Saturday, July 07, 2007

Iron Fist: Cooler than All of Us Combined?

Iron Fist was one of my first favorite Marvel superheroes. If you listened to any of my podcast interview over at Collected Comics Library, you would have heard how I first fell deeply in love with comics. It was through the Marvel Super-Heroes role-playing game (MSH rpg) published by TSR in the mid 1980s. I had read plenty of comics before that time, and I'm sure I bought comics once and a while at the local general store, but I wasn't a regular reader until I picked up that first edition of the MSH rpg and drowned in the complext mythology of the Marvel universe. I wasn't a particularly huge gamer, by the way, although I was first introduced to Dungeons and Dragons during 4th grade by my friend Chad Nunnery, who had just moved into town that year. He was from the "big city," (population: 50,000) and when he came to our small town (population: 3,000), he brought a lot of big-time urban ideas with him--ideas like asking girls to roller skate and playing role-playing games in school. So we played D&D off and on for a few years, and I picked up all the Monster Manuals and Player's Guides and all that stuff while I was still in elementary school. I always liked reading the books more than actually playing the game, to be honest. I once read an interview with author China Mieville (of Perdido Street Station fame) and he said the same thing. He loved reading the sourcebooks about the campaign settings, where entire imaginary worlds were described and mapped out, and he loved reading about the crazy monsters that populated such worlds. If you read his fiction, you can see how he turned that fascination into his own brand of art.

My fascination was much the same. I loved the sourcebooks and guides and everything about these fantastic worlds of the imagination. So when I got that first boxed set of the MSH rpg, I dove in, absorbing as much of the Marvel universe as I could from the character background information and the Jeff Butler illustrations. Luckily for me, around that same time, both Marvel and DC were publishing their wonderful Marvel Universe and Who's Who comics. (And, of course, the DC rpg came out from Mayfair within that same period as well). I was surrounded by products that could give me a sense of the depth and scope of these comic book universes, and I bought them all. I also discovered, from a middle school friend, that we actually had a comic book store (a store that sold BACK ISSUES!!!) in the next town over, and at that point, my brain exploded and reformed into what it is today. Thus, my comic book obsession began.

My brother (now a super-star Hollywood producer and director by the way--although he is doing a poor job at setting the internet on fire), who is five years younger than me, also became heavily into comics as he joined me on the weekly visits to the store. With our limited funds, we split our purchases. He bought the Marvel stuff, and I picked up the DC stuff (and the strange stuff from newer companies with magical names like Pacific Comics, Eclipse, and Comico). I read everything! And I continued to pick up every single MSH and DC Heroes role-playing game supplement, module, handbook, sourcebook or whatever I could find in those pre-internet days of retail shopping. One of my favorites, and my brother's too, I'm sure was one of the very first things we bough for the Marvel game. It was called Lone Wolves (and I'm relying on Wikipedia here for the name, because I don't have the supplement anymore--it was thrown out or given away when we moved in the late 80's--but I remember its contents fondly) and it featured Daredevil, Black Widow, Power Man, and Iron Fist. Sabretooth was the main villain (or at least the only one I cared about), and it was designed as an adventure module, where the players would take the roles of the heroes and the gamemaster would play the villains. We never played it. But I must have read the book four or five times to learn all about these amazing characters. I had read a couple issues of Power Man and Iron Fist by then, surely, but this role-playing module turned me into a fan. My brother and I bought every issue (that we could find) from then on. We even picked up a Daredevil back issue with Power Man and Iron Fist as guest stars. We didn't know it at the time, but it was a Frank Miller issue, and it remains, to this day, the only original issue of his first Daredevil run that I own (although I own literally three different versions of his run in reprint form, most recently picking up the gorgeous Daredevil Omnibus--wahoo!). The Callahan household certainly enjoyed its 80's comic book superhero bastardizations of 70's exploitation films, and we didn't even know why. It was just cool stuff. I'll have to ask my brother why he liked those issues so much, but for me, the appeal was all about Iron Fist. Power Man I could do without, but I loved the guy with the high collar, yellow slippers, dragon tattoo, and FIST OF IRON!

