Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today it’s time for the Fraction/Brubaker revival of Iron Fist. This post was originally published on 28 October 2009. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
The Immortal Iron Fist by Matt Fraction (writer), Ed Brubaker (writer, issues #1-14, Annual #1, Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death), David Aja (artist, issues #1-6, 8-13, 16), Travel Foreman (penciler, issues #1-5), Russ Heath (artist, issues #3, 6, Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death), John Severin (artist, issue #2), Sal Buscema (penciler, issue #4), Leandro Fernandez (artist, issue #7), Khari Evans (penciler, issues #7, 15), Roy Allan Martinez (artist, issue #8-9), Scott Koblish (artist, issue #9), Kano (artist, issue #10-14), Javier Pulido (artist, issue #12), Tonci Zonjic (artist, issue #13-14), Clay Mann (penciler, issue #14), Howard Chaykin (artist, Annual #1), Dan Brereton (artist, Annual #1), Nick Dragotta (penciler, Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death), Lewis LaRosa (penciler, Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death), Mitch Breitweiser (artist, Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death), Derek Fridolfs (inker, issues #1-5), Tom Palmer (inker, issue #4), Francisco Paronzini (inker, issue #7), Victor Olazaba (inker, issues #7, 15), Raul Allen (inker, issue #9), Mike Allred (inker, Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death), Stefano Gaudiano (inker, issue #14, Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death), Matt Hollingsworth (colorist, issues #1-6, 8-14, 16, Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death), Dean White (colorist, issue #2), Laura Martin (colorist, issue #6), Dan Brown (colorist, issue #7), June Chung (colorist, issue #8-9), Edgar Delgado (colorist, Annual #1), Jelena Kevic Djurdjevic (colorist, issue #15, Annual #1), Paul Mounts (colorist, issue #15), Laura Allred (colorist, Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death), and Dave Lanphear (letterer).
Published by Marvel, 18 issues (#1-16, plus The Immortal Iron Fist Annual #1, which comes after issue #9 and The Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death one-shot, which comes after issue #12), cover dated January 2007 – August 2008.
Very minor SPOILERS below!
One of the important reasons The Immortal Iron Fist is such an excellent comic is that it was published by Marvel. What I mean by this is that DC has a more sense of “history,” as there are legacy heroes, elderly heroes, a history of different “earths” where the heroes grew old and had children, a strong history of war comics and westerns that stretch the days of the DCU further back in time to the nineteenth century, and a legacy of printing comics that don’t “fit” into an official “continuity.” Marvel, while they have published such books, doesn’t have as much of a legacy in this area as DC does, with most of their comics fitting into a very rigid “continuity” that began with Fantastic Four #1 but has been extended back to include the early Marvel superheroes of the 1940s. Even with their “quirkiest” titles (until recently, that is), at some point someone fits it into regular Marvel continuity. For years, there wasn’t much room at Marvel for comics like this, and even though Fraction and Brubaker place this firmly in Marvel continuity, they also create a strange world that isn’t necessarily in sync with the Marvel Universe we’ve come to know. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be a great comic if DC had published it (difficult to do, as the book is full of Marvel characters), but the fact that it takes place in the Marvel U. but also expands that universe makes it a bit more interesting.
They acknowledge the post-Civil War reality, use Hydra as one of the evil forces, and … well, that’s it, really. Other than the fact that Iron Fist and his cronies are owned by Marvel, this is simply a pulp story with a veneer of superheroing on top of it. Brubaker, presumably, adds in the noir-ish elements, while things like The Empire of Hypothetical Science screams Fraction. The two writers blend their strengths to give us a giddy examination of a strange world full of possibilities. So we get crazy mechanical spiders, women who turn into cranes, pirate queens, airplanes with angel figureheads, hauntingly beautiful subway stations with pneumatic trains, floating trains packed with explosives, steampunk interdimensional tunnels, Lightning Lords of Nepal, gun-toting courtesans in Harlem, the Green Mist of Death, scantily-clad and buxom cowgirls, Frankenstein’s monster, poet emperors, bloodthirsty folk legends, and all sorts of cool martial arts action. All of these elements could easily show up in a regular superhero book, of course, but the way Brubaker and Fraction blend it into one delightfully pulpy stew makes this comic a world-building exercise that’s breathtaking to read. That it exists side-by-side with the rest of the Marvel Universe is just a nice cherry on top.
