(Hey, if you're coming into this conversation in the middle, first check out Craig's initial post, below):
Ah, Craig, this is a comic I probably never would have picked up if not for your recommendation. I do check in at Marvel every so often, hell almost every time I'm in a comic shop, but from my POV their recent output has been pretty ugly (though not as guilty as DC of simply being boring). I'm glad you flagged this one for me.
Now, about Immortal Iron Fist as an example of the pile-up (as you put it), I'll say that, from my POV, the book could be taken as a barometer of what's possible in today's mainstream comics. Here I'm taking "mainstream comics" in the narrow sense, narrower than I sometimes do, to mean continuity-bound work-for-hire superhero comics. Iron Fist is such a comic, though it's a kung fu comic too. I think the fact that it's marginal, in terms of Marvel's superhero world, is part of its appeal.
What's interesting about the series' plot is the way it dallies with current Marvel continuity, setting up Iron Fist as a member of the so-called New Avengers (who, in the fallout of Civil War, are apparently outlaws) and tucking in characters from that series and Heroes for Hire, yet not demanding strict knowledge of either. Iron Fist's current status can be inferred from the series' opening chapters alone; you don't need to delve into other books to get the picture, thank god. The balance is optimal: Iron Fist, the character, has just enough presence to register with current Marvel readers, but, well, this isn't an X- or a Spider-book, so it's not so tied up, so tangled, in the current mess. Iron Fist isn't much more than a ligament in the armature of Marvel "continuity," and so the book's able to capitalize on familiar Marvel stuff (Iron Fist's backstory, the hordes of Hydra, and so on) without being avalanched under. It has the lure of familiarity, presumably, for a lot of readers, but it's not shouldering a huge continuity burden.
It's not familiar to me, since I too have never followed Iron Fist, but okay. I like coming at it unspoiled.
What we've got in Immortal Iron Fist is a classic case of creators running free, or freer anyway, with a second-string character (Miller on Daredevil, Moore et al. on Swamp Thing, and so on). On the one hand, Iron Fist is a post-Civil War book, and seems designed to ride the coattails of that event; on the other, though, it's interested in different things, and expectations for it are presumably not so high as they would be with a centrally-positioned starter such as Spider-Man. Brubaker, Fraction, and Aja are able to run places with the book as a result.
What they do to slip the straitjacket of continuity is extend the plot in two directions: outward, toward heretofore-unseen other-dimensional settings (a comic book staple, of course), in this case the under-explored setting of K'un Lun and her newly-invented sister cities, the so-called Seven Capital Cities of Heaven; and backward, into mock-historical time. It's the backward leap that allows Brubaker, Fraction, and Aja to pick up the stories of other, bygone Iron Fists and ride those into frank pastiches of other pop genres, for example the feudal martial arts epic or Depression-era pulp adventure. Craig, I'd say this, more than anything, accounts for the freewheeling pile-up you've talked about. With a sudden sleight of hand, we get the dynastic stuff, the otherworldly stuff, the pulp-homage stuff, all that.
This strategy of deepening, especially the mock-historical dimension, reminds me of James Robinson et al.'s revisionist Starman (DC, 1994-2001), whose continuity depended on Robinson's efforts to give the series' setting, Opal City, an elaborate history of its own, including not only multiple incarnations of Starman but a lot of other stuff, some of it engrafted from other old DC comics.
Moves like these are comparable to Alan Moore et al. deciding that Swamp Thing should be but one swamp god in a long line of swamp gods: a sudden bit of recontextualizing that throws everything into new light. This is a renewal strategy birthed by the business of long-running work-for-hire comics. It's a retcon (hey, you beat me to this point, Craig! you've been peeking ahead!). Happily, Immortal Iron Fist is a retcon that, rather than juicing an overworked property to the point of juicelessness, opens up new territories for story development.
Of course it goes without saying that these new territories won't be radically new; the rules of work-for-hire and the geography of the Marvel Universe both militate against ex nihilo creation. To me, that's the real problem with comparing Immortal with 60s-vintage Marvel. What young hopefuls today are going to pour heart and soul into stuff they can't own? And how persistently can they take up the machete and hack out some new space in such a crowded world? But the best mainstream comics will at least offer fresh takes on old stuff. I agree that The Immortal Iron Fist does that. It has the charm of a little world finding out about itself. In fact it's disarmingly dense for what is, essentially, a series of larking, tongue-in-cheek Po-Mo exercises.
I say tongue-in-cheek, but actually I find the series' tone is a bit hard to place. On the one hand, there's an effort toward solidity of character and a deliberateness of construction that make me think of Brubaker's work on other books. I'm no expert on Brubaker, but from what I've seen I'd say he has a knack for anchoring characters and plots with greater realism than I usually see in superhero comics. Consistent with his avowed love of crime fiction, Brubaker explores settings with an eye for convincing detail, and he takes pains to connect the dots emotionally, focusing on each major character in turn. On the other hand, Iron Fist also boasts a manic, firehose-spray inventiveness that reminds me of Fraction et al. on Casanova, a series I picked up recently in medias res and, but for a brief textual recap on the inside front cover, would have found incomprehensible: a mad, mod world of blithely borrowed stuff. If the center of gravity here is Brubaker, the headlong, hurtling quality says Fraction. There's a tug o' war of sensibilities going on here, and the results are sweet.
