by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja. Marvel Comics, publisher. $2.99 for an individual issue (monthly), $14.99 for the trade paperback The Last Iron Fist Story (which collects issues #1-6).
For the last forty years, Stan Lee has credited the success of Marvel Comics to the company's lifelike take on superheroes. In 1975's Origins of Marvel Comics, Lee says that his ambition with the Fantastic Four was to create "the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty, and--most important of all--inside their colorful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay." According to Lee, Steve Ditko's art on Spider-Man is "total realism" [!] and Spidey is "the first superhero to wear his neuroses on his sleeve." Lee has always argued that combining insecure, mildly troubled heroes with real-life touches (such as having his characters inhabit a facsimile of the actual New York City) makes it easier for the reader--himself or herself presumably a bundle of "neuroses" and "foibles"--to become involved in the stories.
Even though I've always been as obsessive-compulsive and angst-ridden as anyone, I never bought this explanation. I started reading Marvel Comics in the later 1960s, quickly became a fanatic, and through perseverance (scrounging around in barber shops and old bookstores) and luck (a neighborhood kid bequeathed me his stack of Fantastic Fours and Avengers) put together a collection. My fanaticism, however, wasn't fueled by any sense of verisimilitude I found in these comics. Even as a child, I felt that Spider-Man's worrying--"I have to battle the Lizard, even though it means missing Aunt May's Birthday Party!"--reflected his inability to prioritize his tasks: of course it's more important to capture the Lizard, hanging out with Aunt May isn't that much fun, and all the hand-wringing in the world doesn't eradicate the sheer, irreducible coolness of being a superhero. So get over it.
Instead, I fell in love with Marvel's repudiation of realism, with Lee/Kirby/Ditko's construction of a hermetically-sealed fantasy world populated by wacky superbeings in ridiculous costumes. I adored those early Marvels because they dropped me in a land wholly different, and infinitely more fanciful, than boring Catholic North Buffalo. That's why The Fantastic Four was my favorite, especially the classic run from #44 (November 1965) to #67 (November 1967), when Kirby and Lee added new characters almost every month (the Black Panther, Blastaar, the Inhumans, Klaw, the Silver Surfer, Wyatt Wingfoot, etc.) while weaving this ever-expanding cast into baroque, soap-opera plots stretched across multiple issues. (Clearly the Lee-Kirby FF was inspired by the expansive cast and intricate plots of Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates comic strip, though I wouldn't realize this until the early 1990s, when I read NBM's paperback reprints of Terry.) This Lee-Kirby explosion of imagination and complexity, and its attendant pile-up of patently unrealistic but compulsively engaging characters and plots, made me a loyal Marvelite for the next 15 years.
Not that I've ever completely abandoned the faith. Currently, I'm seeing another inspired pile-up in the pages of The Immortal Iron Fist, written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, and drawn (for the most part) by David Aja. All the above reminiscences about Lee/Kirby make it pathetically clear that I'm a sucker for nostalgia, but I don't have any lingering affection for Iron Fist as a character. I always considered him a second-banana side effect of the Kung Fu craze in America in the early 1970s, which Marvel, in true Martin Goodman fashion, exploited with a raftload of heroes and titles. (I was only ten when Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon was released, and it'd be another four years before I snuck into my first R-rated movie.) The only Iron Fist comic I'd read before Immortal was his origin in Marvel Premiere #15 (May 1974). I vaguely remember the scenario--an orphan named Danny Rand is adopted by the ruling elite of a Brigadoonesque city called K'un Lun, where he is trained in martial arts--although more vivid in my memory is a full-page Gil Kane splash from the story, of a man falling off a cliff and careening off stone outcroppings. (This origin story is briefly summarized at the beginning of Immortal #1.) Later, I would occasionally hear about what Marvel was doing with Iron Fist: partnering him with Luke Cage (another second-stringer I had no interest in), having him join Heroes for Hire, etc...nothing compelling enough to make me buy new comics. This time out, my fondness for the writing of Ed Brubaker (especially on Criminal) and Matt Fraction (especially on Casanova) lured me into sampling the new Iron Fist book, and what I've found is a thick, pulpy stew that seems to improve and deepen with every issue.
