, he aligns himself with friends and partners Cage, part-time lover Misty Knight and Colleen Wing (who once dated Cyclops for some reason). I’m a sucker for a strong superhero friendship, and Rand and Cage’s is as strong as any you’ll read in comics.

The series starts following the events of Civil War and a Brubaker-penned Daredevil arc in which Rand posed as the blind, red-clad superhero while Matt Murdock was in prison. Rand and Cage were among the anti-registration heroes, but the book largely avoids common post-CW tactics as a guest appearance by the Mighty Avengers or a lecture by Iron Man. There is a mildly touched-on subplot about the fact that Knight and Wing are working for the pro-registration side under the Heroes for Hire name, but it doesn’t get a lot of ink.

 Brubaker and Fraction go a long way to expanding the Iron Fist mythos. Just like Asgard is one of the Nine Realms, the mystical city of K’un-Lun is revealed to be one of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven, each of which has their own Immortal Weapon, or Iron Fist equivalent. And every 88 years, the cities align and their chosen warriors fight for bragging rights and access to Earth. The other Immortal Weapons are Fat Cobra, a sumo wrestler; Dog Brother No. 1, who employs wolves; the Bride of Nine Spiders, easily the creepiest one; the Prince of Orphans, who can turn into a green mist; Davos the Steel Serpent/Phoenix, a classic Fist villain who is the son of Rand’s trainer, Lei Kung the Thunderer; and Tiger’s Beautiful Daughter, who uses fan blades to cut off Davos’ hand in battle only to watch it grow back and be defeated. P.S. If anyone wanted to make a Street Fighter or Tekken-style arcade fighter based on the Immortal Weapons, I would totally buy it.

The book also details the history of the Iron Fist name, placing those who have defeated Shou Lao the Undying from the time of Genghis Khan to the Old West to World War I. These other Fists teach us new moves such as self-healing, channeling one’s chi through bullets or arrows, or just flat-out ripping off Obi-Wan’s Jedi mind trick.

Most importantly, we meet Rand’s opium-addled predecessor, Orson Randall, who is still living after more than a century and shares with Rand the Book of the Iron Fist, which reveals fun facts, such as that every other Iron Fist besides Randall died at the age of 33 … and guess who’s got a birthday coming up!

 Randall wore the green-and-yellow during the dawn of the 20th century and World War I, leading to stories that mix Victorian and noir sensibilities. Orson’s father, Phineas Randall, who dabbled in “hypothetical science” and dressed like a steampunk Snidely Whiplash, crashed his airship in K’un-Lun and demanded the city’s doctors aid his pregnant wife. Orson is raised in K’un-Lun – like Danny – trains under Lei Kung to become the Iron Fist – like Danny – returns to Earth to play hero using his family’s fortune – like Danny – and does his fighting alongside a pack of friends and fellow travelers – like Danny. And just as Randall is mysteriously still alive in the present, he appears to have also extended the lives of his friends and puts them all up in the same nursing home, where they live like the grandparents from Willa Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Orson’s story is told in nonlinear flashbacks, a little bit at a time each issue. We get glimpses of his birth, his training in K’un-L’un, his travels on Earth, his struggles with addiction and his father-figure relationship with Wendell Rand, Danny’s father, whose own ultimately failed quest to become the Iron Fist is also told in flashback.

The series drips with “sins of the father”-Type stuff, between Wendell and Danny Rand, Orson and Wendell, Phineas Randall and Orson, Lei Kung and Davos, and Orson and the daughter he sired in K’un-L’un. Over the course of Team Bru-Frac’s run, Danny faces enemies from within and without K’un-Lun, some of whom become allies, such as the Immortal Weapons, others of whom are Hydra and are fun to punch. Among the run’s big bads is a Chinese businessman named Xao who wishes to steal Rand tech to create a maglev train built only to ram explosives into the heart of K’un-Lun. To that end, Xao joins forces with Davos, employs Hydra and kidnaps the mother of Jeryn Hogarth, Rand’s chief financial officer.

 The art of The Immortal Iron Fist is very much Aja’s audition for Hawkeye. Aja excels at drawing superheroes who look less like ’roided-out beasts and more like really athletic regular folk, and if nothing else Rand and Barton are both blond, white guys. But while Hawkeye is an exercise in minimalism, purple color schemes and hip layouts, Fist let Aja do fun things like draw scads of Hydra agents and unique martial arts characters – bigger threats than Hawkeye’s “Tracksuit Draculas,” certainly. Meanwhile, artist Travel Foreman illustrated many of the scenes involving previous Iron Fists, drawing ancient Mongol hordes and Hong Kong pirates with distorted faces and bad teeth.

Sadly, the team didn’t stick around for the entire series. Brubaker left after issue 14, followed by Fraction and Aja after issue 16. Duane Swierczynski (Cable) penned the rest of the series through issue 27, with Foreman sticking around on art. The Immortal Weapons got their own miniseries after The Immortal Iron Fist ended, written by Swierczynski and Jason Aaron (Wolverine & the X-Men, Amazing X-Men) and drawn by Foreman.

Immortal Iron Fist is available in two “The Complete Collection” trades. Vol. 1 contains the Brubaker/Fraction/Aja stuff, while Vol. 2 covers Swierczynski’s run.

Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

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