Let me not neglect the artwork. Of course I like the book's handsome drawing and visual playfulness; really, I couldn't get interested in an adventure comic with poor or indifferent art. I agree, Craig, that there are times when Aja seems to be asleep at the switch, but, still, his drawing and design work has grown on me since I began reading the book. The pages benefit from the fact that Aja typically inks his own stuff; there's a spare, rugged quality to the drawing, a nice balancing of realistic figure work and minimalist rendering. It's intriguing to see yet another (to me) new artist working out his own solution to the Caniff/Sickles Problem, that is, the tightrope-walk between realism and graphic impressionism. Aja's work is very much in that vein. Outlines are clean and simple, but figures are weighted with shadow, and there's a rawness of texture in the shading, with what I take to be drybrush (and/or crayon?) lending an enticing scruffiness. Ink spatters and flecks the pages. Aja's figural realism looks photo-referenced to me, but not slavishly dependent; his lean, economic style puts me in mind of sometime Brubaker collaborator Michael Lark. Aja brings that bounding, rooftop-vaulting energy that Frank Miller used to conjure so ably: the sheer pleasurable rush of gravity-defying action. He also designs pages playfully, in a Miller vein, as in the 3x3 metapanel in issue #3 that has Iron Fist swinging from rooftop to lamppost to fire escape in one fluid (albeit divided) composition:
(as usual, click the thumbnail for a bigger view)
So Aja's no slouch. But, yeah, Craig, as you say, he flickers in and out. Sometimes his inconsistency is welcome: he can get close to the elegant spareness of David Mazzucchelli (I think Lark's Batman stuff works the same street, nicely), while at other times he's splashy in a designer's way, with accelerating use of Steranko-esque Op Art FX in the the first story arc:
(The use of Hydra as heavies carries with it a heady whiff of the old Steranko days, no?) Somewhere between Caniff-esque chiaroscuro cartooning and graphic-design excess, Aja delivers a classy package, though at times it's sadly undone by his seeming impatience with the mundane, intimate, or understated (as in the examples of lazy or deadline-driven repetition that you've cited, Craig).
Another thing I like is that Aja has apparently had a strong hand in designing the books, and has designed them well, giving each arc a consistent dress. The covers for the first six issues, comprising the Last Iron Fist Story trade, avoid full-bleed images, instead isolating a major character, usually our hero, against large, blank areas of white, striped by strong vertical or horizontal bands. The next big arc, The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven, uses a similar but distinct scheme that recalls the American editions of Lone Wolf and Cub:
covers split vertically down the middle, with (usually) painted images on the left and a uniform dress, including logos, on the right. So, the books are easy to see a long ways off. (BTW, the Lone Wolf example given here is by, I believe, Matt Wagner, c. 1989-90.)
This kind of smart design reminds me of another thing that Immortal Iron Fist is good at: exploiting the serial nature of comic books (so that each successive issue is a distinctive object) while yet reconciling the serial form with the collected GN edition. This is accomplished not only through Aja's designs but also through, as you point out, Craig, the canny use of fill-in artists to illustrate sequences set in the past, involving prior incarnations of the Iron Fist. With issue #7, this gimmick blossoms into what would have been called, in Starman, a "Times Past" story: that 16th-century piratical yarn about Wu Ao-Shi (who of course is teasingly introduced five issues prior). Craig, you may be right that this one's obviously a fill-in issue, but (and here again I can't help but think of Starman) it's cleverly placed and turns the very discontinuity of the monthly series format to advantage. Penciler/inker team Travel Foreman and Derek Fridolfs, who also handle the opening flashbacks in issues #1-5, kick off the tale, and then others step in; despite the resultant patchiness, it's a smart, gleefully comical episode.
Tactics like these downplay the inevitable disruptiveness of using fill-in artists, making a virtue of necessity. In the more recent issues, the team of Aja and fellow Spanish artist Kano (no, not the Mortal Kombat character, though that fits here in a funny way, but the sometime Gotham Central artist, hence another Brubaker vet) is especially felicitous; Kano's got energy to spare, and his organic style nicely complements Aja:
Oddly enough, the "fill-in" stuff that I like the least is the stuff you've singled out, Craig: the Annual, whose framing sequences are suffocatingly over-rendered by Howard Chaykin and colorist Edgar Delgado. Their work together, for my taste, is stolid and smothered in excessive digital texture. (I can't agree that Chaykin's art hasn't changed much since Blackhawk. It's stiffened, the figures have become thick, unwieldy masses, and the fashion-plate aspects have gone over the top.) Yipes, the pages look like wallpaper; clothing and furniture have been Photoshopped to death with digital tone patterns and decorative fillips, and the action just doesn't register. To my surprise, I preferred the painted artwork by Dan Brereton, who handles two out of the three embedded historical flashbacks.
I can't say, though, that I resented on principle the Annual's use of guest artists. Indeed Immortal seems to be exactly the sort of book that can play to the strengths of many different guest artists, while preserving a larger coherence. The series' nested structure is quite a creative and editorial accomplishment.
So, thanks, Craig, for introducing me to this one. I look forward to further filling-in of Iron Fist's historical lineage, and to wilder flights of craziness as the book hopscotches further into martial-arts fantasy. The series has, for my money, only improved as it's gotten farther from Marvel's NYC, deeper into its other-dimensional world, and closer to a kind of bravura martial-arts madness that reminds me of, oh, Master of the Flying Guillotine, or Kung Fu Hustle, or even Naruto for that matter: fight stories in which everyone has a freakish, larger-than-life power. Pile it on!