Immortal Iron Fist Vol. 1: The Last Iron Fist StoryA comic review article by: Dave Wallace
Given the patchy pedigree of the character, Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction’s reinvention of Iron Fist is surprisingly good. However, it’s more than that: Immortal Iron Fist is possibly the best new mainstream superhero series to have published in the last year.
Remaining faithful to the character’s roots but pushing him in a new direction, Brubaker and Fraction rescue Danny Rand from a life of guest-appearances and supporting roles to turn him into a compelling lead in his own right, fusing a 1970’s Kung-Fu vibe and 1930s-style pulp heroics with modern superhero conventions to create a hugely enjoyable book with a unique and original feel.
Brubaker and Fraction take the essence of Iron Fist’s character and look at it in a lot more detail. With all manner of additions, they embellish the core concept of a Kung-Fu master who can focus hisChi into a fist of Iron. Some of their additions are obvious and significant while others are more subtle.
From the very first issue, we’re provided with a solid characterisation of Danny Rand that immediately gives us a sense of who he is--and he’s quickly thrown into a complex plot that is set squarely in the contemporary, post-registration Marvel Universe. Fraction and Brubaker also work very quickly to establish the book’s strong supporting cast, including Danny’s assistant Jeryn, the Heroes for Hire, and Orson Randall--the previous Iron Fist, and the best new supporting character to have been introduced to superhero comics in a long time.
The writers have a lot of fun with their cast and their various interactions, with some amusing scenes between Danny and Luke Cage that carry a real sense of friendship, and some over-the-top dialogue that shows that Fraction and Brubaker are really enjoying having these toys to play with (including Luke Cage’s unforgettable “Sweet #%&%$!! Christmas!”).
However, although every character gets a moment to shine over the course of the story, it’s Orson Randall who makes the biggest impression, dripping with charisma and the kind of swashbuckling retro appeal that made Indiana Jones such an instantly loveable hero. Orson is also the character who adds the most depth to the book, offering Danny new abilities. In one scene, he shows Danny how to extend the power of his Chi to bullets. Later, he gives Danny a whole book of new fighting techniques.
He also gives Danny a power boost that makes him more than just another Bruce Lee wannabe with particularly strong hands. Most significantly, Orson’s appearance opens the gateway to a newly-conceived, rich history of the legacy of the Iron Fist--giving the book the opportunity to delve into the histories of previous Iron Fists (in brief flashback sequences) and explore the political machinations of the mystical city of K’un-Lun and its place among the capital cities of heaven.
Even though all three of the issues that make up the second half of this collection prominently feature Danny and Orson being thrown into epic fights and new situations, it still feels like we’re left wanting more--which shows just how enjoyable it is to read about the teaming up of these characters.
Whilst there’s the occasional sense that the new information is coming too thick and fast for it to really be comprehended, it never feels like the writers are dumping unnecessary information on their readers. Indeed, reading this story in light of the issues that follow, it becomes apparent just how deftly Brubaker and Fraction used the very first issues to set up elements that paid off much later down the line--and some that are still yet to make their full significance known. (I’m expecting “Crane Mother” to become a more significant player again at some point.)
The seeds are sown in this arc for Davos’s actions later in the series, the biographer of Orson Randall is subtly introduced far more early than I remembered, and the subplot involving the Maglev train that becomes so important in the second arc of the book is present from the very first issue. In re-reading the issues contained in this collection, it’s possible to see just how smoothly this arc plays into the next storyline that deals with the combat tournament of the “Seven Capital Cities of Heaven,” and to appreciate the depth to which Fraction and Brubaker have conceived the legacy of the Iron Fist.
The book is well-constructed on an issue-to-issue basis, too, with some beautifully set-up cliffhangers that make it a fun episodic read as well as a title that is fun to devour in larger collections. On top of all of this, there are loads of fun-yet-minor details to be found in the book that I haven’t even mentioned yet.