Yet, I fell out of love with Iron Fist by the end of the Power Man and Iron Fist series. I had grown older and moved on to things like Watchmen and Miracleman, Grendel and Grimjack. Maybe it was the red costume Iron Fist began wearing. Maybe it was the fact that the issues weren't actually, you know, any good (I'll re-read them and let you know someday), but whatever it was, my interest in Iron Fist waned as I moved on to more "sophisticated," "adult," "comics." Whatever it was, I didn't read anything related to Iron Fist for almost twenty years. I missed all of the 90's incarnations of the character, and based on his Wikipedia entry, I missed a lot, but it all sounds really really bad--plus, he was supposedly dead at the end of the Power Man and Iron Fist series, but that didn't stop Marvel, as this Wiki paragraph reveals: "Although Rand apparently returns from the dead, it is revealed instead to be the Super-Skrull. He admits that he had been Captain Hero, and that the plot to destroy the lives of Rand and Cage had been masterminded by Master Khan. It is also revealed that the 'Iron Fist' that had died was actually a doppelgänger created by the extra-dimensional H'ylthri. Rand had, in fact, been kidnapped and replaced by the H'ylthri copy just after he left K'un L'un for the last time. While in stasis with the H'ylthri, Rand manages to focus his chi, curing the cancer."

Who did what to who now? Huh? The whole, turned-out-to-be-a-Skrull-angle, as hip as it is in 2007 is something I'm glad I didn't waste my time on.

But then the Brubaker/Fraction/Aja series, The Immortal Iron Fist premiered this year. And it's awesome. It has everything I need from my Iron Fist, including kicking, FISTS OF IRON, opium, ninja guys, a pulp-inspired Doc Savage precurser who is a grandfather figure (but more badass), and amazing artwork. The series doesn't rely on any knowledge of the 90's version of the character at all. If it uses any of that continuity at all, I completely missed it and I don't care, because what the series does is embrace the mythology of the character and the kung-fu exploitation elements of the original Iron Fist comics. Plus, did I mention that it's awesome?

I loved it from the beginning, but I appreciated the newest issue of The Immortal Iron Fist #6, even more because while I was away on vacation, I not only relaxed and ate a TON of food, but I brought some reading material, including...

The Essential freakin' Iron Fist! I thought I knew Iron Fist pretty well. I understood the basic concept of the character. I appreciated his FIST OF IRON, but even though I read many of the stories in this volume when I was around 12 or 13, I read them completely out of context. I read them out of order back then, because we picked up random back issues when we could find them (I remember my brother getting really excited to learn that we actually picked up the FIRST appearance of Sabretooth when we found an old copy of Iron Fist #14). But I also read those issues out of context in another way: I didn't know ANYTHING about exploitation cinema when I was 12 or 13. I never saw my first real kung fu movie until I was an adult, actually. (Sure, I saw a lot of crappy Jean Claude kicking movies as a teenager, but none of the classic Hong Kong stuff at all--I didn't even see a Bruce Lee movie until college, how sad is that?) So now, going back and reading those first thirty or so Iron Fist stories (starting with the Marvel Premiere issues and ending with issue #50 of Power Man and Iron Fist--the issue where it stopped being a solo Luke Cage title) I can not only enjoy the development of the Danny Rand character, but I can see how blatantly the writers (Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Doug Moench, Tony Isabella, and Chris Claremont--5 different writers in just the fist dozen issues, although Claremont stuck around for years after that) used the conventions of the kung fu and blaxploitation films of the time. Actually, knowing comics, I'm sure Marvel was years BEHIND the curve, but it all blends together in retrospect. But, even though these early Iron Fist stories are just a ham-handed attempt to slap a kung fu character into the Marvel universe, the stories are, you guessed it: AWESOME. First of all, his initial appearance is drawn by none other than Gil Kane, which is worth about 100 cool points right away. And the first story is good. Wendell Rand falling to his death while his business parter hits on Mrs. Rand? And young Danny watches the whole thing as he's freezing to death in the mountains? Then the whole secret kung fu society thing? Brilliant. And in the next few issues when Iron Fist makes his way through New York, seeking revenge, we are treated to anything but a normal superhero. He doesn't even take off his mask to reveal his true face for months, and he does nothing remotely superheroic for quite a while. When he finally does something other than ruthlessly seek revenge, another character basically stops the story and points out that he's become a "super-hero" just to drive the point home. But it takes a while for that development to happen. There are a lot of kicking scenes and mystical ninjas and Colleen Wing action sequences and the introductions of blaxploitation superstar Misty Knight and kung fu legend (?) Triple-Iron to get through first. One of the cool things about these early issues is that each successive villain is a newly created character (rarely, if ever, to be seen again in the Marvel universe), and each villain is a master of some martial arts weapon or style. Once Batroc the Leaper shows up, Iron Fist begins to fight more traditional villains, but who doesn't want to see Iron Fist vs. Batroc? That's a lot of kicking per page!

So now that I've read The Essential Iron Fist I can enjoy the new monthly series all the more. Because Brubaker and Fraction and Aja (and guests) appreciate the core concept of Iron Fist and they have already added to the character's mythology without resorting shape-changing aliens. Iron Fist is about a kung fu exploitation character in the Marvel Universe, and he shouldn't be hanging around with Skrulls. These guys all know that, and that is why the answer to the question at the top of this post can only be one word:


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