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The Inventory #1: Jeff Considers Immortal Iron Fist #10-14

Jeff Lester

From time to time, it’s been suggested in our comments that we post follow-up reviews of story arcs after reviewing them in issue-by-issue fashion for so long, as a way to see whether or not the whole thing came out in the wash. The Inventory doesn’t quite do that but it’s close: I’m so far behind on my non-manga reading that I thought I might review a batch of purchased issues of a single title at one go and see how they shape up.

First up, The Immortal Iron Fist #10-#14, plus The Immortal Iron Fist annual.

As you may remember, I’ve been a fan of Iron Fist from way, way back (like back when Claremont and Byrne first worked on the character) so I was delighted when writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, and artist David Aja tackled the character by crafting a story arc that re-examined the character’s origin and took it as the jumping off point for an epic story that spun backwards in time even as it moved forward.

Part of what thrilled me about that it was unabashedly such a classic piece of Marvel storytelling: when I was growing up, Marvel characters were always having their origins re-examined, the gaps of believability being grouted over with more backstory and, whenever possible, more continuity. (The examples that stand out the most for me are both from Steve Englehart: his sprawling storyline in Avengers that revealed the true history of the Vision; and that great Captain America story that puts the Captain America of Marvel’s ’50s comics in continuity.) That stuff will probably always resonate with me, but never more so than when I was at the age where I was starting to figure out the underlying cause and effect in the world around me. There comes some point when it really sinks in that everything existed before you came into the world, and that everything has a history, and the effect is a little bit like those Marvel epics: even as you’re moving forwards, this epic backstory of the world is spinning out before you simultaneously.

The first six issues of The Immortal Iron Fist have Danny Rand, the current Iron Fist, meet Orson Randall, the previous Iron Fist, and discover the true nature of his origin. At the end of it, he’s whisked away to the magical city of K’un L’un where he was raised, so he may fight in the Tournament of Heavenly Cities. Issues #7-14 show that tournament, re-introduce us to K’un L’un and the political struggle behind its facade, introduce the other Heavenly Cities which are tied to K’un L’un, as well as the champions of those cities, fill in the backstory with Danny’s dad and Davos, the villain of the first arc, and, in the end, set the warriors of the tournament and the warriors of K’un L’un against the forces of Hydra.

It’s all audacious as hell, jammed to the gills with characters and action, cool fights and finishing moves. Even with the wit and insouciance of Fraction’s dialogue, these issues of Immortal Iron Fist feel like Scott Pilgrim‘s deadpan cousin: Hong Kong movies from the ’80s and ’90s, video games, and Marvel comics all hold equal sway over the proceedings. At its best, the book becomes almost operatic while still being cobbled of out of little more than thirty years of beloved pop culture detritus.

Yet, weirdly, by the time I’d plowed through issues #10-14 (and the Annual, must not forget the Annual), I found myself simultaneously satiated and hungry, pleased and grouchy, content and unsettled. While comics have many, many advantages over movies and videogames, several of the biggest differences can work to their disadvantage: neither movies nor video games are assembled in a linear fashion, and the work on the slam-bang finale can be the first task undertaken. Also, comics both benefit and suffer from being the product of a much smaller team of creative personnel–when a member of the team takes a powder or loses interest, the change in the product is noticeable.

All of which is a fancy-dan way of saying that in issue #10, artist David Aja contributes fifteen pages, and Kano contributes five. By issue #13, Aja contributes three pages, Kano contributes six, and Tonci Zonjic the other eleven. And in the big finale, Kano does five pages, Clay Mann does five, Tonci Zonjic does the remaining twenty, and Aja is nowhere to be seen. (Unless he did the cover–why the hell aren’t they crediting the cover artist on these books?)

Now, Zonjic has a clear, clean style–and Matt Hollingsworth’s colors (which are so superlative throughout the entire series he deserves to be counted as one of the key creative personnel) help provide a visual unity with the preceding issues–but Aja’s work gains its power from fluidly moving from elegantly simple linework to byzantine detail, and often in the same panel, in a way that underlined the ambitions of the book: Immortal Iron Fist similarly swings from the simplicity of a big, gaudy kung-fu fight book to a richly backstoried epic in almost as short a span. And so the big final issue, with all of the legendary warriors fighting side-by-side in Zonjic’s clear, clean style, has a flattened feeling to it, just because a dimension has visually dropped out.

Additionally, the “Seven Capital Cities of Heaven” arc manages to more or less forget about the main character entirely, which is something Marvel’s ’70s epics never did. While some of this is because Brubaker and Fraction are too dutiful to succumb to mere hackwork–after setting up the reader’s expectation that Iron Fist will fight against six other awesome kung-fu adversaries in the Tournament of Heavenly Cities, they have Danny lose his first match and remove him from the action–I can’t help but feel, despite the writers’ insistence in interviews, Brubaker and Fraction don’t have much interest in Danny Rand.

Indeed, the real center of the piece turns out to be Davos, who starts off as a villain in search of vengeance, and ends up conflicted, torn between his self-righteous anger and the opportunity to truly act righteously. Issue #14 of Immortal Iron Fist really turns on that choice, and it’s the resolution of his story that gives the arc tremendous power. It’s kind of like if Lucas had done Star Wars right, and we really had started the story thinking it was about Luke Skywalker and finished it realizing it was actually all about Darth Vader.

And yet: couldn’t the arc have also been about Danny Rand? As much as I appreciate that Brubaker and Fraction make Danny a genuine hero, noble and self-sacrificing and kind, I’m sort of frustrated they are either unable or unwilling to figure out what to do with the character apart from discover his origin. As Claremont and Byrne did before them, they surround the character with the flashiest supporting cast around. By the end of the arc, it’s not enough that Danny already has an ex-girlfriend who’s a detective with a bionic arm, a best friend who is a steel-skinned superhero, and a good friend who’s partners with the bionic-armed ex and has been trained as a sword-wielding samurai–he ends up accompanied to Earth by the five other champions from the Tournament of Heavenly Cities. Danny Rand, Brubaker and Fraction seem to be saying, is basically a kung-fu Richie Rich from a magical city: after you’ve spent a story or two on that gimmick, you’ve got to bring in Robota and Dollar and Jackie Jokers, all of whom also come from magical cities, but who have an endless number of cool finishing moves that are fun to think up and splash across action panels. You have to keep attaching cool geegaws to hide that the center is dramatically inert. And that may be the case, but I didn’t get the sense the creators were trying very hard to see if that was actually true or not. (That the creative team is pulling up stakes so soon after the conclusion of this story lends some weight to that suspicion.)

And so, if I had read and reviewed each of these issues on their own, they would’ve ranked along the spectrum of the Very Good rating (apart from the Annual, which I thought was shockingly close to Awful–all geegaws and nearly no point) but, read as whole, I would rank the storyline as highly Good, maybe a little more than that. Issues #10-14 of The Immortal Iron Fist are ambitious, clever, and the high points are, really, everything I want in a superhero comic. But the formidable skills of the creators may not be enough to conquer the realities of the marketplace, where a fastidious artist can become overwhelmed. Indeed, the skills of the creators may not be enough to outweigh their own creative passions, which may be drawn to places darker than a unambiguously good man may be able to take them. These issues of Immortal Iron Fist are certainly worth buying and worth reading. But they’re also worth considering for their negative space, for the areas where they cannot, or will not, reach.

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