Whether it’s the villain Davos drawing Chi-energy from mysterious women who then become cranes, the steampunk accoutrements of Orson Randall (including a pneumatic subway station of “hypothetical science”), or the inventive names for kung-fu moves that accompany their visual representation, Brubaker and Fraction keep the ideas flowing--never allowing the story to get boring or predictable before the next wave of imagination breaks.
This logical, smooth and cohesive approach to the book is reflected by the artwork, too, and a big part of Immortal Iron Fist’s unique appeal lies in its visuals. David Aja impresses from the very start, with an attention-grabbing cover design that makes use of stark white areas to give the book a distinct visual identity and to draw extra attention to his solid work on the pin-up-style cover figures.
Aja’s interiors are no less impressive, with sequences of extremely fluid movement that capture the acrobatic grace of the book’s hero perfectly. He is visually inventive, too, varying his panel layouts to suit the demands of the action--a particularly memorable page in issue #3 uses a nine-panel grid with a shared background in which each panel shows Danny leaping around the exterior of a building as he evades a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicopter. It might not be pushing the boundaries of the medium, exactly, but the artist feels like he’s making the most of every page.
Aja’s art is occasionally reminiscent of Michael Lark’s work on Daredevil, but he has his own distinctive style, occasionally including panels of Steranko-esque psychedelia or stark, abstract images--despite mostly adopting a far more detailed, realistic approach.
His fight sequences are showy without feeling hollow or gratuitous. A perfect example is the spectacular scene in which the two Iron Fists face off against a cadre of Hydra agents in an abandoned subway. Aja keeps the action flowing all the way through to the explosive finale in the Rand-corp offices--with choreography that, perhaps, owes a small debt to the modernised martial arts of the Matrix movies and their ilk.
Aja also has a great eye for graphic design, whether it’s bordering the larger splash images with several smaller panels to convey quick jabs of energy in the midst of a larger fight, or the deftly-employed and very witty sound effects (‘shhhirt’ is Aja’s representation of ripping shirt material, and ‘sssswoooord’ accompanies a swing of Colleen Wing’s swishing blade). It’s the kind of art that makes you want to pick up a pencil and get drawing, and I can’t think of a better way to convey just how inspiring Aja’s technique is here.
Matt Hollingsworth’s colouring is the icing on the cake, giving the urban scenes a subdued and grittily realistic feel whilst employing more vivid purples and greens for the fantastical moments, and focusing on significant points of impact with vivid reds and oranges.
The flashback sequences to previous Iron Fist adventures are illustrated by guest-artists for a few pages at a time, most notably Travel Foreman who provides a stunning rendition of the female Wu-Ao-Shi as she defends her harbour against an armada of attacking ships. He also illustrates a wonderful twisting and surreal landscape for the city of K’un-Lun, with its mixture of architectural styles and gravity-defying inhabitants giving it a truly otherworldly feel.
The book’s other guest-artists (including the great Sal Buscema) also perform their function admirably, lending the book a real sense of being a collage of historical events. Even if none of their pages is quite as memorable as those of Foreman, it’s great to be exposed to so many different styles within a single book.
In addition to the first six issues of the title, this volume includes the “Civil War: Choosing Sides” story that bridges the gap between Danny Rand’s appearance in Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil and the start of this book. It also includes several pages of concept designs and sketches by David Aja with fairly extensive annotations. It’s nice to see extra material that offers the artist a chance to explain why he made certain stylistic decisions (such as the new costume design or the stark cover concept) rather than just presenting the sketches cold.
These first six issues of Immortal Iron Fist provide everything that I look for in a mainstream superhero book: solid action, complex plotting, accessible but original characterisation, and imagination by the bucket load. What’s more, it’s a perfect example of how to reinvent a character and a concept that many had written off as out-of-date and irrelevant.
My only complaint might be that, as a collection, this volume feels very open-ended, with a real sense that this is only the beginning of Danny Rand’s story. However, that’s a very small nit to pick in such a wonderful collection, and this is one of the few titles that I’ll definitely be continuing to buy in the collected hardcover format because it feels like one that I’m going to read and re-read many times in the future. It’s a book that the creators should be proud of, and I look forward to seeing it find the success it deserves.