Do you like good comics? Are you interested in kung-fu, mystical cities, martial arts tournaments, pulp action heroes, superheroes, and/or a touch of steampunk? Did you enjoy James Robinson’ Starman series?
If so, then you might like Marvel Comics’ Iron Fist by Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker (with art from Aja and others).
I first encountered the character of Iron Fist back when he was appearing in a comic book aptly titled, Power Man and Iron Fist. Part of the duo of Heroes for Hire, Iron Fist, one Danny Rand, was a blond-haired, blue-eyed young man who had grown up in the mystical Asian city called K’un-L’un, a city that only connected with ours once every ten years. There he had become a champion and gained the power of Shao-Lou the Undying, a dragon, which gave him the power of the Iron Fist.
Interesting origin to be sure, but Iron Fist was never a top tier character.
What disturbed me furthermore was this idea of the fair white man becoming the greatest martial artist among a group of Asians. The white savior figure. An uncomfortable portrayal at the very least.
What Fraction and Brubaker (and Aja) have done is reinvent the character while at the same time honoring his roots. I’m continually impressed by all they’ve been able to add and layer into the story. Under their tenure, they introduced a legacy, a string of champions, each bearing the power of the Iron Fist to represent the mystical city of K’un L’un. In addition, they created six other mystical cities, each with its own champion and an interdimensional kung-fu tournament.
The first arc of the series starts with Danny Rand a kind of lazy but very rich CEO, still moonlighting as Iron Fist. He’s investigating a strange business deal that he discovers is linked to Hydra (a criminal organization), only to discover that there’s someone else out there using the power of the Iron Fist, something he didn’t think was possible.
In the course of his adventure, he finds out that the previous Iron Fist is still alive and they are both being hunted by an old enemy with grudges against both men. Along the way we are treated to glimpses of past Iron Fists throughout history, a great element which increases the storytelling potential of the concept. We learn that the chi of Shao-Lou can accomplish more than just giving someone an “Iron Fist” and that each Iron Fist learns to use it in different ways.
It’s not only the writing that shines in Iron Fist. David Aja was onboard to help redefine the character, not only improving upon the character’s costume, but by adding a much needed aesthetic of washed-out colors and gritty textures. His fight scenes are, frankly, brilliant, full of movement and kineticism with a technique that highlights the actual blows and kicks. These are often accompanied by text descriptions of the techniques, like “Strike of the silkworm’s tooth” and “Palm of forty sorrows.”
Flashbacks to other Iron Fists are handled by different artists, which works well in this case distinguishing those characters in look and style.
The storyline of the first collection continues on into the second where we delve deeper in to the past of the Iron Fists, K’un-L’un, and the other mystical cities. And we finally get to meet the other champions of the other cities including such memorable characters as Fat Cobra, Bride of Nine Spiders, and Dog Brother #1. Additionally, we get to see more of the background of Orson Randall (the Iron Fist before Danny Rand) and his pulp adventuring companions.
Iron Fist, for me, is an example of superhero comics at their best. It honors the character’s roots while adding new layers to the story and making the something unique and enjoyable. It also stands quite firmly on its own. It might help if you know some of the ancillary characters, but generally that’s not required. It reminds me of Starman at its best, and from me that’s high praise.
Fraction and Brubaker’s work has been collected into two volumes with a third rounding up some assorted on-offs and the last storyline from Fraction. The series continued after them, however, and I hope to follow-up with a future post showing how the new writers and artists have handled the promise that they were given.