Part of the fun is watching Brubaker and Fraction juggle 15 balls in the air; they're bent on cramming in as many plots and subplots into their stories as possible. Below, explained as obliquely as possible so I don't give away any surprises, are some of the plots currently unfolding in the book:
1.) Flashbacks that are gradually fleshing out the stories of at least three different warriors who have held the title of "Iron Fist";
2.) Other flashbacks that provide a more detailed biography of Orson Randall (the Iron Fist immediately preceding Danny Rand) and chronicle his adventures with his sidekick Ernst "Lucky Pierre" Erskine and a band of adventurers named the Confererates of the Curious, a nutty spin on the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen;
3.) Assorted references to Marvel's Civil War mishmash (which I haven't read at all), the events of which have has placed Danny Rand and his girlfriend Misty Knight on opposite sides;
4.) A master plan by a psychopath named Xao who, for reasons yet to be explained, is building a high-speed train that he will pack with explosives and smash into K'un Lun;
5.) The introduction of "the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven," mystical metropolises that intersect like Venn diagrams every 88 years, creating an arena where their champions (like K'un Lun's Danny Rand) compete to determine "who has the best Kung Fu";
6.) Tensions in K'un Lun's government between the city's current ruler (its "Yu-Ti") and its martial arts mentor Lei Kung the Thunderer; and
Etc., etc., and so on, many more. Advancing all these plots in every issue must be a logistical nightmare, and sometimes Brubaker and Fraction seem to be laughing at how close they are to dropping the ball: in #10, Danny Rand, the central hero of the comic, doesn't appear at all. And there's a further complication: although David Aja is Immortal's primary artist, he only draws the story's present-day events; the flashback pages are all by a host of different artists, presumably to lessen Aja's workload and allow the comic to stick to its monthly schedule. (The first time I saw this tactic was in Alan Moore's Supreme.) The quality of the flashback artists vary widely. I'll confess to a slight tremor of nostalgia when I saw Sal Buscema inked by Tom Palmer in #4, but the upgrade in paper stock didn't flatter the art. (John Severin fares a little better in #2.) Probably the best aggregation of talent is in The Immortal Iron Fist Annual #1 (November 2007), published between issues #9 and #10, which features art by Dan Brereton (painted as an evocation of pulp magazine covers), Jeleva Kevic Djurdjevic (who I never heard of, but who has a soft, Alex Ross-influenced style) and Howard Chaykin (whose work hasn't changed one iota since Blackhawk, except, as Charles points out below, he's gotten obsessed with digitized surface texture). Pity Warren Simons, the editor of Iron Fist, who's responsible for keeping Brubaker and Fraction on track and scheduling the various flashback artists, and be amazed that this comic works as entertainingly as it does.
One of the title's strengths is Brubaker and Fraction's command of storytelling on the micro- as well as the macro-level. They know what they're doing from panel to panel, and they've absolutely mastered the patented Alan Moore "clever transition" from one scene to another. In #2, for instance, evildoers try to force Orson Randall out of hiding by killing innocent bystanders. Randall hears an old lady's neck snap, while a caption muses, "No matter how far...how fast you run...you can't outrun the blood." Then comes an abrupt flashback to Randall's days as Iron Fist fighting in the French trenches in World War I; this is appropriately illustrated by John Severin. As we see a large panel of Randall charging the Germans in No-Man's-Land, we return to the present with this page (as usual, click on the thumbnail to get a bigger, better view):
Why do Brubaker and Fraction insert the flashback at this moment? One reason is thematic: across his entire abnormally-elongated lifespan, Randall has never been able to outrun the blood. Another reason is anticipatory: Randall responds to violence by running towards it, embracing it, and we expect him to react to the carnage of overturned cars and corpses in the street by kicking ass (which he does). Defining Randall as an impulsive, angry character, however, is upended in #6, where he makes a significant decision: to refuse, for the first time, to respond to violence with more violence.