The big innovation that Fraction and Brubaker come up with, of course, is the idea of a succession of Iron Fists stretching back over the millennia. This allows them to tell stories that take place in the past without screwing up Danny Rand’s established continuity while also, through Orson Randall, Danny’s immediate predecessor, indulging in their desires to tell pulp stories set in the 1920s and 1930s. This not only gives us some great pulp stories, it puts Danny into a context and deepens his connection to K’un-Lun, the mystical city where he gained his powers. It’s a nice twist to Danny’s history, and although the concept of a legacy hero is a bit overdone, it’s all in the execution, and Fraction and Brubaker are able to seamlessly create an alternate history of the twentieth century through these tales. It’s one of the things that makes this comic so much fun.
Ultimately, the grand plot (the run is technically separated into two big arcs, but it’s really the same plot) doesn’t matter too much, because it becomes bad guys versus good guys very quickly, and when the bad guys include Hydra, it’s tough to take them seriously. The plot is certainly exciting and interesting, but Brubaker and Fraction are much more concerned with the major theme of the series, which is family and how it affects our lives and the decisions we make. Yes, this is a family drama dressed up as a martial arts comic masquerading as a superhero story. But it’s about what binds us together and what’s important in life, and Brubaker and Fraction come down on the side of family, however that family is defined. This is evident from the first pages of the book, when Danny reminisces about how he arrived in K’un-Lun after his parents died. Almost immediately after that we’re introduced to Danny in the boardroom and Jeryn Hogarth, his major domo. Hogarth is his friend, but he also treats Danny as if he’s a child. In quick succession Fraction and Brubaker bring in Orson Randall, who acted as surrogate father to Danny’s biological dad and will soon be a mentor to Danny himself; Luke Cage, Danny’s “brother”; Davos, who was Wendell Rand’s “brother” and therefore intimately connected to Danny; and Misty Knight, Danny’s ex-lover. The comic becomes a tangle of familial alliances and obligations, driving the characters forward. Danny learns about his past and what it means to be an Iron Fist, and this drives him to join the tournament in the second arc. Davos feels the need to impress his father, Lei Kung the Thunderer, who trains the Iron Fists and becomes their mentors, making Davos jealous in more ways than one. Jeryn is forced to work for Xao and Hydra because they kidnap his mother and threaten her life. Luke, who operates outside the law, buries the hatchet with Misty and Colleen Wing, who are working for the government, because Danny needs them and they’re family. Orson Randall’s “Confederates of the Curious” form familial bonds as well, with Wendell Rand learning how to live from the older members of the group. In the excellent standalone story, issue #7’s “The Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay,” Brubaker and Fraction give us a wonderful and exciting story of martial arts that’s ultimately a love story. In “The Capital Cities of Heaven” arc (issues #8-14), Danny learns of the champions of the other cities, and he forms sibling-type bonds with them, as well. And Orson Randall’s daughter leads the revolution within K’un-Lun as a way to honor her father. In fact, the two main bad guys – Yu-Ti and Xao – are distinguished by their disrespect of familial ties, as Yu-Ti rejects his father’s teachings and Xao drags Jeryn’s mother into their business, showing a lack of respect. Davos, who is the other main bad guy, gains redemption by coming back into the family unit and asking forgiveness from his father.
