Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Alternative Iron Fist

            Still smarting from Netflix/Marvel’s latest debacle? Let us cure what ails you with seven great Iron Fist stories from the comics…

            I know what you’re thinking. You’ve just spent the last thirteen hours of your life on Marvel/Netflix’s latest “superhero” event series, Iron Fist. Eyes bleary from the strain, butt sore from the apple-shaped indenture on the couch… mind numbed from the utter lack of anything even remotely interesting taking place during the half-day it took you to watch it. You were promised Martial Arts Mayhem in the Mighty Marvel Manner, but what you got instead were boardrooms, boring familial drama and a handful of kung fu fights that couldn’t be more half-assed if they tried. You wonder how it is you’ve fallen for this yet again. How you’ve been subjected to another thirteen-episode season of a story that could have easily been compressed into half that, tracing the origin of a hero with ill-defined special abilities who takes himself way too seriously and never once wears anything that would even begin to identify him as a “superhero.”

            You think to yourself, if only there was a way to go back and tell that young fool from thirteen hours ago to turn away while they still can, to resist the temptation to stay current on all pop-culture dealings so you’ll have something to talk about around the watercooler when you go back to work next week. But what of the Iron Fist-shaped hole in your life? How is that now to be filled?

            Fear not, gentle reader, for we are here for you, with a handful of Iron Fist stories to act as an alternative to the punishing thirteen-hour binge; seven stories from the comics to make you forget all about the bearded hobo who doesn’t even use his powers until two episodes in.

            Iron Fist #1-15

            Iron Fist’s first self-titled series features early work from writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, who would of course go on to redefine the medium with their ground-breaking Uncanny X-Men run. Their take on the Immortal Weapon of K’un Lun doesn’t reach such lofty heights, but is no less fun. In his first solo series, Danny Rand mixes it up with Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, is introduced to long-lasting X-villain Sabretooth and discovers his place in the world through one kung fu super-fight after another.  Claremont stacks the deck with his own particular brand of action/soap opera dynamics, and a young and still-hungry Byrne makes the art sing off the page. The ultimate in seventies Marvel superhero cheese, it doesn’t get much better than this.

            Deadly Hands of King Fu #19-24

            In the seventies, Marvel tested the newsstand waters with an imprint that specialized in over-sized, black-and-white magazine anthology series. Not under the purview of the restrictive Comics Code, these hidden gems were allowed to be as sexy and as violent as they wanted, generally with Marvel characters that didn’t fit the traditional superhero mold. Deadly Hands of Kung Fu focused on Marvel’s growing stable of martial arts heroes such as Shang-Chi, the Sons of the Tiger, and--you guessed it--Iron Fist, who got his own backup series written by Chris Claremont and lovingly-rendered by artist Rudy Nebres. The more adult nature of the magazine allowed Claremont to instill greater character depth in the story, and Nebres’ detailed art traces one fluid martial arts fight after another across the page in beautiful black-and-white. It’s all rather silly when read today, but still carries with it a certain charm that fans of classic grindhouse pictures will find irresistible.

            Heroes for Hire #1-19

            When the Avengers and the Fantastic Four left the Marvel universe in the regrettable “Heroes Reborn” debacle, Iron Fist and Luke Cage decided to bring their old “Heroes for Hire” label out of retirement, this time employing a rotating cast of Marvel C- and D-listers to fill the void left by the missing heroes. This lovable group of losers find themselves involved in all sorts of superheroic hijinks, from street-level threats like The Punisher to the villains-in-disguise super-team of the Thunderbolts. The action is fast and fun in this mostly-forgotten series from the late nineties, a short-lived but important stopgap series that helped keep Iron Fist from falling into complete obscurity.

            Ultimate Spider-Man #79-85

            Although Iron Fist is relegated to a supporting role, this arc of Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley’s indelible update of everyone’s favorite wall-crawler is nothing short of an all-out romp celebrating Marvel’s street-level vigilantes. The Kingpin is forced to step back from his criminal dealings due to a federal prosecution, and the up-an-coming gangster Hammerhead is eager to step into his shoes. The gang war draws Spider-Man, Moon Knight, Iron Fist, Shang-Chi, the Black Cat and Elektra into the fray, as allegiances are formed and broken at the drop of a hat and everybody fights everybody else. It’s a team-up in the classic Marvel Comics style, showcasing the best of each character and just how fun it is to watch them bounce off of each other. 

The Immortal Iron Fist #1-16

The crown jewel of the Iron Fist canon, this series by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, David Aja and a bevy of artists redefined the kung fu hero for a whole new generation. What makes this run so special is how it deepens and broadens the mythology surrounding its central character. The main conceit involves turning Iron Fist into a legacy character, with frequent flashbacks portraying those who have held the mantle of K’un Lun’s Living Weapon throughout history. We’re introduced to such instantly-classic characters as Wu Ao-Shi, the Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay, whose enemies “fell as if lightning from God destroyed them,” and Orson Randall, the John Woo wet-dream of a pulp hero who is able to extend his chi into his twin .45 automatics in a blistering display of gun-fu action. It all culminates in a transdimensional kung fu tournament held between the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven, where we meet the other six Immortal Weapons, with fanciful names such as Fat Cobra and the Bride of Nine Spiders. When it comes to Iron Fist, this is the Dark Knight Returns, the All-Star Superman, the defining take that distills the character down to his fundamental essence.

Iron Fist: The Living Weapon #1-12

Although suffering slightly from some odd tonal shifts, the true power of Kaare Andrews’ twelve-issue run (which he writes, draws and colors all by himself) lies in its creator’s willingness to play with the form. The comic book page is a medium that affords near limitless possibilities , and yet so many artists are willing to merely emulate film and television with their renderings. Andrews eschews all of that here, composing striking layouts that practically explode from each and every page like some bastard love-child of Frank Miller and Jim Steranko. It’s got cyborg ninjas, transforming, Akira-esque monstrosities and the Iron Fist punching Apache helicopters out of the sky… what more could you possibly want?

Power Man & Iron Fist #1-current

It’s the greatest friendship in all of comic-dom, and a title that’s been sorely lacking from store shelves for far too long. Thankfully, the new Power Man and Iron Fist more than makes up for lost time by reuniting the Heroes for Hire in a title that has been a pure joy to read, issue-in and issue-out. David Walker and Sanford Greene carve a bold new direction for their title characters, tackling the social concerns of today while still keeping of a piece with the classical superhero-ing that made the original series so indelible in the first place. Also much appreciated is the update to the characters’ looks, which sees Luke Cage now dressed in a snappy tie-and-vest combo and Iron Fist in a Game of Death-inspired tracksuit.   

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