Reading this series is great fun because it's also clear that Brubaker and Fraction have a direction for all their plotlines that they transmit to us only in slow, carefully modulated drips and drabs. One detailed example occurs at the beginning of #2, where we are introduced to Wu Ao-Shi, the first and only female Iron Fist. We watch as she attacks pirates, and taunts them with the following dialogue: "Pinghai Bay is now under my rule. You are welcome to challenge the assertion." Five months later, in #7, Brubaker, Fraction and three different artists (not including Aja) give us Wu Ao-Shi's origin story, a self-contained tale that smelled to me like a fill-in issue designed to give Aja a breather. At the beginning of #7, Lei Kung the Thunderer protects Wo Au-Shi--at this moment, just a nasty little thief--from the cruelty of a street merchant. Here is what happens when Lei Kung intercedes:
The repetition of the line is clever; it shows, in reverse order, just how important a mentor Lei Kung was to Wo Au-Shi. And as we see in #7, Lei Kung is the person who trains Wo Au-Shi to be an Iron Fist. But this whole plotline develops further: issue #12 reveals that the teacher-student, Lei Kung/Wo Au-Shi relationship is not a throwaway moment in a fill-in issue, but rather surprisingly relevant to what's happening to Danny Rand and K'un Lun in the narrative present. I don't want to give too much away, but I'm fascinated by how the Lei Kung/Wo Au-Shi backstory has emerged in #12 as both a key plotline of the series and as, of all things, a commentary on women's rights--not a theme typically explored in a rock-'em-sock-'em Marvel comic.
I began this essay by comparing Brubaber/Fraction/Aja to Lee/Kirby, and there's a little danger in that comparison. For one, the Iron Fist team isn't doing anything particularly novel here; several of their contemporaries recognize the pile-up as central to the appeal of Silver Age comics. Grant Morrison probably does the pile-up better than anyone else: 7 Soldiers of Victory is a supernova of new characters and frenzied crosscutting between propulsive plotlines, the Fourth World on steroids. So of course when Morrison and J.H. Williams III show us the very first superhero ever in the universe in 7 Soldiers, he turns out to be Aurakles, a god drawn with square fingers and octagonal kneecaps. (I expect a similar pile-up from Morrison and Jones' Final Crisis, due later this year.) And a broader question might be: is the pile-up be the direction that comics should take? Do Silver Age aesthetics have a place in a world where Fun Home is chosen as Time's book of the year? Isn't that Lee/Kirby horse dead already? Maybe individual readers need to answer those questions for themselves. I'd personally never claim that Immortal Iron Fist is as good as The Arrival or Curses or One! Hundred! Demons! (or, for that matter, as good as Casanova or Criminal), but I still get pleasure from adventure comics and good pulp storytelling. Your mileage may vary.
Something I find less open to taste are the limitations of Aja's art, especially his tendency to repeat drawings in multiple panels. On pages 11 and 12 of Immortal #1, for instance, Danny Rand refuses to build trains for Xao and his corporation Wai-Go (and, incidentally, naming a Chinese train company "Wai-Go" is a lot like Milton Caniff naming one of his Chinese heroines "Hu-Shee"). The scene between Danny and Xao plays out this way, over two pages:
This is a key moment in the plot. Wai-Go turns out to be a front for the criminal syndicate Hydra, and in subsequent issues Xao and Hydra capture Danny's business manager Jeryn Hogarth and force the Rand Corporation to build the trains. Aja's treatment of this scene, though, couldn't be more disinterested. There's no variation of panel size to represent the tension inherent in turning down a multi-billion dollar offer, and Aja's digital replication of faces and poses further flattens the drama. Sometimes Aja's repetition works--there's an amusing bit in #5, where Orson Randall and Danny Rand, in their Iron Fist costumes, take a quiet elevator ride--but mostly it feels like corner-cutting. Aja's battle scenes are beautiful, believable, stylish and draped in shadow--noir ballet--but his work on faces and his moments of conversation are underdeveloped.
Still, my problems with Aja's art haven't kept me from buying the book--or from going to my local comic shop the Wednesday Immortal Iron Fist comes out every month. While I was scribbling away on this review, I was searching for the right word to describe Brubaker and Fraction's rehabilitation of concepts, and then Charles--in the response immediately following--found it: "Retcon." The Immortal Iron Fist is a retcon, and it's a good retcon: it breathes life back into the pile-up, and in the process helped me rediscover why I started reading comics in the first place.