This theme makes Iron Fist an interesting comic because unlike most other superhero books, there’s a strong sense of history and generational conflict to it. Most superhero books, even if they adopt a family structure (team books do this a lot, but Spider-Man is very concerned with family, too), are locked into the present so much that the family structure never changes too much, and it’s more of a sibling dynamic anyway. By expanding Danny Rand’s universe into the past, Brubaker and Fraction are able to examine the way sons relate to their father figures and how this changes the way they live. Orson Randall’s father crashed in K’un-Lun a century ago, and Orson struggled to live up to not only his biological father’s legacy, but his adopted father’s (Lei Kung) as well. Then, he became a father figure to Wendell Rand, and struggled with being a good role model to a boy who wanted to follow in his footsteps, even though Orson tried to dissuade him. Davos craves the approval of his father and tries for years to prove himself, only doing so when he lets go of his pride. By stretching these conflicts over the generations, Brubaker and Fraction give us a more complex characterization than we expect in a mainstream comic book, and they’re also able to examine family bonds from many different angles. There’s no one dominant way a person relates to his family in this comic, and it makes the nuances more subtle and varied. We can look at Orson’s relationship with Wendell and see how Orson learns from it and applies those lessons when he meets Danny. We can see how the Thunderer treats his biological son, Davos, and how he treats his surrogate sons, Wendell and then Danny, and wonder whether he could have made different choices. We can compare Danny’s life to Davos’s or even Orson’s and speculate how it would have been different if he didn’t have Luke, Misty, and Colleen to lean on. That Fraction and Brubaker place this complex skein within the framework of a superhero comic is often a dazzling achievement.
The fact that Iron Fist is a terrifically good adventure comic shouldn’t be overlooked, either, and a lot of the strength in that regard comes from the art. Aja is a wonderful artist for the book, with a noir-ish style that works well for the often gritty stories that Brubaker and Fraction come up with. Aja is also excellent at the martial arts in the book, creating the wonderful characters at the tournament and giving them each a unique look and style of fighting. He’s also very good at the quiet moments, such as issue #16, in which he illustrates Fraction’s final script beautifully even though there’s very little action in it. The haunted look on Danny’s face as he realizes the implications of it being his birthday is fantastic. Obviously, Aja had big deadline problems, which led to the ridiculous number of artists working on just 18 issues of the series, but the artists are almost universally strong on the book, and the selection of artists again shows how nicely this comic fits into a historical setting. John Severin illustrates a section during World War I. Daniel Brereton’s funky style works perfectly for the mystical adventures of Orson Randall in the 1920s and 1930s. Russ Heath gives us a story set in the West. Khari Evans has a fine style for the tale of Bei Bang-Wen in the 1860s. All of the artists bring unique styles to the book, but they blend together very well, and although the lack of Aja is occasionally frustrating (at no time more so than in issue #14, the climax of “The Capital Cities of Heaven”), the fill-in artists do a marvelous job and, more importantly, are there for specific sections, so we know that when we see Kano’s art, it’s for the story of Wendell and Davos training together. By breaking the art chores into discrete sections, the book gains a consistency it would otherwise not have.
Ultimately, the reason this is such a good comic is because you can simply read it as a high-spirited adventure, but there’s plenty going on underneath that deepens our appreciation for it. Fraction and Brubaker take a simple concept and broaden it to the point where they create a new world within the Marvel Universe. This is different from going back and “filling in the blanks” in the lives of current Marvel superheroes. They expanded the Marvel U. to make it a much more interesting place, full of crazy new characters. Danny Rand becomes a more interesting character simply by fitting into this universe. The Immortal Iron Fist is a wild ride that leaves you breathless, but it also makes you think about how people react to each other and how people can use the past to create a better future. Unlike many superhero comics that came out at the same time, there was a sense of freshness to this title that made you feel like anything was possible. And for 18 fine issues, anything was.
Marvel’s policy of releasing everything in trade means that this is available. It appears like there are three trades collecting this run, although a single, giant Omnibus edition would look nice a shelf, wouldn’t it? And be sure to check out the archives if you have some time to kill.
[Marvel heeded my advice (I’m sure that’s it) and brought out a nice complete collection in 2013, and I’ve linked to it below, so if you want to check this out and use that link, we get a bit o’ cash from it, even if you wander off and buy something else! I wrote more about the art than I thought I did, but not enough to make 2021 me happy, because Aja’s art is very good and the use of the guest artist was pretty inspired. Fraction and Aja went on to bigger fame with Hawkeye, although this book is better, and I’m sure Brubaker has written some comics since this. Marvel went to the well quite often with the “legacy heroes” thing after this, with Ghost Rider joining it (with not too bad results) and, I think Moon Knight? That wasn’t as good an idea. It’s still fun to see Marvel connect with their pre-FF history, even if it’s invented, and it’s kind of depressing they don’t seem to do it much that often anymore. Oh well. I’m sure most of you have read this, but if you haven’t, it’s still very keen!]